Hitting in the major leagues has never been more difficult. Though this season has brought increases in batting average and hits due to MLB’s new rules, as the great Ted Williams once said, “Hitting is 50% above the shoulders.”
Indeed, baseball is a mental game. Yet, we expect every top prospect — who are sometimes still just teenagers when they debut — to come out of the gate as rookies and turn into instant stars. It worked that way for Julio Rodriguez and Michael Harris II last season, but that’s not the usual path. Both Rookies of the Year are struggling in 2023, though we know they can do it because — well, they’ve already done it. What we don’t know is the path of some other recent top prospects who weren’t firing on all cylinders immediately.
Call it the post-hype update. Let’s check in on some former top position player prospects who are no longer rookies but are still early in their careers and looking to break out in 2023. We’ll separate them into two groups: those showing signs of success so far and those we’re still unsure about.
Showing early success
Peak ESPN prospect ranking: No. 18 (2022)
Background: The best high school power-hitting prospect in 2018, Gorman somewhat surprisingly fell to 19th in the draft. He hit 25 home runs in the minors in 2021 and debuted with the Cardinals in 2022, hitting .226/.300/.421 with 14 home runs in 89 games, as the Cardinals moved him off his natural position of third base to second base with Nolan Arenado entrenched at third. Gorman was demoted back to Triple-A last September as he struggled to hit high fastballs.
2023: .302/.391/.640, 13 HR, 39 RBIs, 2.0 WAR
Saturday night in St. Louis, with the game tied 3-3 in the eighth, Gorman faced Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Victor Gonzalez and reached down in the zone to line a 94-mph fastball over the wall in right field for a three-run home run — and then slammed his bat into the ground as he ran up the first-base line. It was just the second home run in his career off a left-handed pitcher: The first had come two nights earlier off fellow Dodger Julio Urias. View the bat slam as a message: He wants to play every day, and it appears as if he’s going to get the opportunity.
Gorman has always had the raw power and a power hitter’s swing, but even as he moved quickly through the minors, poor strikeout-to-walk ratios limited his upside: 152-to-45 in High-A in 2019, 115-to-38 between Double-A and Triple-A in 2021, 103-to-28 in the majors as a rookie. The mantra you’re going to hear throughout this piece is one Gorman himself repeated after Saturday’s home run: “Obviously, that’s the name of the game. You’ve got to get a good pitch to hit, and everyone is trying to do that when they’re in the box.”
His chase rate on pitches outside the zone has improved from 31.1% to 23.9% and when pitchers make a mistake, he’s pouncing: 11 of his 13 home runs have come on pitches in the middle of the strike zone.
He still has a lot of swing and miss in his game, but the strikeout-to-walk ratio has improved to 40-to-19. After going 6-for-67 on pitches in the upper third of the zone last season, he has at least learned to lay off those pitches more often and wait for something he can attack. The improved approach is working. He leads the National League in slugging percentage and second to Pete Alonso in RBIs.
Peak ESPN prospect ranking: No. 3 (2021)
Background: The sixth overall pick by the New York Mets in 2018, Kelenic was the first high school player off the board and the highest draft pick ever from Wisconsin. He went to the Mariners in the Edwin Diaz trade after one summer with the Mets and reached the majors in 2021 after just 27 games above High-A. He struggled, was sent back down to Triple-A for a short stint and then was promoted again to the majors, hitting .219 overall that season. In 2022, he hit .141 in 54 games in the majors and was demoted to Triple-A, where he played 86 games, twice throughout the season.
2023: .286/.337/.540, 9 HR, 22 RBIs, 1.5 WAR
Can one four-game stretch turn around a player’s career? On April 10 at Wrigley Field, Kelenic tied the game in the ninth inning with a long home run off the scoreboard in right field. The next night, he hit one into the tunnel in left-center field. Then, the following afternoon, a mammoth 482-foot blast into the upper-deck bleachers in center field. Two nights later back in Seattle, it was another 400-plus foot home run for a total of four home runs in four games. Two years of misery hopefully flushed down the toilet with that April burst.
I’ll admit I didn’t see this coming. Despite his prospect pedigree and youth (he’s still just 23), a .168 batting average (his combined major league average for 2021 and 2022) is a .168 batting average and as someone who watches a lot of Mariners games, Kelenic just simply appeared to lack any sort of pitch recognition. Much has been made about a tweak to his setup, but his improvement seems more about confidence — and not treating every out like he just lost the championship game of the Little League World Series. He’s making much better contact at pitches in the strike zone and is destroying fastballs (.360 average and .693 slugging, up from .161 and .411 last season).
