The Farm Report -- 4/5/2018

Today's Starters

AAA: David Hurlbut vs. Memphis (STL), 705pm
AA: Collin Wiles vs. Tulsa (LAD), 705pm
High-A: Emerson Martinez at Lynchburg (CLE), 530pm
Low-A: Tyler Phillips at Greensboro (MIA), 600pm
(all times CDT)

Podcast

Michael Tepid, Ted Price and I are back for another season of the Rangers On Deck podcast, and we have a fresh one ready for you right here.

Online

Twitter is here, and my organization tables (40-man, all rosters, Rule 5 eligibility, AAA affiliation thoughts) are here.

DAILY REPORT PRIMER, PART TWO: STATISTICS

My focus is on the statistics that highlight the individual and remove the team context. 

Hitters: Age

The most important statistic for a hitting prospect isn't contact, or power, or patience. It's age. Take two players in low-A: one is 19, the other is 23. Knowing nothing else about them, you can safely bet that the younger player is the better prospect. Now give the older guy a better performance at the plate that season than the younger one. Odds are the youngster is still the better prospect. Not always, but usually.

The Rangers have produced 15 MLB hitters who played for low-A Hickory, with which Texas affiliated in 2009. Here's their ages in years/days as of the opening day of their season there:

Nomar Mazara -- 17.345
Jurickson Profar -- 18.046
Rougned Odor -- 18.063
Leury Garcia -- 18.065
Jorge Alfaro -- 18.300
Luis Sardinas -- 18.326
Lewis Brinson – 18.332
Odubel Herrera -- 19.099
Joey Gallo -- 19.137
Hanser Alberto -- 19.171
Christian Villanueva – 19.201
Nick Williams – 19.209
Tomas Telis -- 19.293
Drew Robinson -- 19.357
Ryan Rua -- 23.025

See a pattern? Youth rules. Rua is the exception, turning 23 before his low-A debut. Older-than-average players can make it, but they have to force the issue at the plate. 23-year-olds who don’t hit in Hickory might not be long for the system. 

Conversely, last year in low-A, 18-year-old Leody Taveras batted .249/.312/.360 – just slightly below average for the league – without losing any luster on his prospect status. An 18-year-old who can survive a league where the average pitcher is nearly 22 is probably destined for much better things.

Youth isn't quite as critical for catchers. You can find more examples of "old" minor-league catchers eventually reaching the Majors than at other positions.

Hitters: Slash Stats

As I said, Taveras batted .249/.312/.360 last year. Just in case you don’t know what that means:
.249 = batting average
.312 = on-base percentage
.360 = slugging percentage

These are the "slash stats,” and they’re the bedrock of my hitting commentary.

On-base percentage matters most. OBP measures how often a batter avoids making an out.  It is the essence of baseball.  The formula is (Hits + Walks + Hit-By-Pitches ) / (At-Bats + Walks + Hit-By-Pitches + Sac Flies). Reaching on an error is still treated as an “out,” statistically, and sac bunts are ignored. (This too convoluted for my taste. I would just divide the number of times a hitter reached base safely, regardless of how, by total trips to the plate.)

Slugging is total bases on hits divided by at-bats.  So, a home run in one at-bat means a slugging percentage of 4.000.  Last year, the league-average slugging percentage within the Texas system ranged from .366 (Down East) to .417 (Round Rock). Comparatively, in unlamented High Desert, Texas’s high-A home during 2015-2016, a hitter needed to slug about .450 just to be average.

Batting average is the least useful of the three, and it’s justifiably receiving less emphasis in the Majors, but I still value it in the minors. Most of the guys on tv hit for a solid average on the farm. Discerning balls from strikes is important, but hitters can't reach the Majors just by laying off stuff outside the zone. Likewise, a hitter with plus-plus power might rate no better than average in real games if he can’t put the bat on the ball.

The lower the level, the less the hitter's statistics matter in terms of estimating MLB success. Conversely, the stats mean more when the player is older than average (think Ryan Rua, back in the day) or doesn’t offer much defensively (for example, Willie Calhoun). They’ll go as far as their bats take them and not a step further.

Hitters: Walks and Strikeouts

Walks and strikeouts are also important, particularly among younger hitters who might be struggling. A batter 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, despite his low average. But as I mentioned, a high walk rate by itself isn't the sign of a great prospect.  For some hitters, laying off borderline pitches is their greatest skill, and when higher-level opponents challenge them with more and better strikes, they can't adapt. To be honest, Drew Robinson looked like that type for a while, as he slumped to .198/.288/.376 in Frisco in 2014. Happily, he did adapt.

Depending on the league, a typical walk rate is 8%-10% of all plate appearances, while a strikeout rate of 20%-23% is around average. A very high strikeout rate may spell trouble, especially when combined with a bad walk rate.

Hitters: Runs and RBI

I don’t care about them at all. 

Homers aside, players can't score or drive in runners without help. They're team-oriented stats. They're also deceptive, sometimes. With ample support, just about any leadoff hitter can still score plenty of runs, and an average middle-of-the-order hitter can tally an impressive RBI total.  In terms of player evaluation, these statistics add no additional value atop the ones I’ve already mentioned.

