Last year, the Phillies suffered through another awful season, going 66-96 and finishing fifth in the NL East. The lone bright spots consisted of Aaron Nola, Rhys Hoskins, sometimes Cesar Hernandez and Odubel Herrera, and Nick Williams.
Hernandez, Herrera, and Hoskins have all been pleasant surprises, especially given their respective pedigrees. Aaron Nola has performed admirably at every level since being drafted seventh overall in 2014. This leaves us with Nick Williams, one of the most frustrating prospects in recent memory.
Williams was taken in the second round out of high school in 2012, signing for $500,000. His draft report at the time said “the 6-foot-3, 195-pounder still has first-round tools but rarely demonstrates the aptitude to use them”, also referring to the Texas outfielder as “the biggest enigma in the state”.
This description has followed Williams from high school, to the MLB level. After 2013, Williams made his first appearance on Baseball America’s Top 100, at #97. In 2014 he dropped off the list, only to reappear after 2015 as #27. In 2016, Williams was exactly a league average hitter at the AAA level, walking a minuscule 3.6% of the time. Nobody really knew what Nick Williams was going to become, and I’m not sure we still know.
Last year, at the AAA level, Williams put up a 130 wRC+ and began to tantalize us again, and was finally called up to the majors. What Williams did was solid, though unspectacular, putting up a 110 wRC+ in 343 plate appearances. He slashed .288/.338/.473, walking 5.8% of the time, however people were still extremely skeptical given many underlying numbers. I sided with the skeptics who saw through a .375 BABIP, an O-Swing rate of 44.6%, a 59.1% swing rate, a 67.9% contact rate, and a swinging strike rate of 19%.
I italicized a couple of these stats to emphasize how bad they are, but in reality these all rank near the bottom of the league for plate discipline and contact. Regression was going to happen fast, and it was going to be severe. Sure enough, this season, Williams has a wRC+ of 91, and is slashing .228/.294/.424. You can point to BABIP if you want, and he’s sporting a .266 figure, meaning he’s been a little unlucky. But of course, with Nick Williams, nothing you ever think about him is correct.
First, let’s take a look at this BABIP figure. I’ve been fairly outspoken about hating this statistic, and I still am. His BABIP last year was .375, yes, but the lowest figure he’s posted professionally was .325 back in 2016. Before this year, since playing professional baseball, he’s averaged a BABIP of roughly .365. This means that this year, Williams is about a hundred points below what his BABIP has traditionally been, which either means he’s hitting the ball very poorly or is getting extremely unlucky.
Luckily, we have better stats than BABIP now, including Baseball Savant’s “Expected Stats” based on exit velocity and launch angle. Instead of .224, Baseball Savant has Williams expected to hit .280, and instead of slugging .424, they have him slugging .482. He has a wOBA of .307 and an xwOBA of .354. Williams has been legitimately hitting the ball well when he makes contact, but as with any estimation it’s limited. This only judges the quality of contact, and not necessarily the overall quality of his hitting.
The real growth from Nick Williams this year has come from his plate discipline, and as always with him, this has been the limiting factor. His O-Swing rate has dropped 8.2% to a more respectable 36.4%, and he’s swinging 8.1% less overall (51%). Granted, swinging half the time is still high, but you can work with it. Swinging almost 60% of the time won’t cut it. And though he’s swinging, again significantly less overall (including a 10% decrease in swinging at pitches in the zone), he’s making much more contact with pitches in the zone (6.7% increase).
So what does this mean?
Well, Williams is becoming much more selective overall and is also making more contact, in addition to hitting the ball 1.3 MPH harder on average. His overall contact percentage sits at a basically league average 74.2%, a 6.3% increase from last year, and his swinging strike rate has dropped 6% to a much more tolerable 13%. He’s still not barreling the ball well (5.5 Brls/PA; still an increase from 5 last year), but a Nick Williams who can even find average bat control could be a pretty good hitter. Becoming more selective and knowing which pitches you can barrel is an extremely good indicator, and Williams has been making huge strides this year in that department.
Chances are, Nick Williams completely makes me look like a moron by the end of the year because of the general nature of who he is. But, as of now, he looks to be a very good athlete who might be figuring out the nuances of becoming a baseball player. While he’ll never likely be a star, another above-average bat in a resurgent Philadelphia lineup couldn’t hurt. We may be about to find out who Nick Williams really is.