When Nick Ahmed was announced as the Diamondbacks’ starting shortstop, I was more than a little excited. Seeing him in person a handful of times backed up what I’d heard about his defense. It also backed up what I had heard about his (in)ability to handle the bat. But despite an okay start, the Diamondbacks have always been a sub-.500 team based on every reasonable 2015 outlook and the new D-backs meritocracy is not without its own merits. Ahmed had earned a starting spot over the spring and it’s time to for this team to experiment, identify assets, and move forward. Nick is clearly a part of that. Offensively he’s struggled more than expected. Just how much can the Diamondbacks take before they have to consider an alternative?
First, we should take a look at what we’re working with and go back as far as we can to see just who Nick Ahmed has been. Since coming over from the Braves as part of the Justin Upton return, he’s been regarded as an all-glove player with the ability to be above-average defensively, perhaps even to All-Star degree. But the bat is what we’re after here, and I decided to dig up what I could on his bat as he developed as a prospect. Here are a few excerpts for your enjoyment.
From FanGraphs’ Marc Hulet in 2013
“Ahmed spent all of 2012 at the high-A ball level with mixed results… He swung and missed too much, leading to a high strikeout rate and low batting average. He has gap power but does not hit as many home runs as one might expect given his frame. However, his swing is geared to hitting the ball into the gaps… Ahmed should move up to double-A in 2013 and will hopefully look to adjust his approach at the plate, either to adopt an all-fields, line-drive approach or to create more leverage in his swing and hit for more power. He currently appears to be caught somewhere in the middle.”
From Baseball Prospectus’ Jason Parks in 2013
“Nick Ahmed is a gamer/grinder type on a physically impressive frame, with a really good feel for the game. The bat is the biggest question mark, as the hit tool is fringy. He shows some bat control, but the swing itself can get long and the bat speed isn’t overly impressive. He has good speed for his size and comes to the plate with a plan, so he brings a secondary element to his offensive game. The finished product is probably a utility infielder, with a defensive profile capable of playing all infield spots, and a bat that could function down the lineup.”
From Minor League Ball’s John Sickels in 2013
“Hitting .224/.282/.307 with 26 walks, 60 strikeouts in 352 at-bats for Mobile. Excellent defensive shortstop but has been unable to hit well against Double-A pitching at age 23. Glove alone should get him to the majors, but what happens then depends on the bat.”
From Fangraphs’ Kiley McDaniel in 2014
“Ahmed… is an advanced defender (65 on the 20-80 scale) and the offensive bar for starting shortstops is so low that he may be able to clear it. That said, multiple scouts said .240 with 8 homers is what you’re hoping for and, even with solid numbers in Triple-A this season, it’s still even money if he ever gets there.”
From Baseball Prospectus’ Nick Faleris in 2014
“(Ahmed) is poised to provide some major-league value in 2015 thanks to advanced glove work at the six spot, above-average speed… and the increased opportunities up the middle in Arizona resulting from Gregorius’s departure. It’s a light offensive profile that might limit the overall upside to that of a second-division regular, but the remainder of Ahmed’s game plays above average and is major-league ready.”
If you read through all of that, or didn’t, it becomes obviously clear that Nick Ahmed’s ability to hit has been in question for an extended period of time. This is not new. Most have pegged him as something ranging from a utility infielder to a second-division starter. If you’re keeping score at home, that appears to be right on. Currently, he is a second-division starter, but can he remain one? That’s the question.
There’s a leg lift and short stride, coupled with the hip rotation. Ahmed doesn’t appear to use his lower half much at all in this swing. Although it was a full count and one could argue that he was simply trying to make contact, we see identical mechanics here as well. After some preliminary bat waggle, the hands quiet down in the load phase where he takes them back before exploding forward. His path to the ball is mostly direct, but given the length of his arms, the swing is a touch long, which meshes with both scouting reports and my looks in games and spring training. I see a player who needs to get extended to make good contact, which isn’t always possible when facing major league pitching.
Along with the length of the swing, an area of curiosity, if not concern, is the timing of Ahmed’s front foot. He doesn’t put it down with much advance. Instead, he’s nearly swing from the back foot alone as he just gets the front one down before contact. Now, that’s fine so long as he was expecting a 3-2 hung curveball from Jose Quintana, but I’d hardly expect that. If it’s a fastball, what happens? Does he even get his foot down before the ball crosses the plate? Maybe or maybe not, but establishing his base sooner may be beneficial to him making more contact and being able to adjust to different pitches in different locations. It can give him time to evaluate the oncoming pitch and react. It would also allow him to use his lower half more, likely generating more velocity on batted balls, something that correlates very strongly with more hits.
