By The Numbers: Hitters On The Upswing

Nathaniel Stoltz, whose columns focus on the statistical analysis of players, returns to take a look at a few of the Oakland A's players who participated in major league camp this spring who are trending positively with their statistics over the past three years.

As the 2009 season draws nearer, it is certainly time to examine trends in players that could carry over into the season.

I decided to examine the statistics of the position players on the Oakland A's 40-man roster, as well as the position players who are in camp as non-roster invitees. I looked at the stats from 2006-08 for each player, and identified 11 position players who have consistently improved over that span. In this article, I'll break the numbers down for 2006-08, and predict whether or not the player's improvement will continue into this season.

A quick note before we begin: The "upward trend" in these players' statistics is not simply in their raw stats at their respective levels; the trend is based on their statistics translated to MLB.

Third baseman Jeff Baisley's stats have improved dramatically over the past three years. Baisley's stellar line at Kane County in 2006 translated to just a .113/.147/.196 (.141 UVI) line because of the low level of competition. Jumped two levels to Midland the next year, Baisley didn't dominate as he had in the Midwest League, but his MLB translation improved to .163/.196/.252 (.234). Last season at Sacramento, Baisley's production returned to its 2006 heights, except it was three levels higher. Thus, his translation jumped to .253/.315/.415 (.403). His brief MLB cameo resulted in a similar batting average (.256) and OBP (.319) but a much lower SLG (.279). In turn, this led to a much lower UVI of .326. However, chalk the impossibly low Isolated Power of .023 up to small sample size, and one can reasonably assume that with more experience, Baisley would have seen his MLB numbers line up with his projections from Triple-A.

While Baisley has shown clear upswings the past three years, he is now 26, and probably doesn't have a ton of development left. His translated stats have taken huge jumps the past three seasons, but now that Baisley has reached Triple-A, he won't get any translation benefit from moving up more levels. Expect more improvement this season; Baisley could emerge as more of an offensive force in the PCL. However, it is unlikely that he has any more gigantic statistical jumps in store.

It may shock you that Daric Barton is on this list, but if you disregard his 2007 September call-up performance, his stats have increased from 2006 to 2008. Barton's 2006 Sacramento line translates to .232/.333/.374 (.405), and while his 2007 performance in the PCL translates to a slightly lower .400 UVI, his triple-slash stats all increased, to .254/.331/.390 (The UVI decrease is due to worse base-running and more GIDPs). Barton's sensational '07 call-up resulted in a .361/.440/.653 (.668) line. His 2008 in Oakland translates (through park effects) to .238/.331/.361 (.414), an increase from the .405 and .400 levels of his two Triple-A seasons.

Barton's walks and strikeouts were fundamentally sound last year by most standards (if not the one his minor league numbers set), so clearly, he still could make a decent degree of contact and show a discerning eye at the plate. Part of his issue could be bad luck, and part of it could be a lack of power. Since Barton is only 23, and power is usually the last tool to manifest itself, one should expect Barton's luck and power to improve this year, provided that he avoids his nagging injuries. If he's healthy, expect Barton to find his swing at Triple-A in the first couple of months before finding his potential and then hitting his way back to Oakland. The indicators are still fairly positive; Barton just needs time and health.

Chris Carter, the top slugging prospect in the organization, enters 2009 with as much momentum as anyone in the system. His 2006 in the White Sox organization was split between a nice performance at Rookie-level Great Falls (.080/.102/.151 (.048)) and a brief, unsuccessful stint with Low-A Kannapolis (.040/.077/065 (.002)). Repeating Kannapolis in 2007, Carter boosted his MLB translation to .116/.152/.208 (.154). After being traded twice in the off-season (first to Arizona and then to Oakland), the slugging corner infielder bashed 39 homers at Stockton. While his MLB translation only keeps 17 of the homers, his statline continued to increase to .123/.173/.275 (.232). Note the translated .152 Isolated Power; that is almost unheard-of for a player in A-ball.

Carter enters 2009 with a full head of steam, but that doesn't mean continued progress should be assumed. The jump to Double-A has hindered many slugging prospects in the past (Brian Dopirak of the Cubs comes to mind as a striking recent example), and Carter needs to cut down on his strikeouts (156 last year) if he is to continue his progression. However, sluggers who can hit at Double-A tend to succeed in the majors down the line, and if Carter can keep his Double-A numbers above .250/.350/.500 this year, he could make a huge impact in Oakland as soon as September.

