Braves’ prospect rewind: Drew Waters has made up some ground

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We’re back with a new year and a new player to breakdown, as we continue our offseason series covering Braves’ prospects currently ranked on FanGraphs’ THE BOARD.

NOTE: Starting with this week’s piece, I’ve included SportsTalkATL’s latest rankings using Chase’s most recent prospect list, published after last season’s Trade Deadline, to offer multiple perspectives (though some players may of course rank the same).

Check out rewinds we’ve featured thus far:

 

Drew Waters, OF

  • FG rank: No. 2
  • SportsTalkATL rank: No. 3
  • 2019 stats: 134 G, .309 AVG, 7 HR, 40 2B, 52 RBI, 16 SB
  • 2019 levels: AA, AAA
  • Projected 2020 levels: AAA

After spending his age-19 season in Single-A Rome and High-A Florida in 2018 (only 30 games at the latter), the Braves challenged the young, switch-hitting Waters with a Double-A assignment to start 2019, as he and top prospect Cristian Pache formed a stellar duo in the Mississippi outfield. The expectations regarding Waters were high, but considering his extremely short stint with the Fire Frogs the previous season, it would’ve been completely understandable for him to take his lumps. However, Waters was evidently ready for the challenge, and from Day 1, he swung one of the hottest bats in all of the Braves’ minor league system.

The former second-round pick kicked off 2019 with a three-hit performance on Opening Day, followed by an April in which he slashed .319/.366/.521 and slapped a 2019 monthly-high, 11 doubles. Waters had some work to do if he wanted to top his first month in Double-A,  and he did that by hitting his first home run as a Mississippi Brave on May 7 versus Pensacola, except it wasn’t just any first-homer.

With the game tied at three in the bottom of the 9th, Mississippi teammates Carlos Martinez drew a walk and Ray-Patrick Didder flew out to center, allowing Waters to step to the plate with one out and a runner on first. Pensacola’s pitcher tried to go upstairs but left the pitch in the zone and Waters jumped all over it, pulling it down the right-field line and over the wall for a walk-off homer, officially putting the baseball industry on notice and serving as the beginning of an extraordinary 2019 season.

 

(skip to 0:39 to see walk-off)

 

 

But wait! There’s more…

Waters saved his best work for the month of June, as along with the heat of summer, his bat continued to spray balls all over the field, as he became the first-ever Southern League player to reach 100 hits by June 30th. That month he slashed .370/.417/.610, tallying 16 XBHs (including four triples) and finishing with a ridiculous 1.027 OPS in 27 games. By then, Waters was leading the competitive Southern League of Double-A in basically every offensive statistic available.

After the best month of Waters’ pro career, he spent his final month with the Mississippi Braves — before being promoted to Triple-A Gwinnett in August — finishing strong and batting .327 in July, which included a torrid stretch of six games (July 7-14) where he went 13-for-24 (.542 AVG), including five multi-hit games. However, Waters then cooled a bit, going hitless in his next four games. In fact, Waters only slashed .222/.228/.296 in his final 14 games in Double-A, as his strikeouts began to surge a bit (28 K% in that span) due to a run of impatience at the plate. Waters only walked four times in those final 54 at-bats (7.4 BB%), as plate discipline woes caused him to enter a bit of a slump. A little lapse in performance was OK, though. Waters had earned a mini-slump before getting his Triple-A promotion — along with Pache, Ian Anderson and Tucker Davidson — on August 5. 

As he did on Opening Day back with Mississippi, Waters started his time in Gwinnett with a bang, going 3-for-5 with an RBI and a run-scored in his very first game with the Stripers. By Game 13, he was hitting .321 with 5 XBHs, including his first Gwinnett home run on August 9th.

 

 

Unfortunately, almost as if he began to wear out, Waters capped off the 2019 season with a forgettable 13-game skid, batting just .216 during that span and wrapping up August with a more normal .269 AVG. Once again, strikeouts and a poor approach at the plate was the root of Waters’ problem during his second and final mini-slump of the season, as the outfielder struck out an ugly 40.7% of the time down the stretch.

