As teams prepare to depart for Florida and Arizona, hope springs eternal. It's a new season, with new personnel and a clean slate. Fans get excited for new players, and management prepares to make roster decisions and determine where those minor league players who are ready to graduate from the farm fit into the organization's depth charts.
Two of the more sexy names discussed during the off-season are the Cubs' Kris Bryant and the Red Sox' Mookie Betts, and what better way to get rid of the baseball offseason ennui than discussing these young talented players.
Bryant has been a highly touted prospect after being drafted second overall in the 2013 draft. As anticipated, Bryant rocketed through the Cubs system, and will be on the big league roster at some point in 2015. Meanwhile, Betts was mostly overlooked until his meteoric rise in 2013 and 2014. Drafted in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, few expected a breakout in which he ascended from rookie ball to the majors in under four months.
These two players could likely have a large impact on the immediate and long-term futures of their respective franchises, so it is worth diving into the numbers. How else could we compare two players with varying backgrounds and skillsets? Then we'll use projection systems to see which will likely have the better career.
Chris Mitchell of The Hardball Times (and -- recently -- FanGraphs) developed a system known as KATOH to forecast major league performance based on minor league stats. Mitchell pinpointed the numbers that translated from MiLB to MLB, and made inferences on how successful players would be in the majors. Below are the numbers that matter in the KATOH system for both Betts and Bryant, with Betts on the left, and Bryant on the right.
|AAA||21 / 22||12.3% / 14.5%||14.2% / 28.6%||.168 / .324||.380 / .367||73% / 78%|
|AA||21 / 22||13.8% / 14.5%||7.9% / 25.9%||.196 / .347||.366 / .440||88% / 80%|
|A+||20 / 21||10.9% / 4.8%||--------------||.211 / .386||.346 / .400||--------------|
|A||20 / --||--------------||11.8% / --||.181 / --||.322 / --||90% / --|
|A-||20 / 18||11.0% / 10.4%||11.0% / 22.1%||.040 / .338||.298 / .404||--------------|
|R+||19 / 21||--------------||14.7% / 14.3%||.102 / .167||.313 / .449||75% / --|
Courtesy of Chris Mitchell, The Hardball Times
The first thing that jumps out is the age at which these two players accelerated through their respective systems. Both walk at approximately the same rate, with High-A being an outlier for Bryant, as he only played in 16 games. Walk rate generally takes 120 plate appearances to stabilize -- at least to a point where we can say it is no longer small sample size. Well, in 213 Major League plate appearances, Betts garnered a free pass 9.9% of the time. Based on the high minors walk rate of Bryant, there is likely a good chance he has a 10%+ walk rate in the bigs. And that's a good sign for a rookie -- except look at all those strikeouts.
Strikeout rate stabilizes fastest of all the statistics on my table. Mookie's strikeout rate went up a bit when he was in Boston, but his skillset was translated to the major league level. This could be Bryant's Achilles' heel, as he carried a 25%+ strikeout rate in the high minors, and a 22% strikeout rate in Low-A ball. Betts clearly has the advantage when it comes to contact, but this can be mitigated if Bryant really punishes pitchers when he does connect.
Making up for the high strikeout rate, Bryant possess an isolated power that dwarfs Betts'. (It dwarfs almost everybody.) Bryant was carrying an ISO so large in the minors, it would make for an impressive batting average. He possesses power to all fields -- and on top of that, his batting average on balls in play is not a fluke and is partially derived by the hard contact he makes. Bryant rarely pops up, and will likely show up on a hard-hit contact leaderboard at the major league level shortly after he joins the league.
Betts also makes excellent contact. On top of that, he has the ability to use his legs to beat out infield ground balls. While Bryant clearly has the advantage in the power department, it may take some time to harness it if he does not improve his contact rate -- just ask Jeff Sullivan.
Mookie Betts has the advantage over Bryant on the basepaths, as he is an excellent runner. He changes games in ways most players' speed cannot, distracting pitchers and catchers when on base, and routinely taking extra bases on extra-base hits. Although he and Bryant have both been quite successful in stealing bases through their tenure in the minors, Betts steals bases significantly more often, thus profiling as more of a leadoff hitter than a three- or four-hole hitter. Despite the stolen base percentage in the minors being relatively close, it does not fully show his impact. He stole 46 bases across three different minor league levels, while only getting caught six times. I had the pleasure to see Betts when he was in Double-A as a member of the Portland Sea Dogs, and in each game he stole at least one base. Anyone who has watched him play can attest to his impact -- while Bryant wows fans with the long ball, Betts makes things happen on the bases.
Chris Mitchell's work and development of the KATOH system projects both Betts and Bryant to have excellent starts to their careers; Betts is projected for 21.6 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) and Bryant for 16.0. If I could, I would place my Betts on the early years of Betts's career, and the latter portion of Bryant's. From the jump, Betts will make a living based on his speed and defense, which typically does not age as well as power. While I could easily see Betts getting off to an early lead in overall value over Bryant (early 2014 start notwithstanding), Bryant could become a premier power hitter within four to five years. With more experience, Bryant should be able to harness an increased contact rate, while Betts can keep running in the short-term, giving opposing defenses fits.
Steven Martano is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano or email him at email@example.com..