Trapped in the minorsby John Kochurov
February 20, 2013
Talent – like beauty – lies all around us in great unused heaps.
– Bill James
The most obvious thing about Scott Van Slyke is his last name. Yes, he’s the son of Andy, the star center fielder from 20-odd years ago.
The next-most obvious thing about Scott Van Slyke is his bat. In 2011, at age 24, he dismantled the Southern League with a jaw-dropping .346/.425/.593 line. He was the best hitter in the league—well, either he or Paul Goldschmidt, who graduated to the Diamondbacks before the year ended and is now a budding star. Once you adjust for park, run environment, and quality of play, Van Slyke’s 2011 season is equivalent to a .309/.378/.512 line in the major leagues. Basically, in 2011, he was Hunter Pence.
Van Slyke plays left field, and despite his size (listed at 6-foot-5, 250) he actually plays it pretty well. Conveniently, his organization, the Dodgers, had a gaping hole named Juan Rivera occupying left field. For reasons known only to them, the Dodgers decided that the aging Rivera was their best option, so Van Slyke was assigned to Triple-A Albuquerque. But then the Dodgers started dropping like flies, and they started running out an lineup that basically consisted of Andre Ethier and a bunch of guys you’ve never heard of. Again, a perfect opportunity for a player like Van Slyke to step in.
But still, the Dodgers didn’t give him an opportunity. Yes, they brought him up for a bit, and he got into 27 games (over half of them coming off the bench), and apart from a big pinch-hit home run against the Cardinals, Van Slyke didn’t impress. But it was, what, 54 at-bats? You can’t judge a man on 54 at-bats, especially when he’s not playing regularly.
Anyway, Van Slyke spent most of 2012 at Triple-A, and he was very good. His numbers are gaudy, but everyone’s numbers are gaudy in Albuquerque. We can adjust for that, though, and after making all those adjustments, we can estimate that Van Slyke would have put up a .270/.327/.452 line in the major leagues. Not quite as great as his 2011 season, but still far above average.
Based on his 2011 and 2012 numbers, Scott Van Slyke is a major league regular. Had he been playing in the big leagues, rather than in the minors, he would have been roughly as valuable as Hunter Pence, or even Justin Upton.
The projection systems aren’t quite as high on Van Slyke as those equivalencies, but they still see him as a legitimate big league regular. Oliver has him batting .249/.317/.435 this season, with solid outfield defense. ZiPS concurs, predicting a .248/.309/.411 line. That’s almost a perfect match for Hunter Pence’s 2012, and Pence got a $13 million contract this year. It’s also better than Delmon Young and Desmond Jennings and a host of other players who are assured of starting jobs this coming season.
So Van Slyke is intriguing, right? If he’s as good as his minor league numbers suggest, he’s an above-average regular or even a borderline All-Star. Even if he’s not quite that great—even if the projection systems are right—he’s still a league-average left fielder. Who can play right, and first base, and costs the league minimum. Half the teams in baseball could use a guy like that.
And yet, not a single team claimed Van Slyke when the Dodgers designated him for assignment back in December. Why?
As best I can tell, nobody claimed Van Slyke because nobody really knew who Van Slyke was. He’s 26 (turns 27 in July), so he’s not really a prospect anymore, and it’s tempting to slap him with the "Quadruple-A" label. Tempting, and wrong. There’s this myth that certain hitters can tear up the minor leagues, but can’t do it against major league pitching. It’s a myth that Bill James debunked a quarter century ago, when he showed that, once you adjust for run environment and quality of play, minor league hitting statistics can accurately predict major league performance.
Maybe Van Slyke isn’t a .309 hitter, as his 2011 numbers suggested. Maybe he’s not even a .270 hitter, like he was last year. But even at .250, he’s got serious value. Oliver predicts that, given a full season in the major leagues, Van Slyke will be worth 1.5 wins above replacement in 2013. On the open market, 1.5 wins is worth something close to $7 million. (For comparison, Oliver projects Hunter Pence to be worth 1.4 wins, in more playing time.) And Van Slyke may actually be even better than that projection.
I interviewed Van Slyke for this article, and he was confident in his abilities. "I’ve hit against Greinke, and Matt Moore, and lots of other major league pitchers. They’re good, but they’re not better than me." At the same time, he’s understandably perplexed about his current situation. He’s continued to work on his game, training with his dad, Andy, this winter to improve his timing at the plate. He has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues, but he’ll go back to Albuquerque and prove it anyway, if that’s what it takes.
Another classic Bill James observation is that, often, teams focus on what a player can’t do, rather than what he can. The Dodgers may look at the hulking Van Slyke and wonder why he hits only 20 homers, rather than 30 or 40. They might be frustrated that he wasn’t a great pinch hitter last year, or they might assume that his size makes him an immobile outfielder. (It doesn’t, but that’s not the point.) And they miss out on the very real probability that Van Slyke is one of the three best outfielders in the organization, and should probably be competing for a starting job out of spring training.
Instead, he’s not on the 40-man roster, and didn’t even get an invite to a major league camp this spring.
I’m guessing the Dodgers would happily trade Van Slyke, and it doesn’t take much effort to come up with a dozen teams that could use him. Given the right opportunity, he could very well be the next Casey Blake, or Josh Willingham, or Raul Ibanez—all of whom hit like Van Slyke and didn’t get an opportunity until their late 20s.
Maybe the next big market inefficiency isn’t some cutting-edge thing—maybe it’s the same old inefficiency that’s been around as long as baseball: that good players sometimes get buried for no particularly good reason, and the team that can identify those players will have a massive edge over its competition.
John Kochurov is the pseudonym for an attorney living in the Midwest. He can be reached at johnkochurovATgmailDOTcom.