On a warm, late summer night in August of 2016, Erie Seawolves third baseman Corey Jones launched a baseball into the deep center field recesses of Erie’s Jerry Uht Park. As the ball blended into the orange and purple hues of the northwestern Pennsylvania sunset, headed for what looked like a game-breaking extra base hit, Akron Rubberducks starting pitcher Rob Kaminsky frustratingly raced home to cover a throw, knowing he’d given Jones too much of the plate with runners on first and second, and two outs in the fourth, with the Rubberducks clinging to a one-run lead.
But Greg Allen had different ideas.
Akron’s center fielder, playing the kind of shallow that makes you think anything deep will go for a triple, immediately turned his back to home plate, and broke for the ball like a world class sprinter racing for the tape. As the baseball screamed towards the warning track, Allen ate up the outfield grass with each racing step, took a quick glimpse at the ball 20 feet in front of the center field wall, and jumped. His body extended in a full horizontal dive, and his arm and glove reached out to his full length.
Greg Allen was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the sixth round of the 2014 MLB first-year player draft, and while the Indians picked him a round or two below where many of the “draft experts” had him projected, he was considered by most to be a fourth outfielder. While it’s near impossible to predict the future of a player like Allen, even with the best of statistical analysis, molding what’s to come before the cement has set is as normal an occurrence in baseball as a single up the middle. But Allen’s ceiling, according to draftniks, was low, and his floor was high. According to most, Allen was as complete as he was going to be, before he took step on a professional baseball field.
In college, Allen was a beloved member of the San Diego State Aztecs, and was one of the late and great Tony Gwynn’s favorite pupils. During his tenure as an Aztec, one of the guiding principles that Gwynn imparted upon Allen was to slow the game down with discipline and self control, and he did it on a daily basis. His plus tools coming out of college were his speed, center field defense, base running, IQ and athleticism, all things that the Indians covet these days.
Greg Allen was a quintessential Gwynn player, improving his contact each season, and hitting over .300 in his 180-game stint with the Aztecs. Most looked at Allen as a guy that maximized every inch of his ability, and had already peaked in college, with little-to-no upside, no chance at any power, but who could run his way onto any Major League team. He could defend pretty well, and even projected as a left or right fielder in a defensive-utility sense, because of his plus arm and that speed we talked about earlier.
In other words, because experts saw a lot of him in a prime-time college, those experts had locked Allen into a ridiculous tier of “fourth or fifth outfielder upside.”
When you look at the Indians finished draft board in 2014, it’s easy to forget about Allen. Bradley Zimmer was picked first, and ten picks later, Justus Sheffield was chosen with a supplemental pick. In the third round, Bobby Bradley was the selection, and all three have carried a lot of prospect weight since then. Allen, a sixth rounder that year for the Tribe, a switch-hitting center fielder, has risen from pre-destined “expert” mediocrity to enter the top ten in most prospect lists thus far.
He should be higher.
Allen walked out of San Diego State with a boatload of experience from a Major League Hall of Famer, a college degree in business management with a near 4.0 GPA, and a future proving that he has no ceiling as a professional baseball player.
If you are a center fielder in the Cleveland Indians system, it’s inevitable that if you are any sort of legitimate prospect, you are ultimately compared to Kenny Lofton, who was the straw that stirred the Indians’ drink during the great Cleveland teams of the 90’s. Lofton won four straight Gold Gloves from 1993 through 1996, and was a five-time All-Star for the club, during his ten-year tenure.
Now I know what you’re thinking. “Jim, Greg Allen has played 37 freakin’ games above High A. How in the hell are you going to compare him to one of the truly great baseball players in the history of this organization?”
Well…because I can, but as much as this is a comparison of two players at the same position, doing similar things at the same level, there are differences aplenty. We’ll take a walk down both pathways, paying attention to their intersecting points, but equally acknowledging their differences as well. No two players run parallel for their entire career, and with Allen at the infancy of his, this story will have many more chapters after this one is written.