Pitchers: Wins and Losses

Worthless. 

Attributing wins and losses to pitchers is a relic of the 19th century, when they nearly always completed games. In modern times, the rules of assigning wins explicitly reward bad relievers and punish quality starting. My favorite example:



Michael Schlact tossed six scoreless innings, after which a reliever maintained the shutout through the 7th.  Next, Danny Touchet allowed two homers and three runs in the 8th, followed by a scoreless 9th from Warner Madrigal.

Who earned the win? Touchet! Frisco regained the lead immediately after he coughed it up. The only reason he was the pitcher of record was his own bad pitching. Schlact, clearly the best pitcher on the night, got a no-decision. This is terrible!

It isn't an isolated example, either. Starters have no control over the defense behind them, or the relievers that follow, or how well his teammates handle the opposing pitchers. 

At the lowest levels, younger starters frequently fail to attain the five innings needed to qualify for a win. Last year, 19-year-old A.J. Alexy reached five innings in just seven of his 24 starts. By rule, the scorekeeper has no choice but to assign the win to a reliever, even if the starter fanned fourteen consecutive batters in four-and-two-thirds innings and the other innings were spread among five relievers. 

Pitchers themselves love wins. Who wouldn't love to be told "you got the win?" But they also love eating at Chipotle every day, and some of them love rap-metal and bro country. You don't have to love what they love. If we created the sport of baseball today, I don't think we would assign wins and losses to pitchers. They made some sense back when starters completed most of the games, but not now. Ignore them.

Pitchers: ERA

Earned Run Average has its flaws, but I still use it. It’s a decent shorthand indicator of a pitcher's performance, more so for starters than relievers. However, ERA only partially succeeds at separating the pitcher from his defense. Starters can be helped or hurt by relievers, and a reliever can still have a great ERA despite allowing a bunch of inherited runners to score. As I mentioned yesterday, defense in the minors is shaky sometimes, and pitchers are more likely to be hurt by fielding miscues that still result in “earned” runs. So, like runs and RBI, ERA is to an extent a team-oriented stat. Here’s three examples of how fielding can affect the earned run average of a pitcher, all beginning with two outs, none on, bottom of the 1st:

Example 1: An Iowa batter hits a sharp grounder to 1B Ronald Guzman, who makes a heroic diving stab and tosses to the covering Yohander Mendez for the third out. The next inning, Mendez allows a leadoff homer. Scoring summary: 1 run scored, 1 run earned for Mendez.

Example 2: Guzman 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. Summary: 2 runs scored, 2 earned runs for Mendez.

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

In each scenario, Mendez threw the same pitches and induced the same contact from the batters, but he has 1, 2, or 0 earned runs depending on the actions of two others, one of whom isn’t even on the field. 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 they might not, especially for relievers who face fewer batters.

Unearned runs shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. In the third example above, if Mendez gives up a homer, a walk and three sharp doubles after Guzman’s two-out error, those runs are all unearned, but they don't speak well of the pitcher's performance. It's misleading to say that Mendez wouldn't have faced those batters if not for the error. He would have, just not in that inning.

Like I said, I do rely on ERA, but I’ll try to point out when it doesn’t seem to match up with the pitcher’s performance.

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 I never use it outside my fantasy league. I’d rather look up the pitcher’s slash line, which is simply the opponent’s average, OBP and slugging percentage against that pitcher. For example, the bad guys batted .228/.301/.401 against Yohander Mendez last year in AA, which tells me he was tough to hit, but many of those hits went for extra bases.

I rely more on what defense doesn’t affect: walks, strikeouts and homers. In particular, walk and strikeout rates stabilize pretty quickly, giving insight into a pitcher's control and command. Strikeouts have risen dramatically in recent years. Nowadays, whiffing one of every five batters is below average.

I usually 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 Hans Crouse and Scott Lucas both strike out nine batters per nine innings, but Crouse allows just one baserunner per inning, while Lucas allows two. Crouse will have about a 25% strikeout rate, Lucas only 20%.  Even though they have an identical K/9, Crouse is better at striking batters out than Lucas. That 5% difference may seem small but results in 30 additional strikeouts over the course of 600 batters faced. That is huge.

Fielding

Assessing fielding in the minors statistically is tricky, and I don’t offer much in that regard. Errors and fielding percentage are highly deceptive. For example, if Shortstop A makes ten more errors than Shortstop B in the same number of games, but he also turns 30 grounders that Shortstop B wouldn’t reach into outs, you’re going to want Shortstop A, even though his fielding percentage will be the worse.

I’ll focus more on defensive reputations and eyewitness reports (including my own) than stats. If nothing else, keep in mind that good defenders at critical positions don’t need to rely as heavily on their bats, and position changes can be crucial. A light-hitting catcher moved from behind the dish to first base or the corner outfield has devolved from prospect to non-prospect in an instant. Utility infielders who can’t play shortstop need to show more stick.

 
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.

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