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Trend Spotting: The definitive Joe Wendle

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Joe Wendle has become an increasingly polarizing prospect in the Indians system as his value is all over the map according to national pundits. Early in the off-season, Jim Bowden, whose opinion I rarely value, actually showed positive interest in Wendle, deeming Joe to be a second-level piece in order to approach a deal for Tampa Bay ace David Price.

This was surprising in that Bowden is not the type of writer who often researches with any depth, but would likely derive his information from an old friend and industry source. Of course the outside analysts have had varying approaches to his value as well.

According to Baseball America, he is outside the top ten prospects, yet Baseball Prospectus had him sitting at number nine. Which, while positive, is not exactly a ringing endorsement.

On the other hand, the prospect community rarely admits its inaccuracies, thus performance and skill, which has gone underrated, often continues to be so because of past conceptions.

Indeed, it is fairly obvious when reading my tone that I have come to the conclusion that Wendle is indeed an underrated commodity both inside the Indians prospect community and nationally.

One other national writer came to similar conclusions while solely highlighting Wendle and his work is indeed worth a read. Conor Glassey, re-published on Fangraphs, talks about what type of middle-infield prospect is often overlooked.

His summary of the prospect-type that is overlooked is absolutely brilliant:

“This group features mostly college players who weren’t high-profile draft picks. So, when they hit well in the minor leagues, it’s easy to write them off by saying, ‘Yeah, but he’s old for his level,’ or, ‘If he’s such a good prospect, he would have been drafted higher,’ or, ‘But he’s just a second baseman.’”

Wendle is almost a perfect fit of this description. I have only seen Wendle three times, but have followed his career closely statistically. I decided to bring in one of the IBI’s most knowledgeable resources when it comes to Wendle.

While covering the Mudcats, Jim Pete has seen Wendle play numerous times as well as discussing his skillset with many. Here is the conversation Jim and I had on Wendle…

So here it is Jim, Wendle really intrigues me, can you dissuade me from my assertion that he is underrated?

Jim: Before we get into the numbers Mike, we just need to get through the baseline facts of who and what Joe Wendle is, because a lot of folks treat him like fodder. He certainly isn’t, and never has been.

The Indians selected him in the sixth round of the 2012 draft out of Division II West Chester.  The PSAC, of which West Chester belongs, is a serious baseball league, so while many may overlook players out of the PSAC, it’s possible that a player that dominates that league could actually have serious professional skill and ability.

Sure Mike, he was an underslot pick in the sixth round, but I’ve heard it from several Indians’ personnel that really are the “grass-roots” of the organization that the organization was really high on his overall ability and that he could advance fairly quickly.

Overall, he fit the mold of some other middle infield selections that the Indians had targeted in the past, and they assumed correctly that he was a guy they could sign fast and get on the field. Yes, it was a gamble, but one they felt really good about based on his skill-level.

Remember, he was a first team All-American on a national championship team, and was an academic All-American as well as the PSAC Scholar Athlete of the Year, which shouldn’t be overlooked. Oh and by the way, he also won the PSAC Triple Crown (12 homers, 59 RBI and a .399 average), and led the league in hits, runs, triples, total bases and slugging.

My point here is that there is more pedigree than people give him credit for.

Now what I can tell you using the eye test are four things.

  1. He has a short compact swing, and while he struggled against lefties at the High A level, he’s a smart kid. He can hit lefties as he moves through the system. His swing is that good. If a lefty jams him on the inside with any sorta movement, he looks overmatched, but does try to wait for something over the plate. He’s still learning there.

  2. He isn’t a bad defender in the least. Now, I can tell you that he’s not as good as some of the players up the middle in the organization, but I can definitively tell you that he’s a better defender than say, Jason Kipnis was at this level. Remember, Kipnis was learning the position during his tenure in the Carolina League. I also wouldn’t say he has elite bat speed, but when he knows a pitch is coming, he has no problem getting the bat through the zone.

  3. I’m not super crazy about his stance. While it’s a bit wide for my liking, he can really generate surprising power with it. He can use his front foot as an exaggerated trigger, and I really feel that he’ll have to tighten this up as he advances. It’s likely part of the reason he struggled a bit with lefties this year. He pulls a lot of pitches, which actually helped him in the Carolina League, but he does have the ability to hit to all fields. He can fight off pitches, and if a pitcher gets a strike over on the outside of the plate, he’ll go that way with no problem at all.

  4. He has a crazy good eye at the plate, and he’s going to be that kind of player that sits around .350 with regards to his OBP. He can drive pitchers crazy, and when they make a mistake, he has the power to make them really pay.

Overall Mike, we’re talking about a high IQ player who has a solid grasp of his abilities and what he needs to work on. When you combine that with the drive and intensity to learn about opponents tendencies, you have a kid that’s more than a utility player to be sure. This is a kid that has all-star upside.

