Trapped in the minors

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.

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Comments

  1. John Kochurov said...

    Bob, the points about Van Slyke’s early struggles and his age relative to league are both good ones. I did ask Van Slyke about his poor stats early on, and he said that he played high school ball at a small school where he was always better than everyone else, and could roll out of bed and hit .500. When he got to pro ball, he was seeing pitches he’d never seen before, and it took him a couple years to adjust. He worked with Gene Clines, an organizational hitting coach with the Dodgers, and improved his timing and pitch recognition. That’s how he explains his big breakout in 2009.

    But by that point, it’s entirely possible that some people in the Dodgers organization had already written him off. The fact that he was a bit old for his league only reinforces the idea that he’s some sort of Quad-A player. I’m convinced that that’s wrong, but it’s easy to understand how some may have come to that conclusion.

    Anyway, I should have mentioned Van Slyke’s early struggles and his age relative to league in the article. They do help explain why he hasn’t gotten a chance, although I don’t think they justify his continued lack of an opportunity.

  2. Bob Rittner said...

    Thank you for the response John. And I agree with Michael that teams like the Astros really need to take a chance on players like Van Slyke. A typical low risk/high reward (or at least some reward) type move.

  3. Philip said...

    Nice article. Hopefully, Van Slyke will get an genuine opportunity at some point this year from some club.

    Van Slyke’s been in the Dodgers organization since he was 18 in 2005. Fans and the press often talk about how free agent creates so much free movement of players but we often forget that only effectively happens after one accumulates service time in the majors. By the time guys like Van Slyke are eligible for free agency, they’re often out of the game.

    We could also probably come up with numerous AA and AAA players in similar circumstances from the late 1980s and 1990s – guys who never really got a chance to show their talent at the Major League level. But not because of their club’s logjam at a given position but because of otherwise marginal major league players who might otherwise have been put out to pasture if not for their inflated stats due to steroids.

    Yes, it’s true that many minor leaguers were just as guilty. But many weren’t and at all levels were denied opportunities – their jobs and livelihood effectively stolen by the ‘‘cheaters.’‘

    It’s too easy to dismiss the whole steroid era as ‘‘well, everyone did it.’’ and forget that many ballplayers were victims, too.

  4. Bob Rittner said...

    Is it possible that two factors have kept him in the minors?

    One, at the start of his career, he did rather poorly. As an 18 year old in the rookie league he was unimpressive and repeating it as a 19 year old, he was even worse. He was moved to low A and then A+ at age 20 & 21 and showed little. Only when he repeated A+ at 22, in the California league, notorious for exaggerating hitting stats, did he prosper.

    Then, repeating his A+ success at age 23 he was promoted to AA where he regressed again.

    Two, it was only at age 24, repeating AA, that he broke out, and then at age 25 played well again in AAA, although not quite as well although he was now in another hitter’s paradise, the PCL.

    So between his unimpressive early performances and his age relative to league later, the Dodgers may not trust the recent numbers as meaningful. It does not mean they are right, and the major league equivalencies you quote indicate they should take the chance, but it is also possible that LA’s own scouts simply don’t see the talent.

  5. Brandon said...

    I saw VanSlyke first hand at single-A Great Lakes Loons and can vouch for how poorly he played then. Since he left the local team I lost track of him and was surprised he reached the majors.
    So in a way I had written him off in my own mind thinking he’d never make it. Perhaps the Dodgers did too and just are having trouble accepting his improvement as “real” and not just an older prospect beating up younger pitchers.

  6. Captain Obvious said...

    @Phillip

    Can’t wait to hear your take on how steroids affected new stadium construction, hot dog prices, and the international free agent system.

  7. phoneybone said...

    This is one reason why some Giants fans refer to Ned Colletti as “Agent Ned”. He makes so many perplexing decisions that do nothing but hurt his team. It’s almost as if he’s an undercover agent for the Giants whose purpose is to torpedo the club at every opportunity. Thanks, Ned!

  8. Omar's Outfit said...

    Nice article.  Seems Van Slyke would have been an obvious claim for the Pirates back in December.  The team could use a right fielder and the connection with his father and Gene Clines would have been great PR for the organization.  Unfortunately the Pirates GM and leadership is often asleep at the wheel so no surprise that they would have missed this opportunity.

  9. Anon said...

    You could add Scott Hairston to that list – all he did in the minors was hit and all the DBacks did was leave him there or bury him at the end of the MLB bench for 6 years. When he finally got a chance to play with some regularity in the bigs, not surprisingly, he hit. Not enough patience but good power and positive dWAR in the OF. Still has never gotten a FT gig.

    Dallas McPherson is another guy who never really got a chance.

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