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Is Zack Granite better than we think?

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Traditional scouts see Granite as a fourth outfielder, but he might be capable of more.

Baltimore Orioles v Minnesota Twins
A top prospect and a silver fox?! Sign me up.

Twinkie Town’s crowd-sourced Community Prospect vote is still chugging along, rolling down the list of Twins prospects from No. 1 to No. 30. The Twinkie Town community recently named Zack Granite, the 25-year-old left-handed outfielder, the organization’s 17th-best prospect. Over at Twins Daily, Granite didn’t crack the Top 20.

After making his major-league debut last season, most of the national prospect community doesn’t rate Granite much more highly than the locals. Baseball Prospectus slotted him in between 11 and 20 (they arrange the 11th through 20th players alphabetically, and also are the only major publication that spells Granite’s first name as “Zach,” for some reason); over at MLB.com, the MLB Pipeline team ranked Granite as the No. 27 prospect in the Twins’ organization; and Baseball America also chose Granite as the No. 27 minor-leaguer under the club’s control.

All three of these national prospect rankings combine analytics with more traditional scouting and fall somewhere along the sabermetrics-to-scouting spectrum: generally speaking, BP is the most analytically driven, while BA and MLB.com skew more scout-centric.

The more a ranking system relies on scouting, the less likely they are to like Granite. This, I think, is because Granite just looks so much like a fourth outfielder/Quadruple-A guy.

He’s got a flat, level swing that generates line drives and ground balls; he likes to bunt and steal bases; he’s a very good fielder with an average arm; he gets on base and doesn’t strike out much; and he has no power to speak of.

Here’s Baseball Prospectus’ write-up on Granite (and, keep in mind, they are the highest on Granite of any of the three aforementioned national publications):

This is about the point in list season where I get really bored with speedy fourth outfielder types. This is no reflection on Zach Granite [sic], and we should strive for professionalism at all times (it will be good practice for the upcoming Mariners list). So just the facts, man. Granite is a 70 runner who can provide an above-average glove at all three outfield positions. At the plate he offers a strong approach, well-below-average power — and little in the way of further projection there — and questions about exactly how much he will hit against high-level pitching. The glove and speed will get him plenty of opportunities to sit on a major league bench. And Granite has used his good eye and line-drive swing to hit at every level other than the majors so far. That last part can be tricky, but he doesn’t have to hit a ton to shoot past that fourth outfielder projection and into a starting center field role.

And MLB Pipeline’s take:

Grante [sic] has the chance to profile well at the top of the order. Staying healthy has helped his development and he has a firm understanding of the kind of game he needs to play to succeed. He makes a lot of contact with an outstanding strikeout-to-walk ratio. There’s not a ton of power in his left-handed swing, but he does drive the ball to the gaps enough to keep outfielders honest. He is the best basestealer in the system and tied for the Minor League lead with 56 steals a year ago. Granite has seen time in both center field and left and can handle either capably.

Granite likely profiles best as a fourth outfielder, needing a little bit more bat to be a regular. Then again, Juan Pierre played every day in the big leagues for quite some time and while Granite doesn’t quite have that kind of speed, that is the kind of player he can be.

It’s probably not a great sign that these two sites both misspelled Zack Granite’s name in two different ways, though one (MLB’s) was clearly just a typo. At any rate, Zach Grante [sic] doesn’t rate highly enough that (1) anyone noticed or (2) anyone fixed it.

Baseball America doesn’t brand him with the “fourth outfielder” tag outright, but they use the kind of language that lets you know they’re thinking it (they also call him “scrappy,” so make sure you scratch that off your White Position Player Bingo Card):

A classic undersized scrapper in the Brett Butler mold ... he is a 60-runner with the basestealing instincts to match. Granite makes up for an average arm in center field with solid routes and jumps, and he showed the ability to play all three spots during a pair of big league callups in 2017. ... [Granite earned] the trust of manager Paul Molitor with his situational hitting and bunting ability. ... Granite has well below-average power but shows a good approach, advanced plate discipline, a line-drive swing and enough strength to hit balls in the gaps.

“Undersized,” “basestealing instincts,” “average arm,” “situational hitting,” “bunting ability,” “well below-average power,” “good approach,” “line-drive swing” — that’s all code for “fourth outfielder material.” It sounds like the writeup for your fifth-choice prom date. Not bad, exactly. They’ll fill in ably, sure, and they’ll treat you just fine; but you won’t be writing any seminal pop songs about Zack Granite: Prom Date.

There is one prospect ranking system, however, that sees something much different — and potentially greater — in Zack Granite. That system is Fangraphs’ KATOH.

Unlike Baseball America or MLB Pipeline, KATOH ignores all that old-school scout speak about “good faces” and “high butts,” and, simply put, scouts the stat line — and nothing else.

