Baseball Between the Numbers, courtesy of Jonah Keri and Baseball Prospectus, was the book that first introduced me to advanced baseball statistics. Included in this eye-opening reading was a chapter written by Clay Davenport that attempted to determine whether there is such a thing as a “Quad-A” player. I was recently reminded of this piece while considering the futures of three players in the Pirates organization: Jeff Clement, Steve Pearce and Neil Walker.
Here is the portion that seems relevant to me:
There is a common problem that affects any system that involves promotions from level to level with professional baseball. Players are not robots. They have a basic skill and talent level – sometimes they play above their talent level (a “hot streak”), and sometimes they play below it (a “cold streak”). However, despite all of the blustering among major league general managers about not paying attention to statistics, they do read the numbers. When something goes wrong and they need to grab a guy from Triple-A, GMs are far more likely to take the guy who’s hitting .330 than the one who’s hitting .230, even if both of them are career .280 hitters. The player who is playing over his head is much more likely to get called up than a player who is just being his regular self, or struggling.
The effect of that decision is that when the hot streak wears off and the player goes back to being his usual self, it’s going to look like he can’t handle the major leagues. Which, in this case, is true; the team erred in thinking he was ever major league caliber. He wasn’t “ready” because he wasn’t good enough in the first place.
Clement, then a 24-year-old catcher, began the 2008 season at Triple-A Tacoma. He hit .392/.529/.684 in 79 at-bats and was promoted to Seattle at the end of April. He followed that up with a .167/.286/.250 line in 48 at-bats and was shipped back to Tacoma. He stayed there for 94 at-bats, hitting .287/.385/.670. In June, he was back with the Mariners for the remainder of the season. Again, he struggled, hitting .245/.299/.394. With that, the Mariners essentially gave up on him. He hit fairly well in 2009 at Triple-A before being shipped to the Pirates at the trade deadline. The Pirates gave him a chance this season to start at the major league level, which has been a nightmare. It seems apparent that Clement can handle himself just fine in Triple-A, but is useless in the big leagues. Or maybe the 325 plate appearances scattered over the past two-plus calendar years are not an accurate representation of his true ability at the major league level. Maybe the 747 impressive Triple-A plate appearances over the same period may not accurately represent his true Triple-A talent. Maybe his true ability is somewhere in the middle, and he has simply been hurt by experiencing slumps at the worst times.
Pearce has suffered a similar fate. He had a phenomenal 2007 season as a 24-year-old, rising all the way from High-A Lynchburg to PNC Park. His 2008 season was mediocre, split between Triple-A and Pittsburgh. Last year, he hit extremely well at Indianapolis but struggled in another major league trial. This year, he was literally on fire at Triple-A. He got the call to Pittsburgh, and has managed just 21 plate appearances in almost two weeks. So is Pearce simply an elite hitter at Triple-A and an awful one in the majors? Or is it more likely that he is an average-ish hitter who we are trying to judge based on just 399 major league plate appearances sprinkled across three seasons?
This brings me to Walker. Walker is not in the same situation as Clement and Pearce, but he may find himself there if the Pirates are not careful. First of all, here are Walker’s career numbers at Triple-A:
Coming into the season, there were doubts whether Walker had any type of major league future. Just 161 plate appearances later, it appears that he has figured things out, and we are suddenly penciling him in as a future starter. More likely, Walker is playing well above his talent level. Maybe it is a small sample size issue. Maybe Walker is benefiting from a fourth stint at the level. Whatever the cause, expectations have jumped to an unreasonable level. Walker may have a future with the Pirates, but anyone expecting a 1.000 OPS will surely be disappointed. He will probably struggle simply to produce a league average level of offense. This is not to suggest that Walker should not get his chance in Pittsburgh on May 20; he certainly should. But we must temper some of the expectations we may have for him after his hot start.
I would venture to say that Clement, Pearce and Walker all have a fairly similar true talent level. Clement and Pearce have failed in the limited opportunities they have received. The Pirates and Mariners could not afford to stick with them for extended periods in hopes that they would come around. The same could happen to Walker if he is recalled soon and struggles, even if it is simply due to regression back to his true ability.
Established major league hitters are permitted to ride out their hot and cold streaks over the course of a season, and over the course of multiple seasons in some situations. Non-elite prospects with uncertain futures are not given that same benefit. They are generally given a brief opportunity, and if they don’t immediately seize that opportunity, they are cast aside. Will Walker be subjected to the same outcome?