Junior Lake has been having a fantastic Dominican Winter League season, particularly in terms of plate discipline. He finished the regular season with a walk rate around 17%(!), which is a pretty dramatic change for a guy whose big league walk rate is just 4.7%, whose minor league walk rate is 6.0%, and who’d never before posted a walk rate over 10% in the DWL.
Something was pretty clearly different about what Lake was trying to do in the DWL this year than in the past. His strikeout rate remained elevated, but his power has been way down (a mere .100 ISO for Lake, which is pretty far down from his usual .140ish range). Rather than a hack for power high-strikeout no-walk guy, Lake has been a, well, no-power high-walk guy. He stole 21 bases and was caught just twice, to boot.
Does any of this mean anything? Not necessarily, because there are always the caveats of offseason league and smaller sample size (though it’s more than 170 plate appearances, which isn’t that small for walk and strikeout rates). But if we pair the numbers with something we can see with our eyes, we can at least conclude that the numbers probably aren’t coming out of nowhere.
Look at something Stan @Crewsett pointed out yesterday on Twitter:
Wish I had better quality picture from last night's game, but check out Lake's stances from 11/12, 6/14, and 1/15: pic.twitter.com/DTsRNyBSM1
— Stan (@Crewsett) January 14, 2015
That last one is a very obvious change even from how Lake looked this past season – he’s much lower, with his knees significantly more bent.
Why might that matter in the context discussed above? Well, Lake’s biggest contact problem has come on pitches at the bottom of the strike zone, so lowering his body – if he can sustain it – could help. Lake has always had some contact issues, but it’s interesting to think about this: Lake went through a very late, very significant growth spurt. If my memory is accurate, before 2011, some accounts had Lake – then 19/20 – right around 6′ or a hair under. Within a year, Lake was listed at 6’2″, and now he’s pushing 6’3″/6’4″. Although my mom always told me that my growth spurt might come in my early 20s (it didn’t), that’s extremely rare. If a guy developed his plate approach and plate coverage for years at 6′ or under, might it not take a while to adjust – while you’re doing all the other adjusting that pro players have to do as they move up the ladder – to a much taller frame? It’s not something that most players have to deal with after about age 18. I won’t pretend to know the mechanics involved here, but it’s not too hard to see why a guy who went through a sudden, significant, late growth spurt might not be covering the bottom of the zone as well as he should.
Of course, the counter to that is … but he’s still striking out a lot (nearly 30% in the DWL this year). If I tried to explain, I’d only be guessing. Maybe he’s working deeper counts, and maybe there’s still a healthy chunk of swing-and-miss in his game. Maybe the stance change isn’t helping on the swing, but is helping him see low pitches out of the strike zone better. Maybe the stance change isn’t helping at all, but he simultaneously made an approach change that is working (at least on the walk side). All just guesses.
In the end, what we know is: Lake is a super talented guy who has been very erratic at the plate throughout his career. He’s got a lot of swing-and-miss in his game, especially down in the zone. He appears to be working specifically on that this offseason (with mixed results), and he’s taking a ton of walks and hitting for less power.
That may translate to something useful at the big league level, and it might not. Time will tell.
Given the Cubs’ apparent desire to add another regular outfielder, it’s going to be tough for Lake to crack the Opening Day roster. But if he’s overhauled his stance and approach, maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world. He’s got an option left, so the Cubs could let him keep working at AAA Iowa, and see if he’ll be a late bloomer (not that late – he turns 25 in March). The athleticism has always been off the charts, and, as he grows more comfortable in the outfield (which is also relatively new for him), it’s not impossible to see him emerging as a guy who can play all over the outfield in a reserve role. Assuming some of the offensive changes are meaningful, that is.
The good news for the Cubs is that (1) they’re not counting on Lake to provide anything in 2015, so, if he doesn’t, there’s no loss, and (2) rolling the dice on the small chance he’s actually made a change he can successfully implement costs nothing more than a 40-man spot in 2015.