Deep Dive: Adam Engel’s past, present and future with the White Sox

Steel, for real: The Man of Steal had arguably his best season with the White Sox in 2019. (@ManofSteal_15)

“Deep Dive” focuses on the depth of each position in the Chicago White Sox organization. Each position is broken into a five-part series:

  1. Depth in the rookie levels (Dominican through Great Falls)
  2. Depth in A-ball (Kannapolis and Winston-Salem)
  3. Depth in the higher levels (Birmingham and Charlotte)
  4. Under the Radar-type detail on one of the White Sox players at that position
  5. Free agent options at that position

How did he get here?

Unlike most three-year college hitters, Adam Engel was unable to post any above-average year offensively with the exception of stolen bases. As a junior for the Louisville Cardinals, he slashed just .236/.367/.301 in 65 games with nine doubles, two triples, one homer, 28 RBIs, 41 stolen bases, 32 walks (10.3%) and 35 strikeouts (11.3%); he also got hit by pitches a whopping 20 times. In the summer of 2012, prior to his junior season, he didn’t distinguish himself in the Cape Cod League as he slashed just .229/.328/.299.

This is what Baseball America said of him prior to the 2013 draft: “Few players in the 2013 draft can match Engel’s physical ability. He’s a 6-foot-1, 208-pounder who can cover 60 yards in 6.4 seconds, play a major league-caliber center field and display raw power potential. His arm is close to average, which is better than many center fielders. In spite of his first-round tools, his lack of performance at the plate will drop him at least a couple of rounds. While he has some bat speed and strength, he holds his hands too low at the plate and his righthanded swing doesn’t produce enough contact.” The White Sox ended up selecting him in the 19th round of that year’s draft. 

By the end of the 2014 season, Engel had advanced to Winston-Salem, where he played in 21 games. He returned to the Dash in 2015 and slashed .251/.335/.369 in 136 games with 23 doubles, nine triples, seven homers, 43 RBIs, 65 stolen bases, 62 walks (10.2%) and 132 strikeouts (21.7%). At the end of that year, he was the Arizona Fall League MVP as he slashed an incredible .403/.523/.642 in 19 games with nine doubles, two triples, a homer, 10 stolen bases, 16 walks (18.6%) and 11 strikeouts (12.8%). Engel divided the 2016 season among Winston-Salem, Birmingham and Charlotte and combined to slash .259/.344/.406 in 129 games with 30 doubles, 12 triples, seven homers, 46 RBIs, 45 stolen bases, 56 walks (9.6%) and 131 strikeouts (22.5%).  

Engel got off to a bad start with Charlotte to begin the 2017 season, but received the ultimate promotion on May 27. Aside from a brief demotion in June, he played the remainder of the year with the White Sox. After slashing .218/.312/.461 for the Knights in 46 games, he slashed a paltry .166/.235/.282 for the White Sox in 97 games with 11 doubles, three triples, six homers, 21 RBIs, eight stolen bases, 19 walks (5.7%) and 117 strikeouts (34.8%). While he did struggle at the plate with the White Sox in 2018, he performed much better (which admittedly isn’t saying much) as he slashed .235/.279/.336 in 143 games with 17 doubles, four triples, six homers, 29 RBIs, 16 stolen bases, 18 walks (3.9%) and 129 strikeouts (27.9%). He really made his name defensively, however, as he was a finalist in the Gold Glove balloting thanks in part due to homer-saving catches against the Yankees.

Engel’s 2019 with the White Sox

After receiving an early-season demotion with a .212/.268/.346 start, Engel responded favorably in thanks to the tutelage of future White Sox hitting instructor Frank Menechino. In 64 games for the Knights, Engel slashed a very respectable .270/.347/.464 with 13 doubles, four triples, nine homers, 29 RBIs, 13 stolen bases, 22 walks (7.9%) and 62 strikeouts (22.4%). He returned to the White Sox on July 19 and performed much better. In his 89 games in a White Sox uniform this year, he slashed .242/.304/.383 with 10 doubles, two triples, six homers, 26 RBIs, three stolen bases, 14 walks (5.6%) and 78 strikeouts (31.5%). Granted it’s not Silver Slugger material, his 2019 slash numbers were by far the best in his young three-year career.   

