When the Cincinnati Reds drafted Taylor Sparks in the 2nd round of the 2014 draft it was considered a pick of a boom-or-bust kind of player. Sparks had one of the best sets of overall tools in the draft, but he was also considered to have a very raw approach at the plate and his defense needed plenty of work.
His first season showed a little bit of everything. Sparks showed off big power potential with the Billings Mustangs in 2014, hitting seven doubles, seven triples and 10 home runs in just 55 games. He flashed his speed by stealing 14 bases in 15 attempts. He also showed off his raw approach at the plate with 84 strikeouts in 240 plate appearances (35%) and he posted a .913 fielding percentage as he struggled with consistency in the field.
In 2015 the third baseman made the jump to Advanced-A Daytona, in part because the spot was vacated when Tanner Rahier was suspended prior to the season. The assignment seemed to be a big jump and the early part of the season showed that it was. In April and May the corner infielder hit just .237/.274/.322 with just six walks and 63 strikeouts in 187 plate appearances (3.2% walk rate and 33.7% strikeout rate). The plate approach was not working, the power wasn’t showing up and he had made 24 errors in the first 50 defensive games of the season.
June was a bit of a turn in the right direction. The plate approach didn’t seem to change much in the numbers as he walked just three times and had 30 strikeouts in 93 plate appearances, but the power began to show up as he slugged .500 on the month thanks to six doubles, a triple and four home runs.
In July things began to really show promise as the plate approach improved in the stat sheet as he walked nine times on the month, matching his season total coming into the month and had 29 strikeouts. The improved approach led to a .302/.370/.469 line with 10 extra-base hits.
When August rolled around it coincided with my trip to Daytona and I was able to see Taylor Sparks play in person for his first four games of the month (he sat in one of the games while I was in town). Had the improvements shown in the stats started to show up on the field?
Going in to things I expected to see a player who expanded the strikezone often at the plate and would flash some tools here and there, but still look like a very raw player.
That wasn’t really the player that I saw at the plate. Sparks was able to lay off of pitches outside of the zone and seemed to be able to determine the difference between the fastball and offspeed pitches quick enough to lay off of ones out of the zone. That was a big thing to see as I would later talk to a scout who had seen him in college and said it was something he was never able to do back then. Progress. He’s been making it.
Despite going 1-12 with 2 walks and 5 strikeouts while I was in town, he passed the eye test at the plate for the most part. He grasped the strikezone. He showed outstanding bat speed. He hit the ball hard several times.
The one thing that jumped out to me was that it seemed he got his hands set to load just a tad too late at times on a good fastball. He’s got plenty of bat speed to catch up to good velocity, but his hands not being set in time could be holding him back against better velocity right now.
There weren’t many hits, just one in fact, to really go off of from an offensive viewpoint, so I didn’t edit up any video to share. I can share that in batting practice he was one of two guys on the team that stood out when it came to showing over-the-fence power. The ball jumps off of his bat and he’s got 20+ home run pop to tap into in the future. He also showed off above-average speed, getting down the line in the 4.20 range.
Overall, from an offensive standpoint the third baseman was impressive. However, it was defensively that was perhaps the best part of his game. As noted above, he made 24 errors in his first 50 games of the season. Through my time in Daytona he had made just seven errors in the next 48 games. While I was there he made three highlight reel caliber plays. He showed off strong range, quick reactions, a strong arm and a good glove. His errors this season have mostly been of the throwing variety, and he’s worked to fix his mechanics to alleviate the problem and the error rate has dropped significantly. While he still has a fielding percentage under .900 on the season, he’s been far better than that for the last two-and-a-half months. He’s got the potential to be an above-average defender if the throwing issues are indeed behind him.
There is still plenty of work to be done for Taylor Sparks, but the improvements he has shown in the second half of the season with Daytona have been very encouraging. He is making the adjustments on both sides of the ball and the strides have been quite big. While he’s likely going to continue to strike out at a high rate and thus limit his hit tool, his other four tools could all be above-average. It’s been a small sample size, but the improvements with his plate approach are quite encouraging and if they are real improvements – and they seemed to be given what I saw – it’s probably the most important thing he’s been able to do this year.