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Projecting the future of Orioles Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard

Chris Mitchell of FanGraphs uses his KATOH projection model to give insights into Orioles Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Shortly before the 2015 Rule 5 Draft, Chris Mitchell at FanGraphs shared the results of his KATOH model that projects major-league WAR for minor leaguers. Mitchell describes KATOH, named after Yankees prospect Gosuke Katoh, as "a computer-based statistical model that produces long-term, major league forecasts for minor league players."

It analyzes factors like a player’s walk rate, strikeout rate, home run rate, rates of singles/doubles/triples, and stolen bases and adds in soft factors like age, whether the player was drafted in high school or college, and position. Mitchell doesn't pretend KATOH is the be-all-end-all, but because it's objective, it can identify "talented players who might be overlooked by the scouting consensus for reasons unrelated to their on-field performance."

As spring training drew to a close, the list above caught my attention because it featured a Rays outfielder named Joey Rickard at #98. KATOH projected him for 3.8 WAR through age 28, largely on the strength of his outstanding .321/.427/.447 batting line and 23 stolen bases in 2015. Since Rickard was entering his age-25 season, that translated to about 1 WAR a season (assuming he was called up).

Having a one-win player as a Rule 5 pick is pretty good. However, I learned later than a newer version of KATOH didn’t like Rickard as much. The newest version weights multiple years, which hurt Rickard because he hit just .243/.337/.294 in 2014. The newest version also projects "WAR for first six MLB years" instead of "WAR through age 28", because teams control players for their first six years in the majors.

This version of KATOH projects that Rickard will accumulate 2.7 WAR through his first six MLB seasons. At about half a win per season, this total drops Rickard closer to the #200 prospect than #100. Despite the fall, Rickard was gaining attention not only among Orioles fans but also the wider baseball community, so I asked Mitchell about how KATOH views him.

KATOH thinks Rickard’s biggest strength is his ability to control the strike zone. "He walked nearly as much as he struck out last year," Mitchell explains, "and both his strikeout and walk rates were better than average." Rickard’s speed is also a point in his favor. "His stolen base numbers suggest he’s a slightly above-average runner, which helps his projection," says Mitchell. "He should be more than fine defensively in left field."

The system dings Rickard for his lack of power for his position: he hit a measly three home runs in the past two years. Sure, he smacked a lot of doubles and triples on the way to a .447 SLG. But underlying many of those base knocks is a likely-unsustainable .385 BABIP.

Mitchell agrees: "[Rickard’s BABIP] is a big reason why KATOH doesn’t project stardom despite his absurd [2015] triple slash." And while Rickard has good speed as noted above, Mitchell doesn't think he's fast enough to be a plus defender in center field.

Mitchell compares KATOH projectees to each other by calculating the Mahalanobis distance between them. By this method, Rickard's best comps are the following players:

Rank Name Projected WAR thru first six MLB seasons Actual WAR thru first six MLB seasons
1 Noochie Varner 0.5 0.0
2 Ted Wood 1.4 0.0
3 Fred Lewis 1.3 4.9
4 Jacob Cruz 2.1 0.9
5 Endy Chavez 3.1 5.3
6 Scott Meadows 2.7 0.0
7 Brent Brede 1.8 0.2
8 Troy O'Leary 0.9 8.1
9 Gabe Gross 0.8 6.2
10 Zach Daeges 1.1 0.0
11 Tony Longmire 0.6 1.3
12 Cory Sullivan 1.5 0.9
13 Cole Gillespie 3.7 0.1
14 Reggie Willits 1.1 2.5
15 Rob Ducey 0.9 0.6
16 Terrell Lowery 3.9 0.7
17 David Miller 1.7 0.0
18 Gregor Blanco 3.3 7.4
19 Dan Peltier 1.2 0.0
20 Allen Battle 0.6 0.4

Fans should recognize the likes of Fred Lewis, Endy Chavez, Gabe Gross, Reggie Willits, and Gregor Blanco. "None of these players were stars, or anything close, but they were all useful players," Mitchell points out. "Fourteen of the top twenty had big-league seasons with positive WAR, and six had seasons with more than 2 WAR. In the world of prospects, where nothing is guaranteed, these are pretty good odds."

Ultimately, Mitchell feels Rickard is a good pick by the Orioles even if his ceiling is a fourth outfielder or a low-end starter. He projects to be better than replacement level and was acquired for nothing. As shown above, KATOH agrees, and that's without knowing about Rickard's spring training.

Rickard's doing his best to prove Mitchell and KATOH right. Through Tuesday's game he had compiled 0.3 fWAR on the strength of a 152 wRC+ and 42 defensive innings in center. His BABIP of .391 is bound to regress to the mean, and he will return to left field when Adam Jones is back. But as Mitchell said, Rickard's control of the strike zone and speed make him an intriguing candidate to stick in the big leagues.

Orioles fans are rooting for that outcome.

My thanks for Chris for agreeing to be interviewed for this article. Read more of his articles at FanGraphs and follow him on Twitter.