Rule 1: Minor league stars might go bust, but minor-league busts don’t become stars.
Everyone wants to find the “sleeper” … the guy who looks like a nobody but suddenly becomes Jose Bautista. Sort of like, well, Jose Bautista.
In 2009, Bautista was 28 years old and had never posted an OPS+ higher than 99. The Blue Jays were his seventh (yes, his seventh) organization since being taken in the 2000 draft.
But then it “clicked” for Bautista (he made some adjustments at the plate), and, since then, he’s been one of the very best players in baseball.
Q: Does Bautista prove that an MLB star can “come out of nowhere”? A: No.
The fact is, Bautista was a successful minor-league hitter. Maybe he didn’t look like a future superstar, but that’s not the point. The point is: virtually every hitter who has sustained success in the majors had at least some success in the minor leagues by age 23.
At age 21, Bautista hit .301/.402/.470 in the Pittsburgh organization. He drew a good amount of walks and his strikeout rate was reasonable. He showed very solid plate skills, such that if the power were to come, it would be significant. It didn’t come until age 28, but, when it came, it was certainly significant (.617 then .608 SLG in 2010 and 2011).
One important thing to consider is that the great majority of minor-league pitchers don’t make it to the majors. Particularly in the lower minors, the “cream” has not yet risen to the top. If a hitter fails to excel (or at least hold his own) when facing his age-peer pitchers in the minors, then he won’t have the skills to make it against the very best pitching in the majors.
Of course, there is such a thing as development, but development has to come over and above a minimum level of baseball talent. I’ve found that such talent will either reveal itself, or not, by the time a hitter reaches age 23. The guys who never “find it” in the minors — or who don’t “find it” until age 24 or older — don’t go on to successful MLB careers (as hitters … I’m excluding defensive specialists here).
And this is true no matter how much “scout love” a player gets or how good his “tools” are.
So, where do you find the “sleepers”? Among the guys who showed the necessary skills in the minors by age 23 (hit the ball with authority, draw walks, avoid high strikeout rates), but then struggled to convert those skills to the majors right away (which is a lot more common than you might think).
That doesn’t mean that those guys won’t be “toolsy,” only that they need to have shown the ability to convert the tools into baseball skill the way that Bautista did.