2012 Prospect Breakout Candidate: John Shelby


What is it about John Shelby?

As a prospect evaluator, sometimes you get irrational feelings about prospects. Sometimes you watch a player and see unharnessed potential in him that could be just a moment away from coming. Maybe you look at the stats and you feel like there’s discrepancy in the stats that will help him perform much better in the future, but you can’t figure out what. That’s what is going on here for my with Rays outfield prospect John Shelby. If my feeling is right, he’s going to have a big 2012.

Shelby’s 2011 numbers as a 25 year old at Double-A were pretty darn pedestrian. He posted a .248/.287/.436 line with 20 doubles, 5 triples, 16 homers, 52 RBI, and 7 stolen bases in 11 attempts in 117 games. More impressive was Shelby’s defense as he posted a .989 Fld% and an impressive 9 outfield assists in 75 games in centerfield before being moved to left field to accommodate Isaias Velasquez in the latter part of the season and struggling with unfamiliar position. Shelby is a good defensive centerfielder with a right fielder’s arm- after all, he did start his pro career as a shortstop. That’s great for him, but the big question with him is his bat. Shelby’s power numbers were solid in 2011 as he posted a .186 ISO compared to the .136 Double-A Southern League average, but that was completely offset by his complete lack of plate discipline as he walked in just 4.3% of his PA’s compared to the league average of 9.1% while also striking out in 22.% of his PA’s compared to the 18.7% league average. Why am I so entranced by Shelby as a prospect?

First off, there’s his defense. And then, we have his speed. Centerfielders are always, ubiquitously, supposed to be fast. Just 4 of the 24 MLB centerfielders who spent at least two-thirds of the 2011 season manning the position for their respective teams stole less than 10 bases, and for some of those players (e.g. Jon Jay and Colby Rasmus), they have the ability to steal more bases and will in coming seasons. 14 of the 24 stole 20 or more bases, and 16 of 24 stole at least 19. Shelby has also shown some nice speed, stealing 33 bases in 2008 and 30 in 2009 before dropping off to 15 in 2010 and just 7 in 2011 despite going from a White Sox organization that we don’t really associate with speed to a Rays organization that preaches it from top to bottom. But during those four seasons, Shelby’s OBP fell from .331 to .323 to .293 to .287, which could definitely explain the drop in stolen bases, and a further reason that Shelby stole fewer bases in 2011 was that in the second half he was put at a position he isn’t comfortable with, left field, hindering his focus on stealing bases. If Shelby can his OBP back up and get comfortable wherever he’s assigned to play defensively, putting up at least 10 stolen bases shouldn’t be a problem for him.

Then we have Shelby’s power. Shelby hit 39.8% of his for extra bases compared to the league average of 32.3% and 15.5% of his hits were home runs compared to the league average of 8.3%. His 16 blasts were tied for 10th in the Southern League, and he had the tied for the most home runs from any player in the league with a batting average .250. Shelby’s power was solid in 2011, but it was somewhat surprising that he didn’t hit more doubles and triples. According to Minor League Central, 31.2% of Shelby’s batted balls were flyballs to the outfield, a bit above the league average of 28.6%, and 17.1% of his batted balls were line drives compared to the league average of 17.5%. In order to get extra-base hits, you have to hit the ball to the outfield, and when Shelby hit the ball to the outfield, he showed considerable power. But it’s suspicious how few doubles and triples he hit. Splicing together the data from Baseball-Reference and MLC (by no means an exact science), 41.0% of Shelby’s flyballs to the outfield (OFB’s) and line drives (LD’s) went for extra-base hits compared to the league average of 37.5%. That’s suspiciously low for a player who ranked 10th in the league in home runs. In fact, taking home runs out of the equation, 15.5% of Shelby’s OFB’s and LD’s went for doubles and triples, in fact below the league average of 17.3%. Shelby’s ratio for simply home runs (25.5% of his OFB’s and LD’s compared to the league average of 20.2%) was comparatively 26.2% higher than the league average (meaning 25.5 divided by 20.2 is equal to about 1.262). We would expect a similar ratio between Shelby’s proportion doubles and triples on OFB’s and LD’s and the league’s proportion of doubles and triples on OFB’s and LD’s. Shelby appears to have been unlucky regarding his flyballs to the outfield dropping for doubles and triples, and that really affected his overall numbers because his BA, OBP, and SLG would have all been just a bit higher in addition to Shelby getting some more confidence. Good news is that we could expect Shelby to get more doubles and triples in coming seasons.

