Thursday, January 19, 2012

Stats vs. Scouts: Comparing Conor Gillaspie and Chris Dominguez

As I lead up to the OTF Top-30, I am going to do a brief series where I look at two players who share the same position in the Giants system. The key part of this analysis is that they are contrasting players in the way scouts and stat-guys look at them. One guy will be more valuable according to scouting reports, while the other player may not be as highly heralded by scouts, but will have better numbers than the player he is being compared to.

The first two players that popped into my mind were a pair of third basemen: Conor Gillaspie and Chris Dominguez.

I hope to make this an on-going series, but with things a changing all the time, who knows how long this will go. Hopefully, I can get four or five comparisons for Giants fans and fellow writers to chew on before I start my rankings.

Why the Stats Guys like Gillaspie

Gillaspie was pretty heralded coming out of Wichita State in the 2008 Rule 4 draft. He was a first round supplemental pick who went in the Giants' slot at No. 37 and though he didn't hit for a ton of power for the Shockers, many analysts liked him as a "Bill Mueller-esque" player who could hit for high average and get on-base well despite missing that power tool set for a corner infielder.

Amazingly, Gillaspie was put on the 40-man roster in his first year of professional ball in 2008 and actually had a cup of coffee for the Giants where he had seven plate appearances at the Big League level. Gillaspie wasn't overly impressive in his short 18 game stint in Salem Keizer in 2008 (he posted a .338 wOBA with a .268/.350/.674 slash line), but he showed good contact skills and a solid eye at the plate in his professional debut, as he sported a 0.69 BB/K ratio with the Volcanoes. Many believed that due to his status as a prospect (he was a high draft pick out of college) and his plate patience and contact skills, Gillaspie would be fast tracked to the Major League level, perhaps seeing a longer callup in 2009 and competing for a job in 2010.

Unfortunately, some things hurt Gillaspie in 2009. For starters, Pablo Sandoval, formerly a catching prospect in the Giants system, came on with authority in 2009 at third base, pretty much serving as a road block for Gillaspie getting called up. Additionally, Gillaspie didn't set the world on fire in the hitter-friendly California League, as he posted a slash line of .286/.364/.750 in 530 plate appearances for San Jose, good for a a .341 wOBA. Gillaspie didn't show much power at all, as evidenced by only having 37 extra base hits (including only four home runs) and the reports on his defense weren't stellar at all. Dr. B of When the Giants Come to Town said this about Gillaspie in his scouting report for the 2010 prospect list, where he actually saw Gillaspie in person (he ranked Gillaspie no. 18 in his Top-50 in 2010).

"The most worrisome part of his game is on defense. He looks quite awkward at 3B and appears to struggle to make routine throws. The 3'rd time I saw him, he made several routine plays without incident and looked a bit more confident. He reportedly voluntarily went to Arizona Instructionals in the fall to work on his defense, so maybe it will come around."

Scouts have said many of the same things: that he doesn't have a great arm, that his range is nothing special, and that he just isn't a natural fielder or athlete. This makes Gillaspie's status as a prospect difficult to handle because it doesn't seem like he's the kind of player that the Giants brass could move around the field. He probably could play third and maybe first, but even if you're moving him to first, you're sacrificing a lot power for the position, and there are a lot better options to play at first before Gillaspie (Brandon Belt being the main one).

In Double-A in 2010, Gillaspie did bounce back a little from his disappointing Cal League campaign, holding his own in the pitcher-friendly confines of the Eastern League. Amazingly, he did show more power in Richmond than he did in San Jose, as his ISO went up from .100 in the CL to .132 in 540 plate appearances in the EL, but his slash line (.287/.335/.754) still remained underwhelming for a former first round pick (though he was a supplemental round pick to be fair).

