Zach Neto’s Speedy MLB Arrival Is An Excellent Sign

Image credit: Zach Neto (Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

For many decades, there’s been a misconception that nowadays, baseball is rushing its prospects to the majors, failing to provide the seasoning that baseball used to provide.

This is a complaint that was prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s, and you still hear it today.

But it’s a fallacy. In reality, great players often speed through the minors. You can find examples in every generation.

In recent years, Juan Soto had 512 minor league plate appearances before he reached the majors. Bryce Harper had 536 MiLB plate appearances before he reached the majors. Go back a generation and Alex Rodriguez had 712 MiLB plate appearances before he settled into the majors for good. Ken Griffey Jr. only had 324 minor league plate appearances. Dave Winfield skipped the minors entirely. The Brewers deemed Robin Yount ready after 276 plate appearances in the short-season New York-Penn League.

In every generation, there are players who violate the generally understood rules of how much seasoning a player needs in the minors because holding them back doesn’t make sense.

The Angels promoted Zach Neto to the majors on Saturday. The 2022 first-round pick became the first player from last year’s draft to reach the majors and he became one of only 18 position player draftees from the 21st century to reach the majors by the end of the season following their draft year.

You may think that the Angels’ decision to promote Neto to the majors so quickly after just the briefest of minor league stints is an incredibly risky gamble that puts a young player in a sink-or-swim scenario that could derail his development.

That’s possible, but if you look at the history of other fast-moving position players in the 21st century, it’s actually an extremely strong indicator of success. If recent history is any indication, Neto’s rapid promotion to the majors is more likely to be a sign of stardom to come than it is a decision that will come back to haunt the Angels.

(This is a study of position players, a study of pitchers would find more cautionary tales).

Of the other 17 position player draftees to reach the majors before the end of the season following their draft year (in the 21st century), nine have produced 15-plus career bWAR. The list includes Buster Posey, Troy Tulowitzki, Alex Bregman, Ryan Zimmerman and Trea Turner. Even more impressively, 13 of the other 17 have had at least one season of three-plus bWAR.

Here’s the complete list of players who met that criteria.

Draft Year Player Total
Best Season
At Time Of
2022 Zach Neto 0 0 201
2018 Nico Hoerner 6.9 4.4 375
2016 Austin Hays 6.6 3.2 716
2015 Andrew Benintendi 15.9 4.8 657
2015 Dansby Swanson 15.4 5.7 569
2015 Alex Bregman 30.9 8.9 679
2014 Michael Conforto 15.9 3.7 589
2014 Trea Turner 29.9 4.9 821
2014 Kyle Schwarber 11.3 2.3 621
2008 Alex Avila 17.1 5.1 631
2008 Gordon Beckham 5.5 2.1 259
2008 Buster Posey 44.8 7.5 542
*2008 Conor Gillaspie 2.2 1.7 105
2005 Troy Tulowitzki 44.5 6.8 590
2005 Ryan Zimmerman 40.1 7.3 269
2004 Jeff Fiorentino 0.7 0.7 715
*2003 Rickie Weeks 11.5 3.6 92
2002 Khalil Greene 8.5 3.5 849
* Contract required a September callup

You could arguably bring the sample down to 16 players. Until the 2012 MLB Draft, players could have automatic promotions to the MLB roster written into their contracts. That was the case for Conor Gillaspie and Rickie Weeks. Gillaspie made his MLB debut just a few months after he was drafted in 2008. He didn’t make it to the majors for a more extended stay until he’d spent another four years in the minors. Weeks spent another season and a half in the minors before earning a starting role. They weren’t rapid promotions as much as contractually obligated promotions (to get them added to the 40-man roster and on MLB contracts).

Eliminating those two makes the numbers even more impressive. Without those two, 60% of the remaining 15 players have compiled 15-plus bWAR. The 27-year-old Hays and the 25-year-old Hoerner have not had enough time to play the majority of their MLB careers yet.

Neto is an outlier even among this group. His 201 career pro plate appearances are the fewest of any position player in the study other than Weeks, who was a contractually obligated promotion. The only other two non-contractual callups with fewer than 300 MiLB plate appearances are Zimmerman (269 MiLB plate appearances) and Beckham (259 plate appearances).

If you want to be a skeptic about Neto’s promotion and use history as your guide, Beckham is the example to focus on. The eighth pick in the 2004 draft as an infielder out of Georgia, maybe Beckham was rushed too quickly. Maybe it did keep him from developing into the player he could become. His best season was his rookie year, and while he spent parts of 11 seasons in the majors, his final season with 400 plate appearances in the majors was as a 27-year-old in 2014.

The most concerning outcome in the study is outfielder Jeff Fiorentino, a surprise promotion for the Orioles in May 2005 as they tried to fill an injury-induced void in the outfield. Fiorentino was an odd choice. He had yet to reach even Double-A at the time of his promotion. He was not a Top 100 prospect and the Orioles sent him straight back to High-A. He returned to Double-A for the vast majority of the 2006 and 2007 seasons and never became an MLB regular.

But those are largely the only truly cautionary tales, and it’s hard to see similarities between Fiorentino’s surprise jump from non-Top 100 prospect in High-A to the majors and Neto’s jump from Double-A as a first-round pick and the No. 51 prospect in baseball.

Everyone else has gone on to be a useful MLB regular at worst, and the list includes some of the best players of the 21st century.

Being pushed to the majors so quickly does not guarantee Neto’s long-term success, but the way a team moves a player is a useful indicator of how it truly views that player. In Neto’s case, this promotion is a further strong sign that Neto looks like one of the best players from the 2022 draft class.

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