Virginia Athletics

2016 MLB Draft Profile: Outliers, predictive statistics and Matt Thaiss

Virginia catcher Matt Thaiss is putting together an incredible 2016 season in terms of making contact. Michael Hattery discusses Thaiss and his K% and what that means for his possible production as a major league hitter.

Outliers are where the fun is. Matt Thaiss is an outlier. I trust my eyes as much as anybody else, especially when I have a substantial visual sample size, but when I am mainly relying on video scouting, looking for statistical outliers is a lot of fun.

When I wrote about Buddy Reed and Will Craig, I laid out the research around possibly predictive college statistics. The most important statistic in the low minors for predicting big league success is K%. There are others that have decent correlation, but K% is our best indicator. With that in mind, I went searching for draft prospects who had eye-popping and exemplary K%.

Thaiss is certainly eye popping. Thaiss posted a K% of 8.6% in 2015, as a sophomore, and, in 2016, has struck out just three times in 125 plate appearances, for a K% of 2.4%. For context, a league average K% in MLB is 18-20%. Obviously, this is not the big leagues; in college, I begin to get excited if a player is under 11.5%. This makes 2.4% astounding.

How does this relate to a tool?  The plate discipline and contact frequency rely on some of the same data, including K%. These are two out of the three key buckets through which I evaluate a hit tool.

I like Thaiss’ swing in general; he is quick to the ball and the plane sets up well for a lot of contact. However, I do not see a lot of power in his frame or swing. Furthermore, he simply does not create the sort of loft I like to see to project any power growth of substance.

I think the power is probably average, at best, with his swing plane and, though he has shown some pull field power, I do not foresee much the opposite way.

The contact ability and plate discipline may be enough, however, if he can stay at catcher. His defense is not exceptional; his pop times sit in the 1.9 range, which isn’t anything special, but the defense is solid. There is nothing glowing in terms of receiving and game-calling, but Thaiss certainly appears to have the ability to stick there long term.

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If he can hit, he’ll have a sizeable advantage, as catcher has a low-bar offensively. A league average hitter at the catching position can be a huge asset, especially if he is league average or better defensively.

The question is whether the hit tool, without a lot of power, can be average or whether, as he advances, the K% advantage will erode.

However, I want to look at this more philosophically. I think we often use the phrase “hit tool” as a catchall for a player’s offensive skill outside of pure power. As with most things in life, it is more complex than that. Plate discipline, contact authority, contact frequency, and even speed can affect how well the hit tool fares.

In regards to contact frequency and plate discipline, Thaiss is above average; those parts of his hit tool bundle project very well. As for contact authority, I have my concerns. Unlike first baseman, however, there is a much larger margin of error for catchers offensively and two parts of Thaiss’ hit tool are really good.

I think Thaiss is close to maxed out in terms of power. I do not see how he can add significantly more with his current swing path. As an organization, I would target him with a second round grade.

The plate discipline is an outlier and provides a lot of optimism as to what he can be, perhaps creating a solid floor, but I do not love catcher risk or his ceiling. However, harping on imperfections should not blind us to the value of an offensively competent catcher.

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