There is a saying about growth and development that goes something like “what got you here, won’t get you there.” It’s hard to find more true words regarding professional baseball’s unforgiving system for sorting young players into wheat and chaff.
Hundreds of new players get chances to prove themselves in the grind of the minor leagues each year, while hundreds of others see their opportunities end. It’s not a pure meritocracy – high draft picks and signings with big bonuses will always get preferential treatment and extra opportunities – but major league players can and do come from all kinds of pedigrees.
No matter the background, opportunities to advance to the next rung of the ladder are often predicated on a player’s ability to change and adjust to new challenges and increasing levels of difficulty. Mastering one level is no guarantee of success at the next and sometimes seemingly minor changes can change everything for the better.
That’s recently been the case for two of the Twins’ top hitting prospects, José Miranda and Edouard Julien.
Miranda, as is well known now after a strong rookie season filled with clutch highlights, destroyed AA and AAA pitching in 2021 to the tune of .344 / .401 / .572 (.421 wOBA) across 591 combined plate appearances. Miranda socked 30 homers, 32 doubles, and drove in 94 runs in a breakout campaign that saw him added to the back end of multiple top-100 prospect lists heading into the 2022 season.
Julien followed Miranda’s lead in his first season in AA last season when he hit .300 / .441 / .490 (.422) over 508 plate appearances. Julien added 17 homers, 19 doubles, 3 triples, and 19 stolen bases while also collecting 98 walks during the regular season. He was invited to showcase his patience, power, and speed combination in the Arizona Fall League following the season. There, he led the league in batting average and on-base percentage and was named the Breakout Player of the Year. Like Miranda before, Julien was added to the Twins' 40-man roster last month and will likely find himself shooting up the prospect lists released next spring.
Miranda’s 2021 and Julien’s 2022 are the two most productive single seasons by Twins position player prospects age 23 or younger in the high minors since Max Kepler’s .429 wOBA AA breakout in 2015.
In both cases, the great seasons were not necessarily wholly unforeseeable. Both players were highly-regarded prospects. Miranda was a second-round draft choice in 2016. Julien was drafted much later, in the 18th round in 2019, but the Twins dipped into their bonus pool to pay him like a 4th-rounder ($493K) and pried the Canada-born prospect away from Auburn University as a draft-eligible sophomore.
But reaching this level of performance and prospect outlook required development and approach adjustments that had to do with how often and at what kinds of pitches they swung the bat. Interestingly, the adjustments required were opposite from one another.
Miranda needed to swing the bat less and Julien needed to swing the bat more.
“Look to do damage”
Prior to 2021, Miranda hadn’t really made good on his draft status. He hit a middling .257/.325/.397 in two seasons of rookie ball, then showed only modest growth with .277/.326/.434 in A-ball. His first attempt at high-A, 27 games in 2018, yielded a disappointing .216/.292/.353 line and he repeated the level in 2019, but without much improvement: .248/.299/.364.
Despite those marginal results, Miranda’s scouting report prior to 2020 lauded his pure swing and outstanding bat-to-ball skills:
He has a great swing with the ability to make a lot of contact from the right side of the plate. He rarely strikes out, something that continued even as he struggled in 2019 with an 11.3 percent K rate. He has the ability to drive the ball to all fields, though his home run power comes mostly to his pull side.
That report also pinpointed the double-edged nature of those elite contact skills:
While his contact rate is impressive, it also can be his downfall. He needs to shrink the strike zone more and learn not to swing at everything, as he gets himself out on pitchers’ pitches too often. With better decision-making, he could approach average power.
Reflecting back on Miranda then, Twins player development director Alex Hassan said to Aaron Gleeman late in the 2021 season, “He has such good feel for the barrel, it almost didn’t matter what the pitcher threw. He was going to be aggressive because he knew he could hit the ball.”
When the pandemic wiped out the 2020 minor league season, the Twins got to work with Miranda remotely and at the alternate training site to tighten up his approach. “We challenged him to be more selective early in the count. Let’s try to narrow your strike zone early in the count and look to do more damage,” Hassan said.
Without games to showcase his new selectivity in 2020, the Twins took a chance in the winter between 2020 and 2021 and elected not to protect a rule 5 draft-eligible Miranda. He went undrafted by the 29 other clubs, something that seems almost impossible now.
“We kind of asked him to shave off the edges,” said Ryan Smith, Miranda’s hitting coach with AA-Wichita in 2021, said to Dan Hayes in the spring of 2022. “Only swing at the pitches you’re going to absolutely hammer. Obviously, he’s going to expand that and put that bat-to-ball ability in his back pocket. With two strikes you always have that ability there when you need it. But earlier in counts, look to do damage and just at one spot, one zone.”
“There really aren’t words to describe the way he performed last year and how fun it was to watch,” Smith said. “He came into instructs and dominated. That was the COVID (year) and it just never stopped.
Happy Birthday, Jose Miranda (@Franki2998)!— Minor League Baseball (@MiLB) June 30, 2021
The @Twins' No. 16 prospect has THREE HOMERS in his Triple-A @StPaulSaints debut!
He now has 5 H through 6: https://t.co/ys5Dl9YyPI pic.twitter.com/A42vTkpwI2
Miranda started 2021 with Wichita and cracked 13 homers – just 3 shy of his full-season career-high to that point – in just 47 games. All the while, Miranda batted .345, maintained his excellent ability to avoid strikeouts (11.5%), and bumped up his walk rate to 7.8%. A mid-season promotion to Triple-A yielded more of the same and Miranda found himself in the majors to stay in 2022.