Now, before we dive down this comparison rabbit hole without any reference point, it’s important to discuss what these correlations truly mean. These “comps,” while truly flawed, are as essential to any baseball conversation regarding a players’ future as actual performance. Every organization has quintessential players in which all players after them are compared. Yes, it’s absolutely unfair, and it’s rarefied air when a player either meets those expectations, or heaven forbid, forms his own level of future comparison, but having that conversation is as inevitable as getting hungry after not eating for awhile.
Lofton was part of one of the most explosive eras in Indians’ history, and ultimately played 17 total seasons as a borderline Major League Hall of Famer. While it’s hard to remember, there actually was a day and age in which he actually was a minor leaguer, drafted by the Houston Astros, with as many question marks as anyone who only played a handful of baseball games in college at Arizona. He was mostly known as the Wildcats’ explosive Final Four point guard.
Lofton was Steve Kerr’s primary back-up, and as a junior, was the sixth man on an Arizona basketball team that made it to the Final Four. Days after that season ended, Lofton, missing baseball, asked head baseball coach Jerry Kindall if he could play. He made the team as a pinch runner, played in five total games, and had one at bat. The 1986 Wildcats had won the school’s third College World Series over the past 11 years, and playing time was at a premium at this baseball juggernaut.
But based on the small sample size, yet prodigious talent, Clark Crist, a Houston Astros’ scout and former member of Arizona’s 1980 College World Series Championship team convinced the Astros to draft the speedy Lofton in the 17th round of the draft. A few days after that, Lofton was a professional baseball player, playing for Auburn in the New York/Penn league. Lofton wasn’t very good, but the Astros loved his speed, and wanted him to leave Arizona and commit to baseball full time. He declined, both because he wanted to finish his commitment to head basketball coach Lute Olsen, as well as get his college degree, a promise Lofton had made to his grandmother.
Lofton returned to Arizona for his senior season of basketball, and as a starter, led them to the Sweet Sixteen, before losing by a point to the Jerry Tarkanian-led UNLV Running Rebels, 68-67. It was a heartbreaking loss for Lofton, who was knocked over by guard Anderson Hunt, who had spun into him with his hip, then drilled the game-winning three pointer with four seconds left on the clock.
But what Lofton lacked in baseball experience, he made up for with a boatload of big game pressure, to go along with a degree in studio production, and a contract in hand as a professional baseball player.
Here’s where our intersecting stories merge together, and where our true comparisons really begin. While their paths were very divergent through their college years, the things they had in common were age, position, skill-set and IQ. Of course, this was looked at in a very different way, likely because of timing. Kenny Lofton was considered a high upside guy, with no real upper level baseball experience, but raw speed. Greg Allen was considered a low ceiling guy, with a whole lot of upper level baseball experience, raw speed, disciplined hitting, and outstanding defense.
I had to reread that paragraph a few times myself, because it almost seems silly. Because of Lofton’s unknown capacity as a college basketball player who hadn’t played baseball above high school, his projections were based on the mystery, because he quite literally had no experience whatsoever. Folks knew him as an elite basketball player, and in an era in which Bo Jackson knew everything, Lofton’s sky was the limit.
In 2014, Allen, while touted as a top 200 pick by most services, didn’t have any sort of national exposure, and as I mentioned before, his ceiling was much lower than Lofton’s lofty raw talent.
It was a different era in prospect evaluation. Metrics were a part of the game, but certainly not universally utilized, as they are today. Eye tests and innuendo ruled the era, and while experts loved Lofton, his perceptions today, would be vastly different at the minor league level, without taking into account his raw ability (which really wasn’t measurable), and the hindsight of a 62.4 fWAR career as a Major League veteran.
But when you look at the crossing points of Lofton’s and Allen’s careers at the levels in which they have similar sample sizes thus far, things get interesting. But before we discuss that sample size, it’s only fair if we look at their complete minor league careers.
