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Five Tools, Bradley Zimmer and the quest for Grady Sizemore at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario

  Thomas Roy/Union Leader  
In the wonderland of baseball, there's nothing more mythical than acquiring a "five-tool" player. It's an infrequent occurrence that's akin to uncovering the Holy Grail. Finding a player that can hit for:
  1. average,
  2. power,
  3. run the bases with skill,
  4. overpower the diamond with speed,
  5. and play the type of defense that grandfathers tell their grandsons about, 
is the great unicorn in every baseball fan's 'Field of Dreams."

But it does happen, even at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

Enter Bradley Zimmer, who according to most experts, is the top prospect in the the mystical land of the North Coast. At 6'4" tall, and possessor of speed and skill, many have noted his similarity to the great unicorns of Indians' past, if one is to believe that such player exists.

One such fabled beast entered the conversation in the quite recent path, and while the end of his Indians' career was shrouded in injuries and let-downs, at the height of his powers, he was gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated.

In 2004, a Cleveland Indians' center fielder debuted in the Big Leagues, and his name was Grady Sizemore. This highly touted prospect (he was rated 9th by Baseball America prior to that 2004 season) came to the Indians in June of 2002 in the infamous trade that sent Bartolo Colon to the Montreal Expos. It was as much a foundational deal for the "new millennium" Indians as the Joe Carter deal was for the Tribe back in 1989 (that brought the Indians Sandy Alomar Jr. and Carlos Baerga), and while most were focusing their attention on the Brandon Phillips and Cliff Lees of the deal (edit via @orbaneks & @TallStal--and to Milton Bradley, who they acquired from the Expos the year prior, for Zach Day), Sizemore was busy filling in the stat line in Kinston, Akron and Buffalo, rising like the legendary Phoenix rises through the ashes.

I mention Sizemore only because the surface similarities between both Sizemore and Zimmer are there. The 6'2", 200 pound Grady was a merciless center field prospect, who defended the position with nothing short of voracity. He had 30-30 written all over him from the start, had a high baseball IQ, and was an arrow pointing to the top of the baseball mountain. The fact that he was a center fielder made his skill-set all the more important. Casual fans knew who he was, and detailed fans were salivating at the continuation of his progress.

Zimmer is described in much the same way, by both the casual and the baseball marks. While Sizemore's defensive skill ranked higher than Zimmer's at the same levels in the minors, offensively, it appears as though Zimmer is being advertised by some in the media has a prodigious talent. Most minor league prognosticators discuss Zimmer as the best the Indians' have to offer.

Now,  preface all of this discussion with a few things that are cautionary. First, much of the Zimmer publicity is created on merit. The kid can play baseball, does it the right way, is respected in the locker room, and the skill is there. Secondly, he should be at the top of Indians' prospect rankings lists, simply because of his upside and current level. Finally, just because a prospect has an arrow pointing to Everest, that doesn't mean you have to proclaim him the 'Greatest of All-Time.' Yeah, it spells GOAT, and lots of times, that's just what you get. Again, Zimmer is a fantastic prospect, but when you hear comparisons to Grady Sizemore, or comments that insinuate that Zimmer is the "best offensive prospect in the system in 20-plus years," it really makes you take a closer look, or at least you should.

The brilliance of baseball is sitting down with numbers. I did it, as a kid, with my Sporting News. Today, there's just so much more at our fingertips.

This started, for me, at the All-Star break last year, as Zimmer was absolutely destroying Lynchburg, while Clint Frazier was, at best, struggling. He had hit near the Mendoza-line in June, and surface beatniks were talking all kind of crazy about the youngster. In the meantime, Zimmer had ten homers, was hitting over .300, and was doing everything an advanced player at the top of the prospect lists should do if they are as toolsy as their lofty expectations say they are.

Then there was a dramatic shift. Zimmer was promoted, and struggled in Akron. Frazier wasn't, and began destroying the Carolina League. While Frazier isn't being discussed in detail in this article, it's important to notate his improvement in his three full seasons in minor league baseball, and the age in which he's doing it.

I'll discuss Frazier in a future piece.

Today, the focus is on Bradley Zimmer, and the comparison to Grady Sizemore, a prospect who moved to the big league club 12 seasons ago, who has been marginalized over time, thanks to injuries.

