Plate Discipline and Hit Tools

As the Tigers focused on pitching during the early stages of the rebuild, it has started to make its presence felt at the Major League Level. The organization has now started shifting its focus to positional talent. While this has resulted in a lack of starting pitching talent in the farm system, there are now a couple of potentially high-impact positional prospects.

For the first six weeks of the minor league season, the Tigers High-A affiliate in West Michigan featured a roster that included notable 2020 draftees Spencer Torkelson and Dillon Dingler. While Dingler and Torkelson have since gotten the promotion to Double-A, this is still a roster that features some interesting prospects.

One of the frequently discussed members of this season’s West Michigan team is 2020 62nd overall pick Daniel Cabrera. Cabrera was well-known during his college days for his stand-out performance at LSU and in the Cape Cod League.

While Cabrera’s performance has been up and down early in his pro career, he has a solid swing from the left-side that should result in him making a lot of quality contact.

Daniel Cabrera May 25th, 2021

Cabrera had a rough first couple weeks with West Michigan and he especially appeared to be struggling with breaking pitches. Since these rough first couple of weeks however, Cabrera has looked much better offensively.

Overall, Cabrera has hit .272/.325/.419 through 209 plate appearances so far this season. While Cabrera has spent some time in center this year, he will likely end up in right field long term where he has shown a good arm but where his ultimate value will largely be dependent on his hit tool and his ability to translate more of his raw power to game power.

Even though he has been promoted to Double-A as mentioned, Dillon Dingler certainly made his mark in West Michigan during his brief stay. The Tigers 2nd round pick in the 2020 draft out of Ohio State put up a .287/.376/.549 slash line with 8 home runs in 141 plate appearances with West Michigan before his promotion and he has continued to produce offensively in Double-A. Despite some concerns with his swing path, Dingler has shown a lot of promise so far during his time in the Tigers organization and looks like the franchise’s catcher of the future.

Dillon Dingler May 25th, 2021

Dingler impressed on both sides of the ball during his time in West Michigan as he showed the ability to drive the ball with power to all fields while also showing plus pop times with solid receiving skills behind the plate. As someone who has spent a lot of time in this ballpark, going deep here, let alone to the opposite field like this, is no small task.

Even though he has also been promoted to Double-A, 2020 1st overall pick Spencer Torkelson also made his presence felt during his brief time in the Whitecaps lineup. Despite getting off to a very slow start this season, Torkelson would finish with a .312/.440/.569 slash line with 5 home runs in 141 High-A plate appearances before his promotion. So far in Double-A, Torkelson has hit 4 home runs in his first 61 plate appearances and it was announced this week he will be one of the Tigers’ representatives in the Futures Game on July 11th.

Spencer Torkelson June 8th, 2021

Torkelson is very well-known for what he is capable of on the offensive side of the ball and the fact he had such a short stay in West Michigan is not very surprising. The batted ball data and spray charts from his time at Arizona State are nothing short of ridiculous.

While there is very little debate about the bat, there have been some questions surrounding his defensive landing spot. After playing his entire college career at first base, he has split time equally between first and third this season. While it would certainly make a lot of sense for the organization to just let him play first base, I have thought he has looked fine at third defensively and has the arm to play there.

Even though he has generally shown a good approach at the plate this season, Torkelson seemed passive on pitches located on the outer half of the plate during his early struggles this season. This resulted in pitchers attacking him outside and a lot of strikeouts caught looking. As he has settled in this season, however, he has started becoming more aggressive attacking and driving these pitches.

As someone who has spent far too much time behind home plate at minor league games, I have often found hit tools to be the most difficult tool to evaluate. While there are a number of different factors that must be considered when evaluating hit tools, there are some differing opinions out there about plate discipline and how much it can improve or not during the course of a player’s time in pro ball.

So when evaluating minor leaguers, how much can we expect their plate discipline to improve over the course of their careers?

The ability to study this is complicated by the lack of publicly available Minor League plate discipline metrics. Fortunately, Major League plate discipline data is readily available.

It would make sense that as hitters get more experience facing top-level pitching talent that they could get a better feel for the strike zone and the pitches they should be swinging at.

(If you are unfamiliar with any of the metrics used below Fangraphs has a great primer on them)

AgeSwing%O-Swing%Z-Swing%
21-2347%30.8%69.2%
24-2646.8%31.0%68.3%
27-2947.1%31.5%68.6%
30-3246.5%31.0%67.7%
33-3545.9%29.2%68.4%
36-3845.8%29.1%67.9%
2021 MLB Data

While older players are swinging slightly less this season at pitches both in and out of the strike zone, there isn’t a crazy difference between the youngest players in the league and the oldest. By looking at the contact rates for these same age groups there is a more noticeable difference.

AgeContact%O-Contact%Z-Contact%
21-2372.5%56.1%82.5%
24-2675.6%62.3%83.7%
27-2975.2%61.7%83.9%
30-3276.2%62.9%84.5%
33-3575.8%61.5%84.0%
36-3877.6%64.5%85.0%
2021 MLB Data

Perhaps this provides some evidence that as hitters get more experience facing top level pitching talent they get a better idea of the pitches they should be seeking out. While this does make sense, the above data is likely confounded by the quality of hitters that most frequently make it to playing into their mid-to-late-30’s and it also leaves a lot of questions about how much plate discipline can improve for individual players throughout the course of their time in pro-ball.

All statistics through the completion of games on July 1st, 2021

All data provided by Fangraphs.com and baseball-reference.com

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