The Farm Report -- 4/5/2012

 

Today

AAA:  Mark Hamburger at Iowa (Cubs), 6:35pm CDT
AA: Justin Grimm at Springfield (Cardinals), 7:00
High-A:  Season starts Friday
Low-A: Luke Jackson at Kannapolis (White Sox), 6:00

For the next five months, you’ll receive my daily recaps and commentary on 694 games (weather permitting).  Every year, I offer a few thoughts that might aid your understanding and enjoyment of the games themselves and my reports:

Winning Isn’t Everything

Last year, Baseball America ranked Texas' farm 14th among the 30 teams entering the season, yet the Rangers' six US-based minor-league teams set franchise records with 390 wins and a .564 winning percentage.  Meanwhile, top-ranked Kansas City finished a touch below .500.

The relationship between system quality and winning is minimal.  There's too many other factors involved.  Last year, the statistical correlation between Baseball America’s rankings and each MLB team’s aggregate minor-league winning percentage was 0.05. 

Texas certainly wants its minor leaguers to win, but it also challenges its prospects more than most teams.  Without fail, the Rangers assign their players to battle older competition.  Jurickson Profar and Roughned Odor will be the youngest players (or very close) in their respective leagues.  Just like last year, seven of low-A Hickory's 12 position players are teenagers.

Sometimes a huge gap exists between the team’s record and the quality of its prospects.  Pitchers with at least 40 innings on the 2005 Frisco RoughRiders include current and former Major Leaguers C.J. Wilson, Scott Feldman, John Danks, Edinson Volquez, Nick Masset, Josh Rupe, Wes Littleton, A.J. Murray, and Jesse Chavez.  Those Riders finished 58-82, dead last in the league.

Defense and Pitcher Mistakes

Fielding and pitcher miscues increase dramatically down the minor-league ladder.  Rookie-league players make three times as many recordable mistakes (errors, hit batters, balks, wild pitches, passed balls) as those in the Majors.

At the lower levels, you’ll also see many more overthrown cutoffs, ill-advised throws that allow runners to advance, botched rundowns, and misplayed balls that don't fit the technical definition of an error.  I don't mean to suggest typical minor leaguers are stone-handed dolts.  They can play the game.  Major Leaguers are just much, much better.

Intentional Walks

They’re rare in the minors, exceedingly so at the lower levels.  The average American League team issued 33 freebies last year.  In the AAA Pacific Coast League, the average was 16.  Short-season Spokane hasn't walked anyone intentionally since 2008.  Sluggers occasionally get pitched around in critical situations, but very rarely are they given a free pass.  For the most part, management (of all teams, not just Texas) wants its pitchers to face the heat.

Batting Orders

They're not necessarily optimized for scoring runs.  Engel Beltre has spent much of his career at or near the top of the order despite a low on-base percentage because he was among the top prospects on his team.

Context for Hitters

If I say Jurickson Profar is batting .280/.340/.420, his batting average is .280, his on-base percentage is .340, and his slugging percentage is .420.  You'll see this three-part batting line from me every day, as it conveys a lot of critical information in a small space.  Walks and strikeouts are also important, particularly among younger hitters who might be struggling.  A batter struggling with a .200 average might be drawing walks at a decent rate and not striking out too much.  That likely indicates the batter has some plate discipline and isn't overwhelmed by the competition.

Individual runs scored and RBIs don't matter.  They're team-oriented stats.  In the recaps, I'll praise players who score or drive in several runs, but in terms of development these statistics aren't useful.  If Joe Prospect has a .295 on-base percentage, he's having a poor season, even if he somehow drives in 100 runs. 

Context for Pitchers: Win-Loss

A pitcher's win-loss record is meaningless.  I stopped reporting it two years ago, and almost nobody complained.  The Newberg Report has a discerning audience.

I recall a Double A game from 2008 when two pitchers held the opposition scoreless through seven innings, the third pitcher violently coughed up a 2-0 lead in the 8th, and a fourth tossed a scoreless 9th after his offense had retaken the lead.  Guess which pitcher was awarded the win? 

This isn't an isolated event. 

At the lowest levels, starters often fail to attain the five innings needed to qualify for a win.  By rule, the scorekeeper has no choice but to assign the win to a reliever, even if the starter pitched four-and-two-thirds perfect innings with 14 strikeouts.  Hickory's 2009 edition averaged only 4.5 innings per start, usually putting themselves in line for either a loss or a no-decision.

Just ignore it. 

Context for Pitchers: ERA

I use ERA frequently, of course.  Usually, it's a good shorthand indicator of a pitcher's performance.  However, ERA only partially succeeds at separating the pitcher from his defense.  As mentioned, defense in the minors is spotty, and pitchers are more likely to be hurt by fielding miscues that still result in “earned” runs.  Here’s three examples of how fielders can affect the earned run average of a pitcher, all beginning with two outs, none on, bottom of the 1st:

Example 1:  An Omaha batter hits a sharp grounder to Tommy Mendonca, who makes a heroic diving stab and throws out the batter by a step to end the 1st.  In the 2nd, Mark Hamburger allows a leadoff homer.  Scoring summary: 1 run scored, 1 run earned for Hamburger.

