Looking ahead: Bryan LaHair

Dave · August 14, 2006 at 8:07 am · Filed Under Mariners 

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.


90 Responses to “Looking ahead: Bryan LaHair”

  1. The Ancient Mariner on August 14th, 2006 12:54 pm

    Is there any chance LaHair learns to hit lefties — or at least learns to hit them well enough that he wouldn’t have to be flat-out platooned?

  2. Grant on August 14th, 2006 12:57 pm

    Dave, do you see anyone other than Felix, Moyer, Meche, Washburn, Piniero getting a start this year? If so, who?

  3. Dave on August 14th, 2006 1:00 pm

    Is there any chance LaHair learns to hit lefties — or at least learns to hit them well enough that he wouldn’t have to be flat-out platooned?

    Sure. A lot of young players struggle to hit southpaws when they come up, and develop that skill later. Just because he can’t hit lefties now doesn’t mean he’ll never be able to. It just means he’s less likely to get a real chance to play everyday, because pretty much every manager alive is going to platoon him, and the M’s already have a platoon 1B/DH combo with Broussard/Perez, and an LF/DH who needs to be platooned (Ibanez).

    So, his lack of skill in hitting LHP’s now hurts his chances of ever getting a chance to learn. But if he can get a shot somewhere, that could be something that develops later.

    Dave, do you see anyone other than Felix, Moyer, Meche, Washburn, Piniero getting a start this year? If so, who?

    No. If anyone, it would probably be Blackley – already on the 40 man, working deep into games lately, and they could throw him a bone for coming back from a major surgery. But I doubt it.

  4. Huskermariner on August 14th, 2006 1:19 pm

    Dave, not to jinx things, but seeing how the Ms are the only team to keep the same 5 man rotation all year and giving the all-to-possible scenario of a starting arm breaking down, who would be the next person in the rotation?

  5. Huskermariner on August 14th, 2006 1:21 pm

    BTW, I do appreciate your insights on LaHair. I was going to ask about him after he didn’t get a lot of love on your recent Future Forty and a few days later one of the locals (P-I, Tacoma) did a nice story on him.

  6. marc w on August 14th, 2006 1:25 pm

    This offseason: trade for Justin Huber to platoon with LaHair at 1B. Huber seems lost in the shuffle over in KC, the same way Matt Diaz was last year (there was freely available talent – he’s doin well in ATL). I know Allard Baird isn’t there to kick around anymore, but with the trade for Ryan Shealy, I don’t think you’d have to spend a lot to get the other half of the platoon. For lefties, as you mention, the M’s are well stocked. To hit AGAINST lefties, that’s trickier.
    I know someone else mentioned him, but Jon Nelson hits lefties pretty well too… he’s certainly more of an org player, though. It says more about the M’s than Nelson that he’s their young-Eduardo Perez type.

  7. Dave on August 14th, 2006 1:30 pm

    Nelson’s approach at the plate is historically bad. It’s so bad, there’s no chance he’ll hit major league pitching without a complete overhaul. He’s one of the easiest outs in professional baseball.

    Dayton Moore’s a smart guy, and the Royals aren’t going to just give away Justin Huber. And, as I mentioned earlier, you can’t platoon all three of your 1B/LF/DH positions. If you run a Broussard/Perez platoon at DH and a LaHair/someone platoon at 1B, you can’t platoon Ibanez because you’re running out of bench spots, and now you have 33% of your line-up that you have to pinch hit for everytime the other team brings in a lefty.

    I like platooning as much as the next guy, but you can’t simultaneously platoon at the three positions that are usually manned by poor defenders. Roster construction won’t let you.

  8. Mousse on August 14th, 2006 1:50 pm

    As long as he doesn’t bump Bloomquist off the roster, this LaHair guy is ok with me.

  9. Matthew Carruth on August 14th, 2006 1:51 pm

    it would help to go back to an 11-man staff

  10. Rain Delay on August 14th, 2006 1:56 pm

    58 – You must be joking right?

  11. Joel on August 14th, 2006 1:57 pm

    On the subject of the Mariner’s platoon: when does platooning stop being a strategy of matchups and become a problem in roster management? Ex: if you have players who you are only going to use vs a RHP or a LHP that must be pinch hit for (for the platoon to work) how do you weigh the loss of a roster spot that results in someone like Willie Bloomquist in CF? Is this strictly a M’s problem of their roster, or something all team’s using a platoon system must deal with?

