The Incomparable Nick Madrigal

As fellow Points Above writer Maude can tell you, I am no fan of Nick Madrigal. In fact, anyone who knows my baseball takes knows that I have a hard time buying in on low power, high hit tool guys. I find that, faced with big league pitching, they get challenged more, walk less and just don’t perform except when they get lucky on balls in play. This is, admittedly, not entirely fair and very much a mental block for me. I am not a Luis Arraez fan, I am not a David Fletcher fan, and I am not a fan of Nick Madrigal. But there is so much Madrigal love out there, and I wanted to look closer.

My basic premise is that his profile – great plate discipline, good bat-to-ball skills, no power, doesn’t translate to MLB success and, therefore, fantasy owners should stay away. Before doubling down on that, I thought I better look a little closer to see if that is true. Using FanGraphs minor league leaderboards, I went about looking for statistical comps for Madrigal’s profile.

First, what is that profile? In 2019, Madrigal had a total of 532 PA at three levels (High A, AA, AAA) and at all three he had:

  • A K-rate below 4%
  • A BB-rate above 7%
  • An ISO below .110

For our purposes, let’s focus on players who match that profile in the high minors (AA or AAA). The FanGraphs minor league leaderboard goes back to 2006 and in that time has data on more than 13K combinations of player, season, and level in the high minors with more than 100 PA (so, for example, Madrigal shows up twice for 2019, once as AA and once as AAA). We’re choosing a 100 PA threshold because Madrigal had 180 and 134 PA at AA and AAA last year.

First, let’s filter that down to all player/season/level combinations that were under a 4% K-rate. Right off the bat, we are down to just 11 examples and, as previously noted, Madrigal is two of the 11.

This isn’t super inspiring – having that low a K-rate has not necessarily led to Major League success, though the jury is still out on Lopez and Astudillo. But Madrigal also has a solid BB% and many of these players (Graterol and Astudillo, in particular) do not.

So to get some more potential comps, and more accurate comps, let’s both increase the K% and set a minimum BB%. In 2019, the lowest K% for a MLB hitter with 100+ PA was Astudillo at 3.9%. Second best was Luis Arraez at 7.9%. So let’s bump our cut off for K% to 7% – high enough that we should get a few more comps, low enough to still be elite. And we can start with a 7% BB-rate cut off. Now we get 65 results, and some more interesting pop up. But now we are getting a bunch of guys who hit the ball a lot harder than Madrigal has.

If we put in an ISO cap (say, .120), we get down to 42 results, but there is still another issue – Madrigal was 22 years old when he put up that season and age matters a lot in minor league performance. So let’s cut out anyone over the age of 23. And now things get interesting.

We now have 10 results, and the names are interesting. The first thing to note is that Madrigal performed best of any of these players overall, at least in AA, with a 150 wRC+ and .391 wOBA. In AAA, he was more middle of the pack, but only one player was better than him at AAA – José Ramirez.

The other thing that jumps out is Madrigal’s .348 BABIP in that AA season – it’s the highest on the list and the third highest is his .336 in AAA. That might be a case of hitting the ball well, or might be luck in such small samples.

Looking at the list of names, there are some encouraging signs and some…not so encouraging ones. Cedric Hunter, Eduard Pinto, Rossmel Perez, and Breyvic Valera account for 5 of the 10 seasons and I don’t think the White Sox will be happy if Madrigal turns into one of them. Keibert Ruiz is, like Madrigal, still a work-in-progress. Which leaves us with two encouraging names.

Michael Brantley and Jose Ramirez both, like Madrigal, put up above average offensive seasons in AA or AA, both did it without much power, and both controlled the zone. So what separates Brantley and Ramirez from the rest of that list?

Eventual development of power. In 2009 and 2010, Brantley was a below replacement-level MLB player. He posted a combined .291 wOBA and 78 wRC+. His K-rate was a solid 12.8% and he walked a solid 6.7% of the time, but both numbers were worse than his Madrigalian 2008 minor league season. His .068 ISO, down from his .079 in AA, is what really sunk him. Then, from 2011-2013, Brantley got his ISO up above .100 (.114) and improved his BB% (7.4%) and K-rate (11.6%) and was an average MLB hitter, with a .318 wOBA and 101 wRC+.

