Virtually every conversation about Colorado Rockies prospects in the national media these days begins and ends with AA pitchers Eddie Butler and Jon Gray. This is understandable. Butler and Gray are truly elite talents, they’re producing quality results on the field, and they’re ever so close to seeing their faces rendered in 27-foot tall pixelated glory on the scoreboard at Coors Field in games that may actually matter. But in the shadow of these two behemoths are several additional impact prospects in the Rockies system, and the most interesting of all may be a teenage third baseman named Ryan McMahon.
McMahon was drafted with the 42nd overall pick in the 2013 draft, which was a tad sooner than most pre-draft projections suggested. Baseball America, for example, had him ranked the 82nd best prospect available. McMahon signed relatively quickly for $1.3M, forgoing a scholarship to the University of Southern California, and was assigned to the Rockies entry-level, minor league squad in Grand Junction. An interesting tidbit about McMahon: he was also the quarterback of his school’s football team, the Mater Dei Monarchs of Santa Ana, CA, a school also known as “Quarterback High.”
McMahon was not considered to be an easy guy to sign, which is perhaps why the Rockies drafted him when they did. McMahon might have been available to the Rockies a round later, but they may not have been able to actually lure him to the alter with the bonus money budgeted for that slot, about half of what McMahon actually received. Moreover, the new MLB draft rules adopted in 2012 make it more difficult for clubs to buy prep stars out of their collegiate intentions. Creative teams can manipulate the draft to selectively overspend on some selections while still complying with the overall MLB-imposed cap, and the Rockies did indeed “save” some money by signing the aforementioned Gray at a slight discount. However, those savings ended up going primary to two other high schoolers the Rockies drafted a few rounds later, Dom Nunez and Terry McClure, players the Rockies were likely targeting from the beginning. Bottom line: if the Rockies really wanted McMahon, they probably needed to pay him like the 42nd pick, so they just went ahead and made him the 42nd pick.
So far, McMahon has justified the Rockies love. After putting up a .984 OPS at Grand Junction last year, 2nd best in the Rookie Level Pioneer League, he’s hitting to an even better .991 OPS through May 8th this year at Asheville in the Class A South Atlantic League (SAL). This places him 3rd. By the metric wRC+, which is a more complicated, but also more accurate, measure of a player’s total offensive contribution, McMahon is equally impressive. His wRC+ of 147 in 2013 means that he was 47% better than the average offensive player in the Pioneer League, and was the 2nd highest mark that year. His wRC+ of 169 this year is the 5th best in the SAL so far.
Oh, and by the way, McMahon is generating these numbers with the sort of hits loud enough to hear from the beer line. He hit 11 HRs last year – the 5th most; and his slugging percentage, .583, was 2ndbest. So far this year, he’s the SAL leader with 10 HR (3rd in the entire minor leagues). The season is still young, folks; those 10 HRs constitute a HR per 10.7 ABs. That is quite literally Ruthian. While he’s unlikely to sustain that kind of home run pace, with nearly a full season’s worth of plate appearances under his belt between this year and last, we can be fairly confident that his overall level of production isn’t a mirage. McMahon looks every bit a capable striker of baseballs.
So alright, now that we’ve built this kid up, let’s see if we can tear him back down.
One of the first things we look for when a player puts up big minor league numbers is the player’s age. Basically, we want to know if the player is picking on kids his own size. There is a long history of prospects feasting on players younger than them in the lower minors, only to see their production evaporate in the upper minors as that age advantage diminishes.
So what about McMahon? He was 18 the entire 2013 season, 2.6 years younger than the average player’s age in his league. This year he’s 19 (McMahon plays baseball better than you, but he doesn’t age any differently); that’s 2.4 years younger than the average. Those handful of players who produced a better OPS or wRC+ than McMahon last year and this one? All of them older, in most cases by several years. There aren’t many kids at the playground for McMahon to pick on; in fact, he’s probably picking on your big brother, like, right now.
Another thing we tend to use to smother expectations associated with big minor league numbers is the environment and context in which the player operates. Rockies fans know all too well how certain parks can affect statistical outcomes. I’m going to focus on 2014 here because, while the Pioneer League is one of the most extreme hitter-friendly leagues in all of baseball – imagine a league made up almost entirely of Coors Fields – Grand Junction was itself a middle of the road park within that context. McMahon’s numbers were no doubt inflated, but no more than anyone else’s in his league, and we’ve already established that McMahon was better than almost all of them despite an age disadvantage.
His current environment is a different story. The SAL is neutral as a league, but McMahon benefits from playing half of his games at McCormick Field, the most hitter friendly park in that league. Not unlike the “yeah, but’s” every Rockies hitter hears whenever he does something special, every good Asheville Tourists hitter has to overcome a similar narrative. So let’s look a little deeper.
Along with OPS, I’ve been citing McMahon’s OPS wRC+. OPS is perhaps a bit more relatable, but I also included wRC+ in part to address this concern about park effects. wRC+, you see, adjusts for park advantages like the one McMahon enjoys. And again, wRC+ says that McMahon is a destroyer of worlds, regardless of galaxy. He slips only a few places down the league leaderboard by this measure, and one of the reasons that slippage is so slight may be this: McMahon is putting up even better numbers on the road! Home OPS: .916; Road OPS: 1.067.
However, in this case we need to look deeper still. A very specific reason that McCormick Field is so hitter-friendly is its extremely short porch in right field: 297 feet down the line and, even more relevantly, the scant 320 feet to right-center. They built the wall out there a bit higher to account for this, but it’s no Green Monster, and the extra height extends only partly into the power alley. This gives a left-handed power hitter like McMahon a very specific advantage.