Chris Mitchell, who developed KATOH for Fangraphs (and sadly will not be replicating the process in future seasons after a mystery team/organization scooped him up and made KATOH proprietary), describes the KATOH process thusly:

KATOH produces a WAR forecast for a player’s first six major-league seasons. It incorporates age, offensive performance, defensive performance, and other characteristics from the past two seasons. There are certainly drawbacks to scouting the stat line, but due to their objectivity, the projections can be useful in identifying prospects who might be overlooked or overrated.

KATOH is a cold, calculating algorithm that has no time for a player’s makeup or whether he looks the part. And, boy howdy, does KATOH like Zack Granite.

According to KATOH, Zack Granite is the No. 6 prospect — not on the Twins, but in all of baseball. Yes, slappy, scrappy, little Zack Granite ranks ahead of famous sons Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., to drop a couple names, and 17 spots ahead of Royce Lewis, the Twins’ top prospect and the first overall pick in last year’s amateur draft. Baseball America and MLB Pipeline think there are 26 Twins prospects better than Granite; KATOH thinks there are only five superior prospects in the whole dang sport.

Here’s Mitchell’s explanation for why KATOH loves Zack Granite entering the 2018 season:

Granite’s back for his second tour of duty on the All-KATOH team, and frankly, his prospect case has only improved. He’s still a speed demon who plays elite center-field defense, which takes most of the pressure off of his bat. But more importantly, his offensive numbers took a huge step forward in 2017, as he hit a ridiculous .338/.392/.475 in Triple-A with an elite 11% strikeout rate. He’s also 6-foot-1, which some might find surprising given his style of play.

(Though he doesn’t nudge the sliders in either direction if a guy’s got a great bod, Mitchell does input players’ heights and weights to help KATOH predict how similarly sized players have performed in the past.)

Mitchell acknowledges that KATOH isn’t the only ranking system required to evaluate a prospect; it’s simply another tool in the toolbox. Mitchell includes the $0.02 of Fangraphs’ primary prospect maven (and former scout) Eric Longenhagen in the KATOH write-ups to give the scouting P.O.V.:

Granite’s swing is extremely linear and his approach includes mostly bunting, slashing and sprinting his way on base… This approach probably won’t work as well at the major-league level with better defenses but Granite’s BABIP this season was a modest .312 and he still found his way on base consistently.

[Note: This must have been Longenhagen’s 2017 report on Granite, since it cites his .312 BABIP in 2016; Fangraphs has yet to release all of its team-by-team prospect rankings for this season.]

Like Logenhagen, most scouts look at a hitter with Granite’s profile and believe that his terrific plate-discipline numbers will vanish at the bigs because, against elite pitching, the bat will start getting knocked out of his hands. Granite’s BABIP dropped from .371 in Triple-A to .250 in MLB last season, and one explanation is that Granite couldn’t hit the ball with authority against big-league pitchers. Mitchell nods to this but then points out: with Granite’s speed and defense, perhaps he doesn’t even need to hit all that much?

After destroying Triple-A pitching, Granite vindicated his doubters last year when he fell on his face in his first taste of big-league action. His strikeout and walk numbers actually improved upon his promotion, but his BABIP completely cratered. Was this a small-sample fluke? Or was it Eric Longenhagen’s prediction coming true that he’d get the bat knocked out his hands? The answer is likely a combination of both. But even if Granite’s hitting doesn’t carry over and he winds up being Billy Hamilton 2.0, that’s not so bad: Hamilton, after all, still racked up 10 WAR over four years despite a 70 wRC+. Even if Granite just hits a little bit, he’s a solid regular.

The Billy Hamilton comp might feel a bit hyperbolic — Hamilton is, after all, the man who stole 255 bases across two seasons of minor-league baseball and is neck-and-neck with Byron Buxton for the “Fastest Player” crown — but Granite is at least a poor man’s Hamilton.

On the bases, Granite has tremendous speed, but that speed didn’t translate into constructive baserunning in his first big-league season. Granite was the 18th-fastest player in all of baseball, according to Statcast’s Sprint Speed metric, but was actually a negative base runner by Fangraphs’ Baserunning Runs Above Average.

Part of it is classic small-sample stuff (Granite only reached base 30-odd times), and part is the kind of inexperience that often hampers youngsters on the bases. Granite stole two bases but was caught twice, and took the extra base just 50% of the time. All six times he was on second he scored on a single, but he never advanced from first to third on a single or scored from first on a double, per Baseball Reference. Again, he didn’t have too many opportunities, but he also didn’t take advantage of those he was given.

As you might expect, there’s a strong positive correlation between speed and baserunning prowess. I’ve plotted the 30 fastest MLB players by Sprint Speed against their Baserunning Runs Above Average; the blue trend line shows that, generally speaking, the faster you are, the better you are on the bases. Shocking, I know.

