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Drew Waters and Prospect Fatigue

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Prospect fatigue has taken hold of Drew Waters, but the concerns are a bit overblown

MLB: Spring Training-Atlanta Braves at Detroit Tigers Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Every now and then an Atlanta Braves prospect is so good for so long that he manages to actually convince fans that he isn’t good. Maybe this isn’t the best definition of prospect fatigue, but what is happening surrounding Drew Waters is and I think it would be a really good time to discuss this narrative. First off, I want to say that I am not discounting concerns about Drew. There are real issues in his game and there are valid reasons to be skeptical, but also see a snowball effect regarding negative opinions about him and less-than-informed people perpetuating narratives they aren’t really fully qualified to. Prospect evaluation is a complicated process, one that I am very far from an expert on, and one that is above the grade of a commenter whose opinions are drawn from a players’ baseball reference page or their own opinions about the way the game should be played.

First, I want to discuss some of the stat line scouting we see with Drew Waters and why it’s a dangerous game for any prospect, but especially one in his mold. Look at his Fangraphs page and you can pretty easily draw the conclusion that Waters strikes out too much, does not walk enough and that he’s been propped up by over inflated BABIPs his whole career. I think some of those concerns are valid, but it fails to even remotely approach Waters’ skill set and why he is such a highly regarded prospect. Waters has hit at every level from high school to the Triple-A, and those numbers are not just a wisp of smoke destined to vanish. He succeeds because he hits the ball extremely hard, uses all fields, and produces high quality batted balls on a consistent basis. Just scouting his stat line, you can see that he has tremendous line drive rates, uses the opposite field consistently, and produces extreme numbers of extra base hits. Watch him, and these numbers are backed up by the skills clearly present on the field. He has a knack for finding the barrel, can hit pitches out to the power alleys opposite field, and consistently produces effective launch angles on pitches in multiple parts of the zone and with varying velocity and spin.

His 55-60 hit grade isn’t pulled out of a hat based on his production in the minor leagues. Scouting him in person on a consistent basis shows you a player with a clear ability to manipulate the bat and get the barrel into position to make quality contact. These abilities are difficult to teach and they come naturally to Drew in a way that is incredibly impressive. You can’t purely grade minor league prospects based on their strikeout rates in the same way you can’t grade them on their batting averages. A lot of factors feed into those strikeout rates, such as approach and swing tweaks the organization has them working on as well as the point they are at in their developmental process. Strikeout rates do not translate to the major league level and all you have to do is take a look at recent Braves hitters for an example of how that works out. Dansby Swanson is by far the worst example of how a strikeout rate changed. In his last full season he played in Mississippi and at that level posted an 18.8% strikeout rate. That ballooned in the major leagues and now sits at 23.7% for his career, but that’s only him striking out about 26% more often. That’s the worst it gets for recent Braves prospects.

Check his double play partner Ozzie Albies. Across 153 games in Triple-A, Albies struck out 18.6% of the time. He has had one single Major League season, last year’s 29 game sample, with a higher strikeout rate. His career rate is 16.6% and his strikeout rate this season is only 15%. Austin Riley has developmentally taken the most similar route to Triple-A as Waters, being a second round pick whose third professional season is his first full Triple-A season. Riley struck out 29.3% of the time that season and walked only 8% of the time, yet in his major league career has seen only a marginal increase in strikeout rate to 30.4% and a small decrease in walk rate to 7.6%. That’s also including the absolute worst of Riley’s career and over his past two seasons, his strikeout rate is 25.8% and his walk rate is 9.3%. Ronald Acuña Jr. had a 23.5% strikeout rate in his final full minor league season and now has a 25.5% career MLB strikeout rate and has cut that to 18.2% this season. The point of all of that is to say that it’s fairly common for players to not have significant increases in strikeouts once they make the major leagues, and Drew Waters has more than enough talent to do so himself.

This is the point though, isn’t it? The idea that not striking out is what makes a good hitter, when that’s simply not all there is to it. Consistent, quality contact makes a good hitter and high BABIPs are sustainable by players who can do so. Not to the levels that Drew has produced in his career, but well above league average BABIPs are fairly common for guys who produces 95 mph+ line drives on a regular bases. This mitigates much of the effect of Waters’ strikeouts and has allowed him to hit for average at the higher levels of the minor leagues. It’s also worth mentioning that the strikeout rates for Waters aren’t nearly what they are made out to be. His strike out rate was elevated in his pro debut, then didn’t really strike out again until he was a 20-year old in Mississippi. Even then, a 26.7% strikeout rate isn’t egregious and the only truly horrible strikeout rate came when he posted a 36.1% strikeout rate in a 26-game sample as a 20-year old in Triple-A. He’s striking out 27.5% this season, which isn’t good, but for a 22-year old at Triple-A who hasn’t played competitively in more than a year it’s not something that raises significant concern. Yes it is noteworthy and his strikeouts will be something worth watching at the major league level, but there’s more evidence than not that it’s a blip on an otherwise fantastic profile.

