We focus a lot on the statistical side of things on this site. Whether that’s trying to put a number on a player’s trade value, looking past the ERA and projecting what a player could do based on his FIP numbers, or just focusing on how good or bad a player’s numbers are, the statistical approach is heavy. There’s a reason for that. The stats are extremely important. They tell you exactly how a player is doing in any given area, while removing any bias that can be found in the eye test.
That’s not to say the eye test isn’t important. The best analysis is going to incorporate both the eye test and the numbers, while hoping those two match up. When it comes to the minor leagues, those numbers don’t often match up, especially in the lower levels. You’ll see players who are putting up good numbers, but don’t have the skills to repeat those numbers in the upper levels. You’ll also see guys who have a lot of talent, but don’t have the numbers to reflect that talent.
In most cases, you want to stick with that talent, and hope that the results one day come through. The Pirates have three cases this year where they didn’t give up on the talent in the lower levels, and kept pushing players and giving them opportunities because of the talent they have. All three cases are now starting to show results in the stat line that reflect the talent the Pirates saw. Here is a look at each situation, and why the Pirates stuck with each player.
Sampson was a fifth round pick, and ended up signing for $2,100 under slot in 2012. However, he had a lot of talent, and was ranked 84th overall in Baseball America’s rankings that year. He was a guy coming out of the JuCo ranks who could hit 94 MPH, worked in the low 90s at times, and had an above-average curveball with sharp, late break.
We rated Sampson as the 17th best prospect in the system going into the 2013 season. That was after he showed a consistent 91-94 MPH fastball in State College, and lived up to the hype with his curve. He didn’t have much of a changeup, and needed to add that pitch to be a starting pitching prospect. At the time it looked like he could possibly be a mid-rotation starter if he could improve the changeup.
The Pirates obviously liked what they saw with Sampson, as they sent him to Bradenton in his first full season. Most guys from three-year colleges will go to West Virginia for a few months, so sending a JuCo guy to Bradenton at the start of his first full year was an aggressive push. Sampson struggled in Bradenton, posting a 5.14 ERA in 140 innings, with a 5.5 K/9 and a 1.4 BB/9. The stats weren’t living up to the stuff, although there was good reason for this. Sampson spent a lot of time focusing on the changeup last year, and working to improve the pitch. That led to poor results in Bradenton, but has been a big reason for his success this year.
Despite the struggles in Bradenton, Sampson was given another aggressive promotion, this time moving up to Altoona to start the 2014 season. With the new changeup, Sampson is starting to put up the stats that reflect his talent level. He has a 2.58 ERA this year in 122 innings, after coming close to a no-hitter last night. He’s got a 6.3 K/9 and a 2.1 BB/9 ratio. He’s absolutely dominating right-handers, with just a .532 OPS against this year. The impact of the changeup can be seen in his numbers against lefties. Last year in Bradenton, lefties had a .908 OPS against Sampson. This year at a tougher level, lefties are only putting up a .684 OPS against him.
Sampson looks like a strong number four starter, with the possibility to be a number three if his stuff keeps improving. He’s got a good fastball, great command, an above-average breaking pitch, and a changeup that is looking above-average this year, both based on the eye test and the stats against lefties.
Rojas, the son of the former Expos closer, was taken in the third round of the 2010 draft. He was extremely raw when he was drafted, but was said to have five tool potential. I saw him a lot in West Virginia in 2011, and the tools showed up at times, but never on a consistent basis. Here was my summary of Rojas after one week that I saw him in the middle of that season.
The defense looked good, with good range and a great arm. As for the hitting, that continues to be the big question mark. Rojas chased a few low and away pitches, giving a kind of Ronny Cedeno like leaning swing from the right side of the plate. From the left side, Rojas looked better, and crushed a home run down the right field line in one of the games I saw. That power, which has only led to three homers in the actual games, is apparent in batting practice, where Rojas has been known to put on a show. The key going forward with Rojas is applying that to the games.
Rojas is still very raw at the plate, but the potential is definitely there. He has an issue of rolling over top of pitches, leading to more grounders and fewer line drives and fly balls.
Rojas put up a .246/.312/.335 line in 508 at-bats that year. He was moved up to Bradenton the next year, and the results weren’t much better. He had a .245/.303/.354 line in 497 at-bats. He’d have a few big games, but would follow that with a long slump. Despite the struggles at both stops in A-ball, the Pirates gave him yet another push in 2013, sending him to Double-A, which is the most difficult jump for a hitter to make.
There were some improvements in Altoona. Rojas had a .274/.332/.410 line, putting up his first OPS over .657 in his pro career. The .742 OPS wasn’t great, but showed improvements. Rojas showed more consistency, and saw a slight uptick with his power, going from a .109 ISO in Bradenton to a .137 ISO in Altoona.
