Before I begin, I’d like to warn that everything relating to 2011 statistics in this post is covered by a blanket small sample size alert. Any time in April is too early to make any conclusive judgments. What I’ll try to do instead is notice trends, and in this case try and figure out how they can be changed.
Ronnie Welty came in at #45 on the Orioles Nation top 50 prospect list for 2011. Jordan Tuwiner had the following to say about the 23-year-old outfielder who was taken by the Orioles in the 20th round of the 2008 draft: “…players who strikeout as much in A-ball as Welty did usually have trouble finding success in the upper levels of the minors.”
This criticism is entirely valid. Welty struck out at a 31.5% rate at Frederick in 2010 while putting up a solid, though not spectacular, .368 wOBA. For reference, Mark Reynolds, the holder of the record for most strikeouts in a MLB season, struck out at a 26.4% rate in A+ ball in 2006, while posting a .468 wOBA. Welty, as noted in his prospect writeup, “is caught flailing at changeups quite a bit.” This is problematic because if he can’t hit off-speed stuff in Frederick, how can he be expected to hit off-speed stuff in Baltimore, Norfolk, or even Bowie? The conclusion Jordan, and just about every evaluator, came to is that Welty cannot be any sort of legitimate prospect without changing his approach.
In the off-season it looked like he might have done that. Welty traveled to Australia where he played for the Perth Heat. Welty put up an absolutely monstrous winter ball season for the Heat, posting a .309/.433/.585 slash line with 10 HR in 150 PA. By far the most encouraging aspect of Welty’s winter was that he struck out just 28 times (an 18.7% rate), and walked 27 times (18%, compared to 8.3% for 2010). Welty led the Australian Baseball League in walks, was second in HR, and third in OPS. This performance sparked hope in some Orioles fans that he could translate what appeared to be a new approach back to the US and become a more legitimate prospect.
However, through 16 games in Bowie, Welty has a 29.6 K% and a 9.8 BB%. While these rates, if they continued all year, would constitute a slight improvement over his 2010 rates, they are far from the improvement necessary for Welty to have any shot at a big league career. What I’d like to look at is whether or not the approach Welty displayed in the ABL will carry over, and some potential reasons why it might either continue or prove to have been a flash in the pan.
First, let’s try and put Welty’s ABL season in context by looking at some potential factors that might have caused it to appear better than it really was.
Sample size: 150 PA isn’t a full season, but considering just how drastic the shift from Frederick to Perth was, I’d say 150 PA is a large enough sample to be statistically significant.
Ballpark: There was a clear divide in the ABL between the good offensive teams (Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide) and the bad teams (Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra), with 44 runs separating teams 3 and 4. Likewise, 34 runs separated the good pitching teams (Sydney, Perth, Adelaide) and the bad pitching teams (Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra). With Perth’s offense scoring among the good teams and their pitching performing similarly well, it is unlikely that their ballpark significantly impacted offensive performance any more than the other ABL parks.
League: It’s tough to really assess the quality of the ABL. The Arizona Fall League is generally considered to be between AA and AAA, but the ABL is much trickier due to the variety of players playing. On Welty’s Heat, for example, were Twins infielder Luke Hughes, who has seen significant time in the majors this season, as well as Evan McArthur, who played independent ball in 2010. Joining Welty in the top five in OPS were James McOwen, the Mariners’ 6th-round pick in 2007, Tom Brice and Joshua Roberts, neither of whom have played in North America since 2006, and Andrew Russell, who is now a pitcher in the Braves’ system. I’d assess the league quality at somewhere around A, personally, a bit below Welty’s level, but not to the point where his domination of the league would be expected.
Welty playing in a league that was in all likelihood beneath his talent level can probably account for the home runs and high BA and SLG. But what to make of the 27/28 BB/K? Can that be chalked up to league quality as well? Here are some potential explanations for Welty’s approach in Australia being so radically different from how he’s done in Bowie so far.
Less scouting in Australia: In the minors in the US, scouting other teams is more feasible, with major league teams footing the bill. In the ABL, there is likely much less money involved, and therefore much less scouting. Australian teams might not have picked up on Welty’s struggles with off-speed stuff, and therefore Welty might have mashed fastballs while not seeing pitches that challenged him.
This is just a slow start: Unlikely, as through 80 AB in Australia Welty had 17 walks to 19 strikeouts, and he’s got 16 strikeouts against just 6 walks in 61 PA in Bowie so far.
Poor coaching in Bowie: While Bowie is third in the Eastern League in walks, they are also second in strikeouts, and if Caleb Joseph (7 BB/7 K) is removed, they have the second-worst K/BB ratio in the league, just ahead of last-place Binghamton. Xavier Avery (4 BB/22 K) in particular has a miserable-looking line. Welty is actually second on the team in walks with six.
Plate discipline is something nearly all players, not just guys like Welty, need to be successful at the higher levels. If it’s not a focus at Bowie, it should be. Regardless of league quality, Welty showed in Australia that he is capable of discerning a ball from a strike. If he changed his approach in Australia and was forced to change it back at Bowie, then the coaches are not doing their jobs. If they’re trying to work on his discipline and we’re just not seeing the results yet, that’s fine, but if for whatever reason Welty’s current approach is being encouraged, either actively or passively, something needs to be changed, because the Orioles minor league system’s poor track record when it comes to developing hitters is well documented, and that track record can’t continue if this organization wants to have any sort of hope for the future.