Engel’s Achilles heel offensively is the off-speed pitch. This year versus such offerings, he slashed a meager .161/.216/.194. He fared a bit better against breaking pitches (.209/.238/.343), but he mashed fastballs at a .279/.347/.450 clip. His spray chart was terrific as he pulled the ball 38% of the time, with decent percentages straight-away (37.3%) and opposite-field (24.7%). Engel’s BABIP was actually .343, well above-average, despite the fact that his hard-hit rate of 30% was below the league average of 34.5%. Thus, it appears Engel may have actually hit with a little bit of good luck this year. Of course, he struggles with the strikeouts in large part due to his struggles with the off-speed and breaking pitches. Also, part of Engel’s strikeout issues deal with swinging at pitches way off the plate, as he flails at them (20%) far more frequently than league average (7%).

Surprisingly, Engel fared far better on the road (.268/.330/.433) than he did at home (.223/.284/.346) which perhaps may mean he’s trying too hard to hit the long ball at homer-friendly Guaranteed Rate Field. He also performed much better with nobody out (.296/.337/.469) than he did with two outs (.187/.274/.307). While righties handled Engel with relative ease this year (.201/.272/.326), he frustrated southpaws to the tune of .313/.360/.482. With runners in scoring position, Engel actually did quite well as he slashed .283/.328/.433 in those spots. As with nearly everyone, he hit much better when ahead in the count (.263/.408/.491) than behind (.159/.179/.244).  

All this talk dissecting Engel’s offense, and I’ve yet to touch on his defense. By all accounts, he actually enjoyed a better year defensively in 2019 than his Gold Glove-caliber season the year before. According to FanGraphs, his RAR (Runs Above Replacement) shot up from 2.3 to 8.7, which is quite incredible since he barely played more than half the season in the majors. Baseball-Reference give Engel a defensive WAR of 0.5, which nearly equaled 2018’s 0.6, which is amazing because he played in 54 fewer games. Baseball Savant ranks Engel’s Outs Above Average in the 73rd percentile, his outfield jumps in the 83rd percentile, and his sprint speed in the 99th percentile. Engel simply didn’t garner any Gold Glove balloting this year, however, due to his part-time status and because he didn’t make nearly as many headline-grabbing catches.

Despite his usual terrific defensive play, he only garnered an 0.8 bWAR thanks in large part due to his low OPS+ of 83. Engel will likely never become a true offensive force, so it’s really his defense that gives him value. Considering that each WAR point is worth approximately $7.7 million per FanGraphs on the free agent market, and he only earned $555,000 in 2019, he provided the White Sox with a value of $7.145 million.

What does the future have in store for Engel?

Engel will be eligible for arbitration at the end of 2020, so he’ll still be earning the league minimum until that time. After three years of arbitration, Engel would become a free agent for the 2024 season. He likely will compete for the center field spot on Opening Day with Leury García, unless the White Sox determine that Luis Robert will make the team. When Robert does receive his promotion, Engel would be a valuable defensive replacement for Eloy Jiménez and/or the team’s new right fielder, and his bat wouldn’t be so exposed if that were the case. He’s really best suited for left field, however, due to his below-average arm. Despite the fact that Engel hasn’t swiped nearly as many bases with the White Sox as he did in the minors, he could still be used for pinch-running duties as well. Thus, it seems his long-term role with the White Sox would be that of a fourth or fifth outfielder, limiting his arbitration earnings going forward. 


Today in White Sox History: December 7

Ruthlessly efficient: James had a 4.3 bWAR in 69 relief games for his White Sox debut in 1985. (Fleer)

The White Sox sent Vance Law to Montreal for relief pitcher Bob James. James would come of age in 1985, with 32 saves and a 2.13 ERA. He’d remain with the team through 1987, but was never the same after a knee injury in Baltimore in July 1985.



What, if anything, should the White Sox offer Tsutsugo?

