Minor league performance usually speaks volumes
On Monday, inspired by a reader, I threw out a challenge: Who are some players whose minor league performances gave us no idea of how good they would be in the majors?
Commenters suggested Matt Holliday, Larry Walker, Hanley Ramirez, Chase Utley, Geovany Soto, Ron Gant and Magglio Ordonez. Lone Star Ball's Adam Morris suggests Rusty Greer and Michael Young, while FanGraphs' Dave Cameron writes:
I always remember this one because of a lecture I got from a scout a few years ago about not trusting minor league numbers, but Travis Fryman is the best candidate for your didn't-hit-at-all-in-minors guy.
1,487 minor league AB, .254/.303/.371
The Tigers kept promoting him, even though he never hit, and he started hitting well from pretty much day one in the majors.
He did, but it's worth noting that Fryman never really was an outstanding hitter; he retired with a 103 career OPS+ (100 is considered league-average) and never finished in the top 15 in MVP voting. It's also worth noting that Fryman was pretty impressive in the minors, considering his age. The Tigers promoted him out of Class A for no obvious reason, but at age 20, he held his own in Double-A, and he held his own the next season in Triple-A, too. Without checking, I'd be willing to bet that Fryman was one of the youngest everyday players in the International League; at 21, that's impressive.
Greer? Same sort of thing. Greer reached Double-A (and thrived) in his second pro season when he was 22. That's pretty good. His career stalled for a short while, but he batted .295 in the minors and was playing every day for the big club in his fifth pro season.
Young? He was impressive in the minors. He fell off just a bit for half a season in Double-A, but a shortstop with an .817 OPS in the minors? Most teams would be thrilled with a guy like that.
Before zipping through the other guys mentioned above, I'll just mention that I'm not all that surprised by Young, Greer and Fryman. We tend to remember the struggles, but when it comes to stars (or near stars), the struggles are the exception rather than the rule. But maybe we'll find someone who fits the bill.
Not Ordonez, though; not really. He struggled as a teenager, but of course, many teenagers struggle. He established himself as a prospect at 20, and played well in Double-A and Triple-A at 22 and 23.
Gant, as a teenager, struggled at exactly the same levels as Ordonez. At 21, he established himself as a prospect by hitting 27 homers with the Durham Bulls in the Class A Carolina League.
Soto does fit the bill. He was always young for his level, and for a catcher, the bar wasn't set real high. But aside from a pretty solid Double-A season at 21 -- and yes, that's impressive for a catcher -- he never did anything, statistically speaking, that would lead one to think he would become a star. Well, not until 2007. In 2006, the 23-year-old Soto posted a .739 OPS with Triple-A Iowa. Not all that good, but good enough to rate (according to Baseball America) as the Cubs' No. 17 prospect.
And in 2007? Soto exploded with a 1.076 OPS, then duplicated that performance after a September call-up. And you know what happened in 2008.
Utley doesn't qualify at all. Yes, it took him a few years to reach the majors, but that's not uncommon for players drafted out of college. Utley was real good in his first pro season, and two years later, he skipped Double-A completely.
I'm not buying Ramirez, either. He was considered a top prospect in the Red Sox chain, and the only blot on his record is a weak 2005, when he was 21 in Double-A. (The year before, he had played brilliantly in high A and Double-A.)
Walker? At 19, Walker slugged .602 in Class A. At 20, he slugged .534 in Double-A.
And finally, Holliday … I'm in for half on Holliday. He struggled in his first high-A season and his first Double-A season, then struggled more in his second Double-A season … and yet, oddly enough, the Rockies promoted him to the majors early in his next season, even though he'd posted a career .750 OPS in Double-A and had played only a few Triple-A games. And you know what he has done since then.
So, can it happen? Sure. Does it happen? Occasionally.
But just very occasionally. I solicited candidates, and you responded with a list of solid hitters. Really, though, only two of them came close to qualifying under the original parameters. Only Soto's and Holliday's major league numbers seem truly incongruous with their minor league performance. An overwhelming majority of the time, we can trust minor league numbers.