The thing is, McMahon has only hit 3 of his 10 HRs at home. Moreover, take a look at this spray chart (with some of my own notes added) that shows the direction and approximate distance of McMahon’s homers:
Unfortunately, minor league spray charts aren’t as detailed or precise as those produced for major leaguers, but this chart nevertheless suggests that perhaps that only one, perhaps two, of those homeruns are McCormick-only dingers. (Also, by the way: check out the length of that opposite field shot!) Between this, his overall home/road splits, and the bottom-line production that, even adjusting for park advantages, places him amongst the Top 5 in his league, I think we can safely conclude that McMahon is not simply a McCormick Field creation.
The final common concern I’d like to address has to do with a prospect’s peripheral statistics. There is no doubt that McMahon has produced what he’s produced. However, after years of accumulated evidence and research, we know that there are certain indicators beyond a players headline numbers that do a better job than others of predicting what he’s likely to do in the future. And with all due respect to the faithful in Grand Junction and Asheville, most of us care far more about what McMahon will do than what he has done.
One of those indicators with some predictive value is BABIP, or Batting Average on Balls in Play. The idea behind BABIP is that what happens after a ball is hit in play, but not hit over the fence, is based on many factors apart from simply the hitter’ innate skill level, such as the quality of the defense and, of course, plain old luck. The average BABIP is about .300. A hitter certainly exerts some influence on his BABIP – if you hit balls harder more often, you make your own luck – but as long as we all keep that in mind, BABIP can tell us something useful.
So what about McMahon’s BABIP? His .396 BABIP in Grand Junction is high, but so much that it calls his performance there into question. His .310 in Asheville this year is quite neutral. With reliable granular data about each batted ball, we can get a sense of how much of McMahon’s luck he’s made for himself. Unfortunately, while that data does in fact exist, its reliability is question. That being said, McMahon’s line drive rate last year was slightly above average (average being about 20%), and his line drive rate this year is slightly below average. Ultimately, we don’t know for sure how lucky McMahon’s been with batted balls, but from what data we have access to, there isn’t any particular reason to believe his numbers are inflated by luck. This is good, because it means t’s more likely that McMahon can sustain this level of production going forward.
Another common set of peripheral statistics used in prospect evaluation are a players walk and strikeout rates. Of course, what we want to see is a high walk rate and a low strikeout rate. The former suggests that a player has a good understanding of the strike zone and good pitch recognition; the latter suggests that a player has good bat control. Walk and strikeout rates are not by any means perfect indicators of these traits, especially how those traits may or may not translate at higher levels, but they’re decent proxies.
Our man has mixed results in this area; McMahon has produced above-league-average rates in both categories, with both rates pressing even higher in this young season. So, what to make of this? Well, again, we’d love to see that strikeout rate come down, but based on some excellent work down by Chris St. John (@stealofhome), now of Beyond the Box Score, there’s good reason to believe that that superb walk rate of McMahon’s is more good than that elevated strikeout rate is bad.
We haven’t discussed defense yet. The short version of this story is that McMahon’s pre-draft scouting reports were overwhelmingly positive and his defensive measurable thus far have been mixed. His error rate is higher than we’d like, but error rates in the minor leagues – especially the low minors – run as much as 3 to 4 times higher than MLB standards, and McMahon’s range factor, a crude measure of the number of plays McMahon makes in the field, is very strong. Until we have more information to process, I think it’s best to rely on the eye test administered by professional evaluators. McMahon should be more than capable of playing good third base defense at the major league level.
So what does all this mean? Maybe nothing at all, since most prospects, even the most highly regarded ones, fail. But trends and probabilities apply generally, not specifically. Ryan McMahon was a high draft pick who has passed virtually every test presented to him thus far. When the major prospect rating organizations release their lists next year, McMahon will likely be on them. And one of either McMahon or David Dahl, another Rockies superprospect and McMahon’s partner in baseball crime in Asheville, is likely to be the highest rated position prospect in the Rockies system.
Should McMahon continue along his present trajectory, the Rockies will be faced with the kind of “problem” any team would love to have. Currently manning the hot corner, of course, is one of the best young third baseman in the sport. Nolan Arenado is a budding superstar who, even without a long-term contract extension, is under team control for another 5 seasons after this one.
The good news for the Rockies is that third basemen are a relatively scarce commodity these days. If the Rockies make a Tulo or Cargo-esque commitment to Arenado sometime in the next few years, and McMahon keeps this up, they would be free to trade the prospect for what would likely be a very solid return – perhaps a return featuring a major leaguer to contribute to what may be a contending season in the near future. Alternatively, if Arenado and the Rockies do not come to terms on a long term extension, a MLB-ready Ryan McMahon would allow the Rockies to shop Arenado instead, which would, again, likely net a very solid return.
The third possibility would be to shift McMahon to another position. While I believe a first baseman’s ability to scoop bad throws and make the leap-n-swipe play is severely underrated, guys with third-base quality hands and range tend to make for pretty dag-gone OK defenders at the less-hot corner. McMahon also has the athleticism to play in a corner outfield spot. Given McMahon’s background as a shortstop in high school, it’s tempting to think that he could also play second base, especially since the Rockies have had such a shortage of good players at that position over the years. However, it’s common for superior athletes to play short stop at that level – guys like McMahon are men amongst boys in high school – and given the difficulty of the position and the fact that the Rockies have yet to give him any playing time there, McMahon as a second baseman is purely speculative at this point. Each of these positions alternative positions – save second base – requires a player to generate significant offensive output to be viable, but if McMahon keeps this up, that bat of his will play anywhere on the diamond.
You can follow Ryan McMahon’s utterly unstoppable romp to Coors Field at https://twitter.com/RyMac_15.
And if you happen to live in – or travel through – the Asheville, SC, area, be sure to keep a look out for raining home runs.