FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Riley, James, N. Lopez, H. Ramirez, Walden

First Impressions is a look at recent call-ups, a snapshot of their early progress so far in the majors. Initial BaseballHQ.com minor league write-ups for all of the players in today's column can be found in the News tab on their individual PlayerLink pages. Because the majority of these players have accumulated less than 100 AB or 50 IP, small sample size warnings apply to the analysis here.

 

First Impression: Austin Riley (LF, ATL)

CALLED UP: 5/15/2019
BASEBALLHQ PROSPECT RATING: 8B
CURRENT ROLE: Starting LF
POTENTIAL ROLE: Starting 3B
2019 MINORS STATS: Gwinnett (AAA)—144 AB, .299/.377/.681, 10 2B, 15 HR, 0.58 Eye, 0 SB

Year   AB   BA    xBA  HR  bb%  ct%  HctX  GB/LD/FB   PX/xPX  hr/f
====  ===  ====  ====  ==  ===  ===  ====  ========  =======  ====
2017# 178  .296   N/A   8   11   69   N/A     N/A    103/N/A   N/A
2018^ 390  .280   N/A  16    7   67   N/A     N/A    144/N/A   N/A
2019  112  .295  .270  10    3   67   109  25/31/44  182/158   30%
#Double-A MLEs
^Double-A/Triple-A MLEs

A stellar debut, but the adjustment period has already begun:

  • Riley has had one of the best rookie performances of 2019, with elite power backed by skill, including a very high fly ball rate. However, that same high FB% approach, combined with a below-average contact rate, hurts his batting average—xBA shows that his .290 BA has been inflated by luck (he has a 35% hit rate). And given that his ridiculously high 31% line drive rate is likely due to regress, that will lower his xBA even further.
  • His 30% hr/f is also likely unsustainable. We've been here before many times with small-sample rookie power outbursts—back on May 5th, Christian Walker had a 26% hr/f, and Rowdy Tellez was at 27%; now, Walker is at 17%, Tellez is at 20%. Michael Chavis had a 29% hr/f in April/May; he's at 14% so far in June. Pete Alonso has been able to sustain a 30+% hr/f, but few young hitters have his level of raw power.
  • Pitchers already seem to be making adjustments against Riley and cutting into his production. In June, he has a .226 BA, 88 HctX, 90 xPX, 17% hr/f, and .236 xBA over 53 AB. His 0.11 Eye—which ranks second-worst in the majors among hitters with at least 100 AB—suggests he'll need to work on his plate discipline to get back on track, and his 2017 Double-A MLE bb% offers hope that he can improve in this area.

The 22-year-old Riley looks like a very promising hitter in the long term, but for now, his lack of plate discipline is going to continue making him prone to inconsistency. And with the Braves fighting for postseason contention, his playing time is not guaranteed should his recent struggles linger. It's likely we've seen the peak of his value for 2019.

 

First Impression: Josh James (RHP, HOU)

CALLED UP: 9/1/2018, 3/28/2019
BASEBALLHQ PROSPECT RATING: 9E
CURRENT ROLE: Middle reliever
POTENTIAL ROLE: Starting pitcher
2019 MINORS STATS: None

Year   IP   ERA  xERA  Ctl   Dom  Cmd  GB/LD/FB  H%/S%  hr/f  FpK  SwK  BPV
====  ===  ====  ====  ===  ====  ===  ========  =====  ====  ===  ===  ===
2017#  76  5.51   N/A  3.9   7.4  1.9     N/A    38/64   N/A  N/A  N/A   75
2018^ 117  3.58   N/A  3.7  10.7  2.9     N/A    30/71   N/A  N/A  N/A  115
18MLB  23  2.35  3.25  2.7  11.3  4.1  42/15/43  25/84   13%  66%  15%  150
2019   36  4.71  3.80  5.9  14.4  2.4  31/17/52  26/70   19%  59%  17%  107
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
MLB    59  3.79  3.62  4.7  13.2  2.8  35/16/48  26/75   17%  61%  16%  124
#Double-A MLEs
^Double-A/Triple-A MLEs

His skills have taken a step backward, but there's still a lot to like:

