Drew Waters and his insane capacity for hitting extra base hits has been a widely discussed topic in minor league recaps this season, but given a little historical context it paints his play in an even more incredible light. Below is a list of 40 outfielders who were at one point top prospects, some who flamed out, all of which were drafted and signed straight out of high school, with the exception of Andruw Jones who was thrown in there because I love him.
This compares their production in A Ball (High A for 2 players, Short Season A ball included for some, depending on where sample size dictates). Waters power numbers compare very favorably to a lot of talented baseball players, with him falling short of a Hall of Famer (Griffey Jr.), a borderline Hall of Fame Talent (Jones), a player who would be in the HOF were it not for failed PED tests (Ramirez) and two players who are considered the premier power hitters in the game today and both could potentially end up with Hall of Fame cases. Then there’s Lastings Milledge, who is a curious case but in this situation not at all a bad name to be grouped in with, which I’ll get to in a bit.
If you’re astute, you’ve probably noticed that Lastings Milledge is statistically the most similar player on that sheet to Waters. You may not know who Lastings Milledge is, and few will have any sort of positive recollection of him, but for those who followed prospects in the mid-2000’s you are more than aware of Milledge and how good he could have been. In 2006, Milledge was the 9th overall prospect in baseball according to Baseball America and was considered one of the premiere power-speed combinations in the minor leagues. He got to the major leagues and was absolutely terrible, but not really for lack of talent or ability, but because as our own Matt Powers puts it “Lastings was completely crazy”.
Ignoring his tendency to break bullshit “unwritten rules” Milledge consistently clashed with teammates and staff for his off the field antics and simply didn’t seem to work hard enough to continue to succeed once he reached the major league level. All of this is possible with Waters, but from the reports we’ve received about him he seems to be someone willing to put in the effort to succeed at the major league level. When you see our top prospect list come out in the near future, you can bet Waters will be very near the top of it.
Waters is not going to get labelled as a “super prospect” or receive any of that attention, at least not yet, but he’s not undeserving and the scouting has given reason to believe in the numbers. Many scouts consider Waters the best prospect in the South Atlantic League, and it’s hard to argue with his combination of power and speed. The step forward he’s made with his hitting ability has allowed him to explode onto the scene. The biggest question for Waters coming out of the draft was whether he would ever hit enough to tap into his raw power, and he’s already managed to do that at 19 years old. Waters is showing off this game power at this stage and still has room to grow into his frame, potentially adding more power as he matures like many on this list did, with an average of .012 added to isolated power over a major league career.
With this data the most obvious flaw you’ll see in Waters’s game is his plate discipline. Just 4 players rank below him on the list, and any Braves fan will cringe a little seeing him so close to Jeff Francoeur on that list. This is something that Waters, as well as a number of other Braves prospects, needs to improve, but there isn’t any sort of noticeable flaw in his approach. Waters seems to have a good understanding of the strike zone and doesn’t often swing at bad pitches, he’s just aggressive in the zone and has the bat-to-ball skills to pounce on pitches he can handle. There’s no guarantee this will improve as he matures, in fact it’s quite unlikely it does, but of that bottom 10 all but Milledge and Francoeur carved out successful careers at the major league level.
If we compare Waters to those around him in the walk category, you’ll find that Kemp, Green, Rios, Hamilton, and Gonzalez saw increases in their walk rates in the major leagues, with Green the highest at a career 9.3%. Gomez, Crawford, Milledge, and Francoeur stayed roughly the same, with only Adam Jones seeing a significant drop in his walks at the major league level. This tells two stories for Waters, the one being pretty obvious that the better players on the list (with the exception of Jones) were the ones who were able to at least somewhat improve their walk rate. Even Crawford had improved his walk rate during his best days with Tampa Bay, only reverting back during his later decline with Boston and Los Angeles.
Simply put, Drew will have to improve his walk rate as he climbs the ladder if he wants to be a star, but he doesn’t really have to do as much as you would think to reach that level. The other conclusion is that if you hit for power, they won’t throw you strikes (again, with the exception of Adam Jones). All four of those players that improved their walk rates had the highest walk rates of their careers during the spell in which their ISO was the highest. Pitchers don’t want to give up extra base hits, and if you can hit them they’ll pitch around you. This should help Waters if he continues to succeed as he climbs the ladder and more pitchers gain respect for his bat. Waters has also been improving his walk rate marginally recently, with it at 6.6% over his last 55 games.
