Analysis

Amid the excitement, don’t forget Nick Williams

The arrival and subsequent performance of Rhys Hoskins has caused a colossal tidal wave of excitement. That was followed by the hotly anticipated call-up of J.P. Crawford, long touted as the best Phillies prospect and one of the best prospects in baseball.

Their mere presence seems to have invigorated the team and fanbase to believe the next generation of the Phillies is here and promising.

But behind them in fanfare is the rookie that beat them both to the big leagues, and whose success is just as much an integral piece to the future success of the franchise: Nick Williams.

A recent slide notwithstanding, Williams has more than held his own in the big leagues. Of rookies with at least as many as his 276 at bats, Williams ranks sixth of all the rookies in baseball this year with his .812 OPS. His numbers since his call-up don’t rank with Aaron Judge or even Hoskins, but you’ll find him in the top-five or 10 rookie ranks in most offensive categories.

It’s the kind of performance the team hoped for when they made him one of the centerpieces of the Cole Hamels trade in 2015, but one that by the end of the 2016 season we wondered if we’d ever see. An ugly 136 strikeouts against just 19 walks (.287 OBP) last year in Allentown will do that kind of thing to your perception.

By all accounts, this was a player that did not believe he belonged in the minor leagues last year. So he pouted. And got sat down. And he was sent back to Allentown to start the year, which likely carried the directive, “Grow up.”

And he did. We didn’t hear any reports of him getting into any trouble, causing any trouble or doing anything other than playing baseball the way the Phillies wanted it played. In 306 plate appearances in Lehigh Valley this year, he had 16 walks, nearly matching his total from all of 2016.

When the Michael Saunders experiment – the one that likely kept Williams out of the big leagues to start the year – crossed the line from abject failure to unmitigated catastrophe, and Aaron Altherr suffered a second injury, a spot opened in the outfield for Williams. Before Hoskins came up and hit bomb after bomb, before Crawford came up and showed prowess all over the infield, Williams was up in the bigs injecting a needed shot of youth and excitement to a team that was teetering on the edge of “completely unwatchable.”

If anything, his play for the first month of his call-up added a small level of trust to the process, that perhaps the Phillies front office knew what it was doing in keeping the young guys in Allentown for an extended period of time. If Williams is the result of that grooming, then maybe it wasn’t the worst idea.

Williams is far from a complete player – part of which makes his quick ascent this year so exciting because there is clearly room to improve. He’s got one steal in three tries, a crime for someone with his pure athleticism. But he’s never been a basestealer in the minor leagues, so it’s probably asking too much of him to turn into one now.

And while he makes some flashy plays, his defensive metrics show a poor outfielder. He doesn’t have enough playing time to qualify, but if he did, his minus-2.4 URZ would rank 46th of 58 current qualifying outfielders. You can chalk part of that up to playing all over the outfield in his time in Philly so far (48 games in right, 16 in center, 12 in left, with no clear indication of where he’ll be next season). At the same time, it’s an obvious area of improvement he needs to work on in the offseason if he’s going to be one of the anchors of this team for a decade.

Part of his exciting debut is probably a little lucky, with a BABIP of .376 helping his average reach .287. He’s always had a high BABIP in the minors, but sticking around at .376 for a full major league season is tough to expect from anyone.

But of all the rookie debuts we’ve seen this season in Philadelphia, when you factor in where he’s come from, what he’s coming into and what’s been asked of him, Williams’ debut could be the best we’ve seen.

OK, OK. But it’s definitely second-best and the one that makes you feel just a little bit better about the future.

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