Kelenic has slowed down a bit after that big week, but he has been the best hitter this season in a struggling Seattle lineup. There’s still work to do here, especially against breaking balls and changeups, but it appears he has turned the corner. I compared him to Jay Bruce as a minor leaguer, and that seems again like the upside here — and it’s not an insult. Bruce hit 319 home runs and was a three-time All-Star.
Peak ESPN prospect ranking: No. 51 (2022)
Background: The 13th selection in 2016, Lowe — like a lot of Rays prospects — progressed slowly through the system. He broke out with a big season at Triple-A in 2021, hitting .291/.381/.535 with 22 home runs and going 26-for-26 stealing bases, but spent much of 2022 back at Double-A Durham after he scuffled with the Rays in 52 games, hitting .221/.284/.343.
2023: .318/.375/.652, 11 HR, 34 RBIs, 2.0 WAR
Lowe performed well in two seasons at Triple-A, but he hardly lit up the scoreboard as a rookie in 198 plate appearances in 2022, including a 4-for-42 mark against lefties that dragged down his overall numbers. As a result of that, he has been a platoon player so far in 2023 but has been destroying right-handed pitches when he’s in the lineup. His expected numbers via Statcast — based on balls in play of similar exit velocity and launch angle — are pretty close to his actual numbers, so the early start is legitimate.
I’ll be curious to see if he can keep it up. I mean, he’s probably not going to slug .652 all season, but where will he end up? Unlike a lot of younger hitters, Lowe is doing more damage against offspeed stuff, going 27-for-64 with six home runs against sliders and changeups. Meanwhile, he’s hitting .200 against four-seam fastballs — he also struggled against them last season — so you would think pitchers would attack him more with velocity.
The Rays have so many quality moving parts that, unlike Gorman, Lowe is likely to remain in a platoon role, although he also adds value with his speed (90th percentile) and base-stealing ability. Note that he has also hit 11 doubles, a testament to his line-drive stroke. Lowe did hit well in Triple-A, so it’s not like this has come out of nowhere. While I certainly expect some regression, he has improved his strikeout rate (from 33% to 22%) and is hitting both pitches on the inner third (.275, .876 OPS) and outer third (.340, .901 OPS) of the zone, showing good plate coverage.
Peak ESPN prospect ranking: No. 19 (2021)
Background: A second-round pick by the Los Angeles Angels in 2016, Marsh was a premium athlete who had been a football/baseball star at his Georgia high school. He hit .289 in the minors, although without much power, and reached the majors in 2021. In 163 games with the Angels between 2021 and 2022, he hit .239/.299/.354. The Phillies, looking to upgrade their defense in center field, acquired him at the trade deadline last season for catching prospect Logan O’Hoppe.
2023: .266/.386/.484, 4 HR, 16 RBIs, 1.3 WAR
Marsh started off the season red hot, hitting .329/.418/.647 in April with surprising power — four home runs and 15 extra-base hits. The early credit went to a new stance: slightly open, much more of a squat than his standard upright stance of the past. Alas, he has hit .140 with no home runs in May, although he maintained a strong walk rate. As always, the truth sits somewhere in the middle: He had a .453 BABIP in April and is running a .222 mark in May.
Still, there are real improvements, and I’m buying what I’ve seen, especially given his tools that scouts have always loved. His average exit velocity and hard-hit rate are way up, and his walk rate is dramatically up, from 6.1% to 15.6%, as he’s chasing fewer pitches out of the zone (rinse, repeat). That puts him in the 94th percentile of all players and will keep his on-base percentage above average even if he’s not a .300 hitter (which he probably won’t be, because of a high strikeout rate). Throw in his plus defense in center field, and Marsh is turning into a valuable two-way player.
Peak ESPN prospect ranking: No. 5 (2022)
Background: The fifth overall pick in 2019, scouts liked Greene’s hit tool and power potential coming out of high school. The Tigers fast-tracked him to Double-A in 2021, and he hit .301 with 24 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A that year. He fractured his foot in spring training in 2022, delaying his MLB debut, and then hit .253/.321/.362 with just five home runs in 376 at-bats as a rookie.
