Image credit: Dwight Gooden (Photo by Tom DiPace)
Baseball America will turn 40 years old in 2021. In preparation for that, we’re looking at significant events in baseball from the past four decades.
We don’t know when we can look forward to minor league baseball this season, but that doesn’t mean we can’t look back at standout minor league performances from the past. In this case, we focus on the Baseball America era, which dates back to 1981.
So to celebrate what would have been the beginning phases of the 2020 minor league season, we rank the top 15 most significant, astonishing and outstanding minor league achievements of the past 40 seasons.
In some cases we expand our window to include history back to 1963, which marks the first season of the Player Development Plan, an agreement between the majors and minors that reorganized the minor leagues and classifications in a way that is still familiar today.
Dwight Gooden, 1983
While 300-strikeout seasons are rare in the major leagues, they are all but nonexistent in the minors.
Nolan Ryan, the all-time and single-season major league strikeout king, struck out 307 batters in 1966, mostly at Class A in his first full year out of the draft. Only one minor league pitcher has reached 300 since.
That pitcher was Dwight Gooden, who as an 18-year-old righthander in 1983 struck out a minor league-leading 300 Carolina League batters in 191 innings. The typical minor league leader during this period finished north of 200 strikeouts—but well short of 300.
Since Gooden reached 300, no other minor league pitcher has topped 250 strikeouts. Tom Gordon‘s 234 in 1988 is the highest total since Gooden’s feat. No minor league pitcher has topped even 200 since Matt Moore struck out 208 in 2010.
Gooden, drafted fifth overall by the Mets in 1982, went 19-4, 2.50 in 27 starts for high Class A Lynchburg in 1983 and claimed the BA Minor League Player of the Year award. One of the more interesting aspects of Gooden’s epic season was that he completed 10 games and walked 112 batters—5.3 per nine innings—which is a reminder of how player development standards have changed for pitchers through the years.
Gooden was lauded in scouting reports at the time for his 90-95 mph fastball and outstanding curveball, which proved to be accurate. Early in his big league career, Gooden had one of the best fastballs and best curveballs in the National League. He won Rookie of the Year at age 19 and the Cy Young Award at age 20, leading the majors in strikeouts both years.
Justin Verlander, 2005
The overall minor league ERA championship doesn’t carry the same cachet as other statistics, but that’s largely a function of hard-to-decipher qualifying standards, such as innings totals and league classifications.
From what we can gather, the lowest minor league ERA recorded by a qualifying pitcher in a full-season league (or leagues) in the past 40 years belongs to righthander Justin Verlander in 2005. The Tigers drafted him second overall the year before.
Making his pro debut as a 22-year-old, Verlander went 11-2 with a 1.29 ERA in 118.2 innings over 20 starts at high Class A Lakeland and Double-A Erie. He struck out 136, walked 26 and never allowed more than two earned runs in a start all season on his way to a September callup to Detroit.
Verlander is now deep into a Hall of Fame career that includes two Cy Young Awards, six other top-five finishes and a World Series ring with the 2017 Astros.
Erubiel Durazo, 1999
.404 batting average
Of all the great hitters in all the great hitting environments in all the minor leagues, only one full-season player has hit .400 since the minor leagues reorganized in 1963. That one hitter had just about the most nondescript origin story.
The D-backs signed Erubiel Durazo as a soon-to-be-25-year-old first baseman out of the Mexican League after the 1998 season. He had been a high-average hitter with moderate power and strong on-base skills for Monterrey—and that’s exactly the type of hitter he turned out to be in the U.S.
Assigned to Double-A El Paso in 1999, Durazo hit .403 in 64 games to earn a promotion to Triple-A Tucson, where he hit .407 in 30 games. Arizona summoned him to the big leagues on July 26, and he embarked on a seven-year career in which he hit .281 with a 123 OPS+.
While never an all-star, Durazo was a quality hitter for four Arizona and Oakland teams that made the playoffs.
Nick Johnson, 1999
.525 on-base percentage
Nick Johnson was the rare touted first base prospect who excelled in subtle ways rather than hitting for big power. He never hit more than 18 home runs in a minor league season but drew walks by the bushel and was regarded as the best defensive first baseman in the South Atlantic, Eastern and International leagues.
