A bit more than two months ago, the San Diego Padres -- a rebuilding club that has little to lose this year but much to gain in 2018 and beyond -- gifted us with a little bit of an experiment: They committed to playing three players who would ordinarily be playing for a team three, four, maybe even five levels away from the majors. They put Mentos in Diet Coke and let us watch.
Catcher Luis Torrens, shortstop Allen Cordoba and pitcher Miguel Diaz were Rule 5 picks. The basics of the Rule 5 draft go like this: Players who are in a minor league system for a certain amount of time without being put on a 40-man roster are "exposed" to the rest of the league's teams, who can pick those players in the winter draft. It's a way of keeping teams from hoarding and stashing qualified major leaguers in the minors, of ensuring that these players get a chance to play in the majors if there's a team that will give them a shot. A player picked in the Rule 5 draft must spend the entire next season on the major league roster or else be offered back to his original team.
Two things make Torrens, Cordoba and Diaz so notable. One is just how far they were from the majors. Torrens and Diaz played last year in Class A, which is below high-A, below Double-A, below Triple-A -- four promotions from the majors. Torrens, who signed with the Yankees for $1.3 million as a 16-year-old, had played only 161 minor league games before San Diego gave him a major league roster spot. Diaz, an erratic right-hander with a powerful fastball, had thrown only 236 minor league innings. Most of those had come in the Milwaukee Brewers' Dominican and Arizona complex leagues, where the "crowd" typically comprises a handful of player development staff and the occasional family member.
These two were grizzled veterans compared to Cordoba, a speedy, slap-hitting shortstop who played in the short-season Appalachian League last summer. To put this in perspective: Of the 17 other position players on Cordoba's Johnson City Cardinals squad last year, only three have played at any level this year. Two are in the Class A Midwest League. One reached High-A. The other 14 are waiting for the short-season schedule to start later this month, after the amateur draft produces a new crop of high school and college graduates for them to play against. Their unexceptional teammate, Allen Cordoba, is in the major leagues!
The other thing that makes these three notable is that because the Padres are so bad -- er, so rebuilding -- they get to play. The Padres aren't bothering to hide these three at the end of a bench or on the disabled list with an exaggerated injury. Cordoba played 48 of the Padres' first 62 games. Torrens has been the primary backup catcher and played 24 of those games. Diaz has made 21 relief appearances. On Saturday, he started on a nationally televised broadcast.
OK, you get it: These guys who weren't really ready for the majors were, for arbitrary roster-rules reasons, dropped into the majors and made to play on a national stage against extremely good players. Why am I so interested?
Imagine if you were signed by the Padres today. Call it a paperwork mistake; you were an accident of history, but you're on the team all the same. They put you on the roster and put you into the lineup. I'd be there for that. We'd all be there for that. We'd cut away from whatever we're watching and fire up our GIF machines to capture your inevitable, spectacular failure. The floor of human baseball achievement would be reset. You would fail so, so badly. After a century of baseball following a mostly predictable, mostly meritocratic physics, this would be something new.
That isn't what the Padres are doing, of course. But it is, to a degree, a radical experiment in floor-setting. If we assume that, say, 85 percent of players at one level are better than the average player one level down, we're talking about almost 4,000 players in the affiliated baseball system who were deemed better than Cordoba one year ago. If we assume that, in a normal path, Cordoba would be in the Midwest League, like the small handful of his Johnson City teammates, we're still talking about almost 3,000 players between him and Bryce Harper -- and now he and Harper are facing the very same competition in the very same ballparks. Cordoba, who might be the 3,000th-best player in the United States right now, last month faced Clayton Kershaw, who might be the best! By numbers, Cordoba should just burst into flames while standing in the on-deck circle.
By numbers, the difference between these three and their peers should be so obvious. So is it?
Let's have you take a quiz. What I have here are a series of basic statistical measures for the Padres' Rule 5ers and other major leaguers, through Saturday -- the Padres' 62nd game. The other major leaguers have been chosen at random, using a random number generator, but from specific categories to represent a variety of skill levels. In each group of possible answers, there is one player who received MVP votes last year, one player who made the National League All-Star team, one player who was roughly league-average (at least 502 plate appearances, with a WAR between 1 and 3), one player who was more like a replacement-level sub (at least 200 plate appearances, WAR below 1) and one player who debuted this year but, presumably, "earned" his promotion through conventional means. These are all players who have proved to somebody that, at the very least, they belong in the majors, and in many cases, they have proved that they are among the very best, very most valuable players in the majors. So it's those five players, chosen at random, plus our two Padres Rule 5 hitters. You just have to pick out the Padres, who have no business being in the majors. What could be easier? This should be a cinch.
