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The curious case of Magneuris Sierra

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Despite being one year more veteran, Sierra has regressed considerably in 2018.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Martin Scorsese classic, The Departed, opens to the ominous voice of antagonist Frank Costello, played by Jack Nicholson:

“I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I wan’t my environment to be a product of me.”

So far, Magneuris Sierra has been a product of his environment. As a St. Louis Cardinals propsect, his arrival in the major leagues was eagerly awaited. The then-21-year old was given a hit grade of 55 and a power grade of 40, and was described as the following by MLB Pipeline in 2016:

While he doesn’t have a ton of home run power, he does have considerable strength, particularly in his wrists and forearms and could eventually reach double-digits in that offensive category.

Cardinals fans were excited. Notorious for being one of the most devoted, small-market fanbases in baseball, the St. Louis faithful heralded Sierra’s meteoric rise from High-A in 2017, after a slew of injuries crippled the big league outfield.

How did Sierra respond? All he did in 22 games with St. Louis was hit, slashing .317/.359/.317. He lived up to the hype.

After 2017, the Cards traded him, Sandy Alcántara, and two others to the Marlins for Marcell Ozuna.

Cardinals fans got salty. I think it’s funny how despite having quite a bit of previous success, as soon as the Marlins got him, Sierra suddenly transformed from a starting outfielder with loads of potential to something considerably fringier.

Giving up your 2016 No. 6 and No. 9 prospects, plus two other players, suddenly became “a robbery.”

Here’s a really good one:

Not even Alcántara was safe from the shade:

People quickly forgot Sierra’s impressive performance in 22 games, but somehow remembered the fact that all 19 of his hits were singles.

In their 2017 rankings, MLB Pipeline dropped Sierra’s hit and power grades to 50 and 30, respectively, while having this to say about him:

While Sierra could stand to refine his approach and draw more walks, especially since he profiles as a top-of-the-order type hitter, he does have a knack for making consistent hard contact. He doesn’t have over-the-fence power, but Sierra has enough strength to hit the gaps. From there, his speed allows him to take extra bases and he should become a more efficient basestealer as he progresses.

Amongst the Fish Faithful, the wiser half of the fanbase—read: Marlins Party—welcomed the haul from the Ozuna trade as an integral step into the rebuilding process. The other half, the Fish Family, merely incorporated Sierra into their diatribes against the Marlins leadership and their claims that the team was just “two pitchers away.”

After his rookie varnish wore off and he faded into the backdrop of a freshly replenished farm system, Sierra failed to break camp with the Marlins. The spring training results weren’t there and he had been battling a mild hamstring injury, so he reported to Triple-A New Orleans instead. In the meantime, the spotlight shifted to other prospects like Lewis Brinson, Monte Harrison, and Pablo López.

There’s no way of knowing for sure what the effect of Sierra’s changing reputation was on him personally; I just find it strange how different fanbases can distort a narrative based on what team a player’s on. I think Sierra and Alcántara both were grossly undersold by Cardinals fans after they were traded. But this is all just conjecture on intangibles.

Still, we don’t know whether the horse is pulling the wagon, or vice versa. Is Magneuris Sierra playing poorly this year because of a loss of confidence? Or did the Cardinals correctly prognosticate a flaw in their prized prospect that they deemed worth pawning off on the Marlins? Whatever the answer is, now is as good a time as ever to stop and take inventory on one of the Marlins most important offseason acquisitions.

The Good

MLB: Miami Marlins at Philadelphia Phillies John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

One thing we know about Magneuris Sierra is that he is fast. Extremely fast. This year, Baseball Savant has Sierra clocked at a sprint speed of 30.2 feet per second. That’s good enough for second-best in Major League baseball, ahead of names like Trea Turner, Billy Hamilton, and Harrison Bader. In the context of Sprint Speed, players differentiate themselves by just tenths of a second, so it may be worth caveating that Sierra’s comparatively small sample size may contribute to his success. His status as a platoon player gives him more of an opportunity to keep his legs fresh.

