The Success Rate of Fringe Five Alumni Is Better Than Anyone Would Have Thought | The Hardball Times

The Success Rate of Fringe Five Alumni Is Better Than Anyone Would Have Thought

Jose Ramirez is one of the best “Fringe Five” alumni. (via Erik Drost)

The 2017 season represented the fifth one in which I’ve published a weekly exercise at FanGraphs known as the Fringe Five. The purpose of that column? To identify and/or monitor noteworthy prospects who’ve nevertheless been omitted from a representative cross-section of the industry’s most well known top-100 lists.

Concerning my motivation both for (a) embarking upon and also (b) continuing this project, I belabored that particular point in last year’s edition of the Annual. Briefly stated, however, the existence of the Fringe Five is a response to the difference in notoriety enjoyed by the 100th- vs. the 101st-best prospect of any given offseason. While the exploits of the former are tracked with interest over the course of the season, the latter tends rather to toil in relative anonymity.

That said, the object hasn’t necessarily been to identify the absolute best minor leaguers who’ve been omitted from a particular offseason’s top-100 lists. As the presence both of Mike O’Neill and Dario Pizzano here suggests, certain players have been recognized as well for their singularly unusual collection of skills or, perhaps, simply for the unlikely path they’ve taken to their present role. Baseball is populated by a bunch of weirdos. Because only a fraction of those weirdos ultimately earn a place on major-league rosters, however, the Fringe Five represents an opportunity to become acquainted with the other ones before they disappear from the landscape of the sport.

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Because the goal of this weekly project hasn’t been expressly to outperform an accepted baseline for talent evaluation, I’ve never been entirely at ease with the prospect of assessing the success of Fringe Five players relative to their expected outcomes. For one, such an exercise isn’t entirely in the spirit of the weekly posts. Beyond that, I’ve been worried that any such attempt to measure performance might only serve to verify what everyone (including myself) already suspects – namely, that I’m an imposter.

At the same time, however, I’ve remained curious about the alumni of the Fringe Five. So, last year, I set out to write a piece for the Annual that not only examined the trajectories of the top 10 players from the first year of the Five but also sought to evaluate their subsequent performances relative to what could be expected.

This represents an updated version of that initial effort.

Of course, a year has passed in the interim, which means not only that (a) the top players from the inaugural (2013) Fringe Five class have produced another year of data, but also that the 2014 class members have had sufficient time to make their own major-league debuts. In order to recognize both classes but also avoid submitting a novel-length manuscript, I’ve departed a bit from last year’s format. While last year I reviewed the progress of the top 10 players from 2013’s arbitrarily calculated Fringe Five Scoreboard, I’ve narrowed the consideration this year to the top five finishers of 2013 and ’14. In practice, that actually includes six players from each season, owing to ties in the standings.

Below are the top five (read: top six) finishers from the 2013 edition of the Fringe Five. (Note: FF denotes appearances among the Fringe Five, while NF denotes appearances among the so-called “Next Five.”)

2013 Fringe Five Leaders
Rank Name Team POS FF NF PTS
1 Marcus Semien White Sox SS 11 7 40
2 Mike O’Neill Cardinals OF 10 7 37
3 Danny Salazar Indians RHP 8 5 29
4 Wilmer Flores Mets 2B 8 3 27
t5 Maikel Franco Phillies 3B 6 1 19
t5 Mookie Betts Red Sox 2B 6 1 19

And here are the top five (read: top six) from 2014:

2014 Fringe Five Leaders
Rank Name Team POS FF NF PTS
1 Taylor Cole Blue Jays RHP 6 3 21
2 Thomas Shirley Astros LHP 6 1 19
3 Jace Peterson Padres SS 5 2 17
t4 Austin Barnes Marlins C/2B 5 1 16
t4 Dario Pizzano Mariners OF 4 4 16
t4 Jose Ramirez Indians 2B 5 1 16

In what follows, I’ve provided a review of each player’s path both to and following his inclusion among the Five. After that, I’ve revisited the methodology I employed last year for determining the success rates of Fringe Five prospects relative to their ranked peers.

Player Reviews

Here are reviews of the top five finishers from the arbitrarily calculated Fringe Five Scoreboards of both 2013 and ’14. For each player, I’ve attempted to address three questions: why he was excluded from multiple top-100 lists, why he was included among the Fringe Five, and what he’s done since.
I’ve also published statistical lines for each player since the year in which he appeared among the final Five. These numbers are included for every level at which the relevant player recorded at least 100 plate appearances or 25 innings. Note that minor-league index stats (which means wRC+ for hitters and both FIP-/ERA- for pitchers) are adjusted only for league but not park. WAR figures for pitchers are a 50-50 combination of FIP-based and ERA-based WAR.

