The first time the Baseball America staff met to discuss our Minor League Player of the Year award, I thought it would be quick and easy.
After all, I’d just seen Matt Moore pitch eight scoreless innings for Triple-A Durham with 13 strikeouts. It was the second start for the Rays farmhand at the Triple-A level, and he dominated Gwinnett. The previous day, Braves righty Julio Teheran had pitched well at Durham, beating the Bulls 9-3 while striking out nine in six innings.
But Teheran, two years younger than Moore, gave up eight hits in that game. His breaking ball comes and goes, and his electric fastball and fading changeup give him two above-average pitches, compared to Moore’s three.
While Teheran’s season at Triple-A—he was 15-2, 2.22 through 142 innings, which 43 walks and 121 strikeouts—is exemplary, Moore’s was just a bit better. Just eight of his 26 starts have come at Triple-A and he’s 22, but Moore’s dominance stands out, well, more. He’s 11-3, 1.93 overall with 200 strikeouts and 43 walks in 149 innings.
So if we were going to pick a pitcher, I reckoned it would be one of those two, and figured it would be Moore. But as you can tell from the front of the magazine, that’s not how things turned out.
Defining a Minor League Player of the Year is just as difficult, if not more difficult, as defining the Most Valuable Player award. Making things more complicated, BA does not have formal guidelines for our award. We figure if all the voters can fit into one conference room (and they can), we can hash that out in a meeting.
Some of those meetings in my nearly 15-year tenure have been contentious, at least for a baseball debate. The tone of the debates have evolved over the years as our staff has evolved, and also as our amount of information has mushroomed.
In the past, we might have given Teheran the award. I mean, 15 wins is 15 wins, right? I don’t think pitcher wins are worthless, but they certainly are far from the best statistic on which to judge pitchers, especially in the minors.
We do like counting stats, but even crazy counting stats haven’t always earned our POY honor. In 2003, Jeremy Reed had a season for the ages, batting .373/.453/.537 between two levels, including 242 at-bats at Double-A Birmingham. Reed hit .409 at Double-A, had 45 stolen bases overall, walked twice as often as he struck out and generally had the best season in the minors while also being a prospect. But Joe Mauer was a premium defensive catcher who hit .338/.398/.434 while reaching Double-A, and the gap between their prospect status prompted us to pick Mauer. In hindsight, that pick looks good.
The same goes for 2005, when we chose Delmon Young (.315/.354/.527 32-42 SB, 26 HR) over the epic season of Brandon Wood, who had 100 extra-base hits and batted .321/.381/.667 with 43 homers and 53 doubles. Wood’s stats came in the California and Pacific Coast Leagues; his numbers were so outlandish, they were almost too good to be true. Neither has lived up to his prospect hype, but Young at least has been a regular, which is unfortunately more than Wood can say.
Mike Trout, this year’s winner, didn’t have the biggest counting numbers. Had Bryce Harper stayed in A-ball, he likely would have put up POY numbers, but he hit “only” .256/.329/.395 at Double-A as an 18-year-old, and his hamstring injury ended his candidacy.
Trout’s numbers don’t put him high on any minor league leaderboard, where Astros second baseman Jose Altuve and Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt dominate. Altuve had little chance of winning the award, as he’s just not enough of a prospect to get into the discussion. Goldschmidt’s dominant power (30 homers in 366 at-bats at Double-A Mobile) thrust him into the conversation. In effect, his season was too good to win the award because he was promoted to Arizona too soon to put up POY numbers. (Also, the 23-year-old’s season proved fairly similar to 22-year-old Neftali Soto, who also hit 30 homers in just 379 Southern League at-bats with Double-A Carolina.)
It’s unlikely Goldschmidt could have put up big enough numbers to outstrip Trout anyway, however. Thanks to associate editor Matt Eddy and IT wunderkind Tim Collins, we searched our database (about 20 years’ worth) to find just how unique Trout’s season is. Few teenagers who has spent the whole season at Double-A (or above) put up an on-base plus slugging percentage close to Trout’s .958 figure. Scouts consider his combination of speed, physicality and hitting ability unique, and his performance was too.
Moore probably dominated a bit more; he has won back-to-back minor league strikeout crowns, and while he may finish third this season, his strikeout-to-walk ratio is better and he’s surpassed 200 whiffs. But he’s three years older than Trout, spent much of the year at the same level of play and had merely a great season, not an unprecedented one. In the end, Trout’s unique season wound up looking like the one most worthy of our award.