Going Deep: Bo Knows Baseball
Over the off-season here at Pitcher List, we have been releasing a bunch of dynasty and prospect content because we know that side of fantasy baseball never rests! I released a top 150 fantasy baseball prospects list in late October which can be found here, and my colleague Brennen Gorman has been releasing a position by position look at the top players to own in dynasty leagues. In both rankings, Toronto Blue Jays SS/2B prospect Bo Bichette was regarded highly. I ranked him 7th overall among all prospects from a fantasy perspective and as the #2 ranked SS prospect behind just Royce Lewis of the Minnesota Twins. Brennen followed suit by ranking Bichette 13th overall among all SS dynasty options, and notably had Bichette ranked as his top SS prospect. We are both quite high on Bichette’s outlook based on his combination of quality contact skills, ability to generate dynamic bat speed which leads to plus raw power, a batted ball distribution that supports above-average BABIPs, and a touch of speed with great instincts which should help Bichette be an asset on the bases. All that while likely playing a middle infield position makes Bichette one of the more valuable prospects in baseball entering 2019, both in real life and for fantasy baseball.
Now Bichette has been a high-profile prospect for a couple years now after dominating the lower-levels of the minors leagues, but when comparing our rankings of Bichette with other prospect sources, we are perhaps a little higher on him than some others. MLB.com’s Prospect Watch has Bichette ranked 11th overall and as their 4th ranked SS prospect, Fangraphs has him ranked 7th overall and as their 3rd ranked SS prospect. Now some of the difference in opinion can likely be traced to Bichette’s slight defensive limitations that have caused many in the scouting community to project a move from SS to 2nd base at some point. Prospect rankings for real-life baseball account for that defensive value and risk. For those that play fantasy baseball though, we care much more about the bat and Bichette’s ability to hit should make him a big asset even if he moves down the defensive spectrum to 2nd base. This is why I felt it was worthwhile to go further in-depth with an article to explain why I think Bichette is a special hitting prospect, and why he can potentially help you in dynasty/keeper leagues as well as potentially even in re-draft leagues for 2019. Let’s begin!
Bichette began his professional career back in 2016 after being selected late in the 2nd round of the MLB draft that year by the Toronto Blue Jays, 66th overall. He was a polarizing high school prospect entering the draft after having been ranked as high as 21st overall by Keith Law of ESPN, as low as 90th overall by MLB.com’s prospect watch, and with Baseball America falling in between with a ranking of 46th. Bichette had shown an ability to square up quality pitching throughout his high-school career and clearly had big power potential evidenced by his winning of the 2015 Under-Armour All-American Game Home Run Derby in Chicago. Scouts at the time though were unsure how his bat would translate against higher-level pitching as the son of former 4-time MLB All-star Dante Bichette was known to have a lot of moving parts to his swing. Bo Bichette’s older brother Dante Bichette Jr. had entered pro ball with similar concerns and hadn’t set the world on fire as a minor leaguer in the New York Yankees system, and perhaps that contributed further to some of the concern on how Bo’s skills would translate going forward. The notable difference between the brothers was that Bo was known to have much more bat speed and that gave some hope that he could make the profile work.
As I mentioned before, Bichette fell to late in the 2nd round where the Toronto Blue Jays scooped him up with the 66th overall pick for an above-slot $1.1 million. He notably didn’t fall due to teams not having him at the top of their boards earlier, he fell because he was actively telling teams who he would and wouldn’t sign with. According to Rodney Page of the Tampa Times, Bichette turned down about four offers earlier in the draft because they weren’t good fits, and Bichette himself indicated that “the Blue Jays were the top team (he) wanted to go to.” This quickly turned out to be a coup for Toronto as, upon signing, Bichette was assigned to the Gulf Coast League (Rookie-ball) to start his professional career where he dominated to the tune of a .427/.451/.732 batting line with 4 HRs and 3 SBs over 91 PAs, good for a ridiculous 238 wRC+. As great as he was in rookie-ball, the sample size was small and there were some factors at play including a .484 BABIP that left the prospect community wanting to see more before buying into him as a potential top prospect.
