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January 11, 2012

Future Shock

Do Quad-A Players Exist?

by Kevin Goldstein

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Just days before acquiring first-base prospect Anthony Rizzo from the Padres, Cubs president Theo Epstein appeared on Chicago radio and reiterated his support for Bryan LaHair.

"Bryan LaHair is our first baseman," said Epstein. "I don't believe in the concept of 4-A players. The guy can hit."

The concept of the Quad-A hitter is as old as the minor leagues. For every player that figures things out late, like Nelson Cruz, or even non-stars like Jorge Cantu, there are plenty of Triple-A sluggers like Kila Ka'aihue, Brad Eldred, Calvin Pickering, and Sam Horn, who put up crazy numbers, but never have big-league careers. Are they Quad-A hitters? Does such a thing even exist? Are Quad-A hitters simply players who never got the right time to showcase, or got cold at the wrong time and never received the opportunity to un-bury themselves? Or are some players simply unable to handle the job? I talked to several people in the industry to get their answer.

While not everyone even agrees on the existence of such players, there were three main ways a player can earn that label.

He has to Really Hit
One National League executive doesn't really believe in the concept of the Quad-A hitter. “I don't think it's that 4-A type guys can't hit major league pitching, so much as it's 4-A type guys have no value besides their bat,” he explained. “If you are a bad first baseman, or left fielder, or designated hitter, just being an average big-league hitter doesn't really cut it, so you better hit the moment you get an opportunity or the industry moves on to someone else.”

An American League scouting executive agreed. “If a guy is a strong defender, certain teams can give him a lengthier trial, but if hitting is all they can potentially do, the game doesn't allow that kind of time. If his game beyond the bat is mediocre or worse, it often doesn't allow the club to give the player the time needed for the talent to manifest.”

There is no universal timetable for talent. For some, it can be a month of two. For others, like Royals outfielder Alex Gordon, it can take years. Adjustments are necessary, and those bring in factors players never see in the minor leagues.

An Inability to Make Adjustments
For more than one industry insider, the biggest challenge of jumping from the minors to the majors is not about the opponents on the field, but the opponents in the stands—especially the ones behind home plate. “The minor leagues are about player development, and the major leagues are about winning,” explains another National League exec. “The minor leagues don't have advance scouts. Advance scouts are there to take apart hitters and exploit weaknesses. The players that can't adjust to that are the ones that end up 4-A hitters.”

An American League scouting executive agreed. “Miguel Cabrera and Justin Upton don't grow on trees,” he said. “Everyone else that is human is going to go through an adjustment period.”

The executive pointed out some players who took extra time to develop. “Nelson Cruz bounced all over, and then exaggerated his stance and hit in the middle of a World Series lineup. Mike Morse transformed into a more physical player, made some changes in his set up, and hit 30 home runs. Any team in baseball could have had Carlos Pena, but he didn't become the 40-home-run guy people thought he would be all along until he was 29 and on his fifth team.

“Some guys never get it, but while all 30 teams want the best and the brightest, we're giving up on players too soon sometimes.”

For a veteran National League scout, the inability to make adjustments can lead to additional issues when it comes to makeup. “At first, it's not about the lights, or the two decks in the stadium, or the crowd,” the scout insisted. “It's about the breaking balls and the depth of arsenals and the command. It's an inability to adjust that comes first, but that can lead to the mental stuff where players get overwhelmed, and the 4-A label just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Still, for the most part, the industry believes that there are some players who will never make the adjustments, and there are some scouting clues as to who those players will be.

A Lack of Talent
While we can list plenty of players who shed the Quad-A label and became productive big-league hitters, they're still the minority, so talent does play some role.

“Quad-A hitters definitely exist,” said an American League assistant general manager. “There's definitely enough of a gap to allow some skill sets to exploit Triple-A pitching and not adjust. They can be crushing average fastballs at Triple-A.”

An American League scout echoed that sentiment. “Some of these guys are getting six real mistakes to crush a week at Triple-A,” he said. “In the big leagues, he gets one or two a month.”

