Red Sox Spring Profiles: Ryan Sweeney And Missing Power

Ryan Sweeney of the Oakland Athletics triples down the left field line to drive in two runs against the Seattle Mariners in the seventh inning during an MLB baseball game at O.co Coliseum in Oakland, California. The Athletics won the game 8-5. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Real baseball is finally being played, meaning Opening Day is on the way. With that in mind, we'll be profiling the key players from the Red Sox roster leading up to the first regular season game. The focus will be on what we think is an important attribute or question surrounding these players in terms of their potential 2012 success. First up, Ryan Sweeney.

Ryan Sweeney looks like a baseball player. In fact, he is 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds of baseball player, the kind of guy you expect to hit the ball very far when you see him in his uniform. When he was drafted by the White Sox in the second round of the 2003 amateur entry draft, Baseball America wrote about him as being a "pure hitter with gap power, in the mold of John Olerud." Olerud averaged 18 homers per 162 games in his career, and slugged .503 from age 24 through 29. Sweeney, on the other hand, has 14 homers in his major league career after 1,681 plate appearances, and has averaged just five long balls per 162 games played.

The swing and physique remain, but the story in his career to this point is that he's a tease. A look through snippets of old Baseball Prospectus comments (dated for the upcoming season) show you the timeline of frustration:

  • 2007: Perhaps no player creates more dissension in the prospect community than Ryan Sweeney. Many scouts take one look at his picture-perfect swing, his Abercrombie & Fitch-catalog physique, and his tender age for his levels and insist that he`s a future stud. Statheads--and a silent minority of scouts--look at his statistical record and see a fourth outfielder.
  • 2008: Though only 23, Sweeney is already seen as a disappointment for his failure to develop any kind of meaningful power. What thumping he did do last year was all done in hitter-friendly Charlotte, and following up that season with a punchless Arizona Fall League campaign only reinforced concern that he has little or no projection other than as a fourth outfielder.
  • 2009: Sweeney just looks like he should be a star, and that is what has been so frustrating. He's tall, lean, strong, and athletic, has tools a-plenty, but the White Sox got understandably sick of waiting for his pretty swing to develop some power.
  • 2010: Sweeney certainly looks the part of a slugging outfielder, a six-foot-four athlete with as pretty a swing as you'll find, but the power that was forecast to come from that swing has now generated 12 home runs in 948 big-league at-bats. He's an excellent defensive outfielder, but given his lack of power (and patience, too) plus his troubles hitting lefties, he's simply not enough of a hitter to play every day. He'd be an excellent fourth outfielder on a good team, but Oakland isn't that team yet.
  • 2011: Sweeney has been a tease for years: no Oakland player looks better in a uniform, and no player on the team has a prettier swing, but now that he's gotten nearly 1,500 plate appearances, it's time to accept the fact that he can hit for average but has no secondary skills.
Manager Bobby Valentine thinks the power that was dreamed of years ago is still in Sweeney somewhere, and that it's the job of the Red Sox coaching staff to coax it out of hiding:
"Bad mechanics. Doesn't know himself as a hitter," he [Valentine] said. "He's hit some balls really far. He was the one early on who was hitting balls into the bullpen when we were warming up. Branch Rickey said, ‘If you see a guy hit a ball 500 feet that means he has major league power, it's up to the coaches to get him to perform at a major league level.'"
Sweeney's spring is off to a good start, as he had three hits -- including a three-run homer -- on Saturday. Spring stats aren't meaningless, but they are close to it. You can tease something out of them, though, depending on just how different a player's spring is from his usual career line. In his research, John Dewan of Baseball Info Solutions has found that if a player posted a pre-season slugging percentage 200 points above their career rate, you could expect the player to improve during that season.

Sweeney's got a month to go, so don't take this to mean it's three-hit games and homers galore for Sweeney from here on out, but his slugging is something to watch this spring. As a career .378 slugger, it won't be hard to surpass that mark in the pre-season, but it might not mean much unless he approaches a .578 slugging or so.

If Sweeney were to reach that lofty goal, it doesn't automatically mean he would be the next Jose Bautista or anything during the regular season. It's more likely Sweeney would have finally found that bit of power stroke he's been missing -- the ability to slug .450 or so, to at least hit for that gap doubles power everyone has been waiting for. We've actually observed this process recently with one of the Red Sox's own (and wrote about it last spring), as Jarrod Saltalamacchia hit .355/.432/.645 last spring -- .259 points above his career slugging percentage -- before setting career highs in homers, slugging percentage (.450), Isolated Power (.215), and total bases in 2011.

Fenway will help, as Sweeney is aware of, having played in Oakland since 2008. But, as Valentine suggests, it will take the likes of hitting coach Dave Magadan to turn Sweeney from a perpetual tease into the pure, gap hitter that scouts thought he could be when he was drafted.
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