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josh vittersJosh 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.

Season Summary

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.

The Numbers

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.

Prognosis

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.

  • abe

    if olt doesn’t pan out. Could vitters win the 3b job out of spring training?

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      Not impossible, but I tend to doubt it. If he breaks camp as a regular, it’ll very likely be in the outfield.

  • Jose’s Eyelid

    Thanks for some Vitters-love. I know comparing to Olt is not quite fair as Olt can play 3b and Vitters can’t, but as far as hitting goes Vitters blows Olt away. And Vitters is exactly one year younger.

    I think Vitters can be quite valuable as a platoon partner for Rizzo and part-time corner outfielder.

  • SenorGato

    Possibly he can be a corner UT for the Cubs, but this is a player I would be happy to just not see in the organization anymore.

  • http://deleted cub2014

    If they dont sign any OF through FA, he has to be
    at minimum a platoon candidate with Bogusevic
    or with Schierholtz if they add an outfielder.

    If they sign a CF-leadoff hitter; then you have
    Sweeney and Lake platoon in left and Schierholtz
    and Vitters platoon in Right. Sets up pretty nice.

    • MightyBear

      And that CF/lead off hitter will be Jacoby Ellsbury.

      • http://deleted cub2014

        they have to get a professional hitter on this team
        and a leadoff hitter as well. I mean if Almora is good
        enough he is still 3 yrs from being the regular CF.

        maybe they wont go after Choo or Ellsbury but next
        year is going to be ugly again offensively if they dont.

  • MightyBear

    Great stuff as usual Luke. Is Vitters playing in Venezuela or Dominica this winter? I thought with the missed time, the Cubs might want him to get some time playing the outfield in one of those leagues.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      I don’t think so (could be wrong on that). But I’m not sure he’s back to full health yet, either.

      Right now he needs to get healthy more than he needs playing time.

    • Professor Snarks

      Vitters is not playing winter ball. After last season someone from the FO (don’t remember who) said in an interview that Vitters was given an off season development plan (workouts and outfield practice). He said it was up to Josh to come to camp prepared. What wasn’t said was this was his last chance, but I got that feeling.

  • Crazyhorse

    Hamstring issues can be very devastating and take a long time to heal and they can also be short and forgotten. If the Cubs feel that this player can not perform then trade or release him.

    When you look around the league and see other Cubs doing better at different organizations , one begins to wonder is it the player or what the Cubs philosophy toward plate discipline hampering the mechanic of certain players.

    “In those 100 PAs in 2013 he hit .295/.380/.511″ Those are not bad numbers across the board for a small sample size . I think most people can agree that he has been a disappointment to expectations especially when he was pick third overall.

    If the Cubs lost confidence in his ability to be a productive player then the window to trade him is diminishing ,and he may come back and make this front office look stupid.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      A lot of those players doing better in other organizations left the Cubs when the old way of thinking prevailed in the farm system. I don’t think we have a enough test cases yet to compare the new philosophy being taught in the organization with that of other organizations.

    • hansman

      Dont miss an opportunity to bash the front office.

  • TommyK

    Man, a Josh Vitters profile the day before Thanksgiving. Quite a gut punch.

  • Blackhawks1963

    Josh Vitters ceased being a true major league prospect a year ago. At this point his best hope is to maybe carve out a Donnie Murphy type professional baseball existence…where maybe some team eventually has a need and he is able to come up from Triple A and fill a need for awhile.

    I would be stunned if Vitters makes the team out of spring training. Especially since he hasn’t proven (yet) the ability to be serviceable defensively in the outfield.

    Nothing left to see here Luke. Move on.

    • http://sulia mrcub23

      Vitters just turned 24 in august !

  • D-Rock

    Another great draft pick by Hendry… 3 future All-Stars, Wieters, Bumgarner, and Heyward were all selected after him…Not to mention Ross Detwiler and Jarrod Parker…

    • jon

      blame Clown Kenney who cut his draft budget.

      • ssckelley

        Vitters was not a budget pick at all, Vitters was highly regarded in that draft class and would not have fell much further had the Cubs taken someone else.

        • jon

          If they had the $$ they probably would have went Weiters.

        • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

          Vitters was considered the highest floor (with plenty of upside) bat in the draft, and he received the 4th highest bonus in the draft (selected 3rd). There was no cheapness there in that particular pick. There was plenty other amateur cheapness over the 2000s to which you can point if you want, but Vitters isn’t part of it.

          • DarthHater

            It may not have been a “cheap” pick, but the total of all signing bonuses spent by the Cubs in 2007, including Vitters, is still less than the $6 million that Wieters got.

            • cub2014

              this argument is silly, weiters is nothing
              special. i would argue that if baltimore
              (not sure who drafted him) paid that much
              for him they might have over paid.