Potential target: Yoshitomo Tsutsugo could supply the White Sox with a reliable, left-handed bat. (Kyodo)

The White Sox have had an unusual amount of difficulty finding a viable player whose primary focus is hitting. The lineup appears to be on solid ground, but right field and designated hitter are exceptions. Another gap on the roster is the lack of solid bats from the left side of the plate.

Luckily, the White Sox understand the need to address these issues this offseason. Also, the White Sox have an opportunity to sign a player who can patch up both of those gaps without offering prospects or a nine-figure contract.

Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, who turned 28 last month, has been a force to be reckoned with in Japan’s Central League for several years. Tsutsugo broke into Japan’s highest level of play in 2010 at age 18, and though his career got off to a slow start, Tsutsugo has posted some supersized numbers at the plate near the tail end of the decade.

2019 .272 .388 .511 138
2018 .295 .393 .596 155
2017 .284 .396 .513 148
2016 .322 .430 .680 199
2015 .317 .400 .522 166

Source: Deltagraphs

Tsutsugo had a relatively quiet season on offense last season, with his lowest OBP since 2014. The good news is that even in a down year, Tsutsugo still posted a .388 OBP. Tsutsugo’s slash line last season was .272/.388/.511 (138 wRC+) with 29 home runs, which was still terrific by NPB standards. So far, the high point of Tsutsugo’s career was his 2016 campaign, when he slashed .322/.430/.680 (199 wRC+) with 7.5 WAR, easily a career high, per Deltagraphs. Though the NPB is not comparable to major league baseball, Tsutsugo has shown his potential to get on base and hit for power like very few others in Japan.

Defense is Tsutsugo’s largest issue, and that cannot be ignored. Near the beginning of his career, Tsutsugo’s ability at the corner outfield positions was decent, but that part of his game has declined. In 2019, his defensive value was an insane 25.0 runs below average.

Season Offensive RAA Defensive RAA WAR
2019 25.2 -25.0 1.5
2018 41.1 -20.6 3.6
2017 30.5 -11.3 3.6
2016 61.6 -4.7 7.5
2015 40.7 -19.0 3.9

Source: Deltagraphs

Based on FanGraphs positional adjustments, a full-time designated hitter over a 162-game season would earn a defensive value of 17.5 runs below average. NPB seasons are shorter (143 games), so if we apply the same rule there, the automatic penalty for DHs would be about 15.4 runs per full season (Tsutsugo has played between 131 and 139 games in each of the past five seasons). In other words, in both 2018 and 2019, Tsutsugo would have been more valuable as a designated hitter (the Central League, where Tsutsugo played, does not use a DH).

Though Tsutsugo can play right field in a pinch, he is not someone the White Sox should feel comfortable putting there on an everyday basis. However, Tsutsugo does not have to be an everyday right fielder to be useful for the White Sox. The White Sox’s hole at the DH slot is massive. According to FanGraphs, the White Sox got the least amount of production from designated hitters out of every team. With a .197/.275/.342 slash line (64 wRC+) and -3.5 fWAR, White Sox designated hitters were dreadful in every way, and the club desperately needs a player who can provide a reliable, left-handed bat without any other major responsibilities. Tsutsugo should fill that role admirably.

Tsutsugo will be 28 next season and should have quite a bit of good baseball remaining. Given Tsutsugo’s age, his slight decline in production at the plate last season should not be a cause for concern going forward. Finishing the rebuild will require some risk, and I would be happy to take a risk on Tsutsugo. The approximate value of 1.0 WAR on the free agent market is $8 million, and most are expecting Tsutsugo’s future contract to have an AAV of about $10 million. During the SB Nation offseason simulation, we managed to win the bidding for Tsutsugo by giving him a 5-year, $55 million contract.

Based on Tsutsugo’s market price, a contract of that size is likely to be more than enough to land him in real life, too. Five years and $50 million should also get the job done. That length and AAV would both figure to be mighty close to the top in terms of what clubs will offer. We should feel confident that Tsutsugo would post more than the 1.25 WAR per season, making the signing worth the price.

While Tsutsugo is far from the only option, having him on the South Side would bring the White Sox closer to completing the rebuild. Make it happen, front office.