Last year though, being mostly written off by most Giants Top Prospect lists, Gillaspie had a bit of a renaissance at the plate, as he really came on strong in the Pacific Coast League with the Grizzlies. He hit 11 home runs and posted a .157 ISO in 503 plate appearances, both Minor League career highs (that's not counting the .292 ISO he posted in the Arizona Fall league, but considering he only had 80 plate appearances and he was mostly facing rookies and second year guys, I don't take that sample very seriously). He finished his 2011 campaign with the Grizzlies with a slash line of .297/.389/.842 and his solid performance in Fresno earned him a callup to the Giants where he garnered 21 plate appearances (he hit .263 and had an inside the park home run; the best part of his callup was his ability to make contact and show a good eye at the plate, as he drew two walks and only struck out once).

I think why a lot of stat guys would be high on Gillaspie is due to his strong contact abilities, as evidenced by his consistently strong BB/K ratios in the minors. In his extended stints in San Jose, Richmond and Fresno, Gillaspie posted ratios of 0.81, 0.55 and 0.84, respectively, and he's never had a strikeout rate over 16.3 percent (his first year in pro ball in Salem Keizer). Coupled with a bit of a power renaissance in Richmond and especially Fresno, Gillaspie is a "stats" darling of sorts, as many envision him as poor man's Bill Mueller who could consistently be a .280-300 hitter and .340-380 OBP guy in the Majors if given ample playing time.

However, a lot of scouts simply just aren't all that into Gillaspie. He doesn't have a standout tool other than his ability to make contact. He doesn't hit for much power (though that has been getting more developed since his Cal League campaign), he has never hit for incredibly high average, and his defensive tools are rated average at best. With Sandoval beating him in upside in almost every imaginable tool category possible, Gillaspie just seems like a bench player to a lot of scouts, and even if he wasn't blocked Pablo, he maybe would be a utility infielder at best in their eyes. Other than the OBP and BB/K ratios, nothing really jumps out with Gillaspie to most scouts.

So where do I stand on Gillaspie? I love his contact skills and I think his ability to get on base will serve him well at the Major League level. It's not like he's hitting .240 with a .360 OBP and putting up egregious strikeout numbers. Furthermore, he's gotten better at the plate as he's moved up the system, so that has to count for something.

Yet there are a couple of problems with Gillaspie. First off, if you had to say what Gillaspie's plus tool was, it would be difficult to be say, and you could argue that he might not have any. It's obviously not his speed, power, defense or base-running, so the only possible plus tool he could have has a prospect is hitting for average. But that's the thing: though the wOBA and OBP stats are nice, Gillaspie has not really hit for high average at any stop in the minors, with the highest batting average he has posted being .297 (last year with the Grizzlies). Can you really say a guy has plus "hitting for average" tool if he's never hit for .300 at all from High-A to Triple-A? To me, that concerns me, because even the guy he's constantly compared to (Bill Mueller) hit for average in the minors (career batting average of .306 in the minors in comparison to Gillaspie's .288) and it's hard to imagine a guy who hasn't hit over .300 in the minors suddenly be able to do so in the Majors. I'm not saying it's impossible (you never know with how much BABIP fluctuates and the scarcity of batted ball rate information in the minors), just that it's very unlikely.

Another challenge for Gillaspie reaching the Majors may just be out of his hands, as Sandoval is simply just a mainstay at the position and you can't put Gillaspie (or even Sandoval for that measure) anywhere else due to his lack of athleticism and mediocre defense. At this point, Gillaspie's future with the Giants, despite his good numbers, may be as a utility infielder or trade fodder (though I could see him producing good value on a team that may give him an extended shot).

Why the Scouts like Dominguez

Dominguez is an older prospect of sorts. The highest level he has played at is Double-A, and he's already 25 years old, so the time span for Dominguez as a prospect is ticking away quickly (much like Gillaspie). Dominguez also was moved along slowly in the Giants system (he spent his first full professional season in Single-A, Augusta, which is not typical for most higher profile prospects out of college, as they usually start in San Jose), so that didn't do him any favors as well.

Nonetheless, despite the slow progression up the Giants minor league ladder, scouts have had some affinity with Dominguez for two reasons: his power and his arm. As a prospect, Dominguez has two plus tool sets which many scouts believe can transition to the Major League level. Additionally, with his size (six-foot, three inches, and 215 pounds), he has all the characteristics of a big league player, especially a corner infielder.