Data via Fangraphs & Baseball Savant; graph by Louie

Of the 30 fastest players last season, only three — the PhilliesNick Williams (-2.2), Granite (-1.5), and the AstrosDerek Fisher (-1.3) — were well below average in Baserunning Runs. (Granite’s numbers do not reflect his inability to touch first base in the postseason, thankfully.)

Data via Fangraphs & Baseball Savant; graph & paintbrush by Louie

This trio may actually hearten Twins fans who hope Granite can become a better baserunner: Williams and Fisher are both 24 and have played 83 and 53 career MLB games, respectively; Granite is 25 and has appeared in just 40 big-league games. All three are plagued by small-sample-size issues and are green on the base paths.

They should all improve with more opportunities and experience — though, in true “baseball is a cruel mistress” fashion, they will also all slow down. But at least for the next couple of years, Granite should be in that sweet spot of improved instincts and baserunning acumen while retaining (most of) his blazing speed.

In the field, Granite’s speed has played up more noticeably and immediately.

According to UZR/150, which extrapolates a player’s UZR across a full season (150 games), Granite was 15th among centerfielders, three spots behind Hamilton. Again, there are a lot of small sample size issues because Hamilton patrolled center for 1,000 more innings than Granite. Let’s look at a counting stat then, one that puts Granite at a distinct disadvantage.

Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric, which uses Statcast batted ball data to divine how many more fly balls an outfielder snagged than expected, gives Granite credit for 4 OAA, 28th in baseball and only 6 behind Hamilton, who, again, played 1,175.1 innings in center to Granite’s 174. (Buxton led all outfielders with 25 Outs Above Average.)

On a percent basis, which Statcast calculates by subtracting Actual Catch Percentage from Expected Catch Percentage, Granite ranked eighth among all MLB outfielders, one spot behind Buxton and 19 ahead of Hamilton. Granite does not have a strong arm, but most scouts don’t ding him for it; most rate his left wing as average.

With his top-tier speed and some more time getting acclimated at the major-league level, Granite is already a plus-outfielder and has the potential to be a terrific baserunner. Not too many scouts or statheads would argue with that. At the plate, however, is where a numbers-only projection system like KATOH and seasoned bird-doggers diverge.

Baltimore Orioles v Minnesota Twins
Zack Granite’s swing looked suspect in ‘17. But is there more than meets the eye?
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The weak and silent type

KATOH’s case for ‘Zack Granite: The Hitter’ is fairly simple: 24-year-olds who walk as much as they strikeout, bat .338/.392/.475, and flash lightning speed at Triple-A in their fifth pro season end up being solid major-league players.

As I mentioned before, Granite’s BABIP plummeted from Triple-A to the pros, and one popular explanation is that he can’t handle high-velocity, high-end pitching. Judging from his plate discipline numbers, however, it looks to me like Granite simply needed to sacrifice a little contact for some more oomph.

Granite had a very, shall we say, distinctive approach at the plate in his 40 games for the Twins last season. He didn’t swing. When he did, he didn’t miss. Of the 435 batters with at least 100 plate appearances in 2017, Granite ranked 424th in Swing Percentage, and 435th in Swinging Strike Percentage. (Or 1st in Swinging Strike Percentage, if you think about it.)

Data via Fangraphs; graph by Louie

Granite used this uber-patient approach to post a 1.33 BB/K rate, the second-best in the sample behind only Joey Votto. It was the best walk-to-strikeout rate Granite had posted since a 19-game stint at Low-A in 2015. Granite’s patience allowed him to manage a .321 OBP despite batting only .237 with a meager .250 BABIP.

His penchant for passing on pitches didn’t mean he was just full-on slap-happy, though; though Granite wasn’t lighting up Exit Velocity leaderboards like Miguel Sano or Aaron Judge, he certainly hit the ball hard enough — and with the type of Launch Angle — to not embarrass himself.

Data and graph via Baseball Savant

Granite sits comfortably in the low-middle in Exit Velocity and roughly the same in Launch Angle, per the Statcast data housed at Baseball Savant. Obviously, one is better as it increases and the other begins to have diminishing returns. Though there is literally no downside to having the highest Exit Velocity possible, an elite EV coupled with a sky-high Launch Angle simply means you’re hitting really hard pop-ups. For a guy with his speed, Granite’s Launch Angle is probably right around where it should be.

Looking at his Exit Velocity, however, it seems he could sacrifice a few more swings-and-misses for a few more MPHs.

Data and graph via Baseball Savant

Even if he doesn’t change his approach, Granite is a speedy left-handed hitter who makes crazy-good contact, walks a lot, and doesn’t strike out all too often. That’s a good recipe.

