Scouting the Statline: California League Bats to Watch
Periodically over the course of the season I like to take the opportunity of this space to check in on how some notable fantasy prospects are performing down on the farm, and what that performance may or may not mean for your dynasty league. I’d like to kick off this series with a disclaimer that you should NEVER SCOUT MINOR LEAGUE STAT LINES. Listen to scouts and their firsthand reports on player progress and development, then make your decisions about how you value prospects according to those reports and your interpretation of how a given prospect appears to be developing. Disclaimer acknowledged, stats do matter to the degree that they influence how other managers in your league (and, it’s okay to admit it, you) view prospects. So it’s important to have a handle on how players are performing as tradin’ time comes around.
One of the tougher parts about evaluating prospects in the minor leagues is league-to-league (and sometimes venue-to-venue) park effects. It’s a significant reason why scouting stat lines is such a fool’s errand, frankly. And the California League is one of the biggest perpetrators in terms of building false narratives about players on account of its highly skewed offensive environment. There are three High-A leagues, and the California League’s league-average OPS of .755 trumps both the Carolina League (.702) and the Florida State League (.677) by considerable margins. That doesn’t mean that every breakout performance in the league is a mirage, but it does mean it’s harder to identify legitimate breakout performances.
Dynasty leaguers need to be aware of this context, and more often than not it’s a good idea to avoid making rash decisions about acquiring or selling prospects when they’re mixed up with the arid desert air of the southwest. So with all of this in mind let’s take a look at a few notable California League performances over the season’s first couple months…
Jesse Winker, OF CIN (.318/.423/.576, 12 HR, 132 OPS+, 43:37 K:BB in 239 PA at Bakersfield)
Winker, a 2012 supplemental first rounder, happens to call the best park for offense in the league his home, so on one hand his stats this season need to be taken with a big ol’ grain of salt. On the other hand, however, he could be hitting on the moon right now and his numbers would still be impressive, and he’s almost three years younger than your average hitter in the Cal League. His .998 OPS leads the league, and while he has indeed raked more at home than he has on the road the split is not remotely unsettling; his 1.025 home OPS doesn’t exactly dwarf his still-impressive .973 mark on the road. What’s interesting about Winker’s work thus far is that he’s achieved these numbers despite a notably depressed line drive rate, which currently sits under 14%. Minor league hit charts aren’t exactly the most reliable, but if you look at it as a ballpark figure it’s interesting because it marks the second straight season of a low line drive rate. This is either a good thing because his production has room to grow, or a bad thing because it’s a sign of inconsistent barreling ability and the possibility that he’s just not going to be that great a hitter once he reaches the upper minors. Scouting reports point to a guy with something akin to a Jason Kubel ceiling, so there’s some limitation to the sexiness here. But in deeper leagues that right there’s a nice, valuable player, and the possibility is still there that as a tools-play-up guy there’s more to him than that. For now he’s a guy that’s nigh on due for a promotion, and the jump to AA will prove instructive as to how heavily dynasty owners should be willing to invest.
D.J. Peterson, 3B SEA (.308/.360/.554, 13 HR, 123 OPS+, 57:18 K:BB in 261 PA at High Desert)
The 12th overall pick in last summer’s draft, Peterson did a good bit of raking after signing before a fastball to the face ended his first professional season prematurely. His performance as a relatively polished college bat was not unexpected, and the Mariners jumped him up to High-A to start this season. His surface stat production hasn’t missed a beat, and he’s even chipped in five stolen bases to boot. But here’s a case where home ballpark does appear to be playing a rather decisive role in patching up some holes in his game. High Desert annually ranks among the best hitter’s ballparks in the game, and Peterson has taken full advantage to the tune of a .376/.410/.661 line in friendly confines. Toss him on a bus to opposition territory, though, and the triple-slash dips to a much less enticing .252/.319/.466. His aggressive approach and vulnerability to off-speed stuff has led to a 22% strikeout rate that’s on the high side, and he’s shown an odd inability to hit lefthanded pitching thus far in his pro career (.704 OPS vs. .977 against righties). Peterson might be the textbook case of a hitter that you really need to see in a more neutral environment to get a handle on his offensive profile.
Brandon Drury, 3B ARI (.284/.354/.521, 13 HR, 116 OPS+, 47:25 K:BB in 291 PA at Visalia)
Drury was taken as a prep bat in the 13th round by Atlanta in 2010 and had an up-and-down start to his professional career. He was overmatched in Rookie ball out of the gate, but rebounded quickly and turned some heads with an .891 OPS in the Appy League in 2011. A jump to full-season A ball in 2012 did not go well at all, however, as he tumbled to an ugly .603 OPS with three and a half strikeouts to each walk. The Braves tossed him onto the undercard of the Justin Upton deal following the season, and he responded with a strong rebound campaign in the Midwest League last year. His .302/.362/.500 line was 23% better than league average, and he managed to keep his strikeouts contained to a reasonable 16% rate despite an aggressive approach at the dish. Fast forward to this season, and he’s picked up exactly where he left off last year. His strikeout, walk, and batted ball profiles are all more or less exactly in line with last year’s production, and he’s quietly emerging as a legitimate middle-of-the-order type of profile. Controlling the strike zone against upper minors pitching will be a big test, and the 21 year old is likely a few years away from threatening his potential at the Major League level. But his numbers are by no means a product of his environment, and this is a prospect who will be worthy of a look even in medium-depth dynasty leagues.
Tony Kemp, 2B/OF HOU (.336/.437/.475, 4 HR, 25/31 SB, 121 OPS+, 31:41 K:BB in 316 PA at Lancaster)
It’s tough to stand out on the stacked Lancaster roster, and tougher still when you barely measure one Altuve on your tiptoes. But Kemp is an exciting player to watch on both sides of the ball, and much like the Astros’ current keystoner he’s a short sparkplug with a game geared towards mayhem. A fifth round pick last summer, Kemp has already shown a really impressive ability to adapt and progress his game. He’s taken what was already a plus approach that resulted in near-equal strikeout and walk totals last year and improved it the point that he’s now drawing four walks to every three whiffs at a higher level. He’s also made great strides in advancing his base-stealing acumen, as his poor 21-for-32 success rate last year has given way to a much tighter 81% success rate thus far in 2014, again despite the superior competition of his level. Kemp has the kind of makeup you look for in a physically limited (read: short and maxed out) player and demonstrates a real knack for understanding the strengths of his game and how to maximize them. The contact ability, surprising pop, and outstanding eye make for an attractive collection of tools to pair with his plus speed and rapidly improving instincts on the basepaths. He’s going to need some time in the high minors to shore up his swing, but the production in California is absolutely legitimate and he’s a guy to keep an eye on in deep dynasty leagues.