Because of Lofton’s odd college career, he spent almost two complete years at Low A because of his college basketball career, and after finishing his first full minor league year in regular A, bumped right up to High A. Because of age, he skipped Double A with the Astros, and jumped to Triple A.
Allen, following a more normal trajectory, played a season in Low A, a mostly complete season at A ball (with a three game High A sample), then moved to High A to start his third year. Because of age and performance, Allen bumped up to Double A for the final six weeks of the season.
Understand a few things.
With that said, you can see that true to form, Lofton started off lower offensively than Allen, and grew quite quickly, once he began to play baseball full time in 1989. But while Allen started off higher, his numbers have improved at every level. But let’s focus a bit more on the comparisons.
Where the two converge at with any similarities are Low A ball, as well as High A ball. While there are variances in games played, they are within the ballpark for comparisons sake.
Lofton played 82 games at Low A Auburn, while Allen played 57 games at Low A Mahoning Valley.
Lofton had 36 more plate appearances over his two seasons at Low A, and 72 more at bats, which ultimately shows Allen’s higher floor because of experience. Allen scored more runs (46-44), but Lofton held slim leads in hits (69-55), doubles (9-8), home runs (1-0), RBI (22-19) and stolen bases (52-30). Where Allen really stands out here is regarding his K-rate (10 percent vs. Lofton’s 24 percent), while their BB-rate was similar (0.096 for Allen vs. 0.098 for Lofton). While Lofton had a lead in stolen bases, they were virtually deadlocked in percentage (85.7 percent success rate for Allen, and an 85.2 percent for Lofton)
Allen played a full season at A Ball, while Lofton only had a cup of coffee, but both played substantial time at High A (Lofton 124 vs. 95 for Allen). While Allen’s statistics were overall better by percentage, you can see that Lofton began taking leaps through the system, compared to his Low A numbers.
Allen led Lofton in doubles (17-15) and homers (4-2), but Loften held slim leads in runs (98-95), hits (159-105), triples (5-4), RBI (35-31), and stolen bases (62-41). While Allen continues his solid plate discipline, you can see that Lofton was really receptive to coaching, improving his K-rate 10 percent, to an incredible 13.8 percent (Allen was at 11.3 percent). But Allen actually walked more than he struck out, with a BB-rate at 12.9 percent, while Lofton improved slightly from Low-A at 11 percent.
Where both players stood out via the eye test, and every other metric, was defense. Lofton immediately had the knack of playing the field, becoming known as a guy that could play shallow, run good routes, and make fantastic plays with his fantastic speed at talent. Likewise, Allen has quickly become not only the best defensive center fielder in the Indians system, but quite honestly, the best overall defender, much like Lofton.
Where things really get fun is when you look at comments made by one of SB Nation’s draft gurus, John Sickels. Here’s what he had to say about Greg Allen after his 2015 season, his first full year of professional baseball:
Greg Allen was drafted by the Indians in the sixth round in 2014 from San Diego State University. His best tool is speed, at least in the 60/65 range though he is still learning how to use that speed to maximum effect on the bases. That helps in the outfield too and he was one of the top defensive flycatchers in the Midwest League last summer. Allen makes contact well and can work a count for walks, but he doesn’t have much natural power. Being a switch-hitter helps his chances to be a fourth outfielder. Grade C.
And while you think Sickels wasn’t around to grade Lofton, you’re right. But about three years ago, Sickels took a look at Lofton, before Allen was even drafted by the Indians. He looked back at Lofton’s numbers, and likely reached out to scouts in Lofton’s era. Here were his comments on Lofton after his first full professional season:
Lofton returned to Auburn in 1989, hitting .263/.336/.309 with 26 steals in 34 games. The Astros saw signs of progress, so he was promoted to Low-A Asheville in August, where he hit .329/.421/.390 in 22 games. Overall, at the two levels he hit .292/.372/.344 with 40 steals in 51 attempts, 26 walks and 40 strikeouts in 192 at-bats. He was clearly making progress developing a feel for baseball and good leadoff skills. Lack of power was an issue, but no one expected that from him at that point. I would probably have stayed with a Grade C given the small sample sizes involved, perhaps a Grade C+.
