Disgusting. Perverted. Bacchanalian.
These are the words Triple-A pitchers might use to describe the hitting environment at Charlotte, which was rivaled only by the West Coast parks at altitude in its ability to facilitate offense, according to Baseball America’s midseason calculations:
Here are the top 5 ballparks in terms of runs per game at home:
1. Reno (Pacific Coast)
2. Albuquerque (Pacific Coast)
3. Las Vegas (Pacific Coast)
4. Charlotte (International)
5. Lancaster (California)
As a result, it was like trying to evaluate players through beer goggles, with guys like Daniel Palka and Charlie Tilson looking a whole lot worse once they got to Chicago. Dylan Cease was one of the rare top prospects promoted to Chicago before demonstrating minor-league mastery because BB&T Ballpark might’ve made it quixotic.
By and large, the Charlotte Knights made it work for them. They went 75-64 for the second-best record in the White Sox farm system. They also finished with the second-best record in the International League South Division, but ended up losing the wild card tiebreaker with Durham thanks to a stunning collapse over the last 10 days of the season. It was unfortunate for the fine folks at Charlotte, but slightly satisfying for people annoyed by the amount of attention the Triple-A standings received while the major-league product foundered.
The hitters had fun:
The pitchers, less so:
Starting with the players who did everything they could to earn call-ups and still came up short.
Luis Robert: He showed the White Sox and their fans everything they wanted to see from him. Durability? He played 122 games. Hit tool? A .328 average across three levels. Power? He posted 32 homers and 74 extra-base hits. Speed? He swiped 36 bags in 47 attempts. Defense? He’s not moving out of center field anytime soon. The walk-to-strikeout disparity is the only weakness, as he drew 28 (with 14 HBPs) against 129 strikeouts, but that’s probably going to have to be something he’ll have to iron out against MLB competition, if he could ever get the chance.
Nick Madrigal: When you’re the smallest player on the field, you probably don’t have much time to doubt yourself. Madrigal’s default stance regarding slumps is “I don’t get why everybody’s worried,” and he showed why this season. After settling for opposite-field singles last year and starting off similarly at Winston-Salem this season, Madrigal spent the final four months showing why the Sox took him fourth overall in 2018.
He hit .311/.377/.414 across three levels, and he had his worst weeks with the Dash. Isolate his performance to Double-A and Triple-A, and Madrigal hit .337/.399/.440 over 314 plate appearances. He racked up 27 walks, 22 extra-base hits while striking out just 10 times. Once he started doing damage on pitches he could pull, the walks started accumulating. He stole 18 bags, albeit in 27 attempts, and played excellent defense at second base. He’s ready for the majors, with the only question being how quickly he can make strong contact that scares pitchers.
Yermin Mercedes: Ever since the White Sox acquired Mercedes from the Orioles in the Rule 5 draft, he’s done nothing but hit. Age has something to do with that — he’s been old for every level — but he can’t control that part. Also, he was pushed for the first time this year, and he rose to the challenge. He forced the White Sox to look at him by hitting .327/.389/.487 at Birmingham, and when they promoted him to Charlotte, Mercedes didn’t relent, posting a four-digit OPS (.317/.388/.581).
That wasn’t good enough to earn a promotion to Charlotte. It’s difficult to argue his merits as a catcher, because he’s a more extreme version of Zack Collins — a stronger arm, but greater pitch-blocking problems. He requires belief in his bat, which is a problem when his swing leaves nothing to the imagine. It’s fun watching him grip it and rip it to the pull field, but the scouts who doubt say he won’t be able to replicate it in the majors. They could be right, but I’d still like to see him try.
Zack Collins: The other three position players on this list spent the entirety of their minor-league experiences in Charlotte, and Collins is one of a number of players showing that Triple-A numbers aren’t all that instructive this year. Collins hit .282/.403/.548 with a 26.7 percent strikeout rate over 88 games, broken up a few weeks backing up James McCann. In the majors, he’s hitting .143/.268/.329 and whiffing 40 percent of the time.
He made some tweaks with his setup during the month and a half between major-league stints in an attempt to solve the holes MLB pitching exposed. There are signs of progress with the quality of his contact, but quantity of it remains a problem (.182 average, 43.2 percent strikeout rate in September). He’ll need to close this gap, because his catching isn’t going to carry him as a bench player.
Danny Mendick: Mendick also received a boost from Charlotte, but his approach wasn’t warped by its excesses. He hit .279/.368/.444 with the Knights while doing a little bit of everything offensively (45 extra-base hits, 66 walks, 19 stolen bases) and defensively (time at short, second, third and left field). He completed his climb from the 22nd round in 2015 with a call-up to Chicago, where he’s also not trying to do too much. He’s 8-for-26 with mostly opposite-field singles, although he did rip his first MLB homer into the White Sox bullpen at Guaranteed Rate Field. I’d feel better about his prospects if he could draw his first walk before the end of the season.
Seby Zavala: Unfortunately, Zavala is here to show people that Charlotte doesn’t automatically generate an .800 OPS. He hit .222/.296/.471 with the Knights, and while last year’s struggles in Triple-A could be attributed in part to a wrist injury, he didn’t seem to be hindered physically this time, at least to that degree. The strike zone gets away from him in Charlotte. Last year, he stopped walking. This year, his strikeout rate ballooned to 35 percent. The contact issues took little time to show up during his cup of coffee with the Sox, as he went 1-for-12 with nine strikeouts.
He’s a better defensive presence behind the plate compared to Collins and Mercedes, but it’s not strong enough to define him as a big-league backup, especially when he’s not hitting in the most favorable situation for doing so. He turned 26 last month, so his 40-man spot could be in jeopardy.
Kyle Kubat: He hit a wall one way or another. If you’re optimistic, it’s because he exceeded a career high in innings by 35 in his first season as a full-time starter in confluence with the extremely difficult International League environment. If you’re pessimistic, it’s because he’s a 26-year-old strike-throwing lefty who fluked his way through a 2.05 ERA over 12 homerless starts between Winston-Salem and Kannapolis before Triple-A hitters started smoking him to the tune of a 5.63 ERA. Assuming he’s still around and starts the season in Charlotte, a fully charged Kubat will make it easier to determine.
Ian Hamilton: He got banged-up in a car accident before his spring training even started. His season ended when a foul ball in the dugout destroyed his mouth. He posted a 9.92 ERA over 16 appearances in between. Just throw this season in the garbage.
Zach Thompson: There might be no bigger victim of the juiced ball than Thompson. He opened the season on the fringe of the 40-man roster, only to give up 15 homers over 75⅔ innings. Last year? Four over 75⅓ innings. The strikeout and walk numbers are still healthy, but increased hittability hurt, and so his ERA jumped from 1.55 in 2018 to 5.23 in 2019. He was exposed to the Rule 5 draft last year, and he might be hoping for a similar change of scenery this time around.