AHF is afflicting more and more members of the Red Sox front office. Learn the facts about Alex Hassan Fascination before it is too late.
Despite the way that it sounds, The Alex Hassan Fascination is not a progressive rock band from the 1970s, but rather, a condition that has been known to infect Red Sox front office personnel as well as at least one Over the Monster writer. Alex Hassan is a Red Sox minor-league player, a product of Quincy, Massachusetts and Duke University and he is -- arguably, at least -- fascinating.
Hassan was one of the final players the Red Sox protected from the Rule 5 draft, and to quote our headline, it was an "odd choice." The Red Sox had two players selected away from them in this year’s Rule 5, both relievers, in Ryan Pressly and Josh Fields. One could certainly argue that at least Fields was more worthy of a place on the 40-man roster if one were so inclined. Yet, the Red Sox front office chose Hassan. WEEI’s Alex Speier, who has exhibited symptoms of AHF himself, explains:
"Hassan has one of the most advanced plate approaches of anyone in the Sox system. Though he’s shown limited power for now, the Sox believe that the corner outfielder has a chance to develop into some power later in his career (much as Kevin Youkilis did)."
Thus far, Alex Hassan has certainly shown a discerning eye at the plate. In 2010 he walked in 13.9 percent of his plate appearances in High-A. He matched that number again in 2011 at AA and then upped his walk rate to 14.5 percent with the move up to AAA. Just three hitters who qualified for the batting title walked more than that at the major league level and Joe Mauer, who had the highest OBP of anyone in the game was not one them, with a mere 14.0 percent rate. Players with an advanced approach can typically thrive in the lower minors, where they encounter so many wild young pitchers, but Hassan has carried that early success to each new level, making difficult to simply write off. There have yet to be any conclusive studies, but the prevailing theory among experts is that this incredible eye for balls and strikes is at the root of AHF’s contagiousness.
As Speier notes, Hassan has shown limited power. Last season, in AAA, even the word 'limited' seems overly kind. He slugged just .365 for an Isolated Power of .109. To put that in the proper light, Astros second baseman, the 5’5" Jose Altuve had a.109 ISO last season in the majors. This was a new low for Hassan and it may not be reflective of his true talent, but with an ISO of .120 in 2010 (A+) and .165 in 2011 (AA), it is not as if he was ever crushing the ball. The comparison to Youkilis is not off-base in this respect. Youk’s ISO was .114 in 2002 across three levels, .124 in 2003 at AA and AAA and .137 at AAA in 2004 (and .153 in the majors that year). The numbers are not that far apart, but Youk was making progress in a way that Hassan has not at this point.
There are plenty of people who doubt that Hassan will ever find more pop. Recently, Marc Normandin spoke with Mark Anderson of Baseball Prospect Nation and Baseball Prospectus and he summed up those doubts very well-
Hassan's ability to work counts and command the strike zone is impressive, but the rest of the profile just doesn't work for me at the big league level. He's not a center fielder, putting additional pressure on his bat. I don't see the pop coming. He has enough strength to drive the ball to the gaps but I don't see the swing producing much over-the-fence power.
Anderson’s point about Hassan’s swing is very important. Hassan doesn’t have a swing that appears capable of generating much power. It is an awkward stroke that doesn’t lend itself toward much loft. This issue is at the heart of the skepticism surrounding Hassan. At 24, he still has some time left to figure this whole power thing out, but given his mechanics, that progress might be as unlikely as Anderson (and many others, to be fair) believe.
If Speier is correct, Boston feels differently concerning Hassan’s power potential. However, I wonder if their Alex Hassan Fascination is less about his future as a power hitter and more about a disregard for the idea of "profile" combined with a belief that Hassan can maintain the skills he has shown thus far while playing at the highest level.
Without slugging much at all, Hassan produced a .388 wOBA at both High-A and AA. Last season at AAA he had a career high strikeout rate (18.5 percent) and a career low batting average on balls in play (.305) and he was still able to produce a .348 wOBA for a weighted Runs Created Plus of 115. It was his first year at that level and even these significant signs of struggle were not enough to drag him down to an average performance. I would argue that while a .109 ISO is certainly not good enough, these are the numbers to watch in 2013. If he can adapt to major league pitching enough post a strikeout rate closer to his previous norm of 15 percent and drive the ball with enough authority to be above average on balls in play, his lack of power may not matter so much. Many hitters with good plate discipline have survived without power. Last season, eight qualified players were above average hitters with ISOs below .120, lead by Derek Jeter and his 117 wRC+ and none of them walk as often as Hassan has.
While the image of the left fielder as a bruising slugger, a Manny Ramirez or a Cliff Floyd, might be engrained in our heads, it is not nearly as prevalent as it was when those two were patrolling the area in front of the Green Monster. Last season, left fielders were down to an average wRC+ of 103. In 2011, it was just 99. That is far below the high water mark of 110 in 2003. For one, teams have learned the value of better left field defense and players like Brett Gardner and (oh god) Carl Crawford, have replaced some of the lesser statue-with-gloves types. Other more insidious factors could be part of the decline as well, but the reasons are less important than the results. Left fielders are not the offensive behemoths they once were. They still hit for a little more power than the average player (by ISO), but they aren't getting on base any more than anyone else and Hassan has a clear advantage there. He is not a Gardner or Crawford type- Soxprospects.com credits him with "below average speed," "average range" and "a plus arm", but he does seem capable of holding his own defensively and is a good fit for Fenway’s short left field. Even with regression in the more difficult ML environment, Hassan’s discerning bat could surpass this new lower bar for left field performance without a major increase in power.
The move from AAA to the majors is the biggest leap any player can make, and there is no way to know if Hassan’s elite walk rate and solid contact skills will translate at all to the highest level, but if they do, the power issue is largely secondary. In fact, if he were to maintain those skills and develop average home run power or better, as Youkilis did, it would make him a star-caliber player (like Youk). That is an extreme long shot, however. The doubt that Anderson and other express should not be downplayed. There is a real chance that Alex Hassan will never be more than a quad-A type guy with a great eye and little else. It is far more probable than any other alternative, really. His floor and ceiling are as far apart as anyone's. However, for those of us infected with that rare persistent strain of Alex Hassan Fascination that ceiling just cannot be ignored.