This time of year, prospect lists dominate the landscape of the baseball Internet. They’re grouped in every conceivable way: top 100 overall, best fantasy prospects, by level, league, organization, or position. However, some players inevitably slip through the cracks.
Once in a while, there’s a noteworthy player who misses out on the prospect hype. A player might ascend so rapidly in a given year that he goes from organizational fodder straight through to the major leagues. If he’s there long enough, he loses prospect eligibility.
This isn’t a problem for someone like, say, Ramón Laureano of the A’s. He burst onto the scene with arguably the best outfield throw of the year, then stayed in the spotlight for reasons expressed recently by Kenny Kelly.
Sometimes, a player such as this doesn’t light up the major leagues. In that case, we’re left with someone who jumped from a non-prospect to a post-prospect without the fun middle part. This is exactly what happened to the Angels’ Taylor Ward.
Meet Taylor Ward
As a 24-year-old rookie third baseman, Ward hit only .178/.245/.333 in 147 PA. Clearly, it wasn’t a stellar debut, but that’s just the rough outer edge on his incredible 2018 season.
Ward was a first round pick out of Fresno State in 2015, but not as an infielder. He had been a catcher his entire life, and remained behind the plate as a professional. Unfortunately, his bat never materialized. In his first two full seasons in the minors, he failed to elevate his slugging percentage above .391 at any level.
Starting in 2018, he quit catching cold turkey. He had never played any other position in the minors before last year, but from then on he was exclusively a third baseman. As a high draft pick at risk of busting, something had to be done to jump start his career.
As the Baseball Prospectus folks say, “catchers are weird.” The position is so physically and mentally demanding that seemingly independent skills, such as hitting, can atrophy. The history of baseball is bursting with ex-catchers who exploded offensively while playing an easier position— Jimmie Foxx, Joe Torre, Carlos Delgado, Mike Napoli, and so many others.
The modern day patron-saint of ex-catchers is Josh Donaldson. Just like Ward, he was a first round pick who failed to live up to expectations. He progressed slowly through the minors, nibbling at other positions, but didn’t fully transition to third base until he was 26. At age-27, he posted 7.2 fWAR, and at age-29 he was the AL MVP.
Ward experienced the same sort of renaissance, at least so far. He tried out his new position by repeating double-A, slashing .345/.453/.520 in 179 plate appearances. He was then promoted to triple-A where he enjoyed similar success, cruising to a .352/.442/.537 line in 267 plate appearances. He even stole 18 bases now that he was no longer encumbered by catching responsibilities. He finished sixth among all double-A players with a 178 wRC+, and ninth among all triple-A players at 160 wRC+ (min. 150 PA at each level).
By mid-August, the Angels simply couldn’t keep him down any longer. He seized the starting third base job on August 14, and kept it through the end of the season. He didn’t have much success in the majors, but perhaps there’s more than meets the eye.
Where Ward Went Wrong
Even before his breakout as a hitter, Ward always walked a lot. He also maintained reasonable strikeout rates. Upon reaching the majors, his walks went south and the strikeouts north.
Taylor Ward BB% and K%
Step one for Ward to become a productive major leaguer is to return to his normal levels of walks and strikeouts. This is easier said than done, of course; major league pitching is a lot better than the minors.
That being said, he still demonstrated a discerning eye. He only swung at 24.7 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. Only 22 qualified hitters were better in 2018. However, he only swung at 57.6 percent of strikes, and only 39.6 percent of all pitches. Both of these would have ranked near the bottom of the league. It seems like his patience in the minors fermented into extreme passivity in the majors.
Ward also started elevating the ball much more than usual upon reaching the majors. His fly ball rate in the minors fluctuated between 33.5 percent and 38.8 percent. With the Angels, it climbed to 43.8. His 15.8 degree average launch angle was well above the MLB average of 10.9 degrees. While he does hit for some power, it’s never been his best attribute. Turning some fly outs into line drives should improve his batting line.
Ward is also due for some regression; his BABIP was just .214 last year. His 32.2 percent hard hit rate was fairly close to league average.
The point is, there are signs that he’s just an adjustment or two away from becoming at least an average ballplayer. If his strikeouts, walks, BABIP, and batted ball profile return to their minor league levels, he could be a greatly improved hitter.
Despite their similar origin stories, Ward probably won’t become Donaldson. His power and defense are probably just OK, whereas they’re Donaldson’s best attributes. Still, Ward’s month and a half of MLB experience is too small of a sample to make many conclusions. His absolute demolition of the high minors probably carries more weight. Now that he’s ditched the catching gear, he could still have a lot more growth ahead of him.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983