              • cub2014

                we should be complaining that hendry
                traded the cubs other 1st round pick that
                year to Oakland for Rich Harden.

              • jon

                Wieters has produce a 14.4 career WAR, is still only 27 and is still on of the top 5 best young catchers in the game.

                Sure he had a down 2013, but you act like he’s a scrub

                • Rebuilding

                  Wieters got outhit by Luis Valbuena last year

                  • jon

                    interesting note, still completely irrelevant to the argument at hand.

                • cub2014

                  weiters isnt a scrub but people were
                  making it sound like it was mike trout sitting
                  there and we went the cheap way.

                  would i rather have weiters than vitters at
                  this point? yes. We didnt draft vitters for
                  financial reasons

              • DarthHater

                I wasn’t making an argument or complaining about anything. I was just noting that the fact that the Cubs spent $3.2 million on Vitters was not inconsistent with Jon’s suggestion that they may not have had the $$$ to pick Wieters. Personally, I have no clue whether the Cubs would have picked somebody different if they had a lot more money to throw around, nor do I have any interest in second-guessing. I just hope Vitters becomes a productive player.

            • Kyle

              That’s true of a lot of teams. Wieters was a massive overbudget commitment.

          • Kyle

            And let’s never forget that the contract that the Cubs gave Mark Prior was the largest in draft history and held that title until Strasburg. It’s still No. 2.

            I’ve seen the idea pop up here and there that the Cubs have always been cheap in the draft, but it ain’t true.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      To be fair, you say Weiters, Bumgarner and Heyward, and I say Daniel Moskos, Matt LaPorta, and Casey Weathers. Even the top of the draft is a hit and miss proposition.

    • cub2014

      d-rock, hendry did draft an all-star in the 1st round
      that year

  • kscubfan

    Luke, great job with this profile (and the others as well). I was afraid when I saw this one that others would be very irrate and irational about Josh. He seems to bring with him a very negative vibe when he gets mentioned as a Cubs prospect. Not sure he has earned all of it, or if some just transfer Hendry hate to him.

    Josh did not bolt through the system, or put up huge numbers like Baez. But he has progressed and shown improvement every year. I will be very interested to see what he can do and see if he can earn some playing time with the Cubs.

    • MightyBear

      Great point. He’s still only 24. A lot of players don’t make it to the major leagues until 25-27 and still have great careers. The book is still out on Vitters. Hopefully, he can stay healthy and show everyone what he has.

  • Ashar

    Most undervalued prospect in the system.

    • Sandberg

      The Vitters hate is really baffling. It has to be because he was such a high pick, otherwise I can’t figure it out.

      • TSB

        No doubt the same “fans” who believe that Starlin Castro is all washed up at 23.

      • jon

        People hate Vitters, on a baseball, not personal level(I hope) because he was the third overall pick in a draft that occurred 6 years ago and hasn’t contributed anything to the big league roster.

      • D-Rock

        Yes, the hate is because he was taken so high. A #3 pick drafted 6 years ago who has yet to reach the majors. Bust!

      • Spriggs

        In my opinion, the Vitters haters – justified or not – are those who have just finally had enough of all the excuses they hear every time Vitters comes up short… young for the league; not healthy; working on patience at the plate; he always starts slow when at a new level; this stat and that one are really quite good; blah, blah, blah.

        • cub2014

          the scary part is that ALL of the hitting
          prospects we are counting on havent yet
          had the kind of success Vitters has had
          at the top level of the minors.

  • cubmig

    Hearing about Vitters again reminds me of finding a trinket put away and found again on a day packing to move to a new place, and saying: “Oh man! Here it is!! Wow….” then putting it in another box and sending it back to a place where things get forgotten again.

    A sad existence for small, but sentimental “treasures”.

  • jeff1969

    There is nothing I hate more in a supposed “fan” than the, “We could have drafted this guy, that guy”, blah blah blah. Well the Cubs drafted Vitters 3rd that year. Story long over. Everyone is a genius with hindsight. I’m sure those resumes for GM look great. Thanks to Luke for profiling Vitters. Unlike most of the first 12 responders to your write up, I actually have some sense, a very good healthy brain and don’t just release the lazy snarky garbage some of these dopes let slide out of their noise holes. Vitters is still young and 2014 we’ll see, hopefully, if he can make any kind of name for himself. That’s what we have folks, hope that this player can make himself valuable to the Cubs & other teams.

  • Fastball

    Come on Vitters I got you as my dark horse in this race. Josh have you ever thought of trying out a face mask and a fat mitt. You could find a job if your willing to learn. Otherwise become a Derosa and do it real well. This team is made up of of below mid grade players. This is your best chance to crack into the 25.

