By: Brian Mangan
This is the third and final installment of my #FreeWilmer series. I hope you have enjoyed it so far.
- In Part I, we explained that Ruben Tejada has been a huge liability at the plate this year (161st out of 162 major leaguers in slugging %) and ranked 22nd out of 28 shortstops in wins above replacement (WAR).
- In Part II, we explained that Wilmer Flores is a former Top 100 prospect who has nothing left to prove in Triple-A (batting .321/.360/.543 with 28 HR and 143 RBI in 162 games) and that his offensive contribution would outweigh any of his defensive problems.
Despite all of this, there are still people who don’t believe that Flores is the better option, and who think that the Mets should stick with Ruben Tejada. For those of you who feel that way because you don’t think Flores can play shortstop, that is something that we can’t disprove until he plays. The offensive part of Flores’s profile, however, should be beyond question, because not only has Flores been putting up video-game numbers in Las Vegas, he’s dominating the Pacific Coast League like only a handful of players have done in the last two decades.
For starters, you should know that the average OPS for players playing for Las Vegas in the Pacific Coast League has been between 811 and 848 over the last six years (811, 837, 848, 826, 822, 833 each season, to be exact). Wilmer Flores has blown those averages out of the water: his OPS this season is a full 100 points higher than the average player at Las Vegas (who, by the way, is five years older than him).
But how rare is that feat for a player of Wilmer Flores’s age? It turns out that it’s extraordinarily rare. I went back seventeen years and looked at the historical rosters for the Las Vegas 51′s and their predecessors(they have been playing at the same field since it’s opening in 1983). You’ll recognize some names from other organizations — that is because from 1983 to 2000, Vegas was the affiliate for San Diego, from 2001 to 2008 the affiliate for Los Angeles, and from 2009 to 2012 the affiliate for Toronto.
I wanted to compare to Flores’s OPS of 887 at age 21 and 938 at age 22, but there was almost nobody to compare to, so I loosened the requirements for the purposes of comparison. For each roster, I pulled out the following: any player ages 23 or younger who posted an OPS of 875 or better in a single season of 400 at bats. I also included players who I noticed were able to accomplish the feat over parts of two seasons, and other notable players who passed through.
Remember – this is same team, same stadium, same weather environment. What I found was impressive: in those seventeen years (with 25 players per roster, approximately 425 player-seasons) only nine other players have been in the same stratosphere as Wilmer Flores.
Derrek Lee, Ben Davis, Joe Thurston, Andy LaRoche, James Loney, Matt Kemp, Travis Snider, Brett Lawrie, Travis D’Arnaud, that’s it [full list in footnotes]. Nine players have done what Wilmer Flores has done (twice) in almost two decades. What do they all have in common? Each and every one of them was a major leaguer – ranging from role player (like in the case of Thurston, whose season was a fluke) to regulars (Lawrie, Ross, Kemp) to actual stars (Derrek Lee hit 331 career home runs, and Adrian Beltre may be Cooperstown bound).
You know who never played at Wilmer Flores’s level for 400 at-bats in Triple-A? Fernando Martinez (815 OPS in Triple A). Alex Ochoa (779 OPS in Triple-A). Lastings Milledge (791 OPS in Triple A). So you can stop those comparisons now.
Listen, it’s no secret that it’s easier to his in Vegas than it is anywhere else in the minor leagues, and it is certainly easier to hit there than in the majors. This is why nobody thinks that Wilmer Flores is going to replicate his Vegas line of .321/.360/.543 with 28 HR and 143 RBI in his first year in MLB. But it takes a special class of player to do what he has done at his age.
Betting that a prospect is going to bust isn’t “smart”, it’s just the percentages, as this chart from Beyond the Boxscore illustrates. But a lot of prospects don’t bust – every one of the players in the major leagues (excepting some international FAs) was a prospect in the minor leagues working his way up.
We argued in Part II that Wilmer Flores was going to hit enough to justify playing every day even if his defense was worse than league average. Terry Collins may never give Wilmer Flores the opportunity to prove it, but it won’t be for this author’s lack of trying.
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Brian Mangan is an attorney living in New York City. Follow him on twitter at @brianpmangan.