Austin Barnes, C/2B, Los Angeles NL (2014)

Austin Barnes Statistics, 2014-Present
Season Team Age PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ DEF WAR
2014 Marlins (A+) 24 200 .317 .385 .417 132 – – – – – –
2014 Marlins (AA) 24 348 .296 .406 .507 157 – – – – – –
2015 Dodgers (AAA) 25 335 .315 .389 .479 133 – – – – – –
2016 Dodgers (AAA) 26 385 .295 .380 .443 123 – – – – – –
2016 Dodgers 26 37 .156 .270 .188 35 0.4 -0.1
2017 Dodgers 27 262 .289 .408 .486 142 3.8 2.5
MLB – – – – – – 336 .265 .388 .430 125 3.7 2.4

Why He Was Excluded from Prospect Lists
Lack of physical tools, probably. Positional uncertainty, maybe. Pedigree, generally. Despite arriving at Arizona State as a middle infielder, Barnes would ultimately become the school’s starting catcher in his sophomore and junior seasons. Selected by the Marlins in the ninth round of the 2011 draft, he played both catcher and second base almost immediately as a professional, but lacked the size typically associated with the former position and the offensive upside generally possessed by prospects at the latter. He was, in short, a tweener.

Why He Was Included Among the Five
Both his impressive command of the strike zone and positional value. In roughly 550 plate appearances across High-A and Double-A in 2014, Barnes produced a greater walk (12.6%) than strikeout (11.1%) rate. Research by Chris Mitchell indicates that strong contact skills, in particular, translate to offensive success in the majors. Based on his minor-league indicators, Barnes always appeared capable of producing a roughly average batting line. Coupled with some passable defense at a more challenging position – possibly at second base and certainly at catcher – the result, it followed, would be an average player.

What He’s Done Since
Recorded more than two wins in fewer than 350 plate appearances. Traded to the Dodgers after the 2014 season in the deal that sent Dee Gordon and Dan Haren to Miami, Barnes proceeded to pass much of 2015 and ’16 blocked by A.J. Ellis, Yasmani Grandal, et al. Given a larger role in 2017, however, he flourished, producing a 142 wRC+ while also posting excellent defensive numbers. In 262 plate appearances, he recorded 2.5 WAR – and almost certainly something better than that after accounting for his value as a pitch framer.

Mookie Betts, 2B, Boston (2013)

Mookie Betts Statistics, 2013-Present
Season Team Age PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ DEF WAR
2013 Red Sox (A) 20 340 .296 .418 .477 160 – – – – – –
2013 Red Sox (A+) 20 211 .341 .414 .551 166 – – – – – –
2014 Red Sox (AA) 21 253 .355 .443 .551 177 – – – – – –
2014 Red Sox (AAA) 21 211 .335 .417 .503 158 – – – – – –
2014 Red Sox 21 213 .291 .368 .444 129 0.6 1.8
2015 Red Sox 22 654 .291 .341 .479 120 1.4 4.9
2016 Red Sox 23 730 .318 .363 .534 137 10.7 7.9
2017 Red Sox 24 712 .264 .344 .459 108 13.4 5.3
 MLB – – – – – – 2309 .292 .351 .488 122 25.9 20.0

Why He Was Excluded from Prospect Lists
Lack of a plus tool and size. At this point, it’s difficult to imagine a time when Mookie Betts wasn’t clearly a great talent, but he entered the 2013 campaign as a former fifth-round pick who was only 5-foot-9, had recorded zero home runs in roughly 300 professional plate appearances, and who was facing a permanent move to second base. That’s not the typical profile of a top prospect. Not only omitted from all the notable top-100 lists, he was ranked only 31st in the Boston system by Baseball America.

Why He Was Included Among the Five
The abundance of above-average skills. Whatever Betts lacked – and probably continues to lack – in terms of traditional physical tools, he more than compensated for with baseball-specific skills. Betts actually wasn’t eligible for the Five until early July, when he was promoted to High-A. But over roughly 200 plate appearances at that level, he produced an ISO over .200 and a positive walk- and strikeout-rate differential (BB-K%). And a 20-for-22 stolen-base record. All while playing a position on the plus side of the defensive spectrum.

What He’s Done Since
Develop into a legitimate MVP candidate. Betts’ numbers never really experienced the sort of decay that’s typical when a player is promoted from one level to the next. From High-A to Double-A to Triple-A to the majors: in each case, he exhibited better-than-average contact and better-than-average power and better-than-average defense and better-than-average baserunning. He produced an excellent rookie season in 2014 and, since 2015, has recorded the sixth-highest WAR among all position players during that span, trailing only Mike Trout, Kris Bryant, Josh Donaldson, Joey Votto and Jose Altuve, in that order.

