Development is Not Linear: Andrew Pullin
It is easy to think of minor league progression as a nice linear path, where each year a player improves and moves up a level until they can’t cut it and are no longer relevant. This is rarely the case, but even if that is the level progression, the road to the majors is rarely easy and full of constant hurdles. This would explain why the Phillies have a 23 year old prospect with a .343/.390/.587 line in AA across two seasons and 66 games, who has never been ranked higher than #28 on a Baseball America prospect list (he made their 2012 and 2016 lists).
Reading outfielder, Andrew Pullin currently is hitting a blistering .337/.382/.651 through Reading’s first 20 games, which has started to quell any lingering concerns from his breakout 2016 season. It is clear that Pullin is a better prospect than where he ranked on offseason lists (in the interest of full disclosure, he ranked #28 this offseason for me). Now that doesn’t mean he was a big miss by the scouting community, instead he is an interesting case study in how a prospect changes over the course of their career. To get this all started, we should go back to the beginning Here is what Baseball America wrote about Pullin at the time of the draft and then after he finished his first year in the GCL.
Like Drew Vettleson before him, Pullin is a former switch-pitcher who became a prospect as a corner outfielder. Pullin doesn’t have Vettleson’s bat, but he’s no slouch. He has a unique setup, in that his bat points back toward the backstop in his stance, but once everything gets going he shows good hitting mechanics and a smooth stroke that is in the hitting zone a long time. Pullin is an advanced hitter with some raw power potential, even though he’s just 6 feet and 185 pounds. He’s an average runner and has an average arm, so he’s limited to a corner outfield spot and doesn’t fit the typical profile. Pullin plays in a weak high school conference, so it was tough for teams to get a good look at him this spring. Scouts believe he wants to sign, but if he doesn’t he’ll head to Oregon.Baseball America – Draft Report
The Phillies have had success mining the Pacific Northwest in recent years, and they think they’ve found another gem in Pullin, whom they took four rounds after fellow South Sound native Mitch Gueller last June. Much like fellow Washington resident Drew Vettleson, now with the Rays, Pullin is a former switch-pitcher who became a prospect as a position player. Area scout Rick Jacques and special assistant Pat Gillick worked out Pullin at second base before the draft and liked what they saw, so they signed him away from an Oregon commitment for $203,900. Pullin played mostly left field in his pro debut and started the conversion to second base during instructional league, and early returns were positive. He has a solid arm. Pullin’s potential is mostly tied to his bat, and he has advanced instincts at the plate. He uses a crouched set-up, almost like Pete Rose, with his bat pointed back toward the backstop. He has a smooth, line-drive stroke and good bat speed. His barrel stays in the hitting zone for a long time, and his high finish resembles that of Johnny Damon. Pullin has shown flashes of average power and has average speed. He might be able to handle a full-season assignment to low Class A this year.Baseball America – Andrew Pullin #28 prospect 2012
At the time there was no reason to not be positive about Pullin. He had a sky high BABIP, but he hit .321/.403/.436 in his pro debut while learning a completely different position That is a pretty good start.
From there, Pullin hopped on the level a year plan starting in Williamsport. That year, Pullin hit a disappointing .261/.283/.412 as he tapped into some raw power, but saw his plate discipline numbers just fall away. At the time, he was a bit pull heavy on the ground, but he was able to spray line drives all over the field.
Here is his swing at the time, and while it is difficult to get much from a couple of at bats, note how high his hands start.
The decline in stats caused Pullin’s stock to drop, especially since no one was convinced that he would stick at second base. The following year, Pullin was promoted to Lakewood where his power dropped off (some of which is attributable to Lakewood’s ballpark), but his walk rate rebounded. He was still pull heavy on the ground and a bit more in the air than previously. His line drive rate also went down, and his ground balls went up.
We can also see that he still had the high hand set in his swing
By now, Pullin had fallen into a class of non-prospect. He was a second baseman who did not project as a starter. In the age of 7 man bullpens and 5 man benches, teams rarely carry a backup second baseman, because they need to carry a shortstop, center fielder, and a catcher, as well as any platoon bats they need. Pullin’s fallback position was left field, where his hitting was not going to cut it. So what did the Phillies (and Pullin) do?
Pullin moved off of second base back to left field.
Pullin would open the year as the Clearwater’s everyday left fielder, and he would go on to tie for the Florida State League lead in home runs with 14. Despite the home run accolade, Pullins’ .258/.300/.396 batting line was not encouraging for a left field only baseball player, especially with a walk rate that crumbled to 4.5%. What did emerge was a pull oriented approach, especially for home run power, with more weak contact and fly balls to the opposite side of the field.
Despite the lack of prospect accolades, the Phillies added Andrew Pullin to their Futures Series roster. This is where the linearity ends, because the Phillies assigned Pullin back to Clearwater.
He retired from baseball.
He returned to baseball on May 11, and went 1-4 with a walk and a strikeout for the Clearwater Threshers.
Pullin would remain in hi-A until June 22 and would start a 21 game hitting streak that he would carry with him to Reading. A groin injury caused him to miss a week just 3 games into his time with Reading, and a right elbow strain would end his year right before the playoffs. By the time his season was all done, Pullin had hit .322/.362/.522 across the two levels, including a .346/.393/.559 AA line. He did it on the road and not in the homer friendly confines of Reading. He didn’t walk at a high rate, but he also didn’t strikeout a ton. He hit a ton of line drives and showed a more complete, pull centered approach, where he was hitting home runs to all of right field and not just down the line.
You can see that his hands start lower and that his swing is more direct through the baseball.
So why wasn’t Pullin ranked higher? The sample size is a big issue. He played in 82 games total, and only 46 in AA. He was slated for the Arizona Fall League, but the arm injury robbed him of that trip and probably cost him another 15 games in AA. With that extra 30-40 games of data, it would have been easier to have a feel for what type of player he was. It turns out this affected the industry too, as Pullin went undrafted in the Rule 5 draft. He also is still a left fielder, and one lacking in secondary value. His arm limits him to left field, where he is just average defensively. He is not a quick baserunner, and after going 1 for 6 on stolen base attempts in 2015, he has not attempted a steal. While his batting average and slugging have been high, he still lacks a good walk rate, because he is an aggressive hitter at the plate, who tends to work counts looking for contact and not walks.
This year, Pullin is repeating a level again. He is tearing his way through the Eastern League with a .337/.382/.651, and his 11 doubles are tied for the domestic minor league lead. He is probably too good for AA, but the Phillies have a host of outfield prospects in front of him at AAA, and so he has to wait his turn. He is, however, very much on the map for the Phillies, and he should have a spot on the 40 man roster this winter.
Pullin still has some flaws. His walk rate could use some work if he wants to be an impact outfielder. He still needs to work on being better vs offspeed pitches. Teams are also going to shift him with his pull heavy approach, so it would be in his best interests to regain some of the ability to shoot the ball the other way sometimes.
Pullin is not a star. His ceiling might just be everyday left fielder, but he is a far way from a struggling second baseman. In the end, he somehow ended up close to those original reports, a plus hitter with surprisingly solid power. He just took a roundabout way to get there.