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Bradley Zimmer, Risk and Developmental Statistics

Evaluating prospects is a continually shifting frontier in which each teams searche at great cost for the next developmental, predictive advantage. Yet, for such an unpredictable frontier those willing to offer opinions with certainty are infinite. I have found that the most intellectually honest approach to analyzing and discussing prospects is to spend similar time discussing risk and discussing upside.

This is because the easiest thing to envision for a prospect is a perfect world scenario. Indeed, fans love to base their long term hopes on the glowing scouting reports which mention absurd and unfair comps as well as 100th percentile outcomes for prospects. As someone who has covered the Indians system in varying depth for the past five years, I have found that the incentive for those covering the system is to overhype prospects because no one is held accountable for the prospects they overhype and eventually fail but people do remember when a prospect is criticized or undercovered and eventually succeeds. I suppose this opening gambit is written to provide me cover but I truly think the manner in which prospects are covered needs to be changed. Which is why, I like my friend Jim Pete am going out on the limb to discuss Bradley Zimmer, a wildly talented, incredibly hyped and risk heavy prospect.

My process for minor league players in terms of evaluation is not light, and there are few forms of information I do not consider, I am of the belief that first hand accounts, scouting information and advanced statistics can blended in a delightful manner to portray a more comprehensive understanding of player value. Which brings me to a thematic underpinning. Based on extensive research used by Chris Mitchell in creating his KATOH projection system, he has isolated minor league statistics which have a strong correlation to predicting big league success. The level by level indicators of use are shown in the image below.

(Mitchell noted that when creating this image, there was one incorrect cell which is that K% is important at A+ as well).

The great piece about this data is that it provides us with indicators to assess the three offensive buckets or tools, hit tool, power tool, speed/baserunning tool. By separating these tools we can consider what reports merged with data can provide us in terms of insight.

Lets begin with age, Zimmer is 23 years old, around a year younger than the average age in AA which is an advantage considering projections but not a particularly large one. Whereas his outfield mate Frazier is three years younger than the average age in the Eastern League, Zimmer is close enough in age that it is not enough of an outlier to be a large mark in his favor. This does provide us a useful rule that all baseball minds can agree upon, it is not only how you perform but how you perform at a certain age that is most predictive.

The hit tool. I consider the hit tool (traditionally hitting for average) in two parts: 1) hitting for average and 2) plate discipline which affects OBP. These two buckets clearly interact as well.  There are three data points I use to analyze hitting for average for minor league players once age is factored in K%, BABIP and contact dispersion.

First K%, this is where the warning bells have been ringing loudly for Zimmer. In 2015, in his short stint at Akron in Zimmer struggled sitting at a 25% strikeout rate but with age and the foot injury, I set aside that data to wait for a larger, non-injured sample to consider. As May drew to a close in 2016, and the sample grew large enough to start drawing conclusions, my trepidation grew. So far, Zimmer has struck out an astounding 31.1% of the time. Even Zimmer's 23%+ K% at Lynchburg was concerning due to his age at the level. To provide context, only three qualified MLB hitters had a K% above 30% in 2015. 10 hitters had a K% between 27% and 31% and their batting average ranged from .210 to .260 and in order to be an above average offensive player with such a K%, it requires 25-30 home run power.

More concerning, K% generally only increases as players climb up to the big leagues, though it can improve for players who are very young for there levels, Zimmer has not been particularly young at any level. Hitting for even a decent batting average with a 25% K% is fairly challenging. While the sample is still relatively small, it has stabilized and even a marked gain for Zimmer the rest of the way places him with a still below average K%. 

Lets move to BABIP(batting average on balls in play) this provides a nice proxy for contact quality in the minor leagues.  Zimmer has posted a BABIP  of .273 in 2015, and .295 so far in 2016 in AA but in A+ he ran a phenomenal BABIP. There is little we can draw that would make us think he makes any sort of consistent exceptional contact, further, as we move to hit dispersion it appears that his BABIP could be limited strategically. 

(This spray chart reflects the past year and a half of data.)

