Update: Read the comments section, where we had an interesting discussion into valuing the weight of potential in players.
There’s been a lot of discussion over at TrueBlueLA about the true talent level of Kyle Russell, a power-hitting centerfielder in the Dodgers’ minor league system.
Russell destroyed A+ Inland Empire in the California League (.354/.448/.692 in 239 PAs) and struggled upon promotion to AA Chattanooga in the Southern League (.245/.319/.462 in 308 PAs). Russell had a high BABIP for IE, which some claim was his downfall transitioning into AA. But sometimes high BABIPs are a function of a player absolutely destroying his competition.
Southern League is also a big pitcher’s league. League ERA is sub-4 (3.99), which is lower than the Eastern League by quite a bit (and .01 higher than the Texas League). To say AA is pitcher friendly is an understatement.
Compared to A+ leagues:
California League: 4.57 ERA
Carolina League: 3.90 ERA
Florida League: 3.67 ERA
Obviously California League is way, way cooler.
So yeah, it’s not a huge stretch that he struggled a bit in the second half because he faced not only better competition, but hugely better pitching league-wide and perhaps different, more pitcher-friendly parks. Ya know he’s got a high walk rate as well, which people seem to overlook. The conclusion that drives me to is that he’s bad at pitch recognition. He likes to take pitches, which is great, but he can sometimes take on a strike three or swing and miss on a two-strike count. That’s actually a common feature among huge power hitters. Ryan Howard, Pat Burrell, Mark Reynolds and more basically had the same K-rate. The K-rate is still extraordinary–177 Ks in 571 PAs on the year is unfathomable–but there’s a lot to build on.
The cause for concern is reasonable. But for K-rates, it’s not a huge deal. Yes, he strikes out a lot. He also walks a lot and hits for a lot of power. He was just short of 30 walks in 300 PAs in AA. Even when he was struggling in Chattanooga, he had a .462 slugging to go with a .319 OBP. That’s above league average (.337/.390); not too bad for a promotion. He also had 23 doubles and 10 home runs in those 300 PAs.
The question seems to be, Is he going to be able to maintain hitting for average as he progresses. Considering that the Southern League is tougher competition, that it was a promotion to a tougher, pitcher-friendlier league, and that he still put up a good line in a half-season–and let’s also not forget that the switches to different minor league levels are pretty hard on players. They’re playing with almost an entirely new team against entirely new opponents and often have to adjust to different culture with a new place to live and other amenities. Inland Empire compared to Chattanooga … that’s a pretty big change. All these things considered, Russell did OK.
Some players progress rapidly because they have it all figured out, but there are a number of players who struggled briefly in the minors. Struggling is cause for concern in a 24-year-old in the minors, but Russell’s struggles were also in just half a season. And he did pretty well for someone who was struggling.
I think 2011 will be a great year for Russell. Russell’s shown some amazing abilities. Some contact rate adjustments will put him in the ballpark of .300/.390/.550-.600. I can’t wait.