Jake PePew has been overshadowed in terms of performance and upside by Luke Bailey and Justin O’Conner. In my whole series on the Rays’ catching prospects back in December, I talked about Bailey here, O’Conner here, and even Oscar Hernandez here (you can find the other posts in this search from December 19th to December 31st), but i neglected to mention DePew. But just like Bailey and O’Conner could be poised for breakout seasons in 2012, so too is Jake DePew.
Jake DePew, the Rays’ 9th round draft pick in the 2010 draft, doesn’t have the pizzaz as a prospect that Bailey and O’Conner have. He doesn’t have the flashy tools, the power, the pure hitting ability, and the incredible arm. But DePew is about as good of a bet as any of the trio to be a big league starting catcher.
In 2011 at Advanced Rookie-level Princeton, DePew had a simply pedestrian season offensively. He posted a .214/.293/.264 line in 46 games with 5 doubles, 1 homer, and 22 RBI. His .557 OPS paled in comparison to even the league average, which was .737. But there were some positive signs. In vintage Rays fashion, DePew stole 6 bases in 10 tries. More important though was that DePew struck out just 27 times, 14.7% of his 184 plate appearances compared to the 21.4% Appalachian League average, and he walked 20 times, a nice 10.9% mark compared to the league average of 8.5%. DePew was actually proficient at making contact, connecting on 68.4% of his swings according to Minor League Central compared to the league average of 56.5%. He recognized pitches very well, swinging at 92.5% of the pitches thrown in the zone against him compared to the 88.9% Appy League average, and swinging at 18.9% of pitches outside the zone compared to the 24.6% league average. He was a patient hitter, but when he swung he was able to put the ball in play very often. He put the ball in play in 73.9% of his plate appearances, well above the league IP% of 65.9%. But the problem was that he simply couldn’t hit the ball with any authority. Just 17.6% of his hits went for extra-bases compared to the 33.8% league average. His .050 ISO (isolated power- slugging percentage minus batting average) was execrable as the league average was .142.
Luckily for DePew, he played some exceptional defense. In 33 games behind the plate, he posted a .989 Fld%, a nice 40% CS%, and just 2 passed balls. Appy League catchers posted just a .986 Fld%, a 30% CS%, and an average of .19 passed balls per game, over 3 times higher than DePew’s .06 passed balls per game. This was despite the fact that DePew made more plays that the average catcher behind the plate, posting an 8.52 range factor per game (putouts and assists per game) compared to the 8.17 league average. DePew flashed some nice tools behind the plate and he could be a very good defensive catcher moving forward.
But what about his bat? DePew is impressive defensively, but if he can’t even hit .220 at Rookie ball it will be tough for him to even be a big league backup catcher. But the good news is that DePew’s bat could be moving towards a turnaround. DePew’s plate discipline and ability to make contact were exceptional in 2012. The big problem was that he couldn’t hit the ball with any authority whatsoever. Among DePew’s batted balls, 10.9% were line drives, 45.3% were groundballs, 31.4% were outfield flyballs, and 7.3% were pop-ups. The league posted a 14.1% LD%, 44.1% GB%, 30.0% OFB%, and a 6.8% PU%. The only thing really alarming among DePew’s batted ball tendencies was his very low line drive rate, but that really doomed his batting average in addition to limiting his power. He hit a good amount of flyballs to the outfield, but even though flyballs to the outfield usually lead to quite a few extra-base hits, but DePew was hitting the ball so weakly. On the season he posted just a .243 BAbip compared to the .320 league average, a direct ramification of his lack of hard-hit balls.
The thing is that DePew isn’t built like the tap hitter he was in 2011. Both Baseball-Reference and MLC have him as 6-1, 220. DePew definitely has some power and we’ve seen it in batting practice. But in 2011 it simply disappeared in games. How can DePew change that? I think the answer could come from a strange stat from MLC, the fact that DePew averaged 1.67 pitches per plate appearance compared to the 1.77 league average. How is that possible if he managed such a great walk rate? It’s simple. DePew was always content to take a walk, but when pitches threw him strikes, as we saw from his zone-swing percentage above, he was overzealous at swinging and ended up hitting far too many soft groundballs and weak pop-ups. With a pitcher we talk about not just control, throwing strikes, but also command, hitting spots within the zone. The reverse of that is going on here with DePew. He showed good discipline on pitches out of the zone, but he could not distinguish well between pitches in the zone and swung at pitchers’ pitches that consistently got him out. DePew has to mature as a hitter and learn that waiting for his pitch doesn’t mean just to wait for a strike, but rather to wait for something he can drive. That won’t happen every at-bat, but it happens quite often, especially in the low minors. If DePew can make that adjustment, his all-around tools could make him into a nice big league catcher considering his stellar defense. Jake DePew is still young as he’ll turn just 20 on March 1st. In 2012 he’ll head to Short Season-A Hudson Valley and look to take the step forward in the batter’s box that he has the ability to take.