How Meaningful is the Arizona Fall League?
I was thinking about ways to design a big study about this issue, but to be 100% honest I don't have the time to do it right now. I know you guys want me to spend my time working on the book. So we'll go with a random-thought format today.
The Arizona Fall League has become one of the highlights of the year for prospect watchers. This is the first year since 1997 that I won't attend, due to the impending birth of my second son. I hope to return in 2006.
The Fall League is designed to showcase prospects, give them a chance cap off the season, work on a few things in a competitive environment, and test themselves against other top prospects, sort of an hyper-advanced form of the instructional league. But how meaningful is performance in the AFL? Does a player who does well here have a better chance to succeed in the majors than one who doesn't?
Intuitively, you'd say "of course it matters." But the answer is not that simple. In recent years, teams have been increasingly reluctant to send top pitching prospects to the league, wanting to spare their arms excessive workload. Some still show up. . .particularly pitchers who missed time during the regular season for one reason or another, or guys who were drafted out of college and signed late. But if you have a league with a bunch of top hitting prospects clustered together, but without a proportional representation of top pitching prospects, results are bound to be skewed to some extent. You have to adjust for that.
With that in mind, let's look at some of the top performances in Arizona Fall League history.
Batting Average: .479, Ken Harvey in 2002
Hits: 68, Steve Pegues in 1992
Doubles: 19, Carlos Lee in 1998
Triples: 10, James Mouton in 1993
Homers: 12, Tagg Bozied in 2002
Walks: 37, Andy Fox in 1994
RBI: 44, Orlando Miller in 1993
Strikeouts: 83, Russ Branyan in 1997
Steals: 24, Rick Holifield in 1994
Slugging: .752, Ken Harvey in `02
OBP: .537, Ken Harvey in `02
ERA: 0.41, Elvin Nina in 2000
Saves: 17, Eric Ludwick in 1996
Strikeouts: 62, Alan Benes in 1995
You can find a complete list of everyone who ever played in the AFL here.
Now, all-time record lists don't tell us that much. A better way to do it would be to make a big list of, say, the top 10 or 20 OPS performances in the AFL each year, then see how those players did in the majors and look for correlations. But like I said, that would take more time than I have at this stage of the book crunch. But even just a brief glance at year-by-year leader lists show us that top performance in the AFL does not necessarily equate to having a good major league career. Steve Pegues? James Mouton?
Let's take a random season. . . the 1997 AFL.
Batting Average Qualifiers, 1997 Arizona Fall League
Brad Fullmer, .414
Sean Casey, .396
Ryan Jackson, .378
Damian Jackson, .374
Paul LoDuca, .363
Chris Sexton, .351
Charles Gipson, .346
Chad Hermansen, .341
J.P. Roberge, .336
Pat Watkins, .336
Kevin Barker, .331
Dan McKinley, .331
Adam Riggs. .317
Robert Smith, .316
Mark Kotsay, .313
The home run leader was Ron Wright at 11 (though he hit just .217), with Brian Buchanan, Corey Koskie, Geoff Jenkins, and Preston Wilson tied for second place with 10.
ERA leaders, 1997 Arizona Fall League
Rolando Arrojo, 1.38
Scott Schoeneweis, 1.98
Rafael Medina, 2.09
Jason Boyd, 2.16
Justin Speier, 2.28
Brian Sikorski, 2.41
Steve Montgomery, 2.54
Scott Sauerbeck, 2.68
Pete Munro, 2.79
John Rocker, 2.85
Mike Johnson, 3.07
Matt Perisho, 3.46
That's everyone who recorded an ERA less than 4.00 in the minimum of 35 innings.
In the 1997 AFL, the top performers were a mixture, some guys turning into fine players, but the majority of them not turning out to be much. John Rocker is an interesting case: it was in the AFL that he first put himself on the prospect map, showing a large and unexpected boost in his velocity.
My advice about the Arizona Fall League: treat it like a form of spring training. It's good if a guy does well there, but it is just one data point, and can't be taken too seriously. After the Ken Harvey Experience, I won't promote a guy to top prospect status just because of strong AFL performance.