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December 31, 2009

What Engel Beltre's 2009 Says About His Future

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If a prospect is highly regarded enough to play in a High-A league at the tender age of 19, how much does his actual performance there matter? Are the better hitters in High-A more likely to reach the Majors and stay there, or is simply being a High-A youngster indicative of future success?

I ask because of Engel Beltre, the toolsy center fielder Texas acquired as part of the Eric Gagne trade in July 2007. He was a consensus top-10 prospect in Texas’s newly-loaded system that offseason. (I ranked him lower than anyone at 12th, which looks prescient now but was just dumb luck on my part.) After a 2008 in Low-A Clinton filled with highs (.283 average, 43 extra-base hits, 31 steals) and lows (2% walk rate, several early removals for not obeying coach instructions), he still maintained status at the lower end of the top 10. Texas’s modus operandi for many of its prospects is to place them at the highest level possible, and each prospect’s goal is to prove that he’s not overwhelmed. Thus, Beltre jumped to High-A Bakersfield in 2009 despite a season that encouraged more Low-A seasoning.

The 19-year-old Beltre backslid, hitting only .227/.281/.317. He maintained his prowess on the basepaths and drew a few more walks, but the rest of his game declined. On May 28th, a walk and hit-by-pitch improved Beltre’s line to .249/.308/.359. That was his apex. Afterwards, he batted a meager .205/.255/.273 through mid-July, when a broken bone in his hand more-or-less ended his season (aside from a handful of September at-bats in AA Frisco).

So, to what extent does Beltre’s dreadful 2009 matter? In an attempt to answer this question, I’ve compared Beltre to his peers: batters achieving substantial playing time in High-A at the age of 19. There aren’t many of them. Between 1992 and 2006, only 96 19-year-old batters collected enough plate appearances to rank in the top 100 in a High-A league. That’s just over six per year and only about 2% of all qualifying batters.

I created a table for these players with a gaggle of statistics: the basic “slash” stats, average on contact, rates for homers, all extra-base hits, walks and strikeouts, and a modified version of Bill James’s Speed Score. I then rated each stat for each player in comparison to the league average for his particular year, and then ranked all the players from top to bottom. (FWIW, as a backup, I also ranked the players using linear weights and ended up with essentially the same rankings.) Finally, I tabulated each player’s Major League plate appearances. For my purposes, how well the player performed in the Majors isn’t critical; the length of the career alone is largely indicative of performance.

For ease of comparison, I split the 96 players into a top half and bottom half based on performance. In my system, Beltre ranks 31st among 42 Cal League batters with at least 250 PAs since 1992. Which is to say, well within the bottom half. I classified the players’ MLB careers (or lack thereof) as follows:

  • Free Agent (3,000+ Plate Appearances) – The player lasted long enough to reach free agency. Not everyone in this category is quite there (e.g., Grady Sizemore), but close enough.
  • Regular (500-2,999 PA) – The player was a regular for at least one season or a heavily used backup for several.
  • Long Look (150-499 PA) – The player almost certainly received some playing time outside of September roster expansions, but not enough to play regularly for more than a few months.
  • Cup of Coffee (1-150 PA) – The player received a handful of at-bats, likely during September.
  • None (0 PA) – The player never reached the Majors.

The results:

Type of MLB Career
19-Year-Olds in California League
19-Year-Olds in Carolina League
19-Year-Olds in Florida State League
Combined
In Top Half
In Bottom Half
In Top Half
In Bottom Half
In Top Half
In Bottom Half
In Top Half
In Bottom Half
FREE AGENT
(3,000+ PA)
4
0
3
1
7
6
14
7
REGULAR
(500-2,999 PA)
4
1
2
1
6
2
12
4
LONG LOOK
(150-499 PA)
1
1
3
1
0
1
4
3
CUP OF COFFEE
(1-149 PA)
5
4
0
1
1
2
6
7
NONE
(0 PA)
6
14
1
5
5
8
12
27

Type of MLB Career
19-Year-Olds in High-A
"Top Half" Performers "Bottom Half" Performers
FREE AGENT
29%
15%
REGULAR or better
54%
23%
LONG LOOK or better
63%
29%
CUP OF COFFEE or better
75%
44%
Did not play in MLB
25%
56%

Over one-half of the best performers became MLB regulars, and 75% donned the uniform for at least one day. Conversely, along the worst performers, less than one-quarter became regulars, and less than one-half ever earned a Major League paycheck. For some season, the Florida State league was far more forgiving to the bottom halfers. I’d guess that’s just a vagary of a small data set.