Example 2:  Mendonca dives but can’t come up with the ball cleanly, and the batter reaches safely.  The play is ruled a hit.  The next batter homers off Hamburger.  Summary: 2 runs scored, 2 earned runs for Hamburger.

Example 3:  Mendonca dives but can’t come up with the ball cleanly, and the batter reaches safely.  But this time, the grumpy scorekeeper rules the play an error.  The next batter homers off Hamburger.  Summary: 2 runs scored, 0 earned runs for Hamburger.

Hamburger performed identically in each example but has 1, 2, or 0 earned runs depending on the fielder and scorekeeper.   Similarly, a bullpen can greatly affect a starter’s ERA in its ability to strand his bequeathed runners.  These issues may even out over the course of a season, but not completely.  Therefore…

Context for Pitchers: Peripherals


If ERA can be a little deceptive, what else should you watch?  WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) isn’t a bad stat, but it’s best to focus on what defense and pitching changes don’t affect:  walks, strikeouts and homers. 

I often express walk and strikeout rates as a percentage of batters faced rather than per nine innings.  Per-nine calculations can deceive if a pitcher is exceptionally good or bad at preventing baserunners.  Let’s say Will Lamb and Scott Lucas both strike out nine batters per nine innings, but Ramirez allows just one baserunner per inning, while Lucas allows two.  Lamb will have about a 25% strikeout rate, Lucas only 20%.  Even though they have the same K/9, Lamb is better at striking batters out than Lucas.  That 5% difference doesn’t seem like much but is actually very significant.  Assuming 600 batters faced over the course of a season, that extra 5% means a whopping 30 additional strikeouts. 

Relax

Although baseball is ultimately a meritocracy, in the minors it’s also a venue for learning and adjustments.  Texas didn't cut highly regarded David Perez after he posted an 8.60 ERA in the Northwest League. 

More to the point, players are often trying new pitches, new swings, and new methods that corrode short-term performance.  For example, a pitcher could be struggling to master his changeup, and he might be instructed to throw it in uncomfortable situations, and he’ll suffer the consequences.  Jamey or I might know this and mention it.  Often, especially at the lower levels, we won’t know until after the fact, if at all, so I try to be cautious about short-term failures.

Likewise, it’s tempting to overemphasize slumps and streaks.  Most of the time it’s just statistical noise.  Over the course of 30 at-bats, a proven .300 hitter has a one-in-six chance of batting .200 or worse and the same chance at .400 or better.  Every player in baseball will enjoy (or suffer through) an off-the-chart two-week stretch at some point of the season.  Somebody you like will be batting .170 at the end of April.  I guarantee it.  It might be something, but it's probably nothing.  Be patient.

Field and League Context Is Critical

Relative to the competition, slugging .377 in high-A Myrtle Beach is equivalent to .450 for AAA Round Rock.  Round Rock was abnormally hitter-friendly in a high-offense league, while Myrtle Beach played close to neutral in a league favoring pitchers. 

As mentioned yesterday, Round Rock consistently favored pitchers for homers allowed until last year's heat-fueled eruption.  Frisco's park factors have been all over the place in the past few years; in 2011, it played neutrally for runs despite greatly inflating homers.  Hickory favors the offense, as does its league relative to the other low-A circuit.  There's plenty of offense in the short-season Northwest and Arizona leagues, and both home parks traditionally favor the offense.  I'll try to provide context for player performance during the season. 

Resources

Organization depth chart: http://rangers.scottlucas.com/site/org.htm

My twitter account is “@scottrlucas” (http://twitter.com/scottrlucas).  If you’re eager to get the news earlier, I post notable events, player promotions, injuries, etc. 

Additionally


I'm introducing a new daily feature I think you'll like.  Check tomorrow's recap.

Finally

RHP Cody Eppley was claimed off waivers by the Yankees. 

Enjoy the season.

--

Scott Lucas

Newberg Report  (newbergreport.com)

rangers.scottlucas.com

twitter: @scottrlucas

 
title_authors

Jamey Newberg

Dallas attorney Jamey Newberg has been commenting on Rangers from the big club down through the entire farm system since 1998.

Scott Lucas

Scott Lucas was born in Arlington, Texas, to Richard and Becky Lucas. He lived mostly in Arlington before moving to Austin, where he graduated from The University of Texas. Scott works for Austin Valuation Consultants, Ltd., and has published several boring articles about real estate appraisal and environmental contamination. He makes a swell margarita and refuses to run longer than ten kilometres.

Eleanor Czajka

Eleanor grew up watching the AAA Mudhens in Toledo, Ohio. A loyal Ranger fan since 1979, she works "behind the scenes" at the Newberg Report.