Stetson Allie has been one of the best stories in the Pirates’ minor league system this year. I get asked all the time why he’s not a top 20 prospect yet, when he’ll be moved up to Double-A, and even what he could become in the future. I’m generally hesitant to give high rankings to first basemen. I’m also hesitant to give high rankings to hitters based on low-A numbers, unless I see some really promising tools that suggest they can hit beyond that level and provide value elsewhere on the field (Gregory Polanco, for example). And if a guy is striking out a lot in A-ball, I’ll be skeptical that he can maintain his hitting in the upper levels.
Those are three things that Allie has working against him. But they’re also three theories/beliefs of mine that you could question if you don’t see where I’m coming from. So let’s take a look at some recent examples of players who have done what Stetson Allie is doing this year. Allie is 22 years old and putting up huge numbers in the South Atlantic League. So I went back through the years finding players who were also 22, and also putting up huge numbers in the SAL (by huge numbers, I mean an OPS around 1.000). Here are the players from each season, as well as how they performed after moving to the upper levels.
Matt Curry (2011)
In 2011 Matt Curry had a monster year in West Virginia. In his 195 plate appearances at the level he had an impressive .361/.477/.671 line with nine homers. He also had a 17.9% walk rate and an 18.7% strikeout rate.
The Pirates wanted Aaron Baker to get time at first base in high-A, rather than promoting him to Double-A. So they opted to move Curry up to Altoona, skipping him over high-A. Later in the summer they traded Baker for Derrek Lee, which probably wouldn’t have been possible if Baker was exposed at a higher level. I’m not saying that was their motivation, just an observation of how things played out.
Curry struggled initially in Altoona, hitting for a .242/.320/.374 line in the second half of the 2011 season. Last year he showed improvements with a .285/.352/.480 line in 396 at-bats. He didn’t carry the strong K/BB ratio over, with a 9.8% walk rate and a 29.7% strikeout rate. He carried the strikeout problems over to the 2013 season, with a 33.3% strikeout rate in 105 at-bats before getting injured.
Bryce Brentz (2011)
Bryce Brentz was playing for the Boston Red Sox in 2011 in the South Atlantic League. He also got off to a hot start like Curry, hitting for a .359/.414/.647 line in 186 plate appearances, along with 11 homers. His K/BB ratio wasn’t bad, with a 20.6% strikeout rate, and a 7.5% walk rate. He spent the second half of the 2011 season in high-A, hitting for a .274/.336/.531 line in 321 plate appearances.
In 2012 Brentz moved up to Double-A. There he hit for a .296/.355/.478 line, which was similar to Curry’s result. He also had 17 homers in 504 plate appearances. His strikeout rate took a dip, dropping to 28.5%, while his walk rate stayed about the same at 7.9%.
J.D. Martinez (2010)
In 2010 J.D. Martinez led the South Atlantic League with a .362/.433/.598 line and 15 homers in 393 plate appearances. That came with a 15.8% strikeout rate and an 8.4% walk rate. He made the same jump to Double-A that Matt Curry made the following year, and saw his OPS drop to .765 the first year.
In his second year at the Double-A level, Martinez hit for a .338/.414/.546 line in 370 plate appearances. He also was called up to the majors that year. He maintained the good K/BB rates, with a 17.4% strikeout rate and an 11.4% walk rate, showing some big improvements with the walks.
So far in the majors he has combined for a .250/.308/.397 line in 754 plate appearances. The strikeouts have gone up to 24.2%, while the walks have dropped to 7.6%.
Mike Zuanich (2009)
You probably haven’t heard of Zuanich, and there’s a good reason. In 2009 he had a .362/.450/.616 line in 170 plate appearances in the SAL, with seven homers. He also had a 26.1% strikeout rate and an 11.7% walk rate.
After two more seasons of dominating low-A and high-A, Zuanich was moved up to the Double-A level. So far in 318 plate appearances he has a .242/.333/.415 line with 13 homers. His strikeout rate has been 28.9%, while his walk rate has been 9.2%.
Michael Taylor (2008)
Taylor was one of the top prospects in baseball, and has spent a little bit of time in the majors, but hasn’t worked out so far. In 2008 he had a .361/.441/.554 line in 288 plate appearances, with 10 homers in the SAL. He also had a 17.3% strikeout rate, and a 10.8% walk rate.
