If you lined up every position player in the entire Mariners organization by height, you’d get a pretty good measure of where the team’s power comes from. There’s the 6’5ers - Ryon Healy and Cameron Perkins, one of whom is 2nd on the Mariners in HRs, while the other has battled injury. Then there’s the ranks of 6’4 throughout High-A Modesto and AA-Arkansas: colossal Gareth Morgan, whose ISO exceeds his batting average by 75 points; the prototypical Kyle Lewis, whose easy power and speed made him a top pick in 2016; and then there’s Joey Curletta, who is 3rd in the Mariners organization this year with 20 HRs, and seems to have made a significant adjustment and improvement with his swing this year.
Curletta has always looked the part. Taken in the 6th-round of the 2012 draft by the Dodgers, Curletta drew initial comparisons to Mark Trumbo, because of course he did. Despite his 6’4, 245 frame, Curletta’s power has been mostly of the “raw” variety prior to this season. While he’d clobber the occasional highlight homer, it was too often paired with 2-3 Ks. Here’s some early video of Curletta, in a 2013 season that was his best offensively prior to this year.
It’s a quick swing, but with a downward angle that generates the type of contact high-school coaches and opposing defenses love. Sure enough, Curletta’s groundball-rate hovered around 40% for his entire time in the Dodgers organization. When a mistake came along, Curletta seemed capable of punishing it, but it was a feast or famine approach. As Dan Farnsworth of FanGraphs described with trepidation in 2016:
“Curletta has tons of raw power with an all-or-nothing swing that limits its utility to his pull side, which couples with his contact to likely prevent him from being an average regular. His strikeout rate spiked as he has started to face more advanced secondary offerings, a trend that will likely continue as he traverses Double-A and Triple-A.”
Farnsworth was right - Curletta’s first brush with AA saw him run a 34.6% K% with a 16.1% whiff rate and just an 88 wRC+. But now, after being traded to the Phillies as part of the Carlos Ruiz/AJ Ellis deal, then flipped to the Mariners in March of 2017 for BHP Pat Venditte, the now 24-year-old Curletta appears to be breaking out.
His numbers tell much of the story: 20 HRs and a .239 ISO in 406 PAs in AA-Arkansas, but also a career-high 16% BB% and his lowest K% (24.4%) since Single-A in 2014 with a commensurately tolerable 12.7% whiff rate. Most excitingly, the type of contact he’s making is entirely new and far better suited to his titanic power. After hovering around 40% his entire career, his groundball rate dropped to just 35.2% in 2017 with Modesto. This year? It’s down to 31.1%. The best part is that nearly all of that contact has gone to a far more productive place - his line drive rate, which is up nearly 10% from 2016, all the way to 24.3%. While both Modesto’s California League and Tacoma’s PCL are offensive havens, the Texas League plays more neutral. Dickey-Stephens Park, which is home to the Travelers, is notably AA’s toughest place to hit a home run, but 8 of Curletta’s 20 dingers have come at home.
Curletta’s swing hasn’t changed as dramatically as players like Jean Segura, Mitch Haniger, or Braden Bishop, but it seems likely he has learned some tricks from his friend Bishop, an early adopter of “elevate and celebrate,” in Modesto and Arkansas. Curletta’s new, quieter pre-swing setup, with his hands closer to his shoulder, leads into a quicker path to the ball. That path is more flat-to-uppercut now as well, helping him keep the ball off the ground more consistently. Additionally, the quicker bat path from his shoulder to contact is worth pointing at for his improved plate discipline, much as Bishop and Haniger saw their BB%s jump significantly with improved technique giving them more time to adjust to pitches.
Here’s another look, where Curletta clobbers a mistake fastball out of San Antonio’s suburban sprawl.
Or, if you prefer the Tulsa Drillers and their higher-quality video, enjoy a go-ahead 9th inning HR.
That raw power has become game power, and with it, Curletta has become a prospect worth monitoring. At 24, he’s not young by evaluative standards, but he’s an average age for his level. His athleticism is such that he can hang as a below-average corner OF, but he’s played exclusively 1B in Arkansas this year despite a cannon of an arm clocked as high as 94 off the mound.
For Seattle, which has seen a revolving door at 1B for over a decade, a Double-A breakout shouldn’t be enough to convince the team to move on from Ryon Healy, Daniel Vogelbach, or any other potential addition. What Curletta can do if he keeps hitting is force the issue. At worst, he might encourage Seattle to send Dan Vogelbach to a new home where he can receive MLB reps.
With his high-minors production and late-breakout that appears trackable, Curletta is the exact type of player Jerry Dipoto has often targeted, except this time they brought him on before the breakout. It’s near-impossible to get a read on Curletta’s quality defensively at the cold corner, but the simple fact that the Dodgers let him play outfield for five years suggests he moves better than Vogey. That balanced skillset might be enough to push Curletta onto the team’s radar going forward. If Curletta shows he can handle off-speed at higher levels, there’s little reason to think he couldn’t develop into a league-average 1B like Kiley McDaniel suggested in 2015.
This is Curletta’s 7th year in the minor leagues, meaning he will be eligible for minor league free agency after the season, so decision time will come soon, but right now Curletta is one of Seattle’s biggest success stories in the minors this year, and it’s tough to see what more he has to prove in AA. If Vogelbach is moved in a deadline deal, look for Curletta to jump up to Tacoma, and if you have a chance to get down and watch him, well, keep your eye on the ball.