What Happens In El Paso
Austin Hedges and Dan Vogelbach are raking in the Pacific Coast League causing fantasy owners to wonder: If it happens in El Paso or Iowa, does it stay there or translate to the major-league level?
It’s easy to forget about Austin Hedges. Especially considering he wasn’t a coveted fantasy prospect to begin with. The poster boy for the “better real-life player than fantasy asset” label throughout his minor-league career, predictably his defense didn’t skip a beat with the transition to the big leagues last season. Per Baseball Prospectus framing data, he ranks among the best defensive catchers in the game. The problem, which rendered him completely useless from both a “real-life” and fantasy standpoint, was that he did his best Mike Zunino (sans power) impression at the plate in his Padres debut last season, hitting a paltry .168/.215/.248 in 56 games.
Hedges opened up the 2016 campaign at Triple-A El Paso, where he hit for a high average (.324 over 21 games) prior to his call-up the previous year. Still, he managed just 10 extra-base hits and two home runs during that stretch. The complete lack of power makes it even crazier that he’s re-writing the Chihuahuas record books with a home run binge for the ages right now.
On June 16, Hedges stepped to the plate against Albuquerque, hitting .286/.344/.446 with two home runs all season. In 11 games since, he’s gone 22-for-44 (.500) with nine home runs, three walks and just seven strikeouts. Considering that Hedges had all of 26 dingers 381 games into his professional career prior to this year, and has already racked up 11 in just 28 games, it’s completely fair to be skeptical of his recent surge. Is the outburst a harbinger of things to come or is it a cruel PCL mirage?
The logical argument that the vast majority of fantasy owners in the past (and likely the future too) have made is that analyzing Triple-A statistics is a fruitless endeavor. Especially when it comes to attempting to derive meaning from a slash line assembled in the offensive-rich Pacific Coast League, which averaged nearly five (4.73) runs per game last season. This is where BP’s True Average (TAv) metric is the great equalizer. TAv is a statistic (scaled to batting average) that sums up a players total offensive output and adjusts for ballpark and league setting so that every hitter is put on a level playing field.
Excluding fellow backstop Willson Contreras (.385 TAv), who has already been promoted to the major leagues, only 26-year-old Oklahoma City first baseman O’Koyea Dickson (.389 TAv) owns a higher mark than Hedges (.384 TAv) among PCL hitters with at least 100 plate appearances this season. Simply put, Hedges over a small sample size of 110 plate appearances has been arguably the best hitter in Triple-A this season. Considering how bad he was a year ago in the major leagues, it’s a statement that almost defies logic. Maybe we were simply too quick to write him off and completely discount the possibility that he could improve at the plate. It’s rare, but not unprecedented. There’s no greater recent example of a player enduring a prolonged period of futility at the dish and then breaking through than Jackie Bradley Jr.
In an interview with MiLB.com’s Michael Avallone earlier this week, the California native spoke about how he benefitted from his major-league experience last season. “The biggest thing I took from it was having a consistent routine each day,” he said. “Show up at the field, prepare myself both physically and mentally. I learned a lot by watching and listening from other teammates, and I’m trying to apply that to my game.”
It’s not just Hedges that stands out among PCL hitters. If we extend the plate appearance threshold to 250, effectively limiting the field to just everyday players, a singular name rises to the top. It’s Iowa Cubs first baseman (in name only) Dan Vogelbach. In 73 games, the former 2011 second-rounder is hitting a mammoth .308/.422/.556 with 31 extra-base hits (15 home runs) and a PCL-leading .356 TAv.
The 23-year-old failed to make a loaded BP Top 10 Cubs prospect list this offseason, but he checked in 37th overall on Bret Sayre’s offseason Top 101 Dynasty Prospect list and 59th with Ben Carsely’s edition. Still outside of hardcore dynasty owners who are willing to overlook the deficiencies in his game, you won’t find any conventional prospect analyst who is enamored with his skill set. Here is BP’s prospect guru Chris Crawford this offseason.
“I’m not a fan of Vogelbach’s skill set, but I do find him pretty darn interesting. It’s not a question of his offensive upside; he controls the zone well, and he shows plus raw power from the left side. The problem is when you’re a 20 runner and defender, you need to be more than a 55-55 offensive guy to contribute at the big-league level. Is it impossible that he becomes a regular? Nope. Is it a massively uphill battle? You bet your bottom dollar.”
See, not exactly a ringing endorsement, but the phrase that stands out is the ability to control the zone, which I firmly believe will play at the highest level and enable him to be an impact fantasy contributor. Unlike Hedges, who is displaying a skill he must’ve kept locked away in the top shelf where mom hides the cookie jar, we always knew Vogelbach could hit. If he defies the odds to even make The Show, it’s most likely going to be with another organization in the American League, because he’s not unseating Anthony Rizzo anytime this decade (or the next).
Setting aside playing time and future role considerations (which undoubtedly matter a great deal) for the moment, why am I still hesitant to believe what the data is saying? It’s more of a philosophical question than anything else. I have an overheated calculator and an entire spreadsheet that make the case for Hedges and Vogelbach as a pair of the best investments among minor-league hitters on the doorstep right now.
However, just like my opinion on Beck’s new single (is it really good or are we just convinced it’s good because he’s Beck?), I go back and forth on a daily basis regarding whether to believe in Hedges and Vogelbach. Personally, I’m the type of fantasy owner who gets sucked in on someone like Jabari Blash. Not just because he crushed a PCL-leading 32 home runs and made the Padres Opening Day roster, but because I’m an optimism at heart. I choose to believe that the unlikeliest of storylines has some degree of probability and I’m willing to take that chance. The idea of an offensively inept catcher suddenly transforming into a deadly power hitter or an unconventional DH-type in a National League setting emerging as a legitimate force are the types of high variance investments will produce phenomenal success stories and a myriad of spectacular misses. It’s huge risk to assume for potentially no reward.
Hedges is a much more complicated case than Vogelbach, but they both serve as test cases in my opinion for overlooking deficiencies to find skills that will translate to the major leagues. The same can be said of Pirates prospect Josh Bell, who leads the International League with a .330 TAv. A highly touted hitter, he’s committed a staggering eight errors at first base this season and there are huge question marks about his defense. In dynasty formats, it’s about taking chances on a vast array of prospects and the numbers are making a strong case for Hedges and Vogelbach right now.