Monday, June 28, 2010

Can Brennan Boesch Keep Hitting Like Pujols?

posted by Jon Williams
Who the hell is Brennan Boesch? Because of his incredible production the Detroit Tigers and a few fantasy owners have much better lineups. But for most fans he came out of nowhere and analysts have been saying his lucky streak just can't last.



Fantasy owners tend to be a numbers oriented lot. As the art of sabermetrics has become more popular a large segment of this crowd has developed an almost snobbish dismissal of players that do not fit their criteria for players of interest. Brennan 'Hollywood' Boesch was such a player for most of his minor league career. In 2009 he caught the attention of some Tigers fans with a 28-homer season for Double-A Erie. Baseball America rated him as the best power prospect in the EL though they left him off their top-20 prospect list for the circuit; they did rate him Detroit's #25 prospect. The power had been projected but not realized until then. But no one doubts the power potential of the 6'5" slugger...

The name of the game is simple for Boesch, as he is a power hitter through and through. Most scouts tossed around plus-plus or 70 power for Boesch, though one scout felt his power may warrant an 80 grade. Boesch can hit balls out to any part of any park on the planet, and his power is absolutely prodigious to the pull side. He gets the bat to the zone quickly and he rips the barrel through the hitting zone with incredibly muscular upper and lower arms.

For all his power, Boesch has some very significant kryptonite. Most scouts see significant holes in his swing, and a susceptibility to breaking balls in nearly any part of the zone. He lacks the pitch recognition skills to consistently work counts, and he has a below average hit tool as a result. There will always be a lot of swing and miss in his game, and it is a matter of whether his power will be enough to make up for what will likely be a lot of strikeouts and a very low on-base percentage.

Boesch is an average runner. His jumps in the outfield are fringy at best, and most scouts I spoke with see at best, an average defender. He can make most of the plays in right field, and he has an above-average arm with decent carry.

His makeup rates as a positive in his favor, and he does a solid job of keeping his mind focused on the present and not letting poor plays in the field or poor at-bats, impact the task at hand on the field. He is unlikely to be a star, but his power is difficult to ignore, and he will get chances to nail down a corner outfield spot if he continues to blast balls out of the park.
What most analysts did not like about Boesch was his extremely aggressive style that resulted in very few walks and low on-base percentages. A scout explained to Nick Underhill, a writer for TigsTown.com how he felt watching Boesch play during the 2009 season:
“How do I fill this out? Every time I start to fill it out I don’t feel good about it. He hits the ball hard, plays decent defense, but he’s too wild at the plate. Way too wild, this is the hardest report I’ve had to file in a while.”
At the University of California, where Boesch played three seasons, Boesch had these batting lines -- .284/.365/.541 (7BB, 3 HBP) in 74 at-bats, .355/.436/.567 (26BB, 6 HBP) in 217 at-bats, and .313/.372/.505 (20BB, 2HBP) in 214 at-bats. This is shown to demonstrate that hitting for average (with high BABIPs) and showing at least some discipline at the plate is not entirely unprecedented. Boesch was considered a potential first round pick before the 2006 season. He fell because of a swing that some scouts considered stiff and not ideal for play with a wooden bat, and some bad reports on his defense in the outfield. However, it is worth posting his college stats as evidence that hitting for high averages and walking ( a 9.2 percent walk rate at the University of California) is not entirely unprecedented.

According to the few reports to be found, including a report from John Sickels, Boesch's problems in the minors were the result of that same stiff swing. But it is obvious that part of his problem has also been a lack of patience. Curious that he seems to have found his solution by becoming ultra aggressive and swinging at almost every pitch. In an article for FanGraphs.com, Joe Pawlikowski pointed out that as of May 11th, 2010, Boesch was swinging at 66.2 percent [of pitches], more than 20 percentage points above league average. Obviously he was doing good things with a lot of those pitches.

Boesch's swing percentage is down to (a still very high) 58.2 percent. His O-swing percentage (over 50 percent at the time of Joe Pawlikowski's article) is now down to (again, still very high) 42.6 percent. He has also made slightly better than average contact in all those swings. If nothing else, Boesch seems headed in the right direction as he continues to pound the ball as June ends.

Make no mistake, Boesch had a very luck influenced BABIP (over .500 at one point in May) his first month in the major leagues. But in June his walk rate doubled along with his power. Put another way, after just two walks in his first 50 PA, he has 14 in his next 166 PA, while this will not put him in the class of patient sluggers like Jason Giambi or Adam Dunn, it does make his projections for the rest of the season look considerably better. The increase in walks in conjunction with his increased power makes sense. Various reports, easily found on the internet, will demonstrate how an increase in power almost always leads to more walks as pitchers adjust.

Conclusions
As of this writing Brennan Boesch has 198 at-bats and a batting line of .338/.389/.621 with 12 homeruns, 26 runs, 43 RBI, and two stolen bases. He has a BABIP of .374, a .283 ISO, and a .432wOBA. His numbers look a lot like Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers. Of batters with at least 190 at-bats he ranks fifth in wOBA just behind Justin Morneau, Miguel Cabrera, Hamilton, and Kevin Youkilis and slightly ahead of Robinson Cano, Paul Konerko and Joey Votto. He's been very good.

Starting with the bad news, it seems obvious that his batting average will creep down. He has numbers that will be very difficult to maintain (seemingly impossible some might say) with his peripherals. Even noting the recent improvements, Boesch still swings at too many pitches, especially outside of the strike zone. Though his aggression is at least somewhat responsible for his success, he must improve his pitch recognition and selection if he hopes to have long term success. He needs to take more walks, hitting for power will get him part of the way. If he learns to lay off most pitches out of the strike zone, he will increase his OBA dramatically.

With his swing nice and loosened, Boesch has become a very good contact hitter and I believe we can call that one of his skills. He has fantastic power that scouts have often rated a 70 on the 20-80 scale and in at least one case he received an 80. He is a hard worker who is constantly working to become a better player. He is extremely confident, bordering on overconfidence, which is an asset as long as he also remains coachable. This is a combination that leads me to believe that Boesch is capable of hitting for good batting averages (.270-plus) with excellent power on a regular basis.

Fantasy owners with Boesch on their rosters should hold on to him. Selling high is not a bad idea, but I believe that he will have continuing value in keeper leagues. Those owners should also prepare for the massive slumps to which hitters this aggressive frequently fall victim. When he does slow down, resist the urge to dump him if he can be placed in reserve. For the balance of the season I would expect the power numbers to continue and for his batting average to continue to gradually decline. He can not be considered the next Pujols at this point, he just doesn't have the skills. However, a solid power hitter with decent (not amazing) batting averages is already a virtual certainty.

For more on Brennan Boesch:

http://www.scoutingbook.com/players/p2699

http://firstinning.com/players/Brennan-Boesch-a/

http://espn.go.com/mlb/players/splits?playerId=29378

http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=914&position=OF

http://www.thebaseballcube.com/players/B/Brennan-Boesch.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/b/boescbr01.shtml

http://tigers.scout.com/2/958464.html

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=9796

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