In the summer of 2021, the Yankees took a shot on a Dartmouth lefty masher in the 12th round of the MLB Draft. His name was Ben Rice, and as his draft slot might have given away, he wasn’t a star prospect at the time.
After playing a couple of games in the Complex League in that 2021 campaign, he was then placed in Single-A Tampa Tarpons, where he had a 110 wRC+ in 20 games and 78 plate appearances. Rice’s slugging percentage there was .387, which coincided with some of his pre-draft concerns: a lack of impactful game power. That, and the fact he is a catcher/first base tweener, somewhat held him down in prospect rankings. In 2022, Rice’s power output improved a bit. He had a .442 slugging percentage and nine home runs in 68 games and 243 trips to the plate again in Single-A. He cut his strikeout rate from 23.1 percent to 16.9 percent and upped his wRC+ to 133 compared to 2021.
The Yankees again opted to assign him to Single-A this year and he responded with a 155 wRC+ and a .257 ISO (isolated power) performance in 10 games. Things were getting serious and his performance was screaming a promotion. The team did just that, and were rewarded. A sublime .341/.559/.523 line with two homers in 15 games and 68 plate appearances (204 wRC+!) in High-A Hudson Valley helped him go up another ladder: the upper-minors.
In Double-A Somerset, Rice, far from encountering some adversity, has produced even more. He is hitting, as of Friday afternoon, a cool .310/.377/.664 (176 wRC+) with 11 home runs in 29 games! His ISO is looking good at .353.
Since being promoted to Somerset on July 18, Ben Rice leads all EL hitters with 11 HR, 34 RBI, 18 XBH, 77 TB with a .668 SLG % & 1.077 OPS. Many thought the production of Austin Wells would be impossible for the Patriots to replace, but Rice has more than made up for it.— Matt Kardos (@mattkardos) August 24, 2023
He can do this:
Another day...ANOTHER BEN RICE HOME RUN!!!— Somerset Patriots (@SOMPatriots) August 24, 2023
It's his 11th home run in just his 28th Double-A game. pic.twitter.com/YLDyX0bawy
BEN RICE WALK-OFF GRAND SLAM IN THE 10TH!!! pic.twitter.com/t7e8s0ZzSy— Somerset Patriots (@SOMPatriots) August 23, 2023
In MLB Pipeline’s most recent update, Rice was ranked as the Yankees’ 23rd prospect. Scouts still don’t quite believe in the power, judging on what they had to write about him:
In fact, here is MLB Pipeline’s comments about that:
“With a compact yet strong left-handed swing and good strike-zone management, Rice has improved the frequency and quality of his contact this summer. Though he went deep five times in his first 12 Double-A games, he’s still a hit-over-power guy who might max out around 15 homers per season. He has yet to do much damage against southpaws as a pro, so he may not be more than a platoon player.”
They are the prospect evaluators and know much, much more than us. However, allow fans (and the organization itself) to dream about a scenario in which he can comfortably surpass that projected total. After all, 11 home runs in 29 Double-A games is nothing to sneeze at.
Rice has improved his prospect ranking with a pull-heavy approach and lots of fly balls. According to FanGraphs’ data, he had a 46.3 percent groundball rate and a meager 24.4 percent fly ball rate in his debut stint in Single-A, in 2021. Couple that and his 38.6 percent pull rate (and 38.6 percent “Oppo%”) and he wasn’t really making the most of his raw power and contact ability. He has more of the latter than the former, really, but we have seen countless players hit 30 or more homers per season with not-so-great raw power and ideal barrel control.
Since 2022, his pull rates were never lower than 48.6 percent and his “Oppo%” were never higher than 25.9 percent at any stop. Likewise, his FB% was always between 36.3 percent and 54.3 percent. In Double-A, he is hitting 26.9 percent liners, 33.3 percent grounders and 39.8 percent flies. That’s pretty much an ideal batted ball distribution, and if we add in his 55.3 percent pull rate, it all looks very good.
Such a pull-heavy, fly-ball approach usually results in low batting averages, but if Rice can hit 20-30 homers at peak, it won’t matter. Can he, though? Well, it’s too early to tell. The early results are promising, that much we can say. The rest of his game is not particularly great, so the bat will have to do the heavy lifting. He is already 24, he is not fast, his arm is not really strong, and he is not very athletic. He does have good receiving and blocking skills per MLB Pipeline.
Even if Rice eventually settles in as a 15-20 homer platoon type with a high walk rate but a low batting average, that’s a very solid outcome for a 12th rounder. Perhaps he can be more than that, though. In the meantime, fans are allowed to fantasize about his potential.