Why Young Prospect Bats Struggle Early

Early in the 2014 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates were getting criticized from all angles over their treatment of prospect Gregory Polanco. The 22-year-old outfielder carried a .400 average into May for Triple-A Indianapolis, while Travis Snider (82 wRC+ over the first two months) and Jose Tabata (84) struggled in right field for a Pirates club that at one point sank to 9.5 games out in the NL Central.

While Pirates general manager Neal Huntington indicated that he felt Polanco needed more time in Triple-A, the team was accused of being cheap — for reasonably wanting to ensure that they delayed Polanco’s free agency by a year — or overly conservative, watching the division slip away a year after making the playoffs for the first time in two decades. When Polanco finally came up in June and promptly set a Pirates rookie record by collecting at least one hit in each of his first 11 games, it seemed as though perhaps the dissenters had a point.

On Monday, Polanco was optioned back to Triple-A. He’d struggled so badly after his hot start that his wRC+ now sits at 88, 12 percent below league average and barely better than what Snider and Tabata had done. It’s a valuable lesson: No matter what the minor league stat line says, hotshot-prospect hitters often struggle in their first extended look in the majors. So why is that?

Behind the numbers

Last year’s immediate splashes from June call-ups, Yasiel Puig and Wil Myers, skewed expectations, but they are more the exception than the rule. (Puig, in particular, is an outlier, since he didn’t come up via the traditional path and is already one of the 10 best hitters in baseball, hardly a fair comparison for anyone else.)

Perception is a big part of this. Fans know these players far sooner than they might have even five to 10 years ago. For years, most people wouldn’t know anything about a prospect until just a few months before they came to the bigs, if even that early. Now, with the endless scouting reports and easily available stats down to the lowest level, fans are able to track a prospect for years, and so even if a player has barely made it to Double-A, it can feel like he’s been around forever. That adds pressure to the “give him a shot” mentality, even if the circumstances don’t dictate it, and while it’s unfair, it’s reality.

But the circumstances to succeed are also exponentially more difficult. First of all, it hasn’t been this hard to put up good offensive numbers in the majors in decades — the non-pitcher wOBA of .316 is essentially equal to what it was in 1965 — even though that’s not necessarily true in the high minors. Also, you don’t see nearly as many infield shifts in the minor leagues, and when you do, the quality of the fielders doing the shifting is lower than you’d find in the bigs.

In Triple-A, you have the Pacific Coast League, which has several parks that basically play like Coors Field does, and you don’t have an endless stream of late-inning fireballers like you do in the bigs, with much of the top pitching talent skipping Triple-A entirely. A minor league manager might play to test a young pitcher in a circumstance that isn’t favorable or to use a washed-up veteran to soak up innings; a major league manager plays to win, matching up relievers wherever he can.

We can see it in the numbers. The minors don’t have wRC+ available, so we’ll need to stick with the imperfect but close-enough OPS category. Comparing the two major leagues and two Triple-A leagues this year looks like this:

AL OPS: .710
NL OPS: .696
Pacific Coast League OPS: .768
International League OPS: .726

We can see that there’s a very clear difference in the amount of offense. (Of course, the NL has more pitchers batting than the other three, but even the AL is down compared to the Triple-A circuits.) What that means is that a Triple-A prospect can’t come up and perform the same way he had been. He needs to be better, and that requires minor league time.

Unfortunately, time isn’t a luxury many of these prospects get. If we look around the majors this year, we can see that there have been 21 rookie hitters 25 or under who have had at least 200 plate appearances. (That’s the age limit necessary to exclude Jose Abreu, who is having a fantastic year, but as a 27-year-old veteran of the Cuban leagues, it doesn’t really fit what we’re talking about here. Besides, the best prospects reach the bigs by then anyway.)

Of those 21, 16 of them haven’t even been league-average hitters this year, based on wRC+. Perhaps not coincidentally, 14 didn’t even get 100 Triple-A games before being called up. Compare that to Myers, who had 163 games before being recalled, Andrew McCutchen, who had 201 and then made an immediate impact in Pittsburgh, or even Derek Jeter, who played in 158 Triple-A games back in the 1990s.

There are some big names there alongside Polanco. Cardinals outfielderOscar Taveras, a consensus top-three prospect before each of the past two seasons, came up in late May, did little before going back down in mid-June and has continued to struggle upon his return until a recent hot stretch. Boston’sXander Bogaerts hasn’t returned to the minors, but he’s been a huge disappointment in his first full season. Cincinnati’s Billy Hamilton has rebounded from a poor start to add value with his legs and defense, but he still has an OBP of just .296. Kolten WongJackie Bradley Jr., Jon Singleton and Michael Choice, who all arrived with some amount of prospect hype, have all found it hard to establish themselves as well.

It’s not just this year, either. Mike Trout wasn’t Mike Trout when he first came up in 2011, remember. In 135 plate appearances, Trout hit a mere .220/.281/.390 and found himself back in Triple-A to begin 2012.

Who is next?

We’re seeing a similar situation play out in Los Angeles — well, Albuquerque, really — as Dodger fans all season long have wanted to see Joc Pederson, who just put up the PCL’s first 30/30 season since 1934. It hasn’t happened, mostly because he’s been blocked by the expensive Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier, and while he’ll be up next week when rosters expand, he’s not likely to gain significant playing time.

When he does, the idea that he’ll instantly be the next Puig could lead to disappointment. Part of that is that Pederson’s offensive numbers should be tempered by the fact that he plays in one of the more hitter-friendly parks in baseball — his OPS at home is 236 points higher than his mark on the road — and partially because, as we’ve seen, first-time major league hitters often have an adjustment period. In Pederson’s case, the amount of swing-and-miss in his game is concerning, as his 26.8 strikeout percentage in Triple-A is higher than 94 percent of the qualified batters in the major leagues right now. It’s not that he can’t be a quality player in the bigs, it’s just that it might take some time.

This is particularly relevant to Cubs fans — who have watched Arismendy Alcantara struggle (82 wRC+) and Javier Baez wrap his stunning power in an even more stunning package of contact issues (44.4 percent strikeout rate) — are welcoming Jorge Soler this week and should see Kris Bryant next season. There’s a lot of talent there, among the best in the minors. It just can’t all be expected to live up to expectations immediately.

Each player is an individual and won’t respond the same way, of course. It’s just that as difficult as it might be to keep patient when news stories keep flowing about how a particular prospect is tearing the cover off the ball in the minors, waiting might be the best thing for the player — and the team.

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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times and TechGraphs, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.
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1 year 9 months ago

And then there’s Jurickson Profar: No. 1 prospect in baseball 2 years ago but it has taken so long for him to reach the major leagues (injury + GM/manager dispute) that a small but extremely vocal segment of the Rangers fan base is now claiming he’s a bust and clamoring to see him traded for pitching prospects.

1 year 9 months ago

How about the other side of the coin: prospect arms? Should we expect that pitchers’ numbers improve when going from the hitter-friendly AAA to MLB?
E.g., James Paxton (2013 AAA / 2013-14 MLB)
K-BB% 11.4 / 11.5
FIP 3.92 / 3.36

We all know about minor-league-equivalency stats… would a simpler answer be league-specific +/- ratings (like FIP- and wRC+)? With the understanding that the error bars for the minors are wider.