(Note: You'll assume from my tone that this will not be a cinch, that I'm tricking you. But in all honesty, it's not a trick. I don't know the answers yet. I'm going to find out, just like you're going to find out, whether the results of this quiz are surprising or confirmation. Don't assume a trick -- or do. You do you.)
After four of these for the hitters, there are four for the pitcher: Diaz's statistical performance in a few key areas, jumbled up with a 2016 closer, a 2016 setup man, a 2016 All-Star, a 2016 scrub reliever and a pitcher who debuted in the majors in 2017. Let's go:
1. Contact percentage. When they swing, how often do they make contact? (Higher is better. Pick the two who are Padres.)
Player A: 59.8 percent
Player B: 75.1 percent
Player C: 75.4 percent
Player D: 81.3 percent
Player E: 72.5 percent
Player F: 77.2 percent
Player G: 74.6 percent
And the correct answer is:
Torrens, the Rule 5 catcher, is Player D. He actually has the highest contact rate of the group, higher than that of Bryce Harper (option G). Cordoba, the Rule 5 shortstop, is Player C, the third highest in the group. The worst contact rate belongs to top prospect Ian Happ, who debuted this year for the Cubs. (The other players in this group are Brandon Crawford, Didi Gregorius and Brandon Drury.)
That's interesting. Contact rate is not nearly a perfect proxy for offensive skill, but we have asked one very basic question about baseball competence -- can they put the bat on the ball? -- and the answer is decidedly yes. If the Padres had signed you, your contact rate would be the lowest in baseball. Not so for Torres and Cordoba.
2. Exit velocity. How hard do they hit it when they hit it? (Higher is better.)
Player A: 79.9 mph
Player B: 90.2 mph
Player C: 86.4 mph
Player D: 81.4 mph
Player E: 87.4 mph
Player F: 87.2 mph
Player G: 86.8 mph
And the correct answers are:
Cordoba is Player A, last on this list, just slightly behind Jose Peraza, Player D. Cordoba makes contact, but he makes extremely weak contact -- among the weakest (though not quite the weakest) of the league's position players. Torrens is Player F, who is third on this list, ahead of MVP candidate Charlie Blackmon (Player G). He's tied with Joey Votto, ahead of Carlos Gonzalez and Kris Bryant. (The other options are Addison Russell, Jose Osuna and Drury, who leads this group.)
So that's interesting, too. Cordoba makes very weak contact, which will probably be true for the rest of his career -- that's the scouting report on him. Torrens, meanwhile, makes a ton of contact and has hit the ball reasonably hard.
3. Zone rate. How often do opposing pitchers throw them strikes -- or, in other words, how unintimidating are these guys? (Higher suggests that pitchers are less afraid of them.)
Player A: 44.1 percent
Player B: 51.4 percent
Player C: 46.7 percent
Player D: 52.2 percent
Player E: 46.5 percent
Player F: 46.5 percent
Player G: 43.1 percent
And the correct answers are: Cordoba is Player B, while Torrens is Player D. They are, by a wide margin, pitched to much more directly than everybody else in the group. Compare their zone rates to that of Player C, Cody Bellinger, the Dodgers' powerful rookie. Bellinger earned his ascension to the majors, and pitchers treat him with a certain amount of caution. He's a major leaguer. He's a threat. Neither Cordoba nor Torrens is a threat.
This is pretty telling. Opposing pitchers (and their scouting reports) can often tell us more about a hitter than the hitter's stats alone can. While this measure also captures the hitter's tendencies -- more aggressive hitters will often see fewer pitches in the zone -- it shows mostly that opposing pitchers are not afraid of these two at all.
