Fun with minor league leader boards

It’s still too early in the baseball season to jump to any conclusions, but with a month in the books, which in the minor leagues constitutes around one-fifth of the season, we have enough of a 2013 sample size to begin to take some baby steps in that direction. A month isn’t long enough to allow us to make any determinations about what a player can and can’t do, but we can see some trends beginning to take shape within the numbers.

For example, we’re getting to the point were I feel comfortable saying that Mike O’Neill can help a major league team, at the worst as a fourth outfielder, and potentially as a leadoff hitter/secret weapon. O’Neill, a 25-year-old outfielder, is leading off for Double-A Springfield of the Texas League, and is doing his best to enter the prospect discussion before he gets too old for consideration.

O’Neill appeared on our radar last season when he posted a .458 on-base percentage, playing primarily in the Florida State League and finishing with a cameo in the Texas League—this despite offering virtually nothing in the way of power to make pitchers avoid him on purpose. The caveats for O’Neill were his lack of true tools (because plate discipline isn’t considered a tool, although it should be) and having been old for his level.

But this season, O’Neill has proved that his 2012 season wasn’t a fluke. A month into the season, he has increased his on-base ability even more while hitting for even less power, posting a Texas League-leading 22.8 percent walk rate despite an .045 ISO. He’s on pace for a 100-plus walk season. Brett Butler in 1991 is the only player in the expansion era to draw more than 100 walks in a major league season while posting an ISO under .050, yet that’s the type of player O’Neill looks like he could become. He may not be able to sustain his extreme plate discipline all season, but his progression as a follow-up to last year indicates that what he’s doing is legitimate. If he continues to get on base, O’Neill could be a name that other teams inquire about at the trade deadline if the Cardinals are looking to add to their major league roster.

O’Neill could be moving on from the Texas League soon, but you don’t have to be old for your league to earn a promotion. Byron Buxton is torching the Midwest League enough, despite being one of its youngest players, that the Minnesota Twins may be forced to promote him at midseason.

It’s difficult to find a category in which Buxton isn’t among the Midwest League leaders. Walk rate? He’s eighth, at 18.4 percent. Isolated slugging? He’s second, at .286. wOBA? He’s first, at .510. Prefer more traditional stats? That’s fine. Buxton is second in batting average at .378, first in on-base percentage at .492, and first in slugging percentage at .663.

It would be premature to promote Buxton yet no matter how well he’s done, because it would be based solely on one month of production. The Twins clearly believed he belonged in Low-A ball, and one month shouldn’t change that. But three months? That may be a different story.

Making snap judgments based on one month of numbers can be frightening. This is especially true for pitchers, who may have had a run of bad luck in the early going.

Dodgers pitching prospect Garrett Gould is one of those. No one in the California League has a bigger discrepancy between his actual era (8.06) and his FIP (3.71) thanks to having the second-highest BABIP against and strand rate in the league. At some point, a pitcher has to make some good luck happen for himself by getting that final out of the inning, but Gould’s luck is sure to get at least a little better this season.

Cincinnati Reds 2011 first-rounder Robert Stephenson is having a similar issue in his first full season in the Midwest League, leading the league in the same discrepancy as Gould. Stephenson has a 5.79 ERA but a 2.91 FIP, largely due to a .408 BABIP against. There’s no reason a pitcher with a 2.92 K/BB rate should have an ERA close to six other than a string of bad luck.

But the Reds aren’t planning on sending Stephenson anywhere, nor should they, or any of these other teams. We can’t make any reasonable determinations based on one month of the season, but we are getting to the point where the numbers mean more. One month of a trend doesn’t make a fact, but two or three months makes it that much more likely that the trend will continue, and these trends are worth keeping an eye on.

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Do we presume that since you didn’t mention a MLB team in connections with Mike O’Neil, he is not affiliated?