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Atlanta Braves Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Truly, Waters’ biggest flaw isn’t strikeouts, but his overall approach. He doesn’t walk a lot, is extremely aggressive at the plate and the biggest concern is that MLB pitchers will take advantage of this. This could very well happen, but it’s also worth mentioning that he has shown a significantly improved approach early in 2021. He does tend to take big early hacks and can work himself into bad counts, but he has shown the ability to back off of it and work from behind in the count, and his number of bad chases on pitches well out of the zone are down. I don’t expect him to grow the way Austin Riley did in that regard, but he’s got enough of an approach that he should walk enough to not completely tank his on base percentage. This season he has improved his recognition of pitches against Triple-A pitchers and has been producing quality contact at a high rate. I can live with 27.5% strikeout rate for him due to the way he’s able to put the ball in play and the power has grown tremendously. The high quality line drives he puts into all fields has lent itself to a high number of doubles and there is no reason to think that he won’t continue to do that at the major league level. He’s shown real power to all fields, and even gone opposite field to one of the dead zones at Trustmark Park in Mississippi. He’s continued to work on his selectiveness at the plate and we should see him start to drive the ball more effectively more frequently over the next few seasons. Waters is capable of doing the things we want. He recognizes spin well, he knows the zone, and he is able to cover it well. He is simply just an aggressive player that thinks every pitch is his pitch, but not necessarily one that will get to the MLB level and freak out the first time he sees a slider. His aggression may get him into trouble at times, but he has the ability to hit anything and everything you throw him and he has the elite bat speed to jump on fastballs in the zone.

Drew Waters is playing the best baseball of his career, strikeouts be damned. The numbers may not be the elite performance we had hoped, but the guy clearly has a handle on Triple-A pitching. He is making every plate appearance a quality opportunity. He is working deep into counts on consistent basis and he is driving the ball better than he has at any point in his career. His defense has improved to the point I feel confident saying he’s a top seven MLB center fielder, and his aggression on the basepaths has made him a menace for opposing defenses. He is simply Drew Waters to the maximum, and he’s recognizing the zone and pitches better than he ever has in his career. He sets out each and every game to make an impact and one way or another, he has found a way to do so in nearly every game this season. That drive is what makes Drew Waters a great prospect, and his growing ability to play the game with some level of control has allowed him to blossom at the plate into a player that is more than just raw batted ball ability. It’s come in small ways, but he is a more refined and ready player who no longer takes himself out of the game as often by being overly aggressive while also managing to still be unabashedly himself. Waters is not unwilling or unable to change, he can adjust and mature just as any other player and will continue to do so. It just might look a little different than what we’re used to.

Now something that I want to give a small note to here is the idea that he “had a good two games but has been bad otherwise”. This is a really extremely weak logical fallacy and it’s time we retired it. First off, those two games still count and it’s only been a 15 game season so two games is a fairly significant sample within it. Second, I could easily make the same argument but in reverse. Well would you look at that Drew Waters had an 0-5 game with four strikeouts and a 1-5 with three strikeouts, but other than that he’s hitting .300/.407/.540 with a 20.3% strikeout rate and 8.5% walk rate isn’t he great? Yeah, no. It’s a ridiculous argument and it’s time we stop making it. Please spare me from hearing this. Players have good games, bad games, and a bunch in between and they all count the same.

Now, onto an actual argument, it’s time we look at Waters’ profile and take a little step back in our expectations. I’ve gone on and on about how Waters is better than he looks, but I also don’t want to give the idea that he is a mature prospect, major league ready, or can step in and immediately have success. Most guys with this profile who end up hitting take a few years to adjust and get going at the major league level before they have success. We as fans have to be patient with that and understand there will be a lot of days where Drew Waters is a bad baseball player. That’s okay, and if it takes him three or so years to figure it out that’s not the end of the world. Waters is an elite baserunner and defender who can produce value even when he doesn’t hit, he is an extreme competitor who will bring a ton of energy 162 games a year, and he is a monstrous talent who can take over games in a snap and force his will onto pitchers. He should be praised for the ferocity he brings to the plate every single day, though that means accepting he will sometimes push a little too hard.

That said, there is a good chance he never figures it out. All the talent is there, and most evaluators agree he will produce in major league baseball, but maybe there is more to his approach flaw than some of us think. Drew rarely looks foolish, but he also rarely faces the level of talent he’ll see in Atlanta. That may well be enough to take over and his batted ball quality no longer be able to make up for his other flaws. Waters has struggled as a right handed batter in his career and doesn’t always show the same elite contact ability as he does from the left side. This season he has succeeded in a small sample, but maybe this doesn’t last for him. There are real flaws to Waters’ game, and even his defense can suffer when he overruns balls or makes poor decisions trying to make plays when there is no play to be made. Taking him for what he is can be complicated because his skills are so polarizing and extreme in every way, but there is something to be said for a guy who has always made it work and is currently doing so at the Triple-A level. He adjusts well, but his next adjustment is going to be one that will fundamentally challenge the way he plays the game. Will he stick with it through sheer stubbornness and fail, find a way to harness that energy into success, or make changes to himself to compensate for his flaws. The first two seem most likely, and it could be a dangerous game that may anger people who see him as more than just “colorful”. We have a lot to evaluate with him, and while we can’t sell him short on his talent we also have to give him his due on his flaws. He is himself, 100% in his own universe sometimes to a fault, and time will only tell how often he can avoids those faults.

This is a player with superstar potential who does all of the right things when he gets his bat to the ball, and I want us to be cautious of the narratives we use when we discuss him. When we spend so much time focusing on the flaws of a young player, we often forget to step back and evaluate the reasons the player has found success to this point. It would be disingenuous of me to say that I believe Drew Waters is a sure thing, or that he’s major league ready, or will immediately dominate when he is. He’s likely none of those. That’s fine, but it would also be unfair of us to focus so heavily on his numbers and his strikeouts and walks and not recognize and appreciate how unusually gifted an athlete he is. Waters has become an extreme example of a player who few Braves fans can find a middle ground on, with many thinking he’s an untouchable future star and others stating, very aggressively in my twitter mentions, that he is a bust and will never hit. I encourage you to take plenty of looks at Waters and draw your own opinions, because he does look different on a game-to-game basis, and I encourage you to recognize his flaws and appreciate his talent all in one. Prospect fatigue is a real thing, and we all have to step back from time to time and really evaluate the whole of a player rather than the good or bad that we have decided to hone in on.