The Patron Saint of the AAAA Player, Ken Phelps
Random Thoughts on the Quadruple-A Player.
In the 1987 Baseball Abstract, Bill James introduced the concept of the "Ken Phelps All-Stars." For those of you who don't remember Phelps, he was a power hitter who was trapped in the minors for several years back in the early 80s. He proved he could handle Triple-A pitching at the age of 24, and had a particularly monstrous season at the age of 27 in Triple-A, hitting 46 homers. But he didn't get a real chance to play in the Majors until he was 29, when he hit .241/.378/.521 with 24 homers in just 290 at-bats for the Mariners in 1984. He had some good years as a DH before fading out in his mid-30s. He finished with 123 career homers in 761 games.
The "Ken Phelps All-Stars" are guys who are trapped in the minors, who could probably be useful in the Majors, but who don't get the chance for one reason or another. There are different guys who can fit into this category: Phelps-like sluggers, or good defensive catchers with mediocre bats, or control pitchers in the Dave Eiland mode, or Colter Bean-like relievers, etc.
Phelps made it. But for every Phelps there are several guys who don't make it. Some receive brief chances but muff it. A contemporary example to Phelps would be Mike Stenhouse. Some guys get brief chances, do well, but still don't get to play. Check out this guy from Twins history: Mark Funderburk. Funderburk received 85 at-bats for the Twins in 1981 and 1985, hitting a combined .294/.337/.482 in the Majors, yet spent the rest of his career in the minors.
Defensive limitations are a common factor here. It's easy to find first baseman and DHs who can hit (at least it should be), and competition for these jobs is fierce, especially among the fringier types. Pick up a minor league almanac at random, and you'll find a bushel of these guys in Triple-A every year.
Let's do that. I pull the 1989 Baseball America Almanac off my shelf and flip through the stats for the old American Association, 1988.
American Association Home Run Leaders, 1988
Van Snider, OF, Nashville 23 homers (hit .290)
Phil Stephenson, 1B, Iowa: 22 homers (hit .293)
German Rivera, 3B, Denver: 21 homers (hit .300)
Dave Meier, OF, Iowa: 20 homers (hit .305)
Benny Distefano, OF, Buffalo: 19 homers (hit .263)
Billy Moore, OF, Indianapolis: 17 homers (hit .285)
Rolando Roomes, OF, Iowa: 16 homers (hit .301)
Brad Komminsk, OF, Denver: 16 homers (hit .239)
Van Snider was 24 in 1988 and was considered, at the time, the best prospect on this list. He received only 35 Major League at-bats in his entire career. I believe he may have been finished by an injury, but I can't find the information right now and I need to get this posted. Anyone remember what happened to Van Snider?
Phil Stephenson was 27 in 1988. He received 298 career at-bats, hitting .201/.309/.312, drawing 47 walks (!) but striking out 62 times. He was the epitome of the AAAA first baseman as perceived by scouts, owning power but undone by a long swing.
German Rivera was 27 in 1988. He received 280 career at-bats from 1983 through 1985, hitting .257/.322/.354, but was regarded as a failed prospect by '88. His '88 batting average was likely inflated by playing in Denver's thin air.
Dave Meier was 28 in 1988. He received 277 career at-bats from '84 through '88, hitting .253/.316/.325.
Benny Distefano was 26 in 1988. He received 360 career at-bats from '84 through '82, hitting .228/.295/.350.
Billy Moore was 27 in 1988. He received only 12 career at-bats, all in 1986.
Rolando Roomes was 26 in 1988. He received 406 career at-bats, most of them with the Cubs in '89, hitting .254/.282/.394. He was a power-speed guy, with possibly the best tools on this list, but was hampered with horrible plate discipline.
Brad Komminsk was 27 years old in '88. He received the most playing time of all, having been a major prospect with the Braves in the early 80s, hitting .218/.301/.336 in 986 career at-bats.
All of these guys (except possibly Snider) are perfect examples of AAAA players: good enough (or too good) for Triple-A, but not quite good enough for the Majors.
Of course, some AAAA guys ARE good enough for the Majors. Phelps was. Some of the guys above may have been as well, if they'd been given a better chance.
Who are your favorite current AAAA players? What Quadruple-A guy would you want at bat for your favorite team in a tight situation today? What commonalities are there between Quadruple-A guys who eventually succeed in the majors? IS there any commonality, or is it just random luck and good timing?