The Triple-A Las Vegas Aviators continue to crush the ball. They rank second in the 16-team Pacific Coast League in scoring, just three runs behind the leader, and they’re third in the league in OPS. There are star performers up and down the lineup, but one in particular has stood out lately.
Over his last seven games, third baseman Sheldon Neuse is 19-for-28. Six of those games were multi-hit efforts, and five of them featured at least three knocks. His line over these 34 plate appearances is just stupid:
Neuse, last 7 gms: .679/.706/1.000, 319 wRC+, 2 HR, 3 doubles, 5 BB, 4 Ks
Holy Toledo. Of course, nobody can sustain a .679 average for more than a handful of days, so eventually Neuse will get out again at least a few times. But there are some details here worth pointing out.
First up, all but one of these seven games was on the road, in Nashville and Memphis. The PCL is a notorious hitter’s league full of bandbox parks, more so than ever this year with a new bouncier ball, and the Aviators’ new stadium is probably a launching pad too. But very little of that helped Neuse put up these numbers. We know all about Nashville’s extremely pitcher-friendly park, and Memphis ranks on the pitcher’s side as well, compared with all the high-elevation and/or desert-air locales out west.
Furthermore, even stripping out the unsustainable batting average, there’s still a lot to like in the progress Neuse is making. Here are some key peripheral stats to explain how he’s gone from last year’s .661 OPS (72 wRC+) to this year’s .923 mark (129 wRC+):
Neuse, 2018 AAA: .385 BABIP, .094 ISO, 15.4% SwStr, 6.0% BB
Neuse, 2019 AAA: .381 BABIP, .208 ISO, 10.8% SwStr, 11.8% BB
He’s maintained a ludicrous BABIP throughout his pro career, and that hasn’t changed one bit. What has changed is that he’s cut his swinging-strike rate by a full one-third, and with it his strikeouts as well (from 32.0% down to 21.2%). Fewer strikeouts means more balls put into play, and when you’re converting those balls into hits at a huge rate, that means lots of extra hits. Add in the extra walks, and you can see why he’s added 95 points to his OBP — he’s gone from 5 Ks per BB last year, to under 2 Ks per BB this year.
And then there’s the power. This part is probably at least somewhat related to his new environment, especially moving from Nashville to Vegas, but for every ounce that you might want to write off Vegas success, it’s also important to remember that the Nashville data is every bit as dubious in the other direction. The point is, we’ve learned that Neuse can hit for power when he’s not in a park that made Dillon Overton look like a star pitching prospect.
Neuse has put up a fascinating combination of numbers in his time in the A’s system, but it’s been tough to figure out what kind of hitter he’s developing into. Is he a line-drive machine who hits for a high average? Then he needed to cut the strikeouts and maximize his quantity of balls in play. Is he a slugger? Then he needed to start slugging, after hitting five homers in his first 153 games in the upper-minors.
All of a sudden, he’s doing all of it. He’s making more contact than ever. He’s spraying the ball all over the yard, with a team-leading 40.8% of contact going opposite-field. He’s drawing walks at a career-high rate. And he’s finally found his thump, for the first time since High-A Stockton. And that’s all before remembering that the available defensive metrics love him at the hot corner.
Neuse, 2019 AAA: .316/.399/.524, 129 wRC+, 10 HR, 11.8% BB, 21.2% Ks
Of course, there’s one remaining problem, the kind that a team loves to have. The A’s already have an MVP-caliber third baseman in Matt Chapman, who should be around at least a few more years. They also already have a star first baseman, and multiple big-name prospects at second base, and a thousand good options in left field, and the best DH in the sport, not to mention a roster desperate for lefty hitters while Neuse bats righty. And anyway, how much of his currently huge defensive value will he lose in a positional switch?
Unless a bunch of players get hurt, where does Neuse even fit into the A’s picture? And how long can the team wait for that spot to open for him, before they just have to use Neuse as trade bait for pitching help? Prospect stock doesn’t last forever, and his might be reaching a peak.