Here's Sizemore's Minor League career:

YearAgeAgeDifTmLgLevAffGPAABRH2B3BHRRBISBCSBBSOBAOBPSLGOPS
200017-2.2ExposGULFRkMON552362053160831141622324.293.380.376.756
200118-3.6ClintonMIDWAMON1235414516412116426132118192.268.381.335.716
200219-3.5Brevard CountyFLORA+MON752962563766154026993641.258.351.348.699
200219-3.7KinstonCARLA+CLE472071723159933201473330.343.451.483.934
200320-4.5AkronELAACLE12855949696151261113781094673.304.373.480.853
200421-6.3BuffaloILAAACLE1014734187312023885115104272.287.360.438.798
A+ (2 seasons)Minors1285284517213128734823167176.290.389.404.793
AA (2 seasons)Minors13458151697159291113811094875.308.376.483.858
AAA (4 seasons)Minors11855349080139248105615104984.284.355.427.782

Here's Zimmer's Minor League career:

YearAgeAgeDifTmLgLevAffGPAABRH2B3BHRRBISBCSBBSOBAOBPSLGOPS
2014210.0Mahoning ValleyNYPLA-CLE4519716832511124301141930.304.401.464.865
201421-0.5Lake CountyMIDWACLE313114310221023.273.385.9091.294
201522-0.7LynchburgCARLA+CLE78335286608817310393253777.308.403.493.896
201522-2.5AkronELAACLE492141872441916241221854.219.313.374.687
201623-1.4AkronELAA525203510252246.250.400.6001.000
AA (2 seasons)Minors5423920727461018291442260.222.322.396.718

There are a couple of things to note here that seem pretty important from the start.

The first is the age difference by league. The second is that we don't really have the substantial minor league body of work for Zimmer. I'm not sure one counter-balances the other, because Sizemore's intangibles, at a much younger age, far supersede Zimmer's. In fairness, it's a cursory look, because a more intensive look would need to be taken at the year-to-year leagues back during Sizemore's minor league run, and compare it to the level of Zimmer's current run. That said, a lot can be perceived just based on that cursory look.

Sizemore was drafted out of high school, and was pseudo-advanced for each level he was at. He was six-plus years younger than the weighted average of Triple A in the International League when he was called up. If you want a cursory, surface look at how "advanced" he was in the eyes of the Indians and Mark Shapiro in 2004, there's your first look. The Indians have always been tentative in bringing up prospects, and while their mentality back then was clearly different (they brought up a lot of youth early), it's clear that Sizemore's numbers and approach were vastly ahead of his age.

This isn't a knock on Zimmer, in that he's also a year under the age differential at Double A Akron right now, and would be three-plus years under at Triple A Columbus. Yet, Zimmer finds himself "stuck" in Double A after struggling during his 2015 stint with the club. Zimmer tore through Lynchburg, showcasing good average and power, while stealing 32 bases. After a nice start to his professional career in Mahoning Valley, his 49 games at Double A Akron seem to be an aberration. It should be noted that the Indians may have recently "cleared the boards" in Columbus by moving James Ramsey and Zach Walters to the Dodgers for cash considerations. This leaves the Columbus outfield looking pretty standard, with Joey Butler, Michael Choice, Anthony Gallas and Robbie Grossman as the options there.

In other words, there isn't anyone taking up important space for the top prospects to make it through.

Offensively, a much younger Sizemore took a very different direction than Zimmer, and this was likely based on the raw product that he was with the Expos early in his minor league career. In his first 2 1/2 years in Montreal's system, Sizemore had virtually no home run power, and struggled a bit offensively in most basic categories. What he didn't struggle with was plate discipline.

Zimmer's OBP has actually been better than Sizemore's at the same level, but the discipline was on a different level for the much younger and unseasoned Sizemore. In his first three seasons, Sizemore walked 173 times, vs. 187 walks in 1,280 plate appearances, while Zimmer has struck out 110 times, vs. 58 walks in 545 plate appearances. You can make a case that some of that plus discipline was based on such a vastly larger body of work, but I simply can't get past the age. Sizemore hadn't yet turned 20, while Zimmer was already 22 when he left High A Lynchburg.

Now, Zimmer's average was superior, and much of his premium OBP up to the Double A level was based on his ability to get on base via the hit. So their premium skill-set was on the offensive opposite side of the spectrum early in their minor league career. Sizemore utilized superior plate discipline, while Zimmer was overmatching the pitchers.

This is where Sizemore really gets fun. When he was dealt to the Indians in the middle of his High A season, everything clicked and ticked up. He hit three homers, with 20 RBI in that half year in Kinston, with three triples, nine doubles, and hit .343, while keeping his elite plate discipline. In his full Double A season in Akron, the true Sizemore began to show his colors, as his 20-year old body began to fill out, and home runs became attainable. His average stayed above .300, while pounding out 13 homers, with 26 doubles, and showed off that speed with 11 triples and ten stolen bases. He still walked 46 times, but his K's saw an uptick to 73. His OBP stayed up at .373 (down from .451 in his half year in Akron).

Sizemore continued to improve, won the Eastern League Rookie of the Year award, and was the Indians Boudreau Award Winner for top prospect in the system in 2003. The awards really mean nothing, but it's important to note that Sizemore continued to improve at every level, and equally showcased the type of plate discipline that leads one to believe he'd continue to perform at the big league level. His statistics were a virtual mirror image in his final year in the minors in Triple A Buffalo, and the rest was history. While it's truly hard to project what a player does past the minors, plate discipline is the one, true measurable.

He was 21.