Taylor Cole, RHP, Toronto (2014)

Taylor Cole Statistics, 2014-Present
Season Team Age IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP- ERA- WAR
2014 Blue Jays (A+) 24 132.0 11.7 2.7 0.3 59 82 – – –
2015 Blue Jays (AA) 25 164.0 7.0 3.0 1.0 116 111 – – –
2016 Blue Jays (AA) 26  61.2  7.9 2.5 0.9 94  96 – – –
2017 Blue Jays 27 1.0 9.0 9.0 0.0 163 162 -0.2
MLB – – – – – – 1.0 9.0 9.0 0.0 163 162 -0.2

Why He Was Excluded from Prospect Lists
In part, due to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. As a prep pitcher at Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, Cole reportedly touched the mid-90s with his fastball. Indeed, the Dodgers selected him in the 26th round of the 2007 draft following his senior year there. Cole temporarily delayed his baseball career, however, instead opting to participate in a two-year Mormon mission, after which he attended BYU. Selected by Toronto in the 29th round of the 2011 draft, he was sitting only 87-88 mph in his first years as a professional. He passed most of 2013 as a 23-year-old in Low-A ball, which is rarely something one can say of a future major leaguer.

Why He Was Included Among the Five
Most immediately, for authoring one of the best strikeout- and walk-rate differentials (K-BB%) in the high-ish minors. Left-hander Daniel Norris, also a part of the Jays system at that time, recorded a 23.9-point K-BB%, the highest mark of any qualifier at High-A or above in 2014. Cole finished second by that measure, though, with a 22.6-point figure. While he remained quite old relative to his levels, playing most of the season as a 24-year-old at High-A, the reports on the stuff – which included a low-90s fastball and above-average changeup – were sufficiently promising.

What He’s Done Since
Reached the majors, actually. Following a less successful 2015 season, Cole dealt with injury for much of 2016, recording fewer than 80 innings despite working as a starter. The right-hander passed almost all of 2017 rehabbing from shoulder trouble and made his season debut in July. From that point on, however, he pitched quite well across three levels, eventually earning a promotion to the majors. Once there, he appeared for all of one inning before taking a liner off his toe. Rendering a long story less long, what one finds is that he’s a free agent as of press time.

Wilmer Flores, 2B, New York NL (2013)

Wilmer Flores Statistics, 2013-Present
Season Team Age PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ DEF WAR
2013 Mets (AAA) 21 463 .321 .357 .531 129 – – – – – –
2013 Mets 21 101 .211 .248 .295 51 1.4 -0.1
2014 Mets (AAA) 22 241 .323 .367 .568 137 – – – – – –
2014 Mets 22 274 .251 .286 .378 87 7.3 1.3
2015 Mets 23 510 .263 .295 .408 95 4.3 1.8
2016 Mets 24 335 .267 .319 .469 112 -5.9 0.5
2017 Mets 25 362 .271 .307 .488 106 -2.9 0.9
MLB – – – – – – 1582 .260 .298 .426 97 4.3 4.5

Why He Was Excluded from Prospect Lists
A combination of prospect fatigue and defensive concerns, it seems. Signed originally out of Venezuela in 2007, Flores actually appeared within the top-100 lists of both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus on multiple occasions as a teenager. Entering 2013, however, there seems to have been less enthusiasm regarding his future – despite the fact that he’d just played the second half of the previous year as a 20-year-old at Double-A. It’s possible that lack of enthusiasm was due to his defensive limitations: Flores had moved from shortstop to third base. His body suggested further movement down the defensive spectrum.

Why He Was Included Among the Five
The batting indicators, almost irrespective of the defensive skill. As a 21-year-old in the Pacific Coast League, Flores produced both an isolated-slugging percentage (.210) and strikeout rate (13.6 percent) markedly better than league average (.144 and 19.5 percent, respectively). Those metrics are important for three reasons. One, they directly inform overall batting production. Two, they stabilize more quickly than other batting metrics. And three, they’re predictive of future success.

What He’s Done Since
Occupy a strange netherspace between starter and bench player. Over the last three seasons (2015-17), Flores has compiled 1,207 plate appearances, the second-highest total among all Mets field players during that span. At the same time, however, he’s failed to record 100 or more starts at any single position in that interval and only once (2015 at shortstop) has he recorded 50 or more starts at a particular position. In terms of value, Flores has straddled the line between starter and bench type, as well, producing 3.2 WAR since 2015, or 1.6 WAR per 600 plate appearances. Over the last two seasons, he’s recorded a strikeout rate below 15 percent and ISO higher than .200, one of a select group to do so. One has never gotten the sense that he’s a fixture in the Mets’ future, however.