Enter 2017, Bichette begins the year at Single-A Lansing in the Midwest League which is really where he put his name on the map. Over 317 PAs at the level, Bichette slashed a crazy .384/.448/.623 with 10 HRs and 12 SBs. He supported that batting line with an 8.8% walk rate and a 17.4% strikeout rate, showing both a quality approach and contact skills highlighted by a 10% swinging-strike rate. Yes, the .384 batting average was propped up by a ridiculous .452 BAPIP, but his very high 31.4% line-drive rate and all-fields approach including a 38.4% opposite field contact rate help explain some of the BAPIP success and showed that his overall performance wasn’t pure luck. Overall his time at the plate in the Midwest League was worth a 201 wRC+ which is especially impressive considering Bichette was 2.3 years younger than league average as a 19-year-old teenager. In fact, that 201 wRC+ was the actually the best mark ever for a teenager in the Midwest League as far back as Fangraphs has data (2006), minimum 130 PAs. Here is the top 5:
|Bo Bichette (2017)||317||.384||.448||.623||.236||8.8||17.4||.476||201|
|Oscar Tavares (2011)||347||.386||.444||.584||.198||9.2||15||.460||190|
|Byron Buxton (2013)||321||.341||.431||.559||.219||13.7||17.4||.444||176|
|Mike Trout (2010) *18-years-old||368||.362||.454||.526||.163||12.5||14.1||.445||172|
|Javier Baez (2012)||235||.333||.383||.596||.263||3.8||20.4||.432||170|
A pretty impressive list of players right? Unfortunately, we were unable to fully see what former St. Louis Cardinals OF Oscar Tavares was to become in the Major Leagues, and Minnesota Twins OF Byron Buxton hasn’t exactly lived up to the hype at the plate in the majors, but this list is full of mega-prospects of their time. Los Angeles Angels OF Mike Trout and Chicago Cubs 2B/SS Javier Baez have obviously gone on to incredible things, and what had/has me optimistic about Bichette’s ability to translate his skills to higher levels and ending up closer to them rather than the Buxton end of the spectrum is that Bichette posted the best swinging-strike rate of the group with his 10% mark. His contact skills along with the best slugging% and 2nd best ISO had me projecting a potential impact hitter with contact and power.
Bichette’s success at the single-A level forced the Blue Jays to push him aggressively and they ended up promoting him to the Florida State League (A+) where he finished his 2017. Note that the Florida State League is a notorious pitchers league known for a lack of power and the league as a whole hit just .250/.320/.360 in 2017. Over 182 PAs at the Advanced-A level, Bichette hit an impressive .323/.379/.463 with 4 HRs and 10 SBs. While his power metrics fell at this level including his ISO to .140, Bichette notably improved upon his strikeout rate, lowering it to 14.3%. Perhaps most impressively, he maintained his swinging-strike rate to almost exactly the same decimal point, 10.3% in this case, which is rare upon moving up levels mid-season. Additionally, despite seeing a very similar number of pitches per plate appearance (3.67 in Single-A, 3.69 in Advanced-A), Bichette’s walk rate fell to 7.7%. All told, his time in the Florida State League was worth a superb 145 wRC+, and again notably while being very young for the level, 3.8 years younger than league average to be exact.
His season numbers combined across both levels in 2017 finished at .362/.423/.565 with 14 HRs and 22 SBs over 499 PAs. That .362 batting average actually led the entire minor leagues and Bichette became the first teenager to win the MiLB batting title since 1963. His season total of a 181 wRC+ also led the entire minor leagues among those with at least 300+ PAs. For reference, the only teenage hitters to lead the entire minor leagues in wRC+ as far back as Fangraphs has data (2006) with a minimum 300 PAs are former St. Louis Cardinals OF Oscar Tavares back in 2011 who was mentioned above, Bichette, and most recently 3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in 2018. The accolades rolled in for Bichette throughout and after the 2017 season including a trip to the Futures Game, Midwest League MVP, and MiLB’s top offensive player.
