MLB Trade Rumors came out with their list of players that are out of options, and one of the most interesting players on the list to me was the Brewers Jeff Bianchi. Bianchi was selected in the 2nd round back in 2005 by the Kansas City Royals out of high school. Still just 26 (and doesn’t turn 27 until October) he missed all of 2010 with Tommy John Surgery, then was horrible in hitter friendly AA in 2011. The Cubs plucked him off of waivers in December of 2011, only to take him off the 40 man roster and have the Brewers get him off of waivers in 2012. He would make his MLB debut, and play 33 games (76 plate appearances). He struggled at the plate and spent most of the year in the PCL (his introduction to AAA as well).
MLB Depth Charts has him projected to make the Brewers’ bench out of spring training, and he will have to make the team out of Spring Training in some form or the Brewers would have to risk losing him on waivers. I wanted to see if the former prospect was worth a spot on the Brewers 25 man roster in April. After being drafted in 2005, Baseball America ranked him as the 5th best prospect in the system, 4th best in the Arizona Summer League, and as the fastest baserunner in the Royals system. I recently looked at the likelihood of “fastest baserunners” of succeeding in the Majors, and it is certainly not a guarantee to say the least. Also, 2005 was a really long time ago. While I found that speed score was not as predictive to MLB success as being named “fastest baserunner”, it still may be helpful to use the tool to see if he has lost any speed. You see that there is a pretty big drop off. In 2008 and 2009, he had a 7.2 speed score and a 6.6 speed score respectively. In 2011, it was 5.9, and in AAA in 2012 it was 4.7. In the Majors, he did have a positive baserunner rating according to FanGraphs, but not according to Baseball Prospectus. While speed doesn’t always equal stolen bases, especially in Bianchi’s case, as he wasn’t even a big stolen base threat early on in his minor league career, it is instructive that he stole 50 bases from 2007-2009, and he stole 34 bases in 2011-2012, about the same rate. However, he didn’t steal any in his short time in the Majors. The evidence seems to point to the fact that he has lost some speed, but is probably still an average to possible good baserunner.
What about with the bat? If you just look at his minor league “odds”, he is at 34.8 %. This puts him in the area of the Angels’ Luis Jimenez, Charlie Culberson, and Christian Bethancourt (about 310th out of 475). He is ranked so low at least partly because of a lack of walks and lack of power on the minor league level. According to the minor league indicators, there isn’t a lot of reason to believe that he will hit at the big league level.
What about projection systems? Pecota projects him to be an above replacement player, as does Steamer and Oliver. Steamer and Oliver seem to be about in agreement when it comes to how he will hit, and that is not well. For some reason, those two projections (at least as they are portrayed on FanGraphs), they do not give the park adjusted stats, but I believe (I know Oliver does) they project for park with their statistics (in my opinion, it would be easier to just projected the park adjusted stats like wRC + and OPS + and ignore most of the rest, but I guess that wouldn’t work very well for Fantasy playing). They project Bianchi to have about a .284 wOBA. For comparison, only 5 qualified hitters in the big leagues had a wOBA of that or worse in 2012. Yunel Escobar had a .284 wOBA in 2012, and when you change the qualifications to just 100 plate appearances, Brandon Crawford, Jose Molina, and John Buck show up. It isn’t good, and you can only play significantly with that kind of wOBA if you are an elite defender like Crawford and Molina (Buck and Escobar just had bad seasons).
ZIPs top 3 comps for Bianchi is Mike Champion, Pedro Chavez, and Brad Wellman. Champion played for 3 seasons in the late 70s and was horrible, there are no big league players to have ever played under the name of Pedro Chavez according to Baseball Reference, and Wellman played 441 games in the Majors, but at a below replacement level. ZIPs projects Bianchi to have 4 strikeouts for every walk, and homer just 1.32% of the time (league average is usually over 2% of the time), but since it projects him to be an above average defender, it still projects him to be an above replacement player, as do Steamer and Oliver, suggesting that he is a big league player, just more of a fringe one.
Even though it was small sample size, is there anything we can learn about Bianchi from his short time in the big leagues using advanced tools? Looking at his hitter’s Pitch F/X map, the first thing I noticed was that he was pitched outside significantly. Pitchers especially threw high and outside against Bianchi. When changing the map to his swing map, he actually swung at pitches inside (as in balls) and high more than anything else comparatively (when “un”-normalizing it, you notice that he mainly swings at middle to high pitches, leaving low pitches alone). Both homers he hit (he hit 3, but the map only shows 2 for some reason) were on the inside part of the strike zone, and one of them was up in the zone. The pitches he swung at the most (by percentage) were actually sliders, 2-seamers, and all 3 splitters he saw. All 3 homers came off the 4 seam fastball
Bianchi’s spray chart suggests that he would rather go the other way, but had success pulling the ball.
He could actually just be a pull hitter, and teams knew that when he was brought up. Opposing teams could have just been keeping the ball away from him because they knew he wanted to pull it. Because of this, Bianchi had no real choice except to go the other way. Despite this, when he put the bat on the ball, the result wasn’t necessarily bad, as he hit the ball 267.478 feet on average. He doesn’t hit for a lot of power, but his problems may stem from his approach more than what the ball is doing after it comes off the bat.
His AAA success should at least be talked about I think. He had an OPS over .800, but because it is the PCL, that translates to just a 104 wOBA + and 108 OPS + (estimated by Stat Corner to be worth 10 runs more than an average PCL player over 600 at-bats). He still didn’t walk much at 7.9%, and relied on an exceptionally high BABIP .378. Even for the PCL, the park played hitter friendly, which certainly helps his slash line. It is better that he was above league average than below league average, but the variables of a rather small sample size, the still small walk rate, the high BABIP, the park, the league, and the fact that it is minor league statistics make it unlikely that the numbers really mean anything. He is just not a very good hitter.
What about Bianchi’s defense? Bianchi is a shortstop, so if he is very good at defense, the lack of offense can be forgiven. I am currently working on testing the predictability of minor league defensive metrics, but since that isn’t finished yet, we will just use what we have. Back when RTZ data was kept for minor league players, Bianchi fared very well, especially early on. While his range factor took a big step back in 2012, it has been well above average for his career. FRAA data has always liked him defensively. The few scouting reports that are available/I have read on Bianchi seems to affirm this. He is a really nice defender.
So Bianchi seems to have the makeup of a good utility player, he can run a little bit, plays shortstop well, but can’t hit much at all. But is there room on the Brewers roster? That is, to keep Bianchi, are they keeping a better player off the roster? Jean Segura, the middle infield prospect that the Brewers got in the trade for Zach Greinke, has a good chance of being the starting shortstop, and if he doesn’t, he would start in the minors. For Bianchi, it is probably better if Seguera doesn’t win the job. Alex Gonzalez, whose injury is the biggest reason that Bianchi got a chance in the big leagues anyway, projects to make the team one way or another. If both Segura and Gonzalez both make the team, then it is hard to see why the team would need Bianchi to be the utility infielder. Former big leaguers Bobby Crosby and Hector Gomez are sleeper minor leaguers that could take Bianchi’s job with a better spring. Donnie Murphy, a player that has been horrible in the Majors but has also played shortstop at the big leagues, is also in camp. There is a good chance that Bianchi is going to be available for another team that needs a utility infielder, and even if he doesn’t hit, he could use his speed and defense to give him a career in the big leagues as a backup.