Dominguez burst on the scene in his debut season in 2009 after being drafted by the Giants in the third round. After signing quickly, he was able to play in 47 games in Salem Keizer and in 198 plate appearances he posted a slash line of .254/.298/.740 and a wOBA of .343 (he also had a wOBA of .415 in a stint in the Arizona Rookie League, but that was only a nine game, 40 plate appearance sample). While the averages and walk numbers (4.5 walk percentage, 0.16 BB/K ratio) were concerning, Dominguez displayed impressive power in the Northwest League, as he hit nine home runs and sported an ISO of .188.

Because he still had a lot to work on as a hitter after his Volcano campaign, the Giants brass opted to move him up to only Augusta rather than San Jose in 2010 in hope that he would develop more as a hitter. He spent the whole year with the Green Jackets in the Sally and did improve in many ways. His slash line in 608 plate appearances improved to .272/.326/.782 and his BB/K ratio and wOBA both rose to 0.26 and .351, respectively. While the improvements weren't dramatic, his numbers, especially his power ones (.184 ISO, .456 slugging and 21 home runs) did give some Giants fans some hope. However, his older age in the league did put some analysts back and prevent them from ranking him as a higher prospect, as Mike Newman remarked on a post he wrote for "Scouting the Sally."

"After watching him play, I referred back to a scouting report on Dominguez by Frankie Piliere back in 2008 to find little had changed in the two years since that report was written. Dominguez seemed like the same player he was as a junior in college which leaves me questioning his ability to adjust at a more advanced age than the average “Sally” prospect...

...At 19, I wouldn’t be concerned about his progress or lack thereof yet. But at 24, Dominguez needs to mash his way through High-A and finish the season doing the like in Double-A for me to really take him seriously as a prospect. Unfortunately for Dominguez, I suspect he will hit a buzzsaw in Bridgeport against pitchers who can spin a breaking pitch with any consistency whatsoever, dooming him to organizational status."

Last year, the Giants moved a little quicker on Dominguez as he played half the year in San Jose, and the second half in Richmond in the Eastern League. While he didn't go HAM with his power like some Giants fans would have hoped (the California League tends to be a launching pad for hitters), he still hit 11 home runs and posted a .174 ISO, .802 OPS and .355 wOBA in 279 plate appearances.

The strong showing in San Jose earned Dominguez a call up to Richmond and though he got off to a hot start (he had two home runs and eight doubles in his first 12 games with the Flying Squirrels), he tailed off and look overwhelmed at the end of the year in the Eastern League, as he finished the Double-A campaign with a .244/.272/.675 slash line. While Double-A is usually hard on hitters, Dominguez's plate approach did garner him many fans, as he posted a BB/K ratio of 0.12, highlighted by a 2.8 percent walk rate.

The age is a concern for Dominguez and though his 2011 campaign in Richmond wasn't terrible by any sorts, he certainly needs to improve next year at the plate if he wants to continue to be seen as a prospect with some high ceiling tools (remember, according to Piliere's scouting report, Dominguez's power and arm were both graded a 70 on a 20-80 scale). Yet there is some optimism with Dominguez, as Jonathan Mayo ranked him No. 8 in his Giants Top 10 prospect list this year (though to be fair, he hasn't included recent draftees, so it's likely he would tumble out of the top 10 if he included guys like Joe Panik, Kyle Crick and Andrew Susac), so it is entirely possible that Dominguez is capable of having a breakout year or at least something similar to what he did in Augusta in 2010 or San Jose in 2011.

I have never really been too high on Dominguez as a prospect in comparison to other Giants fans and writers. For starters, I think he's pretty old and he doesn't have much room to develop. From what I hear, have read and have seen on tape, he seems to be pretty much what he is: a big, athletic guy with some raw power and a great arm, but not much else. I could see him being able to dominate in the Minors after so many seasons there, but my gut instinct tells me that I don't see him doing much at the Major League level, if anything at all simply because I think his low-walk, high strikeout approach simply won't cut it at the Major League level, and it hasn't improved much, if at all, as he's moved up the system.

