Balbino Fuenmayor: From Indy Baller to Relevant Prospect

I tend to follow the minor leagues pretty closely. As a result, I would say I’m at least generally familiar with nearly all prospects who have a chance of making a big league impact in the foreseeable future. However, when Balbino Fuenmayor came to the plate as Team World’s cleanup hitter in Sunday’s Futures Game, I hadn’t a clue who he was. I was even more confused when I saw his stats show up on my screen: .360/.388/.612 between Double-A and Triple-A this year. Sure, the World team sometimes needs to scrape the bottom of the barrel for its first basemen, but how could I not know about this guy? Who could forget a name like that?

After pulling up Fuenmayor’s FanGraphs page, I somewhat forgave myself for letting him fly under my radar. Simply put, he wasn’t someone worth monitoring prior to this season. In fact, he didn’t even play affiliated baseball last year.

Fuenmayor originally signed with the Blue Jays as 16-year-old out of Venezuela way back in 2006, and spent seven forgettable years in the Blue Jays organization. Over nearly 2,000 plate appearances, none of them above Low-A Ball, he hit a pedestrian .251/.296/.390. With a strikeout rate of 28%, Fuenmayor simply struck out too frequently to turn any heads, especially for a corner infielder with few walks and middling power.

The Jays cut Fuenmayor in May of 2013, while he was hitting .208/.287/.396 as a 23-year-old in the Low-A Midwest League. Understandably, no Major League organization showed much interest in Fuenmayor, forcing him take his talents to the Indy Ball circuit. He spent the remainder of the 2013 season with the Frontier Grays and the Laredo Lemurs.

Fuenmayor joined Les Capitales de Quebec of the Canadian-American Association in 2014; and for one reason or another, things really seemed to click for him in Quebec. He split time between first base and third base for the Capitals, and hit a gaudy .347/.383/.610. On the strength of that performance, he won the Can-Am MVP award and Baseball America named him their Indy League Player of the Year.

Fuenmayor’s eye-popping season in the Can-Am League was impressive, but by no means was it enough to redeem his prospect status. Not only was it just one season, but his performance came against competition that pales in comparison to the highest levels of the minors. Several of the best Can-Am hitters have struggled after latching on with Major League organizations. Christopher Edmondson, Bridger Hunt, Cam Kneeland and Daniel Mateo are just a few examples from the last couple of years.

Nonetheless, the Royals took a flyer on the 25-year-old. And so far, that decision appears to have been a wise one. Fuenmayor opened the year in Double-A, where he hit .354/.386/.591 in the season’s first three months. The Royals moved him up to Triple-A shortly before the All-Star break, and he didn’t miss a beat: .423/.407/.846 in six games. As good as he was in Indy Ball last year, he’s been just as good in the high levels of affiliated ball.

The biggest driver of Fuenmayor’s improvement has been his newfound penchant for putting the ball in play. The Venezuelan slugger cut his strikeout rate in half — from 30% to 15% — compared to his previous stint in pro ball. However, Fuenmayor’s power has been his biggest strength. His .237 ISO in Double-A was the highest of any qualified hitter in the Texas League. According to lead prospect analyst Kiley McDaniel, Fuenmayor showed 60 raw power in the Futures Game, so those numbers aren’t all fluke. Here’s some video of his batting practice from said Futures Game, courtesy of Baseball America.

Fuenmayor’s been great, but his loud numbers aren’t quite enough to get KATOH on board. Using a weighted average of his Double-A and Triple-A numbers, my system pegs him for an uninspiring 1.9 WAR through age-28. This forecast has everything to do with the fact that he’s been old for his level. KATOH dings Fuenmayor pretty hard for being a 25-year-old in Double-A.

In fairness, though, KATOH wasn’t really designed for players like Fuenmayor. KATOH forecasts prospects, and as a 25-year-old in Double-A, Fuenmayor barely fits the mold of a prospect. Looking at some comps might be a bit more enlightening. Using league-adjusted, regressed stats, along with age, I calculated the Mahalanobis Distance between Fuenmayor’s performance and every Double-A season since 1990 in which a batter recorded at least 400 plate appearances. Below, you’ll find a list of historical players whose performances were nearest and dearest to Fuenmayor’s, ranked from most to least similar.