Bringing it all together:
4. WAR. How valuable is their total performance, including baserunning, defense and position? (Higher is better.)
Player A: 0.2
Player B: 0.2
Player C: 0.4
Player D: -0.7
Player E: 2.2
Player F: 0.9
Player G: -0.5
The correct answers are:
D (Torrens) and A (Cordoba). Put it all together, and it's clear that neither is adding much value. Torrens rates as one of the worst pitch framers in the league, and he has allowed about twice as many wild pitches and passed balls per inning as the average catcher. Torrens has been very bad.
But Cordoba has been a plausible major leaguer. He has been an average defensive shortstop, according to advanced metrics. He has been an average baserunner. He has been close to an average hitter. He isn't adding a ton of value, but the difference between him and Player C -- established, highly paid major league veteran Nick Markakis -- is almost invisible. (The others in this group: DJ LeMahieu, Trevor Plouffe and Kris Bryant, who is responsible for the 2.2 WAR.)
5. Strike rate. What percentage of their pitches are either strikes (called, whiffed or fouled off) or put in play? (Higher is better.)
Pitcher A: 58.7 percent
Pitcher B: 62.1 percent
Pitcher C: 51.6 percent
Pitcher D: 61.5 percent
Pitcher E: 57.7 percent
Pitcher F: 67.1 percent
6. Whiff rate. What percentage of swings come up empty? (Higher is better.)
Pitcher A: 22.2 percent
Pitcher B: 12.3 percent
Pitcher C: 15.4 percent
Pitcher D: 20.9 percent
Pitcher E: 21.5 percent
Pitcher F: 27.0 percent
7. Exit velocity. How hard is the average contact against them? (Lower is better.)
Pitcher A: 85.6 mph
Pitcher B: 90.1 mph
Pitcher C: 87.7 mph
Pitcher D: 90.1 mph
Pitcher E: 82.1 mph
Pitcher F: 83.0 mph
8. Deserved run average, an all-in-one pitching metric scaled to ERA that attempts to capture a pitcher's overall performance.
Pitcher A: 6.38
Pitcher B: 3.70
Pitcher C: 5.09
Pitcher D: 1.37
Pitcher E: 7.99
Pitcher F: 4.55
The correct answers: Diaz was Pitcher A in all four. He has a very good whiff rate, a poor strike rate, a very good exit velocity allowed and a very poor deserved run average. Much like the hitters, he can perform most of the basics of baseball performance credibly, but the sum of it all is a raw, unproductive baseball player. He has been far from the league's worst, though. Pitcher E in Question 8, for instance, is Sam Dyson, a successful closer for a first-place team less than a year ago.
(Other pitchers among these options, in order: Question 5: Oliver Drake, Kyle Ryan, Jon Lester, AJ Ramos and Austin Brice; Question 6: Barrett Astin, Dan Otero, Evan Scribner, Jeremy Jeffress and Johnny Cueto; Question 7: Enny Romero, Fernando Rodney, Tommy Kahnle, Wade Davis and Wandy Peralta; and Question 8: Hector Rondon, Justin Haley, Kenley Jansen, Dyson and Trevor Williams.)
How'd you do? Did you get them right? Assuming you picked the very worst in every category -- the only really logical method, given what I gave you to go on -- most likely not. For the most part, these guys have fit right in.
On Saturday, Diaz made his first major league start. He has a bit of an odd, stiff delivery, but the ball explodes out of his hand. He struck out the second batter of the game, Jorge Bonifacio, on three swinging strikes -- all fastballs, 98 mph, 98 mph, 99 mph. He hit 100 a handful of times. He got in one jam, then got Mike Moustakas to ground into a rally-killing double play. He fell behind Eric Hosmer 3-1, then got Hosmer to pop out into foul territory. He went two innings and didn't allow a run. This isn't just not you signing with the Padres; this is credible. The 3,000th-best baseball players in the world are credible.
Then the third inning started. He threw a decent changeup to Alex Gordon, but when he tried to double up on the pitch, Gordon identified it easily, waited back and singled solidly to center field. Then Diaz walked the pitcher, Ian Kennedy, who was trying to sacrifice himself; none of the pitches was close to its target. Then he issued a four-pitch walk to load the bases. Cameras cut to him, literally biting his fingernails. Oh, right: It's Miguel Diaz. He has no business being here. There will be ugly moments this year.
Cordoba faced Clayton Kershaw this year, sure, but he struck out.
Torrens faced Yu Darvish, sure, but he went 0-for-2.
But he made contact both times.