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Toolshed: Recent noteworthy Cal League seasons

Hitter-friendly circuit saw most memorable performance on mound
MacKenzie Gore averaged 12.5 strikeouts per nine innings last season for Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore. (Jerry Espinoza/
August 25, 2020

This space started honoring the short-season leagues after their respective campaigns were delayed in June. Now following the cancellation of all Minor League Baseball in 2020, we're turning it into an appreciation of the full-season circuits as well. So Toolshed is revisiting the 10 most notable individual seasons put together

This space started honoring the short-season leagues after their respective campaigns were delayed in June. Now following the cancellation of all Minor League Baseball in 2020, we're turning it into an appreciation of the full-season circuits as well.

So Toolshed is revisiting the 10 most notable individual seasons put together across the 10 Triple-A, Double-A, Class A Advanced and Class A leagues from the last decade (2010-19). Previous editions covered the New York-Penn League, Northwest League, Appalachian League, Pioneer League, International League, Pacific Coast League, Eastern League, Southern League and Texas League. This column focuses on the Class A Advanced California League.

10. Dan Winkler, Modesto, 2013: Players taken in the 20th round need to stand out early in their careers or risk getting completely lost in the shuffle. Winkler found a way to stand out by leading Minor Leaguers in strikeouts in his second full season. Using a three-quarters delivery, the Rockies' 2011 pick out of Central Florida fanned 152 batters over 130 1/3 innings in the Cal League. He finished with 175 K's in 157 innings on the season, including his time at Double-A Tulsa. Winkler's 29.8 percent strikeout rate with the Nuts finished as the best by a qualified California League pitcher in the 2010s, and the same could be said of his .181 average-against and 0.96 WHIP. The 6-foot-3 right-hander also posted with a 2.97 ERA, making him a relatively easy pick for the circuit's Pitcher of the Year award. After another dominant run in Tulsa in 2014, Winkler needed Tommy John surgery but was selected by the Braves in the Rule 5 Draft. After five seasons with Atlanta, he now pitches out of the Cubs bullpen.

9. Billy Hamilton, Bakersfield, 2012: The notorious speedster is a regular feature in these columns, and for good reason, his stolen-base production in the first half of the decade was nothing short of legendary. His best season of them all, however, started in the Cal League. The 2009 second-rounder was coming off an impressive 2011 season at Class A Dayton, where he swiped 103 bases in 135 games, when he set his sights on an even bigger target in 2012. The 80-grade runner beat that total during his time in Bakersfield alone and in 53 fewer games. Hamilton stole 104 bases with the Blaze on his way to a Minor League-best 155 during the 2012 season. That was easily the most by a player in the 2010s, but what's interesting is that the second-highest total also came from the same campaign, when Rico Noel had 90 thefts for Lake Elsinore. As if success on the basepaths wasn't enough, this was also Hamilton's best offensive season as well. His .323 average, .413 OBP, .439 slugging percentage and .852 OPS with Bakersfield were his best numbers with a full-season club, and that's including Major League teams as well. His lack of a bat hurt his worth at the top level, but now with the Mets after time with the Reds, Royals, Braves and Giants, Hamilton is proving his speed and glove in center field are enough to keep getting him roster spots.

8. Brendan Rodgers, Lancaster, 2017: There was a time in the first half of 2017 when Rodgers might have been the toughest out in Minor League Baseball, which is saying something because he missed most of that April with a hand injury. By June 17 -- his last game before a promotion to Double-A Hartford -- the 2015 third overall pick was batting .400/.419/.700 with 12 homers and 36 total extra-base hits through 48 games. A late-season demotion for three games, which was done to get him back in Lancaster for the Cal League playoffs, dipped that final slash line to .387/.407/.671, but the point stood; Rodgers raked with the JetHawks. Like so many others before and after him, his best work was done at home in Lancaster, where he hit eight of his 12 homers and slugged .809 in 26 games. But that didn't scare off scouts and evaluators. Rodgers climbed into the top-10 overall prospect rankings for the first time when he ended 2017 at No. 7 on's list. He debuted in the Majors last season before a shoulder surgery ended his campaign early. He was just recalled from Colorado's alternate site last week and has a chance to show off that offensive potential in Denver now that he's fully healthy again.