Nevertheless, Sierra’s speed has been noted and noted again throughout his entire playing career. You don’t pass on speed, and unlike his batting—which we will discuss at length later—it never goes into a slump.

Speed dovetails nicely into fielding, especially in the outfield. It hasn’t done so this year, but it should when Sierra is allowed to move back to the corners. Lewis Brinson is going to be the center fielder for the Marlins for the foreseeable future. Say what you want about his batting woes, but Brinson brings considerable value to the team in his ability to control the endless expanse we know as center field in Marlins Park. Brinson ranks sixth in the MLB among centerfielders in UZR’s Range Runs and fifth in DRS’ Plus/Minus Runs Saved.

In tandem with Isaac Galloway as Brinson’s replacement, Sierra’s defense in center field hasn’t exactly measured up. In center, Sierra has cost the Marlins three runs according to DRS and 4.3 runs according to UZR. But at the corners, Sierra has been serviceable. Although he hasn’t played an inning in either right or left for the Marlins, he has for the Cardinals. The numbers from last year aren’t by any means outstanding—Sierra was right around average in all outfield spots for the Cards according to both UZR and DRS.

But UZR and DRS are essentially more complicated counting statistics that accrue as a season progresses. Likewise, fielding is something that comes more naturally with experience. Given a full season of reps alongside a centerfielder like Brinson, we’ll likely see Sierra grow comfortably into a role in right or left field.

The Bad

Yeah, it’s the hitting. The sample size isn’t great, but in 91 plate appearances over 61 games, Magneuris Sierra has disappointed, slashing just .170/.170/.193 with a wRC+ of negative six.

I had the pleasure of being at August 22’s Marlins game against the Yankees. In that game, I watched Sierra look completely overmatched in two strikeouts, and then also get two hits, albeit one on an infield single. Unfortunately, the former has been the norm more so than the latter: Sierra ranks third-worst amongst Marlins hitters with 90 plate appearances with a strikeout percentage of 28.3%.

The really confounding part about Sierra’s outcomes arises when you juxtapose them against his batted ball statistics.

Magneuris Sierra Batted Ball Statistics

Year PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Soft% Med% Hard% GB% LD% FB% BABIP xwOBA
Year PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Soft% Med% Hard% GB% LD% FB% BABIP xwOBA
2017 (STL) 64 .317 .359 .317 86 17.4% 76.1% 6.5% 53.5% 27.9% 18.6% .413 .254
2018 (MIA) 91 .170 .170 .193 -6 29.2% 50.8% 20.0% 60.0% 23.6% 16.4% .242 .154
Fangraphs | Baseball Savant

Sierra played well in his first season with the Cardinals. Ultimately, his inability to hit for power hampered his wRC+, but for someone with elite speed, his .359 OBP played really well.

I’m first drawn to Hard Hit Percentage. Sierra is making close to 15% more hard contact this year than he was last year. I thought this would reflect well in his xwOBA. Like we discussed last week, if he’s got good exit velocity and launch angle, then he may just be getting unlucky.

The comparatively low BABIP certainly suggests bad luck, but his xwOBA this year trails that of last year by 100 points. On the other hand, his wOBA and his xwOBA are almost equal, so he is getting his just desserts at the dish. Back to square one.

On second glance, we see that Sierra is making more than 10% more soft contact and more than 15% less medium contact. That, added to his average launch angle of -2.7 degrees is what’s actually suppressing his xwOBA.

With that said, Sierra’s xwOBA of .254 last year wasn’t great either. In 93.5% of non-hard contact, Sierra found holes, and got on base at an above average clip. This is the kind of hitter Sierra is going to be. Making soft contact and relying on speed to get on-base can be have fickle results; as we’ve already seen, it can disappear from one season to the next. But whatever strength and power Sierra exhibited in the minors has yet to rear its head in the majors. It doesn’t bode well that as Sierra’s sample grows, and his spray chart solidifies itself, increasingly fewer of the ground balls he so relies on will find there way through holes.