Johnson ranked as the Yankees’ top prospect three times and as the No. 5 prospect in baseball heading into the 2000 season. That peak ranking came on the heels of a historic 1999 season at Double-A Norwich in which a 20-year-old Johnson compiled a .525 on-base percentage on the strength of a .345 average plus 123 walks and 37 hit-by-pitches.
As a prospect, Johnson drew frequent comparisons with Mark Grace, and he might have realized that upside had he not been stymied by injuries, primarily to his back and wrist. The Yankees traded Johnson and two others to the Expos for Javier Vazquez after the 2003 season, and Johnson went on to serve as a regular for second-division clubs. Despite his injuries, he compiled a career .399 OBP in the big leagues that is good enough to rank 10th since 2000.
Few minor league batters approach a season OBP of .500, let alone surpass it. Only Barry Bonds, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle have managed it in the big leagues since integration. The only other minor leaguer to reach base at least half the time in the BA era was Gerry Davis of the Padres system in 1981.
That year the 22-year-old outfielder/third baseman had a season at high Class A Salem that looks like a misprint. Davis posted a .504 OBP based on a .306 average and 161 walks in 138 games. He even hit for power with 34 homers, 103 RBIs and a .613 slugging percentage.
Billy Hamilton, 2012
155 stolen bases
Billy Hamilton not only broke the seemingly unbreakable minor league stolen base record, but he broke it in style by stealing four bases in the first game of a doubleheader on Aug. 21. That left him 12 games in which to pad his all-time professional record.
The 21-year-old, switch-hitting Hamilton totaled 155 stolen bases—in 192 attempts!—in 132 games split between high Class A Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola. It was his fourth pro season after being drafted by the Reds in the second round in 2009. Hamilton began his pro career as a shortstop before moving to center field in 2013.
The previous minor league stolen base record belonged to former Cardinals speedster Vince Coleman, who swiped 145 bases for low Class A Macon in 1983. That season Coleman edged Donell Nixon by one bag in a spirited chase for the record. Coleman missed time with injury in 1983, playing in just 113 games, and actually edged Hamilton in terms of stolen bases attempted per game, 1.56 to 1.45.
Coleman set the record in a time where stolen bases were prevalent in the minors. From 1980 to 1985, the minor league stolen base champ topped 100 bags every season. Since then, it has happened just four times. Hamilton did it twice.
As a prospect, Hamilton was timed running to first base in 3.5 seconds—when 3.9 is considered elite—on bunts from the left side. Naturally, he was named fastest baserunner in the Midwest, California, Southern and International leagues on the way up and in the National League for his first five seasons, when he averaged 53 steals a year.
Ron Kittle, 1982
50 home runs
Ron Kittle pulled off the rare minor league “power triple crown” for Triple-A Edmonton in 1982, when the 24-year-old was BA Minor League Player of the Year. He led the minors in home runs (50), RBIs (144) and slugging percentage (.752), which is a feat accomplished only once since then, by Astros first base prospect A.J. Reed in 2015.
Kittle is also the only minor league player since 1963 to top 50 home runs. At least, he’s the only one to top 50 while playing in a regulation ballpark. A pair of Sacramento hitters topped 50 homers in 1974—Bill McNulty (55) and Gorman Thomas (51)—while playing in unusual conditions at Hughes Stadium, a football facility where the left-field fence was a reported 233 feet from home plate.
Kittle was signed by the White Sox following his release by the Dodgers out of Class A. He quickly found his power stroke in the Chicago system, hitting 40 homers at Double-A in 1981 to set the stage for his historic 1982 season. The righthanded slugger blasted 30-plus home runs in his first two big league seasons, winning American League Rookie of the Year in 1983.
Brandon Wood, 2005
101 extra-base hits
In the 73 seasons since the major leagues integrated, just six players have amassed 100 extra-base hits in a season. In chronological order they are Stan Musial in 1948, Albert Belle in 1995, Todd Helton in 2000 and 2001 and Barry Bonds, Luis Gonzalez and Sammy Sosa all in 2001.
With the exception of Belle, who hit 103 XBH in a strike-shortened 144-game season, all those players’ teams played 162 games.
That’s what makes Brandon Wood’s total of 101 extra-base hits in 2005 so impressive. Well, that and the fact he was a 20-year-old shortstop in just his third pro season. Wood struck 53 doubles, 43 home runs and five triples and in a 140-game minor league season. He added 14 more homers in the Arizona Fall League and one for Team USA.