As a left handed hitter, Zimmer is incredibly pull heavy on both line drives and ground balls, something that when shifted limits BABIP and in turn batting average. I spoke to people covering Akron, Jake Dungan and Danny Madden both noted that Zimmer has not been shifted in 2016. If Zimmer is shifted and he does not address contact dispersal, his batting average, similar to Carlos Santana will be limited. 

When looking at the hit tool bundle, Zimmer strikes out at an alarming rate which significantly limits his batting average unless he can run an above average BABIP, however, Zimmer's speed is not enough to hold up a BABIP and his contact dispersion screams shift, which in turn shows an average at best, likely below average BABIP. Therefore, the two key inputs into a good batting average are significantly below average, and average at best.

The second input into the hit tool is plate discipline or walk rate, in this area, Zimmer has been really good, posting a 13.1% in 2016, and 11% in A+ in 2015. This is a really positive indicator and gives some substantive hope. One issue for Zimmer may be getting in deep counts too frequently which is why his K% and BB% are both so high, perhaps getting more aggressive early can alter the adverse affects of his many deep counts without destroying his walk rate.

A scouting report from Baseball Prospectus that I think pairs well with the previous analysis:
patient in the box; knows his strike zone, but will chase spin down and away, and fastballs up; all-fields approach;...... do have some questions about translation against good velocity, but feel hitter can clean up consistency of swing.
The scouting report pairs well with data showing potential for a good walk rate but also significant contact issues due to chase problems of both fast balls and soft stuff.

The power tool. KATOH model shows ISO is the best measure, in a limited sample, Bradley Zimmer is absolutely destroying the baseball. posting an elite .286 ISO. Further, Zimmer is posting a .286 ISO in what is one of the five worst power hitters parks in all of professional baseball. Canal Park while a delight to attend plays a lot like the Grand Canyon and Zimmer's success there should be exciting. Zimmer's ISO in the Carolina League was also suitably above average to grant optimism as to its potential.

Further scouting reports from Baseball Prospectus foresaw this power upside:

Power coming on late; will continue to develop; 15-20 HR in the tank w/ chance for more in later stages of career.
Fangraph's Dan Farnsworth as well:

 He hasn’t fully tapped into his legs for power yet. I anticipate his power blossoming in another two or three years to at least a plus level.
The power grades out increasingly well, and his performance has certainly effected the grade. One of the growing questions is whether Zimmer is selling out contact frequency(batting average) for power and thereby shifting his offensive profile. It is easy to say that Zimmer's power tool has augmented significantly and perhaps there is a 30 home run season in the tank for him if this continues but whether the cost of this power spike mutes his profile is the ultimate question.

Speed/baserunning tool.  SB% not volume being the best indicator. Zimmer sits at 73% in 2016, following a success rate of 86% in A+ ball. Zimmer is likely less than a stolen base threat than his totals and success rate indicated in 2015. Zimmer was near the average age for the level, a smart player with slightly above average speed who take advantage of the level. As pop times and pickoff moves improve, Zimmer's slightly above average speed becomes less advantageous. Further, as he adds muscle and power upside his speed will likely take a hit of substance. Zimmer's speed on the bases is a good tool but getting lost in his SB totals from 2015 is deceptive. His success rate has diminished as Zimmer has faced a higher quality of competition and the hubris about his speed has begun to fade.

The scouting of defense, as we have seen with players like Naquin is an incredibly challenging process which requires a large sample of eye tests or a large sample of data. The range of evaluations on Zimmer's defense have too much variance at this point to presume it is anything but average in CF while possibly playing above average in a corner. Defense will not be a carrying tool for Zimmer, thus the offense is what ultimately controls his ceiling.

The power gains should give fans reasons for optimism but it has come at a significant cost. In order to be a significantly above average big league player Zimmer needs to both radically improve his K% and create a better all field contact approach.  The K% and pull dominant approach place a batting average ceiling that will remind fans of Carlos Santana without the BB% to match.

I want to pull this all together, I am still a huge believer in Bradley Zimmer's ceiling, as I can see a potential 20-20 player as a corner outfielder which is hugely valuable. But I also wanted to highlight the risk based on his contact profile and K% which has become increasingly substantial. So join with me and fall in love with what he can be but don't ignore what he currently is.

*All data in this article is as of May 9, 2016.

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