“He’s always been really hard to strike out, with incredible bat-to-ball skills,” Hassan said. “Now we’re starting to see that profile come together, where he’s driving the ball and he’s still maintaining that incredible bat-to-ball skill.”
That combination proved effective at the major league level where Miranda produced a .268/.325/.426 rookie line with a better-than-average 18.8% strikeout rate. By wRC+, Miranda’s 117 mark was the ninth-most productive offensive rookie season for the Twins since 2001, and he led the team with 66 runs batted in.
“Patient bordering on passive”
Julien led minor league baseball with 110 walks in 2021, his first professional action after Tommy John surgery and the pandemic wiped out his first two pro seasons. That season, he slashed .266/.434/.480 at low-A Ft. Myers and high-A Cedar Rapids, knocking 18 homers and swiping 34 bases.
He’d always had drawing walks as part of his profile, going back to his amateur days in Quebec and at Auburn. Julien disclosed to FanGraphs’ David Laurila that future Hall of Famer and plate discipline savant (and fellow Canadian) Joey Votto and Dodgers’ on-base machine Max Muncy are two of the players he most tries to emulate.
“It’s always been part of my game to have a good eye, to swing at good pitches and not chase out of the strike zone,” Julien said before the 2022 season to Gleeman. “Last year I took it to another step. I was more focused on what I wanted and my approach was more defined. I knew what I wanted to hit and what I didn’t want to hit. I knew my strengths a little bit more.”
While Julien was willing to work counts, those deep counts and the resulting frequent count disadvantage suppressed his batting average (.266) and inflated his strikeout rate (28.0%).
In his Twins prospect writeups before last season, FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen described Julien as “patient, bordering on passive.” There wasn’t anything really “wrong” with Julien’s production in A-ball — in fact, his production trailed only Miranda in the Twins’ system — but it was fair to question if his approach was sustainable against higher-level pitchers that would be better able to finish him off when they got ahead.
Julien’s swing had been geared for power, with his strength, bat speed, and natural loft all being cited as pluses in his draft day scouting reports. He and the Twins player development staff felt that he could better tap into that power potential and short-circuit some strikeouts by being more aggressive early in counts.
“Whenever you go up a level, the pitching gets better, and the mistakes, they don’t do it as much,” Julien said to Gleeman before the 2022 season. “That’s one of my adjustments I’m trying to make this year. To be more aggressive early and to challenge, and when I get my pitch, to go for it.”
The more aggressive approach helped Julien cut his strikeout rate down to 24.9%. At the same time, he maintained a walk rate above 19%, finished second in all of affiliated baseball with 98 walks, and increased each of his triple-slash stats, despite moving up a level.
“My approach was less passive this year,” Julien acknowledged to Laurila during his recent stint in the AFL. “In 2021, I was waiting for pitches way more. This year, I wanted to be more aggressive, swinging early on off-speed pitches that were hung, and going after fastballs that I felt I could do damage on. Hitting for a higher average was the goal. I’m happy with what I was able to accomplish.”
Edouard Julien has been one of the standouts here in the AFL. He possesses one of the minor league's most discerning eyes and has been flashing above-average game power of late. Here's two angles and the slow-mo open face of his home run from Thursday afternoon. #Twins pic.twitter.com/VpDiGv5KKw— Geoff Pontes (@GeoffPontesBA) November 4, 2022
“He took major steps forward,” concurred Derek Falvey, Minnesota’s President of Baseball Operations. “He’s always been a pretty good hitter. We knew that he had good plate discipline — he knows the strike zone and will take his walks — and this year he learned how to get his bat to the ball more efficiently, and more consistently.”
Even with their success and improved future outlooks – one scout covering the Arizona Fall League compared Julien’s bat to Luis Arráez, “but more selective, more power” and Carlos Correa publicly stumped for Miranda to be considered “untouchable” at last season’s trading deadline – both players realize that what got them here won’t necessarily get them there. Neither player thinks he is a finished product and they both still see room to grow.
That’s true at the plate, where both players will try to build on their refined approaches and identify the next adjustment that could unlock their next level.
For Miranda, that’s continuing to hone his selectivity against the games’ best arms after he chased out of the zone at a 32.7% clip (25th percentile) last season. “Obviously, in the big leagues, they pitch you different,” Miranda said last October. “There are some better pitchers overall, but it’s a game of adjustments. They make adjustments with you. You make adjustments with them. I think I have the same plan as last year, but there’s some days where, obviously, you get out of the plan.”
Julien wants to build off last year’s gains to produce more extra-base damage while maintaining his discipline. “I think the next step for me is to be able to drive more pitches over the fence, and to hit more doubles and triples,” said Julien to Laurila this past fall. “At the same time, I want to keep the same mentality of taking my walks and hitting for average. I want to keep getting on base at a high clip.”
Whereas Miranda and Julien have always had outlier skills with the bat, they also have had persistent question marks on defense, which make the need for continued development there especially clear.
They’ve both moved around the diamond as they’ve progressed up the ladder. The Twins' plan now has Miranda locked in as the primary third baseman and he has an offseason plan geared around getting in better shape so he can improve on his below-average defensive marks (-4 OAA, -6 DRS, 0 UZR).
Julien could be a factor in that 2023 plan, too, but also needs to improve with the glove, with Falvey saying to Laurila at the November GM Meetings, “he [Julien] easily could factor into our plans next year — at some point over the course of the year. The last remaining area for him is the defensive side of the ball. He’s played second base, and there is still work to be done defensively.”