An American League scouting executive explained that bat speed often separates the wheat from the chaff. “Many of these players have more strength than bat speed,” he explained. “They have to cheat to get to pitches, and those extra two ticks of velocity in the big leagues kill them.”

A National League scout gave a real-world example. “I saw Dallas McPherson going off in 2011, slugging .505 at Triple-A Charlotte, which he's done for years,” he said. “But in looking at him, he was still very exploitable. He really had to cheat to catch up, His setup is scary: open, and way off the plate. That leaves him vulnerable inside, and if I can see that, you know big-league pitchers are going to see that.”

Still, identifying the players who will buck convention remains one of the game’s great mysteries. “Yes, there are guys who just put it together from time to time, but they're in the minority,” said a National League front-office executive. “Usually, if a guy fails and reaches a certain age, it's just not going to happen.”

An American League executive shares the frustration. “There's no rhyme or reason to it. Whether you are projecting with scouting or sabermetrics, you still need a touch of Nostradamus. The hardest part of the game is getting over the Triple-A hump, and it's still very hard for us to predict who is going to get over it.”

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Quad-a

34 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

McLovins

Kevin, I feel like you've written an article like this in the past, and what I thought I recall from it is that those failed AAA sluggers you mentioned shared one common feature: they all had high K rates at AAA. Subsequently, the jump to mlb level where that gets exaggerated even more made their contact rates unusable. Now how much of that was from forward scouting (exploiting their obvious holes if they were already striking out so prodigiously at AAA), or just facing better stuff, (whether speed or break), or what percentage of those two answers probably doesn't matter as much as that they already had contact issues in AAA. Now maybe my memory is failing here, but is that not the primary issue for the proverbial quad A slugger's?

Jan 11, 2012 10:36 AM
rating: 3
 
Tommy Fastball

If players have an exploitable weakness issue, wouldn't it show up in really tilted pitch-fx data? If McPherson really can't hit high velocity pitching wouldn't you see a horrific knee bend in success rate vs. fastball velocity? (Or success rate vs. a pitcher's typical velocity.)

Jan 11, 2012 10:50 AM
rating: 2
 
Richard Bergstrom

I don't know if many minor league parks have pitch/FX.. which means you'd have to rely on very limited sample sizes at the major league level.. so again, it becomes a guess.

Jan 11, 2012 13:52 PM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Many of them do or soon will, especially at the upper levels. That could conceivably make it easier to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Jan 11, 2012 13:57 PM
 
Peter7899

Do you think Bryan LaHair could emulate a 2008 or 2009 Carlos Pena season? Are their scouting reports similar enough to be able to project that?

Jan 11, 2012 10:50 AM
rating: 1
 
Jivas
(649)

I'm guessing that's a bit strong for an *expectation*. LaHair's 2011 PECOTA weighted mean forecast was .266/.335/.457; while he had success in 2011 (including 20 games in the big leagues) he was also 28 this past season.

Jan 11, 2012 12:01 PM
rating: 0
 
Peter7899

In 2008 Pena hit .247/.377/.494 with 31 homers at age 30. I don't think LaHair can live up to Pena's '07 campaign, but I think his '08 campaign is possible, hence the question to see if KG agrees or not.

Jan 11, 2012 12:09 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

I don't think LaHair walks that much.. even with Pena's up and down career, he's always walked at a high rate.

Jan 11, 2012 13:53 PM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Kevin Goldstein
BP staff

I think LaHair could hit right around that next year.

Jan 11, 2012 17:08 PM
 
gweedoh565

This gets me very curious about advanced scouting- it occurs to me that teams the 'overperform' may do so due to really good advance scouting reports and effective application of said reports(as opposed to, say, a really good coaching). KG, to your knowledge, how much variability is there in quality of advance scouting among different teams? And what goes into it? Do scouts look at how future opponents perform just in the few weeks preceding a series or further back in time? Might be a good podcast topic!

Jan 11, 2012 10:56 AM
rating: 3
 
LynchMob

Yes, I'm interested on your opinion of this also, KG ... THANKS for this VERY interesting article!

