With the 2022 regular season over, it is that time where we go back and take a look at the players who appeared for the Texas Rangers this past season.
Today, we look at outfielder Bubba Thompson.
Its been a nice couple of years for Bubba Thompson. His stock had plummeted when an awful 2019 season, when he put up a 573 OPS in 57 games in high-A, was followed by the lost 2020 season. For a toolsy, raw guy who needed reps, a lost season of development is a particular setback.
Entering the 2021 season, despite being a first round draft pick in 2017, Thompson had just 161 pro games under his belt — 182 if you counted his AFL stint in 2019. He had done little to put to rest concerns about his hit tool, and he was looking like another one of the Rangers’ toolsy guys who wouldn’t ever turn into a baseball player.
Things started moving upward in 2021, though. Bubba spent the season at AA Frisco and held his own offensively, slashing .275/.325/.483 while stealing 25 bases in 33 attempts. The plate discipline continued to be a concern, as he struck out 121 times in 470 plate appearances while walking just 29 times, but it was an overall positive year, particularly when taking into account his high quality defense in the outfield.
You may recall that Bubba was a “will they or won’t they” guy in regards to the 40 man roster decisions to be made after 2021, and the Rangers rolled the dice on exposing him, betting that a team wasn’t going to gamble on using him as a speed-and-defense bench guy as a Rule 5 pick. Once the Rule 5 Draft ended up being canceled, that concern became moot, and Bubba headed to AAA for the 2022 season.
For Round Rock, Thompson put up solid numbers, slashing .304/.355/.474 in 375 plate appearances. The PCL is a strong hitter’s league, so the overall performance offensively, relative to the league, probably wasn’t as good as his 2021 Texas League performance, but for a quality defensive centerfielder, you’ll take that slash line. And you’ll especially take that slash line when it is accompanied by a 48 for 51 rate of stolen bases — being successful almost 90% of the time when running that often is an incredible accomplishment.
Thompson got the call to the bigs in early August, and spent the final two months of the year getting his feet wet at the major league level. With Leody Taveras in center, Bubba got the bulk of his playing time in left field, starting 32 games there compared to ten in right field and nine in center. Offensively, he was about what one would expect of him — a ton of Ks, very few walks, a .265/.302/.312 slash line, and an 18 for 21 line on stolen bases.
Looking at the Statcast data, Bubba overperformed significantly compared to what would be expected, given his batted ball data. While Bubba put up a .274 wOBA, his xwOBA was just .203 in the majors — a simply abysmal figure. There were 417 players who had at least 150 plate appearances in the bigs in 2022 — Bubba’s xwOBA was better than only one player, Cincinnati’s Jose Barrero.
What was the case of this exceptionally low xwOBA? Well, having a well above average K rate and a well below average walk rate is a big part of it, but there’s also the fact that Thompson simply didn’t make good contact. His average exit velocity of 84.8 mph was well below the league average of 88.4 mph. Thompson had a hard hit rate of 21.6%, compared to a 35.8% league average, and he had only two “barrels” on the year out of 116 batted balls, a 1.7% rate that compares very poorly to the league rate of 6.7%.
What saved Thompson — what made him just a below average hitter, rather than an unplayably bad one — was his batting average on balls in play. Bubba, you see, is very fast — 100th percentile sprint speed, per Statcast. He also hit the ball on the ground a lot. The combination meant that Bubba had a .389 BABIP in 2022 — the fourth best among those 417 batters with at least 150 plate appearances. 20% of his balls in the infield went for hits — the highest rate among those 417 batters. He had seven bunt hits, which was tied for the 7th most in MLB, despite only being up for two months — had he been called up a month earlier, he likely would have challenged Victor Robles, who had 10 bunt hits on the season, for the major league lead in that category.
Robles shows up as one of the most similar batters to Thompson in 2022, per Statcast, which is an interesting comparison. Robles, you may recall, was a consensus top 10 prospect in baseball for several years before establishing himself as an everyday center fielder for the Washington Nationals on their 2019 championship team. Robles put up a 4.4 bWAR season for the 2019 Nats, slashing .255/.326/.419 (despite a 140/35 K/BB ratio) with 28 steals and playing terrific defense in center. As a 22 year old rookie, Robles looked to be a future star.
Since then, Robles has slashed .216/.291/.306. The problem — a problem that there were warning signs of even in his solid 2019 season — was that he didn’t hit the ball hard. And if you don’t hit the ball hard, its hard to be a productive offensive player — especially if you K a lot and don’t walk.
That said, Robles didn’t have a huge BABIP inflating his 2019 numbers and his BABIP hasn’t been exceptional since, so there’s not an exact match between what Thompson has done and what Robles has done. Robles is fast, but doesn’t have the elite speed Thompson has. Robles also hits the ball in the air more often than Thompson did in Thompson’s brief 2022 stint.
Where Bubba Thompson had success in 2022 was in hitting the ball on the ground and beating it out. Thompson had 39 singles last year — 18 were of the bunt hit or infield hit variety — and a .440 wOBA on ground balls in 2022.
A .440 wOBA on ground balls is freaky high. Not only was Bubba’s .440 wOBA the highest in MLB for any hitter with at least 50 ground balls last year, it lapped the field. The next highest wOBA was J.D. Davis, who was over 100 points lower, at .333, followed by Akil Baddo at .332. Leody Taveras, incidentally, was fourth, at .327. Only 15 batters, out of 374, had a wOBA of .300 or higher on ground balls.
On non-ground balls, on the other hand, Bubba had a .288 wOBA. Out of 450 major league hitters with at least 40 balls in play that were not ground balls, that .288 wOBA was 441st.
Given the above, it probably won’t surprise you to know that Bubba had a .215 wOBA against four seamers last year, compared to a .621 wOBA against sinkers. Which leads one to wonder if maybe you should have a platoon based on type of pitcher, rather than handedness, in left field in 2023, using Bubba against the sinkerballers while having someone else play against the guys who work the top of the zone.
All of this would make how things go with Bubba in 2023 pretty fascinating to follow, regardless. But Bubba is also potentially a big beneficiary of the new rule changes that are being implemented in 2023.
We have talked about how disruptive Thompson was on the basepaths in his limited action in 2022, and what a weapon he showed he could be as a late game pinch runner. With pitchers now being limited to two pickoff attempts, as well as bases being increased slightly in size for the coming year, Thompson should be that much more dangerous when he’s on base.
Thompson also, however, could benefit some from the elimination of the shift. While the focus has primarily been on how the elimination of the shift will benefit lefty pull hitters, it could also help the righty-swinging Thompson. Thompson wasn’t shifted often in 2022 — only about 10% of his plate appearances — but his wOBA was almost 100 points higher when he was not shifted. As someone who hits the ball on the ground a lot, and who tends to pull the ball when he hits it on the ground, he would seem to potentially benefit from teams not being able to stack the left side of the infield.
Thompson likely will start 2023 in the majors in a bench role, and he has the glove and speed to be a very useful late game defensive replacement and pinch runner. His arm doesn’t really play well in right field, but he’s well above average defensively at the other two outfield positions.
I am skeptical that Thompson will hit enough to be more than a bench guy. There’s still growth there, of course, and the potential for improvement. But Thompson turns 25 in June, and 56 Ks against 7 walks in 181 PAs last year puts him in a big hole before he ever puts a ball in play. The plate discipline seems unlikely to get a lot better, and if it doesn’t, it caps how productive he can be, to the point where him putting up a 100 wRC+ season at some point would probably be an upset.
But Bubba Thompson is still fascinating. And what he does in 2023, and how the Rangers use him, will be a storyline I will be following closely.