Who is George Springer?
I don't think there's a more controversial prospect in the minor leagues than the Astros' George Springer.
One one hand the immense talent he has is plain to see. He batted .303 in 135 games last season between AA and AAA, in the process hitting 37 home runs and stealing 45 bases with 100+ RBI and Runs Scored.
Springer has nearly everything you could want in a prospect: power, speed, size (at 6'3” tall he clocks in at 205lbs), intelligence, and a good approach at the plate. The one skill he lacks however is what could effectively make or break his major league career despite all his potential: contact skills.
One of my favorite sites to use if I'm looking for statistics on prospects is Minor League Central. They have a whole host of statistical information that I find incredibly useful, but among my favorite go-to stats are their contact percentage numbers. Contact percentage is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: what percent of a player's swings make contact with the ball. In 323 plate appearances in AA George Springer made contact with 65.5% of his swings, while the league made contact 77.7% of the time. In 266 plate appearances in AAA, he made contact on 65.0% of his swings, while the league did so 78.1% of the time. He hasn't just been below average in this department, he's been well below average.
What worries me most about these numbers however is that these low contact rates aren't a product of a free swinging style. George Springer is a relatively patient hitter with an above average batting eye. In AA he walked in 13% of his plate appearances, 5% better than the league did. This rose to 15.4% in AAA where he was 6.3% better than league average. Likewise his swing rates themselves are above average. In AA he swung at 42% of the pitches he saw and at 43.3% in AAA, both numbers better than league average. George Springer knows how to let a bad pitch fly by. He knows how to be patient, how to wait for the right pitch. He knows how to work an at bat. The issue is that when his pitch does come, he struggles to put the bat on the ball, and that's a difficult thing to fix.
It's because of this underlying dynamic that I worry about George Springer's 29.7% strikeout rate in AA, and yet I'm relatively unconcerned about the 29.3% strikeout rate Miguel Sano posted or the 28.8% one Javier Baez did. The latter two were younger players (both age 20 compared to Springer at 23), who are working on refining their approach. Springer already has a big league approach, but he's missing the actual contact skills necessary to execute it properly.
2014 Season Outlook
It's worth remembering that these numbers aren't likely to improve in the major leagues. If Springer has trouble making contact against he pitchers at AA, I worry how he'll do against a Felix Hernandez changeup. In 2012 for example, Springer's teammate Chris Carter received 324 plate appearances in AAA, and proceeded to post a contact rate of 74.1% with an accompanying 22.5% strikeout rate. Both of these numbers you'll note are better than what George Springer was able to do at the same level. Once he won a job in the majors as the Houston Astros' DH however, Carter posted a 65.7% contact rate with a whopping 36.7% strikeout rate. That's the difference between playing in the minors and the majors, and while the fact that Carter's numbers decreased so dramatically doesn't mean the same will be true for Springer, it's worth noting that despite his struggles Carter was still able to post a better contact rate at he major league level last season, than Springer was able to do at AA.
This sounds like a lot of negativity for someone I'm calling the top sleeper pick in the Astros organization, and you're right it is. You need to understand the risk you're taking on if you draft George Springer. There are very few players in major league history who have been able to be above average big leaguers with the kind of contact issues George Springer has, much less stars. And yet Springer has all the talent to be a star. Although he struggles mightily to make contact with the ball, when he does the results are enormous. He's hit for average, he's hit for power, he's walked, and once on base he's stolen the next bag at a prodigious rate. Springer has the makings of an Adam Dunn type player except with speed. Until he's able to post better contact rates the batting average will always be a concern, because even with above average line drive rates and good speed, a .362 or .390 BABIP like he posted in AAA and AA respectively just isn't going to happen in the major leagues.
But even if he doesn't ever hit much above .230, the fact that he could give you a potential 30 homer, 30 stolen base season out the gate is enough to have me very interested. If you happen to play in a league that uses OBP he'll be even more useful, but even in standard leagues, that kind of combination of power and speed doesn't happen often. And if he's ever able to figure out his contact issues... well the sky's the limit for George Springer in a case that like. He's risky, and the bust potential is enormous so temper your excitement on draft day and keep his price realistic, but the talent is there in such a real way that I can't think of anyone else on the Astros I'd be more excited about to have on my team in 2014 than George Springer.
Note: As for a call-up date for Springer I think you can expect to see him sometime in mid to late June as soon as his Super Two eligibility has passed. The Astros aren't competing for a playoff spot this season so they have no reason to start his arbitration clock any earlier than necessary after all.