    • geo

      Vitters isn’t comparable to Gordon. Vitters was 17 years old when he was drafted. Gordon was 21. Vitters has been a bust in the minor leagues; Gordon tore up the minor leagues. Nice try, but wishful thinking.

      • Scotti

        It’s just silly to call .282/.329/.455/.784 being a bust. Silly.

  • gocubs

    Nice write up. Luke – I have always compared Josh Vitters to Alex Gordon in my head. Gordon was super young when drafted and needed a few years to figure things out. Vitters seems to be the same way except that he’s needed a few extra years at the milb level. I think the Royals may have rushed Gordon to the majors and the Cubs have let Vitters figure things out in milb. That being said Gordon has better milb numbers than Vitters so perhaps the promotions were warranted. So, is this a legit comparison or is Gordon a way better player?

    • Rebuilding

      Gordon was drafted as a college junior from Nebraska as a 21 yo then put up a 1.016 OPS is AA in his only full minor league season. Their career paths have been very different. Vitters doesn’t strike out or walk as much as Gordon and hasn’t shown the same kind of power.

      With that said before he got hurt last year Vitters was showing far more patience and building on the power he started to show 2 years ago

  • itzscott

    Our “bust” impressions and judgments along those lines were earned by Vitters when he was called up the previous year and basically puked all over himself along with Brett Jackson.

    Both of these guys were included in the conversation when Epstein/Hoyer said the farm system was empty when they arrived.

  • Kyle

    Vitters’ ability to walk has been improving pretty steadily since he turned pro. There’s a difference between being a 3% BB guy and a 6% BB guy, even if both are bad.

    But last year, no matter how promising the bat was, was also his last year as a 3b, which is a huuuuge impediment to his prospect status.

    I’d really like to see him get a few hundred PAs in the majors as a right-handed outfielder.

    • Rebuilding

      The opportunity is there. We have a big need for someone to take at bats against tough lefties away from Rizzo and Schierholtz. I would like nothing better than to see Vitters put it all together this year and break out. Surprisingly, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility

      • Jono

        you want rizzo to be limited against lefties next year? I understand he has struggled against them, but still, maybe the team should wait to make that decision.

        • Rebuilding

          I think there is a certain value in having a righthander on the bench who can spell Rizzo and Schierholtz against extremely tough lefties. Not calling for anything close to a platoon

        • Kyle

          I think it could be a “Well, Rizzo is going to need some days off anyway, might as well make them be against lefties” sort of deal.

  • ssckelley

    I like the fact that the Cubs are giving the young Vitters another shot next spring training but I am still hoping they sign another right handed slugger for the outfield. It would make a neat story if Vitters did make the team but I would not count on it, plus the competition would be good.

  • Cub Lifer

    Vitters is a bust. That’s not judgmental but rather sad sobering reality. Especially so since the 2012, 2013 and 2014 Cubs have had job openings available to be seized. Theo and Jed gave up on Vitters. For good objective reason. He’s not being counted upon as anything more than Iowa filler right now. What also goes underreported is that Vitters sadly is a defensive liability anywhere the Iowa Cubs may choose to play him if there was even the possibility he could be salvaged as a future utility player.

    Facts are facts. The angry crackpots who are offended by the honest assessment of Vitters need to soak their swollen egos.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      Not sure how it can be argued that the front office gave up on Vitters in 2012 when he started in Iowa (his first year there) pretty much all season. And in 2013 they didn’t have a chance to give up on him because he was hurt just about all year.

      I’m not sure needed to finish with an attack on people who disagree, either. Good arguments don’t need insults to be good arguments.

    • Lou Brown

      The 2014 Cubs travelled back in time to give Vitters an opportunity, that he subsequently blew? What an a-hole. No you’re not at all judgemental.

    • hansman

      “The angry crackpots who are offended by the honest assessment of Vitters need to soak their swollen egos.”

      Wow, not sure but I think you are a fairly new poster. Coming out with both flame throwers ablazing doesn’t work well here and generally leads to the banhammer.

      • DarthHater

        Yea, C.L., you need to learn to be more laid back and generally sweet-natured — like me. :-P

        • Fishin Phil

          Sith Lords are known for their sunny disposition.

          • DarthHater

            Except for Darth Plagueis. That guy was a real tool.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      Next time, make your point without the insult. Not only are insults like that prohibited, they also lower the discourse for everyone, and they pretty much neuter any credibility you might have otherwise established with the point you were trying to make.

    • DocPeterWimsey

      I don’t think that it is “angry crackpots” per se so much as that this is another “old school” vs. “new school” split. In a way, it comes back to one issue: do players grow batting eyes with experience (a basic premise of a lot of old-schoolers) or is it a basic tool that rarely changes much until a player gets old (a conclusion reached by many new-schoolers).