7. Corey Seager, Rancho Cucamonga, 2014: The Dodgers gave their 2012 first-rounder a preview of the Cal League in 2013. He hit .160 in 27 games. This is not about that season. Los Angeles returned the shortstop to the Quakes when he was about to turn 20, and it would be an understatement to say he grew upon his previous performance. Seager hit .352/.411/.633 with 18 homers over 80 games in his return to Rancho. The left-handed-hitting slugger ranked second in the Minors with 75 extra-base hits that season, and 54 of those came in the Cal League alone. Despite moving up to Double-A Chattanooga on July 18, Seager left a strong enough impression in his 80 games to claim Cal League MVP honors that season, the only such award of his career so far. That breakout allowed him to climb from No. 34 in's rankings at the start of the season to No. 13. He eventually became the site's top overall prospect before graduating in 2016, the same season he claimed National League Rookie of the Year honors.

6. Matt Olson, Stockton, 2014: Like the three true outcomes? Olson was the Cal League's king of the concept during the 2010s. Start with the fun stuff. The Ports first baseman hit 37 homers in 2014, a mark that stood as the league's highest single-season total the remainder of the way. That's some achievement for a slugger-friendly circuit, and it's even more notable considering only two players hit more than 32 homers in a single Cal League season last decade --Paul Goldschmidt (35) was the other. That's not all. Olson also led 2010s Cal hitters with 117 walks over 138 games for Stockton six years ago. No one else came within 15 free passes of that on the decade leaderboard. To fill out the three-true-outcome card, there were plenty of strikeouts to go around as well -- 137, to be exact -- though Olson's 21.6 percent K rate was the lowest of his Minor League career. The combination of 291 homers, walks and strikeouts was second-highest among Cal League hitters in the decade behind only Lazaro Armenteros, who only ranked so highly with 317 because 227 of those were punchouts in 2019. To put a different spin on it, 56.8 percent of Olson's plate appearances with the Ports ended in one of the three outcomes. He finished with a .262/.404/.543 line and entered the next season as the No. 73 overall prospect. With that power and two-time Gold Glove defensive performance at first base, Olson remains a key piece of an A's club that should challenge for another deep postseason run in 2020.

5. Julio Urías, Rancho Cucamonga, 2014: Four teenage pitchers threw at least 70 innings in a Cal League season in the 2010s. Three (Tyler Skaggs, Luis Patiño, David Holmberg) did so at age 19. None of the four achieved that feat at age 18. Only one was 17. That one hurler was Urías. The Dodgers signed the 6-foot southpaw out of Mexico in August 2012, and just nine months later, the organization thought he was prepared to jump to full-season ball at Class A Great Lakes. That aggressive push continued in 2014, when Urías opened in the Cal League in April and even made the Quakes' second start of the season. That said, the Dodgers were somewhat cautious with the left-hander once he was on a Class A Advanced mound; he only made one appearance out of 25 that lasted longer than five innings, and that didn't come until Aug. 23 in his penultimate start of the year. Still, the whole plan worked wonders. Urías finished with a 2.36 ERA (third-best in the league that season among pitchers with at least 70 innings) and struck out 109 batters over 87 2/3 frames. He also posted a 1.11 WHIP and allowed only four homers in that span, a notable achievement in this environment. Those are impressive numbers for anyone, but especially so for a pitcher who was five years younger than the average Cal Leaguer in 2014. Urías entered the following season as the No. 8 overall prospect, and he remained a top-10 prospect until he graduated during the 2016 campaign.

4. José Altuve, Lancaster, 2011: We know him now as an AL MVP, a World Series champion and a six-time All-Star. Entering 2011, Altuve wasn't even a highly ranked prospect in the Astros system. The Venezuela native had shown an ability to hit at the lower levels, but the hit tool wasn't elite yet and little else screamed plus about his profile. That changed in his second go at the Cal League nine years ago. Altuve hit a blistering .408 in 52 games with the JetHawks on the way to winning the Minor League batting title (.389, including his time at Double-A Corpus Christi). That was the highest average in the Cal Leaguer by a hitter with at least 200 plate appearances. In accordance with his previous Minor League experience, Altuve thrived on making tons of contact by striking out in only 10.9 percent of his plate appearances that season, choosing instead to spray the ball around the field. His power broke out with his .606 slugging percentage representing a career high that he hasn't reached since, even last season when he belted 31 homers. Houston thought Altuve's breakout was real enough to bring the then-21-year-old straight to the Majors in July following his brief stopover in the Texas League, making the 5-foot-6 second baseman the first piece put down in the club's eventual contending foundation.

