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Analyzing MLB Prospects with Small MLB Samples

During the 2022 season, we saw more top MLB prospects get promoted than ever before. The new CBA agreement is helping incentivize teams to give their young stars chances over struggling veterans. While all fantasy players love prospects, this can create challenging analysis. What do you do with a prospect who struggled in his first 100 plate appearances in the majors? Does 100 plate appearances change your perception of that player? Analysts often advise sticking to your opinion of the player before his debut. Simply put, if you were high on him before, a small sample size should not change your opinion. Is this right though? Should our opinion of Jarred Kelenic have changed sooner than it did? In this article I look at three former prospects who got their first taste of big-league action in 2022 and try to decipher what their value is in 2023 and beyond!

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What Stats are Important in Small Samples?

As we dive into the players in this article, it is important to figure out which statistics are good indicators of a player’s true skill level. Certain stats take longer to stabilize than others, so deciphering which ones are important is a great first step. While performing my research, I stumbled upon an article from discussing stabilization and sample sizes. This article outlines the number of plate appearances or balls in play needed to stabilize a statistic. This is exactly what we are looking for and is a great tool to use. Fangraphs also has a similar stabilization tool that is publicly available!

Statistics like batting average, slugging percentage, and HR/FB percentage take too long to stabilize for this article. There are however statistics that stabilize much faster. Plate discipline metrics are some of the fastest to stabilize. According to the article, swing percentage takes about 50 plate appearances to begin stabilizing. In addition, strikeout rate only takes 10 more. Exit velocity and launch angle take about 50-70 balls in play to really stabilize. For some of the players with more balls in play, we can use these two statistics as an indicator. The goal of this article is to ignore the luck statistics such as BABIP. I want to look at a player’s approach at the plate and his quality of contact metrics to try and get a proper understanding of him.

Former MLB Prospects with Small Samples

Oswaldo Cabrera-2B/OF New York Yankees

As the Yankees went through their mid-season struggles, they leaned on prospect Oswaldo Cabrera down the stretch. Cabrera’s defensive versatility was especially important for New York as he was able to play all over the diamond. Cabrera also performed well at the plate posting a 111 wRC+ to go with a .247/.312/.429 slash line. Cabrera’s 2022 season totaled 171 plate appearances. The task now is to analyze that sample size and figure out what kind of player we should project Cabrera to be. Playing in the bright lights of New York combined with his multi-positional eligibility could correlate to Cabrera being a useful fantasy asset. However, we should look at what is going on under the hood before blindly taking him in 2023 drafts.

First, we are going to start by looking at his plate discipline. As discussed earlier, plate discipline metrics stabilize quickly, and Cabrera had over 170 plate appearances in 2022. In his small sample, Cabrera posted a 25.7% strikeout rate paired with an 8.8% walk rate. These numbers are relatively consistent with his numbers from the minor leagues. Digging a little bit deeper, Cabrera posted a 26.4 whiff percentage along with a 13.4 swinging strike rate. Both of these numbers rank slightly below average but are not horrible. Looking at the table below, you can see how Cabrera’s surface stats compared to those with similar whiff and swinging strike rates.

PlayersWhiff Percentage (K%)SWSTR% (K%)
O. Cabrera25.725.7
Similar players23.625.2

Cabrera actually appears to have gotten slightly unlucky in the strikeout department compared to other players with similar whiff and swinging strike percentages. Overall, I would expect Cabrera to continue posting similar walk and strikeout numbers. His chase and whiff percentages are slightly below average and therefore his strikeout rate will likely remain high. This should cause him to struggle at times in terms of batting average.

Although the sample size for Cabrera is small, he does have enough balls in play to begin to paint a picture of his quality of contact. Cabrera put 112 balls in play and overall, I was not encouraged by what I saw. His barrel rate hovered around league average, but with a well-below-average exit velocity. On top of this, Cabrera posted a flyball rate of 50%. This number stabilizes around 80 balls in play, so Cabrera has the looks of being a fly-ball hitter. While this can be advantageous in Yankee Stadium, I am concerned about it for Cabrera’s profile. He is only 5’10” and 145 pounds. He is not somebody that I would label a power hitter although it seems like his game is predicated on driving the ball in the air. More fly balls could continue to cause a lower average.

With the new pitch clock set to start in 2023, it remains to be seen how much stolen base attempts increase, but I could see Cabrera posting a .240 average with 20 home runs and 10 stolen bases next year if he is given everyday playing time. Cabrera’s production could be very similar to the season that Lane Thomas just had for Washington. Early ADP data shows Cabrera going around 2B41 which is about where I think he should go. He is a young and energetic prospect but I am not sure how useful he will be in terms of fantasy production. There is also a high chance that Cabrera is not provided an everyday role with the Yankees which would further decrease his fantasy value.

