Stoked for Carolina

At the beginning of the 2017 minor league baseball season, I wrote that the Carolina Mudcats and their stacked roster should be a team to give your attention to this summer. With four of the Brewers’ top 10 Baseball Prospectus prospects and 10 of Milwaukee’s top 30 prospects (per MLB Pipeline) assigned to the roster to begin the year, the Carolina group represented the “next wave” of minor league talent that Milwaukee would lean on in a few more years, once the likes of Josh Hader, Lewis Brinson, Orlando Arcia, and the current crop of top prospects/young MLBers in Milwaukee’s upper levels of the system comes and goes.

With that in mind, it’s fair to say that what was supposed to be a vaunted lineup for Milwaukee’s high-A affiliate has underwhelmed thus far in 2017. Only three regular players have provided above-average offense this year by wRC+, with guys like Isan Diaz (.255 TAv, 98 wRC+), Trent Clark (.254 TAv, 97 wRC+), and Lucas Erceg (.216 TAv, 71 wRC+) all dealing with their share of struggles in 2017.

One player who was a bit under-the-radar coming into the year on this team full of top prospects is outfielder Troy Stokes, a 4th round draft pick by the Crew back in 2014. The right-handed hitter received a $400,000 bonus to lure him away from his college commitment and put together some sound hitting performances in his first three minor league seasons, batting .267/.368/.383 with 9 home runs and 65 steals across 195 games combined between Maryvale, Helena, and Wisconsin from 2014-16. The book on Stokes coming out of the draft was that he’d likely never offer much power, but he has solid bat-to-ball skills (he authored a manageable 18.8 percent K rate through his first three MiLB seasons) and his above-average to plus speed should play well in the outfield and on the bases. Former BP scout James Fisher, now a scout with the Milwaukee Brewers, offered this take last summer:

“Stokes is a small framed athletic outfielder with strength throughout. Physically maxed out…Stokes has average bat speed but struggles with pitch recognition. Isn’t a burner with 55 run times. Interesting routes in LF at times but is solid. Tweener 4th outfielder type when all is said and done.”

This year, the short (5’8″) but strong (182 lbs) 21 year old is still making a good amount of contact (17.2 percent K rate) as well as drawing walks at a high clip (11.5 percent) and stealing bags (13 / 17), but has surprisingly added a new tool to his arsenal: over-the-fence power. In just 63 games and 261 plate appearances, Stokes already has more home runs, 10, than he did during his first three seasons in Milwaukee’s system. He leads the Mudcats in long balls and his current Isolated Power mark of .200 is good for 2nd on the team behind Jake Gatewood and is 83 points better than Stokes’ career average coming into the season.

A change is his approach at the plate may be what is driving his newfound power this season. Here is video of Stokes hitting last season with the Timber Rattlers. You’ll notice that he stands pretty upright, with a slight flex in the knees and waist and a slightly open stance. His hands are at about the level of his ears when the pitch is delivered, and his timing mechanism is a small step forward with his front foot:

Now, here is video from the other day of Stokes launching a grand slam against the Salem Red Sox. Stokes has a touch more bend in his waist, but more noticeable is a rather significant dropping of the hands from last year’s batting stance. Troy’s hands are now closer to chest level at pitch delivery rather than up by his ears like last season, similar to the mechanical changes that have been instituted in the past year or so by Keon Broxton, Brett Phillips, and Carolina teammate Jake Gatewood. Stokes’ timing step has now also evolved into more of a leg kick, although not a huge one:

For Stokes, the results of the changes have been a sizable increase in power without having to sacrifice the contact ability he had displayed during his first few seasons as a professional. Though his current line sits at just .227/.329/.427 (.276 TAv; still a 103 wRC+), the poor batting average can be mostly attributed to a paltry .238 batting average on balls in play this season. Stokes is pulling the ball more this year as well as hitting a few more fly balls, but given his good speed and career .308 BABIP, one can expect that number to regress in a positive direction as the season wears on.

Stokes was drafted as a center fielder, though sharing an outfield with the likes of Corey Ray and Trent Clark means he’s made most of his appearances in left as a professional. Still, he’s capable of playing all three positions (though his arm does profile best in center or left). With his defensive versatility and good speed, Stokes has always looked like a player with a chance to be a solid reserve outfielder at the big league level someday. If he can sustain the power that he’s added to his toolshed this season, however, Troy Stokes may be in the process of elevating that “fourth outfielder” ceiling and adding yet another intriguing name to Milwaukee’s crowded organizational outfield picture.

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