  12. Livengood on August 14th, 2006 2:01 pm

    Ibanez never struck me (before this year) as a guy who needs to be platooned. Like a lot of hitters, he loses power and some average when facing same-handed pitchers, but before this year, the numbers were not terribly different than his vs. RHP numbers. For instance, in 2005, he hit .275/.346/.423 in 189 ABs against lefties, and in 2004, he hit .295/.342/.438 in 146 ABs.

    Granted, his age (35 next June) makes his dip (.207/.272/.348 over 135 ABs vs. lefties this year) worrisome, but it is still a relatively small sample. I certainly wouldn’t bitch if the M’s decided to start platooning the guy, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t lose sleep if he continues to be a regular. At least until he continues to put up lowered splits for the rest of the year and at least a month or two next.

  13. Dave on August 14th, 2006 2:02 pm

    On the subject of the Mariner’s platoon: when does platooning stop being a strategy of matchups and become a problem in roster management? Ex: if you have players who you are only going to use vs a RHP or a LHP that must be pinch hit for (for the platoon to work) how do you weigh the loss of a roster spot that results in someone like Willie Bloomquist in CF? Is this strictly a M’s problem of their roster, or something all team’s using a platoon system must deal with?

    When you try to platoon at more than two positions, I think it creates roster management issues, unless you have a fantastic pitching rotation and can afford to go with a 10 man pitching staff, which is virtually unheard of now.

    The value of a platoon can be huge if you do it right, and the M’s could certainly get away with platooning Perez/Broussard next year, and they could probably do fine adding a RH platoon partner for Ibanez, too. But that pretty much maxes them out on platooning, because you still need a backup catcher (actually, C is a great place to platoon, but few teams do it), a backup middle infielder, and an outfielder who isn’t the platoon guy.

  14. Mousse on August 14th, 2006 2:03 pm

    60 – of course. 😉

  15. marc w on August 14th, 2006 2:24 pm

    Perez would be gone if Huber was in. Yes, as I alluded, the new regime in KC isn’t as insane as the old one. But what do you do with Shealy AND Huber. They’re the exact same guy. And I think it’s telling that Moore traded for Shealy, essentially blocking Huber.
    So… why not offer KC a mid level pitcher and a MI guy like Navarro or a hodge podge of pitchers – whoever doesn’t get dropped from the 40 man or something.

    Obviously, the M’s couldn’t platoon for 3 positions. But they really need a RH guy with a bit more potential than Perez, and Huber seems like the guy to me (now that Shealy’s off the market). If that means having one of the lefties (Broussard and LaHair) in the line-up more often, that’s fine (and Broussard’s absurd platoon splits are a new thing). It also means the fundamental disagreement concerns Perez’ potential value to the 2007 team…

    62- Ibanez dip against lefties is worrisome, although the guy has been all over the map in recent years. Still, is it too late to teach LaHair a bit of left field?

  16. DMZ on August 14th, 2006 2:34 pm

    Ibanez’s success against LHP the last few years has been an anamoly in his career: overall, he’s been significantly less effective against lefties than against righties, and year-by-year, it essentially went
    suck suck suck suck suck awesome awesome and now we’re back having a disadvantage.

  17. Dave on August 14th, 2006 2:36 pm

    Perez would be gone if Huber was in.

    I’m not even sure that’s an upgrade. Perez is under contract next year at $2 million, and he’s been lefty mashing in the majors for years. I’m not sure why we’d want to sub out Perez for Huber, especially at the cost of more young talent.

    Still, is it too late to teach LaHair a bit of left field?

    The organization is awash in outfield prospects, and lacking at 1B prospects. There’s no real reason to try it, in my opinion, and he’s not athletic enough to be good out there.

  18. marc w on August 14th, 2006 2:54 pm

    Mashing? He’s got sub .200 ISOs for almost all of his career, as a DH platoon guy. His patience is pretty good, but he’s a declining player who’s peak value was never all that great. He had an absolutely amazing 100ABs in Cleveland this year and put up a line that’s Brady Anderson-esque in terms of how out of line it is with his historical performance.
    That’s not to say that he’s not valuable (esp. in the context of C-Rex) or really hurts the line-up. But if I have a chance to go from a 37yo platoon guy who might reasonably expected to put up a .270/.360/.435 to a 24yo who might put up that line for less AND be under team control for a few more years (cheaply), I make the switch.

    The LaHair for left was a bit of a joke. Would you say Mike Wilson looks to have the inside track for a corner OF job (non-Doyle division)- he’s got no appreciable platoon splits this year…intriguing. But man can he strike out.

