Rays fans flocked from all over the US to head down to Port Charlotte, Florida for the start of Rays Spring Training, looking to forward to seeing their favorite Rays players and some of the Rays’ top prospects. One player they didn’t think much about was Leslie Anderson. But in the first three days of spring training, Anderson has stolen the show. In his first game on Saturday, Anderson drilled a huge go-ahead home run versus the Boston Red Sox, and then he was even bigger in his second game, first coming up with a two-run single and then a go-ahead RBI base hit in the 10th inning. Then after going 1 for 1 in his third game, Anderson went 1 for 3 with a 2-run triple in his fourth game on Tuesday, making him 5 for 9 with an unbelievable 7 RBI. Nine at-bats is far from a sufficient sample size to see that Anderson has truly broken through. But if Anderson can continue playing well, is the opportunity there for him to shock everyone and make the Rays’ roster on Opening Day?
In 2012 at Triple-A Durham, Anderson really played very well. He managed a .309/.355/.450 line (124 OPS+) with 21 doubles, 14 homers, and 56 RBI in 116 games and 482 plate appearances. So why didn’t the Rays call him up? Reason number one is that he’s not a prospect at all considering he’ll turn 31 right before the 2013 season starts on March 30th. But the Rays desperately need hitting all the time and how could that be the only reason they didn’t call Anderson up? Well, he happens to be a first baseman without very much power, which is not a very good combination, and although he can also play the corner outfield spots, he doesn’t play them very well defensively. But even then, a first baseman without much power is something the Rays were willing to have in 2011 with Casey Kotchman and this season with James Loney. Considering how bad Carlos Pena was, Anderson’s power shouldn’t have been a major consideration- the Rays just had to find a better solution at first base, and why didn’t the Rays consider Anderson a viable option to be just that? The real reason was Anderson’s plate discipline, or lack thereof. Anderson walked in just 5.4% of his plate appearances, the third-lowest ratio in the Triple-A International League minimum 450 plate appearances. But Anderson also struck out in just 11.6% of his PA’s, the second-best rate in the IL. Shouldn’t that cancel it out? The answer to that is absolutely not.
A major difference between Triple-A and the major leagues is that pitchers leave the ball out over the play in easily hittable spots much less often in the major leagues, and it’s key for players to have the plate discipline to find the rare mistakes that pitchers do make. Anderson has shown no signs of being able to do that. So what- Anderson doesn’t walk very much. What does that have to do with the rest of his game? Even if Anderson is a player with the uncanny ability to hit for average without any discipline, he won’t be able to hit for even the little power he has hit for at Triple-A because he’s going to have an exceedingly difficult time getting the barrel of the bat on the ball. If you want to see that in action, you can take a look at Anderson’s Winter Ball stats this past offseason for the the Navegantes del Magallanes in the Venezuelan Winter League, hitting .284 in 86 plate appearances but managing just a .330 on-base percentage and a .309 slugging percentage, managing just 2 doubles and no other extra-base hits and striking out 13 times versus 5 walks. Maybe Anderson could be a .280 or .290 hitter in the major leagues, but that doesn’t matter if he has no on-base skills, no power, no speed, and no particular defensive prowess. Leslie Anderson may be a good Triple-A hitter, but his skillset simply won’t cut it in the major leagues.
In the history of baseball, just two first baseman who have made a minimum of 450 plate appearances have managed BB/PA and SO/AB ratios in line with Anderson’s while managing an isolated power mark of .150 or lower and 2 or less stolen bases: Bill Skowron in 1964 and 1965 and Ken Harvey in 2003. Skowron played his final MLB season in 1967 while Harvey never played in the major leagues again after 12 games in 2005. What are the chances of Anderson being one of the few players who can survive in the major leagues like that? And even if he does, it would only be a matter of time before teams realize beyond a shadow of a doubt that he simply isn’t good enough and his MLB career would quickly come to an end.
Leslie Anderson is a longshot to make the Rays’ roster no matter what because like James Loney, he’s a left-handed hitter, and he has also struggled versus lefty pitching the last two years at Triple-A, managing just a .269/.317/.351 line in 268 plate appearances. But if Anderson does want to crack the major leagues for the first time in his career, his best strategy may be to stop hitting and start drawing some walks. At this point, his plate discipline is what’s severely holding him back, and the Rays may never give him a chance. After the Rays signed Anderson as a somewhat high-profile signing after he defected from Cuba, they lauded not just his hitting ability but his power, and if Anderson develops better plate discipline, maybe that’s something that could still come out, giving Anderson a chance to be a regular or at least a useful bench player in the major leagues. Right now, though, Anderson could keep hitting .556 the rest of spring training and it wouldn’t matter- he’s not good enough for the major leagues, even on a team so desperately needing hitting like the Rays.