Phillip Ervin smacked a 3-run double for the Cincinnati Reds in yesterday's Cactus League game against the Oakland Athletics, in the process raising his spring line to a solid .357/.400/.571 in a tiny, tiny sample. If any time was a good one to look closer at Cincinnati's 1st round draftee from 2013, it's probably right now. Right?
What if I told you that of all the qualified players Phillip Ervin played with and against in the Southern League (AA) in 2016, only one of them managed to post a slugging percentage greater than .437? What if it was true that of all the qualified players Ervin played with and against in the Florida State League (A+) in 2015, only one player slugged better than .436 - and nobody slugged higher than .473?
Ervin, the 1st round pick of the Cincinnati Reds from the 2013 MLB Draft, hasn’t exactly rocketed up prospect lists in recent seasons after ranking as high as #63 overall in Baseball Prospectus’ Top 100 prior to the 2014 season. As a moderate-pop bat who most project to be a corner outfielder, his baseline offensive numbers have been mundane (to say the least) in both 2015 (.241/.346/.379) and 2016 (.239/.362/.399).
But underlying those slash lines has been the fact that he’s posted those across two leagues that have notoriously been extremely pitcher-friendly, which goes a long way towards spelling out how a 2016 slash line that seemingly innocuous was still good for a wRC+ of 126.
For instance, the idea of calculating minor league park factors is incredibly difficult, which makes it hard to concretely identify them as a contributing or debilitating factor on certain hitters. So few hitters stay with the same MiLB teams for more than a year, and big league affiliations and methodologies transfer teams with complete overhaul often enough to shake an already small sample to its core.
Every now and then, lightly-reported changes to the physical nature of a minor league park end up coinciding with on-field results in a way that would be much larger news at the big league level.
As Doug Gray looked at closely at RedsMinorLeagues.com back in December, the 17 foot LF fence move in Pensacola wasn't just a tangible change to the stadium, it was one that impacted the type of player Ervin is quite directly. The staggering difference between Ervin's home stats (.191/.348/.312 in 250 PA) and road stats (.282/.376/.477 in 255 PA) was also echoed directly in his home/road dinger splits, as he launched just 3 in Penscola while swatting 10 away from his 2016 home park.
Ervin looks likely to begin the 2017 season with the Louisville Bats, and while their home stadium hasn't exactly boasted the type of prime power-supporting numbers that may allow for Ervin to see a massive AAA power surge, he'll be on the cusp of a big league call-up to a team with a home stadium that may just be tailor-made for his swing. As a low-K, high contact, fly ball pull hitter, it's easy to see his home numbers in Pensacola's Blue Wahoos Stadium muted by a large number of fly-outs to LF that just couldn't clear the moved-back walls. Dating back to 2010, however, Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park park factor for RH hitters hitting HR has clocked in roughly 14% above league average each and every year, ranking it as the most or second-most friendly among all 30 teams each time.
In other words, if the numbers he produced outside of his cavernous home park in 2016 are more indicative of the real talent he possesses and he ever gets a regular shot at playing in Cincinnati's home park for half a year, we might well get to see the kind of production we all hoped to see from the former 1st round pick when he was drafted - and from when he destroyed Pioneer League and Midwest League pitching in his first year as a professional.
It's also worth noting that the suppressed numbers we traditionally look at with corner outfielders - dingers, slugging percentage, and batting average - have largely overshadowed some of the other aspects of Ervin's game that otherwise would stand out quite nicely. For instance, Ervin had a 12.9% BB rate and 36 steals last year in AA, indications of a solid control of the strike zone and the ability to change the game once on the bases. While MiLB to MLB conversions are far from easy to simply extrapolate from those stats, it's worth noting that among all MLB players who had the same number of MLB PAs as Phil had in AA, only five players had at least a 10.0% BB rate and more than 20 steals.
Those five players? Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Paul Goldschmidt, Jonathan Villar, and Wil Myers. Again, I'm not suggesting Ervin is anywhere close to the same category as those established star players, just that he brings to the table some of their select skills that most other players who reach the big leagues can't claim.
His .271 BABIP from the 2016 season is also a particular stat worth digging a bit deeper into, since it's not often you see a player with the speed necessary to steal 36 bags in a season also sport a BABIP that much lower than the ~.300 you'd expect given averages. That largely has to do with his profile as a fly-ball hitter, since average BABIP on fly balls that don't clear fences is much, much lower than the average line drive or grounder, and a cavernous home OF only accentuates that. In fact, as Gray pointed out earlier, his home mark (.236) was significantly lower than his road mark (.301), which may suggest Pensacola's stadium was a defining factor in this all.
At the big league level, it's rare to find a guy with that low of a BABIP who also steals bases, since so many of the speedsters in the majors got there primarily due to it being their accentuated skill to overcompensate for a lack of power and ability to turn fly balls into successes. Of the 20 players who stole more than 20 bags in MLB last year, only Harper, for instance, had a lower BABIP (.264).
So, where does all this leave us? Admittedly, it's easy to say that Pensacola was the lone root of his overall statistical problems, and that if he'd spent the year hitting .282/.376/.477 in the hitter-happy Pacific Coast League he'd have been the only qualified player to have an OPS over .850 who stole over 20 bases, much less 36. It's easy to wonder if he'd actually hit better than that in those parks, in which case he would've outshone the likes of other power/speed prospects in that league like Manuel Margot (.304/.351/.426, 30 SB).
The reality is that there's a range somewhere in between those two laid out scenarios, one the dream for the now 24 year old and the other the actual 2016 bottom line. But given his offensive profile and the MLB home park of the franchise that employs him at the moment, it's at least fathomable that if he manages to make the big leagues, he could be one of those few players who outproduces on that stage what he's done at multiple stages in the minor leagues. If anything, the move to Louisville's Slugger Field and the AAA International League should free him from some of the mitigating factors that held down his 2016 numbers, and that just might do him enough favors to let the rest of his game carry him to his first big league call-up.