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- Years in which nobody qualified: 1998, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2010.
- 1997 (1) – Derrek Lee, 21, 876 OPS
- 1999 (1) – Ben Davis, 22, 897 OPS. There were actually zero this year, but we will count Ben Davis who posted an 897 OPS in 229 plate appearances because he was called up to MLB. The next season he posted an 812 OPS at the same level. He was ranked the #24 prospect in all of baseball that year.
- 2001 (0) – Adrian Beltre, 22, N/A. There were actually none again this year, but we will mention Adrian Beltre, who posted a 2114 OPS in 7 at-bats while skipping directly from AA to MLB two years before at the age of 19.
- 2002 (1) – Joe Thurston, 22, 878. Joe Thurston at age 22 batted a robust .329/.395/.506. Joe Thurston never before, and never again, had a season like his 2002 season, making it a clear fluke. His 2001 season was a 716 OPS in AA, his 2003 season was a 746 OPS in Vegas. Teammate Luke Allen, 23, posted an OPS of 864.
- 2003 (0) – Shane Victorino, 22, 981. Again, no player 23 or younger had that level of success — but we will mention Shane Victorino, who appeared in 11 games at age 22. Victorino was unable to repeat that success in 2004, posting a 613 OPS in Vegas, but he was nonetheless a good prospect. Chin-Feng Chen posted an 889 OPS at age 25.
- 2004 (0) – Cody Ross, 23, 866. We’ll nod to Cody Ross who batted .273/.328/.538 over 259 plate appearances.
- 2006 (3) – Andy LaRoche, 22, 950; James Loney, 22, 973; Matt Kemp, 21, 988. Finally, we have a season in Las Vegas where the town was treated with some premium prospects — and they all delivered. Aybar, LaRoche, and Kemp each had between 200 and 230 plate appearances, but it’s clear what a premium talent can do in Las Vegas at that age. James Loney and Matt Kemp, I don’t have to tell you, are major league regulars. Andy LaRoche was such a big prospect that it could rightly be characterized as “mind blowing” that he didn’t pan out. Willy Aybar was a decent prospect, but never hit that well before or after 2006 (775 OPS in Vegas in 2005, 772 OPS in AA in 2004).
- 2007 (2) – Matt Kemp, 22, 914; Andy LaRoche, 23, 987. None of our players met our qualification rules, but since Kemp and LaRoche did it over two seasons, I feel comfortable including them. Tony Abreu also had a hot 234 at bats in Vegas at the age of 22, posting a 916 OPS. John Lindsey, a 30 year old, posted a 1010 OPS.
- 2009 (0) – Travis Snider, 21, 1094. Travis Snider, in his first 175 at-bats in Vegas, posted a wild .337/.431/.663 line (1094 OPS). while veteran Randy Ruiz posted a 976 at age 31. The Travis Snider story is well-known.
- 2011 (2) – Travis Snider, 23, 873; Brett Lawrie, 21, 1076
- Travis Snider, in his return to Vegas, rakes again, and we will also include Brett Lawrie’s white-hot 1076 OPS over 292 at bats. Adeiny Hechavarria also posted a 968 OPS over only 108 at bats.
- 2012 (1) – Travis D’Arnaud, 23, 975
- Travis D’Arnaud! He posted a .333/.380/.595 line in 279 at bats, but we’ll include him. Other sluggers on the squad were all too old, like Eric Thames, 25 (935 OPS), Yan Gomes, 24 (938), and Adam Lind, 28 (1112 OPS).
- 2013 (1) – Wilmer Flores, 21, 887
- 2014 (1) – Wilmer Flores, 22, 935
In many of these years, there were older players who dominated the level – but nobody cares about Phil Hiatt putting up an OPS of 1129 at 32 years old. Similarly, there were a dozen Mets in Vegas who posted an OPS over 875 last season, but only Wilmer was 23 or younger. Even of those who were in their mid to late 20s, only a handful had more than 200 at bats from which to make a judgment. Foremost among them were Eric Campbell, 26 (910) and Josh Satin, 28 (911). Andrew Brown, 28, also put up a 1093 OPS but in 153 at bats.