Rank Mah Dist Name PA thru 28 WAR thru 28
1 1.7 Jason LaRue 1,010 3.3
2 4.1 John Castellano 0 0.0
3 4.4 Juan De La Rosa 0 0.0
4 4.5 Mike Jacobs 2,089 0.0
5 4.7 Andy Bevins 0 0.0
6 4.9 Don Sparks 0 0.0
7 4.9 Juan Guerrero 139 0.0
8 4.9 John Gall 51 0.0
9 5.1 Drew Locke 0 0.0
10 5.1 Luis Montanez 0 0.0
11 5.2 Rob Cosby 0 0.0
12 5.3 Dee Haynes 0 0.0
13 5.4 Hunter Morris* 0 0.0
14 5.5 Chan Perry 14 0.0
15 5.7 Angel Salome 3 0.0
16 5.8 Raul Gonzalez 128 0.0
17 5.9 Dustan Mohr 1,185 3.9
18 5.9 Terrel Hansen 0 0.0
19 6.0 Adam Moore 260 0.0
20 6.0 Alfredo Silverio* 0 0.0

*Batters who have yet to play their age-28 season.

And here’s a list containing only players who were primarily first basemen in Double-A.

Rank Mah Dist Name PA thru 28 WAR thru 28
1 4.5 Mike Jacobs 2,089 0.0
2 4.9 Don Sparks 0.0 0.0
3 5.4 Hunter Morris* 0.0 0.0
4 5.5 Chan Perry 14 0.0
5 6.0 Jeff Ball 0.0 0.0
6 6.4 Shea Hillenbrand 2,327 2.8
7 6.5 Kevin Millar 715 2.6
8 6.5 Mark Howie 0.0 0.0
9 6.8 Jim Bowie 0.0 0.0
10 7.0 Clint Robinson 4 0.0

*Batters who have yet to play their age-28 season.

If you look at the “Mah Dist” column in the first table, you’ll notice that Fuenmayor’s top comp — Jason LaRue — has a significantly lower distance than all of the others. There typically aren’t a ton of 25-year-olds in Double-A, and almost none of them hit as well as Fuenmayor did, in the same way that he did it — except for LaRue. LaRue ended up having a nice little career, but his value didn’t come from his bat. He was a below-average hitter who made his bones by playing solid defense behind the plate. Unlike LaRue, Fuenmayor doesn’t have any defensive skills to fall back on.

Mike Jacobs also turns up, and he represents a better comp for Fuenmayor from a defensive standpoint. Jacobs walked and struck out a bit more than Fuenmayor has, but both hitters come from a similar mold: Power-hitting first basemen in their mid-twinties, who were too good for Double-A. Jacobs didn’t have an overly successful career, but he certainly had his moments as a major leaguer. In 2005, the year he posted his Fuenmayor-esque season in Double-A, he closed out the year by hitting .310/.375/.710 in 30 games with the Mets. He also had two full seasons where he hit better than the league average, according to wRC+. An outcome like Jacobs’ is probably within the realm of possibility for Fuenmayor.

In the matter of months, Fuenmayor’s gone from nondescript Indy Baller to promising slugger on the cusp of the majors. He may not have much of a long-term track record, but he’s been one of the very best hitters in the minors over the last three months. And it’s pretty obvious that he’s a much different hitter today than he was in his days with Toronto.

Fuenmayor’s a good story. It’s always a good story when a player goes from being basically out of baseball to playing in the majors. And if Fuenmayor continues to hit like his 2015 self, rather than like his pre-2014 self, the best part of his story could still lie ahead.

We hoped you liked reading Balbino Fuenmayor: From Indy Baller to Relevant Prospect by Chris Mitchell!

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Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. He's also on the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell None of the views expressed in his articles reflect those of his daytime employer.

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Should probably also mention that he tore up winter ball in 2014 before being signed. He mashed 10 HR in 42 games.