The fact that he’s not considered in the top five prospects on the board is ludicrous, and I’ll go up against anyone that says different. I’ve seen him play an entire season, and this kid is better than advertised.

Here’s the thing. The Indians KNOW THAT.

I know you love him too, Mike. What is it about his game that stands out, and what do you make of this garbage that he’s “too old” for the system?

Mike: I must confess, I am rarely if ever concerned about age issues, which is not to say they don’t exist but merely that they are an excuse to scoff at production that the “insiders” didn’t see coming.

Of course, it is much easier to discuss age and production in comparison to other prospects movement through the system. Which is why I have inserted the following table from each player’s Carolina League season’s, sure to incite the rage of those who think I am asserting that Kipnis and Wendle are equivalent.

Player Age Season ISO BB% wRC+
Kipnis 23 2010 .177 10.10% 141
Wendle 23 2013 .218 9.30% 143
Phelps 22 2009 .102 16.00% 118

There is obviously differentiation between the three but their progression through the system is incredibly similar. A few important notes right off the bat: Kipnis began his season in Kinston actually older than Wendle. Of course less cited age as a concern with Kipnis because he played at Arizona State and was a high pick.

What quickly becomes obvious is that Wendle’s offensive performance was the equal or better than that of Jason Kipnis. Especially interesting is the power production, born out in ISO.

Worth mentioning is a park factor comparison, both Kinston and the Mudcats’ home stadiums are pitcher friendly, with Five County Stadium being pitcher friendly in terms of HR factor – further making Wendle’s HR production impressive.

The walk rate is obviously the one piece which Wendle did not equal the production of either Kipnis or Cord Phelps. However, this is where quantitative data can be measured against scouting analysis.

The last quantitative note is that he took a major step forward in terms of walk rate as he went from his Mahoning Valley season to Carolina.

This denotes his improving plate discipline despite improving quality of competition. In terms of organizationally, his manager Dave Wallace was very positive, almost glowing about his ability to control the strike zone.

As for his defense, I cannot comment as I don’t have a large enough visual sample but it is quite easy to imagine him as an offense first kind of second baseman because of quality plate discipline and above average power for the position. Which we can talk about on a WAR based scale later.

I know there are some issues with his splits, any thoughts on his ability to hit both righties and lefties at the big league level?

Jim: Before I get into his splits, I want to mention his age factor quickly, and connect it to how highly the Indians’ brass have felt about him from the start. I’ve learned quickly over the past 15 years watching the High A Indians that you often have to trust what you see, and not what you hear. Wendle is the epitome of that minor league mantra.

They drafted him high enough to be taken seriously, even as a low-slot player. He destroyed NY-Penn pitching in every way possible, which makes complete sense, since as a 22-year old, he’s clearly old for the league. The telling sign looking back was that the Indians immediately moved him up to High A in 2013, skipping Lake County altogether.

The Mudcats seemed set at second base in Carolina with Jose Ramirez set to move there, but ultimately bumped him up to Akron to find a place for Wendle. Ponder that for a moment, and not just from the Wendle perspective (c’mon, gotta get the JRam plug in there). He’s an older player, but the Indians are clearly accelerating his movement.

Now, as to the splits. Here are his year-to-year splits thus far in his short minor league career:

2012 Mahoning 22 vs RHP 58 188 173 55 13 4 3 26 11 20 0.318 0.367 0.491 0.858
2012 Carolina 23 vs RHP 105 350 306 98 25 4 12 61 32 54 0.320 0.393 0.546 0.938
163 538 479 153 38 8 15 87 43 74 0.319 0.383 0.526 0.909
2012 Mahoning 22 vs LHP 36 79 72 25 2 0 1 13 4 5 0.347 0.392 0.417 0.809
2013 Carolina 23 vs LHP 56 124 107 24 7 1 4 19 12 25 0.224 0.315 0.421 0.735
92 203 179 49 9 1 5 32 16 30 0.274 0.344 0.428 0.772

It’s not rocket science here Mike. He’s better against righties than lefties. Obviously as a left-handed bat, that’s par for the course. How much better is up for debate.

There’s not a whole lot you can take from one season in the minors, but there are some factors to consider. Obviously, the level of talent improved, and the Carolina League tends to lean towards a pitchers’ league.

That by itself is concerning, as Wendle clearly struggled against lefties.

But, there’s a lot more to the story than meets the eye, especially when you consider the park that he was playing in, and a couple of habits that he developed while playing at Five County Stadium.

I briefly mentioned Wendle’s tendency to pull the baseball while here in Carolina, and much of that is based on the park that he plays in. Five County Stadium has a 19 foot wall that covers the entire outfield except for a short corner in right field. It’s 330 ft down the left field line, and only 309 ft down the left field line.

I’d love to go back and look at his swings from the beginning to end of the season, as I’m sure you’d see that pull develop.

