A major overreaction: Keith Law probes the top prospects’ MLB debuts

We’ve seen an incredible number of prospects make their major-league debuts this year, including five players from the top 12 of my preseason ranking of the top 100 prospects in baseball. We’re three weeks into the season now, which is far too small a sample to draw any conclusions, but it’s enough for some Overreaction Theater. I’ve limited the look here just to players who had never played in the majors before 2022, just for the sake of having some sort of cutoff.

To be clear, I’m not worried about any of these players, nor am I changing any evaluations. These are just observations from watching them play on MLB.tv and from looking at Statcast data. I do not think we’ve discovered any serious, heretofore unknown flaws in these players. It’s just a look at what happened so far, and perhaps what adjustments these players might need to make going forward.

Bobby Witt Jr., Kansas City: There isn’t much good news in Witt’s at-bats so far. He’s put 43 balls in play through Tuesday night without a single Barrel, and he’s had surprising difficulty on fastballs, with just one ball he’s put in play off a fastball having an exit velocity over 100 mph – and that was a groundball right to the shortstop . He’s also had a lot of trouble with sliders down and away, both in laying off of them and putting the bat on them. He’s played well enough at third base, although I’d still like to see him return to shortstop. He’s an 80 runner with an 80 arm and great hands.

CJ Abrams, San Diego: Abrams was the least experienced of all of these rookies to debut in the majors this month – he was drafted in 2019, played 34 games before a small injury ended his season, could not play during the lost 2020 season and then played just 42 games in 2021 before a serious leg injury ended that season. He had less than 200 plate appearances of experience above the complex league before he made the Padres’ Opening Day roster. In that context, his strikeout rate so far of 20 percent seems quite adequate. Instead, his issue has been that he isn’t hitting the ball hard – his hard-hit rate is just 21.4, and he’s had just one Barrel all year. Right now, at least, he does not seem to have the hand or wrist strength to hit the ball harder, although that tends to improve with age and can be improved through conditioning.

Spencer Torkelson, Detroit: Torkelson’s strikeout rate of 30.5 percent is quite surprising given his track record – 24 percent in double A, going down to just over 20 percent in triple A, and a history of contact all the way back through college – but, hey, turns out hitting big-league pitching is difficult, even for the most talented players. It’s a swing-and-miss issue – 22 percent whiff rate on pitches in the zone, double that on pitches out of the zone. He’s covering the inner half better than the outer half, and when he misses up, it looks like he’s late. Again, I don’t think this is a long-term issue, but a hitter seeing better pitching than he’s ever faced before, and his entire professional and amateur history says he’ll figure it out.

Julio Rodriguez, Seattle: Rodriguez has punched out in 39.3 percent of his plate appearances so far, which isn’t that surprising for a hitter who came into 2022 with under 1000 professional plate appearances, just 206 of them above A-ball. He’s been rather hard-hit by bad umpiring, with about a third of the called strikes he’s taken this year coming on pitches that were out of the strike zone. It’s also become clear that opposing teams have decided to attack him with four-seamers up and sliders down and away; more than half of the pitches he’s seen this year have been four-seamers above the midpoint for the zone or sliders anywhere, and those two pitch types account for 80 percent of his swings and misses already. Rodriguez’s history at the plate includes high contact rates and rapid adjustments, and there is some good news in his brief major-league time so far: the contact he makes is mostly hard contact, and he’s played above-average to plus defense in center.

Hunter Greene, Cincinnati: Greene’s first two outings saw him top out at 102 mph, striking out 30 percent of hitters he faced in the two outings with just two walks in total. He still wasn’t throwing his offspeed stuff for strikes – both his slider and changeup were taken for balls more than 40 percent of the time – or throwing either of those pitches often enough. Greene’s third start produced his worst stat line but was the first time he’d had to work without his ungodly stuff. After throwing no fastballs slower than 98 mph in his first two starts, he did not throw a fastball over 97.2 in his third outing. The Reds have pushed his next start back two days to give him more time to recover, and to see if his velocity returns. If it does – if there’s no significant injury behind the velocity drop – then we return to where he was after the second start: He clearly has the weapons to miss major-league bats, and needs to throw his secondary stuff more often and for more strikes.

Jeremy Peña, Houston: When the Astros took Peña in the third round (102nd overall) out of the University of Maine, his reputation was that of a premium defensive shortstop who might not hit at all. He’s transformed his body since then, especially this past offseason, and is now hitting everything hard, ranking ninth in the majors in Barrels per plate appearance and 12th in Barrels per batted ball, with average and maximum exit velocities well above the league median. He’s also playing plus defense at short, as expected. If anything, he’s underperformed a little bit, with a BABIP of .262 that’s well below what even an average hitter for contact should produce. He’s the AL’s rookie of the year so far and I think he can keep it going.

Nick Lodolo, Cincinnati: Lodolo had his first good big-league start on a getaway day against the Cardinals, helped by two right-handed hitters in St. Louis. Louis’ lineup with a combined age of 82 years (they went 0-for-8). Lodolo just missed my top 100 coming into 2022, and one of the main reasons was the potential for a wide platoon split, because he has a low arm slot and his changeup is a distant third pitch behind his fastball and plus slider. Opposing teams have picked up on this, as he’s faced just five left-handed batters all year, while right-handers are hitting .316 / .381 / .544 off him so far. He’ll eventually face more left-handed batters, whom I expect him to dominate, but the development of a third pitch will be the key to him finding success as a starter.

MacKenzie Gore, San Diego: The delivery problems that beset Gore in 2021 appear to be long gone. His mechanics are streamlined, especially in back, so he’s repeating them now and throwing more strikes. Through his first two outings, he’s thrown mostly fastballs, 68 percent of his pitches, despite having a full four-pitch mix, and he’s only thrown 60 percent of his pitches for strikes. The batted-ball data does not hold great news, although the pure pitch data does, with huge vertical break on its curveball and the potential for both that and the slider to miss bats due to the spin directions on both. He has only thrown nine changeups this year, even though it has been a plus pitch for him in the past. He’s got to get the fastball out of the middle of the zone and use all three offspeed pitches more often, since those are all more likely to miss bats than the fastball. (Note: I wrote this on Wednesday, before Gore’s third start of the season.)

Matt Brash, Seattle: Brash has shown a plus slider in the majors this year, but that’s been about the only positive news so far from the Seattle right-hander, who has walked 11 in 15 innings and thrown just 61 percent of all pitches for strikes. Hitters aren’t missing his fastball (8 percent), and they aren’t chasing his curveball out of the zone. I’m a little surprised he hasn’t missed more right-handers’ bats, but he can’t locate his fastball well enough to control their at-bats – he goes to the pitch when he’s behind in the count but is only throwing it for a strike in those situations about half the time. He’s going to walk guys with that delivery, but he’s relying on the slider now for strikes rather than using it once he’s ahead.

(Photo of Bobby Witt Jr.: Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

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