Josh Vitters might be the best kept secret in the farm system. Then again, he might not be. Right now he has made himself one of the toughest prospects to read.
It is very common to see his name linked with descriptions like “bust,” or “failure,” or “non-prospect.” When the future of the Cubs is brought up, very few if any fans bring up Vitters as a viable option for any position, including the bench. When he is referenced, it is generally as a guy who could be dumped to free up a roster spot or easily released and resigned to a minor league deal.
But the numbers do not match those comments. The numbers say that Vitters is a quality hitter held back primarily by his glove, but who should have little trouble earning at least a platoon role with the Cubs. Or to be more precise, that is what the numbers did say. After his short and unexpected 2013 campaign, I’m not sure what I think.
He is certainly not a Top 10 organizational guy anymore, but, despite that, he is far from worthless. In fact, a case can be made that he could be one of the nicer surprises of the 2014 season (particularly if those 2013 numbers are for real).
Before we dig into that, though, let’s recap the purpose of the Prospects Progress series. The goal here is not to re-rank the prospects (that comes next year) or to assess the strengths and weaknesses of farm as a whole (that also comes next year). The goal for this series is to take each prospect individually, study the progress made so far, and see what we can learn about the future for that player.
Josh Vitters, OF
Born: August 27, 1989
Acquired: He was one of the youngest players in the 2007 draft when the Cubs selected him with the third pick in the first round.
He got hurt. Twice actually, once in the ribs and once with the hamstring.
Unfortunately, I could end this section right there. He did make it into enough games (28 of them) for Iowa to amass exactly 100 plate appearances, but it is hard to know how to value those 100 plate appearances. That injury history is doubly unfortunate for Vitters because in 2013 jobs were his for the taking. He had a shot to pick up some playing time at third and in the left field in the majors, but instead was forced to spend most of the summer rehabbing. That likely only led to the perception that he was a bust, when in fact the numbers are suggesting otherwise.
In those 100 PAs in 2013 he hit .295/.380/.511 with a walk rate of 11%, a strikeout rate of 19%, an ISO of .216, a wRC+ of 137, and a wOBA of .396. Those are some very good numbers, and that walk rate is the most excellent of the bunch. Vitters has historically had low walk rates throughout his career, low enough that many suspected he lacked the batting eye necessary to hit at a high level. It has always been possible that those low walk rates were the result of an aggressive approach that led to him swinging at the first strike he saw, but with each passing year the stats made it appear more and more likely that Vitters just didn’t have the necessary pitch recognition skills.
And then he drops that 11% walk rate on us in a frustratingly brief 100 PA season. If we project his 2013 numbers over a full 140 game minor league season, he would finish with 55 walks. That’s good for 18th in the Pacific Coast League. Given that the coaching in the farm system over the last few years is believed to focus on encouraging hitters to be selective and to look for a pitch they can drive, it is not out of the question that Vitters is responding to that coaching and becoming a more selective hitter.
I would rather not jump to that conclusion on the basis of just 100 PA, though. Typically that is the line at which I stop dropping sample size alerts, and the statisticians will tell you that K% and BB% numbers are among the fastest to normalize at smaller sample sizes, but even so that is a sizeable difference over his previous history. His 2012 BB%, for example, was 6.6%. There is a world of difference between that 2012 number and what he put up, albeit briefly, in 2013.
And that’s not to say his 2012 Iowa campaign was bad. Any time one of the youngest players in Triple A hits .304/.356/.513 with an ISO of .209 over 110 games on his first trip through the league, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic on that player. He did struggle in a brief trip to the majors at the end of 2012, but I don’t put too much stock in that. Baseball history is littered with players who struggled initially in the majors but went on to have nice careers. This guy, for example, turned out pretty well despite putting up some ugly numbers in April and May of his rookie season. That 2012 stint in the majors is no reason to give up on Vitters yet.
Where Does He Play?
Until very recently Vitters had primarily been a third baseman, but those days are effectively over. The recent acquisitions of Mike Olt, Christian Villanueva, and Kris Bryant along with the possible need to move Javier Baez off of shortstop effectively buries Vitters behind plenty of other third base options with superior gloves. His future as a starter, should he have one, will be in the outfield.
Even if he doesn’t claim the left field job, though, he should bring quite a bit of value off the bench. Vitters should be able to handle first and third as well as both left and right field on a part time basis. Combine that with his tendency to clobber left handed pitching, and Cubs have the makings of a cheap, versatile, and effective bat off the bench.
If we knew for sure that the 11% walk rate, 19% strike out rate, .216 ISO in Triple A Josh Vitters was the real Josh Vitters, we’d be listing his arrival as one of the big stories of 2014. It is easy to look at those figures and imagine a major league hitter batting .270/.345/.465 with around 20 home runs (think sort of a right handed Brandon Belt, only not quite). That would be a quality addition to the Cubs lineup and is exactly the sort of thing many fans would love to look forward to.
But is that the real Josh Vitters? With just 100 PA in 2013, I am not confident saying one way or the other. I will be watching closely in spring training, though, to see what sort of pitches he his swinging at, what sort he is laying off, and how much playing time the Cubs are giving him. I suspect he will have every opportunity to earn at least a share of the left field job, and I like his chances to be one of the good surprises for the Cubs in 2014.
How good? Check back with me in another 150 PA or so.