Aaron Cunningham, another former White Sox and Diamondbacks prospect, has made seven stops in the past three years, beginning at Kannapolis and ending in the Oakland Coliseum. Cunningham spent his 2006 hitting .300 at Kannapolis, putting up a .121/.149/.194 (.140) MLB-translated line. Splitting his time between two organizations, two levels, and three teams in 2007, Cunningham began the year at the White Sox's High-A affiliate, Winston-Salem, improving to .150/.186/.250 (.237). After being traded to Arizona, he went to High-A Visalia, improving his triple-slash stats (.189/.200/.276) but seeing his UVI slightly decrease (.228). Promoted to Double-A Mobile, Cunningham's MLB translation improved to .185/.235/.347 (.317).

Entering the Oakland organization with Carter and four others in the Dan Haren trade, Cunningham was assigned to Double-A Midland, where his MLB translation stayed fairly similar to his Mobile line, coming in at .205/.247/.334 (.320). However, upon promotion to Sacramento, Cunningham caught fire. His park-adjusted Triple-A line came in at .408/.483/.671 (.704) in 79 ABs, so the sample size is large enough that it's hard to write off as a fluke. That unbelievable performance translated to .329/.393/.553 (.565). While Cunningham didn't come close to that in Oakland (.263/.322/.413 (.444)) his performance improved on that of Emil Brown.

Cunningham won't turn 23 until April 24, and he doesn't need much more time in the minors. He has a wide range of skills that should eventually make him a solid outfielder, as a sort of "Jason Bay lite." He won't improve on that Triple-A line, of course, but there's no reason to expect anything short of .300/.370/.500 in a repeat of the PCL. Cunningham should be back in Oakland at some point this year.

Catcher Josh Donaldson had one of the most interesting seasons in the minors last year. After spending 2007 tearing up the Northwest League with the Cubs' Boise affiliate (.327/.455/.580 (.648); translated .099/.139/.179 (.113)), he struggled terribly with Low-A Peoria in 2008 (.230/.287/.366) but saw his MLB translations stay similar because of the higher level (.097/.118/.145 (.110)). Traded to the A's in the Rich Harden deal, Donaldson was moved up a level despite his struggles in Peoria, but surprisingly, he immediately rediscovered his swing and actually outpaced his 2007 numbers. His Stockton line translates to .171/.203/.282 (.243) in the bigs.

Given his strange career path, it's hard to know what to expect from Donaldson, and giving him a bit more time in the Cal League might not be the worst idea. He certainly still possesses the offensive and defensive skills that once made him a first-round pick, and if handled properly, could one day fulfill his potential. If he splits the year between Stockton and Midland, Donaldson should stay on the right track; if he's promoted to Double-A immediately, it's hard to say if he'll have the same adjustment issues that he did in 2008.

Joel Galarraga's only organized baseball experience after leaving Cuba has been two years in the Mexican League, but the NRI catcher hit well in both years there, with a slight improvement from 2007 (.345/.400/.469 (.470)) to 2008 (.307/.407/.427 (.489)). How this performance translates to the majors is a subject of debate; the Mexican League is officially Triple-A, but some believe it to be equivalent to a High-A league. If we split the difference and call it Double-A, Galarraga's performances are very similar (.231/.265/.328 (.290) in 2007; .196/.262/.288 (.291) in 2008).

Galarraga has impressed in camp, and if he can continue to hit for average this year in the PCL, he may get a chance in Oakland at some point. He's already 27, so he probably doesn't have much growth left. There is plenty of uncertainty regarding transitioning from the Mexican League, but Galarraga hasn't shown any problems with that in camp. Expect consistency or a minor improvement from Galarraga this year.
Matt Holliday's UVI has increased for nearly his entire career. His 2006 season in Colorado saw him put up a park-translated .302/.366/.548 (.547) line. His 2007 MVP runner-up season was an increase to .319/.387/.572 (.574). In 2008, his average dipped to .302 and his slugging fell to .510, but his OBP increased to .393 and, thanks to excellent base-stealing (28-for-30), his UVI increased to .584.

