Nick Williams: A Comparison, and What Should We Expect?

I’ll be completely honest right from the beginning; I love Nick Williams.

When he was announced in the Cole Hamels trade, my heart leapt in my chest and I envisioned a Phillies lineup with Williams batting 3rd or 5th, a left-handed outfielder with tools who could be an anchor to the tune of 25 home runs, 80 RBIs, and a .290 batting average, and who could play sound defense.  Maybe he’d even chip in a double-digit amount of stolen bases.  Basically (at the risk of nauseating you readers), he’d be what Dom Brown was supposed to be.

When I saw him in person for the first time later that summer, the Reading Phillies were in Trenton to play the Thunder.  Mid-way through the game, Williams hit a laser – and I mean this thing was on a frozen rope – off the centerfield wall for a triple.  My expectations were gratified.  The Phils had their lefty outfield slugger waiting in the wings; we’d finally see a player of a caliber that had largely gone missing since Raul Ibanez left.

Then something went wrong.  Williams stopped hitting.  In 2016, Williams posted minor-league career-lows in OBP and OPS (.287 & .714, respectively) and with his second-fewest season home run  total and gaudy stolen base rate (6 for 10), suddenly the vision of a 3 or ever 5-hole hitter became more of a fantasy.  Questions emerged about his maturity and his tendency to look too far ahead and lose sight of the present reality: you need to hit to get to the majors.

Williams took his subpar 2016 in stride.  In 78 AAA games during the 2017 season, he mashed 2 more home runs than he did in all of 2016, and when Howie Kendrick went on the disabled list, the Phillies decided it was time.  Nick Williams would be a major leaguer.

He showed that he’d gotten the message about earning your stay by hitting.  He began a tradition that the Phillies apparently felt was important for their top prospects by facing Mets ace Jacob deGrom in his first-ever start, and he collected his first MLB hit with a bullet single to center-field.

The rest of his season went solidly.  Williams belted 12 home runs, hit .288, and perhaps most-impressively, walked more times in 83 MLB games than he had all year in AAA the previous season.

What should we expect this summer from the Phillies’ young outfielder?  To try and formulate my predictions, I compared him to the two-best lefty-hitting outfielders than the Phils have had over the past 15 or so years: Raul Ibanez and Bobby Abreu.

What do these three players have in common?  First, neither Ibanez nor Abreu were very good defensively (with respective career dWARs of -17.7 and -11.1).  Despite not committing an error at the MLB level last year, dWAR was not generous to Williams either, as he finished at -1.6.  Keep in mind that Williams generated that total in just over half an MLB season.  Proportionately in a full year, it’s very possible he’d exceed (plummet past?) both Ibanez’s & Abreu’s season-lows of dWAR (-2.8 & -1.9).

But that’s not why we want Nick Williams. Expecting anything more than average defense from him would be foolish.  We’ve known the two-biggest knocks on him from the start: his defense, and his plate discipline.  With the exception of the 2015 season, Williams has always seen his strikeout rate hover somewhere in the area of 25%-30%.  Unless (or even if) you’re a true slugger mashing 55+ XBHs per year, that is…not ideal.

For context, Ibanez and Abreu had respective career K rates of 17% and 18%.  We’ll need to come to terms with the fact that Williams will be susceptible to strikeouts, more so than either of those other two ever were.  His problem is that when he isn’t striking out, he’s probably not taking walks.  I mentioned before how he had more walks in the MLB last year than he did in AAA in all of 2016, but that’s a bit deceitful.  In 2016, Williams walked 19 times for a 3% rate.  Last summer in the MLB, his BB rate was 6%; twice as much, but still…yuck.  We all remember how disciplined Abreu was.  More often than not he wouldn’t have much more than 20 more strikeouts than walks.  Ibanez was less-disciplined, but not awful.  He didn’t have a full year with fewer than 40 walks until his age-39 season.  Williams locks himself in to a pitch, and when he gets it, you know he’ll unleash that violent, sweet uppercut he has.  Sometimes he’ll make contact.  Sometimes not.

With these two negatives weighing on us, let’s look now at his power, one of Williams’ two-best tools.  In the interest of using contemporary stats, I’m going to confine this to AAA when looking at each players’ minor-league numbers.  Williams, Ibanez, and Abreu had lifetime .457, .447, and .469 SLG%’s in AAA.

Next I’ll look at their first MLB seasons in which they accumulated at least 300 PAs (in the interest of using Williams’ 2017 campaign).  Williams, Ibanez, and Abreu respectively slugged .473, .495, and .497.  Williams, to my surprise, is well-behind the other two.

After that point in their respective careers is where Ibanez and Abreu diverge.  Abreu had an all-time 7-year stretch for a Phillie, while Ibanez bounced from KC to SEA before finding a combination of everyday playing time and staying healthy.  It took Ibanez 7 years after his MLB debut to post a WAR above 2, while Abreu had a borderline superstar-level WAR of 6.4 in his first full season.

