Wilmer Flores was always a prospect who got attention from the scouting community, albeit not the unadulterated love like some promising hitting prospects receive. He was praised for his bat-to-ball contact ability, but his large frame caused many to peg him as a large, plodding, non-athletic type who would struggle to find a position outside of the corner infield, where his power might not play. This soured many on his future major league role.
First, his defense
No one could reasonably argue that Flores is going to be a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop. He'll never have the lateral quickness and range to get to balls that many major league shortstops will reach, but that doesn't mean he's useless defensively. He has soft hands that allow him to make the routine plays and a strong arm that gives him a chance to make some plays that other shortstops can't.
Referring to FanGraphs' Inside Edge Fielding statistics, Flores played 443 innings at shortstop in 2014. Out of 138 routine plays, Flores made 136 of them (98.6%). Also, he made 50 of 50 routine plays at second base. Of the 38 players who logged at least 400 innings at shortstop last year, only one, , made a higher percentage of routine plays at short than Flores. The league average was 97.2%
This is vital for Flores because 80% of the plays he'll be asked to make are of the routine variety. Over a full season at shortstop, a defender will have roughly 450 opportunities to make routine plays. If he maintains this 98.6% success rate on routine plays, he would have made 443.7 of 450. An average shortstop (97.2%) would be expected to make 437.4 of those plays. That's six or seven extra outs. This offsets some of the balls that more rangy shortstops would get to that he might not.
Flores's arm strength is another area where he makes up ground on others. Some of the closest plays at first base are when the baserunner is hustling down the line to avoid a double play. A strong arm can make the difference between safe and out. FanGraphs' Double Play Runs (DPR) metric viewed Flores quite positively with a +0.7 runs. Extrapolating his playing time out over a full season, he would be around +2.0 runs. That would have tied for sixth-best in baseball among shortstops last year.
Soft hands and a strong arm don't entirely make up for a lack of range, but they undoubtedly help. There are numerous shortstops in the league who are excellent at making the routine play but lack range. Jhonny Peralta is a prime example of this and defensive metrics have graded him kindly over the years. He converts very few low-percentage plays but he keeps making the routine plays 98%+ of the of the time
On plays determined that the defensive player has an "Even 40-60%" chance of making the play, Peralta has had 34 chances in three seasons, converting only 35.3% (12). On "Unlikely 10-40%" plays, he's had 43 chances, converting only 7% (3). The expected average success rate of these 77 attempts was 28. Peralta made 15 of them—13 fewer than average—in OVER 3500+ INNINGS! His ability to keep making the routine plays—98.4% on 1178 attempts—has given him a 14-out edge over the average shortstop and helped make up for his lack of range.
The modest credit that people give Flores and his ability to make the routine play does not offset the hyperbolic rhetoric some have against his range, and it appears the Mets feel the same way. It's not crazy to suggest that Flores is only minus-5 runs defensively (about half a win below average), at worst. If he just keeps making the routine plays, he should be able to hold the line there.
If he's five runs below average defensively, Flores is going to have to hit five runs above average (105 wRC+) over a full season to reach 2.0 WAR. This would be a league-average player.
Now on to his offense and more gory number crunching.
Bizarre Small Sample Splits
The first thing to address that should give Mets fans hope about his ability to be a legitimate major league offensive weapon is the remarkable ability he’s shown so far in making contact with major league right-handed pitchers. In 208 plate appearances against righties last season, Flores struck out 8.7% of the time. At age 22, this is very impressive. With a minimum of 200 plate appearances, only two others were better last year: Jose Altuve and Kurt Suzuki. These two are both Punch-and-Judy hitters, combining for five home runs and a .105 Isolated Power (ISO) in 909 plate appearances against right-handed pitchers. Flores hit six homers in his 208 plate appearances against righties with a .150 ISO.
Interestingly enough, despite no previous evidence of poor splits against lefties, Flores has come up absurdly short in a small sample. In 66 plate appearances he hit a woeful .119/.212/.169 (11 wRC+). He didn't fare much better in 2013 against major league southpaws, hitting .188/.229/.219 in a meaningless 35 trips to the plate. In reviewing his minor league splits, there is no reason to think Flores should generally struggle against lefties.
|Career MLB vs LHP||101||23.8%||7.9%||0.405|
|Career MLB vs RHP||274||10.9%||3.3%||0.711|
|2013-14 (AAA) vs LHP||176||14.2%||7.4%||1.013|
|2013-14 (AAA) vs RHP||509||15.1%||5.5%||0.867|
|2012 (A+/AA) vs LHP||171||12.3%||8.2%||0.831|
|2012 (A+/AA) vs RHP||360||10.8%||6.7%||0.826|
The numbers against MLB lefties are clearly a blip that no one should be concerned about. It’s a safe bet to assume that he's going to figure it out and the results to date are nothing more than an apparition. Keep this in mind as we move on here.
Contact and Power
I conducted a study of 105 players' 22-year-old seasons from 2002-2013 (minimum 150 plate appearances) and looked at two of the strongest leading indicators of future production: Isolated Power (ISO) and Swinging Strike rate (SwStr%). I found that weighting ISO 50% more than SwStr% came through with the strongest correlation (Pearson 0.598 R) with future wRC+ output. The formula is ((ISO*1.5) - SwStr%).
For future reference in this article, we’ll call it PoCo (Power-Contact). Here is the result:
|Future wRC+||# of Players||Median Poco (Age 22)|
To illustrate the strength of this metric further, here are the Top 6 and Bottom 6 PoCo's from 22-year-old seasons and their future wRC+ from Age 23 to 29.
Best Age 22 PoCo's
|Season||Name||22yo PoCo||Future wRC+|
Worst Age 22 PoCo's
|Season||Name||22yo PoCo||Future wRC+|
As you can see, there's a sharp relationship between this metric and future production. Now let's look at the 2014 class of players who began the year at age 22.
2014 Age 22 PoCo's
|Season||Name||22yo PoCo||Future wRC+|
Mike Trout is clearly in a class of his own. Going back to 2002 (The SwStr% metric only goes back that far), Trout has posted the highest PoCo of any age-22 season in history. We may not have needed this chart to know that Trout is special, but look at who's #2! Wilmer Flores had the second-highest PoCo of all players in their age-22 season in 2014. When we look at the previously mentioned PoCo table of 105 other players, we will see that Flores's 0.133 would put him well into the class of players who would go on to produce 100-to-120 wRC+. Does this mean that Flores will absolutely produce in this range going forward? Of course not, but he looks like a good bet!
Flores's PoCo ranks him 47th of 116 players I have captured in this study. But let's do a little creative thinking and consider the point I made about his splits. What would his PoCo look like if he hadn't hit so poorly against lefties? He hit .150 ISO in a larger sample against right-handed pitchers and has a deep track record of hitting lefties better in the minors. An ISO of .150 would have given Flores a PoCo 0.167. This would put him 35th of 116, in between Anthony Rizzo's 2012 season and's 2013 season.
Another thing to consider with this data sample is that I made no adjustments for the different era we are in. An ISO of .150 in 2014 and going forward is much different than an ISO in the previous decade. From 2002-2008, the league average ISO was .157. From 2009-2014 it was .145. Last year was the lowest at .135. Flores's power will play better than it would have 10 years ago.
None of this mean that Flores will absolutely produce going forward; there are a handful of busts over the years who produced similar numbers in their age-22 season and came up short as big leaguers. But the data above demonstrates that players who show a combination of power and contact skills as 22-year-olds are pretty good bets to have solid MLB careers. Here's hoping Wilmer Flores is one of them.