Before reviewing the best prospect performances of 2012 in the Angels' system, I thought it might be interesting to look at a few guys who posted outrageous rate stats, even if their cumulative contributions did not add up to enough WAR to make the best performance list.
On the hitting side, the conversation has to begin with Angels' 2011 first round draft pick and consensus-number-three-prospect CJ Cron, who led the minor leagues with 123 RBI's in 129 games, despite contributing just 1.1 "(W)ins (A)bove (R)eplacement" relative to his peers. On average, that's one run batted in every 4.5 PA's (Miguel Cabrera, by contrast, knocked in a run only ever 5 PA's). Yeah, I know - I'm looking at "RBI's per PA" as a rate stat, and we all know that's a stat used... Well, nowhere (except maybe in Mike Scioscia's mind grapes). Snicker if you must, but my feeling is that this is a shit-ton of RBI's from a guy with a good but not great slash line, so there must be something worth looking at here.
How did a guy who was worth less than ten runs above average with the bat - that's just 31st in the California League, according to Fangraphs - on a team that scored the second fewest runs in the league knock in 123 RBI's? The answer is two-fold: first, Cron hit like a monster with men on base, mashing .359/.391/.579 with RBI opportunities. (conversely, he hit a paltry .229/.263/.455 when the bases were empty). Second, the guys hitting in front of him were on base frequently, with Travis Witherspoon (.399 OBP), Drew Heid (.384 OBP), Kaleb Cowart (.366 OBP), and Rolando Gomez (.349 OBP) providing plenty of RBI opportunities.
So Cron was an RBI beast. When I saw him in July, it didn't look like a fluke: Cron chased and missed a fair amount, but also showed great plate coverage around the strike zone, hitting tough pitches hard to all fields (FB low and inside, here; FB low and away, here; slider away, here). That was very different from the Cron I saw the previous July, who was still trying to settle into pro ball amidst first round expectations, and was consequently prone to pressing with men on base.
In further validation of Cron's 2012 campaign, California League managers - who presumably know a lot more about baseball than I do - voted him the best power prospect in the league over some pretty good power hitters, most of whom outperformed Cron's WAR total by a wide margin. There's some historical grounds here for ignoring advanced metrics that will ring true to Angels' fans: Kendrys Morales and Mark Trumbo weren't exactly WAR-world beaters themselves in their Cal League seasons, and they each went on to make a contribution or two to the big league club. Just because WAR hates on first baseman in extreme run environments who mash but don't get on base - Cron posted a .327 OBP versus the .342 Cal League average - doesn't mean those players lack big league tools.
Still, Cron's 1.1 WAR total makes him out to be a below average player in the Cal League.** In this case, the counting stats further highlight the unbalance in Corn's contributions. On the one hand are those 123 RBI's; but Cron himself scored just 73 times all season, failing to provide the guys behind him with RBI opportunities. Those guys weren't Prince Fielder, sure, but Randal Grichuk and his .823 OPS out of the five-hole deserved a heck of a lot more than the 71 RBI's he racked up over 575 PA's. Overall, the 66'ers lineup just didn't score that many runs, despite featuring fine individual performances from the Halos' best position prospects, and Cron shares responsibility for that. He made a lot of outs, so we have to weigh that cost against the value he generated squaring up the ball with guys on base.
While using advanced metrics to evaluate Cron doesn't capture his potential future value - he has the kind of light tower power that major league teams make room for, and doesn't strike out all that much to boot - it does underscore the issues he needs to address. To contribute at even an average level (~2 WAR) at the big league level, Cron is going to have to improve his on base skills. He's a decent prospect - a fringy top 100 guy - but there remains a significant gap between what he is now and what he needs to become if he's going to hit in the middle of the Halos' lineup.
** There are ways to incorporate hitting with RISP into WAR calculation, which might boost Cron's value by a half win or so. However, due to lack of advanced metrics, I didn't fully ding Cron for his craptastic defense and base running, so incorporating more information into the WAR calculation here would likely balance out or even lower Cron's overall rating slightly.