Wood is the only player since the 1963 minor league reorganization to reach 100 extra-base hits in a season.
Wood, an Angels prospect, spent most of the 2005 season with high Class A Rancho Cucamonga, adding four games with Triple-A Salt Lake. In 134 games he tallied not only 101 extra-base hits but also 370 total bases that is also a modern minor league record.
Wood continued to mash in the minors on his way up the ladder but was undone by anxiety in the big leagues, totaling 18 home runs in 272 games spread over parts of five seasons.
Kevin Cron, 2019
.777 slugging percentage
Kevin Cron slammed 39 home runs to lead the minor leagues in 2019. That total isn’t noteworthy on its own—until placed in the context that Cron played just 82 games for Triple-A Reno. That much power concentrated in so few at-bats yielded a .777 slugging percentage for the 26-year-old first baseman that is the highest of the last 40 years.
In fact, no other hitter is within 25 points of Cron. Ron Kittle came closest with his .752 SLG in 1982.
Cron’s power output is no Pacific Coast League mirage. He received his first big league callup in 2019 and went yard six times 78 plate appearances for the D-backs. More encouraging for Cron’s outlook: According to MLB Statcast he had an average exit velocity of 98.4 mph on fly balls and line drives, which ranked him ninth in the majors among batters with at least 25 batted balls.
Cron in his limited big league sample “barreled” the ball at a rate on par with sluggers such as Nelson Cruz and Giancarlo Stanton. So while Arizona hasn’t committed regular big league at-bats to Cron, they will find a way to get him in the lineup if he keeps mashing like he did in 2019.
George Springer, 2013
Jose Canseco ignited baseball fans’ interest in the 40-40 season when he hit 42 home runs and stole 40 bases for the pennant-winning 1988 Athletics. Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Alfonso Soriano have subsequently joined the 40-40 club.
No player in the modern history of the minor leagues has achieved a 40-40 season, but 23-year-old Astros prospect George Springer came tantalizingly close in 2013 while playing for Double-A Corpus Christi and Triple-A Oklahoma City.
Springer hit 37 home runs and stole 45 bases in 135 games as he rose to the cusp of the majors. He had 40 homers in his sights but went homerless in his last eight games. Still, Springer’s power-speed number (40.6) is easily the best in the minors during the BA era.
Drafted 11th overall in 2011, Springer required just three years in the minors before becoming an impact regular in Houston beginning in 2014. Through six seasons, he has a pair of 30-homer seasons, three all-star nods and a World Series MVP award from 2017.
Francisco Mejia, 2016
50-game hitting streak
Nobody would disagree that hitting streaks are fluky because of the volatility of batting average. Still, when a player reaches a threshold that no minor league hitter has reached in modern minor league history . . . well, that’s impressive.
Indians catching prospect Francisco Mejia reached that threshold in 2016, when the 20-year-old Dominican switch-hitter collected a hit in 50 straight games at two levels, low Class A Lake County and high Class A Lynchburg.
For 50 games from May 27 to Aug. 13 that year, Mejia hit .386/.414/.599 with eight home runs and established his credentials as Cleveland’s No. 1 prospect in 2017 and 2018. The Indians dealt him to the Padres near the 2018 trade deadline for relievers Brad Hand and Adam Cimber. Mejia got his first extended big league look with San Diego in 2019, sharing time behind the plate with Austin Hedges.
Mejia’s hitting streak surpassed the modern standard of 45, set by outfielder Jamie McOwen in 2009, but nearly ended at 49 games. A post-game scoring change on Aug. 13 credited Mejia with a double rather than a reached-on-error, giving the catcher a hit in 50 straight. An 0-for-3 day at the plate on Aug. 14 snapped the streak.
Gabe Kapler, 1998
The same principle applies in the minor leagues, where driving in 140 runs in a 140-game schedule is a challenge few batters have met since the minor league reorganization of 1963.
The most recent minor leaguer to reach 140 RBIs was 22-year-old outfielder Gabe Kapler in 1998. That season he drove in 146 runs in 139 games for Double-A Jacksonville while hitting .322/.393/.583 with 28 home runs, 47 doubles and six triples. Kapler was named Southern League MVP for his efforts and entered 1999 ranked as the Tigers’ No. 1 prospect.
