Commentary

The mystery of the "4A" hitter

Nelson Cruz used to carry the label, but he was one of the few who was able to shed it

Updated: January 11, 2012, 3:00 PM ET
By Kevin Goldstein | Baseball Prospectus
Nelson CruzRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesNelson Cruz was a fringe player before he became a World Series star in Texas.

Just days before acquiring first base prospect Anthony Rizzo from the San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs general manager Theo Epstein appeared on Chicago radio and restated his support for Bryan LaHair.

"Bryan LaHair is our first baseman," Epstein said. "I don't believe in the concept of 4A players. The guy can hit."

The "4A hitter" is as old as the minor leagues themselves; it's the idea that some players are just too good for Triple-A but not good enough for the majors. For every guy who figures things out late like Nelson Cruz, or even far less than star-level players like Jorge Cantu, there are plenty of Triple-A sluggers like Kila Ka'aihue, Brad Eldred, or going back more to Calvin Pickering and Sam Horn, who put up crazy numbers but never had big league careers.

Are they 4A hitters? Does such a thing even exist? Are 4A hitters simply players who never got the right shot or got cold at the wrong time and never received the opportunity to un-bury themselves? Or are there some players who simply can't handle the job? I talked to several people in the industry to get their answers.

While not everyone even agrees on the existence of such players, there were three main ways a player can earn that label:

He has to really hit

One National League executive doesn't really believe in the concept of the 4A hitter. "I don't think it's that 4A-type guys can't hit major league pitching so much as it's 4A-type guys have no value besides their bat," he explains. "If you are a bad first baseman, or left fielder, or designated hitter, just being an average big league hitter doesn't really cut it, so you better hit the moment you get an opportunity or the industry moves on to someone else."