In rough terms, 19-year-old batters in the top half were twice as likely to reach the Majors, and also twice as likely to have lengthy MLB careers.

Here’s the players with their MLB plate appearances:

"Top Half"
19-Year-Olds
"Bottom Half"
19-Year-Olds
Player
MLB PA
  Player
MLB PA
Bobby Abreu
8417
  Shawn Green
7962
Andruw Jones
7845
  Jimmy Rollins
6512
Paul Konerko
6893
  Torii Hunter
6008
Derrek Lee
6860
  David Bell
5380
Edgardo Alfonzo
6108
  Cesar Izturis
3818
Aramis Ramirez
5825
  Miguel Cairo
3734
Jose Vidro
5708
  Grady Sizemore
3612
Eric Chavez
5282
  Wilton Guerrero
1797
Dmitri Young
5252
  Ben Davis
1698
Miguel Cabrera
4441
  Ryan Sweeney
1051
Jose Reyes
3651
  Anderson Hernandez
584
Todd Hollandsworth
3492
  Andres Blanco
387
Jhonny Peralta
3456
  Edwards Guzman
292
Nick Johnson
3116
  Willis Otanez
231
D'Angelo Jimenez
2480
  Alcides Escobar
138
J.J. Hardy
2298
  Anderson Machado
81
Melky Cabrera
2148
  Elvis Pena
58
James Loney
1788
  Josh Kroeger
55
Billy Butler
1510
  Tony Torcato
53
Wilson Betemit
1275
  Angel Chavez
20
Adam Jones
1180
  Juan Melo
13
Willy Aybar
1081
  Arturo McDowell
0
Ruben Mateo
951
  Caonabo Cosme
0
Daric Barton
799
  Carlos Fermin
0
Andy Marte
736
  Cesar Bolivar
0
Felix Pie
568
  Chad Roper
0
Gregor Blanco
473
  Chris Paxton
0
Raul Gonzalez
385
  Dennis Colon
0
Chris Snelling
273
  Edgar Tovar
0
Edgard Clemente
270
  Eric Knowles
0
Joaquin Arias
141
  Feliciano Mercedes
0
Duane Singleton
93
  Francis Gomez
0
Arquimedez Pozo
80
  Ismael Castro
0
Joel Guzman
62
  Jackson Melian
0
Dave Krynzel
54
  Jhensy Sandoval
0
Luke Allen
11
  Julio Bruno
0
Brian Richardson
0
  Julio Cordido
0
Brian Specht
0
  Luis Lorenzana
0
Cesar King
0
  Nelson Samboy
0
Darren Burton
0
  Nick Kimpton
0
Dwight Maness
0
  Ozzie Chavez
0
Freddie Freeman
0
  Rafael Soto
0
Gary Thomas
0
  Ricky Bell
0
Jhonny Perez
0
  Ricky Magdaleno
0
Manny Amador
0
  Tony Mota
0
Scott Hunter
0
  Victor Rodriguez
0
Sergio Santos
0
  Will McCrotty
0
Tim Jones
0
  Andre Lewis
0

Perusing the list reveals several active players who are likely to move up to a higher category. Not coincidentally, they’re mostly in the “top half” group. Hardy, Cabrera, Loney, Butler, Jones, Barton and Pie have varying probabilities of reaching 3,000 PAs. Texas’s own Joaquin Arias can escape prospect limbo by winning the backup infielder job next spring. Among the bottom-halfers, only Alcides Escobar and Ryan Sweeney have a chance at a lengthy career.

Again, Engel Beltre’s 2009 rests comfortably in the bottom half. It’s not a death knell for his MLB dreams. Keep in mind that nearly 50% of the worst 19-year-olds made the Majors. That’s awfully impressive. Nevertheless, being in the bottom half definitely puts a damper on expectations. In late March, after hearing the words every Texas minor leaguer dreads – “you’re repeating Bakersfield” – Beltre will work on becoming the next Torii Hunter instead of the next Tony Mota.

Posted by Lucas at December 31, 2009 06:30 PM