Baseball is far removed from 2010 where a second-year 1B from Georgia University led the Minor Leagues in RBIs (130) and snuck into the Top-10 in home runs (31). At the time the High Desert first baseman's 130 runs batted in were the highest total posted by a Minor Leaguer since Juan Silvestre in 2000. He would finish 2nd in the California League that season in wRC+ (143), 2nd in SLG (.580), and 2nd in ISO (.265) behind current Arizona Diamondbacks’ slugger Paul Goldschmidt.
Then again that player, Rich Poythress, is far removed from that season as well.
Poythress was the Seattle Mariners 2nd round selection (51st overall) in 2009. An excerpt from his draft profile from MLB.com reads as follows:
Power is his calling card, but with a lack of great bat speed, there is some question how well it will play at the next level. There's no other part of his game that stands out, so someone will have to believe in his power to take him.
The Mariners organization believed in his power and he immediately displayed it for all of baseball to see. His break-out 2010 campaign ranked him the Mariners 15th overall prospect by Baseball America. But in 2011 Poythress looked more like a first-year player who never could get in sync with his own skill-set as he worked with newly hired Jackson hitting coach Cory Snyder to shorten his swing through his struggles.
The Mariners stuck with him, a positive sign of their analysis of his abilities, as he posted all 122 games played and 450 at bats from Jackson and finished the season with a slash of .267/.347/.416 with 11 homers; 20 shy of his total from that breakout campaign. Baseball took notice.
Poythress dropped to 28th overall in Baseball America's post-2011 Mariners’ organizational prospect rankings and news from the Mariners blogosphere regarding Poythress often sounded like a eulogy for a career that ended before it even began. In 2012, already fighting dwindling scouting reports, he would lose over a month (May 9th through June 23rd) with a foot stress fracture and subsequently serve a rehab assignment with the Arizona League Mariners. Poythress was batting just .258 (29 for 112) at the time he landed on the DL.
In the month he was away from baseball’s upper divisions, he sent a text message to Ashley Brown of the Columbia County News-Times, a news outlet that covered his playing time at Greenbrier High School, stating simply that he'd have a huge second half of the season. In his first rehab game he would go 4 for 4, missing the cycle by just a triple while hitting two homers, driving in five runs and reaching base in all six plate appearances. It didn't stop there. Poythress would hit .330 (63 for 191) the rest of the way after returning to Jackson.
He sits less than 20 at bats away from qualifying for the 2012 Southern League season leaderboards (going into Monday's season finale); and if he did qualify you might not be hearing his name regardless of a sound baseball season. He would be 4th in the league in average (.304), 4th in wOBA (.394), 3rd in OBP (.404), 5th in BB% (14.0%), and tied for 3rd in wRC+ (143). Amoung Southern League first basemen his stats become even more noticeable as he would place 1st in AVG, 3rd in wOBA, 2nd in OBP, 2nd in BB%, and 3rd in wRC+. In the field he has been just as impressive posting a .997 fielding percentage through 83 games at first base with an 8.71 RF/G (Range Factor). For comparison Mark Teixeira, maybe you have heard of him, posted a RF/G of 8.36 and 8.77 in his most recent Gold Glove seasons for the New York Yankees.
But undoubtedly what many 2013 pre-season prospect lists will feature are his six home runs and 45 RBIs in 86 games played, pointing once again to that 2010 season as the outlier for Poythress. But to me, to characterize such a positive offensive season by its lack of 'power production' is a sign of how far baseball has still failed to come since the inception of advanced batting statistics.
I have tried and tried to track down a season where any player (MLB, MiLB, International, etc.) posted a higher OBP in a season where they were 25 or more home runs lower than another season and the only player I have found to do so is Rich Poythress. He had a very respectable .381 OBP in 2010 and has an even better .404 OBP here in 2012, despite the lack of home runs. I am not an anti-homer baseball fanatic who believes that mashers have no place in modern-day baseball, but I do believe that a successful AVG/OBP/BB%/BABIP campaign from any position can be as strong a catalyst for a baseball team as a league leading HR/OPS campaign.
In 2010 Rich reached base via walk at a 10.4 plate appearance (52 walks in 544 PA) pace and struck out once every 5.44 (100 Ks in 544 PA). In 2011 he improved those ratios to one walk every 10.2 PAs (50 in 511) and one strikeout every 6.32 (82 in 511). In 2012 for the first time he has more walks than strikeouts while moving those rate stats to one walk every 7.14 PAs (50 in 357) and is striking out just once every 10.8 (33 in 357).
Poythress has effectively cut in half his plate appearances that entail a walk from the batter's box to the dugout (18.4 K% in 2010/9.2 K% in 2012) and improved his walk ratio by nearly 30%. The same goes for his BB/K ratio that was 0.52 in 2010 and sits at 1.52 in 2012 with Jackson. At the same time his BABIP of .325 in 2012 is only 9 points short of his 2010 numbers despite logging 36 less extra base hits, leading to the conclusion that he is using the whole field to a greater extent in being successful in 2012.
In 2010 Poythress recorded an XBH every 2.34 hits compared to every 3.28 hits in 2012. This set of numbers comes off lefties and righties in a variety of ballparks, against different defenses, and sometimes against baseball odds. His abilities to use the field and control the strike zone have been his biggest allies in 2012; he truly has transformed into a better all-around baseball player. This progress is most evident in his .340 batting average while reaching safely in 23 of 27 games in August. Poythress recorded 33% more multi-hit games (9) than strikeouts (6) in August while hitting five of his six homers on the season in August -- including going yard in back-to-back games twice.
As Rich Poythress evolves into a player his MLB draft profile said he could not be perhaps it is time for the expectations to morph as well. Let's hope the 6-foot-4, 235 pound ‘slugger’ can put his best foot forward going into 2013 and regain his national standing while continuing to advance toward Seattle.