From a mechanical standpoint, Sierra seems to slightly float out over his front foot, which isn’t great. I have noticed three different strides from Sierra: a small leg kick, no front foot movement, and then occasionally, he will creep up in the box as the pitch comes a la Ichiro to slash the ball. In either of the first two hitting styles, Sierra’s inability to keep his weight back completely prevents him from barreling the ball to the pull side. Instead, by shifting forward, he quickens the arrival of the pitch, while giving his hands and barrel less time to clear the zone, quite often resulting in jam shots and bloopers. Here’s an excellent demonstration, courtesy of Baseball Census:

When he is able to stay back on the ball, he gives himself the chance to make solid contact, much like he did here against Craig Kimbrel on Tuesday night. Otherwise, you get softer contact, as shown in this montage of Magneuris:

Is it an ideal approach? Not for your average player. But if 2017 is any evidence, for a player who can put pressure on the defense with any ground ball, it just might work. My Dad always said, “Good things happen when you put the ball in play.”

The Ugly

MLB: Spring Training-Miami Marlins at Detroit Tigers Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

But that’s been the very problem this year: putting the ball in play. As mentioned earlier, Sierra has a strikeout problem; thats a problem you don’t want your potential leadoff hitter to have.

This still isn’t Sierra’s worst problem, however.

I remember back in high school, there would always be one person who failed a class. Among hallway gossip, we would always ask, “How did [so and so] fail that class?” We would say, “You have to actually try to get an F in a class.” It was like an unspoken understanding between students and teachers; if a replacement-level student went to class, played on his phone every day, never did his homework, but still gave an earnest effort on an exam, he could probably only muster a C or D, but there was still no way he could fail. For someone to actually fail an exam, they had to try.

I feel the adage applies with equal force to taking a walk. I have no idea how hard it is to get a major league walk. I only played two years of JV baseball in high school. With that said, Magneuris Sierra in 91 plate appearances has succeeded in not taking a single base on balls. I feel like you have to deliberately try to not be granted a base on balls in 91 plate appearances. This year, there are 47 pitchers who have earned a walk at the plate, and none of them have close to 91 plate appearances. Philadelphia Phillies closer Seranthony Dominguez has two plate appearances on the season, and one of them was a walk.

Quite frankly, this is the biggest possible waste of Magneuris Sierra’s talents. We live in an age where the single has become just as meaningful as the walk or the hit-by-pitch. Today’s greatest hitters—names like Trout, Votto, and Harper—have built their careers on supplementing their hit tool with the walk, and none of them today have speed tools close to Sierra’s.

Instead of building his house on the stone of plate discipline, Sierra has made his foundation out of the sand of a 48.7% chase rate. That’s the highest on the Marlins by almost 10%, and third-highest in all of Major League Baseball. Ian Happ strikes out about eight percent more than Sierra does, but still chases 24.2% less.

This is where the real change needs to happen. Magneuris needs to turn his approach off and then turn it back on to see if he can fix it. When he does that, he might look to take a page out of Trea Turner’s book. This year, Turner’s batting average isn’t outstanding. His on-base percentage is average. His walk rate is literally league average. But he has elite speed, and because he has stolen 33 bags and plays above-average defense, he’s worth 3.5 fWAR to the Washington Nationals.

This is the model for Sierra. It might be an underwhelming endorsement of one of the game’s brightest prospects in Turner, just as it may be for the centerpiece of the trade that saw The Big Bear Ozuna leave Miami. Still, you have to walk before you run, and you have to learn how to take a walk before you can make it in the Bigs. If Sierra can exchange his strikeouts and infield outs for walks, he can contribute on a big league roster. There’s no doubt in my mind.

It’s not time to press the panic button on Magneuris Sierra yet. This season hasn’t been great for many Marlins players. It’s been a year for growing pains. There have been glimmers of hope, such as Magneuris’ aforementioned clutch single against the Boston Red Sox.

But for the most part, 2018 has been chalked up to the rebuild. We can ask about the intangibles all day. Would Sierra perform better for a contender? Does Sierra have too much pressure on him trying to fill Marcell Ozuna’s shoes? Was Sierra oversold? Has the change in narrative on Sierra gotten to him?

Only Sierra knows for sure, and only he can make the changes necessary.


Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.com and Baseball Savant