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Diamond in the Rough

Mining for prospects in the Appalachian League

MLB: ALCS-Boston Red Sox at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Alex Bregman. Andrew Benintendi. Walker Buehler. Nolan Arenado. Justin Verlander. Bryce Harper. Mookie Betts. Mike Trout. This list goes on. The majority of potential fantasy superstars are identified as just that, potential superstars, before they play a single game in the Majors.

If you play in a competitive keeper or dynasty league, the industry consensus top prospects are helpful to a point. When your draft requires you to dig deeper, beyond the hype, beyond the top 100, beyond the draft pedigree, you must search for diamonds in the rough.

Hall of Famer Wade Boggs was drafted in Round 7. John Smoltz and Roy Oswalt were 22nd and 23rd round picks, respectively. Mike Piazza was drafted in the 68th round because his godfather, Tommy Lasorda, managed the Dodgers. Matt Carpenter was a 13th round draft pick in 2009. More recently, you saw deGrom drafted in Round 9 and Whit Merrifield in Round 10. These players were not only valuable in deep dynasty leagues, but they all became fantasy mainstays in every format.

The Appalachian League plays a 68-game season where Rookie-class players compete against each other. You’ll find that this league consists mainly of players aged 17 to 22.

I have compiled the statistics for this league over a period from 2006 through 2018, or the last 13 years. I found that among qualifiers (approximately 800 players over 13 years), exactly 40 players (approx. 5%) managed a 1:1 BB:K ratio or greater across that time span. My focus was on plate discipline first, and work from there.

There is a relatively low graduation rate from the Appy league to the MLB. However, among the 800 qualifiers who fell short of a 1:1 BB:K ratio include Brian Dozier, Desmond Jennings, Max Kepler, Jarred Kelenic (2018 first round pick and #68 overall prospect), Estevan Florial (MLB Pipeline #45 overall prospect), Alex Kirilloff (MLB Pipeline #10 overall prospect) and uber-prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Guerrero just missed with a 0.94:1 BB:K ratio and hit .271 with eight home runs. This is an incredible season for a 17-year-old and one of the reasons he started to become one of the most coveted baseball prospects on the globe.

A word of caution in that a greater than 1:1 BB:K ratio in rookie ball does not guarantee MLB success, let alone promotion to the Majors. Nonetheless, of the 40 players that did achieve this mark, the following players are of interest to fantasy baseball managers:

- Jose Altuve, 2009, Age 19

- Andrelton Simmons, 2010, Age 20

- Jeff McNeil, 2013, Age 21

- Nicky Lopez, 2016, Age 21 (Currently Royals #7 Prospect on MLB Pipeline)

- Wander Franco, 2018, Age 17

Of these 40 players, only four of them achieved a .350 batting average or above. One of these players was Wander Franco in 2018. This performance is the primary reason for his meteoric rise among everyone’s list of top prospects heading into 2019.

Of the 40 players, only seven did so while stealing 20 or more bases. Jose Altuve was one of them.

Of the 40 players, only six did so while stealing 20 or more bases and hitting at least .300. Jose Altuve was one of them.

Of the 40 players, only two did so while stealing 20 or more bases, hitting at least .300, slugging at least .500, and averaging at least one run scored per game. Jose Altuve was one of them.

Of the 40 players, only one player did so while stealing 20 or more bases, hitting at least .300, slugging at least .500, averaging at least one run scored per game, and had a BB:K ratio of not only 1:1, but 2:1.

That player goes by the name of Cal Stevenson of the Toronto Blue Jays, who did it as a 21-year-old in 2018. He also did so with a batting average of .359, which was better than Wander Franco’s average last year. This was not a case of a small sample size, as Stevenson also led the league in walks with 53 (striking out 21 times). In fact, that was the second-most walks in a season since 2006. Interestingly, that record is held by Blue Jays #30 Prospect Ryan Noda, who walked 59 times in 2017 (against 60 strikeouts).

Let’s pump the brakes for a minute. Stevenson did this with a BABIP of .393 as a 21-year-old compared to Vladdy, Jose, and Wander as teenagers. So, I begrudgingly admit that he does not have the ceiling of those three players. However, Jeff McNeil posted a .329 season in the Appalachian League as a 21-year-old with no homers and 11 steals. He was a 12th round pick. Stevenson was a 10th round pick for the Jays and hit .359 with two homers and 20 steals.

In 2018, Stevenson’s speed score was a 9.0 out of 10. This metric considers stolen bases, stolen base percentage, runs scored, triples, and times grounded into double plays. This placed him first in the league ahead of a second place Jarred Kelenic. This is a better speed score than a 20-year-old Myles Straw had in 2015 in the Appy league, stealing 22-of-31 bases in 58 games. Stevenson went 20-of-21 on the basepaths in 53 games. Since then Straw has gone on to steal 21, 38, and 70 bases in the next three seasons across the minors.

I will leave you with one more stat to get excited about: Wander Franco’s line drive rate was 15.8%. Stevenson’s line drive rate was 25.9%.

Currently, Cal Stevenson is not on any Top 100 lists nor is he on MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 for the Toronto Blue Jays. Stevenson, however, makes his way onto the back end of my Top 100 prospects list heading into 2019, for what it’s worth.