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:
LF Rhys Hoskins
RF Nick Williams
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.