My love for baseball statistics is rooted in evil. That is, it was profit-driven. I was always one of those students in school that could see something once and commit it to memory, and while I could not always recall how to properly solve for X, I knew that Jose Cruz led the Astros in home runs with 12 during the 1984 season and that Bob Knepper had more shutouts than Nolan Ryan did that season. I was not yet old enough to help my father out to be the designated driver for his groups, but my fountain of useless information was useful to him in winning bets with his friends. He took great pleasure in taking me to games in the company Skybox, which literally felt as if it were in the sky in the Astrodome, and bet his coworkers I would know the answer to any Astros-related statistic they would throw at me. We had a nice racket going on for a while; I would take home half of the profits, which I immediately invested into the latest video game for my Atari 2600.
That lust for money drove me to consume any statistics that I could get my hands on, which was a tough venture in the days when the Internet was known to a select group of people as Arpanet, and the closest bookstore was an hour bike ride on roads without sidewalks. The only option I had left was acquiring baseball cards, so I dove into that hobby with earnest and eventually I came across Brad Komminsk’s Fleer card.
Fleer cards were my personal favorite because they included both major- and minor-league stats. In the innocent days that pre-dated an understanding of park factors, age-appropriateness, and league context with prospects, the minor-league stats were mesmerizing. Komminsk had a 30/30 season in 1981 in Durham to go with a .322 batting average and a .606 slugging percentage. To a kid who followed the Astros, that seemed like a season’s worth of production from the outfield put up by one player. What puzzled me was how a guy could slug .606, .524, .515, and .596 in the minor-league levels could be so bad at the major-league level. I would see the Astros and Braves match up, or watch the Braves play when the Astros were not on television, and see a Brad Komminsk that struck out a lot and hit for a low batting average. In hindsight, I was witnessing my first Quad-A player years before I was able to grasp the concept.
I have always felt the Quad-A label was one of the crueler classifications used for players, as it seems to be a stigma players cannot shake. Once someone earns that badge, they are destined to spending their remaining days in baseball in the International or Pacific Coast League with the occasional callup or chance of doing something in spring training. Joey Meyer, Ken Gerhart, Pat Dodson, Alex Sanchez, Rick Lancelotti, and more recently Dallas McPherson, Chris Richard, Justin Huber, and Terry Evans have put up great stats in Triple-A, only to fizzle out at the major-league level. There is a substantial track record of these Quad-A types that often causes us to nearly miss out on mislabeled players, even All-Stars.
From 2005-2008, Nelson Cruz spent most of his time in Triple-A for Milwaukee and Texas. During that time, he put up OPS’s of 923, 907, 1125, and 1123 but was not even put on the 40-man roster until very late in the 2008 season by the Rangers. In fact, Cruz was designated for assignment after the 2008 Cactus Leagues eason so the Rangers could keep Jason Botts on the 25-man roster. Yet, no major-league team put a claim on him, so he cleared waivers and accepted his assignment to Oklahoma City. A year later, he found himself in the All-Star game. His 2008 numbers were impressive enough for me to take notice early that June as I scoured the majors and minors for a potential right-handed power solution for the surprising Tampa Bay Rays, but Cruz stayed in Triple-A until the Rangers purchased his contract on August 25. They have never looked back. I was not alone in this, as U.S.S. Mariner’s David Cameron made a similar plea for the Mariners. Neither Cameron nor myself are scouts, so we were working purely off what was jumping off the spreadsheet. But a voice of reason from the local level might bring some levity to the situation, and for that, we go to the fine work by the Newberg Report’s Scott Lucas.
Lucas penned an article in July 2008 entitled, “Can Nelson Cruz play Major League Baseball?” He did a statistical comparison of Cruz to similar player types from the minor leagues ages 26-28. Even a diehard Rangers fan such as Lucas was rather ambivalent on Cruz’s chances at the major-league level.
Cruz’s 2008 compares favorably to a couple of guys who earned some MLB coin (Stevens and Daubach), several players who’ve succeeded at advanced ages for various reasons (Luke Scott, Rick Ankiel, Jack Cust), a contemporary hoping for another chance (McPherson)… and no fewer than two dozen AAAA All-Stars.
