Josh Fuentes was named the Colorado Rockies 2021 Opening Day third baseman. Let that sink in for a minute. After all the Nolan Arenado years it certainly feels...different. Fuentes figured to get a shot at the starting first base job after his breakout performance in 2020, however the organization brought in C.J. Cron during the offseason and he, to his credit, won the job out of camp. However, after a good spring performance of his own and a Brendan Rodgers injury shifting the starting infield arrangement, Fuentes is Colorado’s starting third baseman. Inherently, that is not a bad thing.
Since coming into professional baseball as an undrafted free agent from Missouri Baptist University in 2014, Fuentes has needed to defy expectations to even reach the major leagues. In his minor league career, Fuentes posted an impressive triple slash line of .291/.339/.470 between multiple levels. The home run power never really came around as his highest total in a single season was 17 for the Albuquerque Isotopes in 2019. However, he did show some quality in the power department with a 9.8% extra-base hit percentage (XBH%) during his minor league career.
Fuentes won Rookie of the Year and MVP honors in the Pacific Coast League in 2018 and in April of 2019, finally worked his way up to the big leagues. His first taste of major league action wasn’t great, producing a 51 OPS+ in 24 games during the 2019 season. Come 2020, Fuentes was expected to fill in as a depth piece. However, injuries on the infield and lack of production from the first base position provided Josh with an opportunity to get more playing time. He made the most of it, appearing in half of Colorado’s truncated 60-game schedule and posting a .306/.320/.439 triple slash over 103 plate appearances. His performance was good for a 92 OPS+ and nearly a full win-above-replacement in just thirty games according Baseball-Reference.
It was a positive development for Fuentes sticking as a major league player, but maybe not as surprising as everyone initially thought. His triple slash for the season resembled his career minor league numbers and, while the power wasn’t exceptional, he did produce seven doubles and two home runs in 103 plate appearances. This resulted in a 8.7 XBH%, which is fairly consistent with his previously mentioned career minor league mark of 9.8%.
His ability to be a positive offensive contributor becomes more impressive when you dig into how reliant it is on his ability to make contact. To put it plainly, the dude just doesn’t take walks. In 2,463 career minor league plate appearances Fuentes walked just 132 times for a 5.4% walk rate. Last season walked just twice in 103 appearances. With such a low free-pass ratio, you figure something would have to give on either balls in play or strikeouts in order for Fuentes to be successful.
Opposing pitching sure tried to make it strikeouts, throwing over 25% of all pitches Fuentes saw last season out of the strike zone, down-and-away. Ultimately, his strikeout rate for the year was 28.2%, which ranked outside the top 100 for highest K% on the season (minimum 50 plate appearances).
So, what about balls in play? Admittedly, his BAbip was high at .406. This was eighth highest in baseball for hitters with 90+ at-bats, alongside other pandemic-season breakout rookies like Ke’Bryan Hayes, Alec Bohm and Ryan Mountcastle. However, Fuentes has also shown a propensity for producing a high BAbip. His .343 minor league mark (according to milb.com) ranks highest among that group and, considering Fuentes calls Coors Field home, having a track record as a high BAbip guy in hitter-friendly environments sure isn’t a bad thing.
On top of it all, Fuentes’ fielding ability has resulted in nine defensive runs saved through just fifty games played so far at the major league level according to Baseball-Reference. While defensive metrics can’t be heavily relied upon to tell the whole story, this is at least supportive of the eye test that he has the aptitude for fielding at the major league level.
Ultimately, Josh Fuentes’ 2020 season showed that he can be a positive major league contributor and competent production from the supporting cast around the star players is one thing the Rockies have sorely needed these past few years. On the surface his start offensively to the 2021 season has been slow, but his hard hit percentage is up and he does have a home run to go along with a clean 25 innings at third base thus far.
But most importantly, Fuentes is getting a chance to play every day. Given the dependable defense he’s already shown and his track record of outperforming expectations at every stop in his professional career through a high-degree of contact, I wouldn’t bet against Fuentes making the most of this opportunity to start the 2021 season just as he did in 2020.