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Toolshed: Recent noteworthy PCL seasons

Big-time power, low ERAs, 30-30 season highlight Triple-A list
Joc Pederson's 30-30 season in 2014 was the Pacific Coast League's first in 80 years. (Paat Kelly)
@SamDykstraMiLB
July 28, 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. In the coming weeks, Toolshed is revisiting the 10 most notable individual

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.

In the coming weeks, 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 and International League. This column focuses on the Triple-A Pacific Coast League.

10. Adam Eaton, Reno, 2012: Forty-three players stole at least 30 bases during a PCL season in the 2010s. Three players had OBPs above .450. Two had averages above .380. The only player to feature in all three lists: Eaton. The then-Aces outfielder hit .381 with a .456 OBP and stole 38 bags over 119 games in the PCL in 2012. For good measure, he topped the decade leaderboard as well with 186 hits in that campaign. That type of all-around performance earned him an easy MVP award and pushed him to the Majors by September. He hasn't put up similar stats in the bigs, but he continues to be a solid performer across the board, especially now that he's coming off a World Series title with the Nationals. Not bad for a 5-foot-9 outfielder who went in the 19th round of the 2010 Draft coming out of Miami University of Ohio.

9. Jose Martinez, Omaha, 2015: The PCL has obviously featured some big boppers over the years, but arguably one of the most effective in the 2010s was the 6-foot-6 Martinez. The Venezuela native batted .384 over 98 games for Omaha in 2015 -- a number that held up as the best average by a qualified PCL hitter over the last decade. His .461 on-base percentage placed second in the group of 752. Perhaps most notably, however, his 177 wRC+ was tops among all PCL qualifiers. That number is on a scale in which 100 is average and then gets graded out according to league performance in a given year. In essence, Martinez was a 77 percent better hitter than the average PCL slugger in 2015, and no one was as good relative to his immediate peers as he was. Those numbers didn't exactly translate into big-time prospect status or running Major League success, at least not yet, and that hurts him some in these rankings. After three years of trying to find consistent playing time in the Cardinals system, Martinez is now with the Rays following a January trade.

8. Ty France, El Paso, 2019: There's a certain temptation to make this whole list a look back on 2019 performances. (Why don't they make the whole plane out of the black box?) Offense was up across the board in Triple-A last season when both circuits began using the Major League baseball, and that meant for some killer numbers in the PCL, which was already known for inflated offensive environments. (Runs per game alone went up from 4.97 per team in 2018 to 5.85 a year later, while total homers jumped from 2,097 to 3,312.) We'll try to limit the 2019 selections, but some performances will be just too good to ignore. Start with France. The 2015 34th-rounder opened the season with El Paso and received his first callup to the bigs on April 24 after hitting .418 with nine long balls in his first 19 games. (Three of those games featured two-homer performances.) He was back in the PCL on June 6 and continued to rake at the Minors' top level the remainder of the way. Entering Aug. 13, the infielder was hitting .402 and had a good shot at cracking .400, thus becoming the first qualified full-season Minor Leaguer to do since Aaron Pointer in 1961. On Aug. 13, he went 1-for-5 to drop his average to .399, and three days later, he was recalled to San Diego where he spent the rest of the 2019 season. France's average stayed a smidge below the Ted Williams Line, and because of the extended stays in the Majors, he didn't even get enough at-bats to qualify for the PCL batting title. But France's .399/.477/.770 line and 27 homers in 76 games with the Chihuahuas certainly left an impression, both on the Padres and very nearly the PCL record books.

7. Jimmy Nelson, Nashville, 2014: Nelson was already a solid prospect entering 2014. MLB.com ranked him as the game's No. 83 overall young talent going into the season after he established his bonafides with a 3.67 ERA and 91 strikeouts over 83 1/3 innings in the PCL the prior season. In that 2014 campaign, he took things to a whole new level. Nelson posted a minuscule 1.46 ERA over 111 innings with the Sounds, making him the only PCL pitcher in the decade to eclipse 100 frames and keep his ERA below 2.10, never mind 2.00. His 0.92 WHIP was also tops among the 401 pitchers in the same category. Though control had previously been a problem in his career, he managed to fan 114 batters and walk only 32 in his 111 frames. Perhaps even more importantly in the PCL, he kept the ball in the yard and averaged only 0.2 home runs allowed per nine innings. Had he pitched in Salt Lake or Albuquerque, the story could have been different, but there's no denying that Nelson's splits (1.36 ERA, 0.94 WHIP at home vs. 1.55 ERA, 0.90 WHIP on the road) said he was special everywhere he pitched. He was called up for good on July 11, and his numbers were so dominant the PCL still named him the Pitcher of the Year despite the fact he wasn't there those final two months.

6. Zac Gallen, New Orleans, 2019: If we're going to keep some of the PCL's best hitters from 2019 off this list because of the inflated offense last year, we should give extra credit to the season's best hurler. That was, at least statistically, far and away Gallen. The right-hander pitched for New Orleans in a year in which the league average ERA was 5.48. His was a paltry 1.77, making him one of two PCL pitchers in the decade to toss at least 90 innings in a season and finish with an ERA below 2.00. The average WHIP was 1.52. His was 0.71. No one else in the 10-year span had one lower than 0.92 (again minimum 90 innings). Gallen also finished with 112 strikeouts and only 17 walks in his 91 1/3 frames for the Baby Cakes, giving him a 6.6 K/BB that placed fifth-best in the decade. Yes with a .197 BABIP, there may have been some luck involved, but there was a whole lot of skill as well to keep that many balls from falling at a time when hits were coming left and right elsewhere. The 2016 third-rounder debuted for Miami in June and was moved to Arizona one month later in a deadline deal for No. 65 overall prospect Jazz Chisholm. Now 24, Gallen remains a part of a D-backs rotation hoping to end a two-year playoff drought.

