Photo Credit: Trina Ballesteros | Prensa Bravos de Margarita
Believe it or not, I sometimes actually tire a little of endlessly discussing Marco Luciano’s gorgeous swing, Heliot Ramos’ or Joey Bart’s power potential, or the fast-coming splendor of young Luis Matos. It’s true!
Because here at There R Giants we love all our little Giants wannabes and I feel badly that I’m sometimes so pulled into the gravitational orbit of our supernovas that I don’t have as much time to devote to the lovely moons and comets and other forms of space-metaphors the system has to offer! So, with plenty of downtime between now and the (hopefully) coming season, perhaps it is the time to start making amends and spreading the love around a little bit.
To start us out, let’s take a look at a long-time fave of mine, one of the few Giants’ prospects who’s actually been getting into some real action lately — Venezuelan OF Diego Rincones.
Let’s start with the absolute, essential point when it comes to Rincones: Dude. Can. Hit.
This has never been a matter of much debate with Rincones. After posting just a .244 average as a true 16-year-old in the DSL, he’s worked his way up through the lower minors posting .300 averages at most every step of the way.
To drop into a little bit of Scouting 101, lots of times there are guys drifting through the minors putting up perfectly solid numbers, good power, and fans will wonder: “why doesn’t this guy get any love? He hits plenty!” More often than not, the answer to this sort of conundrum is the dreaded “grooved swing.” Sometimes you’ll hear “stiff swing” too, but I like “grooved” as it summons up the perfect image for its meaning. The term applies to players whose swings start and end within a “groove” with no ability to adjust to the motion of a pitch in flight. Swing hard through the zone and if the ball and bat cross paths, good things happen! But, generally, as these players rise, they tend to reach a level of pitching where this approach leads toward ever-limited results (usually around AA).
The opposite of this, in scouting lingo, is a “handsy” swing — the ability to use the hands to adjust the bat in-swing. Barry Bonds, hitting savant that he was, used to describe this as “catching the ball with your bat.” Just as a player naturally adjusts a gloved-hand to catch a ball in flight (note: don’t try this if the ball is in flight at 90 mph because unless you’re a professional ball player, you’re very likely to break your face!), a good hitter will use their hands in the exact same way to adjust to a pitch and get the barrel of the bat in position to catch it. Scouts love a good, loose, handsy swing.
At lower levels, you can frequently identify the handsy swingers for their ability to square up breaking balls with decent regularity — attacking upon recognition and then fine-tuning along the way to micro-adjust to the exact break and shape of the pitch:
As you’ve probably guessed by now, Rincones is a handsy swinger. His hands “work” as scouts like to say, giving him some remarkable plate coverage. He can hit almost any pitch with authority. Frequently, with hitters who can naturally make a lot of contact, they come to rely too much on the skill and fail to develop much discretion at the plate — we might think of this as the Pablo Sandoval approach to hitting.
And, indeed, here’s a note that I got from a scout a few years back who had taken a liking to Diego.
But Rincones really hasn’t been as walk-averse as the above might lead you to believe. True, his year in Salem-Keizer saw his walk rate plummet to a career-low 3.6%. But at most of his stops, he’s walked at approximately twice that rate. While that can still stand to be boosted, what’s more noticeable about his stat line is the infrequency with which he strikes out. He’s posted strikeout rates consistently in the 11-13% range ever since he was 16. In an era of “let ‘er rip!” Diego is a virtual Joe Panik! In his full-season debut in 2019, Rincones struck out just 56 times in 442 Plate Appearances with Augusta. And following a late season promotion to San Jose, he got even stingier with the swing and miss, with just 9 K against 5 BB in his 85 PA in the Cal League (generally, K rates are believed to stabilize fairly quickly, at around the 100 PA mark).
Rincones is also a student of the game, leading one to believe that working on improving his approach should be a natural part of his development. As he recently told a journalist covering the Liga Venezolana de Béisbol Profesional (or Venezuelan Winter League):
“I am always very observant in relation to what happens in the game, I keep myself prepared in any opportunity that the manager gives me. I really like to see what happens, the pitchers, what they throw, with what pitch they open and with which they shoot in two strikes, I am very observant when I am not in play.”
That article came by way of celebrating Rincones’ selection as Player of the Week in the LVBP for the week between December 14-20. Rincones, who was playing for the first season as a regular member of the Bravos de Margarita, had been having a solid season prior to that point. But in the week leading up to Christmas, he simply went off: 9 for 21 with 2 HRs and a circuit leading 11 RBI. He finished the week with a Ruthian .429/.478/.800(!) line, while striking out just twice. For the winter season, Rincones ended up hitting .342/.412/.513, striking out just 9 times, walking 5 times, and hitting just those two home runs — good enough to finish 3rd in the league’s Rookie of the Year voting.
Probably, by now, you’re thinking “well, this all sounds mighty good! Where do I sign up?” And I wouldn’t want to discourage you from this line of thinking, but perhaps we should touch on the other side of the scale as well.
Though Rincones can really hit, his physical tools don’t grade out particularly well on a scouting sheet. He’s a below average runner, even as a teenager, in part thanks to a body type that fits in the “constant maintenance” category. Likely, that limits him to LF in the long run (though he’s played mostly RF in the minors), and he’s a tough LF profile because he has never shown a great deal of power. Though he hits the ball with authority and is a strong kid, his swing doesn’t have much loft in it — at least not as of yet. Power develops last, as we know, and Rincones is still just 21 years old, but it’s worth noting that even in the LVVP he wasn’t exactly a slugger.
The one area where Rincones does grade out well is his plus arm. Baseball America has listed him as the best OF arm in the Giants’ system in each of the past two years, and it is both strong and accurate. With Augusta in 2019, he posted 9 OF assists in just over 100 games played.
Augusta play-by-play man Rylan Kobre practically turned it into a catch phrase.
Still, the whole package is tough to profile — there’s a potential reality in which his preternatural ability to square up good pitching allows him to find a path as a lefty killer. More likely, he’s trying to carve out a role as an up and down guy and just keep working to see if he can catch the right opportunity and turn it into a career. But, without a doubt, this is the type of player who can have a long career in baseball in some shape or form. It might be another country, it might be the Mexican League, or a long career in his home country league. You could see him becoming a celebrity in the NPB or KBO if he wanted to head to that side of the world. But, regardless, a guy who can put bat-on-ball like Diego can will be able to get paid to swing the bat for a long time.
Will any of those paystubs come from MLB? It’s not impossible. A good baseball mind, clear eyes, and a quick bat can take you a lot of places. And if Rincones can buy in to the organizational philosophy of “find the pitches you can mash and let the rest go,” it wouldn’t be crazy to see his career take a “launch angle” turnaround. He’s not so different from Austin Slater, who at the same age was putting up a fairly Rinconesque line at Salem-Keizer himself. If you’re gonna have one tool, it’s always best to make it the hit tool!
Oh, dang it, I forgot! Two tools! The most important one, and my favorite one!