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Friday, May 18, 2007

REGGIE BBILITS 

As you know, Reggie Willits is off to a terrific start in 2007. While the high level of his performance may be something of a surprise to many, his style of performance is highly consistent with what he has done throughout his professional career.

Longtime readers will be familiar with Reggie, not only because he was a mainstay of my prospect Watch Lists while in the minors, but also because anyone who cares enough about the Angels to read this blog will be pretty well-informed about the organization and its players.

As such, we all know that Willits isn't really a .366 hitter. He never hit higher than .327 in the minors, which came last year at AAA Salt Lake. At some point his average will come down a bit, unless he's morphed into Ty Cobb. Will the rest of the game pick up that slack and allow him to continue to be a productive player?

One thing that concerned me about Willits as he came up through the majors is that, due to his lack of size and power, his walk rate would diminish. Of course, walk rates go down at every successive level of play, as pitchers become more and more accurate and precise. But I fear that players with no power suffer this more acutely, as pitcher down in the count have no reason to fear them, and are comfortable attacking the strike zone and making them swing the bat.

I often drew a comparison between Willits and David Eckstein, which, to be honest, is a completely obvious comparison. In the minor leagues, Eck walked in 13.7% of his plate appearances (I'm excluding hit-by-pitch and sacrifice bunts here, as well as intentional walks), but in the majors he's only walked 7.0% of the time. Why? Because pitchers challenge him.

Reggie Willits walked in 12.8% of his PA in the minors; in his young major league career, he's walked ... 15.3% of the time!

That looks good, but it's also worth noting that his walk rate has dived from his cup of coffee last season to this season. He had 11 walks in 56 PA last year (once again, with all the exclusions I mentioned above) for a ridiculous 19.6% walk rate; this year he's done to a more normal 14 of 107 (13.1%) -- which is still better than his minor league numbers.

David Eckstein was pretty good at working the count, averaging 3.83 pitches per plate appearances his rookie year and 3.82 over his career (the average is 3.77). Willits, however, has been even better so far, going through 4.33 pitches per PA in his young career.

Can he sustain this? I don't know -- my skepticism is noted above -- but Willits seems very comfortable hitting with two strikes and seeing as many pitches as he can.

He does walk a fine line, though. Right now, Reggie's career line in the majors is 333/436/370 for an OPS+ of 124. If he's really, say, a .275 hitter, his line would be 275/378/312 ... an OPS+ of 92. Now, with the stolen bases and stuff, he could still be a league-average hitter there, but you'd probably want more from your corner outfielder. And if those walks were to drop just a little bit, say to 10% of his PA, that OBP would drop considerably, down to around .330.

I don't think Reggie is ever going to develop any real power; his extra-bases per at-bat in the minors was only .095, so while he can probably improve on his current .037 a bit, there's not a high ceiling there. Just getting it up to .050 or .060 would be nice.

If he were to settle in at 275/350/330, that probably wouldn't be enough. But if he hits around .300, then he'd be just a bit above average.

Obviously, if he crashes down to .275 now (he'd have to hit .190 over his next 100 AB to drop his season average that far), that would be bad, but we could probably live with him hitting .275 for the balance of the season.

Of course, crazy things can happen. Darin Erstad wasn't really a .355 hitter, but he managed to do it for a season. However, Willits this year is hitting .436 on balls in play in the ballpark after having hit .363 on such in the minors (that BABIP this year would put him at 301/384/344). That's not a good bet, even though it would be wonderful.

But you know what? If he just sustains a little, he can still push Shea Hillenbrand out of the lineup once Garret Anderson returns. And that potentiality, which becomes more and more likely every day, is cause for celebration.

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Comments:
I pretty much agree on everything here. The Eckstein comparison is especially fun because he looks like Eckstein, though I guess I saw them together Reggie would look like a giant.

I was thinking Brett Butler might be his upside, there really hasn't been a player like this in a while. I looked at Butler's minor league numbers and its amazing how dominant he was (.462) at getting on base in the minors. It shows you have to have some super talent to keep that up in the majors without the threat of power.

Willits has only shown that super high level of OBP for last year and so far this year.
 
I also agree with most of what you said, although I don't think his OPS+ matters much. He is either a career lead-off hitter or a bench player. If he really keeps his OBP around .380, I don't care what he's slugging.
 
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