Taylor’s numbers carried over to Double-A the following year. He had a .333/.408/.569 line in 363 plate appearances, while also maintaining the good walk rate (9.6%), and the low strikeouts (16%). He didn’t do so well at the Triple-A level, combining for a .280/.372/.440 line in 1694 plate appearances over five seasons. Those would be good numbers in the majors, but not in Triple-A, with four years coming in the hitter friendly PCL.
Jared Goedert (2007)
We know where Goedert is now. He’s with the Indianapolis Indians hitting for a .235/.346/.419 line. He looks like he could be a good platoon option at third base against lefties, but that’s not a huge upside. Plus he’s 28 and hasn’t seen the majors.
In 2007 he had a monster season in the SAL at the age of 22, posting a .364/.475/.715 line in 205 plate appearances, along with 16 homers. Across the board that’s better than Allie right now. He also had a 17.6% strikeout rate, and a 17.1% walk rate.
Gaby Sanchez (2006)
I was originally going to stop at 2008, then I saw Goedert as the 22-year-old dominating in 2007. Then I went one more year and saw Sanchez on the list (Steve Pearce is also up there with a .969 OPS at the age of 23).
Sanchez hit for a .317/.447/.603 line with 14 homers in 237 plate appearances in the SAL. We know the story of his career. He posted two good seasons in the majors where he beat up on left-handers, has never hit more than 19 homers in a season in the majors, is a career .258 hitter with a .758 OPS, and is established as a lefty-only option in a platoon (despite the fact that he keeps getting starts against right-handers).
Hunter Pence (2005)
There’s always an exception to the rule. The list of players so far with similar numbers to Allie at the same age have been uninspiring. At best case you’ve got a career platoon guy. The worst case is he washes out at Double-A. Then there’s Pence.
In 2005, Pence had a .338/.413/.652 line in 341 plate appearances in the SAL, with 25 homers. Those are pretty insane numbers, especially the home run totals. He also had a 17.5% strikeout rate and an 11.1% walk rate. We know what he’s done since then. Pence spent several years in the majors as a .280 hitter with 25 homers a year and an .800 OPS. He could be on pace for another one of those years in 2013.
Larry Broadway (2003)
The Pirates’ Director of Minor League Operations had a pretty good season in the SAL in 2003. He hit for a .307/.400/.566 line in 340 plate appearances. So if Allie doesn’t make it, he might have a future in a Major League front office somewhere.
Stetson Allie (2013)
After today’s game, Allie has a .331/.410/.627 line in 195 plate appearances with 12 homers. He also has a 33% strikeout rate and an 11% walk rate.
We don’t know how it will play out from here with Allie. What we do know is that in a lot of previous examples, monster numbers in the SAL don’t mean monster numbers in the upper levels. They also don’t guarantee major league success. And if you’re thinking Allie is going to be a .300 hitter with 40 homers a year because those are his numbers in low-A, you’re probably going to be disappointed.
The best case would be the Pence route, with a .280 average, an .800 OPS, and 25 homers a year. But Pence had much better plate patience. Allie’s 33% strikeout rate is the worst of anyone on this list. That’s a huge concern, especially since most of the hitters saw their strikeouts increase when they reached Double-A. I don’t think expecting the exception would be a good approach here. That’s almost as ridiculous as saying Allie will be a Director of Minor League Operations because he has comparable numbers to Larry Broadway. A more realistic expectation would be a platoon player like Gaby Sanchez, although he still has a long way to go to get to that point.
You could make the argument that Allie isn’t an ordinary 22-year-old. He made a late switch to hitting, taking a few years off to be a pitcher. That could have put him behind, and could have led to the high strikeout numbers. The question is, can he reverse that trend? Noting that he made the switch from being a pitcher might explain why he’s having strikeout issues, but it doesn’t mean those issues are sure to go away.
What Allie does going forward is going to be extremely important. If he can maintain this in higher levels, that would be tremendous. The point here is that just because he’s tearing up the South Atlantic League doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed to put up these same monster numbers in the majors, or even in Double-A. In fact, in most cases the numbers take a big drop by the time a player reaches Double-A. So this is good to see for now, but the more important thing to see would be how he handles the Double-A level. Until he goes through that test, I’d have a hard time giving him a high ranking and trusting that he could put up these numbers in the long run. Based on the above examples, I’d say that Double-A test should happen next year.