  19. DMZ on August 14th, 2006 2:55 pm

    Well, as Huber’s been a long-time not-contributing member of my fantasy team, I’d love to see him finally get a shot at playing in the majors regularly. As an M’s fan, though, the franchise has to take priority, so yeah.

  20. Mat on August 14th, 2006 3:16 pm

    Mashing? He’s got sub .200 ISOs for almost all of his career, as a DH platoon guy.

    Look at his splits. Dave said “lefty mashing.” Against LHP from 2003-2005, and not including this year (which you deem an aberration), Perez hit .288/.397/.561 against LHP for a .958 OPS. By any reasonable definition, that’s mashing. This year, against LHP, Perez hit .310/.349/.612 against LHP for a .961 OPS. Though his OPS is higher this year, I’d actually rather have the ’03-’05 numbers since 50 points of OBP is pretty substantial.

    The difference between his overall numbers the last few years and his overall numbers this year has almost everything to do with the number of ABs he’s gotten against RHP. From ’03 to ’05, 58% of his at-bats were against LHP and this year 84% of his at-bats have been against LHP.

    It’s pretty easy to see that the only thing that’s pushing Perez’s overall numbers up this year is his usage pattern, which will be pretty easy to repeat in the future. Perez is a lefty-masher, no doubt about it.

  21. Coach Owens on August 14th, 2006 3:29 pm

    Sort of like John Olerud, Left-handed, Hits for high average, not a lot of power for first basemen, hits ball into gap a lot, hits right-handers but struggles vs. leftys. Really the only difference is the strikeout/walk ratio.

  22. David J. Corcoran I on August 14th, 2006 3:31 pm

    And the K/BB ratio was what made John Olerud a good player.

  23. Evan on August 14th, 2006 3:40 pm

    Right. Olerud was a good player because his OBP was insane. His high averages plus his walk rate made him one of the top 5 OBP guys in baseball.

  24. Dave on August 14th, 2006 3:53 pm

    And the amazing, gold glove level defense.

    Lahair being like Olerud minus the defense and plate discipline is basically the same as Bloomquist being like Jeff Kent minus the power.

  25. Mike Snow on August 14th, 2006 4:04 pm

    Aside from the fact that nobody has ever been so foolish as to play Jeff Kent in the outfield, sure.

  26. Tap House Dan on August 14th, 2006 4:09 pm

    Is that kind of like Meche being the same as Roger Clemens minus the velocity and command?

  27. Matthew Carruth on August 14th, 2006 4:24 pm

    Meche has Clemens velocity

    it’s more like Mike Hargrove being the same as Earl Weaver minus any cognitive ability.

  28. Tap House Dan on August 14th, 2006 4:25 pm

    So in other words, I’m kinda like Collin Farrel, minues the hot chicks in tow.

  29. marc w on August 14th, 2006 4:35 pm

    70 –
    Interesting, mat. I thought he’d been a platoon guy for longer. That changes the equation in how much I’d be willing to pay for a Huber type. I’m still a bit dubious that Perez is able to keep up that level of power production given his age and what look like some remarkable HR/FB rates. It doesn’t really hurt the M’s if he can’t, of course, thanks to a cheap contract, but I want a RH specialist who can play some d and who has a reasonable shot to be around 2-3-4 years. Guys like Eric Byrnes, Robb Quinlan or maybe even Chris Shelton…. Huber would still be ideal to me.

  30. msb on August 14th, 2006 4:57 pm

    #76– not to mention the mental strength….

  31. mike on August 14th, 2006 5:15 pm

    If you want to see LaHair in Tacoma, Tuesday is your last chance until next season. He joins Team USA and flies to Cuba on Wednesday.

    And as a frequent observer of LaHair, I want to defend his defense. It’s actually quite solid – and certainly the best defense by any Tacoma first baseman since Andy Barkett.

  32. mln on August 14th, 2006 6:06 pm

    Speaking of the Mariners’ farm system, one recently traded Mariner prospect is doing well in his new home, though he seems to subscribe to the Willie Bloomquist school of player evaluation.


  33. Matthew Carruth on August 14th, 2006 8:52 pm

    and here’s one who’s not:

    Asdrubal Cabrera

    anyways, LaHair homered again tonight.

  34. Oly Rainiers Fan on August 14th, 2006 9:30 pm

    Somebody way up top remarked that Doyle changed his # from 24 to 14 on Sunday?

    So, what’s up with Bobby Livingston then? Doyle came off DL in May when Livingston was up, so he took #14 which is Bobby’s number. Then Bobby was sent down and Doyle went to #24. And now he’s back at #14 but no news on where Livingston is? (And suspiciously, he didn’t make his scheduled start on Sunday….)