  • After a brief-but-promising debut in 2018, James has struggled more in his second crack at the majors, with large increases in walks and fly balls. He was already showing fly ball tendencies in 2018, but now he's pushed it to an extreme level, which is a little odd given that his highest FB% in the minors was 37%. The rise in his Ctl came with a drop in FpK, though his 59% rate is still close enough to league average that his walks shouldn't be this high. There's reason to think he might improve in both of these problem areas.
  • On the plus side, he's managed to generate even more strikeouts, with a corresponding increase in SwK, thanks to a fastball that can touch 100+ mph with a 97.1 average velocity. Among pitchers with at least 30 IP, his Dom ranks 2nd (only to Josh Hader), and his SwK is tied for 4th.
  • Left-handed batters are giving him trouble, with a .768 oOPS that would be higher if not for a 25% hit rate, and a 1.7 Cmd rate, compared to 3.4 vs. RHB.

The 26-year-old James credits his turnaround between 2017 and 2018 to being diagnosed with and fixing sleep apnea, and he has been a different pitcher ever since. If he can tame his control problems and lower his FB%—and again, there's reason to believe he can do both—he could become an elite reliever. (Even with those issues, he's currently above average.) And if he can find an answer against LHB, his long-term upside remains that of a top-notch starting pitcher. He's still an option to pick up some starts in 2019, but most likely, that SP upside remains at least a year or two away.

 

First Impression: Nicky Lopez (2B, KC)

CALLED UP: 5/14/2019
BASEBALLHQ PROSPECT RATING: 8B
CURRENT ROLE: Starting 2B
POTENTIAL ROLE: Starting 2B
2019 MINORS STATS: Omaha (AAA)—116 AB, .353/.457/.500, 6 2B, 3 HR, 4.00 Eye, 9 SB

Year   AB   BA    xBA  bb%  ct%  HctX  GB/LD/FB   PX/xPX  hr/f  Spd/SBO  HR/SB
====  ===  ====  ====  ===  ===  ====  ========  =======  ====  =======  =====
2017# 232  .248   N/A    6   87   N/A     N/A     23/N/A   N/A   85/N/A   0/ 6
2018^ 504  .281   N/A    9   89   N/A     N/A     48/N/A   N/A  104/N/A   7/12
2019  105  .210  .254    5   82    76  65/13/22   55/ -5    5%  123/ 5%   1/ 1
#Double-A MLEs
^Double-A/Triple-A MLEs

He's struggling, but it hasn't been all bad:

  • Lopez is off to a very poor start, with a .210 batting average and .557 OPS. His xBA suggests there's been some bad luck involved (and his hit rate is only 25%), but a .254 BA isn't the kind of upside anyone was hoping for. Still, his contact rate has held up relatively well through it all, and 2018 MLE and 2019 Triple-A Eye (that's not a misprint—he had 20 walks to 5 strikeouts) offer reason to hope he can eventually add more walks to the mix.
  • Power has not been a part of his game at any level, and his current xPX offers a grim assessment of his skills. He's simply not going to deliver much power by hitting nearly two-thirds of his batted balls on the ground with subpar hard contact.
  • His speed skills are holding up nicely, though a .252 OBP cuts into his opportunities to run. He has a career 70.5% success rate in Double-A and Triple-A, and certainly the Royals have no reservations about steals, so as he ideally gets on base more in the future, he could have 20+ SB upside down the line.

The 24-year-old Lopez has been a disappointment so far in 2019, and will require some patience as he works on establishing his skills at the major league level. With the Royals possessing the second-worst record in the AL, they seem likely to give him a long look, though they have recently dropped him down in the batting order—after batting first or second for his first three weeks, he's been slotting in sixth or seventh lately. Long-term, his BA/SB potential could give him solid fantasy value, though we probably won't see it until 2020 or later.

 

First Impression: Harold Ramirez (OF, MIA)

CALLED UP: 5/11/2019
BASEBALLHQ PROSPECT RATING: 7D
CURRENT ROLE: Starting CF
POTENTIAL ROLE: Starting OF
2019 MINORS STATS: New Orleans (AAA)—110 AB, .355/.408/.591, 12 2B, 4 HR, 0.32 Eye, 1 SB

