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When Double-A Biloxi center fielder Jackson Chourio stole second base uncontested in the sixth inning of a Sept. 7 game against Birmingham, it seemed like just an everyday occurrence in the minor leagues.
But in reality the 19-year-old had just joined an exclusive club.
That stolen base marked Chourio’s 40th of the season, and he already had hit 21 home runs to that point. That made him just the fourth teenager since 1963 to amass at least 20 homers and steal at least 40 bases in the same season.
Two of Chourio’s predecessors in the teenage 20-40 club are famous.
Ronald Acuña Jr. went 21-44 in his Minor League Player of the Year season in 2017. He played that season at age 19 and spent 111 of his 139 games at either Double-A Mississippi or Triple-A Gwinnett.
Acuña joined the Braves in 2018 and was National League Rookie of the Year. This season, the right fielder is a strong contender for NL MVP as he vies to become the first 40-homer, 70-steal player in MLB history.
Making his full-season minor league debut in 1995, Andruw Jones went 25-56 for Low-A Macon and won Minor League POY as an 18-year-old. He went back-to-back as Minor League POY in 1996, when he hit 34 homers and stole 30 bases at three levels.
Jones finished the latter season in the big leagues, appearing in 31 games for the ’96 Braves and then became the youngest player ever to homer in the World Series at 19 years, 180 days.
This season, Chourio finished his time at Double-A with a .280/.336/.467 batting line with 22 homers and 43 steals in 122 games. The Brewers promoted him to Triple-A Nashville on Sept. 19.
Chourio’s numbers might have been even gaudier had the Southern League not experimented with a pre-tacked baseball in the first half. He compiled a .714 OPS through July 6 and a .924 mark afterward.
The fourth member of the teenage 20-40 club from the past 60 seasons may require an introduction, even though he once ranked as the No. 11 prospect in baseball.
Alex Escobar had one of the great forgotten seasons of recent vintage in 1998. The 19-year-old center fielder hit .310/.393/.584 with 27 homers and 49 steals for Low-A Capital City in the Mets system.
Injuries would cost Escobar a chance at an encore in 1999. He appeared in only one game before dislocating his shoulder and being lost for the season. But he turned in mostly healthy seasons in 2000 and 2001, when he made his MLB debut by appearing in 18 games for the Mets as a 22-year-old.
That offseason the Mets traded Escobar to the Indians as the centerpiece for Roberto Alomar. Both players flopped with their new organizations in 2002, Alomar showing steep decline and Escobar missing the season to knee reconstruction surgery.
Escobar received brief looks in Cleveland in 2003 and 2004 before losing 2005 to leg and foot injuries. He surfaced with the Nationals in 2006 and turned in his best big league season that included a 151 OPS+ in limited play.
He never appeared in the majors again, though he did play at Triple-A in the Washington system in 2007 and 2008. Escobar compiled exactly 100 hits in parts of four MLB seasons, batting .258/.328/.415 (97 OPS+) in 125 games. He is better remembered today for his injury history and what could have been.
Below is an overview of the 20 homer-40 steal teenagers in the minor leagues in the past 60 seasons. The OPS+ figure estimates how much more productive each player was in relation to league averages for on-base percentage and slugging. It is not adjusted for home park.
|Ronald Acuña Jr.
This table illustrates what a marvel Acuña was in 2017. His offensive production was roughly 55% better than his competition while playing 80% of his games at the upper levels.
Escobar and Jones dominated Low-A competition exclusively, though Jones was 18 the entire season.
Chourio doesn’t measure up at first glance. However, the pre-tacked ball used on an experimental basis in the Southern League this season wreaked havoc with strikeout rates. Facing the pre-tacked ball, batters swung and missed more frequently against four-seam fastballs at the top of the zone because those pitches tended to have more spin and ride than expected.
This affected Chourio, whose strikeout rate dropped from 21% when facing the pre-tacked ball to 14% with the standard ball. Not only did Chourio show greater contact frequency in the second half, he showed greater impact frequency, too. His OPS+ climbed from 91 to 145.
You read that correctly. Chourio, facing the standard minor league ball in the second half of the season, compiled a 145 OPS+. That puts his offensive production more in the vicinity of Acuña in 2017 and should assuage concerns about Chourio’s upside potential based on a subpar first half.
Contributing: Dan Hirsch of Baseball-Reference.com confirmed that Acuña, Chourio, Escobar and Jones are the only 20-40 teenagers of the modern minor league era, which dates back to 1963.