SSTN Weekly Mailbag: Estevan Florial, Tyler Wade, and Changes To The Ball!
By Andy Singer
For all that this offseason seemed like a slog, things have picked up to a point where I think we can finally start reasonably projecting rosters and likely performances. I know that a lot of people, including some really smart people, are frustrated with the Yankees’ approach to the offseason. I wholeheartedly agree that the first luxury tax tier should be of little importance to a team that brings in the kind of revenue that the Yankees do on an annual basis (even without fans in the stands), and ideally think that there were opportunities to improve the roster if the team was willing to surpass the first luxury tax tier in even modest fashion. However, I think it is important to view the team in the context of what the teams with whom they will compete in 2021 have done.
Events in recent days further prove that the Yankees are in really good shape to win the AL East. In the AL East, only the Blue Jays and Orioles have even modestly improved their rosters, while the Red Sox and Rays are both likely worse than a year ago. The Rays dealt from their greatest strengths without immediate replacements, and the Red Sox just sold low on a good outfielder without getting much in return beyond a couple of low-ceiling lottery tickets. Look at any standings projection system right now, and you’ll see that the Yankees are heads and shoulders ahead of their AL counterparts in true talent, even considering the risks they’ve taken this offseason. We’ll have to wait and see how the risks pan out, but I think we can now start to focus on the fringes of the roster, and many of you who have written to the SSTN Mailbag in recent days have clearly been thinking about just that.
As always, thanks for the great questions, and keep sending them in to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. In this week’s SSTN Mailbag, we’ll talk about a potential role for Estevan Florial, the outlook for Tyler Wade, and changes to the MLB ball! Let’s get at it:
Matt asks: Every day that passes makes it less likely that Brett Gardner will return to the Yankees in 2021. If Gardy doesn’t return there isn’t a lot of depth behind the 3 starting outfielders. Estevan Florial was a big prospect a couple of years ago and got a cup of coffee in 2020. Can he make the big league team in 2021 as a 4th outfielder?
I have to admit, as much time as I spend researching and projecting prospects, the thought of Florial as a 4th outfielder in 2021 hadn’t occurred to me prior to this question. Some of this is likely due to prospect fatigue. It feels like Florial has been around forever, though he is still just 23 years old. Many people were riding the Florial train hard a couple of years back due to his loud tools both at the plate and in the field. It’s easy to see why. Despite a seemingly wiry frame, Florial produces easy plus power at the plate, with plus-plus running, a rocket launcher for an arm, and good reviews on his ability on the outfield grass. If he is able to produce even a slightly below-average line at the plate, he could still be an average centerfielder from a value perspective based on his defense. Oh, and Florial hits left-handed, which would bring additional balance to the bench with left-handed pop.
The issue is twofold. Florial’s most significant flaw as a prospect is his total lack of ability in the pitch recognition department. The only way that issue can ever be improved upon is by playing baseball games against pitchers with a good variety of stuff. Between injuries and a pandemic, Florial has barely gotten any at-bats the last 2+ seasons, which makes it hard to project that he’ll ever recognize pitches well enough to tap into his significant raw power with any consistency at the MLB level. Based on these issues, I had largely written-off Florial as a top prospect, going so far as to leave him off of my personal Top-15 Yankee Prospects list when we ran the SSTN Top-15 Prospects series.
However, that does not mean that Florial can’t become a viable MLB player: it just means that the probability of that happening is lower, and he is more likely settle into a reserve role as his ultimate ceiling than he is to evolve into a regular. That can still be a valuable player when used wisely. Personally, I think that Florial projects to be a better defender at 3 outfield spots than Tauchman, with more tools at the plate than Greg Allen, while possessing rare speed that can help replace what Gardy brought to the table. While it flew under the radar, it is also important to note that Florial had a good stint down in the Dominican Winter League (widely considered one of the two best foreign winter leagues): .280/.373/.420/.793 with 8 walks and 17 strikeouts in just 59 plate appearances. Right there, we see a microcosm of the Florial experience. An ability to impact the baseball while swinging at almost everything – even Gary Sanchez flails less at the plate, for reference. On the plus side, Florial was able to take some walks this winter, which has not previously been part of his profile, so maybe there’s some hope on that front.
In all likelihood, Florial will start this season in AA or AAA. However, if he plays well, I am warming to the idea that he could be a valuable 4th outfielder for the Yankees as soon as 2021. If Florial gets 350 at-bats, something went terribly wrong for the Yankees in 2021, but as a reserve outfielder after the all-star break who pinch runs, spells guys in the late innings in the outfield, and gets a start once or twice a week? I can see it at some point.
