Minor League Awards: VSL Rays

Every Saturday, we will be honoring the best position player and pitcher from every minor league level of the Tampa Bay Rays organization in 2011. This week we start with the Venezuelan Summer League Rays.

VSL Rays Position Player of the Year

Catcher Oscar Hernandez

2011 Stats: 69 G, 239 AB, 56 R, 96 H, 14 2B, 1 3B, 21 HR, 66 RBI, 3 SB, 37 BB, 44 K, .402 AVG, .503 OBP, .732 SLG, 1.236 OPS, 175 TB

I covered Hernandez yesterday in Rays Organizational Depth Charts: Catcher, this is what I had to say about his historic season in the VSL:

"Hernandez had a historic season in the VSL. He hit .402/.503/.732. That is a 1.236 OPS. He had 21 home runs and 66 runs batted in in 238 at bats. That is a home run every 11.3 at bats, and a run batted in every 3.6 at bats. He also had 175 total bases and was hit by a pitch 15 times. He was a complete monster, and seemingly came out of nowhere after hitting .223 as a 16-year-old in 2010. His numbers almost read like stats from a video game. To top it all off he appears to have a good arm as well, throwing out basestealers at a 42 percent clip."

"As stated earlier, it is hard to quantify numbers from the VSL and DSL, and it is worth noting that the Rays team has led the VSL in home runs since joining the league in 2008. They clearly play in a bandbox. But Hernandez's output is so impressive that it is hard to imagine him being a mere product of a friendly ballpark. There is clearly talent here. But the question will be, how much? Hernandez warrants serious attention next season when he is expected to move stateside. If he can rake like this when he begins to face better pitching, then the Rays may have unearthed a huge catching prospect."

Allow me to expound a little more on Hernandez, and specifically on his home run totals.

1) The second highest home run total on the VSL Rays belonged to Franklin Paz who had 9. This was also the second highest home run total in the league overall.

2) Hernandez's home run total bested the team total for the VSL Phillies (16) and VSL Reds (17). Other team home run totals were VSL Pirates (25), VSL Mariners (30), and VSL Tigers (36).

The VSL Rays hit 66. Having never been to their stadium, and also being unable to locate any information on the dimensions of the park, it is hard for me to definitively say that the VSL Rays play in a small ballpark. However, even if you take away Hernandez's 21 home runs from the team total, the Rays still would have led the VSL with 45. This doesn't necessarily prove anything, but it IS interesting. One of my primary missions in the coming weeks is to get some hard-core data on the dimensions of the Rays home park, so that I can more accurately assess Hernandez's 2011 performance.

3) A look at Hernandez's home/road splits add further evidence to the "bandbox theory".

Home: 112 AB, 18 HR, 47 RBI, .446 AVG, .529 OBP, 1.000 SLG, 1.529 OPS

Away: 127 AB, 3 HR, 19 RBI, .362 AVG, .481 OBP, .496 SLG, .977 OPS

While his road splits are still very impressive, Hernandez did significantly more damage at the plate at home. This still doesn't diminish his accomplishments in 2011 though. Teammate Franklin Paz hit 6 of his 9 home runs at home, meaning that Hernandez still outdistanced his nearest competition in the league by 12 home runs at his home park.

What I think all of these statistics tell us, is that even though the GSL Rays' ballpark plays like Coors Field South America, Hernanadez still possesses a lot of power. We just may need to temper our expectations some when he plays in a US based Rookie League this year.

4) Hernandez's power isn't the whole story though. He clearly has other hitting skills. His .503 on base percentage might be more unreal than his home run total, and his strike out percentage was a very good 15 percent last season. He also hit an incredible .480 with runners in scoring position with an OPS of 1.423. Hernandez not only punished the opposition, he did it when it mattered. He seems to possess every possible hitting skill at the plate. While the pitching in the VSL is not on par with what he will face in the lower levels of the minors in the US, Hernandez was so far ahead of the competition in Venezuela that it is hard to imagine him not having immediate success.

If you can't tell by now, I am very much looking forward to seeing Hernandez play against better competition. He is a prospect that I will be following extremely closely all season long. He was also a slam dunk as our VSL Rays Position Player of the Year, and his selection will likely be the most anti-climatic of all our award choices.

Honorable Mention: 3B Leopoldo Correa

2011 Stats: 64 G, 230 AB, 35 R, 74 H, 17 2B, 8 HR, 54 RBI, 31 BB, 31 K, .322 AVG, .414 OBP, 500 SLG, .914 OPS, 115 TB

VSL Rays Pitcher of the Year

Andres Gonzalez

2011 Stats: 0 W, 3 L, 1.93 ERA, 13 G, 12 GS, 56.0 IP, 51 H, 17 R, 12 ER, 1 HR, 6 BB, 34 K, 1.02 WHIP

It feels strange to select a pitcher who didn't win a game as the winner of this award. But in this case, it makes perfect sense. Gonzalez is only 17 years old, and he is REALLY good. He only averaged around four innings a start, which is pretty typical for VSL pitchers. Protecting these young arms is a priority, so when evaluating contenders for this award you can throw that stat immediately out of the equation. A lot of VSL starters are never going to make the 5 inning minimum required to get a win. Just another of a myriad of reasons why the win statistic is a weak tool to evaluate pitchers.

In 56 innings pitched he allowed only 1 home run and six walks, an impressive combination of pinpoint control and keeping the ball down. As a right-hander his splits against lefties were impressive, he had a 1.45 ERA in 18.2 innings with a lone walk. In his home ballpark, which we have already discussed at length, his ground out/air out ratio was 4.10. In all he held opponents to a .244 batting average and struck out 5.5 batters per nine innings. These are not mind blowing numbers, but when you are not making mistakes, they are more than sufficient.

Since he won't be 18 until February, he might not be eligible to pitch in the USA this season. He may benefit from pitching another season in the VSL anyways. However, when he does come to the USA, it will be intriguing to see him pitch against better competition. He clearly has a good pitching skill set. His statistics indicate an ability to command his pitches and make few mistakes in the zone. If his stuff is good enough to get elite prospects out, then he could rise fairly quickly through the Rays system.

Honorable Mention: Freddy Alvarez

2011 Stats: 3 W, 1 L, 2.47 ERA, 15 G, 6 GS, 47.1 IP, 35 H, 19 R, 13 ER, 2 HR, 19 BB, 41 K, 1.14 WHIP

* Note: I was originally going to announce player awards for two affiliates per week. I have since changed my mind, and will only be doing one at a time. I will post a new schedule in the near future. The DSL Rays are on deck.

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