The New Version of Pittsburgh Pirates Prospect Will Craig

(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) /

Will Craig was the Pirates first round pick in the 2016 MLB Draft.  At the time he was a third baseman, though a move across the diamond in the future was certain.  So far in his career he hasn’t been what was expected.

Small market teams have to build through the draft, and that’s where the glue of these teams come from either the draft or international free agency.  That’s where the Kansas City Royals got Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, Danny Duffy, and Yordano Ventura.  They can also use the rebuilding phase to get young prospects for veterans, such as how the Royals acquired 25-year-old Lorenzo Cain and 24-year-old Alcides Escobar.  All of those players played key parts in their 2014 and 2015 runs to the World Series.

When Huntington was hired by the Pirates back in the fall of 2007, and when he created the analytics department and shaped the front office, he had the draft in mind.  One of his first hires was Dan Fox, and as Travis Sawchik notes in Big Data Baseball, “His first analysis assignments in 2008 were related to the amateur draft, which was the keystone of Huntington’s strategy for reconstructing the Pirates.”

While Huntington has had questionable drafts throughout his years at the helm of baseball operations in Pittsburgh, for the Pirates have success they need to start with the draft.  Fox was tasked in 2008 after being hired for draft strategies.  Since that time, the addition of Trackman Radar not only in the MLB happened, but it shows up in showcase tournaments for prep players and some colleges as well.

The Pirates love data and Wake Forrest has a Trackman system in their home park, with the school’s website stating:

"“Wake Forest players also have access to state-of-the-art technology with the Trackman Pro video system with cameras set up on both the first and third base dugouts, center field and behind home plate. The system allows hitters to view their swings and pitchers their pitching motions following each game, and tracks 27 different data points varying from pitch velocity to spin rate to launch angle.”"

When the time came, the Pirates had some data points on Will Craig, not just his numbers but the underlying ones such as his exit velocity and launch angle.  In his three years as a Demon Deacon, Craig hit .347/.461/.623, including a sophomore year of .382/.496/.702 and a junior season hitting .379/.520/.731.

That junior season Craig produced a .352 ISO with a 19.26 percent walk rate and 14.34 percent strikeout rate, showing a good approach with some power.  And with his size, 6’3″ and 212 pounds, Craig should be a power hitter.

But for Craig, that power wasn’t there.  In the 2015 summer in the Cape Cod League, Craig hit .242/.366/.318 with a wood bat.  He still had a good approach, walking 14.29 percent of the time, but he was striking out more than in college play (21.74 percent strikeout rate) and wasn’t hitting for power, producing just a .076 slug.

That continued in pro ball.  In 2016 and 2017, Craig had 816 plate appearances and hit .274/.386/.368.  While he was walking 12.6 percent of the time and only striking out 17.5 percent of the time, Craig displayed little power (just a .095 ISO and two home runs).  There was no semblance of power, and given the defensive profile that needed to change for Craig to remain a prospect who can make some impact at the major league level.  His prospect stock was going down, ranking 20th on Fangraphs and 17th on MLB Pipeline, last year he ranked ninth and by both websites.

A trade-off trade-off in one thing creates the opportunity cost of not having the other.  The most basic example to evaluate trade-offs is using the production possibility frontier (PPF) and the most common example is the guns and butter one.  For baseball, that can be illustrated between power and contact.

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Anything on the curve is a possible outcome, with anything inside the curve suboptimal, and anything outside the curve is impossible without some change in resource.  In the guns and butter example, guns would be on the x-axis and butter on the y-axis.  A country could invest in all guns or invest in all butter, or some various combination.

Similarly, hitters can invest in a power approach or contact approach, or some combination of the two.  Joey Gallo, for instance, would be at the top of the curve sacrificing contact for power (career .284 ISO and 19.4 percent swinging strike rate).  At the bottom of the curve, contact but no power, would be a Dee Gordon type, a player with a .073 career ISO and 6.4 percent swinging strike rate.  Then there’s everybody in between somewhere on their individual curve trading off some for of contact or power for the other.

Will Craig, who previously would’ve been on the lower of his curve for a more contact oriented approach in his first action in pro ball has begun to hit for more power with the tradeoff in contact (strikeouts).  This season for Double-A Altoona, Craig is hitting .263/.342/.493 with 11 home runs (though one was this inside the park home run, which is more of a defensive snafu allowing it to be more than a double).

With that increase in power (.230 ISO) has come a decrease in walks (9.2 percent) and an increase in strikeouts (25.4 percent).  Craig is also hitting the ball in the air more, posting a flyball rate of 56.1 percent compared to the 38.1 percent and 35.7 percent the two previous years.  A more aggressive approach and hitting the ball in the air has helped Craig show more of his power.

*Note, part of this came within the last week with Craig hitting five home runs.  Before last week he was running a .167 ISO, still showing more power than previous years, but was striking out at a 26.9 percent clip.*

Perhaps Craig won’t amount to the player the Pirates expected when drafting him.  His value as a player is tied to the bat, and with Josh Bell at first, Colin Moran a potential player who could move over there, and no designated hitter in the NL, maybe Craig doesn’t fit the fold, even if he reaches the ceiling the Pirates thought when drafting him.

Next: June 20th Mail Bag

The previous versions of Craig in professional ball featured little power and more of an on-base approach, and he struggled with wood in the Cape Cod League.  The Pirates liked the bat and Craig had a history of Trackman data.  He’s now showing some power, making the tradeoff in some contact and on-base skills.  This version of Craig is more intriguing, and he’s going to need to hit his way to Pittsburgh, but adding power should help.

Maybe Craig is finally now just tapping into his power, or perhaps this is where taps out.  But if he sustains an above .200 ISO the rest of the year, Craig becomes more intriguing.  Or maybe it’s a fluke week of random sequencing.  If he reverts back to what he’s shown in the past, then he remains a middling prospect with a limited ceiling and impact to an organization.  But finally running above a .100 ISO and showing actual power is an encouraging sign compared to the last year and a half.

*Numbers from Fangraphs and The Baseball Cube and after games ending on Sunday, June 17