Look at that, we already have listed four of the five tools. We have power, speed, glove, and arm. But if really hurts when the tool that’s missing is the hit tool, not only in terms of batting average but also in terms of plate discipline. We saw above that Shelby posted a solid 17.1% line drive percentage, just below the league average, but the problem was that although he hit a nice amount of flyballs to the outfield, he also hit way too many pop-ups, 10.0% of his batted balls compared to the 7.1% league average. Not only are pop-ups pretty much guaranteed outs (and if they’re not, they turn into errors), but in general flyballs lead to a significantly lower BAbip (batting average on balls in play) than groundballs. Shelby’s BAbip was accordingly just .284 compared to the league average of .312, weighing down his batting average. Shelby was decent at making contact, connecting on 74.7% of his swings compared to the league average of 78.3%, and his strikeout rate was above the league average but not too bad at 22.2% of his PA’s compared to the league average of 18.7%. In reality, Shelby’s pure hitting isn’t great, but it’s passable (especially factoring in the doubles and triples that he was missing because of bad luck), and if he can turn some of his pop-ups into flyballs to the outfield, he should be able to hit for a decent batting average, and with his power that would make him a solid big league player. But Shelby isn’t young, and considering he has posted pop-up rates of over 10% of his batted balls each of the past three seasons (utilizing the 2009-2010 data from Minor League Splits), maybe it’s a problem that’s too late for Shelby to fix. And even if he does, what about his sub-par plate discipline?

In 2011, John Shelby ranked 25th in the Double-A Southern League with 117 games played. Yet Shelby failed to be among the league’s top 100 in walks, coming in at 108th. He ranked 12th on his own team in walks despite playing in more games than everyone ahead of him other than Henry Wrigley. Distressing isn’t strong enough of a word. Strangely though, Shelby’s pitch identification wasn’t so terrible. He swung at 76.0% of pitches within the strike zone compared to the league average of 71.5%, indicating that he was overly aggressive (that percentage ranked 13th in the SL among hitters with a minimum of 300 PA’s), but the true problem was that he swung at 15.7% of pitches outside the zone compared to the league average of 11.1%, 10th highest among SL players with at least 300 PA’s. Considering Shelby was too old for the league as well, with the league’s average age being about 24 and a half, the fact that his walk to strikeout ratio was so ghastly (just .19 compared to the league average of .49) is a real concern. So even if Shelby can get his hitting together, his plate discipline still apparently prevents him from even being a big league regular.

To sum up everything I’ve said so far, Shelby is due for an improvement in 2012 at Triple-A Durham, and he should have a somewhat better season, say a .255/.295/.460 line with 30 doubles, 5 triples, 17 home runs, and 10 stolen bases. But that .295 OBP would still be a very bad sign. Why am I writing this whole article on a mediocre prospect at best who’s not young anymore?

