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Rookie Review: Tyler Colvin, Chicago Cubs

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Rookie Review: Tyler Colvin

Cubs outfielder Tyler Colvin is in the news right now due to being "impaled" by a splintered bat over the weekend. Even aside from the nasty injury, he's one of the more interesting rookies in the majors this year, and worthy of a Rookie Review.

Tyler Colvin was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the first round of the 2006 draft, 13th overall, out of Clemson University. There was mixed opinion about him on draft day: the Cubs were sold on his tools, although others felt his tools were just average overall. A lot of people felt this was just a financial budget pick so that the Cubs could save money and give Jeff Samardzjia a big payday in the fifth round.

Colvin signed quickly and hit .268/.313/.483 with 11 homers, 12 steals, 17 walks, and 55 strikeouts in 265 at-bats for Boise in the Northwest League, also showing a strong throwing arm and good defense. I gave him a Grade B- in the 2007 book, noting that scouts said his tools looked better in pro ball than they did in college, making the Cubs look good with the pick, although his plate discipline needed work.

Colvin began 2007 with Daytona in the Florida State League, hitting .306/.336/.514 in 245 at-bats, with 10 walks and 47 strikeouts. Promoted to Double-A Tennessee at mid-season, he still hit for average and decent power at .291/.313/.462, but posted a horrible 5/54 BB/K ratio, making it an unsightly 15/101 on the season. He did combine for 35 doubles, 16 homers, and 17 steals. Scouts reported that he handled fastballs well at both levels, but has serious issues with breaking pitches and off-speed stuff. I was still impressed enough to give him a straight Grade B, writing that if he could improve his plate discipline he could be a genuine Seven Skill player.

Colvin returned to Tennessee in 2008 to work on his plate discipline. He improved his BB/K to 44/101 in 540 at-bats, but saw his overall production decline to .256/.312/.424. He tried to draw more walks consciously through most of the season but with so-so results. In August, he went back to his natural swing-for-the-fences approach and hit a robust .342/.368/.615, with his lowest walk rate of any month.

In the 2009 book, I wrote  "as an analyst, I'm a big advocate of the importance of plate discipline, but it remains very unclear whether or not strike zone judgment is something that can be taught. Indeed, I suspect that in some cases, pushing a player to improve his strike zone judgment may actually backfire, sort of a square peg/round hole type of thing. If the player just doesn't have the skill, telling him to focus on it may confuse him and sap his confidence. . .that doesn't mean that a player shouldn't work on his weaknesses, and indeed, trying to work on Colvin's zone discipline was the right move. But in Colvin's case, it simply didn't seem to help him, it may have hurt him, and perhaps he is simply better off hacking at everything."  I gave him a Grade C+.

Colvin's elbow as sore for much of 2008, although scouts didn't seem to think that was the main cause of his problems, focusing on his approach and his swing. He ended up having off-season Tommy John surgery, but came back pretty quickly in 2009, hitting .250/.326/.357 in 32 games for High-A Daytona, then .300/.334/.524 in 84 games for Tennessee again. He still had an ugly BB/K at 16/57, although the strikeout rate wasn't bad. On the other hand, he wasn't running as well as he used to, forcing a move to right field, and even there his range wasn't great. His MLEs made him out as a .230/.275/.360 hitter; obviously unacceptable for a major league corner outfielder. I gave him a Grade C in the book this year and projected him as an extra outfield bat, not a regular.

As you know, Colvin made the major league roster this spring. He's hit .254/.316/.500 with 20 homers, 30 walks, and 100 strikeouts in 358 at-bats. He got off to a fast start in April (.965 OPS) and May (1.034 OPS) before the pitchers found his holes, and he's been so-so ever since, showing home run power but struggling with is on-base skills, with sub-.300 OBPs in June and August. He has a reverse platoon split power-wise, slugging .523 against lefties but .492 against right-handers. He had a similar split in the minors in 2009, but not in previous seasons.

I think Colvin's power development this year is for real, but that his batting average and OBP are always going to be problematic. Expect some years where he hits .250-.260, but others where he's down in the .230s, averaging out to about .245 overall. Unless he finds a happy medium with his approach, his OBP will always be pretty bad, which will make his power production his best attribute. He's spent time at all three outfield positions but seems best at the corners to me; I don't think he has the range for center.

I don't see Colvin as a star, but his power is useful if properly deployed. Hopefully the current injury won't be a long-term factor. If health allows, he’ll contribute a lot more to a team than Jeff Samardzija.