Thursday, July 18, 2013
Thoughts on Age vs Level Part 5
The spectacular rise of Miguel Cabrera, which contributed to a championship for the Florida Marlins, occured around the same time studies were showing that star players tend to develop early and fast. We started to see a flurry of very young prospects playing at relatively high levels as some teams started to "push" their prospects. We saw it more with international players in part because it was possible for them since they were turning pro at 16 yo. It's pretty much physically impossible for a draftee from a 4 year college to hit the majors at age 19 or 20 and it's extremely rare that a HS draftee to be in the pros soon enough to play at AA at age 17. Again, you have to account for context when setting your benchmark ages and levels.
These "pushed" prospects created quite a buzz in the prospect watching community. Remember when Fernando Martinez(FMart) was the toast of BA? Remember when the prospect watchers at Minor League Ball were drooling over Carlos Triunfel and Jose Tabata? Remember when we were all shaking in our shoes at the thought of facing future Dodger teams with Edwin Jackson and Greg Miller on the mound? Let's take a look at what the excitement was all about and where these players are now.
Fernando Martinez(FMart): FMart reached AA Binghampton in the big bad Eastern League at age 18 and performed well, .271/.336/.377. Good average, especially for the EL, decent walk rate, little power. Say what you will, but those are impressive numbers for an 18 year old in AA. Even Mike Trout was not playing in AA at age 18! FMart continued to progress nicely hitting .290/.337/.540 at age 20 in AAA Buffalo. Since then, he has failed in numerous attempts to break through into MLB, first with the Mets, then Houston. He is currently 24 years old with his third organization and hitting well for the Yankees AAA team after washing out of Houston. The book is far from closed on FMart. I would currently consider him a possible post-hype sleeper, but he's not exactly on the fast-track anymore and definitely not young for his level.
Carlos Triunfel: Triunfel created a buzz when he hit .309/.342/.388 in the tough low A Midwest League at age 17 and got a midseason promotion to High A High Desert in the Mariners organization. He hit .288/.333/.356 for High Desert, an admittedly extremely hitter-friendly environment. He then hit .287/.336/.406 in a repeat at High Desert at a still young age of 18. His development was interrupted by injury in 2009. He has since put up modest numbers at higher levels but hit poorly in 2 brief MLB trials. He is currently 23 yo. He could still develop further, but he is no longer anybody's hot prospect.
Jose Tabata: Tabata was signed at age 16 by the Yankees and sent straight to the Rookie Gulf Coast League where he hit .314/.382/.417. He then hit .298/.377/.420 in Low A Charleston(SAL) at age 17 and .307/.371/.392 in High A Tampa(FSL) at age 18. This time it was Yankee fans who were all in a lather. He was traded mid-season of 2008 to the Pirates and hit .348/.402/.562 for AA Altoona in the EL at age 19. Since then, he has bounced between AAA and Pittsburgh putting up pedestrian numbers at the MLB level. He is currently 24 years old.
Edwin Jackson: The Dodgers went through a phase where they kind of went crazy with aggressive promotions. In 2003, they sent a kid named Edwin Jackson directly from low A ball to AA at age 19. He responded by striking out 157 batters in 148.1 IP. He had some control issues with 53 BB's but he was at or near the top of every prospect list and was the toast of BA. Although he has had some brilliant moments and modest success at the MLB level, he never overcame his control issues and currently has a 5.11 ERA for the Cubs at age 29.
Greg Miller: Miller was the other half of the Dodgers' 1-2 punch in the early 2000's. He was a 6'5" LHP with a blazing fastball who went 11-4, 2.49, 115.2 IP, 41 BB, 111 K's for High A Vero Beach in the FSL at age 18 in 2003. He earned a late season promotion AA, where he went 1-1, 1.01, 26.2 IP, 7 BB, 40 K's! That was his zenith as injuries derailed his career and his last year in affiliated baseball was 2009.
The experiences of these 5 players seemed to have a sobering effect on teams that were aggressively promoting players. The Mets and Dodgers, in particular came under some criticism for harming their prospects with overly aggressive promotion. We now don't see as many players at extremely low age for level as it seems to be limited to players with obviously exceptional talent like Mike Trout, who force the issue with not just good, but outstanding performance.
While it is extremely difficult, if not impossible to prove anything in baseball, I would assert that the evidence is quite strong that it's really performance trumping age and level here rather than the other way around. Mike Trout's performance would be outstanding even if he was 2 or even 3 years older. The corollary is that these 5 players show that their performances did not deserve any markup just because they were exceptionally young for their level.