This year the Pirates kept him back in Altoona, and the bat finally took off. He hit for a .303/.379/.446 line in 195 at-bats, before getting a promotion to Indianapolis. Rojas continued to apply his power in the game, with a .144 ISO. His walk rate ticked up to 10.5%, topping the 7.7% the previous year, and the 6.4% rate he had in Bradenton in 2012. His strikeouts dropped from 20.2% to 15.5%. Since being promoted to Indianapolis, he has a .287/.365/.397 line. He’s not hitting for as much power with the Indians, but the walks are still there, which is encouraging.
Rojas always showed the tools to be a good hitter. He’s now starting to apply that to games. His defense has always been strong, and he’s got the ability to play all three outfield spots. The Pirates don’t really need Rojas as a starter, since they’re set with starting outfielders in the majors. That limits his upside to a strong fourth outfielder, or as trade bait if another team sees him as a starting candidate.
I first noticed Diaz in Spring Training 2011 while he was taking an extra batting practice session. The recap of that session is quoted below.
Diaz was signed out of Venezuela in 2008, and while his numbers weren’t impressive in his jump to the US last year, he does look promising. He started out hitting nothing but opposite field shots. None of his hits even went up the middle. In his second go round, he hit a few grounders to the left side, but still had trouble pulling the ball. That went away in his third turn in the batting cage, when he not only started pulling the ball, but did so with some pop, including a launch to the warning track, about 360 feet away. Diaz could become the number two catching prospect in the organization, although there aren’t many options behind Sanchez.
I was impressed at the time with the frame Diaz had. He was a big, athletic catching prospect. He only had a .218 average and a .590 OPS in the GCL in 2010, but the Pirates seemed to be giving him a big push and a lot of looks that Spring. He ended up getting an aggressive push to West Virginia, where he got a lot of time behind the plate.
As I mentioned at the time, the Pirates didn’t have a lot of options, so a guy like Diaz who showed some promise didn’t have a lot of obstacles in front of him. Aside from being an athletic catcher with some power potential, he also had some impressive defensive skills. That was the big thing that stood out to me in his time with West Virginia.
The bat definitely didn’t stand out, at least from a numbers perspective. In 2011 he had a .221 average and a .607 OPS. He returned to West Virginia in 2012, and the numbers were worse, with a .208 average and a .549 OPS. The Pirates decided to give him an aggressive push to Bradenton, splitting time with Jacob Stallings, who is another strong defensive catcher. I saw Diaz a lot last year here in Bradenton, and the defense lived up to the hype, often called some of the best in the system, as well as in the minor leagues in general. Diaz really started to hit at the end of the season, with an .892 OPS in August which might have earned him a promotion to Altoona this year.
The results in Altoona have been great. Diaz has a .304/.354/.411 line in 263 at-bats. It’s a small sample size, but he always had the look of a guy who could provide some offense, and some pop off his bat. The power hasn’t been the best this year, but he’s hitting for average and getting on base.
Back in 2011, it looked like Diaz could emerge as the number two catching prospect behind Tony Sanchez. At this point, he could be challenging Sanchez for a backup role, and the two could eventually combine for a decent tandem in the majors until a full-time catcher comes along. If Diaz keeps hitting like this, he could be a sleeper to become that full time catcher.
Trusting the Eye Test
As I mentioned before, the best analysis is when the stats match up with the eye test. In the lower levels, the eye test can often be more important than the stats. In the above cases, there was no statistical reason for the Pirates to keep pushing these players and giving them so many opportunities. It would have been incredibly easy to write off Diaz after his second year in West Virginia when he posted a sub-.600 OPS. It would have been easy to call Rojas a bust after another sub-.700 OPS in A-ball. They could have easily held Sampson back based on his poor numbers in Bradenton last year. But the skills that the players had warranted continued looks and a push to higher levels.
This is a situation that doesn’t always work out so well. Often you’ll just see guys continue to get pushed, and continue to struggle until they fade away. But these three cases are exactly why you take this approach, and stick with talented players, despite no statistical reason to do so.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.
I still believe Diaz and not Sanchez will eventually be our starting catcher. If we don’t sign Martin, then it will be Tony by default next year. But Diaz is coming….fast.
Eye Test Foo
I am a very big believer in the eye test and is one of the primary reasons I attend spring training ( well I also like the area ) . Not only is it fun to watch some minor league games as well as the young players it gives you a pretty good idea who might end up being pretty good . Last year I was impressed with Borden , Glasnow , and McQuire , several years ago I wrote that I was not impressed with T Sanchez .
Pretty easy to like that area in March isn’t it glassers ? The baseball just adds to the fun.
Tim, just as interesting, who would you say are prospects that have passed the eye test but did not meet their overall potential. I would like to see who you saw!
Since so many pitchers are working on different pitches it is very difficult to tell how they are doing coming through the low minors, I think we get a better handle on them when they get higher in the system, also a lot of hitters just have not matured in the low minors, but the Pirates see what the public and the media do not most of the time.
Interesting article Tim. Please continue to point out players who are getting a push inspite of unimpressive statistics. It shows that the Pirates see something worth rewarding.