Does that look familiar?
It gets even more fun. After this past year, Sickels was much higher on Allen, moving him from the honorable mention in his Indians top 20, to #10 on his rankings list.
Allen is Age 23, sixth round pick in 2014 from San Diego State, hit .295/.416/.413 with 45 steals, 77 walks, 78 strikeouts in 491 at-bats between High-A and Double-A; speedy switch-hitter, 60-65 runner and uses it well, excellent defensive outfielder with deceptively strong and accurate arm; draws walks and makes contact easily; there may be some Michael Brantley-esque sneaky power in this bat at some point. ETA: 2018. Grade B-
Here were Sickels’ comments for Lofton’s following year as well, again, written a year before Allen was drafted by the Indians.
Lofton took a huge step forward in 1990, hitting .331/.407/.395 with 62 steals for Osceola in the High-A Florida State League. He drew 61 walks in 556 plate appearances, reduced his strikeout rate, and continued to refine his defensive skills in the outfield. Baseball America rated him the Number Five prospect in the FSL. The main concern here was that he was already 23 and thus a bit old for the league, but given his lack of amateur experience, it was reasonable to cut him some slack. A similar prospect nowadays would probably get a strong B- or maybe a B from me.
Yeah, Allen was 23 too, and while Sickels correctly compares the bat to Brantley, you can see that the rest of the skill set compares very similarly to Lofton. Now, Sickels correctly mentions Lofton’s lack of amateur experience as a reason for Lofton to improve, you can see that the same aged Allen continued to improve at nearly the same clip, after starting off higher.
Now obviously, Lofton took off after this season, skipping Double A altogether, playing in Triple A the following year, before getting the bump to the Astros in September of 1991. He was traded to the Indians that offseason, and the rest was history.
This season, Allen is likely to start the year off in Double A Akron again, and screams of “being too old” will likely follow. But watch him closely. I firmly believe his time in Akron will be short, and by June, he’ll be sewing his oats in Columbus, chomping at the bit to join a playoff bound Indians team. His defense is gamebreaking, as he won the minor league gold glove in 2016, and his offense is some sort of hybrid of Michael Brantley and Lofton himself. He’s a guy that gets on base, never strikes out, runs the bases well, and that’s never taken a dip, not even at Double A. While it was a small sample size, if the 24-year-old Allen can continue his progress this season, you have to think that the big leagues may be in his future.
The only question left remains what team the Indians are for Allen. Remember, Allen was a part of the proposed trade that Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff put together to acquire Jonathan Lucroy last July. It does make you wonder if Allen is destined to move to another team, should the Indians look to make another move this offseason, or in July. While Lofton found his home in Cleveland, after being stuck behind Steve Finley in Houston, will Allen end up in the Indians outfield too?
Or will the Indians move Allen to another club looking for a young center fielder, while Allen remains blocked by guys like Tyler Naquin and Bradley Zimmer? It remains to be seen, but with Allen playing in the shadows of Lofton, it might be a good idea to keep him around.
As the ball and Allen converged on the dirt of the Uht Park warning track, there was an inaudible gasp and silence from the crowd filling the stands on that beautiful, Lake Erie night. Allen rose from the ground slowly, standing almost up against the 400 foot wall marker in straightaway center, with his back still to home plate. He slowly turned, and with the ball nestled in the soft leather of his glove, he flipped it into his hand as though it were just another lazy center field fly.
But to the many Indians’ fans in attendance in Erie that night, Allen’s catch brought back vivid memories of another great center fielder of the past. And with wistful thoughts dancing in their heads, it seemed almost probably that those amazing catches would be returning to Progressive Field sometime soon.