D-backs hitters had themselves a day last night, and Jake Lamb was in the thick of it with a two hit performance. In fact, in the last thirty days, Lamb is second on the team in terms of creating runs with a wRC+ of 108. Only A.J. Pollock has bested Lamb by that metric, although with a .250 batting average, Lamb doesn’t seem to compare favorably in a lineup that has four hitters at or above .290 (minimum 40 PA).
Lest you think I’m cherry-picking, the last thirty days just narrowly counts out a two-hit, one homer day on August 23. Really, Lamb has been producing at a very respectable clip since his promotion, and it’s helped that he’s proved steady at the hot corner; in a very small sample, UZR isn’t a big fan of Lamb’s range, but tips its hat to him for his sure-handedness. At third base, sure-handedness can go a long way.
So Lamb has had some value thus far, in just 32 games, and given that he spent all of about five minutes at the Triple-A level, we could have forgiven Lamb if he had taken some time to get acclimated. This is a player who started the 2013 season in Rookie ball and finished it in High-A, skipping Low-A completely. In 2014, Lamb played 103 games with Double-A Mobile and 5 with Triple-A Reno, putting up a combined triple-slash line of .327/.407/.566. That .893 OPS would be unfair to expect at the big league level, both now and in the future, but there’s a ton of room between that level and what would be a very positive contribution.
For more on Lamb’s background, head on back to Jeff Wiser’s piece on Lamb from shortly after the callup last month. But suffice it to say: he’s torn the cover off the ball at each brief stop while climbing up the minor league ladder, and at this point, Lamb still leads the Double-A Southern League in OPS this season. As Jeff noted, his excellent hitting statistics are supported by BABIPs that seem utterly unsustainable. He had a .380 BABIP for High-A Visalia to back a .303 batting average there (231 AB); the .389 BABIP backing his .318 average at Double-A Mobile is also a little ridiculous. The MLB leader in BABIP this season has just a .369 mark (Starling Marte), and only 10 of 147 qualified players have had a BABIP over .350.
So are Lamb’s minor league stats an illusion, or not? In terms of figuring that out, there’s no substitute for a full season (or more) with the big club. But I will say this: Lamb’s very good walk rates in the minors point to him being selective, and his fairly low fly ball rate (35.8%) shows that he’s not trading a bunch of lazy fly balls to get a few extra home runs. Another great feature of mlbfarm.com is getting statistics for just a player’s appearances versus players on an MLB.com top 20 prospect list. He did very well against top prospects: .321/.411/.581. In other words, he arguably did slightly better against the best competition in the minors, lending weight to the idea that his gaudy minor league statistics aren’t fueled by an obscene BABIP or by feasting on inferior competition.
This man’s swing appears to be geared for line drives, and the line drive rate shown at mlbfarm.com (22.6%) is very good. We know that about 70% of line drives turn into hits (as opposed to 12%-20% for other batted balls), so Lamb’s propensity for line drives could also partly explain his high BABIPs. In addition, he’s an all-fields hitter, something that tends to translate well to the big leagues. From mlbfarm.com, we see that opponents might do well to shift on Lamb in the infield, but that Lamb was spraying the ball all over the place in the minors this year:
Lamb hasn’t been played much by Kirk Gibson against lefties, with just 16% of his plate appearances against them so far this season (40% or so is normal). And in the horrifically small sample of 18 PA, Lamb has just 3 hits and no walks, for a batting average and on-base percentage of .167. Still, there is no reason to think that Lamb should be platooned.
Throw his Double- and Triple-A numbers together again, and it’s clear that Lamb has absolutely scorched pitchers who throw from the left side.
It’s bizarre but pretty sexy that when you throw top competition OR same-handed pitchers at Lamb, he responds by doing better. What exactly is the weakness in Lamb’s game? As Jeff noted in his piece, Lamb might end up being a 15-18 home run guy, as opposed to the 25 HR levels that could make Lamb a star. But if Lamb continues to make a habit of spraying line drives everywhere while keeping up some very good walk rates, he could end up being a well above average hitter. In Double-A this year, Lamb had a 162 wRC+. That success in creating runs borders on Paul Goldschmidt territory, and even if you walk it down quite a bit, Lamb has a very solid chance of being one of the three best hitters on the D-backs, and an above-average third baseman to boot.
So now that we’re good and excited about who Lamb could be — how the hell do we get this guy some playing time?
Especially if Kevin Towers stays in the picture, the imminent hiring of a new GM isn’t really a full changing of the guard. Getting Aaron Hill some playing time at third base this month is a very deliberate move, one that I think we can safely assume had the support of Chief Baseball Officer Tony La Russa. Overall, it seems highly likely that both Didi Gregorius and Chris Owings will be starters or pseudo-starters next season. It’s possible that one (probably Gregorius) will be available in the offseason, but given that Gregorius and Owings were so eminently available last winter, and given that the D-backs seem content to play them both, it seems unlikely that a trade will happen.
That sets the stage for a 4-man, 3-position time share, with Gregorius getting most of the starts at shortstop, Owings splitting time between short and second, Aaron Hill starting most days at second but getting some starts at third, and Lamb starting most days at third base. Here’s how it could play out, in terms of starts:
Fortunately, there’s some room for platoon maneuverings here. Didi Gregorius has now played in the majors for longer than one full season, and his platoon split is pretty significant. Career, Gregorius has been an above-average hitter against righties (102 wRC+) but tremendously awful against lefties (33 wRC+). The difference is even more pronounced this year (92 wRC+ against RHP, 10 wRC+ against LHP). Gregorius is caught in the middle between being a full-time starter and being a part-time player. Fortunately for us, we can make the most of Didi’s strengths while minimizing the effect of his one very significant weakness.
No other member of this time share is a platoon liability the way Gregorius is. Career, Owings has virtually no platoon split at all (although this year the spread has been more traditional). Aaron Hill’s been around the block enough times for us to know that he’s slightly better against lefties (career batting average against both types of pitchers is .270). And Lamb? We know from Jeff Wiser’s research that reverse platoon splits aren’t really a thing, but I think we know enough from Lamb’s minor league numbers to know that he doesn’t need to be sheltered from southpaws. Despite having two left-handed and two right-handed hitters in this crew, it’s Gregorius that we can build the time share around.
I also feel that trying to make sure that Gregorius has a better chance to develop against LHP is a fool’s errand. Left-handed shortstops are the very limited exception, not the rule, and it will always be easy to find Gregorius a platoon partner, even years down the road. This is who he is now. And so I think it makes sense to distribute playing time strictly on a Gregorius-platoon basis. LHP starter? Gregorius sits, the other three play. RHP starter? Well then, one of the Hill/Owings/Lamb trio warms the bench, at least for a time.
The end result could be a well above average infield, with everyone creating runs at an average or better clip against that day’s starter and things being a little more average toward the end of games. The defense would also be quite good (especially if Hill’s performance at third base comes along), and the (new?) manager would be afforded an easy option or two for subs or double switches depending on reliever matchups. Gregorius could end up playing in half of the games he doesn’t start as a pinch hitter or defensive replacement.
That doesn’t leave much room for Cliff Pennington, however. Generally, teams carry two extra outfielders, one backup catcher, and at least one extra infielder. The 4-man time share eats up one extra infield spot, and so to make the team, Pennington would have to take that last wild card roster spot. He also wouldn’t play a ton, although he could be mixed in against LHP when Gregorius sits and someone else could use a sub. Still, if the D-backs find themselves committed to this 4-man, 3-position time share in the infield, Pennington looks more and more like a non-tender candidate.
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