Maikel Franco, 3B, Philadelphia (2013)

Maikel Franco Statistics, 2013-Present
Season Team Age PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ DEF WAR
2013 Phillies (A+) 20 289 .299 .349 .576 159 – – – – – –
2013 Phillies (AA) 20 292 .339 .363 .563 153 – – – – – –
2014 Phillies (AAA) 21 556 .257 .299 .428 97 – – – – – –
2015 Phillies (AAA) 22 151 .355 .384 .539 166 – – – – – –
2015 Phillies 22 335 .280 .343 .497 129 -6.3 1.5
2016 Phillies 23 630 .255 .306 .427 91 1.3 1.4
2017 Phillies 24 623 .230 .281 .409 76 -2.9 -0.5
MLB – – – – – – 1646 .247 .300 .426 90 -6.2 2.1

Why He Was Excluded from Prospect Lists
Due to concerns about his footspeed and defense and swing mechanics. Signed out of the Dominican for a relatively modest $100,000, Franco’s future has always depended – as it does for many prospects – on the relative strength of his offensive skills relative to his place on the defensive spectrum. The teenage version of Franco didn’t overwhelm anyone with his offensive exploits. His body, meanwhile, threatened to confine him to first base exclusively.

Why He Was Included Among the Five
The combination of power and contact at High-A Clearwater. Among all hitters who recorded at least 200 plate appearances in the Florida State League in 2013, Franco recorded the second-best isolated-power figure (.277, behind only Miguel Sano in that category) and a strikeout rate in the 78th percentile, as well (where a higher percentile equals a lower strikeout rate). He was essentially the Jose Bautista or Edwin Encarnacion of the FSL. Except about three years younger than everyone.

What He’s Done Since
Delivered only modest returns on his promise. After appearing on top-100 lists in the middle of the 2013 season and then producing three wins over his first couple major-league campaigns, Franco’s value dropped below replacement level in 2017, a result both of below-average defensive marks and a .234 BABIP that, in spite of Franco’s signature contact and power numbers, conspired to leave him with just a 76 wRC+ on the season. While more of Franco’s balls in play are likely to land for hits in 2018, he’s also recorded a higher-than-average infield-fly rate over the course of his career, one more characteristic of a .270 BABIP than the league-average .300 figure. Nevertheless, he’s talented enough elsewhere to profile as an average player, which is what his Steamer projection for 2018 indicates, as well.

Mike O’Neill, OF, St. Louis (2013)

Mike O’Neill Statistics, 2013-Present
Season Team Age PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ DEF WAR
2013 Cardinals (AA) 25 434 .320 .431 .384 140 – – – – – –
2013 Cardinals (AAA) 25 133 .295 .402 .321 105 – – – – – –
2014 Cardinals (AA) 26 408 .269 .343 .347 101 – – – – – –
2015 Cardinals (AA) 27 239 .301 .409 .337 119 – – – – – –
2016 New Jersey (Ind) 28 472 .338 .426 .438 – – – – – – – – –
2017 N/A – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
 MLB – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Why He Was Excluded from Prospect Lists
For nearly every reason. Selected by the Cardinals in the 31st round of the 2010 draft following his senior season at USC, O’Neill received just a $1,000 bonus. Physically, there wasn’t – and presumably still isn’t – anything impressive about O’Neill. He’s short, possesses little power on contact, little speed, and an underwhelming arm. “Tiny, punchless corner outfielder” isn’t a type of major leaguer that exists, really – or not one that exists for long, at least.

Why He Was Included Among the Five
Because of the one skill he does possess and the volume in which he possesses it – namely, his control of the strike zone. In 2012, O’Neill recorded the best walk- and strikeout-rate differential (BB-K%) after producing walk and strikeout rates of 14.8 percent and 6.2 percdent, respectively. In 2013 (the year of interest here), he actually improved upon that figure while splitting time between Double- and Triple-A, recording walk and strikeout figures of 16.0 percent and 6.5 percent, respectively, for a differential of +9.5 points.

What He’s Done Since
Nothing at the major-league level ever and nothing even as a professional in 2017. O’Neill was selected by the Cubs in the Rule 5 draft following the 2015 season but failed ultimately to find work in affiliated baseball, spending the 2016 campaign with the New Jersey Jackals of the Can-Am League, with whom he recorded twice as many walks as strikeouts. Invited to spring training by the Tigers at the beginning of 2017, he was released in March.