Now Zimmer's body of work is much smaller, but there is some concern in his uptick. In several conversations about the system with my EHC brethren, and in particular, Mike Hattery, some concerns began to pop up regarding Zimmer's progression. While the power is there, and he can hit the ball with gap power, his plate discipline is a discernible worry, and this is really where Grady Sizemore stands out as a prospect, and how me may have to temper expectations for Bradley Zimmer. This isn't to say improvements can't be made, it's just a notation in the comp between Zimmer and Sizemore.

Here's a look at their K% per level, up to this point:


Level Grady Sizemore Bradley Zimmer
K%
K%
Rookie
10.1%
-
A-
-
15%
A
17%
23%
A+
14%
23%
AA
13%
25%
AAA
15%
-

You can see that Sizemore's K% was always in the Above Average to Great range, while Zimmer, a much older and "more developed" bat has been in the Below Average to Poor Range, without an uptick in any serviceable manner. It's a concern. Sizemore's K-Rate upticked in the Big Leagues, with better pitching, to around 17% through 21% in his healthy years, with the outliers being 21.5% during his first quarter season in 2004, and his last quarter season in Cleveland in 2010, in which his K% was 21.4% and 28.8%. Obviously, other things were at play there.

Are we to then, assume that Zimmer's K% will get worse in a move up to the Majors? It wouldn't be an out of reach statement to think that may be the case.


Level Grady Sizemore Bradley Zimmer
BB%
BB%
Rookie
10%
A-
-
10%
A
15%
15%
A+
14%
11%
AA
8%
9%
AAA
9%

There BB% are certainly similar, and hover from average to excellent, so both players showcased a decent enough approach there. The key is how it translates to the big league level.

There are some really good baseball players with high K%, who have that "five-tool" moniker, who are also 3+ WAR baseball players. Mike Trout's K% over the past two seasons was in the 25% range, to go with an elite BB% in the 13-14% range. In 2007, J.D. Martinez, who isn't a center fielder, had a ridiculous 27%  K%, to go along with a rather tepid 8% BB%. Still, he hit 38 homers, and had 33 doubles to go along with it. Many people ultimately project Zimmer as a right fielder, and if his power continues to develop, perhaps these are the types of numbers that one could hope for.

In talking with EHC's Hattery, he mentioned Colby Rasmus as a nice comp. Rasmus was a top ten prospect in all of baseball as a centerfielder in the Cardinals organization, who has had a distressing K% in the big leagues over his career. In the minors, Rasmus's K% hovered in the average to above average category (varied from 14% to almost 19%), stayed at 18%, then launched into the upper 20's every year since, in both leagues, on several teams. In a similar fashion, his walk rate went from a fairly elite 12-13% in the minors to a steady diet of below ten. What I struggle with, when comparing Rasmus, a power hitting, toolsy prospect to Bradley Zimmer is that Rasmus took a massive jump in K%, which leads me to believe that there was some major change either in his swing, or in the league approach to his at bats. Either way, Rasmus is a fairly league average defender, with above league average power, and below league average plate discipline. It could be Zimmer's future, and in fairness, Rasmus has had massive seasons, and average seasons. His career would be fine, although not spectacular.

Then there's a guy like Carlos Gomez, who spent his minor league career slapping the ball around (with upside power), but had a K% around 20% in his short time there, with a BB% way below 10%. He came to the bigs, and has hovered in the mid 20%, with outstanding power and 3-4+ WAR seasons throughout his career.

The comps could go on-and-on, and in fairness to trends and projections and the inevitable desire to connect players to someone that's near and dear to your heart, they are often just pipe-dreams that aren't reality. Still, I keep coming back to Grady Sizemore, and think to myself, "how good was he?"

The answer? Really good. But this article really isn't about Sizemore, just in the realities of what we have in Bradley Zimmer. Is he the best Indians' offensive prospect in over two decades? Not by a long shot. Grady Sizemore was really special. Sizemore's unique "five-tool" ability made him special, and while injuries sapped away his greatness after five-years, the peak of his career was truly special, and the brass knew it when they traded for him.

Do the Indians have the next Sizemore?

Zimmer's tools are excessively impressive on many levels. The K% as a solitary stat isn't any reason to say Zimmer is overhyped, or primed for failure. There are really good major league baseball players that have followed in a similar path. What this does notate is that every prospect is a cautionary tale, and Zimmer is no different.

Can he improve his K% at the big league level, or in his inevitable move to Triple A? Will a change in swing mechanics to make more contact diminish his power? Will his power production improve to the point that the K% is forgivable? All of these are unknowns, and a reminder that being a prospect, toolsy or not, isn't a lock to becoming a superstar.

Finding the wardrobe that leads to the "Narnia" of those singular all-around superstars are rare, and are often full of expectational white witches that often turn those prospects into stone. Can Zimmer break through and find his way to meeting the "five-tool" expectations? Can Zimmer even become a productive, long-tenured Major Leaguer?

Thankfully, that chapter in this epic is yet to be written, so anything is possible.

Oh, and Grady Sizemore was pretty damn good.
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