This is where I’ll compare Williams to these other two outfielders.  Without a doubt, a season reminiscent of Ibanez’s early career-numbers is more-realistic.

Anything is possible; Williams could turn in an Abreu-esque All Star-worthy campaign.  Rhys Hoskins could also earn a Gold Glove.  Let’s not get too crazy with what we ask of Williams in the Phillies’ first non-rebuilding year since 2012.

With nothing other than a gut feeling to make me feel this way, I’d say we’ll see a significant sophomore slump at some point.  I understand that this isn’t the boldest take, but Williams has that long, majestic swing, and I’ll streak through the Citizens Bank Park parking lot if pitchers don’t find a way to consistently exploit it for a long period of time.  However, I believe he’s learned from his mental lessons in AAA, and he’ll adjust smoothly, given a chance.

On a more optimistic note, Williams will have far more lineup protection than he had last year.  If a Phillies lineup looks something like this:

2B Cesar Hernandez

CF Odubel Herrera

1B Carlos Santana

LF Rhys Hoskins

RF Nick Williams

3B Maikel Franco

C Jorge Alfaro

SS J.P. Crawford

Pitcher

Williams will have two (maybe three) sound hitters behind him.  He’ll see decent pitches because if Alfaro progresses the way it looks like he will, Franco can just let this recent spring hot-streak be a sign of things to come, and Crawford fills out and flexes his muscles, pitchers will face an underrated, strong lineup, especially in the 6-7-8 portion.  That’s a lot of if’s, but team-building and lineup construction is a game of if’s.

If Williams plays every day, I think we’ll see a final line something like this… .270/.325/.450 —- 18 HR/70 RBI/65 R/8 SB.  The defense will be passable, far-behind Odubel’s, but he’ll never be the worst liability in the field with Hoskins manning the opposite corner.

That’s making a key assumption, though, that very well might not come to pass.  Those numbers are across a full season, and the Phillies might choose to platoon Williams and Altherr, especially because Altherr is far and away the only outfielder whose defense could hold a candle to Herrera’s.

It’s a good problem to have: too many possibly—starting–caliber players for too few positions.  I personally would take Williams between the two; I feel like there’s a higher ceiling and a lower injury risk.  The days are gone when I envisioned a perennial All-Star who could do a decent bit of everything, but that doesn’t mean the Phillies don’t have a young hotshot waiting to blossom.  All they have to do is give him a chance, and all we can do is watch.

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13 comments

  1. Wawa Mike

    March 20, 2018 11:04 AM

    Great analysis! I believe that one of Altherr/ Williams will be dealt before the deadline. At this moment in time, Altherr is the better player, but in the long haul I like Williams better. The big unknown, of course, is Roman Quinn. If he’s healthy, he could be a lightning rod for the Phillies offense. His speed alone will manufacture runs, and avoid slumps.

  2. Steve

    March 20, 2018 11:27 AM

    Given their new-found emphasis on analytics, and the coaching staff creativity, the platoon may help Williams. If they can successfully implement a platoon putting both Altherr and Williams in favorable situations the overall combined production from RF could be all-star quality. I have a feeling one of the two will assert themselves as an everyday players by season’s end, but having two above average RF isn’t a bad problem to have.

  3. Romus

    March 20, 2018 02:13 PM

    Williams’ great wrist action generates his power .
    His ISO in the minors was continually plus when compared to the other OF prospects in the Rangers org and also his last two plus seasons in the Phillies minor league system at Reading and then LHV. Only Cozens may have the advantage over him.
    But as Keith Law once said back in April 2015…..Williams is a prospect, just not a good one.
    His swing and miss and identifying the breaking pitch are probably 45.
    If he can correct that obvious flaw he could be a very dependable hitter in the lineup.
    His defense….probably a notch above Dom Brown.

  4. awh

    March 20, 2018 07:39 PM

    I agree with most of what you wrote, Jack, but I’m not sure Williams has a higher ceiling than Altherr (yes, he had a lower injury risk).

    If one accepts the proposition that Altherr’s 2016 campaign was an injury riddled bag of pus that can be tossed aside, in and 2017 combined Altherr slashed .263/.339/.509 in 573 PA, with 35 2B, 9 3B and 24 HR. That extrapolates to 40 2B, 10 3B and 27 HR in 650 PA.

    If that is Altherr’s ceiling, then Williams better have a pretty high one also.

    • awh

      March 20, 2018 07:40 PM

      the above should say “…in 2015 and 2017 combined…”

    • jackm

      March 21, 2018 02:40 AM

      I want to believe you’re right, AWH, but let’s extrapolate John Mayberry Jr’s 2011 stats over 650 PAs…

      33 HR, 37 2B, 2 3B, 18 SB.

      Not only is he a few extra risks away from being a 20/20 player, he’s a borderline All-Star.

