Daily Report Primer Part I

Every year before the season, I publish a primer as a guide to my daily reports: how the minors are structured, how the game is played and managed, what I look for, what stats I follow and ignore.  Instead of tweaking a previous report, I drafted this one from scratch… about 15 months ago, and finally had  reason to fine-tune it last week.

Daily Report Primer Part I: How The Game Is Played

These are development leagues. The goal is to develop Major Leaguers, not to beat Delmarva in the Sally League semifinals. Roster construction in-game management aren’t designed to wins games, at least not as a primary concern. The Rangers aren’t going to bench Sherten Apostel if he hits 150/.200/.250 in April or move Cole Winn to the pen if he has an 8.00 ERA after four starts.

Some clubs emphasize winning more than others, on the justification that it creates a positive environment and puts players in a mindset of winning from the moment they join the organization. But even these clubs aren’t going to “win today and worry about tomorrow later.” From my outsider’s perspective, I’m not as much pro-winning as anti-heavy losing. I worry about morale on a team with a really terrible record.     

As to how much winning correlates to the quality of a farm system, evidence is lacking beyond the anecdotal level. My past comparisons of system rankings versus teams’ annual winning percentages didn’t conclude anything useful. High quality MLB prospects constitute a very small percentage of a team’s system. The late-round, 26-year-old corner-only outfielder will have as much impact on a minor league team’s success as the top prospect, assuming they play the same amount. A team with a poor record might reflect badly on management’s ability to assemble organization depth, but it doesn’t necessarily say anything about that team’s brightest prospects. We have to look at the individual performances.

Starting Pitcher Usage
From 2007-2012, the Rangers had 16 minor league pitchers throw at least 140 innings. In the seven years since, they’ve had two: young Ariel Jurado (157 in 2017) and rubber-armed veteran Tim Dillard (153 in 2019). It’s a different game now.

Every team will have one off-day per week in 2021, so the schedule practically dictates a six-man rotation, and we’ll see some tandem starts on top of that. With the covid-shortened schedule, some “full time” starters are going to be limited to around 80 innings. 

The front office wants its pitchers to get their work in and maintain stable staff-wide usage patterns, so a starter having a terrible night isn’t necessarily going to be removed early. What will get a hook is 30+ pitches in an inning before recording three outs. That’s more a safety issue than performance.

Reliever Usage
Rosters have expanded to 30 at the A levels and 28 in AA/AAA. Guess who’s filling most of the extra spots? Both Hickory and Down East announced 17 pitchers on their initial rosters, and Hickory’s isn’t even full. More than ever, I think reliever usage will be dictated by prescribed workload instead of the game situation. Pitching on consecutive days is rare, although AAA vets sometimes do. At the upper levels, if a prospect pitches back-to-back games or has a noteworthy usage pattern (closing one night, as a mid-7th-inning replacement in a critical situation two days later), he’s often being acclimated to Major League use.

A minor league team’s closer might be the best reliever on the staff at that moment in time but isn’t necessarily the best prospect. In the last 13 years, nine Texas minor league relievers have recorded 20 saves in a season. None of them has ever subsequently saved a Major League game.

Batting Orders
Each slot in the order will receive about 13 more plate appearances than the one below it over the course of a 120-game season. In that respect, I want the best prospects near the top. In terms of run production, batting order matters surprisingly little. Better to worry about whether your favorite player is in the lineup than where he hits.

Errors and Other “Mistakes”
Years ago, while exiting the Arizona complex after observing a low-level minor league game, I stopped with podcast partner Michael Tepid to watch Adrian Beltre field sharply hit fungoes at short range from Ron Washington. The minor leaguers I’d seen were talented but not nearly at an MLB level. Comparatively, Beltre may as well have been visiting from another galaxy. The difference between MLB talent and the minors is vast, and it shows up in the stats. Here’s a 2019 comparison of combined errors, wild pitches, passed balls, balks and hit batters per team per game at each level:

That table doesn’t include double-play balls that only result in one out, ill-advised fielder’s choices that don’t count as a hit but don’t retire anybody, poor cutoff throws, botched rundows, etc. Minor leaguers are good. Major Leaguers are so much better.

In 2019, AAA leagues began using the Major League ball. For years, we’d heard it was livelier than the minor league ball, but we didn’t have a direct comparison. 2019 resolved that issue. The Pacific Coast League set a new record for homers with over a month to spare in the season, eventually breaking the old record by 34% and the average of the last 20 seasons by 55%. Reportedly, some of those balls remain and will be employed to start the 2021 season. Texas’s AAA home in Round Rock is relatively pitcher-friendly, but games out west could result in scores akin to beer-league softball. 