3. AJ Reed, Lancaster, 2015: Cut to the chase. Reed was the Cal League's most dominant hitter over a single season last decade. Few can quibble with that, at least by the numbers. Reed ranked among the top four qualifiers in the Cal League in all three slash-line categories (.346/.449/.638) and led in OBP and OPS (1.088). His 190 wRC+ was also not only at the top of the leaderboard among the 523 qualifiers, but it was 16 points ahead of Luis Castro (174) in second. He clubbed 23 homers in 82 games. (If you think The Hangar helped Reed's power, know that 15 of those 23 long balls came on the road in 2015.) That contributed to his total of 34 on the season and won him the Joe Bauman Home Run Award. He also claimed Cal League MVP and Rookie of the Year honors as well. Again, as powerful a performance as possible. Now come the qualifications. Reed was the 2014 Golden Spikes Award winner at Kentucky in 2014, where he hit 23 homers and finished with a 1.211 OPS in his final season on campus, so the Astros, who took him in the second round, knew he could hit. Sticking him in the Cal League felt like throwing a match into a tinderbox. Houston also probably kept the then-22-year-old around too long and allowed him to pad his stats by beating up on Class A Advanced pitching, and it would have been interesting to see how the left-handed slugger's numbers might have held up had he been promoted to Double-A Corpus Christi in June rather than July. Still, performance is performance, and no one performed quite like Reed did in the Cal League in the 2010s. Reed retired in March following a stint in the White Sox system.

2. Brandon Belt, San Jose, 2010: As a fifth-round pick out of the University of Texas in 2009, Belt's name wasn't exactly on the tips of the tongues of many prospect followers going into his first full season. He changed that quickly out of the gate in San Jose. Over 333 plate appearances in 2010, Belt eventually led all 2010s Cal League hitters (minimum 200 PA) with an astonishing .492 OBP as well as a 191 wRC+. His .383 average and 1.121 OPS also ranked among the top 10 of the 1,107 batters to reach that plate-appearance standard. Belt accumulated 42 extra-base hits in 77 games with San Jose and also posted a positive 50/58 K/BB ratio. The Giants thought enough of the first baseman to send him to Double-A Richmond in July and Triple-A Fresno a month after that. Because of his offensive breakout, Belt, who was the 147th overall pick in 2009, became a consensus top-25 overall prospect going into the 2011 season. He won two World Series with the Giants in 2012 and 2014 and was a National League All-Star in 2016.

1. MacKenzie Gore, Lake Elsinore, 2019: The ultimate zag. The Cal League is all about offense as the numbers or anyone who's watched more than two innings in Lancaster will tell you. That's what makes what Gore did last season so much more special. A 1.02 ERA is incredible anywhere. Putting it up over 79 2/3 innings is just unheard of in the Cal League. Obviously, that was the lowest mark for any California League pitcher in the decade (minimum 70 innings). It's also the best ERA by any Class A Advanced pitcher in the 2010s. The same can be said for his 0.71 WHIP and its place atop the level's decade leaderboard. Sure, there's some luck involved in getting an ERA this low and a .210 BABIP speaks to that. But Gore's 2.38 FIP, while more than a full run higher than his ERA, was also best in the Cal League in the 2010s as was his 38.2 percent strikeout rate. The Padres left-hander fanned 110 batters while walking only 20 in 79 2/3 frames. He allowed more than one earned run in only one of his 15 Storm starts, and in that one outing, he gave up two earned runs over six innings. Seven of the 15 -- almost half -- came without a single earned run charged to Gore. We'll even award bonus points for the the fact that Gore was 20 years old and he was coming off a blister-riddled 2018 campaign that limited him to 60 2/3 innings at Class A Fort Wayne. Reputation be damned, the No. 5 overall prospect bent the California League to his will last season in the circuit's most dominant performance of the 2010s.

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.