  35. catcherwatcher on August 14th, 2006 9:51 pm

    I think Rob Johnson would be a valuable asset in the next few years…he is ten times better than Jojima, and Rivera…Clement will make a fine 1st baseman in a few years. He will never make it as a catcher, he is a head case…I know him. Plus, Rob is either in the top or close to number one for stolen bases on the team…he is a threat in many areas, not just as a backstop. He is know for being a leader, got a connon for an arm, his throw to 2nd is unbelievable, and he can run like no catcher I have ever seen…

  36. The Ancient Mariner on August 14th, 2006 11:09 pm

    Oookay, that has to be someone in Rob Johnson’s immediate family . . .

    Anyway, getting back to LaHair, what are the odds he learns to hit lefties in AAA, in the next year or so?

  37. BelaXadux on August 15th, 2006 1:53 am

    Dave, I appreciate the re-eval on LaHair, and I think it’s in order, too. The thing I have liked about LaHair is simply this: he learns. He’s improved at every stop, and each time it was the adjustment he had to make to advance. He was behind the development curve and overmatched at Everett. Adjustment in WI: he focuses on making contact and learning to recognize the pitch, and got some gap power; poor BB and HR rates, though. In CA, the league factors allowed him to put more balls over the fence, but the real gain was a significant gain in BB rate. In San Antone, he actually hit well in April before slumping in May, while his BB rate solidified, showing he can read pitches at an acceptable level now, but still too few HRs, although it’s not a gret park for them. When he got promoted, it looks like he’s finally confident enough in his ability to recognize the inside pitch that he’s willing to pull it without going into a tailspin on his contact rate, and HRs finally arrive to round out the package. He’s not putting up _superior_ numbers for the year overall so far, but he learns at every level. He needs to solidfy the HR swing, and hang in there against LHPs, but that’s for next year.

    Now, 48 ABs isn’t much to go by. And the decline in 2B rate when he pulls suggests that his upside won’t be as high as Overby’s. Still LaHair has real potential to make the Majors and contribute given his progress which you document here.

    Re: Soriano and Lowe, and where do we (the Ms) go, yeah their arm twinges will panic the org to the point where the FO won’t allow either one to get stretched out and start next year. Pretty sad. Yes, the team will have a great bullpen, but that seems like so much less than those guys are worth. I think it’s a lock that the Ms throw a haybale of money at Jason Schmidt in the offseason. In fact, Schmidt’s agent can just mail a contract north, and it’ll probably get signed—which, to me, is going to be a nightmare when Schmidt falls apart (but that’s another post, I suppose).

    To me, the defining characteristic of the present FO cadre is their total inability to promote or trade for a young, projectible starting pitcher other than Felix, who’s as close to a no-brainer as possible. Oh, and BTW Felix was acquired under the previous FO, too. I don’t think that this is just the result of the guys in-system, as Bavasi’e bend-’em-til-they-break promotion philosophy has often taken pitchers who weren’t ready or who needed to be worked with at the ML level and kicked ’em around. Our present FO just does NOT seem to have any feel for who will develop or not, and how to support the guys in the former category. I’m not saying their clueless, or that developing pitchers is easy; it’s not, as we know. We have to be able to get something out of guys like Joe Blanton. Or to figure out how Bronson Arroyo fills an organizational role unlike anyone else available. So now I fear we’re headed toward a rotation made up of hyper-expensive veteran free agents signed long-term and Felix. *mmph*

  38. Matthew Carruth on August 15th, 2006 7:09 am

    Yeah, sure hope we don’t sign the guy with FIPs of 2.78, 3.77, and 3.50 the last three years.

    I’ll spend my time worrying about the idiocy of signing Barry Zito to a the 5 year, 72M contract that he’ll get from someone.

  39. catcherwatcher on August 15th, 2006 7:57 am

    no, I am not in Rob Johnson’s immediate family, come on now, you can do better than that can’t you…I just appreciate a good backstop. He plays great defense, that is the point.

  40. elginray on August 15th, 2006 11:34 am

    I am not in Rob Johnson’s or Clement’s family either. They both will catch in the big leagues. Johnson was best catcher in Midwest League last year and I saw Clement hit two of the longest, highest home runs I have ever seen at Clinton in a playoff game last year. Pat Seger, a broadcaster I respect, was really impressed with Bryan Lahair last year and has been giving “Bryan” reports all year this year.

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