Below AAA, homers quickly dwindle to one-half the MLB rate or even lower. At lower levels, younger hitters haven’t fully developed physically. For example, Arizona’s spring training complexes are extremely hitter friendly, but the slugging percentage for the rookie league in 2019 was only .376. In AAA, the Pacific Coast League slugging percentage was 100 points higher.

Walks and Strikeouts
Walk and strikeout rates in the minors don’t stray too much from MLB. Walks ordinarily increase down the organization ladder, but in 2019 they were elevated in AAA. Perhaps pitchers were less willing to throw strikes in response to the livelier ball.

At all levels, strikeouts are at historical highs. In 2019, every full-season league except the AA Southern League set a new record. In the Texas League, a team has broken the record for strikeouts in five of the last six seasons, and six of the top seven strikeout seasons in league history occurred in 2019.

Intentional Walks
Statistical studies have long shown that intentional walks are often counterproductive, and teams have slowly accepted the science. Free passes declined by 40% from 2010 to 2019. In the minors, they’re blessedly rare by design. As I mentioned, minor league ball isn’t win-first, and organizations want their pitchers to attack that great hitter with runners on second and third instead of walking him in favor of someone weaker. In low-A, you’ll see an intentional walk once every 13-14 games.

In 2019, AAA teams attempted steals about 30% more often than in the Majors. In AA down to low-A, steal attempts are about 70%-90% more common. Players are likewise more aggressive at attempting to take extra bases. Against relatively inferior defenders it’s not a bad strategy, although youthful exuberance sometimes leads to poor choices.

Field and League Context
Here’s the park-adjusted league averages for Texas’s 2021 full-season affiliates as of 2019:

Round Rock: 5.1 runs per game, .256/.340/.440 slash line
Frisco: 4.4 runs, .244/.323/.376
Hickory: 4.6 runs, .244/.318/.384
Down East: 4.0 runs, .243/.320/.363

Because of the livelier MLB ball and road games in places like Albuquerque, Round Rock is far more oriented to offense. League composition is changing in 2021, sometimes drastically, so I’ll be calculating league and park factors from scratch. As the season evolves, I’ll do what I can to provide context for statistics.

Each full-season team will play six games per week against the same opponent. AAA will be off on Wednesdays, the other leagues on Mondays. The lower number of series may make rainout makeups more difficult. There will be no postseason in 2021.

Every player will slump and streak. It’s mostly statistical noise. In a 30 at-bat span, a “proven” .300 hitter will hit .200 or worse one-sixth of the time and .400 or better the same proportion. Now take those probabilities and spread them around the all the minor league hitters receiving regular at-bats in an organization. Somebody in that group is going to be exceptionally hot or cold over a given two weeks. You might not notice that player if the streak happens in July, but if it covers his first ten games, it’s going to stick out. Odds are the player will revert to his ordinary self before long, although some players do of course take significant steps forward or backward.

Keep in mind that promotions and demotions aren’t made in isolation. If the Rangers decide to promote a player, they have to consider who’s covering that spot now. Should that other player also be promoted? Demoted? Moved to a different position? Should the players share the position and moonlight at DH? Should the promoted guy move to a different position instead, and who would that affect? These decisions are sometimes complicated and can retard the advancement process. Similarly, some players may be pushed harder or held back not because of anything they’ve done, but because of the limited numbers of available spots.

Could we might see more early player movement than usual? I don’t know, but I wonder if the year off will create more unforeseen breakouts and declines. Regardless, the Rangers don’t want to move people about willy-nilly. A few hot or cold opening Mays aren’t going to impel a wholesale roster shakeup.

Report Tone
Let’s be honest: the vast majority of minor leaguers don’t reach their goal, and much of what I’m doing is chronicling failure. That is not the same as saying these players are failures. Quite the opposite. Of course, individual expectations vary, but in general, players who top out in AA or AAA are amazing. They’re exceptionally good at what they do, but the opportunities are just so limited. If you’re the 2,000th-best accountant or real estate agent or mechanic in the US, you’re sitting pretty. If you’re the 2,000th best baseball player, you’re in Double A making poverty wages. You surpass 1,250 players in front of you or you’re out. Meanwhile, your body could betray you at any moment, and every year your organization signs another fifty people trying to pass you. No easy task.

Regarding marginal prospects, I don’t want to oversell their chances of success, but I do want to celebrate their accomplishments. I spend more time on the prospects most likely to help the Rangers in the future, but I’ll cover anyone who’s had a good day. As I quickly learned over a decade ago, every player in the organization has a Newberg Report subscriber who roots for them.

Scott Lucas
Newberg Report
twitter: @scottrlucas
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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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