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June 7, 2009

Prospectus Idol Entry

The Summer of 1992

by Matthew Knight

There were two hot tickets for central Virginians in the summer of 1992: the new rock band from Charlottesville that featured both a saxophone and a violin, and the AAA All-Star Game hosted by the Richmond Braves. Seventeen years later, Dave Matthews Band have established themselves as one of the biggest touring bands in the world, and three alumni from the AAA All-Star Game (Pedro Martinez, Mike Piazza, Bernie Williams) look like strong candidates to make the Hall of Fame.

Was this a unique collection of talent that made its way to Richmond in 1992, or is it common for multiple Hall of Famers to appear in the AAA All-Star Game?

Are we seeing future major leaguers?

Triple-A is an interesting hodgepodge of talent. Unlike lower minor league levels which are typically comprised entirely of young players, AAA is not the exclusive domain of prospects. Nearly every AAA team has a "quad-A" player or two, players who hit very well in the minors but never seem to stick in the major leagues and often bounce from organization to organization. They likely also have a few former prospects whose stars have dwindled, but still show enough talent to be kept in reserve in case of emergency at the big league level.

Due to the varying types of AAA players and the fact that many top prospects get called up mid-season, it's not necessarily true that the best future big league players are in the AAA All-Star Game. So, what can we expect in the future from the 50 or so players who will represent their organizations in Portland, OR on July 15?

Data for minor league all-star games played prior to 2005 were extremely difficult to come by, but I eventually found a list of all players who have played in the AAA All-Star Game since its inception in 1988. In the 21 games played to date, nearly 900 players have participated, including 86 who played in two, 12 who played in three, and three (Raul Gonzalez, Lee Stevens, and Joe Thurston) who played in four.

The players who played in multiple all-star games were collectively an unimpressive bunch. Sandy Alomar Jr. (1988 and 1989) is the only multiple all-star to ever make a Major League All-Star team, although B.J. Upton (2005 and 2006) and Adam Jones (2006 and 2007) seem like good bets to join him in the near future. Clearly, repeat all-stars are rarely top prospects.

About 90% of the players made the majors at some point, with the percentage likely to increase slightly as some players from recent games may yet get called up. The average player reached the majors 1.3 years BEFORE having played in the AAA All-Star Game, although the median time to reach the majors was the same year as the AAA All-Star selection.

The time to reach the big leagues and weak crop of returning all-stars strongly suggests that a substantial fraction of AAA All-Stars are "quad-A" players rather than top prospects. While AAA All-Stars usually make at least a token appearance in the Major Leagues, how successful are they when they get there?

What about future Major League All-Stars?

To avoid penalizing recent players who haven't had sufficient time to establish themselves in the majors, I restricted the sample to those who played in the AAA All-Star Game between 1988 and 2000. Fifty-three went on to make a Major League All-Star team, about 9% of the sample. Including all players, a total of 70 AAA All-Stars have made a Major League All-Star team to date (about 8%).

The average time between a player's first AAA All-Star Game and his first Major League All-Star Game was 4.5 years with a standard deviation of two years from 1988 to 2000. The average decreases only slightly to 4.2 years if the entire sample is considered. Six players made the Major League All-Star team the very next season (Ramon Martinez, Mike Piazza, Jose Rosado (!), Adam Dunn, Hank Blalock, and Johnny Estrada), while three players (Joey Cora, Steve Finley, and Mark Loretta) took nine years.

History shows that there is a small chance that someone can still make his first Major League All-Star game nine years after his first AAA All-Star Game. Which member of the class of 2000 might make his Major League All-Star debut this year? The pickings are pretty slim, but if I had to put money on it, I'd go with Aubrey Huff.

Huff would have been a reasonable choice in 2008, as he finished 16th in the American League MVP voting with a .304/.360/.552 line. Unfortunately, he is not currently in the top five in the AL first base vote total and his .797 OPS does little to argue for his inclusion as a reserve. His best chance is probably through the mandatory one player per team rule. However, on an Orioles team featuring Nick Markakis and Adam Jones, Huff has little chance of making the team unless he is traded in the next few weeks.

Any Hall of Famers?

Finally, let's take a look at the chances that we will see a future Hall of Famer playing in this year's mid-summer minor league classic. Considering the 500+ players who played in the AAA All-Star Game before 2001, I see only six likely Hall of Famers

Player            Year
Mike Piazza       1992
Pedro Martinez    1992
Bernie Williams   1992
Chipper Jones     1993
Jim Thome         1993
Derek Jeter       1995

with an additional eight players likely to get serious consideration but fall short of election, in my opinion.

Player            Year
Juan Gonzalez     1990
Tino Martinez     1991
Bret Boone        1992
Javier Lopez      1993
Garret Anderson   1994
Todd Helton       1997
Magglio Ordonez   1997
Alfonso Soriano   2000

On average, there is about one all-star per year who will have a career worthy of strong consideration for Cooperstown, and about one player every other year who will likely be elected.

Interestingly, the best Hall of Fame of Fame candidates were clustered in the early 1990s. The low number of Hall of Fame candidates after 1995 does not appear to be biased by shorter careers to date, but is actually indicative of a weaker talent pool. Only 13 players from the 1996-2000 AAA All-Star Games have made the Major League All-Star team, whereas 34 from the 1990-1995 teams did.

I find the lack of pitchers in this list remarkable. Of the 14 players most likely to get Hall of Fame votes, Pedro Martinez is the only pitcher. This trend seems to be continuing, as Dan Haren is the only elite pitcher to have played in the game since 2000. The paucity of top pitchers is not just a small sample size effect - only 12 of the 70 players to make a Major League All-Star team are pitchers. Apparently the best pitchers rarely stay long in AAA, if they stop there at all.


So, what can we expect from the 2009 AAA All-Stars? It may take a few years, but chances are good that nearly every player will get at least a taste of the majors. There will likely be four or five future Major League All-Stars, but we may have to wait until 2018 or so to be sure how many. It's a coin flip as to whether or not we are likely to see a future Hall of Famer on the field, and if you're trying to spot prospective greats, don't bother watching returning all-stars or any pitchers - there is little chance that one of them will become a Major League All-Star.

This brief study raises a number of questions I would like to see explored in more depth: Is there a dichotomy in the ages of AAA All-Stars, such that it is easy to distinguish top prospects from "quad-A" players without need of any other information? How do the rates of AAA All-Stars making the majors and having success there compare to the rates of all-stars at lower levels in the minors? Are there really fewer elite players playing AAA today than 15 years ago, or are these players just not making the AAA All-Star team? Why are there so few pitchers from the AAA All-Star game who go on to stardom in the majors?

And finally, what about that 1992 All-Star Game? It featured the largest number of future Major League All-Stars, ten, of any AAA All-Star Game. Half of the likely Hall of Famers to have played in the AAA All-Star Game were on the field that day, including the only pitcher. It turns out that the 1992 game was pretty special after all.

Too bad I couldn't get tickets.

39 comments have been left for this article.

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