2023: .282/.337/.412, 4 HR, 16 RBI, 1.0 WAR
Greene was slow out of the gate and then hit .431 over a 13-game stretch from May 3 to May 19 to raise his numbers. Is he turning the corner? There are still some red flags. The strikeout rate remains high at 28.3%, unchanged from his rookie season, and his chase rate remains below average.
Maybe the biggest issue, however, is he just doesn’t hit the ball in the air enough, with an average launch angle of 3.9 degrees. Compare that to Gorman (19.8 degrees) or Lowe (14.4 degrees). The raw power that scouts saw in high school is there — his max exit velocity is in the 96th percentile — but he’ll need to learn to lift the ball more. I wonder if his unique hand position, where he starts with his hands tucked in close to his ear, is a reason he has trouble turning on the ball with power on a consistent basis.
One thing of note: While his strikeout rate is in the 18th percentile, his swing-and-miss rate is a more respectable 47th percentile. It seems like Greene is still in the learning process of when to swing and when not to. His contact rate in the zone is a hair above major league average, so if he can learn to zero in on the right pitches, there is room to grow here. Also of note: As a minor leaguer, some saw him as a corner outfielder, but he has been solid enough in center to remain there for the foreseeable future.
The jury remains out
Peak ESPN prospect ranking: No. 2 (2022)
Background: The son of longtime major league pitcher Bobby Witt, the Royals drafted Witt Jr. second overall in 2019 and he shot up prospect lists after a monster 2021 minor league season in which he hit .290 with 33 home runs and 29 steals between Double-A and Triple-A (after skipping over High-A completely). His 2022 rookie season was a mixed bag with an exciting power (20 home runs) and speed (30 steals) combo, but a .294 OBP and poor defensive metrics.
2023: .226/.267/.410, 7 HR, 19 RBI, 0.4 WAR
This is a tough one. The 30-30 potential remains there, as he has 13 stolen bases and has clocked the second-fastest sprint speed in the majors to go with those seven home runs. Importantly, he appeared to turn the corner on defense now that he’s at shortstop full time — Statcast’s outs above average metric rates him second in the majors behind only Xander Bogaerts among shortstops so far. The defensive runs saved metric is a little less sanguine, but it does appear his defense is matching what scouts saw in the minors.
The problem is that a .267 OBP won’t cut it. Or let’s put it this way: Even with power, speed and defense, a .272 OBP limits your value. His strikeout rate is fine and his BABIP so far is low, so perhaps there’s been some bad luck, but there’s also too much soft contact resulting from swinging at pitches out of the zone. His chase rate remains the same as last season at 35%, so there are no signs of improvement. Witt is still very young — he doesn’t turn 23 until June 14 — and his tools are remarkable, but the pitch recognition and approach have to get better.
Peak ESPN prospect ranking: No. 4 (2022)
Background: The San Diego Padres drafted the Georgia high school product sixth overall in 2019, and he immediately jumped near the top of prospect lists after hitting .393 in rookie ball while showing elite speed. A fractured tibia limited him to just 42 games in 2021 at Double-A, but he made the Padres’ Opening Day roster in 2022 despite the limited experience. He went to the Nationals in the Juan Soto trade and was overmatched a bit as a rookie, hitting .246 with 50 strikeouts, five walks and little power.
2023: .240/.283/.393, 4 HR, 16 RBI, 0.3 WAR
Baby steps. Abrams not only doesn’t turn 23 until October, but he played just 114 minor league games because of injuries and COVID-19. He has the least game experience of anybody on this list. That shows up in his results against specific pitches: He’s hitting .342 against fastballs but .127 against breaking balls.
He’s showing a little more pop, so that’s a good sign, but his biggest problem — you know what’s coming — is a 41% chase rate. Ouch. That’s sixth worst among qualified hitters and explains a career strikeout-to-walk rate of 87-to-11. You’re not going to be a good major league hitter with eight times as many strikeouts as walks. Even Javier Baez was never that extreme, and he had a lot more power. For now, Abrams just needs to play and continue his development both at the plate and in the field.
Keibert Ruiz, C, Washington Nationals
Peak ESPN prospect ranking: No. 27 (2022)
Background: Signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers out of Venezuela, Ruiz developed into an elite contact hitter in the minors and then broke out with power in 2021. He went to the Nationals in the Trea Turner/Max Scherzer deal and hit .251/.313/.360 in his first full season in 2022, impressing the Nationals enough to sign him to an eight-year, $50 million contract in spring training this year, with club options for 2031 and 2032.