As a baseball fan, we see a players’ stats for all sorts of crazy situations. The most notable of which is probably batting average with runners in scoring position and another very significant one is platoon splits versus lefties and righties. We don’t have the BA with RISP data for Shelby, although we don’t particularly care, but we do have the lefty-right splits. Shelby, a right-handed batter, posted a .281/.316/.469 line in 137 PA’s versus lefties with 9 doubles, 5 homers, 16 RBI, although he posted a 24.1% strikeout rate (among his PA’s) and just a 4.4% walk rate. 17.5% of his batted balls were line drives, 36.1% were groundballs, a great 37.1% were OFB’s, and just 6.2% were pop-ups (the league averages were 17.5%, 42.5%, 28.6%, and 7.1% respectively). Against righties, Shelby posted a much worse .229/.267/.413 line with 10 doubles, 5 triples, 11 homers, 35 RBI, a 21.4% K rate and a 4.2% BB rate in 308 plate appearances. He posted a 16.8% LD%, a 39.8 GB%, a 29.2% OFB%, and a 11.5% pop-up percentage. Looking at those batting ball tendencies, it’s noticeable the fact that his LD%, GB%, and overall FB% (counting OFB’s and pop-ups) were about the same versus lefties and righties. The only big difference was that Shelby popped up a much higher proportion of pitches versus righties, something that if he could fix it would make his platoon split not nearly as wide. That’s another reason to be hopeful against Shelby. But we can’t ignore his 4.3% walk rate!

The right-lefty split was interesting for Shelby. But what was absolutely insane was his home and away split. Lefty and right splits are actually relevant because righty and lefty pitchers are two completely different looks for a hitter. Home and away we usually don’t care about. But this is startling. At home, Shelby was absolutely awful. Shelby posted just a .176/.206/.273 line with 6 doubles, 1 triple, 4 homers, and 20 RBI in 57 games, posting an awful 28.4% K% and a terrible 3.3% BB%. But on the road, Shelby was a much better hitter! He posted a crazy .313/.354/.583 line with 13 doubles, 4 triples, 12 homers, 32 RBI, a very good 16.5% K%, and a better 5.2% BB% in 60 games. At home, Shelby’s .486 OPS was dead last among every player in the Southern League with a minimum of 100 home PA’s. On the road, his .937 OPS was 6th in the SL among players with a minimum of 100 away PA’s, and his .270 ISO was 4th. What the heck is going on here? Sure, the Biscuits ranked last in the SL in OPS, but it’s not like their ballpark, Montgomery Riverwalk Stadium, is so huge. It’s 401 feet to dead center, 380 and 377 feet to right-center and left-center, and 314 and 332 down the lines. How could Shelby be two different players on home versus on the road?

Your gut feeling and mine as well has to be that there’s some crazy random variation going here. Probably Shelby was lucky on the round and unfortunate on the road and his true ability lies in the middle. But Shelby’s batted ball profile was completely different at home versus on the road. At home he posted a 16.4% LD%, a 43.2% GB%, a below-average 26.7% OFB%, and a 8.9% PU%. On the road meanwhile, he posted a 17.5% LD%, a 35.0 GB%, an incredible 35.6% OFB%, and a 10.7% PU%. His groundball to flyball ratio was 1.21 at home compared to 0.76 on the road. If I didn’t tell you these were both Shelby’ you never would guessed these were both him. Shelby did have just a .227 BAbip at home compared to .329 on the road, but that was clearly because he hit less line drives and for a whole lot less power. Maybe the craziest stat of all: Shelby’s ISO was just .097 at home compared to .270 on the road. But there’s still more here. Shelby made contact on 72.1% of his swings at home compared to a 77.1% clip on the road. He swung at 20.6% of pitches outside the zone at home compared to 11.3% on the road. How is this even possible?

I’m not about to make up some way to resolve this. There were undeniably some crazy things going on here. Correlation does not imply causation, however, it’s pretty clear that Shelby was much more comfortable on the road compared to at home. Hopefully Shelby’s struggles at home will end once he leaves Montgomery Riverwalk Stadium.

There are a bunch of reasons to be optimistic about John Shelby. There are stats all over the place that are pointing to an improvement in 2012 for him. The one thing really holding him back from a breakout is his walk rate. With added patience, John Shelby could be a nice big league player. Will anything actually happen? I have no idea. But after an insane season in 2011, John Shelby is definitely worth watching in 2012.