At the opening of this year’s July 2nd international signing period, the Cardinals signed Malcom Nuñez- a 17-year-old third baseman from Cuba. They sent him to the Dominican Summer League, where he put together the best offensive season in recent professional baseball history. Before we can marvel at his incredible hitting talent, it’s important to recognize two developments in international amateur baseball that made Nuñez’ season possible.
Not counting the American and National Leagues, there are 18 different affiliated professional baseball leagues that comprise the minor leagues. The two Triple-A leagues, the International League and Pacific Coast League, represent the highest level of the minors. The Dominican Summer League is the lowest. Nearly all of it’s players are teenagers, most of whom signed at age-16 while their American contemporaries were getting ready for their junior year of high school. Many of these kids are from the Dominican Republic, but others come from Venezuela, Mexico, and Nuñez’ home of Cuba.
Not too long ago, there weren’t any affiliated leagues specifically for Spanish-speaking teenagers. They were sent to mid-sized cities scattered throughout the continental US where hardly anyone spoke their language and most teammates were at least a few years older. For example, 18-year-old Hanley Ramirez played in Lowell, Massachussets. 17-year-old Adrian Beltre was sent to Savannah, Georgia and San Bernardino, California. The advent of leagues like the DOSL was a common sense initiative that helped hundreds of Central American teenagers adapt to pro ball more easily.
More importantly, the fact that Cuban players like Nuñez can sign with major league teams at all is a groundbreaking development in international relations. After decades of Cuban ballplayers defecting from the island under life-threatening circumstances, often through trial and error, Nuñez’ generation of Cuban talent has permission to sign directly with MLB teams through legal means. He took advantage of this more humane system by signing with the Cardinals for $300,000- the highest amount they could offer any international amateur this year. Here’s a scouting video taken by Baseball America’s Ben Badler:
I’m no scout, but that sure is a sweet-looking right-handed swing. It’s no wonder that the Cardinals maxed out to sign him. So what kind of numbers did this swing produce in 2018? In 44 games and 199 plate appearances, Nuñez hit .415/.498/.774. That is not a misprint.
- .415 batting average.
- .498 on base percentage.
- .774 slugging percentage.
Nuñez was basically peak-Barry Bonds, except as a 17-year-old third baseman. In fact, his 238 wRC+ has only been topped in the major leagues by two players ever: Bonds himself (244 wRC+ in 2002) and Babe Ruth (239 wRC+ in 1920). The DOSL is a long way from the majors, and by extension so is Nuñez, but those numbers at any level are just ridiculous. He’s light years ahead of any other hitter in baseball in 2018, independent of league.
Best hitters of 2018 by wRC+
|Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||Blue Jays||AA/AAA||194|
|Cal Stevenson||Blue Jays||GULF/APPY||181|
(Just an aside, we’re not worthy of Mike Trout. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is the best minor league hitter we’ve seen in ages, and Trout’s numbers are almost as good against major league pitching.)
Nuñez is 138 percent better than league average, and 38 percent better than anyone else in baseball against their own league. He also led all of organized baseball in batting average, slugging percentage, OPS (1.272), ISO (.360), and wOBA (.575).
But Nuñez wasn’t just the best hitter of 2018. FanGraphs has wRC+ for minor leaguers going back to 2006. Here are the top seasons in that time period at any level:
Best wRC+ seasons since 2006
|Jose Augosto Figueroa||2013||Yankees||DOSL||201|
Nuñez shattered Oscar Hernandez’ record of 222 set in 2012 in the now-defunct Venezuelan Summer League. Hernandez is still in baseball, in case you were wondering. This year, he was the backup catcher for Pawtucket, the Red Sox Triple-A affiliate. He does have 22 games of MLB experience with the Diamondbacks, but he certainly never became the kind of prospect his huge 2012 season would indicate. In fact, no one on this list really turned into much of a star. Kevin Kouzmanoff was phenomenal in 2006 at the highest levels of the minors, and he played parts of seven seasons in the big leagues. None of the others on this list made it as far as high-A.
Nuñez’ stellar debut in professional baseball hardly punches him a ticket to the major leagues. No one in recorded history has dominated foreign rookie leagues like he did, but most of the players who came close couldn’t ride their success to the majors. All the same, it’s nearly impossible to make a better first impression, and the Cardinals have to feel pretty good about their $300,000 Cuban import.