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Josh Sale: Facing Long Odds

Hello readers, this is Scott from the Rays Prospects podcast. Some of you may already be familiar with me either from the podcast or the occasional written piece over there, but if not, I'd recommend listening to an episode (most recent episode can be found here.) It's a tolerable show until I start speaking.

I'm sure most readers know Josh Sale, so the history lesson will be brief. The Rays made him the 17th overall pick in the 2010 draft, and he appeared to fit an organizational need: a potential middle of the order bat with power. Baseball America rated him as the 10th best prospect in the draft, and he was second among all high school position players behind eventual 3rd overall pick Manny Machado. Their scouting report was impressive, saying, "Sale has raw power that approaches the top of the scouting scale." They also noted that one scout remarked that he had the best bat speed as an amateur he's ever seen. His work ethic and mature plate approach would allow him to adjust and correct any mechanical issues at the plate. He doesn't have a good arm and isn't particularly athletic, but if his bat develops the way scouts expect, he should profile nicely out in left field. Is his development on track?

Sale began the 2011 season in extended spring training where young and inexperienced players can refine their game through instruction and scrimmages for two and a half months before reporting to an affiliate in a short season league. He would eventually go to Princeton in the Appalachian League, classified as a rookie league but a step above the complex leagues at spring training facilities in Florida and Arizona. After he homered in his second plate appearance and first official at bat, he generally struggled throughout the rest of the season. He hit his third home run on July 17th and then went into a home run drought that lasted until the last game of the season on August 30th. His isolated power was just .136, and even though it was only slightly below the league average, more is expected from unathletic corner outfielders.

It's only half a season of data, so of course it's too early to panic. He showed some signs of life at the end of the season, posting a .905 OPS in his final 10 games, and he slugged over .500 in that span. That stretch came after the coaching staff made an adjustment to his swing, shortening his stride which was previously long enough to affect his eye level.

It may be fair to say that Sale is a bit behind in his development compared to his peers. In the drafts from 2007 to 2010 (the explanation for limiting it to these years will come shortly,) there were 51 high school hitters drafted in the first or supplemental rounds. Including Sale, only 17 of those started their first full season in extending spring training. Interestingly enough, three of those 17 were 2010 picks of the Rays with Drew Vettleson and Justin O'Conner joining Sale. The Rays had one more pick that fit that criteria in this range, Tim Beckham, who started his first full season in low-A with Bowling Green.

It's okay for a draft pick to start out slow in pro ball. That list of 17 names has some success stories. Devin Mesoraco and Travis D'Arnaud are on that list, and they're two of the best catching prospects in the game right now. Ben Revere has made the majors too, and players like Vettleson and Taylor Lindsey of the Angels organization appear to have good futures. On the flip side, there are some players on this list that Rays fans definitely don't want Sale to become. Those luminaries include Anthony Hewitt of the Phillies, Wendell Fairley of the Giants and Donavan Tate of the Padres, a former #3 overall pick.

What could be telling about Sale's future is his 2012 Opening Day assignment, another season in extended spring training. Over the course of the 2011 season, he didn't perform like a player ready for low-A. If he's not, and they determined that he isn't, the Rays had to do something that no other first round high school hitter has done in recent years: report to extended spring training for a second consecutive year. Of the 36 first round high school hitters drafted between 2007 and 2009 (of course the 2010 draft class hasn't finished their second spring training yet,) 36 have started their second full year in a full season league. That includes players like Hewitt and Tate who were and still are incredibly raw. Sale may be headed to Bowling Green to start the year where he'll be challenged to sink or swim.

Another issue that potentially complicated Sale's development involves MLB's August 15th signing deadline that was put in place in the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement (the new CBA moved this date up to July, likely the only universally praised change agreed upon.) It reduces the opportunities players have to get into game action after signing because rookie league seasons end at the end of August. The August deadline was in effect for the drafts from 2007 to 2011, and that's why I limited my sample to the 2007-2010 range.

The commissioner's office wouldn't allow some picks to sign until the deadline if they were going over the recommended slot bonuses. Sale fell into this category, as did Vettleson. They were among a group of 15 hitters that didn't sign until the deadline. It's hard to say how much of an effect this plays in player development. We know that at bats and innings are necessary for players to develop, and any bit of action can help. Seven of the 15 players that didn't sign until deadline day reported to extended spring training the following season, or 47% of the 8/15 group. That leaves 36 players in this sample who signed at least a day prior to the deadline, and only nine of them had to start their first full year in extended spring training. Two of them, Revere and Mesoraco, quickly reported to A ball in the first couple seasons. It's a pretty small sample, and correlation does not imply causation. However, the disparity is pretty striking; it seems like that little bit of experience after signing helps prepare the player for low-A the next season.