That said, Cruz is in many respects dissimilar to most players on the list. Some were already sedentary 1Bs or DHs, and few had his combination of speed, power and defensive prowess. Of the 52 players studied, Cruz ranks 1st in slugging and Runs Created per game, 2nd in home run rate, and 4th in OBP. With over a month remaining in the season, he already ranks 5th in homers and 4th in steals. Forget his age: Cruz could finish 2008 with one of the best AAA seasons in the past 17 years, period. To an extent, the operative measure isn’t “players most similar to Cruz statistically” but “players almost as good as Cruz statistically.”
On the other hand, we’ve been down this road. As mentioned, Cruz hit the cover off the ball for the Redhawks in 2007, and he has a career minor-league line of .298/.368/.540.
Cruz’s administrative status is also a huge hurdle. Traded or not, he can declare free agency if not placed on a 40-man roster after the season. Texas, or someone, will have to make a real commitment. Despite his amazing season, I’m skeptical that anyone will. Come 2009, Cruz may find himself in a new team’s Spring training facility on a minor-league deal. Or Japan.
The rest, as they say, has been a mixed bag of tremendous production and frustrating disabled list stints for Cruz. While it may seem a bit hyperbolic, Cruz’s shedding of the Quad-A label to become an All-Star in less than one calendar year is one of the best stories we have to compare to a Dan Uggla or Johan Santana going from Rule V risks to major-league success. One might think that more teams would be willing to take similar chances with similar players in their organization, and while that is not always the case, at least one team has recently hinted at their mining intentions.
The Arizona Diamondbacks have a three-headed monster of a situation at first base; manager Kirk Gibson is forced to find at-bats for Juan Miranda, Russell Branyan, and Xavier Nady. The fact that the first two are left-handed batters complicates matters, and as they say in football, if you have three first basemen, you have none. Miranda and Branyan have good to great power, but the inconsistent playing time hampers their production, and Miranda’s balky thumb also hurts him. In this recent article, Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers mentioned two players as solutions should Miranda need to go to the disabled list: Brandon Allen and Wily Mo Pena.
Allen is an interesting situation; the Diamondbacks brought in the veterans that all but guaranteed him a return trip to Reno despite being 25 years old and coming off two consecutive productive seasons there. To his credit, Allen has continued his production this season, but I would speculate that his rising contact problem is one of the reasons. The more immediate interest, however, is Pena. The last time we saw Pena in the major leagues, he was wearing a Nationals uniform in 2008 and had a .196 TAv in 206 plate appearances. Since then, he has donned the uniforms of the Buffalo Bison, Portland Beavers, and Reno Aces in Triple-A as well as a Bridgeport Bluefish jersey in the Independent Atlantic League last season.
It is hard to believe that Pena is just turning 29 years old, as it seems as if he has been around since before the strike. Yet he signed his major-league contract with the Yankees at age 17 in 1999 and made his major-league debut late in the 2002 season. If Pena had a heyday, it was from 2004 to 2006 in Cincinnati when he hit as many as 26 home runs and hit as high as .301. In seven seasons of major-league experience, Pena's slash line was .253/.307/.447, as he hit with power but was painfully impatient at the plate, often striking out five times as much as he walked in a season. In Triple-A, he has a .320/.381/.563 slash line in 598 plate appearances, and his K/BB rate is slightly higher at 0.34. The Triple-A track record is there, but the major-league track record is tough to ignore.
After a very slow start to the season, the Diamondbacks’ offense has rebounded to be one of the better offenses in the National League in terms of home runs and run production, but that is not the case for other teams in the league. Pena has nearly out-homered the entire Minnesota Twins team thus far, and he’s not far behind the Athletics and Mariners. If the Diamondbacks cannot find room for Pena or are unwilling to give him another chance to shed his Quad-A label, perhaps they could trade him to another organization and get something in return for what was considered an afterthought of a minor-league free-agent signing. Pena is the same age Dan Johnson was when the Tampa Bay Rays gave him another chance to shed his label. While Johnson has a rather unfortunate slash line of .171/.285/.332 as a member of the organization, he has provided several key home runs for the Rays in important September games in both 2008 and 2010.
I am not stating that Wily Mo Pena has the chance to be the next Nelson Cruz; I would just like to see he, and players like him, given one extra chance to shed the scarlet letters that don their scouting report in the court of public opinion. He may be the real-life version of Pedro Cerrano, but in a year where power numbers are down all over baseball, certainly one organization in the league can give him a chance to see if his relationship with Jobu has improved any since 2008.