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Trayce Thompson: Sleeper to Over-valued?

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From a guy buried deep on the Dodgers depth chart with good potential, to a breakout 2016 star, to an over-valued hitter? What's going on here?

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at San Diego Padres
Trayce Thompson appears to be in the midst of a breakout. Can we trust it? What's behind it?
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Sleeper

Way back in the fall, in my Chicago White Sox team preview, I picked Trayce Thompson as my breakout/sleeper pick. He was soon traded to Los Angeles in a three-way trade with Cincinnati. I liked what I saw from him in the small sample at the end of 2015 and thought he was primed for a breakout, given the opportunity.

After the trade, my hopes of a breakout seemed to be dashed. He was stuck behind four or even five other outfielders: Puig, Pederson, Crawford, Van Slyke, and Ethier. There was no path to playing time. But then, Van Slyke and Ethier both hit the DL and Crawford looked lost at the plate, so Thompson could step right into left field.

Breakout?

As I originally thought, he has looked great out there this year. He is currently slashing 0.281/0.347/0.573 with seven (!) homers in just 98 PA. This looks like the breakout I thought would happen. Owners have been running to the wire to snatch him up (he's on ESPN's most added players list this week). Suddenly, he's been getting lots of attention and owners are excited about him.

As I stared at my league's waiver wire, regretting the fact that I didn't take my own advice and pick Thompson up sooner (he was picked up on 5/17), I started to wonder if Thompson really is in the middle of a breakout or not. Follow along as I try to figure out what's really going on here.

BABIP, K%, and BB%

Where do I usually go first? Luck indicators like BABIP. Thompson's at a very reasonable 0.300, so there's nothing there. How about plate discipline? That's another area I like to look at. His 9.2 BB% and 22.4 K% are both very similar to last year's MLB numbers (9.6% and 19.3%) and to his 2013 and 2014 AA numbers (10.5% and 24.2%). His swinging strike rate is a stellar 8.5%, meaning he should be able to sustain a K% well under 20%.

"Hey McFly, You Bojo! Those Boards Don't Work on Water! Unless You've Got POWER!"

So, this all looks good. There's nothing of concern here and everything checks out. Are we done? Nope. See, I've omitted some very important stats so far. Let's talk about power.

This table shows a bunch of relevant power-related stats for Mr. Thompson.

AA and AAA ISO 2016 ISO HR/FB % Hard % GB% Avg FB LD Exit Velo (mph) Avg Exit Velo rank HR+FB Distance (ft) HR+FB Dist Rank
0.171 0.292 35% 29.90% 53.70% 94.8 86 307 18

His 2016 ISO (isolated slugging percentage) is much higher than his minor league average. It is very rare that a hitter can sustain an ISO much higher than his minor league ISO over a full season. Hitters can develop more power as they age when they are in their early and mid twenties, but it is far from a guarantee.

Adding to that ISO issue, his HR/FB rate is almost off the charts. The league average for non-pitchers this year is 12.2%, so he's about three times that. The most powerful hitters in baseball last year (Harper, Trout, Both guys named Chris (Khris) Davis, and Nelson Cruz, to name a few) had HR/FB of 25 to 32%. I do not believe Thompson is in that company right now, so that ratio should come way down.

His hard hit rate (Hard %) is below league average (30.9%) for non-pitchers. That's not a great sign for someone supposedly hitting for power. Let's throw in his poor ground ball rate. That's not going to generate much power. I'd like so see that in the mid-40s or lower.

Moving on to the Statcast data on exit velocity, his average fly ball and line drive velocity is 94.8 mph, which sounds impressive. However, that's only good for 86th best in baseball in 2016. More fuel for the "Trayce's power is a mirage" fire.

Finally, the one ray of hope that Thompson's power is real. His average home run and fly ball distance (courtesy of baseball heat maps) is 18th best in MLB. He's among good company on that list, including: Machado, Trout, Votto, Souza, Hosmer, Trumbo, and Arenado.

Where Do We Go From Here?

We have a 25-year-old left fielder having a great season. His batting average is a very sustainable 0.281, given his good plate discipline. There are four different statistical indicators showing that he is punching way above his weight class in the power department, with one stat showing his power is legit. While I like HR+FB distance as a measure of true power, it's too hard to ignore all the other signs here.

I think Thompson is a sell-high. When his power returns to his previous levels and falls more in line with his minor league history, realistic HR/FB ratios, his ground ball rate, his hard hit rate, and his exit velocity, he won't be nearly as exciting. Throw in the fact that Van Slyke and Ethier will eventually get healthy (Van Slyke is on a rehab assignment and Ethier could be back in late June), and you've got a guy whose value is going to trend downward.

I like him as a player and he is athletic enough and young enough to improve on his power, but I just can't trust what he has done so far this year. Maybe I will end up looking foolish for not believing in him and maybe those four power-negative stats will flip in the coming months. I'm just feeling a little better now about missing out on picking him up. He probably isn't the huge breakout that some are pegging him to be. Tschus!