Sunday Stat Pack: Hitting Leaders

With a little more than six weeks of the season gone, it’s still too early for minor league performance to affect our perceptions of players too significantly.

But with more than one quarter and nearly one third of the minor league season in the books, we can still take an early peek at the overall minor league leaders to see who has performed well–not necessarily that we believe they will continue these marks–and acknowledge their accomplishments. Most of these players don’t get recognized in our weekly Prospect Hot Sheet because the list gives credence to prospect status, but let’s take a look now at the minors’ top-performing hitters, regardless of age or future potential.

Of course, hitters who play in high run-scoring environments will benefit, but that’s the luck of the draw.

Jamie D’Antona ARI AAA Tucson PCL .435
Terry Tiffee LAD AAA Las Vegas PCL .419
Pablo Sandoval SF HiA San Jose CAL .415
Shane Robinson STL AA Springfield TL .410
Luis Maza LAD AAA Las Vegas PCL .402

What happens in Vegas. . . tends to land for a base hit. Tiffee, a 29-year-old third baseman, and Maza, a 27-year-old utilityman, are both benefiting from the hitter-friendly confines in Las Vegas. D’Antona, a 26-year-old third baseman, was a second-round pick in 2003 out of Wake Forest. In 142 plate appearances, he’s drawn just two walks. That’s not a solid bet for long-term success, but he has shown more patience in the past.

Robinson, a fifth-round pick in 2006 out of Florida State, is a 5-foot-9, 160-pounder who is limited to left field. Robinson had a .268/.335/.338 career line in 485 plate appearances entering the season, with his selectivity at the plate–38 walks, 37 strikeouts–serving as his most appealing quality.

The most intriguing player in this group is Sandoval, a 21-year-old switch-hitting catcher who signed out of Venezuela in 2003. Last year with San Jose, Sandoval (pictured at right) batted .287/.312/.476 in 423 plate appearances. But the most interesting part of Sandoval’s story is that he played mostly first base last year. Sandoval last spent regular time at catcher in 2004 with short-season Salem-Keizer, where he spent 33 games behind the dish.

He’s now batting .415/.473/.728 in 165 plate appearances. Whether he has developed true power or if it’s just a Cal League-aided illusion, Sandoval has the potential to keep his batting average up–though not above .400, of course–because of his contact-hitting ability. Last year Sandoval ranked second among qualified Cal League hitters in strikeouts per plate appearance (12.3 percent). He was second in that same category in 2005 in the short-season Northwest League (10.1 percent) and third in 2004 in the Rookie-level Arizona League (8.9 percent).

So how’s he doing behind the plate? It’s way too early to tell much, but Sandoval has thrown out 12 out 20 basestealers (60 percent), the best mark in the Cal League.

Josh Johnson KC HiA Wilmington CAR .500
Tonys Guttierez CIN AA Chattanooga SL .475
Brian Myrow SD AAA Portland PCL .473
Pablo Sandoval SF HiA San Jose CAL .473
Ian Gac TEX LoA Clinton MWL .471

Johnson’s .240/.382/.330 career minor league line in 1,363 plate appearances does little to inspire much confidence, nor does his .252/.354/.321 line last year with high Class A Wilmington. Johnson, a 22-year-old third baseman, does take advantage of one thing–at 5-foot-8, his small strike zone enables him to draw plenty of walks. Johnson has drawn a walk in a little more than one quarter of his 115 plate appearances, good for 30 free passes on the season. His size and inability to drive the ball will limit his performance against better pitching, but he’s getting the most out of what he has.

At 31, Myrow is your classic Four-A slugger. After Myrow spent three years with Winnipeg in the independent Northern League, the Yankees purchased his contract in 2001. He spent time with the Dodgers and the Red Sox as well before the Padres signed him as a free agent before the 2007 season. Myrow hit .354/.440/.579 last year in 414 plate appearances, and he’s off to a .351/.473/.567 in 169 plate appearances. It’s hard to see a scenario in which Myrow, who has just 30 major league at-bats, gets any playing time in San Diego, which has Adrian Gonzalez at first base and of course can’t put him at DH. But his performance certainly merits at least a trial period with a team that could use an upgrade at first base or DH.

Gutierrez, a 24-year-old first baseman, is another patient hitter. But despite a .306 career batting average entering the season, his slugging average was just .423. He’s at .354/.475/.469 this season, but when his batting average inevitably drops, so too will the slugging, along with his value.

Ian Gac TEX LoA Clinton MWL .762
Pablo Sandoval SF HiA San Jose CAL .728
Mike Hessman DET AAA Toledo IL .708
Russell Branyan MIL AAA Nashville PCL .706
Sean Doolittle OAK HiA Stockton CAL .688

Props to Gac, a 22-year-old first baseman whose bat looks too advanced for the Midwest League. With 14 home runs and a .357/.471/.762 line in 155 plate appearances, Gac’s performance screams for a promotion to high Class A Bakersfield. But it’s also Gac’s fourth year in Clinton. He had a taste of Bakersfield in 2006, when he batted .188/.242/.346 in 227 plate appearances. Gac’s Kryptonite has been making regular contact, as Gac struck out in 33 percent of his professional plate appearances entering the season, keeping his career batting average down at .223. Big things usually happen when Gac does make contact, as evidenced by his .237/.313/.506 line with Clinton last year, when 35 of his 61 hits went for extra bases. But one-tool players tend not to have plentiful big league careers.

Doolittle, however, was a supplemental first-round pick last year and ranked 10th among Athletics prospects before the Dan Haren trade. Oddly enough, while Doolittle earned praise for his line-drive swing and strong strike-zone judgment, it was his lack of power that was most criticized. Doolittle hit .243/.341/.347 in 279 plate appearances last year between short-season Vancouver and low Class A Kane County, and that came after he hit 11 home runs in 442 at-bats over his final two college seasons at Virginia.

So now that Doolittle is batting .363/.446/.688 with 12 home runs in 184 plate appearances this season, is that true improvement or just the Cal League Supersizing his order? The Athletics raved about the work ethic he showed in instructional league and in the off-season, for what that’s worth. But even in such a hitter-friendly league, Doolittle’s performance stands out as arguably the second-best in the league behind Sandoval.

And if you haven’t read about the history that Hessman is making, scroll down to the bottom of last week’s Hot Sheet to see where he ranks among active players for career minor league home runs.