Change in approach powers offensive breakout for Tigers 2B prospect Hao-Yu Lee

Bless You Boys

The Detroit Tigers’ lone player for player trade at last year’s deadline saw them flip the expiring contract of Micheal Lorenzen to the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for Taiwanese second baseman Hao-Yu Lee. It was straight swap that was initially received pretty poorly by fans because it fell short of what many were hoping to get back for the surprise All-Star. Lee was assigned to the Whitecaps, but injured his leg not long after the trade, and didn’t get a chance to make a strong impression on Detroit fans as a result.

Despite the injury, he had a successful 2023 campaign and hit .273/.362/.399 at the High-A level between his assignments in Detroit and Philly as a 20-year-old. We rated Lee as the 19th best prospect in the organization entering the year.

Unlike most hitters his age, he has a calm disposition at the plate and doesn’t fall into the trap of expanding the zone unnecessarily. That’s presumably the biggest reason why Lee was targeted by Detroit in the first place. I had the chance to talk to him shortly after he was traded to Detroit and I asked him about his approach to hitting. “I don’t do anything special. It’s just very simple, you know? Yeah. I don’t want to make it too complicated, so it’s basically always hunting fastballs. That’s my approach,” he said through Peter Lin, his translator.

Youth and excellent performance are marks in his favor, but as a bat-first infielder, Lee was pushed down the list by concerns about the anatomy of his offensive production. With an profile centered around driving fastballs out over the plate to center and right field, noted Brandon Day in his prospect writeup, it would be tough for Lee to stay afloat in the higher levels of organized ball unless he could improve defensively enough to make an offense characterized by high contact and low power work.

Evidently, the team agreed. Along with an assignment to Double-A Erie, the Tigers sent him out with a mission to pull the ball, and he’s thrived as a result. The plate discipline that has driven his game so far is still intact, but he’s now playing better than ever against the best competition of his life. Through 50 games, Lee has hit .269/.351/.482 with the SeaWolves. That figures out to a 133 wRC+, meaning he’s been 33 percent more offensively valuable than the average Double-A hitter.

Check out the batted ball distribution numbers that have accompanied his success:

Hao-Yu Lee batted balls

Year Pull% Cent% Opp% wRC+
Year Pull% Cent% Opp% wRC+
2022 43.00% 23.00% 34.00% 131
2023 32.10% 29.60% 38.30% 117
2024 45.80% 36.10% 18.10% 133

I tossed in his 2022 data for good measure. It’s his only other major sample size of games on record, and he hit to all fields more consistently in that season than he did last year. With a big red sign here that says correlation doesn’t equal causation, I found it interesting to note that the year Lee spent pushing the ball to the opposite field was his weakest by wRC+. The data bears out that, this year more than ever, it’s pretty plainly been his goal to hit the ball to left field whenever the opportunity arises.

Lee has taken another step in the right direction with regards to his batted ball outcomes by reducing how often he pops the ball up. He had already whacked a significant percentage off the top between 2022 and 2023, and appears to have done so again this year. His infield fly ball rate of 7.1 percent is less than half the 18.3 percent rate he put up last season. Those balls in play have been largely converted to ground balls, which are still not an ideal outcome, but certainly preferable to infield flies.

I’m encouraged by the fact that these changes have not corresponded to any significant changes to his fly ball rate or walk and strikeout numbers. He’s still hitting fly balls 37.1 percent of the time, nearly matching the figure from 2023 exactly, and his walk to strikeout ratio has actually ticked up ever so slightly. As a huge believer in the importance of BABIP, I’m even more encouraged by the fact that Lee isn’t getting nearly as much batted ball luck as he was last season and is still outperforming his former self by a significant margin at a much more difficult level. Most players his age are still in college or toiling in the lowest levels of the farm system.

Best of all, Lee has finally tapped into his above average raw power. He’s on the shorter side — though Tigers have him listed at at 5’10”, I can look him in the eyes — but he is built like an angry fire hydrant and has always had the physical ability to put a charge into the ball. However, in years prior, his focus on spraying screaming line drives undermined the more traditional power numbers.

Not so this year. In 50 games, he’s already mashed eleven doubles and nine home runs, already surpassing his total from last year and matching the number of home runs he hit in 79 games in 2022.

If this who Lee is now, it gets a lot easier to see him as a future MLB producer than it was at this time last year. There will always be questions about his value on the defensive side of the ball, and it doesn’t help that the Tigers organization has more second baseman than places to play them. They’ve given Lee some starts at third base, but the jury is still out on his arm strength and accuracy. He could also learn to handle a corner outfield spot if the bat carries the profile there. This is a problem for a different day, though. The Tigers are thirsty for reliable offensive contributors. A promotion to Toledo is probably inbound for Lee this summer, where he’ll get a chance to prove that his bat makes him the guy for the job.

In a different universe, a different Jacob Markle is writing about how Lee is on track to make his major league debut as a September call up this season if things go well through the summer. Having just watched the Tigers keep Justyn-Henry Malloy and Colt Keith in the minors after proving all they could in Triple-A last year, though, it would take some extraordinary circumstances for Lee to break that trend in this universe. At just 21 years old, the Tigers are in no hurry for him to break through to the bigs, and as we see again and again, those last two steps are the toughest.

Instead, keep on eye on Lee as a potential contributor during the 2025 season, following a similar trajectory as Malloy has taken this year. The fact that we can even suggest that path with even a measure of confidence is a massive leap forward from the equivocation that dogged him after last season. He’s firmly a better player now than he was not long ago. For an organization who has struggled to develop hitters as badly as the Tigers have for the last decade or more, that’s no small thing.

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