I’ve a long-running fascination with Magglio Ordonez.

As observed in his player comment in BP ’04, Magglio’s consistent excellence since 1999 has been uncanny. As early as it is this season, he’s once again putting up standard-issue Magglio rate stats: .291/.356/.582. But what engages me beyond his recent history is the seeming discontinuity between Ordonez’s minor league and major league numbers. Check out these career rate stats:

Minors: .271/.328/.416
Majors: .307/.365/.528

He was, in some senses, a “Hidden Hitter”–one whose statistical bestowals on the farm didn’t portend the greatness to come. Or did they?

Ordonez is often held up as an object lesson of the limitations of the predictive value of minor league statistics and performance analysis at that level. His stat lines ranged from bad to merely solid, and while he was a bit younger than his peer group at early stops he was never extremely underage at any level. Even so, peering more deeply into Ordonez’s minor league dossier may reveal signs of the talent that was percolating beneath those unspectacular numbers. Consider:

  • Ordonez, like many Latin American signees (he was signed in 1991 as a non-drafted free agent out of Venezuela) struggled in the lower levels, which served to drag down his cumulative minor league numbers.

  • Ordonez’s worst minor league showing–his ’95 season (.238/.299/.370)–occurred in the pitcher-friendly Carolina League at pitcher-friendly Prince William, and Ordonez entered those hostile environs from the Sally League, the lowest and generally least competitive of full-season leagues. Even so, his Isolated Slugging Percentage (SLG minus AVG, abbreviated as ISO) of .132 and 38 extra-base hits, while not sparkling by any means, do show a flicker of raw power.

  • Also, considering the degree to which his rate stats degraded from ’94 to ’95 (.294/.353/.431 in the Sally League in ’94 to .238/.299/.370 in the Carolina League in ’95), his ISO only dropped from .137 to .132. From ’94 to ’95, Ordonez suffered a 19% decline in AVG, a 15.3% decline in OBP and a 14.2% decline in SLG; however, his ISO fell by only 3.6%. What’s more is that his extra-base hits declined by only 5% against previous-year levels. When a player suffers broad advancement-related declines like that, but essentially holds serve in terms of other key power indicators, it may be significant.

  • In 1996, Ordonez was dispatched to Birmingham of the Southern League, which is another environment favoring the pitcher, for his first taste of the high minors. On the surface, his rate stats are solid but nothing that elicits spit-takes: .263/.330/.461. That comes to an ISO of .198. Generally speaking, a player who puts up minor league ISOs of .200 or greater is considered to have an auspicious base of raw-power skills. But what’s more telling in Ordonez’s case is that, despite seeing high-minors pitching for the first time, he increased his SLG by 24.6% and his ISO by a whopping 50% over levels of a season prior. The point is that it’s probably important to keep an eye on players who make substantial percentage gains despite advancing a level.

  • Additionally, despite a fairly vanilla SLG for a corner defender, Ordonez finished fourth in the loop in extra-base hits (59) and second in doubles (41). His 59 extra-base hits in ’96 constituted a 47.5% increase over his previous seasonal best (40 in 1994).

  • By 1997, Ordonez reached Triple-A (Nashville, yet another pitcher’s park), and there he would win the American Association MVP with a batting line of .329/.364/.476. He also topped the loop in AVG, hits and total bases. His ISO dropped to .147, a decline of 25.8%. However, that’s still a better mark than anything he posted in the low minors. Most notable was his drastic improvement in AVG.

  • Observe these splits…in the low minors (rookie- and A-ball): 1,455 AB, .252/.315/.379, .127 ISO. In the high minors (Double- and Triple-A): 1,002 AB, .297/.348/.469, .172 ISO.

    Notice that Ordonez’s SLG increased by 23.8%, his ISO by 35.4% in the upper reaches of the minors. Compare those high minors numbers to his major league rate stats (once again, .307/.365/.528, .221 ISO). From the high minors to the majors, Ordonez’s SLG increased 12.6%, and his ISO jumped 28.4%. As drastic as Ordonez’s statistical progress appears on a minors-to-majors basis, the strides he made from the high minors to the majors are actually less impressive than those he made from the low minors to the high minors. That’s where the real quantum leap occurred. (Let’s face it: Lumping all minor league levels together while viewing the majors in strict isolation is rather arbitrary.)

The overarching lesson with regard to the Hidden Hitter is that major league performance that’s putatively without augury may in fact have hidden indicators. Ordonez showed markedly improved performance in the high minors, and, even when his numbers declined in the Carolina League, he greatly stemmed that drop with regard to his secondary power indicators, at least relative to the surrounding decline. While Ordonez never rung up eye-popping numbers at any stop, he did show stark improvement, on a percentage basis, in terms of ISO.

We certainly can’t create a model based on a single player, but it’s worth exploring (and I intend to in the coming weeks) whether the Hidden Hitter might have these things in common:

  • Rates stats that are, at first blush, unspectacular.

  • In seasons of poor performance, less decline in peripheral power indicators than in other areas.

  • Superior record of performance in the high minors when compared to the low minors. In particular, peripheral power indicators, while perhaps not outrageous on a rate level, increase greatly in percentage terms.

  • Overall minor league numbers dragged down to middling levels because of weaker performances in the low minors.

More to come…

Thank you for reading

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