Jan 11, 2012 11:21 AM
rating: 1
 
Lloyd Cole

For some reason, this made me wonder whether there is such a thing as "QUAD-A" pitching. Certainly there are pitchers who stall out at AAA (but are there that many, compared to hitters?).

Wha5 are the symptoms? I'm thinking about these:
--lack of an out pitch, too few Ks, too many HRs (for soft-tossers)
--problems with control, walk rate, command (for hard-throwers)
Some of the adjustment/talent issues also could come into play for these pitchers.

Jan 11, 2012 11:08 AM
rating: 4
 
eighteen

This reminded me of Yusmeiro Petit, who was the opposite of the factors you mention: decent-to-exceptional K rate, low BB rate, good peripherals. Yet, he never amounted to much in the bigs because he relied on deception, guile, and control; which was good enough for AAA, but not the majors.

Jan 13, 2012 15:16 PM
rating: 0
 
LindInMoskva

Watch Brad Eldred play 1b sometime and you will realize that he gives up 2-3 hits a game. Johnny Pesky once said that he tried hitting Sam Horn 1000's of groundballs and he couldn't learn to field them. I don't know why some teams won't just put a young guy at DH and let him concentrate on hitting. Can LaHair become an MLB 1st baseman or will he give up 3 hits a game?

Jan 11, 2012 11:22 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Half the teams in MLB can't put a player at DH... so that's why the Pirates kept Eldred at 1B.

Jan 11, 2012 13:55 PM
rating: 1
 
Jivas
(649)

Cool stuff as always, KG.

I have to say, I do think you're *slightly* misrepresenting the type of players that sabermetrically-inclined people champion as miscategorized Quad-A players; I think most of us recognized that Brad Eldred (for example) would never make enough contact to maintain a palatable batting line.

There are definitely players - Roberto Petagine being maybe the most prominent example - that a lot of us to this day swear would have hit if he'd only been given enough of a chance. Dallas McPherson ... not so much. I guess what I'm saying is that statheads have enough sophistication to look into the *details* of a player's minor league batting line before championing their cause, rather than assuming that anyone slugging .550 in the PCL can hit in the big leagues.

Jan 11, 2012 12:08 PM
rating: 3
 
Domenik Hixon

I took Roberto Petagine for YEARS in my fantasy leagues based exactly on this assumption.

Jan 11, 2012 12:56 PM
rating: 2
 
JimmyJack

I have one of his broken-game used Red Sox bats in my office.

And, no, it did not helicopter me in the head!

Jan 11, 2012 16:10 PM
rating: 0
 
Aaron/YYZ

Agreed. Many of the players that get the Quad-A label early in their careers are guys that either got yanked around a ton, or happened to not get some bounces on their first exposure to major league pitching and then weren't afforded the time to make adjustments.

Jan 12, 2012 09:05 AM
rating: 0
 
bravejason

Off the top of my head it seems like you could look at all the players with AAA and MLB expereince and filter them using some set of criteria and then seeing if the resulting list contained players reputed to be AAAA-players.

Since hitting ability appears to be the key component, a criteria might be to look for players who in AAA had much larger than normal discrepancies in batting average when batting against the best 20% of AAA pitchers versus all other AAA pitchers. Another criteria might be to look at larer than normal batting average discrepancies when the player batted against pitchers with above average velocity versus when batting against normal or below average velocity pitchers.

In other words, we are looking for players who numbers are excessively influenced by playing sufficiently well against average and below average AAA players so as to mask their poor performance against the best AAA playes who are presumably MLB quality players.

Jan 11, 2012 12:16 PM
rating: 2
 
lemppi

I'm still hopeful that Ryan Raburn could have a break out year at 2B for the Tigers if they give him the chance. He has not seized the opportunity in the past....he probably doesn't have many more chances left. He has hit well in the second half a couple of times but just as often he has stumbled through April/May very badly.

Jan 11, 2012 12:46 PM
rating: 0
 
jhardman

Chris Davis gets labeled as a AAAA player and he is a good fielder. Is he still possible for a breakout in Baltimore?