Kapler spent 12 seasons in the big leagues, settling in as a platoon outfielder versus lefthanders, but he is probably best known for his post playing career. He has served as a minor league manager, Dodgers farm director, Phillies manager and now Giants manager.
A number of other minor league hitters have topped 140 RBIs since 1963. It will surprise no one to learn those hitters played in good hitter’s parks and/or leagues. The list includes Mike Stoner with 142 RBIs for high Class A High Desert in 1997, Ron Kittle with 144 RBIs for Triple-A Edmonton in 1982, Randy Bass with 143 RBIs for Triple-A Denver in 1980, Pat Putnam with 142 RBIs for low Class A Asheville in 1976 and Jose Vidal with 162 RBIs for high Class A Reno in 1963.
Brad Thompson, 2004
57.2 consecutive scoreless innings
Double-A Tennessee righthander Brad Thompson opened the 2004 season with 49 straight scoreless innings in the Southern League. When combined with the 8.2 scoreless innings he tossed at the end of 2003, the 22-year-old set the modern minor league standard with 57.2 consecutive scoreless innings.
Drafted by the Cardinals in the 16th round in 2002 out of Dixie State (Utah) JC, Thompson ranked as St. Louis’ No. 6 prospect in 2005 and made his big league debut that season. He logged six big league seasons, totaling 405 innings and working mostly as a low-leverage reliever.
The all-time minor league record for consecutive scoreless innings is believed to be 59 by Birmingham’s Irv Wilhelm in 1907. Fifty-nine innings is also the length of the major league record, set by the Dodgers’ Orel Hershiser in his epic 1988 season.
LaVel Freeman, 1987
Because of the five-month minor league season, few batters cross the 200-hit threshold. The last affiliated player to do so was 24-year-old corner outfielder LaVel Freeman with Double-A El Paso in 1987. He hit .395 that season and challenged for the all-time Texas League batting average record of .402.
Freeman continued to hit at Triple-A the next year, but the Brewers never granted him a clear big league shot, in part because Milwaukee had a deep stable of young hitting talent, headed by Gary Sheffield, Greg Vaughn, B.J. Surhoff, Darryl Hamilton and Glenn Braggs.
The only other minor leaguer to top 200 hits in the BA era was Mike Stoner, a D-backs nondrafted free agent sign out of North Carolina, who reached 203 hits while playing for co-op High Desert of the high Class A California League in 1997.
Some other 200-hit minor league season seasons come from notable names, including Bobby Valentine with 211 hits in 1970, and Jesus Alou (210) and Don Buford (206) in 1963. A Venezuelan outfielder named Oswaldo Oliveras tallied 214 hits in 1977 but never reached the big leagues.
Jamie Cochran, 1993
One of the more obscure minor league records belongs to Jamie Cochran, who as a 24-year-old righthanded reliever notched 46 saves for low Class A Savannah in 1993. That established a minor league saves record—Steve Reed collected 43 the year before—and no reliever has topped 43 since.
Cochran went undrafted out of University of Detroit Mercy and signed with the Cardinals in 1991. He never started a game in a four-year career in affiliated ball but made his mark in a short period. Cochran established saves records in the short-season New York-Penn League ( 24 in 1992) and in the South Atlantic League (the record 46).
Cochran made just two appearances for Savannah in 1994 before drawing his release. He spent one season in the independent Northern League in 1995.
Guerrero Sr. hit .360 in a 1996 season spent mostly at Double-A Harrisburg, preceded by 20 games with high Class A West Palm Beach. The 21-year-old Expos outfielder hit 24 home runs, 40 doubles and eight triples that season and entered 1997 ranked as the No. 2 prospect in baseball.
Guerrero would have ranked No. 1—and possibly would have won the 1996 Minor League Player of the Year award—had he not been direct contemporaries with the Braves’ Andruw Jones, who put up gaudier numbers while being two years younger than Guerrero.
Twenty-two years later, Guerrero Jr. hit .381 in a 2018 season spent primarily with Double-A New Hampshire—where he hit .402—plus 30 games with Triple-A Buffalo.
On the strength of his season, Guerrero Jr., a 19-year-old Blue Jays third baseman, did win Minor League Player of the Year and did enter 2019 ranked as the No. 1 prospect in baseball.