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Wilmer Flores is a potential 20 HR shortstop, and that deserves your attention

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Flores has major question marks about his defense, but I lay out a case for why I think he can make it at the position.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Mets have been subject to some criticism this off season for not shoring up their shortstop position. The current projected starter, Wilmer Flores, has had very poor scouting grades at shortstop in the past and there are legitimate doubts that he can handle the position at the big league level. The biggest critique is that Flores’ range isn’t on par with the typical shortstop. An NL scout said last season that Flores has "slow feet", and added, "I just don’t see him as an everyday shortstop on a winning team."

There are going to be balls that get past Flores due to his limited range. The great Steve Schreiber of SB Nation’s Amazin Ave put it perfectly: "Past a Diving Flores!!!" That’s probably a theme you will hear a lot in 2015. However, Flores has shown to be a surprisingly competent defender at the position despite his poor range, and his offensive upside makes him an intriguing player.

Prospect overview

Flores was rated the Mets #3 prospect and baseball’s #71 prospect prior to 2014 by Baseball Prospectus (BP). BP graded Flores' tools as the following; 6 arm, 5+ glove, 6 potential power, 5 potential hit. These are scouting grades based on the 2-8 scale with 5 being MLB average. A shortstop with plus power and an average hit tool is worth our attention; it translates to roughly 20-25 HR with a .260s batting average.

Here is what Baseball Prospectus labeled as Flores’ strengths and weaknesses prior to last season:

Strengths: Good feel for hitting; excellent hand/eye; added strength in 2013; power likely to play solid-average to plus; run producer; can catch up to velocity; hands to find contact when he’s fooled; arm is left-side strong; soft hands; fluid actions; good footwork around the bag at second.

Weaknesses: Well below-average run; range isn’t sufficient for shortstop; aggressive approach at the plate; can get himself out early; hit tool might only play to average; game power could play down without approach refinement.

BP projects Flores’ ceiling as an above average regular, and concludes:

At the plate, Flores is going to hit for power; it’s just a matter of time and a question of how much. He has a knack for putting the barrel on the ball, with excellent hand/eye coordination and improving strength in his body that allows him to get extension and drive the ball to right-center. This is a very legit player, and this will be true even if he struggles in a longer major-league look in 2014.

Hitting: Plus raw power

BP labeled Flores’ raw power as plus prior to 2012. Game power is different than raw power; the ability to hit MLB caliber pitching for power is a lot different than showcasing big power in batting practice. Flores’ game power projection was upgraded to potential plus prior to the 2014 season.

Here are some examples of the plus raw power that Flores has:

It’s not often that you see a shortstop launching a home run into the second deck.

Here’s Flores smashing a 94 mph fastball deep into the Philadelphia night:

Flores exhibits fast hands and does a great job of staying inside the ball with his hands in turning on a hard 94 mph inside fastball. Staying inside the ball is important because it allows the hitter to put the barrel of the bat onto the ball which generates the best type of contact. 

Plate coverage

Flores has a long frame; he stands at 6’3’’, and his long arms allow him to cover the plate well and hit outside pitches with authority. Flores’ hard hit% on pitches on the outside part of the plate was 9.4%, well above the MLB avg. of 7.3%. Here’s an example:

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Flores shows the ability to hit both inside and outside pitches hard.

High contact rates and shortening up with two strikes

Flores makes a lot of contact. According to FanGraphs, his 87.9% contact% was 25th best in baseball and his 5.8% swinging strike% was 42nd best in baseball in 2014 (min. 250 PA). Flores shows a tight, quick swing that isn’t loopy and doesn’t have a lot of holes in it for baseballs to go through.

Flores also shortens his swing with two strikes in an effort to put the ball in play and avoid strikeouts. Here’s Flores shortening up his swing with 2 strikes and still generating hard contact on the ball.

Here’s Flores shortening up to generate what is categorized as a medium hit ball:

Flores has been labeled a "run producer", both by Baseball Prospectus and Mets coaches. Wally Backman, the Mets AAA manager, gushed about Flores' run producing capabilities:

"He’s the best RBI guy I’ve ever managed," Backman said of Flores. "He can have some ugly at-bats at times, but he’s absolutely big-time in RBI situations.

"I hit him third this year and I had a few guys say, ‘You’re hitting him third?’ I said, ‘Just wait,’ and he drove in a ton of big runs. He just has a way of getting the job done in those situations.

Some may call this sequencing or general baseball randomness, and I tend to agree with that, but I won't dismiss that some players have a skill to change their swing in a way that allows them to put the barrel on the ball with runners in scoring position.

Flores’ K% in PA’s that reach 2 strikes was 22% in MLB in 2014, significantly better than the MLB avg. of 39%. Shortening up his swing is one reason why. 

Fielding: Flores has not been a poor defender to this point

Based the eye test, Flores has actually looked like a competent MLB SS to this point in his career. Watching the games, he has good hands, a strong and accurate arm, and makes the routine plays.