5. Chris Davis, Round Rock, 2011: The ups and downs of Davis' career are well documented at this point, but for this exercise, think back to the earlier points of the left-handed slugger's time in pro ball. Once a Top-100 prospect, Davis was in danger of being a Quad-A player by the turn of the decade. He debuted for the Rangers in 2008, but spent the next three seasons bouncing between the top level and Triple-A -- dominating the PCL but putting up just a 95 OPS+ in that 2008-10 span in the Majors. The 2011 campaign was a real proving ground for him at age 25, and in the PCL, he proved he had one of the game's most prodigious power tools. Davis got 48 games over various stints with the Express in 2011. He belted 24 homers and his slugging percentage was an astounding .824. His OPS: 1.224. Twenty of those 24 long balls came at home in Round Rock, but even on the road, he still slugged .580. Come deadline time, the Rangers traded Davis and Tommy Hunter to the Orioles for reliever Koji Takahashi. Two years later as a member of the O's, Davis led the Majors in home runs with 53. He'd do the same again in 2015 when he blasted 47. Nowadays, the 2006 fifth-rounder is known for lots of strikeouts and averages below the Mendoza line, but in 2011, he started to show the all-world pop that eventually made him a $161-million man.

4. Kris Bryant, Iowa, 2014: As the second overall pick in the 2013 Draft, Bryant was expected to move quickly on his path toward Wrigleyville, and he showed just how quickly in his first full season. Bryant started his 2014 campaign at Double-A Tennessee and was up in Iowa by June 18, having hit .355 with 22 homers and a 1.160 OPS in the Southern League. The right-handed slugger brought his big bat with him to the PCL, handling Triple-A pitchers with similar ease. His 21 homers tied for 13th-most on the circuit that season, despite only playing in 70 games for the I-Cubs. (No other hitter in the top 10 played fewer than 91.) His 1.036 OPS led PCL hitters with at least 250 plate appearances that season, despite the fact he was only 22. His 43 long balls between both levels not only won him the Minor League home run title that year (and the Joe Bauman Home Run Award along with it), but they represented the highest single-season total by any slugger in the decade. Ryan Howard's 46 in 2004 marked the last time anyone hit as many in the Minors. We can only give Bryant partial credit here since that home run total was split, but he certainly deserves top marks for showing consistent power even after the jump to the Minors' top level. He didn't make the Majors that season -- later filing an unsuccessful grievance for alleged service-time manipulation -- but he did turn into the 2015 NL Rookie of the Year, 2016 NL MVP and 2016 World Series champion after that.

3. Wilmer Font, Oklahoma City, 2017: Want to know what a breakout looks like? In 2015, Font, who had some previously brief looks in the Majors as a Rangers reliever, played independent ball for Ottawa in the Canadian-American Association. Two years later, he finished fourth in the Minor Leagues with 178 strikeouts in 134 1/3 innings, all with Oklahoma City. Those 178 K's ended up being the most in a single season by a PCL pitcher last decade, and Font's time at the top of the league 2010s leaderboards doesn't stop there. He also finished with the best strikeout percentage (32.1), FIP (2.98) and xFIP (3.32) among single-season qualifiers. His 15 strikeouts over seven innings against Sacramento on May 15 were the most by a PCL pitcher in a single start since Dallas Braden whiffed 17 on Aug. 27, 2007. The Dodgers were virtually forced to add Font to the 40-man roster that September, and Font has seen time with the A's, Rays, Mets and Blue Jays since. It's still a journeyman's life for the 30-year-old right-hander, but that 2017 breakout (and his work since) bought him several more bites at the Major League apple.

2. Kevin Cron, Reno, 2019: Five of the 10 Joe Bauman Home Run Award winners from the 2010s played in the PCL at some point during their trophy-worthy seasons: Bryan LaHair (2011), Kris Bryant (2014), AJ Reed (2015), Pete Alonso (2018) and Cron. But even the other four sluggers in that group didn't have the powerful years Cron enjoyed last season (yes with the new Triple-A ball). Cron's 38 homers tied with LaHair for the most in a single season by a PCL hitter in the 2010s, yet he produced that many in only 82 games. His .777 slugging percentage, however, stood alone. It was tops among any PCL batters with at least 350 plate appearances, and it wasn't close; Jared Walsh's .686 from the same season was second, 91 points below Cron's mark. There were other aspects of Cron's game that stood out -- a .331 average and .449 OBP for starters -- but mostly, it's fun to wonder what kind of numbers he could have put up if given more time in Reno. A 50-homer season may not have been far out of reach.

1. Joc Pederson, Albuquerque, 2014: Pederson smacked 33 home runs and stole 30 bases over a full season with the Isotopes. We mention that first before adding that in putting up those numbers, he became the PCL's first 30-30 performer in 80 years. That hadn't been done since Frank Demaree in 1934. Interestingly, the league wouldn't have to wait that long to see another 30-30 star. Five years later, Kyle Tucker (33 homers, 30 steals) hit both marks for Fresno, but the budding Astros outfielder didn't have quite the overall numbers of Pederson. The Dodgers outfielder finished atop the PCL with a .435 on-base percentage in 2014, and he tacked on a .303 average, .582 slugging percentage and 1.017 OPS for good measure. His 100 walks were the highest single-season mark by any league hitter in the decade, and his 164 wRC+ placed fifth among 2010s qualifiers. That made him easy selections as the PCL MVP and Rookie of the Year, and one year later, he made his only All-Star team as a Dodgers rookie. Pederson might be overlooked among other greats in the Dodgers outfield, but there's no way he could be forgotten on a list of standout PCL performances from the 2010s.

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