Rarely does a teenage position player spend significant time above Class A. More rare still is the teen who excels at Double-A, Triple-A or the big leagues.
Braves center fielder Ronald Acuna, who doesn’t turn 20 until December, joined select company this season when he accumulated 486 plate appearances at Double-A and Triple-A as a teenager, all while producing at a rate seldom seen by his peer group.
According to research conducted by Baseball America, Acuna became the 29th teenage position player since 1987 to excel in the minors while batting at least 200 times above the Class A level. The word “excel” is key. While dozens of 19-year-olds have batted 200 times at Double-A or higher in the past three decades, just the 29 referenced previously outperformed the league average batter by at least 10 percent, as measured by adjusted OPS+*, an estimate of batting proficiency.
Four additional 19-year-olds spent more time in the majors than in the minors: Ken Griffey Jr.** (108 OPS+ in 1989), Ivan Rodriguez (75 in 1991), Edgar Renteria (103 in 1996) and Bryce Harper (118 in 2012). All four players garnered support in major league Rookie of the Year balloting—with Harper winning—so that quartet is omitted from the following sample in favor of challengers for the BA Minor League Player of the Year award.
Below are the 29 teenage minor leaguers with at least 200 PA above Class A who recorded an adjusted OPS+ of 110 or higher since 1987. Players are ranked by overall minor league OPS+. All players were 19 years old except for Alex Rodriguez, who was 18 in 1994 when he played at Double-A, Triple-A and the majors.
|^ Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year|
|@ Also counting toward A-Rod’s total: 278 PA at low Class A worth 174 OPS+|
The names surrounding Acuna in the top 10 speak to his level of achievement this season as a 19-year-old. His .325/.374/.522 batting line with 21 home runs and 44 stolen bases in 139 games at high Class A Florida, Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett translates to a 155 OPS+, which ranks ninth among teen batters with at least 200 PA above Class A in the past three decades.
What also is striking is the number of Braves prospects who qualify for the leaderboard. Five are included here: center fielder Andruw Jones in 1996, shortstop Wilson Betemit in 2001, right fielder Jason Heyward in 2009, second baseman Ozzie Albies in 2016 and Acuna in 2017. Additionally, first baseman Freddie Freeman in 2009 missed qualifying for the list by about 30 PA.
The following 10 players were most similar to Acuna at the same stage of their careers, based on the volume of each player’s excellence at Double-A and/or Triple-A.
1. Alex Rodriguez, SS, Mariners (1995)
A-Rod entered the 1995 season ranked as the game’s No. 1 overall prospect after playing at three minor league levels, plus Seattle for 17 games, the preceding year. He delivered on that promise by hitting .360/.411/.654 (172 OPS+) with 15 home runs in 54 games at Triple-A Tacoma interrupted by two callups to the majors.
2. Gary Sheffield, SS/3B, Brewers (1988)
Sheffield shredded pitchers at both Double-A El Paso and Triple-A Denver on his way to a 24-game September callup. In the minors that season he hit .327/.395/.579 (174 OPS+) with 28 home runs in 134 games—though adjusting for those hitter-friendly ballparks would take some air out of his final line.
3. Andruw Jones, OF, Braves (1996)
The No. 1 prospect in baseball entering the 1996 season, Jones soared from high Class A Durham to Double-A Greenville to Triple-A Richmond to Atlanta that season. In the minors he batted .339/.421/.652 (188 OPS+) with 34 home runs and 30 stolen bases in 116 games, earning a mid-August callup.
4. Gregg Jefferies, SS/3B, Mets (1987)
A two-time Minor League POY in 1986 and 1987, Jefferies in the latter season hit .367/.423/.598 (165 OPS+) with 20 home runs and 48 doubles in 134 games at Double-A Jackson. While his defensive limitations forced a move to first base in the majors, he enjoyed a pair of all-star seasons with the 1993 and 1994 Cardinals.
5. Jason Heyward, OF, Braves (2009)
Though he hasn’t made good on his $184 million deal with the Cubs, Heyward enjoyed six productive seasons at the start of his big league career. He entered 2010 as the No. 1 prospect in the game after he hit .323/.408/.555 (169 OPS+) with 17 home runs in 99 games the year before at high Class A Myrtle Beach, Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett.
6. Mike Trout, OF, Angels (2011)
Trout won the Minor League POY award in 2011 for batting .326/.414/.544 (156 OPS+) with 11 home runs and 33 stolen bases in 91 games at Double-A Arkansas, a performance that earned him a pair of callups to the Angels. What it didn’t earn him was the No. 1 spot on the Top 100 Prospects list in 2012. That went to Bryce Harper.
7. Melvin Upton, SS, Rays (2004)
While Upton has been only sporadically excellent in a 12-year big league career, the No. 2 overall pick in 2002 excelled at Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham in 2004, batting .315/.410/.505 (143 OPS+) with 14 home runs in 98 games. Tampa Bay called him up on Aug. 2 and he appeared in 45 big league games as a teenager. A switch from shortstop to center field followed in 2007.
8. Justin Upton, OF, Diamondbacks (2007)
Upton’s remarkable 2007 season concluded with 43 games in Arizona for the playoff-bound D-backs, but it began at high Class A Visalia and continued at Double-A Mobile prior to his Aug. 2 callup. In the minors that season he hit .319/.410/.551 (158 OPS+) with 18 home runs in 103 games.
9. Adrian Beltre, 3B, Dodgers (1998)
An 18-year-old Beltre nearly won the Florida State League triple crown in 1997, and he entered 1998 ranked No. 3 on the Top 100 Prospects behind only Ben Grieve and Paul Konerko. He then batted .321/.411/.581 (151 OPS+) with 13 home runs and 20 stolen bases in 64 games at Double-A San Antonio in 1998, prompting a second-half callup to the Dodgers.
10. Delmon Young, OF, Rays (2005)
Young could do no wrong early in his pro career, and he aced his first test of the high minors in 2005. That season he batted .315/.354/.527 with 26 home runs and 32 stolen bases in 136 games at Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham to win Minor League POY honors. That performance made Young the No. 1 prospect in baseball heading into 2006, when his career showed the first signs of unraveling. That season he earned a 50-game suspension for throwing a bat at a minor league umpire.
* Adjusted OPS+ in this piece is not adjusted for players’ home ballparks, because that data is unavailable prior to the 2005 season.
** Griffey famously didn’t spend a day in the minors as a 19-year-old Mariners rookie in 1989. The previous season he batted .325/.415/.557 in 75 games at high Class A San Bernardino and Double-A Vermont. That translates to a 179 OPS+, meaning the 18-year-old Griffey was nearly 80 percent more productive than the average California or Eastern league batter.