Looking ahead: Bryan LaHair
Since the major league club is just playing out the string for the last 45 games, I’m going to increase my posting focus on the minor leagues and guys on the farm who are worth discussing. The Future Forty updates give us a chance to talk about these guys, but I’d like to go a little more in depth on a slightly more regular basis for the next few weeks.
Today, we’ll kick this future oriented focus off with a look at a guy who is doing his darndest to make me look like an idiot; Bryan LaHair.
LaHair has bounced on and off the end of the Future Forty the last few years, always hanging around as a guy who did enough to keep his name in the hat but never doing anything well enough to get excited about. He was a 39th round pick in the 2002 draft, and the Mariners signed him a year later as a draft-and-follow, after they allowed him to play a year at Junior College to evaluate his progress. Don’t let the 39th round pick stuff scare you – they liked what they saw in his swing, and paid him like a mid-round draft selection.
He debuted in Everett in 2003 and was, well, not good. He hit .244/.286/.343, struck out in 18.3% of his plate appearances while walking in just 5.2% of his PA. He didn’t counteract the poor approach at the plate with any power, either, hitting just two home runs. Just 20-years-old, a poor showing against college pitchers in a couple hundred at-bats isn’t a big deal, but he didn’t get his pro career off to the best start.
He spent most of 2004 in low-A Wisconsin as a 21-year-old and showed some improvement, hitting .279/.323/.427 in 262 at-bats, but there were positives and negatives. His walk rate edged up to a still bad 5.7%, but that was offset by a skyrocketing K rate, which jumped to 23.6%. He still didn’t show much home run power, and the scouting report on him basically read as a guy who hit the other way the whole time and never turned on fastballs. However, he had learned to hit the ball in the gaps, and 29 of his 73 hits (39%) went for extra bases, suggesting there was untapped power in his swing.
2005 brought him to high-A Inland Empire, and while 22 year olds are often found in the California League, you really need to hit well if you’re a little old for the league and are in a hitters paradise like the Cal League. LaHair responded to the challenge and made significant gains in his game, though perhaps not as much as you’d think looking at his raw numbers. His BB% jumped to 9% and he whacked 22 home runs, showing flashes of real home run power for the first time. However, the jump in home runs coincided with a drop in doubles, and his XBH/H rate was just 33%. More of his well hit balls were leaving the yard, but he was driving the ball less often than he did in Wisconsin. Some of the improvement in his power was real, but the context of the Cal League overstated the power surge.
In 2006, he began the year at Double-A San Antonio and we saw some regression in the power department. He held the BB% steady at a 9.6% level, which is okay but not great, but he again reverted to slapping the ball the other way and hitting a lot of singles. While his .293/.371/.428 line might look solid enough, just 27% of his hits were extra base knocks. That’s just not going to cut it for a first baseman who doesn’t have prodigious walk rates. The M’s, in their notable aggressive fashion, promoted LaHair to Tacoma in June anyways, and he made something of an early splash by hitting for a high average from the day he got off the plane.
Here are his monthly splits for first two months in Tacoma after being promoted:
June: .327/.391/.436, 55 AB, 6 BB, 11 K, 18 H, 3 2B, 1 HR (22% XBH/H)
July: .308/.379/.418, 91 AB, 11 BB, 28 K, 28 H, 7 2B, 1 HR (28% XBH/H)
The high average was nice and he was even posting the best walk rate of his career, so there were definitely things to like from a 23-year-old playing in Triple-A. However, the strikeout rate (26.7%) was also the highest of his career, and his power numbers were very poor. Not only was he not driving the ball with any kind of authority, but the balls he was driving were not clearing the wall, leading to an ISO that would be fine if he were a gold glove middle infielder, but not much else.
I left him off the August update of the Future Forty, and in conversations, the comparisons I’ve been making are to guys like Greg Dobbs, while Jeff Sullivan called him the new John Mabry. That was pretty much the skillset he’d established for himself. Some walks, gap power, average contact rate, struggles vs lefties, and not a great defender at first base. That’s pretty much the definition of a replacement level talent.
Then, August rolled around.
.354/.426/.792, 48 at bats, 6 BB, 8 K, 17 H, 0 2B, 7 HR (42% XBH/H)
After hitting eight home runs in his first 368 at-bats of 2006, he’s gone deep seven times in his last 48 at-bats. He went deep four times over the weekend, and a couple of them were absolute bombs. He’s actually pulling the ball now, and the results are obvious.
However, we have to note that, again, as the home runs have gone up, the doubles have disappeared. A 42% XBH/H rate is good, but its not earth shattering. Most legitimate 1B prospects show similar or better power throughout their minor league careers. The fact that all seven of his XBH in August have cleared the wall is a sign of increased power, but it doesn’t make him the new Prince Fielder or Ryan Howard. He’s still a gap power guy, but if he’s really learned to get around on fastballs, he’s a lot better than I’ve been giving him credit for.
It’s just 48 at-bats, so let’s wait and see how he finishes the season. His overall line at Tacoma is still not fantastic for a 23-year-old first baseman in the PCL, and I still see a lot of similarities between LaHair and Greg Dobbs. However, the criticisms I’m leveling against LaHair are the same ones I was using to explain why I didn’t think Lyle Overbay was going to hit enough to be a major league regular, and he’s more than shown that I was way off the mark where he was concerned.
So yes, LaHair looks to have taken a step forward in the last two weeks, and is projecting better now than I’ve given him credit for. If he continues to pull the ball and doesn’t revert back to his slap-the-other-way approach, there’s a chance he could turn into a Lyle Overbay type of hitter. He has zero star potential, and his weaknesses (including a total inability to hit LHP’s at the moment) are going to make it less likely that he gets a real shot in the majors, but it’d be a big boost to the M’s organization if LaHair’s improvement was real, and they had a near-ready major league average first baseman who could swing the bat from the left side.
He might be Greg Dobbs or John Mabry. Or, he might be Lyle Overbay, Raul Ibanez, or Adam LaRoche. The last two weeks are enough for me to admit that there’s more potential there than I’ve given him credit for.