The A's likely won't run Holliday as much as the Rockies did, so the base-stealing will likely fall again this year. Furthermore, the switch in parks will hurt his first-order numbers, so expect him to decline slightly in his raw production, but still be an All-Star caliber left fielder.

Cliff Pennington was struggling in High-A in 2006, posting a translated .115/.158./.158 (.130) line in Stockton that season. However, the shortstop quickly rebounded in 2007, knocking his MLB translations to .135/.180/.217 (.212) in Stockton and .160/.217/.221 (.234) in Midland. Pennington continued to improve in Double-A last year (.172/.246/.225 (.269)) and then put together an MLB-caliber performance in Sacramento (.261/.361/.360 (.424)). His Oakland callup wasn't quite as good (.253/.342/.303 (.393)) but Pennington proved he can hit for average and draw walks in the majors.

Pennington's translated Isolated Power figures have never topped .099, so he needs to knock either his average or his Isolated Power up by about .030 to be a productive regular. He's still young enough for it to happen eventually. He should be a valuable reserve for the A's this year, and should be ready to replace Orlando Cabrera in 2010.
Another small middle infielder, Gregorio Petit, resembles Pennington in that he plays good defense and has moved from Stockton to Oakland in the last three years with consistently increasing MLB UVIs. However, Petit is unquestionably behind Pennington offensively. Petit's Stockton line in 2006 translates to .145/.168/.210 (.154). His 2007 was split between Midland (.201/.237/.261 (.252)) and Sacramento (.250/.285/.323 (.260)). He returned to Sacramento in 2008, translating to .239/.274/.308 (.275), and got a brief cameo in Oakland, hitting .348/.400/.435 (.444).

While Petit plays good defense and hits for average, he bunts too much and hits into too many double plays. He also struggles on the bases, posting poor steal rates. Therefore, his UVIs are unusually low for someone with his batting averages, perhaps best exemplified by his Oakland stint. However, Petit has improved every year, so expect more improvement from him; he just hasn't improved to an MLB-caliber hitter yet.

Catcher Landon Powell has also improved dramatically. Powell's 2006 began at Stockton (translated (.139/.181/.230 (.192)) and his production surged at Midland after a midseason promotion (.190/.244/.268 (.247)). His slugging increased dramatically in the Texas League in 2007 (.183/.246/.320 (.301)) and Powell dazzled in a brief call-up to Sacramento (.235/.235/.588 (.559) before an ACL tear ended his season. Healthy for most of 2008, Powell's Sacramento production translated to .193/.294/.353 (.372).

Powell certainly has power and a tremendous arm behind the plate; the only question is whether he can make contact and stay healthy. The big catcher is probably already an improvement on Rob Bowen for the backup catcher job in the big leagues, and he should get a shot there as soon as Opening Day with Bowen having been released. Expect continued progress, as Powell may wind up in a platoon arrangement with Suzuki at some point. His upside is as a regular low-average, high-power catcher in the Kelly Shoppach/Mike Napoli mold.

Corey Wimberly, acquired from the Rockies this past off-season for Matt Murton, is a small middle infielder with tremendous speed who has shown considerable growth the past three years. At High-A Modesto in 2006, Wimberly posted a .190/.226/.240 (.249) translation, already advanced for the level. He progressed to Double-A Tulsa in 2006, and his production continued to increase, going to .177/.210/.227 (.265). Wimberly's UVIs consistently outpace his slugging percentages mainly because of his excellent base-stealing; my translations credit him with 36 steals in 2006, 29 in 2007 and 48 in 2008. In addition to his base-running exploits, Wimberly hit .190/.236/.237 (.300) in a repeat of Tulsa last year.

Wimberly should advance to Triple-A this year, and he should continue to slap the ball around and wreak havoc on the bases. He has very little power and needs to hit .300 to be a valuable starter. He should progress this year, but if he can't slug over .375 in the PCL, he probably won't ever be a competent MLB starter.

About The Author: Nathaniel Stoltz is a statistics minor at James Madison University in Virginia. He is the creator of the "Ultimate Value Index" or "UVI" baseball statistic. He hopes to some day work in the front office of a major league team. You can e-mail him with questions or comments by clicking here.

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