How did that affect him against lefties? From what I saw, and I will admit that it was an extremely small sample size, he was getting killed inside trying to pull the ball. It was the one area offensively that concerned me.

Now, his splits with Surprise in the Arizona Fall League were much more productive. Again, it’s a really small sample size, but I just don’t see this as a big issue up to this point. I think what Wendle has done was co-created by a park that forces power hitters to pull the ball if you are a left-handed hitter, and a hitter that innately understands that principle.

Now, when Wendle is patient with a left-handed pitcher, and forces that pitcher to leave something over the plate, Wendle will often take him to the opposite field. What really concerns me though, Mike, is when he faces lefties with true velocity. I think they’ll be able to kill him inside and wipe him out low and away.

Of course, we won’t know that until next year when he’s dancing in Akron.

I guess my long-winded point here Mike is that he’s shown enough against lefties to make me think it’s not going to be a big issue. Next season will certainly tell the tale, and it could ultimately decide his fate going forward in the system. Some good hitters have gone to Akron to die.

I’m truly not all that concerned. Wendle is a top five prospect in the system…period. His plus hit tool and decent middle-infield power production puts him on the same playing field as Jose Ramirez in many ways. JRam edges him because of his advanced level and two-year difference in age, but not by much.

How’s this for a bold prediction Mike: If at some point in the 2014 season a situation would present itself that would allow Wendle to don a Cleveland Indians jersey, I wouldn’t be surprised.

It may not be a good thing for the Indians because of the circumstances that would lead to his promotion, but he’s got that kind of talent and maybe more importantly, he’s got the drive and the IQ. If there weren’t a backlog of middle infielders ahead of him, he’d either be in Columbus to start the year, or on the short pipeline from Akron-to-Columbus.

He may already have his Akron-to-Columbus ticket punched for early in the 2014 season, depending on what happens in front of him.

You are the IBI’s numbers guy Mike. When you look at the complete package, and understanding that it’s only a year-and-a-half sample size, what do you see. Do the splits concern you enough to think that we are overzealous in our Wendle-love?

Mike: The splits issues for Wendle don’t appear to me to be particularly paralyzing.  I don’t think they are extreme enough to force him to a platoon guy long term.  Yet, I believe that the two most important surface statistics to measure with Wendle over the next two years of his development will be his BB/K rate and his OPS against left-handed pitching.

Wendle is a really interesting case because of his power. I think we have become somewhat spoiled in Cleveland watching both Kipnis and Cabrera over the past few years. While Cabrera is flawed his power production up the middle along with Kip’s is far above average.

Of course with Cabrera it is clear that having a competent defender, combined with power production is rarely possible. Yet, Wendle’s power based on positional production is a plus tool. Which when projecting over a full season, in a park which is home run favorable for left-handed hitters makes for an undervalued prospect.

There are a few well respected player projection systems which are featured on Fangraphs, one of which is Oliver. The more widely known projection systems are ZIPs and Steamer.

The Oliver projection if he played in a full big league season in 2014 has him with the following line: .250/.305/.419 as well as positive BSR and Def values, which coupled together creates a projected WAR total of over 3.

Of course this projection is absurd, and while Jim notes that he is an adequate defender, one doubts that he will ever receive positive defensive value.

I think that perfect world scenarios are rarely healthy or helpful when projecting what can be expected from a prospect once he reaches the major leagues. Therefore, I decided to project what 70-80 of Wendle’s big league ceiling is and then punch that data into Pollis’ Simple War Calculator in order to show his possible value.

Here is the line  I projected: .345 OBP, .445 SLG, 500 PA’s. I also graded him as a tick below average defender and a league average baserunner. All of these pieces are fairly conservative, especially his SLG data.  The outcome being that Wendle was around a 2.5 WAR player with relatively conservative projections.

Obviously Wendle has his warts. His splits aren’t perfect and one would like to see his plate discipline take another important step forward.  However, I find it to be utterly humorous that Baseball America would place two relievers, C.C. Lee and Austin Adams, as well as a tremendously undisciplined Ronny Rodriguez in front of Joe Wendle, but perhaps it is just another powerful publication ignoring results.

Prospect certainty is a myth. Wendle could struggle in Akron or have an issue that surfaces far later, but as of now he is a legitimate prospect. One who deserves to be monitored closely.

If we have learned anything from Danny Salazar it is that national prospect rankings often delude us.

I will leave with two closing questions, hoping that the message board debate is vigorous and respectful.

If all that was provided to you was age, level, and production; would you rank Tyler Naquin higher than Joey Wendle?

Without a name, but all other pertinent information could you tell Kipnis from Wendle?

Author: Michael Hattery

Currently an Attorney. I have been fortunate enough to be published at Fangraphs, The Hardball Times, The Athletic Cleveland, and Marquette Sports Law Review. Follow @snarkyhatman

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