Jace Peterson, SS, San Diego (2014)

Jace Peterson Statistics, 2014-Present
Season Team Age PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ DEF WAR
2014 Padres (AAA) 24 299 .306 .406 .464 131 – – – – – –
2015 Braves 25 597 .239 .314 .335 79 4.2 1.0
2016 Braves (AAA) 26 110 .186 .275 .258 52 – – – – – –
2016 Braves 26 408 .254 .350 .366 95 -8.9 0.0
2017 Braves (AAA) 27 155 .258 .374 .359 110 – – – – – –
2017 Braves 27 215 .215 .318 .317 69 -4.2 -0.4
MLB – – – – – – 1278 .234 .319 .331 78 -8.5  0.0

Why He Was Excluded from Prospect Lists
Lack of a carrying tool. While Peterson exhibited some merit both as a hitter and fielder in the Padres system, the prevailing sentiment seems to have been that a combination of below-average power and fringey defense at short created sufficient uncertainty about his future value. The skills suggested he could develop into a starting shortstop with a nearly average bat, but that other, less ideal outcomes were equally possible.

Why He Was Included Among the Five
It does seem as though – within certain evaluative schools, at least – that the perfect can become the enemy of the good. Mookie Betts (above) and Jose Ramirez (below) were omitted from top-100 lists largely because they didn’t possess a standout tool. A collection of average (or better) skills, however, can allow a player to succeed (or thrive) in the majors. As for Peterson, he continued to demonstrate – through his age-24 season at Triple-A – the sort of plate discipline and defensive skill that tend to translate well to the majors, recording strikeout and walk rates of 14.0 percent and 16.7 percent, respectively, while playing predominantly second base and shortstop.

What He’s Done Since
Record about 1,300 plate appearances of precisely replacement-level production. Traded to Atlanta as part of the deal that sent Justin Upton to the Padres, Peterson became the Braves’ second baseman in 2015, compiling about 600 plate appearances. He’s recorded about 200 fewer plate appearances in each of the two successive seasons since then. His power numbers have been modest, the result less of his exit velocities and more of his average launch angle, which was one of the lowest among semi-regulars in 2017.

Dario Pizzano, OF, Seattle (2014)

Dario Pizzano Statistics, 2014-Present
Season Team Age PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ DEF WAR
2014 Mariners (A+) 23 162 .275 .377 .486 125 – – – – – –
2014 Mariners (AA) 23 328 .228 .341 .404 111 – – – – – –
2015 Mariners (AA) 24 243 .308 .366 .457 131 – – – – – –
2016 Mariners (AAA) 25 268 .259 .302 .364 76 – – – – – –
2017 Mariners (AA) 26 310 .294 .374 .434 127 – – – – – –
2017 Mariners (AAA) 26 155 .229 .297 .407 79 – – – – – –
 MLB – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Why He Was Excluded from Prospect Lists
Even though none of the players who appear among the Fringe Five each week have appeared among the most recent offseason’s top-100 lists, it’s true that many possess sufficient talent to at least earn a place within the industry’s organizational lists. Take Austin Barnes and Jose Ramirez, for example, with whom Pizzano ultimately tied on the final Scoreboard in 2014. While neither Barnes nor Ramirez had appeared on a top-100 list prior to the 2014 season (or would in any subsequent years, either), they were included by Baseball America in that publication’s audits of the Miami (for whom Barnes ranked 20th) and Cleveland (Ramirez, ninth) systems. Pizzano, meanwhile, was absent entirely from the BA’s top-30 rankings for the Seattle system. He was a non-prospect.

Why He Was Included Among the Five
His biographical data, largely. Former baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti contends in Take Time for Paradise that spectator sports are appealing, in no small part, to the degree that they allow one to regard any player on the field as a kind of emotional surrogate. Like the spectator, each player is confronted by obstacles. It follows that, perhaps by observing how those players overcome their (very specific, well-defined) obstacles, one might develop strategies for contending with his or her own (albeit much less well regulated) obstacles. Pizzano is an Italian-American from the northeast who attended Columbia. The author of this piece is an Italian-American from the northeast who attended Columbia. Pizzano, in short, represented the author’s own surrogate, navigating his way through the obstacles of the high minors. (Pizzano had also recorded excellent contact rates in the minors, so he wasn’t wholly without merit.)

What He’s Done Since
Remained in affiliated ball – which, given his pedigree, is pretty good. Having been promoted to Double-A in 2014, Pizzano passed all of 2015 at that level before splitting time between Double- and Triple-A in 2016 and ’17. He’s still producing better-than-average contact figures. He’s also still exhibiting just modest power when he makes contact. He enters 2018 once again as an employee of the Mariners.

