Astros OF George Springer has significantly improved his discipline at the plate, and if he can remain healthy, he could have the true breakout season for which so many have waited.
Fantasy baseball season is nearly here, so to kick-start your 2016 draft prep, SI.com’s fantasy baseball expert Michael Beller will give a snapshot of certain players who may not necessarily be a breakout, a sleeper or a bust (all of which we’ll preview in the upcoming weeks), but could still prove influential this season.
The player: George Springer, OF, Astros
• The 2015 stats: 451 plate appearances, .276/.367/.469, 16 homers, 16 steals, 19 doubles, 11.1 BB%, 24.2 K%, .342 BABIP, .183 ISO, 129 wRC+
• The two-year sample (162-game average): 796 plate appearances, .256/.354/.463, 33 homers, 19 steals, 25 doubles
• The SI rank: No. 21 overall, No. 9 OF
• The consensus rank (FantasyPros): No. 30 overall, No. 12 OF
• The skinny: Springer enters his third season in the majors as one of the league’s truly up-and-coming players, and there’s no doubting his bona fides as a 20/20 guy with a ceiling that reaches up to 30/30. The 24-year-old has unique speed and baserunning ability for a guy his size, and his pedigree, as well as early-career track record, suggests he will be a star well into his 30s.
Springer, the former No. 11 pick in the 2011 amateur draft, made significant strides in plate discipline and pitch recognition last season. He cut his o-swing percentage—which measures the rate at which a player swings at pitches outside the strike zone—from 26.7% to 23.1%. Unsurprisingly, his contact rate surged to 69.5%, an increase of nearly 10 percentage points, while his whiff rate dropped from 18.6% to 13.9%. Springer struck out in exactly one-third of his plate appearances as a rookie, but that K-rate plummeted to 24.2% last year. That goes a long way toward explaining his 45-point jump in batting average and 31-point climb in OBP.
It wasn’t just improved plate discipline, however, that made Springer a better hitter last season—Springer now exhibits a greater understanding of the types of pitches he wants to attack. Springer is best against fastballs, like nearly everyone who has ever swung a baseball bat, but he struggles changeups and sliders, against which he hit .177 and .118, respectively. He did go 8-for-26 when putting curveballs in play, but that sample is too small for us to address here.
Every hitter strives to get into predictable fastball counts, but the numbers above show why that is especially important for a player with swing-and-miss tendencies like Springer. Given the overall decline in Springer’s swing rate last season, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Springer swung less frequently at almost all types of pitches. His most significant dip, however, was against the one pitch that gave him the most fits as a rookie.
Last year, Springer swung at 46.3% of the sliders he saw. In 2014, that number was way up at 52.8%. What’s more, he clearly went to the plate with a plan of what he did and did not want to do. Springer offered at 39.2% of first-pitch sliders as a rookie. Last year, he cut that to 32.9%. In other words, Springer was swinging at the slider last year on his terms, and it shows in the numbers. He hit .271 with a .571 slugging percentage against sliders last season. One year after going 8-for-68 with 32 strikeouts on sliders, he 19-for-70, belting five homers and striking out 24 times.
It’s also clear that as he enters his age-26 season, Springer is a coachable player, capable of making the adjustments necessary to keep on improving as he enters his physical prime. The only question for him now is health. Springer missed 60 games last season, most of coming after he suffered a fractured wrist, the result of being hit by an Edinson Volquez fastball. He also sat the final two-plus months of the 2014 season with a quadriceps injury, though he could have returned in the middle of September if the Astros had anything to play for that season. Injuries may have been an issue for him in both of his major league seasons, but you simply do not avoid a player of his stature and potential because of a partially spotty medical record. His legs didn’t give him any problems last year, and the broken wrist was a fluke that could happen to anyone.
• The best-case scenario: Springer plays at least 150 games. He maintains a double-digit walk rate and cuts his strikeout rate even further, resulting in a true breakout season in which he posts a .285/.375/.500 and pushes the 30/30 threshold.
• The worst-case scenario: Springer may have cut his strikeout rate last season, but 24.2% is still awfully high. His whiffing tendencies settle between his 2014 and ’15 rates, bringing his batting average back down to the .250s, and the potential for more pop to emerge from his bat proves nothing more than a mirage. He finishes the season at .255/.350/.455 with fewer than 20 home runs.