The major league baseball season is only three weeks old and it is dangerous to draw broad conclusions on such a small sample size. Nevertheless, I find it interesting that the two most productive rookie hitters in the American League so far (according to WAR) are a pair of third baseman who were considered marginal prospects pre-season: Luis Jimenez of the Los Angeles Angels, and Conor Gillaspie of the Chicago White Sox. We profiled Jimenez last week, so let's turn our attention to Gillaspie and make him Prospect of the Day.
A 6-1, 195 pound left-handed hitter born on July 18, 1987, Gillaspie was a supplemental first round pick in 2008, drafted by the San Francisco Giants with the 37th-overall choice out of Wichita State University. Although questions about his defense kept him out of the first round, he was considered very advanced offensively and had a good track record with wooden bats, winning the MVP Award and batting championship in the Cape Cod League in the summer 2007.
He drove something of a hard bargain in negotiations: he agreed to slot money at $970,000, but on the condition that he was given a spot on the 40-man roster and a promotion to the majors in September. He got into eight big league games, going 1-for-5 with two walks. He also drew some negative comment in the clubhouse for having a prematurely big-league attitude, but supreme confidence was one of his best assets as an amateur, and his work ethic was never questioned.
Gillaspie spent all of 2009 with San Jose in the California League, hitting .286/.364/.386. His power production was disappointing, but he showed excellent plate discipline and contact ability with a 55/68 BB/K ratio in 469 at-bats. He led Cal League third basemen with 27 errors, but also drew notice for hard work on improving his mobility and footwork.
Bumped up to Double-A Richmond in 2010, he continued to hit for average and showed a bit more distance power with a .287/.335/.420 line. His defense also improved, with a lower error rate (17) and better lateral mobility. Indeed, there was some concern that he was concentrating so much on improving his glove that his bat was suffering for it.
Promoted to Triple-A Fresno for 2011, he hit .297/.389/.453 with 11 homers, 66 walks, and 79 strikeouts in 428 at-bats. His defense continued to sharpen: he made just 11 errors at third base and continued to show better range. He showed more power as well, although still not enough to really get himself noticed as a corner hitter. He returned to the majors briefly and hit .263/.333/.421 in 19 at-bats.
2012 was similar: .281/.345/.441 in Triple-A with 14 homers, 41 walks, and 54 strikeouts in 413 at-bats. He got into just six games with the Giants, hitting .150/.150/.200. Ironically, despite his massively improved glovework since college, he made two poorly-timed errors in his time with the Giants, fitting into his old reputation as a weak defender and enabling people to ignore the totality of his track record.
He no longer fit into San Francisco's plans for 2013 and was traded to the White Sox this past February for minor league pitching prospect Jeff Soptic.
For Chicago, Gillaspie has been a revelation and he is thriving with a new organization, hitting .326/.356/.488 in his first 18 games. His defense has been solid, helping boost his WAR value up to 0.5 so far, the highest of any American League rookie position player.
So, fluke or not?
Gillaspie is currently hitting better than you would expect based on his minor league numbers and at some point he will come back to Earth. However, while he's had some good BABIP luck thus far, I don't think it is a total fluke. He's always done an excellent job making contact. If you've been reading the series of Prospect Retrospectives, you will note that many players in history who took an unexpected step forward in the mid-20s had low strikeout rates when young, even when they weren't otherwise putting up big numbers.
Gillaspie is not coming out of nowhere; he's been on the radar as a promising hitter since high school, and while he's not going to be a tremendous home run hitter, he's not punchless. His defense has gone from shaky to solid because he put the work in to do so, and his drive to succeed has never been in doubt.
The league will catch up with him eventually, and while we should not expect a .326/.356/.488 line for the entire season, I don't see why he can't put up numbers very similar to what he's done in the minors, something along the lines of .280/.330/.400. Combine that with some defensive value and you have a player who could be in the major leagues for a decade.
For more on Gillaspie, here is Jim Margalus' take at SouthSideSox.