Lionel asks: what’s your prognosis for Wade? can he surpass his performance in 2019, when he managed a reasonably good OBP, if given steady playing time? is it likely that he gets any PT on the 2021 Yanks?
Tyler Wade is a young player who has been frustrating to watch as a big leaguer. I will freely admit that I have always believed that Wade could evolve into a 2nd division regular at SS, or a good utility infielder on a championship-level team. With each passing year, that projection becomes less likely. I don’t often say this about professional ballplayers out of respect for the fact that training for the mental grind of baseball day-in and day-out happens in the minor leagues, and players that don’t master that aspect of the professional game rarely step foot on a Major League field, but Wade often looks like he’s pressing at the plate in a way that’s detrimental to what should be his style of play. I think Wade is talented enough that he should play like he belongs, not like he has to hit a 5-run homer every at-bat in order to stay, but I digress.
As the roster stands right now, yes, Wade will be the primary utility infielder, and should be expected to carry 250-375 plate appearances, even before we start talking about injuries. What he does with those plate appearances is the crux of the issue. Let’s start with what the projection systems have to say, and it’s…not pretty:
ZiPS: .221/.294/.338, 8.5% BB, 25.5% K, 411 PA, 0.3 WAR
Steamer: .232/.301/.348, 8.1% BB, 24.1% K, 90 PA, 0.1 WAR
Neither ZiPS nor Steamer thinks that Wade is a good bet to approach average contribution at the plate, with any of his value derived from his legs on the basepaths and his defense. I’m not going to quibble with projections of positive defensive or baserunning contributions (though Wade made some boneheaded outs on the bases in the shortened 2020 season). However, I do take issue with some of what I see in the projections, namely with regards to Wade’s walk and strikeout rates.
Wade has a strong 4-year trend of both increasing walk rates and decreasing strikeout rates, peaking in 2020 at 11.4% BB and 21.0% K. Plate discipline numbers tend to stabilize relatively quickly, so I’m inclined to believe that this trend is for real. Even as a minor league player, Wade was credited for having good control of the strike zone. Thus, I believe that the projection systems are weighting some earlier performances too heavily in the plate discipline department, which ultimately bodes well for Wade’s on-base percentage.
I want to dig a little deeper, though. One of Wade’s greatest assets at the plate is his ability to make contact, and he’s done that consistently in the Majors. Tyler Wade has generally made contact at least at an average rate on pitches swung at inside the strike zone, peaking at Zone Contact rate of 87.5% in 2020, according to Statcast. Wade also sees a high number of pitches in the strike zone relative to other Major League players, though his swing rate on pitches in the strike zone was below the league average in 2020. Wade should likely be a little more aggressive on pitches in the zone to find success.
Additionally, though it may sound odd in the era of the launch angle revolution, but Tyler Wade needs to launch the ball less. Not every player hits the ball hard enough to force the ball to launch, which instead of leading to home runs, leads to pop-ups and weak grounders, which has happened more frequently to Wade over the last two seasons as his launch angle has risen over the last two seasons. Wade’s exit velocities have stabilized between 86-87 MPH, which makes him a prime candidate for more level swings, trying more for line drives and hard grounders instead of big flies.
The changes Wade needs to make to become a more complete hitter are relatively obvious, but not necessarily easy to accomplish from a mechanical perspective. Even without those changes, Wade’s plate discipline profile is good enough to improve his on-base percentage enough to get by as a utility infielder. For one more year though, I’m going to hold out hope for a bit more.
George asks: Reports are that MLB is deadening the ball. How will this affect the Yankees?
Honestly? I have no idea. MLB has played so many games with the ball the last few years that it’s really hard to know how the ball will play season-to-season. Heck, there’s evidence that the ball changed between the regular season and the playoffs the last couple of years! We really won’t know until we see how the ball plays off of pitchers’ hands and players’ bats in Spring Training.
All I know is that the more MLB plays around with the ball, the harder it will be to project both established players and prospects alike. Personally, I didn’t like the gopher ball, but I’d appreciate consistency. I hope this is a step towards that, but forgive my skepticism of all things MLB does lately. The Yankees have enough boppers that really didn’t depend on a juiced ball for power that I don’t think de-tuning the ball will effect them much. Pitchers, on the other hand? If the ball is really de-tuned, I think pitchers pitching in Yankee Stadium will be quite happy. If that happens, I’ll feel bad for what happened to pitchers like Tanaka the last couple of years…