One of the bigger issues of disagreement between the statistical community and the mainstream media is the predictive power of minor league performance. It’s still widely believed that minor league statistics aren’t very useful, and that there is a significant collection of players who can hit well in Triple-A but will be exposed in the majors. It’s true that there are career minor leaguers beating up on younger pitching, but that group is much smaller than usually believed.
However, it’s not that rare to see a player come up from the minors, where he’d been destroying the ball, and fall on his face in the major leagues. Last year, for instance, we saw some disastrous performances from Chin-Lung Hu, J.R. Towles, Brandon Wood, Wladimir Balentien, and Jeff Clement. These guys have all experienced success as hitters in the minors, but all struggled mightily in short term looks at the big league level.
For most organizations, the reaction to such a performance is to go find another option. The Dodgers re-signed Casey Blake and Rafael Furcal rather than giving Hu another shot. The Astros have been in the market for a veteran catcher all winter. The Angels kept Chone Figgins despite trade interest. The Mariners acquired Endy Chavez to play left field.
Organizations aren’t the only ones. Fans, too, often give up on players who don’t immediately hit like they did in the minors, as they only see the struggles and usually didn’t see the successes. However, giving up on a young player with a good minor league track record based on a few hundred at-bats is hardly ever the right call. 2008 shown with examples of this very thing.
Carlos Quentin posted a .320 wOBA in his first 454 major league plate appearances over two seasons after posting a .419 wOBA in Triple-A. His power was written off as a product of Tucson, and the D’Backs essentially gave him to the White Sox. Whoops.
At least Quentin hit a little bit, though, even if he was a disappointment. Ben Zobrist, on the other hand, racked up an astonishingly bad .221 wOBA in his first 303 plate appearances as a major leaguer. In ’07, he hit like a weak pitcher in the majors, even after tearing up Triple-A the whole year. Never a top prospect, it would have been easy to write him off as a career minor leaguer, but the Rays gave him another chance in ’08, and he responded with a .364 wOBA in 227 PA. The leap in performance from ’07 to ’08 would be about +10 wins if both performances came in a full season of work.
Also rebounding from a bad major league debut was Elijah Dukes, who combined personal troubles and off-field problems with a .190 career batting average headed into 2008. While he still showed walks and power, a .190 average over 200 PA is going to raise questions every time, and it certainly didn’t help convince Tampa Bay that he was worth the trouble. However, he was one of the true breakout stars of 2008, posting a .382 wOBA over 334 PA.
You can add these three to the list of quality major leaguers who overcame the busted minor leaguer tag. The lesson to be learned – don’t judge a player with a long history of success on one bad season. Talent shines through, even if not immediately.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.