An interesting point came up in the comments to the Diamondbacks’ Top 50 list I wrote earlier in the month. The question was about Socrates Brito and whether he might have an opportunity to make any impact this season on the major league level. I mentioned a particular flaw I think I see in his approach at the plate and that got me thinking about the guys we generally consider AAAA players and how they get to acquire that designation.
There are several factors that are fairly common in AAAA players. One is age. Even the ones who have some success in the major leagues at some point are considered late bloomers. This age factor is usually the result of a guy who is slow to make the adjustments necessary to succeed at the next level, whether it was a result of multiple years at several levels or a guy who was never good enough in college to turn scouts’ heads and they signed at age 22 or 23 after a full college career.
In addition to not remaining age appropriate and being slow to make adjustments, the last quality common to these players is often one fatal flaw in their approach. It can be physical and as simple as a slow bat or it can be mechanical like the flaw I see in Brito. When I watch video of Brito, I see that his bat is very upright as he gets into his ready position. He starts with his bat on his shoulder at a good angle, but as the pitcher releases he takes the bat almost straight up. This puts him in a position where the only fastball he can hit is one down and in. In all the video I can find on him this is how he has always hit. He’s a AAAA hitter waiting to happen if he does not make some adjustment there. Here’s one video from March 2012, but as I say, his swing hasn’t changed much since then.
The most interesting thing to me in this whole discussion is that there are what I think of as AAAA guys who find a way to overcome it and have some degree of useful career in the majors. Most of those players are guys who figure out their one fatal flaw and make an adjustment that minimizes it effectively. The length of the major league careers tend to be then based on how quickly pitchers adjust to them at that point. Because of this, many of them that do find success don’t sustain that success for more than a few years.
Who are we talking about here? You all know many of them. Dan Johnson, Dallas McPherson, Bryan LaHair, Jason DuBois, Wily Mo Pena, Brendan Harris and a host of others have come across the baseball horizon.
Over the years, I have developed a general rule of thumb. Players who have not managed to get 100 or more ABs by their age 24 season are guys I consider AAAA players. This isn’t Fangraphs. They do their own thing and I love what they do. I have not gone into the weeds on this and crunched all of the numbers, but I have done a ton of research and watched a lot of video on MiLB.com and YouTube. I’ve used that theory pretty successfully.
I mentioned above that there are guys who are AAAA-like players who do find major league success. They find a way to minimize their fatal flaw for a season or several. A very few crash thorough their flaws and find long and productive careers. Nelson Cruz and Raul Ibanez are the best examples of this. To me, they are the exception. Again, I don’t know a specific statistical proof here. The exceptions find a way to either make one adjustment that really minimizes their flaw or they learn a couple of moves that they can use to set up pitchers and they stay one step ahead that way. Cruz, for example did some things with bat angle. Early in his career pitchers tried to beat him with fastballs up. He flattened his bat a bit and was able to get to those pitches. As pitchers adjusted to him, he got into a more neutral position with his bat and negated the adjustments the pitchers were making. More often, you have the Jason Bay, Jay Payton, Dan Uggla, Jack Cust and Chris Duncan kind of success. They were players who had some great success but were generally below average by age 31 or 32.
The best example I can give you and explain a bit about how it happens is Ryan Howard. Howard took forever to move through the Phillies’ system and didn’t reach AA until he was 24. He did get to the majors for a cup of coffee that season as well, but started his age 25 season in AAA before having his Rookie of the Year campaign that season. He originally came up in May and played every day through the first half of the month without a lot of success. He was sent back to AAA for the month of June, made one adjustment and the rest is history (though even he was on a serious career downturn by age 32).
That one adjustment Howard made was an effort to make up for a lack of elite bat speed. He moved off the plate a bit, invited pitchers to try to beat him with hard stuff away and he committed to seeing the ball deep. That gave him just enough extra time to react to make up for the lack of top shelf bat speed. His strength did the rest. If you look at his spray chart for the first few years of his major league success, you see 60% or so of his HR going to the opposite field. Pitchers inexplicably kept throwing him fastballs away and he kept hitting HRs from CF to the LF line. Eventually, though, pitchers caught up a bit, his bat got even slower and he had no adjustments left. He became simply a guy who can punish mistakes.
So what does this all mean to you as you build a fantasy team? When I find myself with a AAAA guy on my minor roster I try to do a couple of things. First, I am very aware of the ‘Age 24 Rule’. Once a player on my roster hits that age with good minor league success but without much, if any, major league experience I start paying more attention to any new video I can find on him. I try to see if there is an adjustment he can make or has made to be able to crack the next level. As you might guess from some of my previous comments, I concentrate a lot on bat angle and position in the batter’s box, though comparing video sometimes shows some other obvious changes. If it looks as if there might be an adjustment that can be made to get to another level of success, I’ll plan to keep that guy. I’m hoping to get the first year or two of good production from him and then flip him before the inevitable crash. I’d rather give up a couple of seasons of good production than to wait too long and miss my window.
If I don’t see an adjustment that can be made, I will generally try to hope those guys get off to another good start in AAA and try to deal them at that point. Most recently, I’ve dealt guys like Trayce Thompson and Mac Williamson (both before the 2016 season) using this overall approach and gotten some useful return.
I also don’t mind grabbing a AAAA guy for my minors roster to see if he can get an opportunity and have a bit of success. The plan is to flip him just when it seems he finally has gotten a chance. I have TJ Rivera on my roster right now, hoping the Mets give him some opportunities and he can take advantage of them. It’s a fine line and I’ve made plenty of mistakes as well. I had Billy Burns when he made that big rookie splash at age 25 in 2015. I really agonized over whether to deal him at that point. I decided to wait one season. Oops. There are a few names out there right now who fit the profile and the question becomes whether you buy in and whether you can do what might seem crazy to others. Kole Calhoun is a prime example. You can check back with me in a couple of years, but I am very confident that he has only two or three seasons left as a useful offensive option. He’s an attractive name now and chances are if you have him he is at a good salary. I’d be looking to sell high before the inevitable crater. Another very interesting guy is Josh Donaldson. If you didn’t see it or haven’t seen it, find the spot he did on MLB Network back in August of 2016 or so. It is a fascinating look at how players make adjustments and everything that goes into the swing. If you watch it, tell me that he’ll be able to still do all of that successfully at the age of 33 or 34. I’d bet against it.
Know your AAAA hitters, learn their strengths and weaknesses and use that knowledge to improve your team. I’d love to generate some discussion on this through the comments.