Now through his age 26 season, Brantley had spent two years as a sub-replacement player, accumulating -1.1 fWAR over his first two years, and then three more as a roughly-average MLB regular, accumulating 5.8 fWAR over the next three years. But 2014, his age 27 season, is when he really broke out. Part of this was cutting back his K-rate even further (to 8.3%) but he also saw his ISO make another leap, going to .178, driving him to a career high 20 HR, .389 wOBA, 151 wRC+ and 6.5 fWAR. While that did prove to be (so far) his career year, he basically set a new base talent level, particularly with regards to power, and has maintained that through the start of this season.

Ramirez followed a similar pattern, though in a bit of a different shape. After a 2013 cup of coffee, he got his first real taste of MLB with 266 PA in 2014, posting a .288 wOBA and 81 wRC+. His BB- and K-rates suffered in the adjustment to MLB (4.9% and 13.2%, compared to 9.0% and 10.8% in AAA that year) and he continued to lack power (.084 ISO). In 2015 he again split time between AAA and MLB, posting the Madrigalian line that shows up on the table above in AAA and stepping up in MLB, with 9% BB-rate, 11% K-rate, and .121 ISO; but only a .280 wOBA and 72 wRC+, thanks to a .232 BABIP.

In 2016, he started his ascent. His ISO rose to .150, the BABIP corrected to .333, and he maintained the plate discipline (7.1% BB-rate and 10.0% K-rate), good for a .355 wOBA and 119 wRC+. He had established himself as a star…and yet still had another gear. In 2017, he posted a .396 wOBA and 146 wRC+. He still controlled the plate, still had elite bat-to-ball skills, but started turning on the ball, hit 29 HR and jumped his ISO to .265. With the exception of a blip last year, he has been an MVP-caliber bat ever since.

Back to Madrigal – what does this all tell us? First, the profile he has established is pretty unique. Very few players have shown the mix of walks, limited Ks, and lack of power that he has shown in the high minors. And most of those players have not turned into successful MLB players.

However, Madrigal is unique among those players – his K-rate is not just elite, it is otherworldly. He posted the two lowest K% on that chart of 10 player/level/seasons and no one else was close to matching him. He really is incomparable, because no one controls the zone quite like he does.

That said, even the two players from that list who did turn into stars started off as below average MLB players until they found another gear with their power. It didn’t take a lot of power to get them to being average MLB players – an ISO around .115-.120 is enough, with the other skills, to be a solid MLB player. And getting that ISO up to .170 would likely make Madrigal an All-Star candidate.

The question is – can he do that? After Brantley’s 2008, he was Baseball America’s #9 prospect in the Indians organization, and his write up included this: “Brantley has shown very little power in his career, though at 6-foot-2 and with broad shoulders he has the potential to develop some pop.” Ramirez was the #9 Cleveland prospect per Baseball America in 2014, and they said this: “He does have some pull-side power, more so as a righthanded hitter, but home runs aren’t part of his game.”

Madrigal, currently #4 in the White Sox organization, per BA, had this in his write up: “He has shown almost no over-the-fence power as a pro or in college, with just 12 home runs over 1,240 combined at-bats. His last home run in 2019 stayed inside the park.”

Madrigal, as a 21 and 22 year old, across two years and five levels (R, A, High A, AA, AAA), hit four HR in 705 PA (one every 176.3 PA). Ramirez, at the same ages, hit 14 HR in 1,093 PA (one ever 78.1 PA) in AAA and MLB. Brantley at 21 and 22 hit 10 HR in 1,128 PA (one every 112.8 PA) in AA, AAA and MLB. In short, while Brantley and Ramirez showed little power, they showed a lot more. And while scouts so “pull-side power” from Ramirez and “potential to develop some pop” in Brantley, Madrigal “has shown almost no over-the-fence power.” And this lack of power is compared to the two outliers – the others in the group of 10 haven’t become MLB regulars.

The summary, for me, is that I am not a Madrigal fan, and I think there is a high likelihood he is a bust, for fantasy purposes. His contact is so incredible that I think his floor is much higher than some of the less impressive names in that set of comps – they aren’t really good comps given how great he is in that area. But I think his floor is the bad version of Brantley and Ramirez (wRC+ in the 70s or 80s) and his ceiling is somewhere around the first Brantley breakout – roughly a league average hitter – although with more contact and less power.

If the defense is legit (and there are questions about that, particularly arm strength) the White Sox might have a nice league average player on their hands, something like Jose Iglesias but with less power and more on-base skill. If he finds a bit more power, there could be more, but I am not sure where he finds it.

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