And that time to adjust might be of particular interest to Ahmed as he’s seeing a lot of secondary pitches so far in 2015. Over a third of all pitches he’s seen have been breaking pitches, and when you mix in some offspeed stuff, he’s sitting at nearly 42% of all pitches being non-fastballs. He’s struggled with these pitches, most notably the slider where he’s whiffed at over 18% of them. And, unsurprisingly, they’ve been located down and away for the most part. Here are his whiffs on breaking and offspeed pitches:
And, for what it’s worth, here are his whiffs on fastballs, up and above the zone, plus some misses down:
So if we look, Ahmed really has two holes in his approach. The secondary stuff down and away, and the fastballs up above the zone. The low and away pitches you’d like to see him learn to master, but that’s a common area for every hitter to be exploited. Pitchers know they rarely get hit hard out there and go to that zone all the time. But the high heat that Ahmed has struggled with has been out of the zone. Those are balls all the way and, given his profile, pitches he just doesn’t have a chance on. He’s not going to pound those pitches over the fence; he’s going to pop them up if anything. That hole should be closed immediately. And while that’s not a large raw number of pitches, every strike changes the complexity of an at-bat and they’re not doing him any favors.
If we look at the strike zone more holistically, we really get to the heart of the problem. Take a look at what Nick Ahmed has seen since being called up:
Look at all of those pitches in the zone. Pitchers do not fear Nick Ahmed. They’re throwing the ball over the strike zone and daring him to hit it, and he’s currently failing to do so. It’s partly plate discipline as the above heat maps show, and there are a few mechanical concerns, as well. How well Ahmed’s picking up the ball out of the pitcher’s hand is hard to really gauge when he’s making contact so inconsistently, but pitch-recognition may be an issue, too.
And really, this is just all about the hit tool, something that Ahmed has always struggled with. There are a million things that get wrapped up in it, but the premise is pretty basic: a batter’s ability to make consistent, quality contact. At FanGraphs, Kiley McDaniel has written about this extensively (linked above) and gave Ahmed’s hit tool a current grade of 30 (on the 20-80 scale). What does that mean? In essence, if we want the abbreviated answer, that should make Ahmed a .220 hitter. McDaniel projects some growth, perhaps up to the 40-grade mark, making him a .240 hitter. If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, that all sounds about right and meshes with everything we’ve read and seen. Even though Ahmed is hitting a microscopic .125 right now, his BABIP of .194 is surely suppressing his average to a degree. It’s not far-fetched to think he’s a .215-.225 hitter right now. Whether he can become a .240 hitter down the road, well, that’s another story and something that closing those holes in his swing, and perhaps getting his foot down sooner, might help.
So, just for fun, let’s say that Ahmed does indeed turn into a player who can hit .240, walk 6% of the time and strikeout around 16% of the time with virtually no power and maybe 15-ish steals. What is that worth? Below are some batter seasons from recent memory that more or less fall in line with this thinking:
- 2014 Aaron Hill with less power and more steals
- 2014 Jason Kipnis with fewer walks (Kipnis was hurt)
- 2014 Domonic Brown with less power and more steals
- 2013 Alcides Escobar with more walk and more strikeouts
- 2013 Starlin Castro with less power and more steals
- 2012 Cameron Maybin with less walks and less strikeouts
- you can look up the stats on these seasons if you really want to, but be prepared to be underwhelmed
Hey, look! Aaron Hill! That should be familiar enough for us to recognize. And unfortunately, this scenario is more or less best-case for Nick. But, Ahmed does play outstanding defense at a marquee position and the best comparison here is Alcides Escobar. So, while Ahmed should walk and strikeout a little more, he probably won’t quite ever attain Escobar’s level of defense. In 2013, Escobar was worth 1.1 WAR by hitting .234/.259/.300 with four home runs and 22 steals. Give Ahmed a touch more power but fewer steals and really, all of this should even out to Ahmed being a 0.8-1.5 WAR player depending on some variance. Maybe he has a season where everything breaks right and he’s worth a win more. Maybe he has a season where nothing clicks and he’s worth nothing above replacement level or worse. Either way, he should settle in the just above replacement-level category for the bulk of his career.
That’s clearly not enough production to make him a major contributor and definitely not enough to make him a starter on a first-division team. As we’ve said all along, Nick Ahmed is basically the old Cliff Pennington (before his range started to diminish a little). And the D-backs don’t need two of the same player, but that’s just what they have. Add Chris Owings and his struggles into the mix and it’s not a whole lot better. And this is all after Didi Gregorius played his way right out of town. Everyone’s getting an audition but no one’s really winning the part.
The experiment continues. Ahmed will remain in the lineup for now. There are no real alternatives other than shuffling the other non-exciting pieces around. Owings is already playing every day. Scratch Ahmed and you probably get more Hill, Pennington and/or Yasmany Tomas. That’s not really all that helpful from a winning or development standpoint, and that’s why I’d rather see if Ahmed can make the necessary adjustments to at least turn himself into something of value. With the realistic expectations being pretty low, there’s no reason not to continue trying, at least for another week or two, then re-evaluate the situation.
Can Nick Ahmed make adjustments in that time? Can he improve his swing and his approach? He’d better, because right now, even considering his defense, he’s walking a very fine line. At some point, the organization will have no choice but to remove him if he doesn’t improve, even if it means making the team worse defensively. Hopefully it won’t come to that and Nick Ahmed can become at least palatable at the bottom of the order. After all, that’s all anyone’s ever really been expecting.
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