Year   AB   BA    xBA  bb%  ct%  HctX  GB/LD/FB   PX/xPX  hr/f  Spd/SBO  HR/SB
====  ===  ====  ====  ===  ===  ====  ========  =======  ====  =======  =====
2016# 383  .295   N/A    5   81   N/A     N/A     58/N/A   N/A  110/N/A   2/ 6
2017# 444  .247   N/A    6   84   N/A     N/A     51/N/A   N/A   63/N/A   5/ 4
2018# 463  .292   N/A    5   79   N/A     N/A     94/N/A   N/A   81/N/A   9/13
2019  109  .303  .265    4   80    99  69/17/14   61/ 26    8%   91/ 3%   1/ 1
#Double-A MLEs

He's been more lucky than good so far:

  • Ramirez has good contact skill, but he doesn't back that up with much in the way of secondary skills. He's made league average hard contact in the majors, but has been hitting way too many ground balls and not enough line drives to help his batting average, which has been aided by a 37% hit rate. As xBA shows, he's not a .300 hitter right now, though his minor league MLEs suggest he could become one.
  • To do that, he'll need to change his batted ball mix and add more line drives and fly balls for a little more power. His GB% in the minors the last three seasons have ranged between 48-56%, so his current G/L/F is out of balance, but not all that uncharacteristic. That and his PX history suggest we shouldn't expect a lot of HR pop.
  • He's had four double-digit steal seasons in the minors, but his Spd history isn't great, nor is his success rate history—in Double-A and Triple-A, he was 29-for-45 (64.4%).

The 24-year-old Ramirez is a bit of an odd duck, with a mix of skills that don't really add up to much, but a history of hitting for high batting averages anyway. His early success has helped him move into the lineup on an everyday basis for the Marlins, and their non-contender status should allow him to stay there if he can keep hitting. His skills say he isn't likely to keep it up, so single-season owners might want to cash in now if he's drawing any trade interest.

 

First Impression: Marcus Walden (RHP, BOS)

CALLED UP: 3/29/18, 4/12/18, 5/2/18, 4/6/19, 4/18/19
BASEBALLHQ PROSPECT RATING: 6C
CURRENT ROLE: Setup reliever
POTENTIAL ROLE: Setup reliever/closer
2019 MINORS STATS: Pawtucket (AAA)—0.00 ERA, 1.2 IP/1 GS, 0.00 Ctl, 15.0 Dom, 0.0 Cmd

Year   IP   ERA  xERA  Ctl  Dom  Cmd  GB/LD/FB  H%/S%  hr/f  FpK  SwK  BPV
====  ===  ====  ====  ===  ===  ===  ========  =====  ====  ===  ===  ===
2016^  56  3.47   N/A  2.9  4.7  1.6     N/A    31/73   N/A  N/A  N/A   57
2017+ 106  6.71   N/A  4.0  5.3  1.3     N/A    38/62   N/A  N/A  N/A   33
2018+  34  7.83   N/A  5.5  4.5  0.8     N/A    43/67   N/A  N/A  N/A   -3
18MLB  15  3.68  2.92  1.8  8.6  4.7  59/22/20  34/65    0%  63%  12%  142
2019   37  2.43  3.19  2.2  9.5  4.3  52/21/28  25/84   19%  60%  14%  142
--------------------------------------------------------------------------
MLB    52  2.79  3.14  2.1  9.2  4.4  54/21/25  28/77   14%  61%  13%  142
^Double-A/Triple-A MLEs
+Triple-A MLEs

Skill and opportunity might be aligning:

  • Walden is a late bloomer (he's 30) with a shaky minor league track record who has nonetheless found success in the majors, and he's doing it with full skill support. He's striking out more batters, and SwK says he should be. He's walking fewer batters, and FpK says he should be. And he's generating a ton of ground balls to go with it.
  • Of these skills, the GB% is the one with the longest track record. He consistently posted 50+% ground ball rates in the minors, so there's good reason to think what he's doing there is sustainable. His MLEs make his Ctl and Dom a little more questionable, though again, he has the support of the underlying metrics there.
  • He's even doing well in his platoon splits, holding LHB to a .193 BA and .585 OPS over 89 career PA with a 5.2 Cmd rate, which is actually better than his career 3.7 Cmd rate vs. RHB.

With the Red Sox struggling to find reliable arms in their bullpen, Walden has quietly worked his way up the ladder—his leverage index is 1.23. His xERA and BPV both suggest he could be closer-worthy, though it's important to keep things in perspective, as this is a 52 IP sample. That said, he's probably still under the radar in a lot of leagues, so he might be available cheaply. He's worth a closer look if you're speculating for saves.


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.