Two years ago, the Tampa Bay Rays traded James Shields and Wade Davis to the Kansas City Royals for a package of talent centered around outfield prospect Wil Myers. The deal was divisive to say the least, primarily due to Myers’ inclusion; teams generally just didn’t trade prospects of his stature. When you have a 22-year-old major league-ready slugger who rates as the fourth-best prospect in the game and you have an opening at the position that he plays, you generally build around him instead of using him to acquire an upgrade elsewhere.
But the Royals didn’t keep Myers, preferring the short-term boost of adding a frontline starting pitcher and another talented arm who would become one of the game’s most dominant relievers. So, instead, the young right fielder went to Tampa Bay, where he was quickly anointed as the next big thing; he then justified the hype by being named the 2013 American League Rookie of the Year. But after Myers’ miserable 2014 season — including a two-month stint on the disabled list due to a broken wrist — the Rays are reportedly on the verge of shipping him to the San Diego Padres, being the second team to sell off his future in 24 months.
So what’s the deal? Why is a promising young talent like Myers about to join his third organization before turning 25? Is there a concern about his future that has caused teams to sour on him more quickly than we’d expect, given his performance and pedigree? Let’s take a look under the hood and see if we can identify any potential red flags.
Certainly, his 2014 performance could be seen as a serious problem if it weren’t for the mitigating circumstance of the broken wrist. After Myers returned to the lineup in August, he hit just .213/.263/.268 the remainder of the season; that’s the kind of offensive performance you expect from a lousy backup shortstop, not a slugging corner outfielder. Wrist injuries are notorious for sapping power, and it seems pretty clear that Myers shouldn’t have rushed back as quickly as he did. It seems unwise to hold that performance against him when he probably should have just remained on the disabled list.
However, before we throw out all of his 2014 performance, we should remember that he didn’t get hurt on Opening Day. In fact, he spent the first two months of the season playing with presumably no health issues, and his .227/.313/.354 batting line before the injury isn’t exactly inspiring either. While it’s tempting to simply ignore Myers’ 2014 season as a lost year due to health problems, he did step to the plate 224 times before the wrist injury, and he didn’t hit for much power in those at-bats either.
Which could be something of a real problem for Myers, given that the rest of his skillset essentially demands that he hit for power in order to be an above-average big leaguer. Even as a prospect tearing through the minor leagues, Myers always struck out a lot, and questions about his contact abilities have often been the big negative for skeptics to point to. His big-league performance has done nothing to dissuade those critics, as he’s made contact on just 75 percent of his swings in the majors.
That’s not Mark Reynolds or Adam Dunn territory, but it’s a low enough contact rate that the total package only works if it’s offset by hard, run-producing contact when Myers does put the bat on the ball. And even if we throw out all the numbers from after his wrist injury, his big-league performances have raised some questions about whether the power he showed in the minors is going to translate as well to the majors.
From his debut on June 18, 2013, through the wrist injury on May 30, 2014, Myers played something close to one full season of baseball. In 141 games and 597 plate appearances, Myers posted an Isolated Slugging (SLG minus BA) mark of .163, a little bit north of the league average, but certainly nothing special. For comparison, here are the three players who also posted a .163 ISO over the last two years in a similar number of at-bats: Will Venable, Kelly Johnson, and Jedd Gyorko. Failed prospect Justin Smoak — who mostly failed because he didn’t hit for enough power to offset his strikeout rate — had an ISO of .161. This is not the company of big-time sluggers.
Realistically, if Myers is going to become the hitter that he was projected to be, he’s either going to have to make more contact or hit for more power. One of those two traits has to improve, and unfortunately for Myers, improving your contact rate has historically proven to be quite difficult. To look for potential contact rate improvers, I isolated hitters with 500 or more plate appearances who made contact on between 72 percent and 78 percent of their swings through their age-25 season; essentially, this creates a list of guys at a similar age with similar contact skills to Myers.
Those 28 players had an average contact rate of 76 percent through their age-25 season. From their age-26 season on? 75.2 percent. Contact actually appears to regress slightly – not improve — as players age. That isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but of the 28 players with similar contact rates to Myers at an early age, only one — Cleveland’s Carlos Santana — managed to improve his contact rate by at least three percentage points. But Santana simultaneously saw a bit of a drop in his power production, suggesting that he made a trade to reduce his strikeouts at the expense of driving the ball less often. The overall effect was for Santana to essentially remain as productive as he was earlier in his career, not improve upon that level.
That’s not what Myers is looking to do, but if the ceiling is adding a percentage point or two to his contact rate — and even that seems unlikely — then he’s never going to put the ball in play enough to be an impact hitter without hitting for power. If you’re making contact even 77 percent of the time, you have to do damage on contact in order to be an offensive force. Put simply, Myers is going to have to hit for power.
His minor-league track record suggests that he can. He launched 37 home runs in 2012, performing well at the two highest levels of the minor leagues despite being just 21 years of age. He posted a .234 ISO in Triple-A prior to being called up to the big leagues in 2013. Scouts have long praised Myers’ power as his carrying skill, and so projecting significant improvement in ball-striking doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
And there are some recent examples of young players who failed to show a lot of power early in their career but developed more as they got older, turning into the players they were projected to be as minor leaguers. Adam Jones is a great example of this, and his career ISO through his age-25 season was .164, right in line with what Myers put up before his injury.
But it’s somewhat telling that Jones stands out from the crowd, because most of the young players who posted an ISO in the .160 range at this stage of their careers did not go on to become prodigious sluggers. Mostly, players who hit for this much power at a similar point get by with their contact skills. In this range, we see a lot of guys like Andre Ethier, Billy Butler, James Loney, and Daniel Murphy, all of whom are primarily contact hitters who happen to hit home runs sometimes. This is what players who hit for this kind of power usually turn into.
But it’s very unlikely that Myers can cut down on his strikeouts enough to make that kind of offensive profile work. And to be honest, it’s not like any of those guys are the kind of hitters that Myers was projected to be as a prospect. Myers was supposed to be something like a right-handed Jay Bruce, but through his age-23 season, Bruce had a .217 ISO in the big leagues, 50 points higher than Myers pre-injury number. Even with a spike up to a .263 ISO in 2012 — the sixth highest mark in the majors that year — Bruce only managed a 120 wRC+, because his 74 percent contact rate made it difficult for Bruce to be a great hitter even while launching 34 home runs.
And if you want to see how well Bruce’s skillset works without power, look no further than his miserable 2014 season, where he posted just a .156 ISO and was one of the worst players in baseball. If Bruce is what Myers was supposed to be, then he’s also a reminder of how critical power is to his success. And to date, Myers just hasn’t shown enough power in the big leagues to even live up to the comparisons to Bruce.
While it is far too early to write Myers off, I think it’s probably fair to say that the last couple of years have provided some legitimate reasons for concern. Even throwing out all the data that happened after the wrist injury, the lack of power and low contact rates are a problematic combination. As mentioned, this is was the set of problems that doomed Smoak, as well as Phillies outfielder Domonic Brown, both of whom were similarly ranked as low-risk hitting prospects.
There’s certainly still upside with Myers, but there’s probably more risk there than was previously acknowledged. Perhaps the Rays might eventually regret selling low on Myers coming off a wasted season, but at this point, I might be more inclined to believe that the Royals saw this coming and sold high on Myers two winters ago in a trade that I crushed them for making at the time.