      Altherr has more MLB service time than Williams and age (and the experience that comes with it) is an intangible that you can never quite measure the value of, but really, Altherr and Williams aren’t that different in terms of regular MLB playing time.

      Plus, on one last note, isn’t injury risk a factor in determining a player’s ceiling, from a certain point of view? Give me Nick Williams over Roman Quinn as well. Both of them might be able to play in the MLB, but one of those guys stays on the field.

      • awh

        March 21, 2018 12:27 PM

        Jack – funny you should bring up Mayberry – especially the 2011 season. At the time I thought his second half in 2011 might have been some type of breakout, and stated as much, but, boy, was I wrong. And that’s what his 2011 season entailed – a strong 2nd half – 158 PA. His first half was hardly as good. Even taking his entire season – 296 PA – it’s hardly a large sample size, especially when one considers Eric Seidman’s piece at Fangraphs on the subject of when sample sizes become reliable.

        www.fangraphs.com/blogs/when-samples-become-reliable/

        I wish I had seen that before my comments about Mayberry at the time. He was a platoon bat – at best – and from the wrong side.

        I’m more encouraged by Altherr because, 1) the sample size is far larger, and 2) his platoon splits are the opposite of Mayberry’s.

        In that 573 PA sample size, he’s posted a .220/.309/.459 (181 PA) against LHP, and a .283/.353/.531 (392 PA) against RHP.

        But my comparison above was Williams-Altherr. Make no mistake, I like both players, and would love for the Phillies to figure out a way to keep them both so they’re both here after the Santana contract is up and Hoskins moves back to 1B.

        And you noted Williams weaknesses – defense and plate discipline. While Altherr’s plate discipline is not spectacular, it’s better than Williams, and his defense is considerably better. And, as you well noted, Altherr has had problems staying on the field.

        I would love for Williams to hit his ceiling – whatever it is. The only point I was making is that if the 2105/2107 Altherr is what we can expect going forward – with good defense at all three OF positions, that’s a pretty good player, and a high ceiling to exceed.

  5. Ken45

    March 22, 2018 11:20 AM

    Altherr has a 25 point better career OBP (in 805 PA) vs righties than lefties, 777 to 752, so I see no reason to compare him to Mayberry. Fangraph Depth Charts projects Altherr to have a 34 point better OPS than Williams, 773 to 739. Williams OPS was helped by an unsustainable 375 BABIP last season in Philly. He had a large platoon split of 100 OPS points. Altherr has had only one severe injury, so I think it is premature to label him as injury prone. But clearly that injury suppressed his career numbers and left the door opened to think about replacing him with Kendrick or Williams. I like Altherr’s defense, isolated power, baserunning, ability to hit both righties and lefties. That, along with his average ability to draw a walk and run deep counts, make me expect to see Altherr the starter and Williams the fourth outfielder and primary left handed pinch hitter before long, unless there is an injury giving him regular playing time. I expect Altherr to compete with Hoskins for the team lead in HR.

    • jackm

      March 23, 2018 11:55 AM

      .375 may be an unsustainable BABIP, yes, but not as much as you’d think. Cesar Hernandez by comparison, who also strikes out too much and has less power than Williams, had a BABIP of .353. Herrera was at .345.

      Here’s something I wouldn’t try to argue against: Altherr could be a starting outfielder on a team that goes to the playoffs. If what we’ve seen so far is legit, there’s pop and good D. However, with only about 3/5 of a season of sexy MLB numbers, I don’t feel confident labeling him a stud over Williams, and I will pants the Phanatic if we get to September and he’s even within 5 home runs of Hoskins’ total (barring injuries, etc).

  6. Chris S

    March 23, 2018 12:15 PM

    Good first article! Its a good problem to have too many good outfielders. My guess would be that Altherr ends up being traded with Cesar mid season to bolster the rotation. Then Williams and Kingery replace them. These are exciting times for the Phillies as they are exiting the rebuild with significant talent that is ready for the Majors.

  7. simplefacts

    March 25, 2018 08:56 PM

    You know, I used to love Crashburnalley when Bill Baer and his team wrote great, in-depth articles on baseball, sabermetrics and the Phillies on a regular basis, sometimes daily. Now I may look at this site once per week and sometimes once per month but rarely find anything that I find interesting about baseball and the Phillies. Sorry, that’s my opinion, but the level of writing on this site has dropped re-markedly. Mainly I use the site for the links on the side.

    • jackm

      March 28, 2018 05:40 PM

      So long!

    • Ashley

      March 28, 2018 09:53 PM

      What a sad life you must have, to spend the time to read the article all the way through, go to the comments, and complain. I’m so glad you went to the trouble of telling you’re hear for the links, too. A nice addition to the conversation.

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