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The AAAA Player

Jarred Kelenic started 2021 as a hyped-up super prospect. After heading to Seattle from the New York Mets in the Edwin Diaz/Robinson Cano swap, the number four overall prospect was looking to take the American League by storm. Many baseball writers had him pegged as a rookie of the year candidate.

Kelenic started the year in AAA where he slashed .370/.414/.640. He appeared so ready to decimate MLB that the Seattle Mariners were being accused of service time manipulation.

But finally, after so much hype, four years in the minor leagues, and a lifetime of hard work, he got his shot. Let’s see how he did.

.096/.185/.193

No, I didn’t just vomit onto the screen. That’s Kelenic’s slash line through his first 23 career games. He was demoted back to AAA after a 0-32 slump.

All is fine, though. He just needs to make some adjustments in Tacoma and head back up to Seattle. After a few weeks in AAA, Kelenic’s slash line still looked impressive: .320/.392/.624. Seems like he’s finally ready.

.115/.148/.115

He’s gotten three hits in the 27 plate appearances he’s been back. Small sample size, sure, but what about the fact that he’s struck out twice in every game except one?

This is just another example of a new trend around major league baseball: the AAAA player.

AAAA players certainly aren’t a new concept in MLB, but their frequency has been notable recently. AAAA hitters dominate AAA baseball, but look upwards toward the Mendoza line upon promotion to their MLB franchise.

Here are a few examples.

Keston Hiura

A first-round draft pick by Milwaukee, Hiura immediately began his career as a top ten Brewer prospect. He posted a 240 wRC+ in Rookie ball and 156 wRC+ in High A in his first year of professional baseball. Soon he found himself amongst Baseball America’s Top 50 best prospects. In 2019, he demolished AAA, slashing .329/.407/.681, earning himself his first cup of coffee in the bigs.

And he delivered. He batted .303 with a .938 OPS in 84 games. Sure, it came with an unsustainable BABIP of .402 and a high strikeout rate at 30.7%, but a great barrel and hard-hit percentage showed that Hiura would be the one-two punch with Christian Yelich that the Brew Crew desperately needed.

2020 was a different story. That impressive OPS plummeted to a below-average .707. He led the National League in strikeouts thanks to a 34.6% K-rate.

But 2020 was a weird shortened year. Hiura would figure things out in 2021, right?

No. Through his first 26 games, he had an abysmal .152/.247/.266 slash line. The Brewers demoted him to AAA.

And he raked. A .403/.506/.722 slash line in 24 games at the second-best league in the United States should guarantee some success in the MLB, right?

Hiura earned his promotion back to the bigs on May 24, and it’s the same story.

Since returning, his OPS sits at .611 with just 3 home runs in 102 plate appearances. He’s struck out 41% of the time.

Ryan O’Hearn

Ryan O’Hearn took a bit longer to get to the big leagues. Unlike Hiura, O’Hearn wasn’t a high draft pick or a top 100 MLB prospect. He never posted elite numbers above High A in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, hitting to a slightly below average 99 wRC+ and 87 wRC+ in AAA in 2017 and 2018, respectively. But in his first cup of coffee in the bigs, he raked, smashing 12 home runs in 44 games to give him a .950 OPS.

However, O’Hearn struggled in the MLB in 2019 with a pathetic .650 OPS. But in 35 games in AAA that same year, he slashed .295/.383/.597.

2020 was the same story, with O’Hearn slashing .195/.303/.301 at the highest level.

In the show at Kansas City in 2021, O’Hearn has a 79 wRC+. His .675 OPS is among the worst in baseball. But of course, he leads all of AAA in wRC+ amongst hitters with at least 80 plate appearances with a monstrous 248 mark. That’s good for a 1.382 OPS.

Every statistic you can think of goes down when he’s promoted. Walk rate goes way down, and strikeout rate goes way up.

What Causes a AAAA Player?

What makes this dilemma so frustrating and mind-bending is that players who produce unspectacular numbers in the minors often have great success in the majors.

Two rookies, Akil Baddoo and Jonathan India, who are both contenders for Rookie of the Year in their respective leagues, posted pedestrian minor league numbers.

Prior to 2021, the highest level of baseball that Baddoo had played was High A. He struggled terribly there, churning out a terrible .683 OPS.

This year, however, he’s fifth amongst qualified rookies with a .839 OPS. Sure, he could’ve made adjustments at the Tigers’ alternate training site last year, but for him to be having so much success at the majors instantly is unprecedented.

India’s best career OPS was a .792 mark at AA. This year, he has a .820 OPS in Cincinnati with the second-highest on-base percentage among rookies.

This type of situation is what leads MLB general managers to go insane. The statistics simply don’t make sense. O’Hearn had a good walk rate and bad strikeout rate in the minors. So did Akil Baddoo. But their production at the majors is juxtaposed. Both Hiura and India struck out about 20% of the time in the minors, but Hiura’s strikeout rate jumps to 39.1% in Milwaukee, while India’s has remained stagnant in Cincinnati at 22.5%.

A lot of speculation has been made about the mental aspects of playing on the world’s biggest stage. If I could quantify this aspect into a readable statistic, I would.

As for Kelenic, hopefully he can make the adjustments necessary for him to be able to succeed at the major league level. For now, however, he’ll be stuck in limbo, too good for AAA but not good enough for the show.

So many attempts have been made to explain the AAAA phenomenon but the only explanation I can give is that sometimes baseball is just weird.

Featured photo: @brewers, @mlbtraderumors

Edward Orzech

Writer at Miami University following the Atlanta Braves most prominently. Follow on Twitter: @edward_orzech

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