Waters is middle of the pack in his other categories, and given the level of talent on this list and the major league success of them that’s a very good place to be. It should show that he probably won’t be a 30-30 guy at the major league level, but he won’t hurt you on the basepaths and should be able to provide some value. The strikeout rate is an interesting list, as many of the players that rank worse than Waters on strikeout rate are actually better than those with better strikeout rates. You’ve got generational talents in Griffey and Trout in the low strikeout rate group, but despite that you still have more all star game appearances (57) from the 15 players with high K rates than from the 25 with lower K rates (54). All Star game selections is far from the best metric, but from a glance the pool of talent above that Drew Waters line seems stronger than the one below it. In a sense, this should show that strikeout rates in the lower minor leagues don’t have that massive of an effect on the general outcome of a player, although someone like Giancarlo Stanton is certainly well outside the norm.
Importantly, Waters seems to fall within that band of what would be deemed acceptable strikeout rates for a player at that level, and this is another category he’s been improving and over his last 39 games his strikeout rate is just 14.4%. That’s down into that category at the bottom of the page where barring a significant problem with an approach (Francoeur) or injury problems (Brown) players just typically don’t fail. Not to say they can’t, but the odds are if you can hit baseballs that well and consistently you will find yourself playing in the major leagues for a while.
I’ve personally seen enough from Waters at this point to consider him one of my top 5 prospects in the system. The statistics are nice and serve a fantastic purpose in his case to back up the scouting, but the overwhelming reports surrounding him both from my viewings and from scouts that are far better than I am simply speak too loudly for him to not be considered a top prospect. It’s not Acuna level hype nor should it be, but he’s reaching into that echelon where he should draw significant national attention should he finish the season on the pace he’s at. Normally, with the dog days of summer upcoming and the wear and tear a long season can have on a young body I get wary of early season statistics. I am, with Drew, to an extent not fully ready to say this is the player he is, but the way he’s producing power consistently and the fact that his strikeout rate is dropping by the day and his walk rate continues to improve gives me reason to believe he may even be better than what he’s shown.
Some reports I’ve heard are in the range of a 60 hit/55-60 power for Waters, though the power grade can vary depending on whether a scout believes in Waters ability to add loft. Drew also has a lean frame that could easily add weight and strength, upping that power grade and turning him into an even more serious force. He has the bat speed to hit for power and the ball jumps off of his bat, and given the Braves recent conviction with their prospects towards raising launch angle (we’ve seen it from Acuna, Albies, and Riley) I’m leaning towards believing Waters will also see his fly ball rate go up. He should be able to add the weight I mentioned before without losing much mobility as he’s currently a 60 runner, though I do think if he were to add weight he will move to right field. Waters is a fantastic defender with a plus arm as well, and moving him to right field alongside players like Pache and Acuna would make for a very successful group of outfielders. He’s got plus defensive potential at a corner, giving him 4 potential plus tools in hit, power, defense, and arm. The discussion now shouldn’t be whether Waters is one of the top prospects in the system, we really have to consider that he may be the best position player in the Braves system right now.
Another interesting note will be Waters’s timeline. The Braves have two positions filled and Pache on the way, but there’s no guarantee what the plan is in right field and if they do choose to re-sign Markakis he won’t last very long at his age. There’s where another key point of this spreadsheet comes in. Of the 6 players who had a higher ISO than Waters, three debuted at 19 and three at 21. The three above and below Waters on walk rate debuted at either 20 or 21, and four of the eight players surrounding him in strikeout rate debuted at age 19. There’s a strong historical bias towards players with Waters’s profile making a swift trek to the major leagues, and Waters may be the next in that line. I doubt it will be next year, I just don’t think that’s a leap that Alex Anthopoulos is willing to make with Waters, but if he doesn’t have holes exposed when he reaches Double-A next season then he will almost certainly make the roster at some point in 2020. Most of the similar players who didn’t debut until age 22 (2021 for Waters) ran into a speed bump at Double A (e.g. Marisnick and McCutchen) or battled injuries (Buxton).
There are a lot of assumptions in this article, and I’m not typically one who likes to make said assumption based solely on statistical data from the lower minor leagues. In this situation, Waters is doing something so remarkable in being comparable to some of the best players of the past 20 years, that the numbers need to be discussed. When the scouting backs up what he’s producing on the field and when he’s doing so at an age very appropriate to his level, those numbers do carry a weight. A lot can go wrong for Waters -just look at Delmon Young and Lastings Milledge for examples - but if things go right the Braves may have pulled a rabbit out of the hat with this second round pick. The rate of Drew Waters development has come as a pleasant surprise to even his biggest believers, and it is this writer’s opinion that those developments will continue to unfold barring an injury. The Braves may have their right fielder of the future, and believe it or not he could be here in as little as a year and a half. What Waters has done is not unheard of, but it’s exceedingly rare and casts a stronger light on the talent the Braves.