It’s no secret that Kody Hinze has absolutely dominated the California League and has nothing left to prove in Lancaster. The season he is having has generated a lot of excitement and speculation about when he will be called up to double A Corpus Christi. The moment many of us have been hoping for has finally occurred. Hinze will likely make his Hooks debut Thursday in Corpus Christi against the Tulsa Drillers. In honor of Hinze’s promotion and rise to relevance, I will take a look at a few current Major League first basemen who also spent a significant amount of time in high A during their age 23 seasons.
Before this season, Hinze was not an especially exciting prospect. He was an undrafted signee who was a little old for his league, and though he did have a nice season last year in Lexington, his success there really wouldn't mean much if he didn't go on to do what he has done in Lancaster this year. Over the last season and half he has moved his prospect status from roster filler to fringe prospect to top prospect. This year at Lancaster, he is having a Koby Clemens or Jonathan Gaston type Jethawk-campaign. There is hope, though, that he is not just another product of Lancaster’s park which is extremely favorable to hitters. For one, his home and away stats are nearly identical (he is slightly better on the road). And, as Brian McTaggart reported, he has also shown signs with some of his peripheral stats, namely his ability to draw walks, which lead director of player development, Fred Nelson to believe he has the strike zone recognition and pitch selectivity to excel at the double A level.
Even though Hinze’s promotion to double A moves him from a league where he was a little old to one where he is about the right age, age is still working against the Houston native. Most elite first base prospects make their Major League debut by the time they are 23, if not sooner. There is some precedence, however, for older power hitting first base prospects making successful jumps into the Major Leagues. When I try to think of successful Major Leaguers who were older prospects, I immediately think of former Astro prospects, Luke Scott and Ben Zobrist. The careers these two guys have had, considering how old they were when they signed professional contracts, is somewhat amazing. I’m sure there are other examples of guys like Zobrist and Scott. However, at the first base position, it is rare for successful Major Leaguers to get their start after they are 25. Let’s look at a few successful Major League first basemen currently in the league who, like Kody Hinze, spent significant time in high A during their age 23 season.
The first name that comes to mind when thinking about older, dominant first base prospects is Ryan Howard, who first saw significant Major League action midway through his age 25 season. Like Hinze, Howard started his age 23 season in high A ball. Howard also had a monster season in high A but unlike Kody, Howard was not promoted to double A until his age 24 season. When he did get promoted, he continued to dominate and even saw some major league time in the season after his A+ season. Another interesting thing about the Ryan Howard comparison is that Hinze and Howard had similar age 22 seasons in single A. So, even though Howard was a high draft pick and Hinze was undrafted, their career paths and achievements through their age 23 seasons are very similar. Even if you account for league differences and stadium differences for Hinze in Lancaster and Howard in Clearwater, Hinze has a pretty significant edge when comparing the two players high A seasons. While both Hinze and Howard strikeout a lot, Howard struck out at a higher rate and didn’t walk as much as Hinze has at Lancaster. Howards most dominant minor league season was his age 24 season in which he hit 46 homers and posted a 1.017 OPS between double A, Reading and a short stint in triple AAA, Scranton. It will be interesting to see if Hinze can continue to keep pace with the path that Ryan Howard carved towards Philadelphia. Right now, he is a bit ahead of that curve.
Another first baseman who has had Major League success after dominating high A ball at the age of 23 is Travis Hafner. Hafner, like Howard, spent his entire age 23 season in high A, Charlotte. What is interesting to me about comparing Hafner’s season in Charlotte and Hinze’s numbers in Lancaster is that their success was really boosted by a significantly improved strikeout to walk ratio. In Hafner’s case, the K/BB ratio was improved by Hafner cutting his strikeout rate in half from his previous season in A ball. With Hinze, the strikeouts are coming at a similar rate to what he did last year in Lexington, but he has drawn twice as many walks. While Kronk struck out less than Hinze when he was in high A, they had similar K/BB ratios which translated to a nice year at AA Tulsa for Hafner and hopefully will help Hinze in his tenure at Corpus.
A more recent example of an older guy finding success at first base is Gaby Sanchez. Last year in his age 26 season, Sanchez beat out the younger prospect Logan Morrison for the first base job and went on to finish 4th in the National League Rookie of the Year Voting. Like Howard and Hafner, Sanchez spent his entire age 23 season in high A ball. However, though Sanchez had a decent year that year, his season does not compare to the age 23, high A seasons that Hinze, Hafner, and Howard put up. Sanchez is actually more comparable to a different first base prospect for the Astros. If you take age out of the equation, Gaby’s minor league career is pretty similar to Brett Wallace’s. I think this is a comparison that should give Astros fans an idea about the kind of player Wallace can become with time if he continues to develop power.
Mitch Moreland split his age 23 season between high A and double A in the Rangers system. His OPS dropped 150 points after he was promoted to double A. However, it was still a respectable .861 through 327 at bats and enough for the Rangers to decide to start him off in triple A his age 24 season. Moreland put up similar numbers in triple A and made his way to the Rangers roster. I could see a scenario where Hinze’s OPS take a similar dip but is still high enough to warrant advancing him through the system.
So, there are a few examples of first basemen who played in high A ball when they were 23 and went on to be successful at the Major League level. Sure, there are many examples of guys who dominated in high A ball and then sputtered out along the way. However, something has seemingly clicked with Hinze this year and it has resulted in a much better season than any of the other guys mentioned in this post put up when they were a similar age and at a similar level. It will be exciting to see how Kody handles Texas League pitching. He will be going from an extreme hitters park to one that favors pitchers. However, Hinze’s current home/road splits and propensity for drawing walks lead me to believe he will experience a smooth transition to double A.