Entering 2018, Bichette had clearly proven to the scouts that he could make his mechanics work and that his electric bat speed allowed him to overcome any mechanical issues at the plate. His big success from the year before had catapulted him up prospect rankings. Baseball America had Bichette ranked at #8 overall, Fangraphs had him ranked #9, and MLB.com’s Prospect Watch had him ranked #14 overall. The Blue Jays rewarded him by giving him a few games at big league Spring Training, and over 4 games, Bichette went 3 for 10 with 1 HR and 1 SB. That one HR was notably one of the more impressive HRs I saw all year long:
That was a 97 MPH fastball on the inner third of the plate from Pittsburgh Pirates closer Felipe Vasquez (formerly known as Felipe Rivero), and Bichette was able to clear his hands and drive it out deep over the fence the opposite way for an “oppo taco.” It’s not super common for hitters to take a pitch on the inner third the other way, let alone the other way for a deep HR. That’s definitely one way to leave a positive impression with the big club!
Jump ahead to the beginning of the 2018 regular season, the Blue Jays have sent Bichette to AA New Hampshire to start the year where he is the 2nd youngest player in the Eastern League behind teammate Guerrero Jr. Despite being 4.2 years younger than league average, Bichette proceeds to post a very solid .286/.343/.453 slash line for the season with 11 HRs and 32 SBs over 595 PAs that was worth a 120 wRC+. His 154 hits led the Eastern League, as did his 43 doubles and 61 extra-base hits. The 43 doubles notably ranked 2nd in the entire minor leagues behind just Minnesota Twins OF prospect Alex Kirilloff. The 32 SBs were the 2nd highest mark in the Eastern League and came with a solid 74.4% success rate. Along the way, Bichette was named to the Futures Game for the 2nd year in a row, and also helped lead the New Hampshire Fisher Cats to a League Championship.
When looking at Bichette’s peripheral numbers, interestingly, his contact and approach skills remained incredibly steady in the jump to from A+ to AA. He posted an 8.1% walk rate along with a 17% strikeout rate and supported them with a 3.71 pitches seen per plate appearance mark and a 10% swinging-strike rate respectively, both of which are incredibly similar to past levels. His BABIP fell to a minor league career-worst .331 which is still above-average but notably down from the .360 he posted at A+. Some of the BAPIP decline can likely be attributed to a 3.7% drop in line-drive rate, and a subsequent 3.1% increase in fly-ball rate. Note that line-drive contact is the least likely form of contact to be turned into an out, and fly-balls are the most likely. Now Bichette has shown an ability to generate lots of line-drive contact in the past so there may be some bounce-back in that regard going forward. On the positive side, his 40.5% flyball rate means he should get to a lot of his power potential and he continues to use the whole field incredibly well with a pulled contact rate of 37.1% and an opposite field contact rate of 40.5% mark last year. That truly all fields approach makes Bichette a tough guy to defend against with the shift and should help Bichette maintain above-average BABIPs going forward. For visual evidence, take a look at his 2018 spray chart:
The spray chart does a great job of highlighting Bichette’s power to all fields! 3 of his 11 HRs went to the opposite field and you can see that Bichette truly hits doubles from line to line. Just for comparison using MLB Prospect Search, San Diego Padres top prospect Fernando Tatis Jr. hit 1 of his 16 to the opposite field, Royce Lewis hit 2 of his 14 HRs to the opposite field, Colorado Rockies top prospect SS Brendan Rodgers hit 3 of his 17 HRs to the opposite field, and Washington Nationals SS prospect Carter Kieboom hit just 1 of his 16 HRs to the opposite field. In general, Bichette uses the opposite field much more than any of them, and you can really see it in this spray chart. There are a number of field outs to the 1st and 2nd base area, but also a lot of singles into RF. This is likely a result of his two-strike approach that I’ll get into more below. Bichette isn’t afraid to turn on the ball though, and you can that he had a number of doubles fall in the left-field corner and also had some deep HRs to left-centerfield that were way gone! Again, Bichette’s ability to use the whole field makes him a tough guy to defend against, and that helps him support above-average BABIPs. I also want to point out that there are 11 balls that fully landed on the warning track of this stadium model and ended up as non-HR extra-base hits…many in the scouting community believe that some of these extra-base hits will start going over the fence with more consistency as he matures more physically in the future.