The above batting GIFs also illustrate why stats are keener on Granite than scouts: his swing isn’t exactly pretty. His wrists appear to be taped together, giving him no whip whatsoever. I’m not a swing expert, but I can see why someone who is wouldn’t be blown away by Granite’s choppy slash. I’m sure there’s plenty of work Granite can do to tinker with his swing, but let’s not forget: it’s been effective! He’s been a consistent, bat-on-ball batsman who works counts and puts it in play. This is what a fast lefty with little power should be doing.

It was always going to be an uphill battle to find Granite playing time in an outfield with only two real semi-vacancies and three other outfielders — Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler, and Robbie Grossman — in the mix. Although last weekend’s Logan Morrison signing mostly spells doom for Kennys Vargas, Morrison has played outfield before and is another lefty hitter on a team teeming with them.

Granite has one asset in his favor that fellow lefties Rosario, Kepler, and Morrison can’t boast: an ability to hit southpaws. (Switch-hitting Robbie Grossman has been slightly better against lefties than righties in his career.)

In more than 400 professional at-bats against lefties, Granite has demonstrated an ability to hold his own — and occasionally even outperform his splits against righties. (I’ve removed Granite’s four games in Rookie ball in 2014 and five games at High-A last season because they were awfully small samples.)

Zack Granite vs. LHPs

Year/Level AB BA OBP SLG OPS vs. LHP OPS vs. RHP OPS Split +/-
Year/Level AB BA OBP SLG OPS vs. LHP OPS vs. RHP OPS Split +/-
2017 MLB 17 0.353 0.450 0.529 0.979 0.528 0.451
2017 AAA 93 0.323 0.357 0.398 0.755 0.921 -0.166
2016 Double-A 127 0.291 0.345 0.339 0.684 0.744 -0.060
2015 High-A 99 0.293 0.402 0.343 0.745 0.591 0.154
2015 Low-A 19 0.421 0.522 0.526 1.048 0.876 0.172
2014 Low-A 20 0.450 0.476 0.500 0.976 0.592 0.384
2013 Rookie 40 0.500 0.574 0.650 1.224 0.601 0.623
Data via MiLB.com

Rosario and Morrison are passable vs. lefties, OPS-ing just 16% worse against same-handers. By the end of last season, Kepler couldn’t crack the lineup against lefties, and for good reason: Kepler was abysmal against left-handers last year. Kepler batted .152/.213./.240 against lefties last season in 137 plate appearances, good for a wRC+ of 16 (100 is league-average), the second-worst mark of any batter in baseball with more than 100 trips to the plate against southpaws. Kepler has the most lopsided career OPS split versus lefties of any active left-handed hitter; for his career, he’s batted 56% worse against lefties than against righties (a .176/.242/.279 slash line, if you’re curious).

Lefties vs. Lefties

Player PA BA OBP SLG tOPS+ vs. lefties
Player PA BA OBP SLG tOPS+ vs. lefties
Eddie Rosario 386 0.279 0.301 0.403 84
Max Kepler 271 0.176 0.242 0.279 44
Logan Morrison 880 0.244 0.324 0.373 84
Zack Granite 20 0.353 0.450 0.529 223

(The final column up there, tOPS+ isn’t nearly as scary as it looks: it simply shows the discrepancy between a hitter’s OPS+ between two splits — in this case, batting against righties vs. batting against lefties. If a player’s tOPS+ is 100, he is equally good against both hands. Lower than 100, in this case, means the hitter is worse against lefties. Every number above or below the split represents a percentage difference — e.g., Zack Granite has hit left-handers 123% better than right-handers, according to OPS, through his very short MLB career.)

Kepler’s struggles against lefties most likely mean more playing time for Robbie Grossman, not Zack Granite. With Ehire Adrianza’s infield-outfield versatility and Morrison’s ability to play some emergency outfield, Granite seems destined for the minor leagues, which is no travesty or injustice. The Twins have upgraded their roster in small ways that should translate into more wins and less playing time for Granite. That’s OK! He could use some seasoning.

But the gap between Rosario, Grossman, Kepler, Granite may be smaller than we think.

Over the next six seasons, Baseball Prospectus projects Kepler to be worth 10.6 WARP; Rosario to be worth 7.7 WARP; Grossman to be worth 2.2 WARP (woof); and Granite to be worth 7.4. But KATOH? KATOH pegs Granite at 10.4 fWAR over the next six seasons. There is a non-zero chance that Zack Granite is the best of that quartet in the not-so-distant future. And I, for one, love the idea of throwing Granite out into the outfield with Buxton to buoy a pitching staff that hates missing bats.

If we trust our eyes less and our spreadsheets more, perhaps we can truly appreciate Zack Granite as more than just a fourth outfielder.

But, jeepers, that swing.