It’s no secret to anyone following the Astros farm system, the Astros have a secret weapon. A secret weapon that has gotten on base more than once every two plate appearances this year. A secret weapon that has walked in a little more than ¼ of his plate appearance in his career. This secret weapon doesn’t have 30 HR power, or 100 SB abilities. This secret weapon won’t bat cleanup in your lineup, so we know he isn’t racking up the intentional walks like Barry Bonds. So what separates this secret weapon from others? It’s simple. Patience.
When the Astros drafted Nolan Fontana in the second round of the 2012 draft out of Florida, fans weren’t jumping out of their seats. If you are anything like me, you went straight to Google to find out about Fontana. Fontana wasn’t a sexy name, presumably because he doesn’t have any eye-popping tools. He was a solid hitter at Florida with the ability to get on base. He was a good defender, though not all “experts” felt like he could stick at shortstop for his career. Fontana didn’t show much power, but was considered more of a doubles hitter in the future. His ceiling? Somewhat of a Marco Scutaro type player. His floor? A utility bench player. Not exactly the type of pick fans were looking for, especially when the Astros drafted their shortstop of the future, Carlos Correa, with the first overall pick.
Fontana was ranked between the 45 and 55 range for many draft evaluators, so when the Astros selected him with the 61st pick, they felt like they got a bargain. They offered him just slightly over slot bonus ($875,000), and Fontana signed in late June, eager to start his career. The Astros chose to send him to Low Class-A Lexington (equivalent to Quad Cities this year), skipping the usual two or three other levels where most draft picks start their careers.
While at Lexington, Fontana played in 49 games, hitting .225. However, his ability to walk separated himself from other players. His OBP was over .239 points higher than his average at .464. His 65 walks in 222 plate appearances (PA’s) were third for Lexington players on the WHOLE year, in less than HALF of the amount of PA’s (Zach Johnson’s 75 BB in 607 PA’s led Lexington). The Astros noticed his uncanny ability to get on base, and sent him to High Class-A Lancaster for the 2013 season. So far on the year Fontana is hitting .360 in 89 at-bats. He has hit for a little power with two home runs, seven doubles, and three triples, which is a nice bonus for the Astros to see. The nicest part about Fontana’s stat line is his ridiculous 27 walks in just 121 plate appearances.
Though it’s an extreme stretch since Fontana hasn’t played a full season in the minors, nevermind a season in the majors, let’s look how Fontana’s walk rate compares with some of the best in MLB history. Rickey Henderson, the second most walked batter in MLB history, had a career .401 OBP. His highest OBP in any season was .439. Henderson played 25 seasons, so that may have to do with his high walk totals, but what about the great Babe Ruth? Well according to our friends at Baseball Reference, Ruth’s highest OBP season was in 1923 when he won the MVP award. Ruth hit .393 that year with a .545 OBP and 1.309 OPS. Ruth’s K/BB ratio was 93/170. Unfortunately we can’t tell how many of those were intentional walks (IBB), though it’s fair to assume a good amount of those were intentional. Ruth’s career OBP was .474, similar to Fontana’s career .477 OBP as of today. How about the most walked player in MLB history, Barry Bonds? Bonds’ walk numbers are tough to evaluate due to some ridiculous IBB numbers. Bonds had three seasons where his OBP was .500+. During those three years, Bonds totaled 523 BB in 1,826 PA’s. Of those 523 walks, 164 of those were intentional (31%). During Bonds’ 2004 season, he drew 232 walks of which 120 (52%) were intentional. That 2004 season saw Bonds’ reach a career high in OBP at a ridiculous .609. Of course Bonds was a terrifying hitter, so many of his regular walks in his career were just pitchers pitching away at Bonds, but that doesn’t take away the fact that he had good patience. When all was said and done with Bonds, his career OBP stood at .444.
What can we learn from these comparisons? Very little. In fact, probably nothing. Fontana is nowhere near the hitter those former players were, and projects to be a doubles hitter, while being able to hit a few home runs every season. This year he has improved his hitting, and he could project to be a shortstop version of Jose Altuve, plus the walks. What we have seen so far in Fontana’s career (343 PA’s), is that he has shown that he can walk with the best of them. Fontana exhibits a rare amount of patience for a hitter. His 92 walks have left him with a .479 OBP in his minor league career. Of those 92 walks, zero were intentional. Fontana’s ability to get on base will help him reach the majors a lot quicker than his fellow draft mates.
When can we expect Fontana to make his Astros debut? Going back to the start of 2011 season, we saw the emergence of Jose Altuve. Altuve played 31 games in Lancaster the year before, and started in Lancaster for the 2011 season. In 52 games at Lancaster in 2011, Altuve hit a blistering .408, with a .451 OBP and 1.057 OPS. The Astros decided to move him up to Corpus Christi in early June, and Altuve went on to hit .361 with the Hooks over the course of 35 games. Needing a boost to their team, the Astros traded Jeff Keppinger, opening up a spot to call up Altuve on July 19, 2011. Altuve finished the year with the Astros hitting .276 in 221 at-bats. This aggressive call-up worked out well for the Astros, as Altuve has not stopped hitting since.
The aggressive call-up of Jose Altuve, may not be the last aggressive call-up we see. Fontana is on a very similar track to Altuve, starting the first 25 games in Lancaster this year. I expect the Astros to put Fontana on the fast track to the majors, since Jonathan Villar and Jiovanni Mier have not played so well this year. Fontana will likely see another month at Lancaster, and if he continues to keep up his numbers, the Astros should send him to Corpus Christi. Once at Corpus Christi, he is just a short way to Houston, and could make his debut sometime this year. I expect the Astros to call up Fontana, by no later than September, assuming Fontana keeps doing what he has been doing. Fontana has gotten on base at a way better clip than Altuve did, even when Altuve was hitting .408. The Astros should, and I believe will, be aggressive with Fontana this year. I’m looking forward to seeing Fontana walk up to the plate, and bring his patience to Minute Maid Park.