Jose Ramirez, 2B, Cleveland (2014)

Jose Ramirez Statistics, 2014-Present
Season Team Age PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ DEF WAR
2014 Indians (AAA) 21 277 .302 .360 .441 119 – – – – – –
2014 Indians 21 266 .262 .300 .346 81 10.7 1.8
2015 Indians (AAA) 22 195 .293 .354 .408 121 – – – – – –
2015 Indians 22 355 .219 .291 .340 72 3.8 0.7
2016 Indians 23 618 .312 .363 .462 121 0.6 4.7
2017 Indians 24 645 .318 .374 .583 148 6.4 6.6
MLB – – – – – – 1898 .290 .345 .465 116 21.9 13.9

Why He Was Excluded from Prospect Lists
Lack of power relative to likely future position, probably. Entering the 2014 season, Ramirez had recorded just seven home runs in over 1,000 professional plate appearances. By way of reference, only one major leaguer (Elvis Andrus) had compiled so few homers in so many trips to the plate between 2012 and -13. Andrus, though, was an above-average defender at short. The industry, meanwhile, regarded Ramirez as something less than that – probably more like an average second baseman. No major-league second basemen had demonstrated so little power.

Why He Was Included Among the Five
For his impressive contact rates relative to age and level. While Ramirez had exhibited little in the way of game power before the 2014 campaign, he also had managed not only (a) to ascend all the way through the minors but even (b) to earn a brief promotion to the parent club, all before his 21st birthday. At the three levels where he recorded 200 or more plate appearances before 2014 – Rookie ball in 2011, Low-A in 2012, and High-A in 2013 – the highest single-season strikeout rate he endured was 8.3 percent. His capacity to put the ball in play gave him considerable margin for error in terms of power on contact.

What He’s Done Since
Become one of the best players. Between 2016 and ’17, Ramirez’s 11.3 WAR ranks 10th in the majors. While preserving the elite contact and strong defensive skills he exhibited as a prospect, Ramirez has also benefited from the power spike of the last couple seasons in a way rivaled by few others. In 2017, he recorded the 15th-best isolated-power mark in the majors, just between Paul Goldschmidt and Nelson Cruz – that is, players whose careers are made possible largely by their ability to strike the ball with authority. Ramirez may not repeat that distinction, but he also doesn’t need to. Even with a more modest power projection, Steamer still calls for him to produce between and four and five wins in 2018.

Danny Salazar, RHP, Cleveland (2013)

Danny Salazar Statistics, 2013-Present
Season Team Age IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP- ERA- WAR
2013 Indians (AA) 23 33.2 13.6 2.7 0.3 39 67 – – –
2013 Indians (AAA) 23 59.1 11.8 2.1 0.6 59 71 – – –
2013 Indians 23 52.0 11.3 2.6 1.2 70 80 1.3
2014 Indians (AAA) 24 60.2 11.3 4.2 1.0 94 92 – – –
2014 Indians 24 110.0 9.8 2.9 1.1 91 93 1.4
2015 Indians 25 185.0 9.5 2.6 1.1 86 89 3.4
2016 Indians 26 137.1 10.6 4.1 1.1 88 88 2.6
2017 Indians 27 103.0 12.7 3.8 1.2 73 79 1.9
MLB – – – – – – 587.1 10.5 3.2 1.1 84 87 10.5

Why He Was Excluded from Prospect Lists
Partly because of performance, partly because of health. As a younger prospect, starting with his first year in the Cleveland system at age 17, Salazar lacked any clearly standout quality. Following a 2010 Tommy John procedure, however – and the subsequent rehab – Salazar began exhibiting plus velocity. That made him a promising young player. The lack of an established track record, though – and lack of notable secondary pitches – still rendered him something less than a top-100 prospect.

Why He Was Included Among the Five
Because of common sense, largely. Salazar recorded nearly a 40 percent strikeout rate in his first (and only) seven starts at Double-A to begin the 2013 (and his age-23) season. He preserved all the gains in velocity he’d acquired following his elbow surgery while also throwing a change-up that, in itself, served as a sufficient complement to his fastball. A promotion to Triple-A in mid-May was accompanied by hardly any decay in Salazar’s rates.

What He’s Done Since
Developed into a legitimately above-average pitcher. After joining the parent club for an extended stay in August of 2013, Salazar has passed the majority of each subsequent year in Cleveland, as well. Despite having dealt with periodic injury and ineffectiveness, he’s nevertheless averaged more than two wins a season since 2014. His lack of efficiency suggests he might never develop into a dependable frontline starter. Still, the results have been strong for a player who never appeared among a top-100 list.

