An outfielder at Arizona State, Ethier parleyed a strong 2003 season (.377/.488/.573) into a slot in the second round of the draft, selected by Oakland. He was considered a good pure hitter with mediocre present power but the potential to develop more. His other tools were considered decent-but-not excellent. Of note was an excellent BB/K ratio in college: 52 walks, just 30 strikeouts in 260 at-bats for the Sun Devils. Oakland sent him to Vancouver in the Northwest League to begin his career, but was he was too good for the level (.390/.444/.610 in 10 games) and moved up to Kane County in the Midwest League for August, where he hit .274/.361/.316 in 23 games, showing very little power but controlling the zone well. I gave him a Grade C+ in the 2004 book.
A back injury limited Ethier to 99 games for Modesto in the California League in 2004, where he hit .313/.383/.442. His plate discipline was good and his strikeout rate remained low, but scouts were unimpressed with his power and his OPS was +7 percent, okay but not great. Nevertheless, there was something I liked a lot about him intuitively, and while I gave him a Grade C+ in the '05 book, I also wrote "I think he has untapped potential, so watch him in Double-A."
Promoted to Midland for '05, he hit .319/.385/.497 with 30 doubles, 18 homers, 48 walks, and 93 strikeouts in 505 at-bats. The power was more impressive and it looked like he was lofting the ball more often to me, although Texas League scouts I spoke with remained not-especially-impressed with his pop. In the '06 book I noted that "scouts still say that Ethier won't hit more than 10-15 homers per season at the major league level," but that he should hit for average and get on base at a good clip. I gave him a Grade B in the book, and wrote that I expected him to put up big numbers for Las Vegas, his likely destination since he was traded to the Dodgers in December '05 for Milton Bradley.
He did put up the numbers, lasting just 25 games in Vegas with a .349/.447/.500 mark before being promoted to Los Angeles. He hit .308/.365/.477 in 126 games for the Dodgers. I wrote a piece in September '06 about his potential development. I concluded:
A Mike Greenwell comp as a hitter looks legit to me. . .Greenwell hit .303/.368/.463 in his career, although I think Ethier is more effective defensively and will probably last longer. Other possible comps if Ethier maintains his current rate of production or develops more power include Fred Lynn and Dave Parker.The point is that, for all he has done this year, we still don't know exactly how Ethier is going to pan out. He could emphasize batting average at the expense of home run power....he could emerge as a yearly batting title contender. He could develop more home run power and less batting average and OBP than we currently expect. He could develop into a very good, solid player like Rick Monday. Or he could develop into an Oliva-like superstar.
As you know, Ethier hit .284/.350/.452 in 2007, but then bumped up his power with a .305/.375/.510 mark in '08 and a .272/.361/.508, 31 homer mark in '09. Interestingly, although he hit for more isolated power last year, his overall production was the same as in '08: he had an OPS+ of 132 both seasons. He was amazing this year before going down with a finger injury, combining the improved power from last season with the higher batting average marks from earlier campaigns, currently hitting .392/.457/.744 with an OPS+ of 221.
Ethier's power has obviously improved even more than optimists expected. He always had a low strikeout rate and good knowledge of the zone, and as he's entered his peak seasons the result is explosive.
Looking for historical comparisons through age 27:
SIM SCORES: Richie Zisk, Bobby Higginson, Sam Chapman, Aubrey Huff, Jacque Jones, Bill Nicholson, Jim Edmonds, Jason Giambi, Larry Doby, and Reggie Sanders.
PECOTA Comps: Kevin McReynolds, Tony Oliva, Bobby Higginson, Gus Bell, Matt Holliday, Wally Moon, Reggie Smith, Al Kaline, Magglio Ordonez, and Bruce Campbell.
Higginson shows up twice; he was a great player at his peak but fell apart after age 30. Oliva is interesting in that I identified him as a potential comp back in '06. Doby and Kaline are Hall of Famers; Oliva and Smith are better than many guys who got in. Edmonds will be a candidate. Everyone on this list was valuable, and most of them were outstanding at their peaks.
Ethier is another example of a player who showed a low strikeout rate and good discipline at the lower levels, who ended up developing great-than-expected power as he reached maturity. We will have to see if his current finger injury impacts him, but I would note that some of the players on this list had injury problems that impacted their long-term historical standing.