There is a lot that goes into the overall evaluation or projection for any minor league baseball prospect.
Some of it can be measured in concrete terms – such as timing in a 60-yard dash, average exit velocity and strikeout/walk rates, just to name a few. However, a key part of the evaluation process also lies in the intangibles that don’t necessarily show up in a box score.
And that’s not even taking into account the human element of the entire process. So if it sounds complicated and complex, well, then you know why this writer is a newspaper reporter and not a pro scout. With all that said, however, who’s to say we can’t give it a shot?
This week, we’re debuting what we plan to be a recurring series of overviews plus an evaluation of a current Astros prospect from the perspective of me, Landan Kuhlmann. I am not a pro scout, but I have been a baseball fan for as long as I can remember, and could probably tell you more about any Astros player or prospect than you want to know.
In this series of stories, there will be a mix of statistical analysis and personal input from yours truly based on watching video of these players and covering games. So with all that said, here’s this week’s player spotlight, which focuses on outfielder Bryan De La Cruz.
De La Cruz was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2013 from the Dominican Republic at age 17. Throughout his minor league career, De La Cruz has gained a reputation as having a quick bat and superb hand-eye coordination that allowed him to never post a full-season strikeout rate worse than 21 percent, according to Fangraphs.
Thus far in 2021, he is having the best season of his minor league career, hitting .323 with an .884 OPS entering play this week. De La Cruz, who was ranked among the Astros’ top 30 prospects entering the season by Baseball America, has already slugged a career-high 12 homers.
So on the surface, the 24-year-old appears to be in the midst of a breakout season that has thrust him into the purview of many Astros fans. So what does it all mean?
Here’s the thing about raw numbers – they always have to be put into context in my opinion, which is as much about evaluating the league-wide hitting environment and underlying skills as much as the raw numbers themselves.
It bears mentioning that Triple-A West and its ballparks have been veritable launching pads throughout the season. Even the lowest-producing offense in the league – that of the Albuquerque Isotopes – still has a .777 OPS as a team and is scoring better than five runs per ballgame.
That said, I believe De La Cruz’s success is largely real. From watching a number of games this season, the quick bat and good bat-to-ball skills are certainly evident. He has even been called the minor league version of Astros outfielder Michael Brantley.
The percentage of De La Cruz’s fly balls that go for homers has jumped up to 15.2 percent, nearly doubling his previous career high of 8.3 in spite of his fly ball rate being nearly identical to seasons past. But that could be explained by him hitting them harder, as his overall hard contact (95+ MPH) rate has jumped from around 27 percent in 2019 to better than 34 percent so far this season. Hitting the ball harder is always better, as most people could tell you. But the fact it is combined with a 20.4 percent strikeout rate that is well in line with his career rate tells you a couple of things:
Essentially, he is not swinging for the fences at the expense of making contact – which is a common trend in today’s game. It appears he is simply making better contact, which points to some mechanical adjustments to the swing – which has looked shorter and more compact as the season moves along.
On the defensive side, De La Cruz profiles primarily as a solid corner outfielder with the potential for a high batting average along with 10 or so homers at the MLB level. However, he also appears to be part of an outfield logjam in Sugar Land along with Jake Meyers and Jose Siri, plus the Astros current outfield is under contract through next season.
So that also begs the question as to whether De La Cruz will be here much longer. A big part of me thinks the Astros sell high on the 24-year-old and trade him, which would give him a chance to get the playing time he has earned instead of wallowing in the minors.
Homers for Hinojosa: Infielder C.J. Hinojosa continued his recent rear with another strong week. He went 13 for 29 in six games with seven extra-base hits, including three homers. Hinojosa entered play this week hitting .333 with a .974 OPS in July, and homered five times in his previous seven games.
Meyers mashes: Jake Meyers continued his season-long rampage through Triple-A West, going 11 for 26 last week and reaching base in 13 of his 28 plate appearances to run his OPS to a team-leading mark of .998 entering play this week.
Leon learning: Astros No. 2 prospect Pedro Leon made his Triple-A debut last week, and acclimated himself fairly well with a .750 OPS through five games. He drove in two runs against Albuquerque in his Sugar Land debut on July 20, then had three hits and three runs scored against Oklahoma City on July 22.
You’re a wizard, Swatson: During the upcoming homestand from Thursday through Aug. 3 at Constellation Field, the Skeeters are hosting Wands and Wizards Weekend. The first 1,500 fans at Saturday’s game against the El Paso Chihuahuas will receive a Swatson Wizard bobblehead.