Marcus Semien, SS, Chicago AL (2013)

Marcus Semien Statistics, 2013-Present
Season Team Age PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ DEF WAR
2013 White Sox (AA) 22 484 .290 .420 .483 167 – – – – – –
2013 White Sox (AAA) 22  142 .264 .338 .464 123 – – – – – –
2014 White Sox (AAA) 23 366 .267 .380 .502 142 – – – – – –
2014 White Sox 23 255 .234 .300 .372 91 -1.2 0.5
2015 Athletics 24 601 .257 .310 .405 97 -3.3 1.6
2016 Athletics 25 621 .238 .300 .435 98 3.4 2.3
2017 Athletics 26 386 .249 .325 .398 96 1.1 1.7
MLB – – – – – – 1934 .246 .307 .409 96 1.5 6.3

Why He Was Excluded from Prospect Lists
Lack of a standout tool, mostly. Selected in the sixth round out of Cal-Berkeley and given a $130,000 bonus, Semien entered professional baseball as an adequate, but largely unspectacular, player. Reports generally expressed optimism about his ability to remain at shortstop – which might surprise those who observed Semien at shortstop in his first year with Oakland. Generally, however, there was little enthusiasm for the potential of the bat.

Why He Was Included Among the Five
Regardless of the precise position, second or short, the batting indicators recorded by Semien in 2013 suggested he’d likely provide sufficient offensive value for a player who also profiles as a defensive asset. Semien produced a positive walk- and strikeout-rate differential for Double-A Birmingham before earning a promotion to Triple-A, where his continued to exhibit a strong approach and power on contact.

What He’s Done Since
Become an average major leaguer. After both moving between roles and also abandoning all sense of the strike zone in a season-plus with the White Sox, Semien was traded to Oakland in the deal that sent Jeff Samardzija to Chicago. In three seasons with the A’s, he’s recorded a nearly league-average batting line while also serving as the team’s starting shortstop. The numbers suggest he might benefit from a move to second or third. Regardless, though, he’s the team leader in WAR – among position players, that is – since his arrival at the beginning of the 2015 season.

Tommy Shirley, LHP, Houston (2014)

Tommy Shirley Statistics, 2014-Present
Season Team Age IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP- ERA- WAR
2014 Astros (AA) 25 86.1 8.1 1.8 0.7 87 51 – – –
2014 Astros (AAA) 25 31.0 6.4 4.4 0.3 90 94 – – –
2015 Astros (AAA) 26 41.0 8.1 2.4 0.7 85 70 – – –
2016 Astros (AAA) 27 90.1 6.1 3.2 1.4 124 121 – – –
2017 Lancaster (Ind) 28 63.0 5.9 4.6 1.4 129 158 – – –
MLB – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Why He Was Excluded from Prospect Lists
A combination of (a) age relative to level, (b) injury, and (c) modesty of repertoire. Selected out of Xavier in the ninth round of the 2010 draft, Shirley resembled a lot of other former college pitchers over his first four campaigns as a professional, benefiting from age and polish against younger competition while producing fair but not dominant numbers. A combination of unusual mechanics and a season (2011) lost to injury might have further hurt his evaluation.

Why He Was Included Among the Five
A furious start to the season and, seemingly, the repertoire to continue building on it. Despite continuing to face younger competition – Shirley was a 25-year-old at Double-A on Opening Day in 2014 – Shirley’s early performance was exceptional nonetheless. Over a series of six April appearances (four of them starts), the left-hander recorded strikeout and walk rates of 32.1 percent and 3.8 percent, respectively, in 28.1 innings, giving him one of the top K-BB% marks in all the minor leagues. Reports suggested that his fastball was touching 95-96 mph and his change-up, a pitch that would allow him to neutralize opposite-handed hitters, was inducing swings and misses.

What He’s Done Since
Deal with injury and join independent baseball. Following a midseason promotion to Triple-A in 2014, Shirley’s rates deteriorated. He struggled with injury in 2015 and, in 2016, was released by Houston. He saw out the remainder of the year in the Detroit system but was granted free agency at the end of it and, that offseason, signed with the Lancaster Barnstormers of the independent Atlantic League, where nothing went particularly well for him.

Analysis

As noted in the introduction, the purpose of the Fringe Five hasn’t been exclusively to identify the absolute best minor leaguers who’ve been omitted from a particular offseason’s top-100 lists. Nevertheless, curiosity has compelled me to revisit the performances of the Five’s first couple classes.

As for how to evaluate those performances, I’m largely quoting myself when I say that Scott McKinney’s “Success and Failure Rates of Top MLB Prospects,” which appeared at Royals Review in 2011, is invaluable in this regard. McKinney’s work is helpful in two ways. Firstly because, in that piece, McKinney establishes a rubric that expressly characterizes prospects as a Success (on the one hand) or Bust (on the other) based on their major-league performance. This is precisely the sort of binary taxonomy that seems appropriate for evaluating the major-league performances of Fringe Five alumni.

