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Projecting Nick Madrigal

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The Dash’s second baseman is a polarizing prospect. Let’s try to make sense of him

Missing one tool: Nick Madrigal gets on base and is a stud in the field, but he does not have pop in his bat.
Kim Contreras/South Side Sox

Nick Madrigal is such a unique player, in less that one year he’s become the most polarizing prospect in the Chicago White Sox system.

Not even the experts can come close to an agreement on him. Baseball Prospectus ranked him 15th among all prospects this preseason, while Keith Law of ESPN ranked him 112th. It is rare to see that kind of a gap between the major prospect ranking sources.

You have probably heard about his small frame and extreme lack of power.

You have probably also seen optimists’ discussions about how hard it is to strike him out.

So, let’s try to clear this debate up. Most people agree that his speed (60 on the 20-80 scale per MLB Pipeline), fielding (60), and contact (65) are strong, his arm (50) is about average, and his power (40) is weak.

In 85 plate appearances this year, Madrigal is slashing .280/.375/.347 with Single-A+ Winston-Salem. In 107 plate appearances with the Dash last year, his line was mighty similar (.306/.355/.347). No surprise here: In both cases, the first two numbers of the slash line are good, while the third one is not.

The good news is that slugging percentage, by far Madrigal’s least impressive number in his slash line, is not as important as on-base percentage. Even Madrigal skeptic Law warns in his Smart Baseball against trading 100 OBP points for 100 SLG points; 100 OBP points are about as valuable as 180 SLG points.

On the negative side is Madrigal’s lack of pop, which also happens to be the main source of conflict among scouts. Madrigal has four extra-base hits this year (three doubles and a triple). That is good for an ISO of ... [checks notes] ... .067, a low number. It was even lower last year (.041 with Winston-Salem). Madrigal’s BABIP is just .288, which is likely a reflection of his soft contact, not just luck. Based on the numbers he has put up so far, that 40 power grade from MLB Pipeline seems generous.

While mostly everyone agrees that power will never be Madrigal’s strong suit, they cannot agree on how much this weakness will affect his value. It matters, of course, but Madrigal should be able to make up for it with more than just his defense. I generally do not emphasize K%; an out is an out. However, because Madrigal does not have the ability to consistently have high exit velocity, he is going to need to put the ball in play as much as possible. And, mercy, he does that well. Madrigal has just three strikeouts this season (3.4%), and his ability to avoid striking out has been consistent at all levels. While a 3.4% K rate will not happen in the majors, he is likely to continue putting the ball in play at high frequencies, leaving lots of opportunities for hits.

If Madrigal continues to develop as we hope, a Plácido Polanco type of career is feasible. Polanco, a second baseman with a slightly larger frame than Madrigal, had similar strengths and weaknesses. He slashed .297/.343/.397 (97 wRC+) but was worth 38.3 fWAR in his career. He also struck out just 6.8% of the time. Polanco racked up a lot of his value from his defense, and Madrigal will likely do the same. In fact, Madrigal could be a worse version of Polanco and still be above average.

While a lack of power probably lowers his ceiling out of MVP candidate range, Madrigal absolutely has a path to becoming an above-average MLB starter, and White Sox fans should be happy with that outcome for their 2018 first rounder.