Before I jump into a breakdown of Bichette’s swing at the plate, I wanted to quell some of the misconceptions on the quality of Bichette’s season at AA as a 20-year-old. Among players, 20 years of age and younger (minimum 300 PAs) in the Eastern League as far back as Fangraphs has data (2006), Bichette’s 120 wRC+ mark has only been bested by 4 players: Boston Red Sox 3B Rafael Devers in 2017 with a 155 wRC+, new Seattle Mariners SS J.P. Crawford in 2015 with a 121 wRC+, former Toronto Blue Jays top prospect Tavis Snider in 2008 with a 121 wRC+, and current free-agent OF Carlos Gomez in 2006 with a 121 wRC+. SS/3B Manny Machado produced a 120 wRC+ mark back in 2012 in the Orioles organization, but he was notably 19 years old which is that much more impressive. Note that when using the same 300 PAs and 20 years of age and younger parameters, Bichette is just the 7th middle infield player to play in the Eastern League in the last 12 years.
Also, there are some interesting names that Bichette’s 120 wRC+ bests among former Eastern League players, again using the same parameters. Chicago Cubs 1B Anthony Rizzo posted a 118 wRC+ back in 2010, Cleveland Indians SS Francisco Lindor posted a 109 wRC+ in 2014, new Minnesota Twins 2B Jonathan Schoop posted a 97 wRC+ in 2012, new Philadelphia Phillies OF Andrew McCutchen posted a 94 wRC+ in 2007, Cleveland Indians 3B Jose Ramirez posted an 88 wRC+ in 2013, and Detroit Tigers OF Nicholas Castellanos posted an 84 wRC+ in 2012. Note that wRC+ is not predictive, it’s more of a depiction of past performance compared to league average after controlling park effects. The point of this is to show how far ahead of the curve that Bichette is at this point and that his 120 wRC+ this past year was actually really impressive given context.
Now that we’ve seen the numbers, let’s break down Bichette’s swing:
This first GIF shows a big aggressive swing on a hanging breaking ball, and Bichette absolutely unloads on it for a deep HR into the LF seats. Bichette commonly takes these Javier Baez-like max-effort cuts early in counts, aggressively targeting pitches he can drive hard. He actually rotates so hard during this swing that he loses his balance after contact, but he plays it cool and authors a nasty bat flip at the end. Mechanically, you can see at the start, his batting stance begins fairly neutral from a footwork standpoint with his front and back feet nearly perpendicular. His upper body begins closed and you can actually see the #5 on his jersey clearly. Bichette uses a large leg-kick early in counts as both a timing mechanism and a weight transfer. As the pitcher begins his windup, Bichette begins his weight transfer and if you stop the GIF at the moment when the pitch is released, you can really see how effective Bichette is at stacking his weight on his back leg while also coiling his upper body to the point that we see pretty well the entire back of his jersey. That ability to shift so much of his weight back and create torque through coiling his upper body is what gives him the unique raw power for his size. He then pushes forward, plants his front foot (really like that it lands at a 3/4 open position and that his front leg lands bent so that he can be adjustable to the pitch at hand) and then uncoils all his built up momentum. Remember, Bichette is only 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, and yet he has routinely received plus raw power grades. This is why! It’s actually a fairly similar approach to how former Toronto Blue Jay and new Atlanta Braves 3B Josh Donaldson has gotten to his power despite being 6 foot 1, 210 pounds. I’ll get more into the mechanics of his hands further below but for now, here is a GIF of a single up the middle. Can you spot the difference in the two swings?