Here’s Flores throwing out Ian Desmond on a grounder up the middle:

I love this one: Flores throwing out Javier Baez from the hole:

Flores making a diving stop to throw out Welington Castillo:

Making a nice turn for the double play with the base runner on top of him:

Making a diving stop and flipping to second for the force out:

Making a nice backhanded pick:

Handling a rocket off the bat of Jayson Werth:

Snaring a hard line drive from Nolan Arenado:

This is playing second base, but it's a good look at how he moves:

Some defensive metrics have also graded Flores well. Of course, defensive metrics in such a small sample cannot be trusted to accurately portray a defender’s true value. Defensive metrics like UZR can take years to show stability. But nonetheless, Flores was graded well by UZR in 2014. In 443.1 innings at SS in 2014, Flores' UZR was 4.0 and his UZR/150 was an excellent 12.5. Flores' UZR/150 was sixth best amongst MLB shortstops in 2014. His Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), however, graded him poorly at -3.

I'm no scout, but Flores looked competent to me at the position. I think Flores' excellent arm and good hands make up for the range deficiencies enough, and by positioning himself well, he can further mitigate range problems.

Flores has hit at every level in the minor leagues

"Scouting" the statistic line in the minor leagues for prospects isn’t always such a good idea because it can paint a misleading picture. What works in the minor leagues doesn’t necessarily work in MLB. For example, when looking at pitcher stats, minor league hitters generally have less plate discipline and will offer at pitches that MLB hitters will not. For hitters, minor league pitchers do not have the same high level repertoire and command that MLB pitchers do. Flaws can go unexposed in the minor leagues and it won’t show up in the stat sheet until reaching the major leagues.

Looking at the minor league stat line does have some value, though, and Flores has conquered every level of the minors. In 1250 PA in A+, AA and AAA from 2012-14, Flores’ age 20-22 seasons, he hit .312/.355/.515 with a 130 wRC+ and a modest BABIP of .325.

Season

League

Age

wRC+

K%

BB%

PA

2014

PCL

22

137

16.2%

6.6%

241

2013

PCL

21

129

13.6%

5.4%

463

2012

Eastern

20

136

10.9%

7.2%

275

2012

FSL

20

121

11.0%

6.6%

272

Flores’ success in the minor leagues doesn’t mean he will be successful in the big leagues, but it’s a positive sign.

Makeup: Strong work ethic

BP graded Flores’ running skill as a 3 prior to 2014, which is terrible.

I have seen Flores in person twice, once in 2013 and once in 2014. In 2013, I watched Flores run the bases during a spring training game and he looked like he had concrete in his cleats. In 2014, I got to see him play 3 innings at SS at the end of a Spring Training game. I watched him react to a ball hit up the middle, and his acceleration and quickness going after the ball was poor compared to the typical SS.

However, Flores has been working extremely hard at a fitness facility this off season designed to improve his speed and quickness. Some may frown at this being possible, but I'm a big believer in it with the right coaching. Athletes who are slow are slow for a variety of reasons, some of which can be worked on. If the athlete's legs (specifically hamstrings and hips) are too tight and inflexible, that will hamper speed and acceleration. If the athlete has weak hips or a weak core, that will also restrict speed and quickness. These are things that can be significantly improved.

It’s conceivable that his range has improved to some degree from where it was when I saw him and when the many scouting reports were filed on him. We’ll just have to wait and pay attention to scouting reports this spring. I will be attending spring training in March and can provide some perspective, for whatever little that is worth.

Negatives: Too much weak contact and a poor walk rate

Flores’ .265 BABIP seems unlucky at first glance, but 47% of his at bats ended in a softly hit ball. This can really hamper a player’s BABIP because softly hit balls are easy to field and turn into outs.

Flores also has a poor walk rate, which doesn't bode well for his on base percentage. Flores can overcome a poor walk rate by having a strong batting average and hitting for power.

Flores in 2015

A player Flores reminds some of, including me, is Jhonny Peralta. Peralta also has poor range, but he’s made himself into a good defender with good positioning to offset some of his range issues. Flores has mentioned similar things:

"We all know I’m not Omar Vizquel,’’ Flores said, noting third-base coach Tim Teufel helped him last season. "I just need to know where to play, all the hitters and all the pitchers.

Both Peralta and Flores have big frames, and Flores has a similar offensive profile (Peralta is a career .267 hitter who averages roughly 17 HR per season). If Flores can become Jhonny Peralta, that would be an amazing result for the Mets, and I don't think it's farfetched to suggest he can become that type of player.

Here's the ZiPS projection for Flores for standard leagues in 2015:

AVG

HR

R

RBI

SB

.266

17

73

80

1

That projection is worth attention in fantasy leagues, especially based on Flores' ADP. Flores is so under the radar that Yahoo currently has him ranked outside of the top 1,000 players, which appears to be an oversight.

To finish, I love this quote from Flores:

I go inning-by-inning and at-bat by at-bat. If you do that the way you are supposed to do it, at the end of the day it’s going to go well. I don’t have a goal like hitting .300, 80 RBIs, I just go at-bat by at-bat.