And then I read things like this...(hat tip to Dr. B of When the Giants Come to Town).

"My lasting recollection of Chris Dominguez from the SJ Giants game I saw early last year in Lake Elsinore is not so much the 2 HR's he hit in the game, but his physical presence. Chris is a big man, but he looks even bigger on the field. I mean, he really did look like a man playing with a bunch of boys out there. Chris Dominguez is a bit of an enigma in the making. I don't think anyone in the GIants system has more raw power, including Tommy Joseph. The big question is whether Chris will ever make enough contact to harness that power."

As a baseball fan (and I'm sure most scouts feel the same way), one can never write off a guy with a plus tool, especially power. For every Mike Jacobs out there (plus power tool guy who flopped), there is a Mark Reynolds whose plus tool carves them out a decent Major League career and one big season. Dominguez does not just have one, but  TWO plus tools. Sure, his other tool sets (speed, fielding, hitting for average) may be below average or below average at best, but when you have two tool sets rated a 70 by scouts, just can't shrug that off. It means that the potential is there, and Dominguez has certainly flashed his power potential throughout his minor league career. He just hasn't put it together on a consistent basis.

Will he put it together to the point where he could be a serviceable Major League player? Right now, I, (and I think most scouts and analysts would agree) that he has a lot going against him. But, if he does put it together...

Well, let's just say a lot of scouts, analysts (and even myself) won't be all that surprised if he finds some Big League success.


  1. I'm irrationally biased toward Gillaspie as being extremely in the "stat" crowd.

    I think "tools" players are overrated and at a certain point, you have to look at the stats and not just what you see on the field.

  2. Jesse,

    I am not down on Gillaspie at all. I think he could be a solid major league utility player, which I think many thought would be tough to do after a lukewarm campaign in the Cal League. I've always been impressed by his approach, and being a guy who is partial to stats, I think his ability to make contact as well as he does in the minors will transition to the Majors. He may not be a high average hitter, but he in my mind has .260-.300 hitter and .340-.380 OBP which is still a valuable asset to have, even if it comes in the form of a utility player.

    But like I said though in the post, not all people view Gillaspie as highly as some analysts do, especially in comparison to Dominguez. Now, is Dominguez leaps and bounds better than Gillaspie? Of course not. But whenever you're evaluating a prospect, another Giants blogger gave me sage advice: "What skill does that prospect have that you know can transition to the next level?" For Gillaspie, it's probably plate patience and plate discipline, but it's hard to determine because Major League pitching is different from minor league pitching. As for Dominguez, he has Major League power and a Major League arm for sure, which is more than what you could say from Gillaspie, because we don't know if could be Major League "anything" just based on reports and the tools he possesses.

    Again, I'm kinda trying to look at both sides of the spectrum. Dominguez has the tools, but it's obvious his plate approach needs a ton of work. Gillaspie has the right approach and the numbers to back it up, but the tools aren't anything special. It's kind of a classic "Moneyball" argument really (un-traditional stats and sabermetric analysis vs. traditional stats and scouting). I think the gut and even more popular opinion nowadays is to go with the numbers guy always, but as we have seen in the past, the results have been varied. We have seen some studs with great tools flop, but also some players who have posted great numbers in the minors struggle as well (John Bowker, Kila Ka'aihue). I think Gillaspie and Dominguez couldn't represent the argument between stats vs. tools any better.

    If you have to pull my arm in terms of guessing who's successful, my gut is to go with Gillaspie. But I like Dominguez's upside, and I think that's why I still got some hope in Dominguez more than most stat guys because I just don't think you can discredit a guy as naturally gifted as he is just yet. (I'd probably wait after this year before making a real sound judgment.)

  3. Bring up Dominguez and have him go through intensive hitting training with bam bam. Are you kidding? E. Burriss can bat 210 and play in the majors and we can't bring him up?