      One of the reasons guys like Vitters were so frustrating to those of us in the latter school is that we’ve seen so many Cubs prospects with traits similar to Vitters never grow that batting eye that we were promised and windup low OBP rally-killers. Now, it since has become clear that there were budget constraints causing Hendry to draft guys like Vitters ahead of guys who became successful. But at the time, it just seemed like he was sticking his fingers in his ears and humming as loudly as possible “Batting eyes do grow on trees, I know, I know, I know.”

  • http://BleacherNation Larry Niemeyer

    Vitters will never make it as a major league Baseball player. I saw him his first year in spring training. I sat right next to his Dad. Ever time Vitters came to bat the dad would go to the fence and coach him. I told my son Nick that he would never become a major league player. He just didn’t get it. He was lazy. He had no spark. He does nothing to impress you. He is always hurt. He has his money. I really don’t think he cares.. My evaluation up to the present time has been right one. I have been a high school coach for 50 years. You learn to read people. He acts as though he is doing you a favor by being on the field.

    Larry Niemeyer

    • cub2014

      larry, NEVER MAKE IT is pretty strong. all he has
      done is hit at every level (except the 100ab in
      chicago) so turns out you may be wrong fact is
      you dont know.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      He had that reputation for quite a few years, but it started changing in 2012 when he was with Tennessee. I’m not sure to what extent that is still valid criticism. Less so than four years ago, certainly, but beyond that I’m not entirely sure.

    • DocPeterWimsey

      And here is the problem with this sort of explanation. Instead of blaming the true problem (when the ball is 10′ from the pitchers hand, Vitters is not able to tell where a pitch will be when it gets to him), we blame psychology and character makeup.

      Just. Stop. It.

      All this does is enable the old-school mentality that if Vitters ahd just “worked harder,” then he wouldn’t have this deficiency. So, if we get a guy with Vitters tools and believe that he’ll be a hard worker, then he won’ thave these problems. If this were true, then lots of guys would start like him and wind up if not like Wade Boggs, then at least above-average in pitch recognition.

      And they never do. That has to falsify this whole notion. The thing to do is just not draft guys like Vitters in the first place.

      • cub2014

        yet Doc, in Lukes article he says
        that he has been improving his pitch
        recognition.

        I am not wowed by Josh Vitters but he
        hasnt had a chance to fail yet.

        Everybody loves guys like Soler who
        hasnt produced results like Vitters has
        and Soler is what 21 at A ball?

        • DocPeterWimsey

          Luke did not state that. What Luke wrote is that he took 11 walks in 100 PAs, which is well above his career average. Luke also wisely noted that in 100 PAs, you cannot draw much in the way of conclusions: the binomial error is still too great to mean much.

          Vitters actually has shown no real trend at all, at least insofar as walks or K’s are concerned: they’ve yo-yo’ed around his basic rates in a completely expected sort of way. Moreover, his general pattern has been to have his K-rates and BB-rates go up together: half of the variance in either rate is explained by the other. One effect of increased swing-and-miss rates is an increase in walk rates as well as K-rates: not putting a pitch into play gives the pitcher another chance to get to ball 4. Alternatively, both might reflect Vitters deliberately not swinging more often in some years in order to elevate see more pitches.

          • DocPeterWimsey

            The “he” in the 2nd sentence should read “Vitters.”

    • twinkletoez

      I saw him a few times in Iowa in 2012 and I would say that I saw the exact opposite. I for one am hoping he makes it.

  • itzscott

    Hmmmm…..

    Interesting in that Vitters seems to be a lightning rod for posters on this blog. He’s got his supporters and his critics split 50/50 with no clear consensus of opinion.

    It’ll be interesting to read what everyone writes when Luke does his analysis of Brett Jackson.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      Jackson isn’t currently on my Prospects Progress schedule.

      If you want to see him, jump over into the Message Boards and make a recommendation in the thread there so I’ll see it when I go looking for suggestions.

      It is worth noting that, up until now, via the MB and Twitter, Vitters has been the most requested write up. No one else came close.

    • cub2014

      Vitters is a lightning rod for me. He hasnt
      failed yet (he has flaws) it so easy to move
      on to the next kids and pin future hopes on
      them. I hope these kids are really good but
      know one knows. History tells us we wont
      have a lineup that includes: soler,almora,
      baez and bryant all at the same time.

  • cub1

    Thanks for this write-up. I’ve been wondering how he is progressing. That improved walk rate could have been the result of adjustments he made after struggling in his brief appearance with the big club. I don’t want to see us give up on him, because he has succeeded at every level and the talent is there for him to break out. If he’s healthy, I think he will be perform well this year for the big club. As for the BB%, I think 11% is optimistic, but as he gets comfortable with big league pitching I bet he could achieve 7 or 8.

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