Michael Massey- 2B Kansas City Royals

As a prospect, Michael Massey flew completely under the radar. However, the former fourth-round pick from 2019 was having an excellent minor league season before being called up by Kansas City in August. After he was called up, Massey was given a chance to play almost every day. In a 52-game sample size, Massey hit .243/.307/.376 with a 93 wRC+. Nobody is jumping at the chance to draft Massey in 2023, but maybe there is some hidden value to be had. He is currently going as 2B51 in drafts which is essentially free. Time to dive in and see if there is anything that sticks out!

Looking at Massey’s plate discipline he clearly likes to swing the bat. Through his 194-plate appearance sample, Massey posted a swing rate over 54%. This is 7% above league average. Massey’s aggressive approach leads to some high strikeout rates, and I am concerned that rate is due to get even higher. Massey posted a whiff percentage of 27.8% although he posted a zone contact rate under 76%. League average in zone contact is 82%. If Massey wants to continue swinging at the rate he is, he needs to quickly improve his ability to make contact on pitches inside of the strike zone. Amongst qualified hitters from 2022, the average strikeout rate for those who swung more than 51% of the time with an in-zone contact percentage of less than 77% was 29.68%. Massey’s strikeout rate was 23.8% last season and is likely due to come up in 2023.

When it comes to quality of contact, the numbers in Massey’s sample size look very good. He posted a 13%-barrel rate which is well above league average. Combined with a strong barrel rate is Massey’s high pull rate. In 2022, Massey pulled the ball over 52.3% of the time. Combining good launch angle, barrel percentage, and pull percentage is an easy way for a player to demonstrate phenomenal power. Massey hit just four home runs in 2022, but his xHR was 7.5. If he was playing all 52 of his games in Cincinnati, he would have hit 15! I believe that Massey could be a sneaky source of power for your fantasy team despite playing in Kansas City.

One of the biggest question marks for Massey’s 2023 outlook is the uncertainty of his playing time. He is far more talented than Nicky Lopez at the dish, but it remains to be seen if he will be able to earn an everyday spot with Adalberto Mondesi returning in 2023. I envision these three players to platoon. If Massey is able to get into the lineup with consistency, I could see .230 and 25 out of him. He could also be a sneaky source of stolen bases. Getting power out of your second base slot is not an easy thing to do and I like Massey as a late-round flier in deep leagues!

Triston Casas- 1B Boston Red Sox

Unlike the first two former prospects, Triston Casas was well-known in baseball and the fantasy community. Entering 2022, he was the top fantasy prospect for the first base position. Casas struggled early on in AAA before landing on the IL. He later returned and found himself in Boston for the final month of the season. In 27 games, Casas batted just .197 with five home runs. Early ADP data shows that Casas is going as 1B29 in drafts. This is late enough that maybe Casas’ upside could be worth a dart throw in your fantasy drafts!

Starting with Casas plate discipline the surface numbers are incredible. Casas was able to post a 120 wRC+ thanks in large part to his 20% walk rate. Unlike Massey, Casas clearly has a patient approach at the plate. His swing percentage which should be mostly stabilized through 95 plate appearances was just 37.9%. This is over 9% below league average. Amongst qualified hitters, there were two batters that posted a swing percentage below 40% and a chase rate below 18%.

These two hitters are:

  • Juan Soto
  • Max Muncy

Those two hitters are two of the best fantasy players in on-base leagues. Walks do not always help in all fantasy formats, but if you play in a league that has an OBP category, Casas is a name to keep an eye on. On the flip side of that, Casas’ approach can be described as a little bit too patient. He has a worse-than-league-average whiff rate so this will lead to a high number of strikeouts. Soto’s patient approach does not negatively impact his average because he has such good contact skills. Casas is more like Muncy in that his patience can hurt your fantasy team in the average category.

Casas has lighthouse power, there are no doubts about that. However, there are some major red flags to be aware of. If we are comparing Casas to Max Muncy, then Casas would need to maintain a similar level of power output to Muncy’s consistent production. During the 2022 season, Casas posted a launch angle of just 2.2 degrees with a 56.6% ground ball rate. These statistics stabilize between 50 and 80 balls in play. Casas had 53 balls in play last year, so those rates are not fully stabilized but provide a good indication of his ball-in-play outcomes. In order for Casas to tap into his raw power, he has to be able to elevate the baseball. Casas posted a 26.3 HR/FB% last season which is awesome, but it does not matter if he cannot hit fly balls consistently.

In terms of Casas’ 2023 outlook, he should be solidified as the Red Sox starting first baseman. Despite this, I am still not sure if you should be buying in. The power is there, but there are some serious swing issues that could impact his average and dampen his power output. The ceiling for Casas is around a .230 average with 30 home runs and a double-digit walk rate. The floor however is something like what we saw during his small sample in 2022. If Casas’ ground ball rate remains above 50%, he will never reach his full potential. I am okay with fantasy players taking a shot on his upside in OBP leagues, but I am avoiding him everywhere else!

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1 Comment
  1. Babbo B says

    Just FWIW, Fantrax puts Cabrera at 5-10/145, but the Yankees’ official roster says 6-0/202, which seems more consistent with his appearance in photos.

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