A rough couple of weeks to end Gwinnett’s regular season, plus a middling .187 AVG during the Stripers’ Septemeber playoff series versus Columbus doesn’t come close to overshadowing Waters’ spectacular 2019 season. The list of accolades is long for the star outfielder, as he left a considerable impression at the Double-A level in 2019. Consider how Waters fared in 108 games within the Southern League last season, playing in 20-30 games less than several of the league’s leading hitters:

  • .319 AVG (1st)
  • .847 OPS (2nd)
  • 63 runs (t-4th)
  • 134 hits (1st)
  • 35 doubles (1st)
  • 9 triples (1st)
  • 202 total bases (3rd)

 

Those numbers also earned Waters a 2019 Double-A All-Star bid, as he started for the South Division team and hit himself a bomb off the scoreboard:

 

 

Perhaps Waters’ most coveted achievement from 2019 was his Southern League MVP, becoming the youngest to win the award since 2005 when Delmon Young took the crown as a 19-year-old with Montgomery. 

 

 

Waters was the first Mississippi Braves’ player to win the league’s MVP since Ryan Klesko, and Javy Lopez went back-to-back in 1991-92, respectively. His .319 AVG also set a Mississippi Braves’ record, besting Ozzie Albies’ .315 mark in 2016.

The month of October brought even more fortune Waters’ way, as it was announced that he was named to the 28-man roster of the U.S. Olympic team. The following month Waters earned three starts and played in eight games with the team, only hitting .111 with one home run, though the opportunity to represent his country most likely meant much more than a poor 8-game showing. If anything, his experience playing baseball at the global level served as an excellent conclusion to what was perhaps the year of Waters’ life; a season that assisted in confirming everyone’s suspicions that indeed he’s a top-25 prospect in all of baseball, and one the Braves will undoubtedly give every chance to work his way to the majors this coming season.

2020 outlook

 

It’s widely expected that both Waters (and Pache) will start the 2020 campaign in Triple-A Gwinnett; that of course, after playing with the big league club in North Port this coming Spring Training — both players’ second trip down to Florida.

Although, predicting Waters’ MLB-debut is a different dilemma and one that hasn’t been talked about enough by Braves’ GM Alex Anthopoulos. However, such inactivity regarding that subject is quite understandable when examining a few of Waters’ current underlying issues at the plate, more specifically his plate discipline. Not enough walks and too many strikeouts have been reoccurring issues for Waters, seemingly his entire pro career. Although, that’s perfectly normal for a young player still figuring things out at the plate (he just turned 21!). We saw Pache turn his poor plate discipline around in 2019, and there’s no reason that Waters can’t do the same.

But speaking of figuring things out: One thing I’ve noticed when watching Waters with the bat this past season is that his stance has balanced out since the year prior, as he no longer puts as much weight on his back foot while in the batter’s box. 

Check out an at-bat in 2018, with Waters’ leaning pretty heavily on his backside:

 

Now here he is at Spring Training last year, looking much more balanced. He also looks to be in a much more athletic position at the plate:

 

I’m no expert when it comes to hitting, but the former stance seems a bit counterintuitive when you think about what’s required to hit a baseball. 

From all the way down to Little League, hitters are taught to keep their weight on their back foot, which makes sense as it enables a hitter to stay back while also allowing him to harness his power. But it seems that Waters was perhaps a bit too dramatic with his stance a couple of years ago, shifting too much of his weight to his back foot. Logically, too much of anything is usually bad, and in this case, it seems that too much weight towards the backside of a hitter would cause him to be slower with his swing, and at the same time, less powerful… not to mention the drawbacks of being so unbalanced while trying to rotate his entire body as quickly as he can to hit a 90+ mph fastball.

The latter stance looks so much cleaner, with Waters more upright and able to quickly start his swing. You can tell he’s still using those same principles, in terms of shifting his weight, but instead, it’s less pronounced. He just looks to be more efficient with his movements. 

(I did some more digging and actually found his ‘newer’ stance in some video from 2018, perhaps suggesting that he started adjusting his stance later in the 2018 season, and the first video above was from before his changes.)

In my opinion, that change to Waters’ stance was one of the driving forces behind his breakout in 2019. And if he can continue to feature those improvements, combined with more patience at the plate… a 2020 debut isn’t necessarily out of the question. 

Check back next Sunday, as we continue our Braves Prospect Rewind series.

 

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