If I had to guess, purely as speculation, I’d bet Neuse is traded in July, especially now that there’s a Montas-sized hole in the rotation. Even if the A’s don’t end up in a position to contend in 2019, there would still be value in cashing in some blocked prospects now before their stock has a chance to drop, in exchange for pitchers who are controllable into 2020 and beyond. But of course, if Neuse ends up finding room somewhere on the A’s alongside Chapman and the other current stars, then all the better, because he’s looking awfully good right now.
Other hitting prospects
A few more young Aviators are continuing to smash. Let’s begin with infielder Franklin Barreto, who appears to have finally turned a corner after a worryingly slow start. His last 22 games (starting May 27), spanning 101 plate appearances:
Barreto, lately: .379/.396/.800, 179 wRC+, 8 HR, 3 BB, 19 Ks
The key number there is the 18.8% strikeout rate, maintained over enough time for it be meaningful. That’s a massive improvement over the 29.9% rate he carried entering May 27. The lack of walks is unfortunate, but at this point I’d take it if it meant making consistent contact with his powerful bat on a regular basis. Of his 36 hits during this span, 22 of them went for extra-bases. What’s more, his 11-for-12 steal rate this year reminds us that he has great speed, if he can get on base to use it.
Also, like with Neuse, over half of this hot streak came in less-friendly parks like Sacramento, Nashville, and Memphis. Is this the breakout that finally pushes Barreto up to the majors for a real, honest MLB chance?
Next up is Jorge Mateo. I was trying to isolate an impressive recent split for the speedy infielder, but the fact is he’s remained consistently awesome all season long. His OPS is .900 or higher for each individual month, adding up to a nice overall line:
Mateo, 2019: .328/.361/.561, 122 wRC+, 11 HR, 4.5% BB, 22.9% Ks
He’s cut his strikeouts from his poor 2018, and the power he showed in ‘17 is back, though with all the normal PCL-related caveats (video of HR). On top of that bat, and his elite speed, the defensive metrics love him at shortstop every bit as much as they love Neuse at third (video of Barreto/Mateo GIDP gem). Mateo has always had tantalizing talent, and this is what it looks like when it all comes together and translates onto the field.
Finally, Skye Bolt is back on track after interrupting his season to take a couple turns on the MLB bench. He’s played 10 games (46 PAs) since returning to Vegas:
Bolt, last 10 gms: .375/.435/.625, 158 wRC+, 2 HR, 5 BB, 9 Ks
His season line includes a 138 wRC+, though his 26.4% strikeout rate is a bit higher than ideal (but still within acceptable range for now).
Heim off to great start
But wait, there’s more! Catcher Jonah Heim is getting some run in Triple-A, while Sean Murphy is injured. Heim was hitting well in Double-A, highlighted by a minuscule strikeout rate, and he’s been even better since his promotion.
Heim, AA: .285/.370/.430, 119 wRC+, 4 HR, 11.1% BB, 12.2% Ks
Heim, AAA: 9-for-19, 1 HR, 2 doubles, 2 BB, 2 Ks
Through 21 plate appearances, the switch-hitter has more extra-base hits than strikeouts. It’s only been seven games, but at least it’s nice to see a prospect move up and not be immediately overwhelmed at the new higher level.
None of that is to say that Heim is going to show up in Oakland anytime soon. After all:
- Josh Phegley is playing like a potential All-Star.
- Beau Taylor is holding his own in the bigs after his own monster performance in Triple-A.
- Chris Herrmann is back on the field after knee surgery and should return to Oakland within the next two weeks.
- Murphy is already two months into a recovery for an injury (meniscus) that doesn’t usually take much longer than that.
The catcher depth chart is full for now, even after losing Nick Hundley to injury, and the position is turning out better than any of us could have guessed even before factoring in Heim. So, the most likely future might yet include Heim heading back to Midland for most of the rest of the season.
Add it all up, and the A’s have a wealth of scorching-hot hitters brewing in Triple-A at a variety of positions, many of whom offer impact talent on the scouting reports to back up their current hot streaks. And this is without even getting to the minor league veterans like Nick Martini (128 wRC+, .440 OBP, 15.6% BB, 14.9% Ks), Corban Joseph (144 wRC+), and Mark Payton (119 wRC+). The only youngster not joining the party so far is Dustin Fowler (84 wRC+), but otherwise there’s a lot to look forward to at the highest level of the farm.