Most Astros fans are likely familiar with Kyle Tucker, Forrest Whitley, and Yordan Alvarez. They are the team’s most recognizable prospects and the “future” of the franchise. Another young player, however, appears equally primed for success despite receiving considerably less attention. Enter Abraham Toro. Flying under the radar, Toro has made significant changes to his approach at the plate and appears to have transformed himself into a potential centerpiece at third base. With Toro, the Astros have not only a promising player for future years, but also an opportunity to “make good” on a lesson from the past.
On March 22, 2014, the Houston Astros released J.D. Martinez after he failed to meet expectations during three years as an everyday outfielder. At the time, retaining Martinez – then a “mediocre” outfielder – didn’t make sense as part of the Astros’ plan to rebuild the roster. “Mediocre Martinez” has since become one of the most feared hitters in MLB and the story of his release haunts Astros fans to this day. Here’s a brief recap:
Martinez was drafted in 2009 as a 20th-round pick out of Nova Southeastern University. He surged through the minor leagues and emerged in 2012 as an everyday player for the 107-loss Houston Astros. Despite leading the team in RBI (55) that year, Martinez’s overall tenure with the Astros was relatively unimpressive: Over three years, he played in 252 games and recorded a .251 BA with 24 HRs. His production also declined each year. In July of 2013, Astros hitting coach John Mallee urged Martinez to adjust his approach at the plate. Mallee basically told Martinez that he needed to become a better hitter or else find work with another team.
With Mallee’s comments as motivation, Martinez spent the following offseason in Santa Clarita, California, where he reinvented his swing under the tutelage of Craig Wallenbrock and Robert Van Scoyoc. He focused on keeping his hands “quiet,” staying balanced through his swing (rather than lurching forward), and maintaining an upward launch angle. After working with Wallenbrock and his team, Martinez entered the Venezuela Fall League and showed immediate improvement: in one month of action, he hit 6 HRs (2 in his very first game), with a .312 BA and .957 OPS.
At Astros spring training the following season, Martinez begged the coaching staff for a chance to prove that he was a different player. Despite his efforts, Martinez was given only 18 ABs (9 as a pinch-hitter) and recorded only 3 hits. The Astros were in rebuild-mode and Martinez’s underwhelming career statistics provided all the data necessary to justify shifting Martinez’s ABs to unproven prospects. Martinez was released at the end of spring training and the rest was history: he was immediately picked up by the Detroit Tigers and his career took flight. Martinez is now one of baseball’s most feared hitters, having finished among the leaders in 2018 AL MVP voting. The Astros have since looked on in amazement and Martinez’s release is probably the greatest failure of the team’s analytical approach to scouting and player development. The team failed to account for factors that the data overlooked: Martinez had the “it” factor and he was capable of transforming himself into an MVP-caliber player in a matter of months.
It’s now 2019, and Abraham Toro, a 22-year-old switch-hitting third baseman, spent part of the offseason as a non-roster invitee to 2019 Houston Astros Spring Training. Toro was selected in the 5th round of the 2016 June MLB Amateur Draft out of Seminole State College in Seminole, Oklahoma. He is both French Canadian and Venezuelan, and is fluent in three different languages: French, Spanish, and English. Over three seasons in the Astros minor league system, Toro has appeared in 246 games (891 ABs, 1030 PAs) with relatively pedestrian results (think “pre-adjustment” J.D. Martinez): .248/.342/.429 with 31 HR, 130 RBI, and a 1.7 K/BB ratio (190 K/112 BB).
What’s so special about Toro?
Much like Martinez, Toro appeared to “reinvent” his approach at the plate during a recent trip to the Arizona Fall League. He simplified his swing, lowered his batting stance, calmed his leg kick, and began hitting the ball with authority: Over 80 plate appearances, he batted .348/.463/.561 with 2 HR, 8 RBI, and an impressive 1:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio (12 Ks, 12 BBs). Over a small sample-size as a non-roster invitee during 2019 spring training, Toro continued showing significant improvement at the plate: In 23 games and 43 ABs, Toro slashed .349/.391/.605 with 2 HR and 15 RBI. Seven of his 15 hits went for extra bases (2 HRs, 5 doubles).
It may be too early to tell whether Toro’s newfound approach at the plate will continue paying dividends once he returns to the minor leagues at AA Corpus Christi and beyond. Perhaps his re-tooled swing will lead to a steady career in the major leagues. One thing is certain: the Astros should be more willing (and able) to exercise patience this time around. After trading J.D. Davis to the Mets over the offseason, Toro is one of the Astros’ top infield depth prospects and he should have myriad opportunities to prove he is a new player.
Featured Photo: John Schultz, Quad-City Times