The unlikely ascension of minor league baseball player Ruben Alaniz

I was wondering if our minor league experts could help answer a question.

Detroit Tigers prospect Ruben Alaniz began his professional career in 2010 in the Houston Astros system. The following are his respective ERAs and WHIPs:

4.21, 1.301
4.44, 1.288
5.04, 1.390
4.53, 1.615
6.64, 1.918
4.55, 1.605

So, he is a high-ERA and high-WHIP pitcher, plus he doesn’t strike out a lot of batters. Not to mention, he was once suspended for PED use. And yet, he is currently listed with the Tigers’ Triple-A team.

Is there something I’m not seeing? How could this pitcher, who owns a 4.75 career ERA and a 1.477 career WHIP have ascended all the way to Triple-A and so (relatively) quickly (he’s only 24)? Does he have a skill set his numbers aren’t telling? Just curious.

Now, he has not yet actually pitched in AAA, so we’ll see how he does in Toledo, which is a good park to pitch in.

Alaniz is a “project.” Alaniz was undrafted and is a big tall guy who throws really, really hard, so his first team, the Astros, got him cheap. His Achilles heel has been the inability to develop a true professional grade breaking ball, without which you can strike out high schools but will be murdered by pros. But the temptation to keep a guy like that around, believing you can just finally get him to learn the slider, is overwhelming. And you have to keep bumping him up. So they keep bumping him up and each coaching staff tries something new to see if he can learn to control the curve or learn a slider or whatever they think this year will turn the 6’4" fireballer into a real pitcher. His statistics are wholly consistent with a pitcher who has reasonable fastball command but no breaking ball. His contact rate is terrible.

At 25, he’s running out of time. This is, in all likelihood, the year he proves something or doesn’t, and I suspect that’s how the Tigers see him.

Interestingly, he was once rated as having the best curveball in the Astros minor league system.

When you’re a 19-year-old kid, “Best curveball” means it curves. When you’re 23, it means you can throw it for strikes. Alaniz can’t, so he goes back to has fastball too much and kerblooey.

“Projects” are to be fuond in every organization - Bill Beane, rather famously, was one, being a huge, strong, fast kid who could have been Willie Mays if only he could have made contact, which a bazillion hitting coaches all tried to teach him to no avail.

Why do they have to keep bumping him up?

How common in American sports is it for a player to rise from the minors (or lower, if such a thing exists) to the majors and is their any examples of such a player becoming a legitimate star in the majors?

In baseball ALL players who aren’t purchased from overseas leagues (such as from Japan, Korea, or Cuba) start from the minors. Just about all of your big time stars started their career in the minors.

So the minors essentially serve a function as youth leagues? I thought in the US college leagues generally serve that function, is that not true for baseball?

Baseball skills need a lot of refinement to reach the major-league level. Even the most talented college baseball players typically start their professional careers somewhere in the minor league ranks.

Definitely true in (American) football and basketball. There is some minor league basketball and football, but the stars almost always come direct from college. In baseball very few make that leap direct. Very few probably meaning < 1 a year. Hockey has both college (and the juniors in Canada) and minor leagues, but no near as extensive minor leagues as baseball.

Oh, and the “minor leagues,” in US baseball, refers to fully professional (albeit low-paying) organizations, comprising adult players.

That’s an interesting question and you’d have to ask his employers, but the likely answer is “because there’s no point in not doing so.” If he was left in Rookie or short-season A ball, you’d have a 25-year-old guy basically blowing children out of the batter’s box with AA stuff. He’d likely beat up the Rookie League now, but there’s nothing to be gained from that; it would not help him develop and would not help the 19-year-old whose spot he occupies. You have to move them up at some point or else they stop developing and they occupy a spot a younger player should. Alaniz, at this point, is at an age where either you’re going to make the big leagues really soon or you probably never will. If he can be reasonably good in Toledo maybe he could make the big leagues, and if he can’t do it then he won’t, but being good in single-A won’t prove anything - you’d just have to move him to Toledo anyway to see what happens.

Not in baseball, no. Major league baseball is too difficult to be mastered in college. Even star college players usually play a few years in the minor leagues.

The percentage of baseball players who learn their trade in the minors is not 100% but is essentially 99.9%. Baseball players who went directly from high school or college to the majors are so rare that they are the answers to trivia questions. I can, offhand, think of only six examples in my entire 44-year lifetime; Dave Winfield, John Olerud, Jim Abbott, Mike Morgan, Mike Leake, and Pete Incaviglia. There have been a few others I’m sure that I forgot (I’m not counting ballplayers who came from other pro leagues in Japan and such) but they’re very rare indeed.

It’s possible they are trying to groom him for spot relief duty in some cases. Although that would seem more likely if he was a lefty, and in checking his splits I can’t figure out anything that indicates he’s any good in any situation.

He did get switched from starting to occasional relief work in 2013.

I think the likely answer is that he’s been recognized as a purely organizational, roster-filling career minor leaguer. If he can stick at AAA, it’s not a bad life for a few years. No ML riches, but they do fly on road trips rather than ride the bus, and they get pretty good clubhouse catering.

I also notice he’s started playing winter ball, which comports with that.

I assume there are some who are not yet 18. In fact occasionally a boy under 18 makes it up to the majors, but yes they are professionals being paid, and I’d assume all are at least 16. There is a set salary of $1100 per month for the first year. After that it’s all individually determined. They also get $25/day meal money when on the road. Equipment is paid for by the teams, but most actually purchase their own gloves and many have their own custom bats.

I wouldn’t call Billy Beane a “project.” He was a grade-A prospect and a first-round draft pick, whereas the term “project” is usually reserved for players who have one or two interesting attributes but serious deficiencies in other areas.

David Clyde and Tim Conroy are also among the players who made the majors without stopping in the minors. (Neither was much good.)

Worth noting is that the Tigers CAN’T realistically stick him in Connecticut, their short season minor league affiliate, or in the rookie league; at these levels, age limits apply and you are allowed almost no players aged over 23 or with the years of experience this guy has.

I don’t think the “they put him in Triple-A because there’s no point in not doing so” reasoning makes much sense. He isn’t still in the Astros chain, so he isn’t just progressing up their ladder in natural order. He was willingly signed by the Tigers and intentionally placed on the Triple-A club. That is prime minor league real estate – there are potentially valuable big league veterans and top prospects that can fill those roster spots – so they’re not going waste a Triple-A roster spot on a guy “just to see what happens.”

The Tigers must see some real value in Alaniz, but I just can’t figure out what it is.

When you said, “you have to keep bumping him up,” I assumed you meant that there was some rule akin to the “running out of options” rule (which prevents you from sending a major leaguer to the minors after certain criteria are met without meeting certain other criteria first) pertaining to keeping players in lower levels of the minors. It sounds like what you meant was that AAA is the best place for him, but I’m not seeing that that’s true. Do you think he’d blow away AA competition and gain nothing from spending some more time there?

RickJay probably knows a lot more about this than I do but here’s a partial answer to your question:

Paradoxical as it may seem AA baseball is, in a lot of ways, better than AAA. AA baseball is where the top prospects play. Likewise, when injured players do a minor league rehab stint, they usually do it in AA instead of AAA. It’s not uncommon for top prosepcts to jump from AA straight to the majors.

AAA players are usually career backups who are hanging around the edges of the minors leagues. They’re not future stars in the same way that AA players might be.