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There just simply isn’t anything like the Arizona Fall League.
Where else can you find rosters stocked to the brim with top prospects, giving them the space to test their skills against top talent? It’s often repeated that you shouldn’t put too much stock into AFL statistics, and while that’s true given the small samples and tired bodies, the cream tends to rise to the top.
With the AFL’s 30th season in the books, we dove into the record books to put this year’s performances in historical context.
Reifert strikes out the world
It might be difficult to declare a reliever as the most dominant pitcher in AFL history, but Evan Reifert (Rays) can make as good of a case as anyone. Across eight appearances for Mesa, the 23-year-old faced 40 batters and struck out an otherworldly 25, allowing just one hit — a measly single in his final game — in the process. His Reliever of the Year award seems to almost undersell what he accomplished.
Reifert’s 62.5 percent strikeout rate was the best single-season mark in AFL history, minimum 40 batters faced, surpassing Darwinzon Hernandez in 2018 (49 percent) by a significant margin. Tommy Hanson, the author of arguably the best season by an AFL starting pitcher, “only” collected a 46.7 percent strikeout rate in 2008. Reifert’s .028 opponents’ batting average? Also a Fall League record.
A year ago, Reifert was a quiet acquisition in a minor trade with the Brewers. After quelling concerns over his command with his stellar run in Arizona, he’s positioned himself to reach the upper Minors early in 2023.
Julien’s prodigious power and patience
Quebec’s own earned the AFL’s Breakout Player of the Year award for good reason. Edouard Julien (Twins No. 14) won a share of the league’s batting title by hitting an even .400, also connecting on five home runs, one off the league lead.
Four of those long balls came in the span of about 24 hours. Julien homered twice in consecutive games for Glendale on Oct. 22 and 24, a feat that had only been accomplished in the AFL once since game logs became available in 2005 (Braxton Davidson, 2018). While those two games buoyed Julien’s slugging percentage, his .535 batting average on balls in play, third-best in a single season in league history, is a testament to how adept he was at finding the grass.
Julien now ranks third all-time in another category; his .563 on-base percentage this fall trails only Dustin Ackley (.581, 2010) and Nate Roberts (.565, 2012) on the single-season leaderboard. Julien walked (23) more times than he struck out (22) and only reinforced his standing as the Minors’ most disciplined batter. (50 players have 1,000 plate appearances since 2021 — Julien’s .437 OBP is 45 points ahead of Miguel Vargas in second place.)
Veen won’t stop running
Pitting AFL performances in the counting stat categories — home runs, RBIs, doubles, etc. — against each other, across eras, isn’t exactly the best way to go about it. The early seasons of the AFL had around 50 games on the schedule for every team, whereas no squad played more than 30 this year.
So on its face, the 16 bases stolen by Zac Veen (Rockies No. 1, MLB No. 23) for Salt River this year were notable but simply that, as nine other players have matched or exceeded that total in a Fall League season. But on a rate basis, his 0.75 stolen bases per game are the most by an AFL player with at least 20 games played, solidly besting Eric Young Jr. (2008) and Chase d’Arnaud (2009) with 0.65 swipes per game.
Veen’s skill on the basepaths is undeniable after stealing 91 bases over his first two pro seasons. He won’t have any trouble unlocking it at the upper levels if he carries his .444 AFL on-base percentage with him.
Thomas and Sheehan double up on double digits
The AFL is certainly known more for its offense than its pitching, as you may have already gleaned from the trend of this column so far. The last thing any organization wants is for one of its prospects to suffer an injury, so innings are meticulously managed and starting pitchers do not get to finish what they … started (The last AFL complete game was in 1996).
That’s what made Thomas’ night on Oct. 17 all the more special. The 10-strikeout game for Salt River was the first in the Fall League since Kyle Zimmer in 2014, and Connor Thomas (Cardinals No. 24) did it in just four innings. These types of performances tend to come in groups, however. Before Zimmer, the last pitchers to reach double digits were Hanson (who incredibly did it twice) and Phil Hughes in 2008. Before that, Jered Weaver and Brian Murphy, both in 2005.
This year, it was Emmet Sheehan (Dodgers No. 22) who was up to the task. In Glendale’s third-to-last game, the righty fanned 10 over five scoreless frames, including eight straight at one point. It was certainly appropriate that these two were the ones to do it; Thomas (1.50) and Sheehan (3.54) finished first and second among pitchers to throw at least 20 innings this year.
Quero dominates behind the dish
Luis Matos won the AFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award for his stellar play in center field, but I’m not sure anyone was further ahead of the competition at their position than Jeferson Quero (Brewers No. 7), who impressed at just 20 years old for Glendale.
AFL baserunners stole more bags this year (245) than in any season since 2012, which was at least partially because Quero couldn’t be behind the plate for every single one of them. When he was, though, he was excellent. Quero’s 45.8 percent caught stealing rate was tops among qualified backstops, well ahead of second place finishers Henry Davis and Adam Hackenberg at 26.3 percent. Since 2005, only Gary Sanchez (61.5%, 2015) has faced as many attempts as Quero — who was 13-for-24 — and thrown them out at a better rate.
Here’s an additional note: In the one game Quero played in front of the Statcast system in Salt River, he delivered a throw to second base at 86.9 mph (though the runner did advance on what was ruled as a wild pitch). Of the 120 catchers in the Major Leagues this past season, only 14 threw a ball with as much velocity as that Quero toss. Once again, very impressive stuff as one of the youngest players in the Fall League.
Kjerstad covers his bases
Heston Kjerstad (Orioles No. 9) began the Fall League with a bang and just never slowed down. His seven total bases for Scottsdale on Opening Day — a homer, double and single — were a sign of things to come, as he matched that total on two other occasions. (The last player with a trio of games with seven total bases in one AFL season was Pete Alonso in 2018.)
Kjerstad won this year’s MVP award for that consistency. His 61 total bases paced the field by 10 and are second only to Nelson Velazquez’s 74 in 2021 over the past 10 seasons. The fact that Kjerstad was back on the field this season was notable in and of itself, after missing two years with myocarditis. That he stood head and shoulders above the competition was even more impressive.
Mervis lives up to his nickname
When Brennen Davis, Chicago’s No. 2 prospect, was asked about his organization mate after both had big performances earlier in the Fall League, he was quick to make a correction. “You mispronounced his name — it’s actually Mash Mervis,” Davis said.
Matt Mervis (Cubs No. 21) hit 36 home runs during the regular season then joined Mesa and hit six more, tied with Yankees prospect Tyler Hardman for the league lead. As mentioned before, that raw total isn’t historically significant — 126 players have hit six or more homers in an AFL season — but the frequency with which Mervis crushed them is, with his 10.2 AB/HR rate ranking in the top 10 all-time, minimum 60 at-bats. Kjerstad, for example, hit one fewer homer than Mervis but averaged nearly 10 more at-bats between them.