This 2nd GIF is a good example of Bichette’s two-strike approach, and for those paying attention, the notable difference is that he removes the leg kick for what Bichette calls a “Knee Tuck” but is more commonly known as a “toe-turn”. Bichette in this MLB Pipeline interview with Jonathan Mayo does a great job in explaining his two-strike approach in his own words:
“I mostly just put my foot where it would have landed from my leg kick and just not leg kick. Without the leg-kick, I’m just giving myself the best opportunity to be successful in that at-bat by giving myself the most time I can. Then just seeing (the ball) as deep as I can and trust(ing) my ability to catch a fastball way back in the zone and still be able to square it up. When they throw breaking balls, I pull them because you know I’m letting the fastball get deep and that allows me to see the breaking ball better.
I think it’s really fascinating, and it really does make a lot of sense. He’s making his swing shorter and removing some moving parts of the swing which should, in theory, help him to make more contact, and limit strikeouts. The big take away I have from his explanation of his two-strike approach is that he likes to let the fastball travel deep into the zone which will likely lead to him going the other way frequently with those pitches. Then by being ready to let the fastball get deep in the zone on him, he’s able to adjust well to the breaking balls that may come and he can attack those out front to the pull side. That correlates well with the spray chart that we saw above and highlights his ability to handle all types of pitches effectively. Finally, I mentioned wanting to talk about Bichette’s use of his hands in his swing, let’s take a more detailed look using a side angle view:
If you go back and watch some HS video of Bichette, you’ll see that he used to begin his swing with his hands up high above his head. As you can see, they now begin just above his back shoulder and behind his head which has reduced some length and moving parts in the early stages of the swing. You’ll see though that as Bichette begins his weight transfer back, his front elbow and hand drift upwards which when you combine with his trunk rotation cause the bat to “wrap” behind his head. This “bat wrap” creates length in his swing and in theory, can potentially leave him susceptible to inside fastballs, particularly up and in. You’ll also notice that there is a slight loop of his hands as he begins to shift his weight forward to get his hands in proper hitting position. The good news is, Bichette’s bat speed and control are so good that neither really matter. These were concerns when Bichette was a high-school player, but he’s proven so far in the minor leagues that he can overcome these potential issues and be a very good hitter. The HR against Felipe Vazquez from spring training 2018 is a good example!
Overall, I see a player that has everything necessary to be an upper-tier hitting SS or 2nd baseman when he reaches the majors, both for real life and for fantasy baseball! As I’ve mentioned a few times now, Bichette combines quality contact skills, a special ability to generate dynamic bat speed which leads to plus raw power, a batted ball distribution that supports above-average BABIPs, and a touch of speed with great instincts which should help Bichette be an asset on the bases. He’s pretty close to being ready for the majors too as he will likely be starting his 2019 season at the AAA level and the Blue Jays seemingly have some potential opportunity in the middle infield. RosterResource suggests that Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Devon Travis will handle the SS and 2B positions respectively for Toronto in 2019, but Bichette could be knocking on the door around mid-season if he rakes at AAA. Notably, Fangraphs Steamer projections have Bichette projected to produce a 93 wRC+ in the 2019 season which is ever so slightly behind the 96 wRC+ mark for Gurriel and 97 for Travis. Neither Gurriel nor Travis should likely be considered a sure thing either, Gurriel has just 65 games of MLB experience and Travis has never been able to play a full MLB season and is coming off a tough 2018 season in which he posted a 77 wRC+ and -0.5 WAR.
If he gets an opportunity this year, it likely either comes in June with Super 2 considerations likely or late in the season come September as a late-season audition for 2020. That likely means he’s not a prospect worth investing in for re-draft right away, but he’s one to watch on your waiver wire. Long-term, I view Bichette as one of the top fantasy baseball prospects in the game, and I have a rough prime projection of .288/.340 with 24 HRs and 11 SBs for him. For reference, Boston Red Sox SS Xander Bogaerts hit .288 with 23 HRs and 8 SBs last year and currently has an APD under 50. Given Bichette’s youth and upside, along with the potential of him batting next to the likes of Guerrero Jr. and C Danny Jansen going forward, those in dynasty leagues should value him highly!
(Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire)