The future of Sappelt in The Show

This post is not a corporate tie-in with MLB '11 The Show, Comedy's Central's Chapelle's Show or Futurism. With that disclaimer out of the way, it's time to talk Dave Sappelt.

Sappelt was drafted with little fanfare out of Coastal Carolina by the Reds in the 9th round of the 2008 draft. He had been a three-time All Star outfielder in three seasons in the Big South conference. The first mention I can find of him in a Red Reporter post was Farmer's Only from Independence Day, 2008, in which Sappelt was a triple short of the cycle in a game for Billings Mustangs. He starting hitting pretty much right away in Rookie ball, compiling an 850 OPS in in '08. His offense flagged a little in low and high A ball - not at all surprising, given the Reds A+ affiliate was still in Sarasota at the time. The Florida League is famously pitcher-friendly. And to a lesser extent, so is the Midwest League in which low-A Dayton plays. He continued to steal bases, pilfering 47 in 136 games in 2009 across two levels.

As soon as he reached AA Carolina early into 2010, Sappelt's career took flight on the fins of a Mudcat. Sappelt slashed a torrid .361/.416/.548 in 372 AA plate appearances.  He was promoted to Louisville for the final 25 games of the 2010 season and since then has compiled a more svelte, but respectable .316/.374/.464 in 451 PAs with the Bats, though his stolen bases have fallen off since 2010.

In over 800 plate appearances, Sappelt has hit for average, gotten on base and shown good power to the gaps. There's little question both his defense and speed would be an asset in the majors right now. His ability to range around LF is probably on par with Chris Heisey, and elite among anyone currently stuck in that revolving door. The question for Sappelt - and it's a big one facing hitters with his skill-set and draft caliber - is how will his bat play in the major leagues?

The easiest knock against Sappelt is his stature. He's listed at 5'9", which is decidedly short at any position. Average height in the outfield is over 6-ft across all three positions. But this only really matters in a bell curve sort of way - and not any specific way that would limit an individual player's ability to hit the ball, run fast or make catches. Dustin Pedroia is also 5'9" and while he may be in an infielder, that's not relevant when he's at the plate. Is Lenny Dykstra a bad example? For baseball ability, I mean? A smaller strike zone has to cut against some of the disadvantages of stature.

So while Sappelt's height and lack of pedigree will continue to create nagging doubts, he's proven he can hit in the high minors. And his spring spent as Goodyear, AZ's Newest Hitmaker hinted that he might be able to hit major league pitching too. At least major league pitching that's trying not to get injured or is "making adjustments," with some minor league pitching thrown in there too, in a hitter-friendly environment. So just minor league pitching again. Still, his .564/.571/.974 across over 40 Spring PAs was calculator-busting.

A more valid concern that his previous lack of prospect status, in my mind, is his plate approach. Baseball Cube's profile page on Sappelt rates his patience as the weakest, by far, of his 5 attributes. While it should probably be taken with an entire shaker of salt, his walk rate in college was 8.38%, improving each year.  He's also shown improvement in plate discipline over his pro career, reaching its highest rate this year in Louisville (8.93%), while cutting down on Ks at every level since the beginning of 2011 (11.3%, 2010 @ AAA and 11.6% this season).

If Sappelt's walk rate were to settle in between 8-9%, he'd be reaching base by the free pass as much as 50% more than Chris Heisey, at roughly the same rate as Drew Stubbs and about 1% less than Fred Lewis (the Reds' trio of attempted lead-off hitters this season). Sappelt's contact skills, however, might give him a significant advantage in getting on base. If his AA/AAA numbers held, Sappelt would keep a K-rate around 11-12%, he'd be making more contact that all three and almost 3x as much as Stubbs. Sappelt's high average in the minors suggest his contact skills could get him on base pretty often.

The question would then be whether Sappelt could pick good pitches to hit and make good contact against major league pitching, getting hits to fall against major league defenses. Just 31 PAs into his major league career, there's been almost no evidence of any plate discipline or good pitch selection. He's seeing just 3.2 pitchers per plate appearance, has not walked yet, while slapping seven singles. I'm inclined to throw this out entirely: it's a mere 31 PAs at the beginning of an MLB career. The only thing it might be starting to tell us is that is that Sappelt is not yet ready for network primetime.

There's also the question of The Power: Can a shorter player who's never been billed as a power hitter hold down left field? His isolated power has been dropping since he moved up from AA. It's reasonable to put his absolute HR ceiling at 20. How important his power is probably depends again on what you think of his contact skills. Can he continue to hit for average in the majors, pushing his OBP up around .360, while finding the gaps? Not making outs, showing oubles power and good LF defense could make him not only a starter, but a valuable one.

Contact-driven OBP depends more on where the ball is hit, which can make it tempermental. Plate discipline can be less slumpy and power can be a more durable good, inasmuch as the loss of it can mean doubles instead of ground-outs. When Juan Pierre's average fell off 5%, he lost 100 points in OPS. I hate to compare Sappelt to Pierre, but I guess I already did. It's just a cautionary tale.

I don't like to make pronouncements about how players are going to turn out. Even if we know his fortunes are more contingent than some prospects, it's just really hard to know whether and how long it would take for Sappelt's success in the high minors to transfer to the majors. If he can start hitting the ball hard and away from baseball gloves soon, he might be in the starting mix next year. If he can't, he might need to pay another visit to that huge bat they have in Louisville.

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