Looking for the next Jack Cust... (Talking Sabermetrics)

Bob Levey

Using advanced stats to search the Mexican and International Leagues for hidden hitters.

"Talking Sabermetrics" has covered advanced hitting stats like wOBA and wRC+, and now we use them to screen ML and IL hitters.

Scott Moore, Bryan LaHair, Justin Ruggiano, Justin Maxwell. Those are three of the 4A hitters who showed surprising potential at the major league level in 2012. There is something fascinating about looking for major league help among the ex-prospects buried in AAA because their age relegated them to "non-prospect" status. They are called 4A players because they are too good for AAA but never made it in the big leagues. Some of them were never given sufficient big league at bats during their prime. Many of them are poor fielders who play non-premium defensive positions. The fact that the Astros will have a DH in 2013 makes this a more interesting search than previous seasons.

Don't get me wrong: I am very interested in the Astros signing veteran major league hitters. But I also expect the Astros to sign some 4A hitters as NRIs (non roster invitees). If the NRI signee gets lucky in spring training, he may start the season on the ML roster (like Travis Buck in 2012). Or they may start the season in AAA, but end up on the ML roster later in the season (see Scott Moore).

I put Cust's name in the title for a couple of reasons. First, Jack Cust was one of the most successful signings of a 4A player when the Oakland A's plucked him from the Padres' AAA team in 2007. He averaged a wOBA over .370 for the next four seasons in Oakland. Cust was a sabermetrics success story. Second, Cust was one of Jeff Luhnow's first NRI signings of 2012. Cust didn't make the Astros' roster and ended up signing with the Yankees' system. In the International League during 2012, Cust had perhaps his best AAA performance (wOBA .394, wRC+ 147) since that 2007 season when he was signed by the A's.

I will focus on the Mexican League and International League. Both are considered AAA leagues. Why focus on these two leagues? Luhnow has indicated that he will look more closely at the talent in Mexico than the Astros have in the past. The International League has a low run scoring environment--significantly less hitter friendly than the Pacific Coast League--which means that the batting stats are less likely to be inflated.

Mexican League

(Note: Keep in mind that the Mexican League is a high run scoring environment)

1. Leonardo Heras (age 22) CF. Heras doesn't fit the 4A description, and that's why I highlight him at no. 1, even though he isn't the top hitter in the Mexican League. Heras' young age makes him a prospect. In addition, unlike others on this list, he plays a premium fielding position. Advanced stats of interest:

wRC+ 139 wOBA .410 OPS .945 ISO .230 BB 10% K 16%

Sure, you have to discount the stats somewhat because of the league's hitting environment. But at age 22, and in only his third professional season, he has potential for additional development and improvement. Heras showed the ability to hit for average, hit for power and steal bases. He also has a high speed score. At mid season, Fangraphs suggested that he deserves a shot in at least the PCL or IL:

Heras is looking elite in a league that is 6 years older than him on average. If this is not the kind of player the ML exists to find, then who is?

Perhaps Heras' size (5-8, 155) has been an impediment to attracting major league attention. However, he did hit 24 HRs, which indicates more strength than you would expect for his size. Moreover, for a .320 hitter, his .347 BABIP is not overly high, considering the league, suggesting that he has been more than just lucky. He might be an interesting addition at the AAA level. Apparently, Heras is expected to be the lead off hitter for the Mexico WBC team; I'm not sure what effect that would have on his signability.

2. Brett Harper (age 30), DH/1b LHB. I limited my search to hitters at age 30 or younger, and Harper was the best Mexican League hitter in that age range. Early in his career he was the best power hitter prospect in the Mets' organization, but was hurt by playing for a team in a non-DH league. He has hit well for MLB affiliated AAA teams over the years. In 2012, the lefthanded batter launched 27 HRs in only 368 PA and posted an ISO over .300. He is the son of a major leaguer. Some selected advanced stats in the Mexican League:

wRC+ 164 wOBA .449 OPS 1.009 ISO .302 BB 11% K 20%

3. Alex Valdez (age 27) 3b/DH. A former A's prospect, Valdez had stints with the Nats and Red Sox AAA teams in recent years. Showed some HR power with decent speed on the base paths. He is currently playing in the Venezuelan Winter League. Some selected advanced stats in the Mexican League:

wRC+ 150 wOBA .428 OPS 1.070 ISO .238 BB 9% K 14%

International League

1. Mauro Gomez (age 27) 1b/3b/DH. The Red Sox signed Gomez as a minor league free agent and he rewarded them when he won the International League MVP. With the trade of Adrian Gonzalez, Gomez received a little over 100 PAs with the Red Sox, posting a ML line of .275, .324, .422. His walk rate isn't great, but he has shown good power. Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine spoke glowingly of Gomez's hitting ability. Sabermetric writer (and Red Sox blogger) Marc Normandin wrote earlier this year:

Gomez isn't likely to be some future star, but there are plenty of scouts who like his bat a whole lot, and think that with a real chance in the majors he could turn into something productive.

I'm not sure if the Red Sox will re-sign Gomez. But he won't beat out Ortiz or Middlebrooks for DH or 3b, and I have the feeling that Boston will seek to acquire a bigger name hitter for 1b. Some advanced stats for the International League, which Gomez led in overall offense:

wRC+ 165 wOBA .420 OPS .960 ISO .279 BB 8% K 21%

2. Corey Brown (Age 26) OF, LHB. Brown is a former Oakland A's 1st round pick (2007) out of Oklahoma State. The Nats traded for Brown in 2010, and I'm sure that Bo Porter knows a lot about him. Brown has demonstrated both good power and base stealing speed. But the question mark during his career has been contact ability and batting average. However, he may have made a break through in AAA this season, showing both power and a decent batting average. He ranked second in the IL for wOBA and third in wRC+. Brown had a cup of coffee with the Nats in 2012 and got some attention with a game winning walk off hit. It's hard to predict whether Brown will be available either through trade or as a minor league free agent. Brown's age puts him on the borderline of prospect status, and the Nats may want to keep him in their plans. Some advanced stats:

wRC+ 144 wOBA .394 OPS .888 ISO .238 BB 11% K 25%

3. Ernesto Mejia (Age 26) 1b. Mejia was the Braves' player of the year in AAA. Mejia, 6-6 in height, hit 24 HRs for Gwinnett. His walk rate is weak, but he appears to have legitimate power for a DH role. Advanced stats:

wRC+ 135 wOBA .377 OPS .849 ISO .206 BB 6% K 24%

4. Other Notables... Josh Satin (1b, 3b, Age 27) of the Mets provides a good walk rate and moderate power, and ranked sixth in the IL for wRC+ and wOBA. Matt LaPorta (1b, Age 27), an uber hitting prospect whom the Indians acquired in the Sabbathia trade, is out of options and could become available this year. LaPorta continued to perform well in AAA (.366 wOBA and .208 ISO), but his major league offense has been a huge disappointment across more than 1,000 PA. LaPorta underwent hip surgery at the end of the season.

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