Secondly, McKinney’s framework looks at players in terms of average WAR per season over their cost-controlled years – as opposed to other studies in which the author evaluates total WAR over that same period. This might seem like a distinction without a difference. Because all of the players here remained rookie-eligible at least until 2013 (if not later), however, it follows that none of them have produced anything like six years’ worth of major-league data. Evaluating their average annual performance, then, is the only sensible means by which to assess their careers to date.

McKinney describes the methodology for his study as follows:

For the population of top prospects, I used Baseball America’s top 100 prospect lists from 1990 to 2003. I stopped at 2003 because that is the last data for which the vast majority of prospects have exhausted their cost controlled years. Many prospects showed up on multiple lists, but I counted each occurrence of the player because my goal is to determine the meaning of various rankings by determining their success and failure.
[…]
For each ranking each year, I calculated that player’s average Wins Above Replacement (WAR) from Fangraphs.com over his cost controlled years. If a player totaled fewer than 100 plate appearances or 25 innings pitched in his first major league season, I omitted it from the calculation. If the player also failed to meet those minimums in his second season, I omitted that seasonas well. I was attempting to account for the fact that many players get very little playing time in their first or second season, and I did not want to give them equal weight in the average WAR calculation. At the same time, I didn’t want to omit all short or partial seasons over a player’s cost controlled years because they are often due to injury or poor performance.

So, to summarize: McKinney is looking at a player’s average WAR per season for every year, more or less, starting with the one in which he recorded at least 100 plate appearances or 25 innings. I used the same standard last year and use it again here.

As for what thresholds constitute success and failure, etc., McKinney addresses that, too:

One of the more difficult tasks of analyzing the data was creating an operational definition of “success” and “failure” or what constituted a prospect “bust.” Using the rule of thumb breakdown for WAR, I created the following groupings.

The groupings in question are here:

While there are multiple “tiers” here, the most relevant one occurs at 1.5 wins: below that mark (by McKinney’s reasoning), a player is a bust; at or above it, he’s a success. It’s possible that one could present a compelling argument for a higher or lower threshold, but it would require more energy than the present author is prepared to devote to such a thing at the moment.

In any case, having established that rubric, McKinney applies it to every prospect who appeared on BA’s top-100 list between 1990 and 2003. The results, divided into quintiles, are as follows. (Note that Superior is merely a subset of Success.)

What one finds here is that, historically, any prospect who appears outside of BA’s top 20 is more likely than not to fail as a major leaguer. Generally speaking, at least 70 percent of the prospects ranked 20th or worse in any given year are likely to become busts by McKinney’s criteria. Indeed, there’s a lot more similarity between the players belonging to the group ranked 21 to 40 and 81 to 100 than there is between the 21-to-40 and 1-to-20 cohorts.

So how is this relevant to the 12 Fringe Five alumni considered here? Well, in theory, one would expect – in light of how all of them were absent from top-100 lists prior to the season in which they appeared among the Five – one would expect them to perform even worse than the 81-100 group above. In this particular case, that means roughly nine busts and three successes. It certainly wouldn’t be any better than that.

Duplicating McKinney’s methodology for the Fringe Five leaders of 2013 and -14, one arrives at these results:

Average Performance and Verdict, 2013 and -14 Fringe Five Leaders
Name Year POS Years PA IP WAR Group 1 Group 2
Mookie Betts 2013 2B 4 577 0 5.0 Great Superior Success
Jose Ramirez 2014 2B 4 471 0 3.5 Very Good Superior Success
Austin Barnes 2014 C/2B 1 262 0 2.5 Good Superior Success
Danny Salazar 2013 RHP 5 0 117 2.2 Average Success
Marcus Semien 2013 SS 4 466 0 1.5 Average Success
Wilmer Flores 2013 2B 4 370 0 1.1 Below Average Bust
Maikel Franco 2013 3B 3 529 0 0.8 Below Average Bust
Jace Peterson 2014 SS 3 407 0 0.2 Very Poor Bust
Mike O’Neill 2013 OF 0 0 0 0.0 Very Poor Bust
Dario Pizzano 2014 OF 0 0 0 0.0 Very Poor Bust
Taylor Cole 2014 RHP 0 0 0 0.0 Very Poor Bust
Thomas Shirley 2014 LHP 0 0 0 0.0 Very Poor Bust

Curiously – by McKinney’s methodology, at least – it appears as though five of the Fringe Five alumni from 2013 and -14 qualify as a success (or roughly 40 percent). That actually compares favorably to some of the other quintiles presented in McKinney’s study.

Specifically, here’s how the success rate of the Fringe Five alumni compares to the results recorded by the various quintiles of Baseball America’s top-100 prospects:

Somewhere between the 1-to-20 prospect and the 21-to-40 group, looks like. Not superlatively, in other words, but also not so bad for a collection of prospects absent entirely from top-100 lists before the start of the season.

References & Resources