Jan 11, 2012 13:40 PM
rating: 0
 
Deadheadbrewer

I don't know that I've ever heard that Davis is even decent on defense, but I'm dying to know about him too, given that I have him for $1 for three more seasons in an AL-only league.

Jan 11, 2012 15:09 PM
rating: 0
 
Josh Shepardson

I was glad to see bat speed mentioned in the article. When thinking about Quad-A players, my mind immediately went to recent example Kila Ka'aihue. I remember when looking at his gaudy slash lines and juicy walk rates in the upper minors I became more interested in what scouts thought of him. Even prior to reaching the majors, one constant stood out as a seeming industry consensus, he had "slider bat speed," and was able to take advantage of the lack of premium velocity in Double-A and Triple-A.

With a guy like that, I've sometimes wondered if there are adjustments coaches can make to speed up a players bat. It would seem the likely answer is no, that some players have it, and others don't. Those that don't cheat, and get exploited in the majors, and you have what we've seen to date from Ka'aihue. What's your take Kevin? Enjoyable article, keep up the great work.

Jan 11, 2012 14:38 PM
rating: 0
 
mattcollins

I'd hypothesize that Nelson Cruz's wide open stance does exactly that.

Jan 12, 2012 09:11 AM
rating: 0
 
Jason Wojciechowski

Poor Kila Ka'aihue, buried already.

Jan 11, 2012 18:09 PM
rating: 1
 
BillJohnson

I wonder if there are players who are, to put it bluntly, too dumb to succeed above AAA. Once upon a time I read that the athletes who reach the top echelons of their sports tend to be people of somewhat (slightly, not drastically) above average intelligence. According to the article, which I really wish I could find again, the highly intelligent athlete is difficult to coach, because he/she challenges the coaching. The below-average athletic intellect, by contrast, just never gets it to begin with.

I am thinking of one particular highly-touted prospect, whom I won't name, who was hailed as a can't-miss hitter on the way up, but is doing a pretty creditable job of missing so far, and in the process, has said and done some things that make me suspect he's not the brightest light bulb in the scoreboard. Consensus seems to be that this guy will eventually figure it out, but I really wonder. There must be others like him.

So how smart DO you have to be to succeed at baseball?

Jan 11, 2012 19:50 PM
rating: 2
 
eighteen

I'll say it for you - Delmon Young.

Jan 13, 2012 15:22 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

I liked the Corey Patterson quote from the 2007 BP Annual...

"The idea that the average player improves through his twenties to age 27 is mistaken, as that trend really only applies to the average major leaguer. What distinguishes a typical major leaguer from a typical minor leaguer is the ability to learn and improve"

Jan 15, 2012 10:57 AM
rating: -1
 
outdoorminer

Alan Knicely.

Jan 12, 2012 08:33 AM
rating: 0
 
Aaron/YYZ

Kevin, the advance scout thing is interesting. Do any organizations put advance scouts on their own minor league players? If my advance scout is finding these weaknesses to exploit on other teams' players, wouldn't I want to know the same about my own minor leaguers so I can correct some of these problems in advance?

Jan 12, 2012 09:08 AM
rating: 1
 
Jack Thomas

Chris Davis is a very good defensive 1B--Average at best at 3B. I have seen nearly all of his Texas games. I am not sure where he got the rap of being a bad defensive player. I have seen it several times.

Jan 12, 2012 12:51 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

-12.5 FRAA for his career?

Jan 12, 2012 14:45 PM
rating: 0
 
Schere

Funny, when I think of AAAA players, I think of the truly fungible replacement level ML player. Larry Bigbie, Luis Matos, Darnell McDonald, Tim Raines Jr., Chad Mottolo, Karim Garcia (all 2004 Orioles, incidentally)

Mostly, these are good (or even great) athletes, guys who can do everything (hit, run, field). They just couldn't hit enough or with enough power to hold down a major league job.

Jan 13, 2012 11:06 AM
rating: 0
 
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