After putting up one of the best AA/AAA seasons in recent memory in 2013, George Springer was called up to the big league club just two weeks into the season in 2014. He struggled in April, hitting a dismal .182/.262/.218. When the calendar turned to May, he reminded us of what happened in NBA Jam when a player made three baskets in a row. That's right, he had flames coming off his spikes. He hit .294/.385/.647 for the month. He cooled off quite a bit in June, but was still good and then struggled in July before having a season-ending quad injury.
As expected, he struggled with the strikeouts. He never had a K% below 30 in any month, and was over 35% for much of the season. His 33% rate for the season was "good" for 7th worst in MLB for hitters with more than 300 PA. But, we all knew that. Despite that high strikeout rate, he was able to remain relevant by maintaining a good walk rate (11.3%) and by hitting the seams off the ball. Here is Exhibit A that Springer can hit the ball like a prime Mike Tyson cross. Look at this list of the top six homerun and flyball distances from 2014.
Other than the surprising Stubbs, that is some excellent company. Springer is right there with the best power hitters in all of baseball, even ahead of the mighty Stanton. If you extrapolate Springer's 20 homers from his 345 PA last year into 600 PA (essentially a full season), he would have hit 35. That is elite power.
The other part of the Springer package that we fantasy owners were promised was speed. We expected a ton of steals from someone that stole 45 bases in 2013 in AA/AAA. Unfortunately, we only got 5 measly steals. Even his Spd score, which measures baserunning speed was below average. Maybe his quad was hurting for much of the season, maybe he was focusing on his hitting first, maybe the coaches told him to be cautious on the basepaths, or maybe he just isn't as fast as we thought. For what it's worth, he was 5 for 7 on steal attempts, so he wasn't getting caught too much. Steamer projects him for 14 steals and the Fangraphs FANS have him at 21. I think I will lean towards Steamer for now until we see him be more aggressive on the basepaths.
His .294 BABIP was well below the very high BABIPs he put up in the minors and was pretty low for a guy that hits the ball as hard as he does and is supposed to be fast. His line drive % of 15.4% was doing him no favors in the BABIP department. Since 20% is league average, he should see a good increase in LD% in 2015, which will boost his BABIP and his average. Hopefully, he can turn some of his 45% groundballs into line drives, since we want his 39% fly ball rate to stay the same. We all want him hitting fly balls when he hits them as far as he does.
His swSTR% was 18.4, which was third worst in MLB. That means he is swinging and missing A LOT. He is going to have to cut down on that to keep his average north of .230 or so. What's interesting is that despite his high chase rate, pitchers didn't change they way they pitched to him, at least in terms of Zone% as the season went on. The Zone% he faced only fell from 50% to 47% over the course of the season. League average was 44.9%. This means that despite his propensity for chasing pitches out of the zone, he was thrown pitches in the zone more than league average. Pitchers didn't seem to be scared of him. Let's look at some pretty pictures of his plate discipline, courtesy of baseballheatmaps.com:
Pretty graph #1: this is the percentage of pitches that were looking or swinging strikes in each zone for all pitch types against left-handed and right-handed pitching. You can see the first big trend emerging. He chases the high fastball against lefties. Look at all that yellow middle-up in the image.
Pretty graph #2: this is like #1, except it is limited to changeups. Like many hitters, he chases the changeups as they fall off the table low against righties and then misses changeups low and in against lefties.
Pretty graph #3: this time it is sliders. He seems to struggle a lot with these. Look at all that red high away and inside against righties and those really low and away red patches against lefties. Those are gifts to pitchers. He needs to learn to lay off of those. If he can cut down on those reaches, he could really improve his average. If he can get to .250-.260 like Stanton, he would be an absolute monster.
Pretty graph #4: this one is a little different than the others. This one shows the run value (a measure of offensive production) at each location in the zone for all pitches compared to league average (0 is average). This shows he crushes inside pitches, especially high and struggles against low and away. If pitchers pitch him more low and away and he doesn't adjust, he could struggle.
On a positive note, his swSTR declined from 21% to 15% from the beginning of the season to the end, so he clearly made some adjustments.
What can we take away from all this? He clearly has weaknesses, as we know. He also has immense talent. He probably won't be stealing 30 bases, especially since speed declines from the moment you enter the league until the end, so I can't see more than 15-20 steals and I'm betting the under. His average will be the turning point for everything. We know he has power, but we don't know if he will hit .200 and struggle to stay in the lineup or .230 and be a low-average slugger like teammate Chris Carter or if he can adjust and turn into Stanton-lite with a .250-.260 average and 35+ homers. I think his upside is a first-rounder and his downside is Chris Carter, which isn't awful, but not worth at top-50 pick.
As far as the quad injury that caused him to miss the last two-plus months of the season, he says he is fully healed and ready to go. He is only 25 years old, so I don't think he will have much in the way of injury issues this season.
Below are Steamer's projections for Springer, along with the Fangraphs FANS and my own projection. Keep a close eye on Springer's plate discipline and average early in the season to see if he is adjusting. I am buying Springer as a top 15 outfielder and I actually ranked him #11 at the position, so I am expecting great things. Tschus!