Are the Rays doing their prospects a disservice by taking things so slowly? Obviously, the careers of all of these players have hardly played out so far, but the Rays have developed a rotation of being cautious with their minor league assignments. Of the 17 hitters who started their first season in XST, only three organizations are represented twice, the Rays, Angels and Yankees. One of the Yankees, outfielder Slade Heathcott, was recovering from shoulder surgery and really had nowhere to go besides extended spring. The Rays featured three players, while the Angels actually beat them with four. Does this show anything? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe the two organizations feel this is the best approach to developing high school hitters, or maybe they prefer drafting the kind of hitter that needs extra instruction. Maybe they're selecting the wrong players.

How is the organization's track record when it comes to drafting and developing high school hitters? For this, I'm going to count all high school hitters drafted since 2004, since that's when Andrew Friedman joined the front office. I'm not sure what his role in drafts was at that time (if any), and it would be incorrect to attribute all successes or failures to one person. It's simply a cutoff point when the new regime was starting to be ushered in. As things stand now, they don't stack up well against the rest of baseball.

Since 2004, only one high school hitter drafted and signed by the Rays has reached the majors, and that's Reid Brignac. That in and of itself isn't a problem because there are five teams who don't have any yet, including Texas who right now seems to be the gold standard for building an organization. The problem for the Rays is that in this timeframe, they've drafted and signed more high school hitters than any team except Boston with 37. That means as of now, less than 3% of Rays high school hitters have reached the majors, the lowest percentage of any team with at least one major leaguer. Oddly enough, the Dodgers lead the league with over 16% of their high school hitters reaching the majors. None have them have really made much of a difference yet though (Josh Bell, Ivan DeJesus, Blake DeWitt and Trayvon Robinson).

Quality trumps quantity though. I think everyone would agree that they would rather have one Justin Upton than the Dodgers group listed above, so I added up the bWAR of all major leaguers to measure the contributions teams are getting from their high school hitters. I zeroed out any player with a negative bWAR because reaching the majors is still a significant accomplishment while most prospects never will. The average bWAR for a team's contributions from high school hitters is 3.7. Perhaps surprisingly, Pittsburgh leads the way with 16, thanks primarily to Andrew McCutchen. The Rays are one of 11 teams who have either received absolutely no contributions from high school hitters or had their contributions zereoed out.

Of course since this includes 2011 draftees, we still need to wait a while to see how the careers of most of these players will pan out. I kept track of the percentage of these draft picks still active. I defined active as a player who played for an affiliated team in 2011, even if it was in another organization. This was an attempt to reflect how much potential a team's high school hitters still have to make an impact. Some of them will be minor league lifers, but for a team like the Rays, it could show that some of their recent picks could still make an impact. However, in this area, the Rays still don't stand out. The league average for percentage of high school hitters still active is 69.2%, and the Rays are barely above at 70.3%. While it would be fair to point out that a number of Rays hitters were high picks and have more potential to reach the majors and make an impact, every team has some high school hitters with high expectations.

Are the Rays selecting the wrong players, or is something happening on the development side? As Jim Callis discussed with Kevin and I on the podcast during the offseason, it's hard to say. To use Sale as an example again, a lot of teams would have loved for him to fall into their laps at the 17th pick. Although teams in their war rooms aren't opening Firefox and going to Baseball America, their rankings reflect general industry opinions on players. If Sale is ranked 10th overall, teams have high opinions of this player. Some teams could have looked at Sale and seen a red flag or two, but league-wide, the general sentiment was that he's a really good hitter. That would indicate that if the Rays are choosing the wrong players, it would be a fundamental, industry-wide problem when it comes to scouting because the Rays aren't the only team that really liked Sale.

That's jumping to conclusions a bit too quickly, but if a team drafts and continually fails to develop a certain subset of players in a draft, it's time to start asking questions and wonder what could be done differently to get better results. It's too early to give up on Sale because it's only his second professional season, but it is clear that he's facing an uphill battle to be the player the Rays expected. No one can predict baseball; maybe he will end up blazing a developmental track not really seen before. Just because no one else has ever needed this much time at the minor league complex does not mean he can't have success, but it is certainly cause for concern.

This post was written by a member of the DRaysBay community and does not necessarily express the views or opinions of DRaysBay staff.

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