At around 4:15 AM this past Sunday morning, I was out getting some pizza with friends, when none other than Alex Rodriguez walked through the door. Like every drunken idiot at Joe’s Pizza that night, I put forth my best effort to initiate an interaction with him, but he paid me no attention. After multiple failed attempts, I enlisted my girlfriend to approach him and ask if he’d take a photo with me on his way out. I told her to say I was with FanGraphs, hoping that would somehow help.
Through some combination of my girlfriend’s attractiveness and the FanGraphs brand, he agreed to take the photo. The end result was the following photo of me, Alex Rodriguez and Alex Rodriguez’s 80-grade pecs. In our starstruck haste, we promised I’d write an article about him. That’s one of the reasons I’m telling you this story. However, since I’m undeniably certain he won’t be checking, it’s more that I wanted an excuse to put this photo on the internet.
Those first two paragraphs explain why I’m writing about A-Rod, though it’s not as though one really needs an excuse to write about A-Rod. He’s arguably the best player many of us have ever seen, and he remains a productive one even as he embarks into his 40s.
But before he was a superstar baseball player, A-Rod was a superstar baseball prospect. After he dazzled scouts with his high school play, the Mariners selected Rodriguez first overall in the 1993 amateur draft. He wasted no time establishing himself in the minor leagues. He opened the 1994 season in Low-A, where — as an 18-year-old — he was extremely young for his level. Even so, he hit .319/.379/.605 and was promptly promoted to Double-A… Then to Triple-A… And by early July, he was in the majors, making him the most recent 18-year-old to play in the major leagues.
All told, he hit .312/.376/.577 with 20 steals in 114 minor league games that year, with rougly half of those games in Double- and Triple-A. That type of performance is simply unheard of from an 18-year-old. Even Bryce Harper, who was an extreme outlier himself, faltered in his first taste of Double-A at age-18. A-Rod’s pit stop in the minors from 1995 was just as ridiculous, if not more so: .360/.411/.654 as a 19-year-old in Triple-A before he returned to the big leagues for good.
Looking back at outrageous minor league seasons like A-Rod’s is always fun, largely because they’re exponentially more exciting than the stat lines we typically see. But while performances like A-Rod’s simply don’t happen very often, that’s not to say there aren’t performances that are at least faintly similar. I thought it might be fun, and possibly even insightful, to identify a few current prospects whose minor league performances resemble A-Rod’s from way back when. You may recall that I performed a similar exercise for Paul Goldschmidt back in July.
To identify A-Rod-like players, I calculated a weighted Mahalanobis Distance between his 1994 season in the minors and all 2015 seasons from players who logged at least 200 plate appearances in full season ball (Low-A or higher). I chose my weights based on the coefficients from my KATOH models in order to give greater weight to the stats that are most predictive of big league success, like power and strikeout rate. Once I had my list of comps, I pared it down to include only shortstops and third basemen. As always, the lower figure represents the more similar comp.
|Rank||Name||Org||Wtd Mah Dist||KATOH WAR thru 28|
Before I go any further, I first want to clarify that “most similar” is not the same thing as “most likely to be as good.” For example, Ryan McMahon’s 2015 season was very similar to A-Rod’s 1994 campaign in many ways. They had very similar walk rates, power numbers and defensive positions. But McMahon’s season was worse in two key areas: he (a) was two years older than A-Rod in the relevant season and (2) had a much higher strikeout rate.
McMahon and A-Rod present a perfect example of how similar seasons aren’t necessarily of similar quality if each of the differences happen to fall in the same direction. In this case, McMahon’s differences fell in the “bad” direction. That’s why I included each player’s KATOH forecast in the far right column to give you a sense of how good these players are as prospects. This is something I plan to do from now on when presenting Manalanobis comps, as I think it provides some useful context.
Of the players listed, Carlos Correa is easily the player who feels the most like A-Rod. And unlike most of the others, Correa’s component stats aren’t unanimously worse than Rodriguez’s. Correa actually posted the better strikeout rate and was more successful on the bases. However, it’s worth noting that Correa was also nearly two years older than A-Rod was when he tore through the minors. That’s crazy to think about, considering Correa was the youngest hitter in major league baseball last year.
A few other interesting prospects’ names turned up in this exercise. Miguel Sano is already something of a household name after his excellent second half in Minnesota. If nothing else, Sano seems to have A-Rod’s power. Jomar Reyes, Jeimer Candelario, Franklin Barreto and Rafael Devers are a few of the most highly-touted infield prospects in baseball. Each of them has demonstrated impressive power against much older competition. Ruddy Giron has yet to receive the same type of love from prospect analysts, but he put together a solid season as an 18-year-old shortstop in full-season ball last year. Alex Blandino, Malquin Canelo, Daniel Robertson and Trevor Story all have their warts, but are still some of baseball’s more intriguing prospects by my math. Each of these players looks something like A-Rod did as a minor leaguer — just not quite as dominant — and, according to KATOH, each of them has a good chance of flourishing in the big leagues.
The unfortunate truth is that there probably isn’t a future Alex Rodriguez in the minors right now. Many of the names listed above are among the best prospects in the game, and will likely be very good players in a few years. There might even be a Hall of Famer in that group. But the odds that any of them — even Carlos Correa — will approach A-Rod’s level of success are razor thin. As baseball fans, we were spoiled to have Mike Trout and Bryce Harper come along in such short succession, but 10-WAR players generally come along every generation, not every year.