2023: .235/.303/.362, 4 HR, 16 RBI, 0.4 WAR
Catchers develop late. Repeat: Catchers develop late. At least, that’s what the Nationals hope. Ruiz’s contact skills remain superb (only Luis Arraez has a lower strikeout rate), but it hasn’t yet translated into big offensive numbers. Part of that is … I know, I’m getting tired of this as well … he swings at everything. He’s able to make contact when he does, but that has also produced an NL-leading 10 double plays hit into.
The Statcast numbers aren’t good on his defense either: 12th percentile in framing and 10th percentile in pop time to second. Look, with his contact skills, Ruiz will hit better than .235 (he’s running a ridiculously low .233 BABIP), but the Nationals need Abrams and Ruiz to develop into foundation players and right now, they look more like supporting cast.
Peak ESPN prospect ranking: No. 4 (2021)
Background: The first overall pick out of Arizona State in 2020 following a storied college career, Torkelson hit 30 home runs in the minors in 2021 with a fine strikeout-to-walk ratio, but struggled with the Tigers to open 2022 and didn’t fare any better when sent back to Triple-A. His rookie season ended with a .203/.285/.319 major league slash line and minus-1.2 WAR.
2023: .238/.289/.372, 4 HR, 21 RBI, minus-0.3 WAR
This one is baffling. Everybody thought Torkelson would hit in the majors, especially for power, and even though the 2020 draft was a weird one after COVID-19 shut down the college season, he was the No. 1 player based on the 48 combined home runs he hit as a freshman and sophomore. He has now played about a full season in the majors and hit .214/.286/.336 with 12 home runs and 49 RBIs in 153 games. That’s not great for a shortstop or center fielder and certainly not for a first baseman, thus the career WAR below replacement level.
Like his teammate Greene, Torkelson’s results have been better in May and buried in the numbers are some potential positive signs: 77th percentile hard-hit rate, 76th percentile whiff rate, 59th percentile chase rate. No, nothing super elite in there, but his expected numbers via Statcast are much better than his actual results so far, and Comerica Park is absolutely crushing him: In his career, he has a .721 OPS on the road and .516 at home. I wonder how much that has affected his confidence.
Is there still 35-homer potential here? I think so. Even then, however, I wonder if the upside is something like Hunter Renfroe (except minus the good right-field defense). That’s not what the Tigers hoped for with the No. 1 pick but given Torkelson’s early struggles, they’ll take it.
Peak ESPN prospect ranking: No. 8 (2021)
Background: The third selection in 2019 out of Cal after hitting .402 as a sophomore and then .374 with a .509 OBP as a junior, Vaughn opened 2021 with the White Sox despite no pro experience above High-A. He moved to the outfield with Jose Abreu at first base and struggled on defense, while also hitting a so-so .255/.315/.414 over his first two seasons.
2023: .234/.322/.406, 5 HR, 31 RBI, 0.1 WAR
Vaughn played against Torkelson in the Pac-12, and it’s worth wondering if they simply put up big numbers against weaker pitching than their college counterparts in the SEC (undoubtedly) or ACC (perhaps). I actually thought Vaughn was the safer bet of the two because of his extraordinary control of the strike zone in college. Compare his college numbers to Torkelson’s:
Vaughn sophomore year: .402/.531/.819, 23 HR, 44 BB, 18 SO
Torkelson sophomore year: .351/.446/.707, 23 HR, 41 BB, 45 SO
Vaughn junior year: .374/.539/.704, 15 HR, 60 BB, 33 SO
Torkelson junior year: .340/.598/.780, 6 HR, 31 BB, 15 SO (17 games)
ASU hadn’t started conference play yet and of those 31 walks to Torkelson, 15 were intentional. In general, Torkelson had more power, but Vaughn appeared to have a slightly better hit tool and contact ability.
With the White Sox, Vaughn has been … acceptable. To be fair, he was probably rushed to the majors in 2021, and it didn’t help that playing left field was an adventure at times. He has a career OPS+ of 102 but is still striking out twice for every walk (I expected him to post elite walk rates). His hard-hit rate is in the 83rd percentile and he’s improving his launch angle — 7.5 degrees last year to 11.0 this year, which is still below the MLB average of 12.0. There are no extreme red flags in his profile at the plate, just no single outstanding tool either. He’s 25 years old, so if a breakout is going to happen, it’s probably going to occur now. On the bright side: He has hit .405 with runners in scoring position, so at least he’s driving in runs.