Each promotion a professional baseball player receives has enormous risk attached to it. Each rung of the ladder is a little farther a reach than the one before it. By the time a player is reaching for the rung where the Major League regulars perch, he is likely overextending himself. Most players fail in that reach. It’s excruciating, really, the difficulty of grabbing that last rung and establishing oneself in the big leagues.

For those who seem to grab the rung, but never find their grip and end up falling back down the ladder, a cruel, taunting term has become standard nomenclature: “He’s a Quadruple-A (sometimes Quad-A, or 4-A, or (in writing) AAAA) guy.” These players are too good for Triple-A baseball, we’re saying, but unworthy of being classified without using the A’s that distinguish minor-league levels. They don’t belong in the Majors or in the Minors.

There’s been some debate about the very existence of such players, although I find it to be pretty obvious that they exist. Something like this always exists. Take a group of 100 people, force them to fight for 30 places at the next level in their organization, and there will always be 70 losers. Just as importantly, the best 10 of those 70 will always seem tantalizingly close to being worth the bump. It’s just math. People just don’t want to embrace the idea, because it does belittle players just for not being one of the 30. That’s kind, and admirable, but Quadruple-A players still exist.

Once, on an old podcast, Kevin Goldstein proposed one way to identify such players, something he had heard from a scout. The theory: maybe Quad-A hitters are just guys who hit mistakes—and only mistakes. Sensible, right? Presumably, hitting at the league’s level gets harder as one ascends because the opposing pitchers get better, making fewer mistakes, throwing fewer fat pitches and having better stuff to help them get away with mistakes when they make them. It would be unsurprising—in fact, it would be satisfying and intuitive—to find that batters get sorted like wheat and chaff, based on whether they can hit a pitcher’s best stuff, or must wait for a meatball and pounce.

Operating on that hypothesis, I headed to baseballsavant.com, an unmatched resource for this sort of research. I looked at all batters who have seen at least 1,000 pitches over the last two seasons. I isolated fastballs (four-seam, two-seam, sinkers and cutters) in two specific zones: middle-middle (belt-high over the heart of the plate, more or less) and middle-up (again, right down Broadway; just a bit higher), and set 93 miles per hour as the upper bound for velocity. I then sorted by slugging percentage.

We’re talking about pitchers who caught a lot of the plate and gave the hitter a chance to elevate the ball. The heat was not so hot that any batter with decent bat speed would struggle to catch up to it. There might be (read: certainly are) better ways to isolate true mistakes, but in playing around with the tools, I never found one.

Why sort by slugging? This is something I believe firmly: When evaluating batter performance against a certain pitch, the most important thing to measure is the ability to hit the ball hard. Slugging captures that, and also bakes in batting average a bit. The most important aspect of batting average, on a macro level, is just making contact, which isn’t really the point of pitch-based analysis.

That addresses a couple of key caveats; there are others. (For one, small sample sizes. Tiny ones, really.) This is utterly unscientific. I make no claim to have generated a meaningful list. Nevertheless, here are the results:

rank results name total_pitches slg
1 22 / 16 Josmil Pinto 1214 1.375
2 16 / 12 Mike Olt 1079 1.3333
3 21 / 18 Justin Maxwell 1201 1.1667
4 61 / 54 Justin Ruggiano 2867 1.1296
5 43 / 39 Ryan Raburn 1953 1.1026
6 19 / 18 Moises Sierra 1159 1.0556
7 22 / 21 David Peralta 1233 1.0476
8 45 / 43 Wilin Rosario 2951 1.0465
9 34 / 33 J.D. Martinez 3044 1.0303
10 17 / 17 Donnie Murphy 1155 1
11 21 / 21 Chris Colabello 1591 1
12 37 / 38 Shane Victorino 2566 0.9737
13 29 / 30 Michael McKenry 1251 0.9667
14 21 / 22 Todd Helton 1841 0.9545
15 36 / 38 Mitch Moreland 2879 0.9474
16 30 / 32 Junior Lake 2215 0.9375
17 42 / 45 Miguel Cabrera 4949 0.9333
18 25 / 27 Marwin Gonzalez 1947 0.9259
19 13-Dec Kirk Nieuwenhuis 1018 0.9231
20 57 / 63 Jose Bautista 4979 0.9048

Right away, you can see names you’ve surely associated with the Quad-A label in the past. Mike Olt. Moises Sierra. Chris Colabello. Miguel Cabrera and Jose Bautista are on the list—it’s not as though this somehow sorts players from the worst to the best. That would be a poor proof for the point. It’s inconclusive, but I was interested enough by the list to pass it along. Hitting high, fat fastballs is a good thing to be able to do, but it turns out to be something just about everyone with a little power can do. The skill might be enough to get a player in the door in MLB, but it won’t be sufficient to make him a mainstay.

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