Daily Report Primer Part II: Statistics
The best prospects receive more aggressive assignments and reach the Majors more quickly. Okay, not exactly a revelation, but near with me. Here’s the youngest three players at every level but AAA:
Low-A: OF Evan Carter (18 years / 9 months), IF Luisangel Acuna (19/2), C/1B/OF Jose Rodriguez (19/7)
High-A: RHP Ronny Henriquez (20/11), C David Garcia (21/2), IF Jonathan Ornelas (20/11)
AA: IF Sherten Apostel (22/2), RHP Cole Winn (22/6), RHP Hans Crouse (22/8)
Notice a trend? All but Rodriguez are ranked in Texas’s top 30 prospects by Baseball America and/or MLB.com, and he’s on the radar. Leody Taveras, recently optioned to AAA Round Rock, is six weeks younger than Crouse. Anderson Tejeda turned 23 on Saturday. That’s the takeaway. If you know nothing about Evan Carter except that he’s the youngest Wood Duck, you actually know quite a bit.
There are always exceptions. With the later draft date, upcoming college picks may be 22 by the time they receive a pro assignment. Pitchers have more leeway in terms of age, and catchers require the most patience.
“Slash” Stats (Average, On-Base Percentage, Slugging)
In the Majors, batting average isn’t a useless stat, but it matters far less than on-base percentage and slugging. In the minors, I like to keep an eye on it. Putting the bat on the ball with frequency and authority is what gets players noticed and moves them up the ladder.
OBP measures how often a player reaches base safely. In the past, a team’s on-base percentage correlated much more strongly to run scoring than slugging percentage. It was the lifeblood of offense. In today’s offensive environment, that dynamic has changed, and the two factors are much closer in value. Pitching has evolved at a greater rate, and getting a hit is harder than ever, so hitters want to maximize the impact of their increasingly rare contact. Still, OBP is critical.
Slugging Percentage is the fundamental power stat, although it also incorporates singles. Subtracting a player’s batting average from his slugging percentage reveals “isolated power,” a measure of bases reached beyond first on hits.
These stats mean the least at lower levels and gain importance as players advance. They also matter more to offense-oriented positions. It is impossible for first basemen to fully compensate for a weak bat with defense. Maybe aesthetically, not in terms of winning ballgames.
Hitter Walk and Strikeout Rates
Plate discipline is critical. The (in)ability to lay off a chase pitch defines many a career. Players who can draw walks mitigate the downside of inevitable hitting slumps. However, walks are a means, not an end. For some prospects, plate discipline is their strongest skill, and players can reach AA with that and not much else. Eventually, pitchers with better command will challenge them with quality strikes, and these hitters may not have the ability to respond.
For hitters, strikeouts don’t matter much if the production in non-strikeout plate appearances is solid. That said, you want to watch a hitter’s strikeout rate, because a hitter who whiffs a ton in low-A may decline even further at higher levels. Conversely, an extremely low strikeout rate isn’t by itself a great thing. Superior plate coverage can work against a player if he weakly connects with an outside pitch that was better left alone.
A low walk rate combined with a high strikeout rate is a problem, and notoriously difficult to improve. Players like that may need to hit .375 or higher when they do make contact in order to have an acceptable OBP.
Recent top college picks Justin Foscue, Josh Jung and Davis Wendzel all have excellent plate discipline. Not that Texas stat-scouted them, but the evidence of their discipline is that all walked more than they struck out in college. I wouldn’t expect that to continue as professionals, but neither should they have Adolis Garcia-like walk/strikeout ratios.
Runs and RBI
Runs and RBI aren’t really individual stats. Homers aside, players need teammates to drive in and hits behind them to score. That said, I’ll mention a player who does something special like drive in six runs because it’s fun.
Earned Run Average is a decent shorthand stat if not overly relied on. Consider these three scenarios with your favorite pitcher on the mound, two out and none on in the first:
A) Third baseman nabs a sharp grounder and throws to first for the final out. In the next inning, the leadoff batter homers. Result: 1 run, 1 earned.
B) Third baseman can’t handle a sharp grounder, runner safe, ruled an error, next batter homers. Result: 2 runs, 0 earned.
C) Third basemen can’t handle a sharp grounder, runner safe, ruled a hit, next better homers. Result: 2 runs, 2 earned.
In all three situations, the pitcher threw the same pitches and achieved identical batted ball results, but whether he ends up with zero, one or two earned runs is entirely up to his third baseman and the official scorer. For a pitcher who throws 100 innings in a season, this scenario by itself represents a potential swing of 0.18 in ERA. Not much, but not nothing. For relievers, the difference is amplified. In the long run, that sort of thing should even out, but the long run for a reliever could be several seasons.
Look at the ERA, but look more at what goes with it. If you see a pitcher with a 3.00 ERA in 30 innings has an unsightly six homers, 15 walks and 18 strikeouts, do you expect his ERA to fall or rise during the next 30? It will almost certainly rise unless the pitcher greatly improves what are at that point some terrible peripheral stats.
Some runs are more unearned than others. Defense in the minors is inferior to what you see on tv, especially at the lower levels. What if a defender makes a clunky two-out error and the pitcher follows by allowing two roped doubles, a walk and a homer? All those runs are unearned but don’t reflect well on the pitcher.
Pitcher Wins and Losses
Back in 2012, Frisco righty Barret Loux won his first ten starts. In that span he had a 3.20 ERA and an opposing line of .248/.306/.381. Quite respectable, but nothing indicative of a 10-0 record. In six of the starts he didn’t reach six innings. He won a six-inning, six-run start and two others with five innings and three runs. Frisco averaged 7.6 runs per game when he pitched. He was pretty good and extraordinarily fortunate.
Ignore wins and losses.
Pitcher Homers, Walks, Strikeouts
Now we’re talking. These are the stats I follow most closely.
Not all that many years ago, a 20% strikeout rate was strong, especially for a starter. No longer. In the 2019 low-A South Atlantic League, pitchers who started at least half of their appearances struck out 23% of opponents. For pitchers who nearly always relieved, the average rate was 27%. Rates above 30% are no longer uncommon, and some like Demarcus Evans have exceeded 40%. Pitchers who don’t miss bats at low levels tend not to improve. (Some do via velocity spikes, mastering a changeup, etc., but it’s not easy.)
An average pitcher will walk 8%-10% of his opponents. Relievers tend to walk about 2% more than starters. Some relievers can succeed with walk rates in excess of 15%, because they’re so unhittable when they do throw strikes or get batters to chase. Joe Barlow is an example. In low-A in 2018, he had a 17% walk rate (one of every six batters) but still dominated because opponents hit only .116 without much power. At the upper levels, maintaining an average that low is virtually impossible, so all the walks become a problem. Joe Barlow is an example of that, too.
Hit batters matter, too. Pedro Payano led all the minors in 2017-2018, plunking 42 (!) in 202 innings. Some pitchers didn’t even walk as many as Pedro hit in a similar number of innings.
Homers are tougher to gauge. Pitchers who allow more flies tend to allow more homers, but homers can very considerably from year to year.
Opposing Slash Stats
I really like these stats and wish they’d become more popular. Opponents hit .284/.340/.444 off Hickory’s Ronny Henriquez, a good prospect, in 2019. What does that mean?
First, each slash stat is above the park-adjusted league average, so hitters had more success off him than the typical pitcher. Henriquez also walked 8% of opponents (average) and struck out 27% (above average). So, Henriquez threw plenty of strikes, but he also likely threw plenty of meaty strikes. He’s got the control part down, but the command is sometimes lacking. (I’ve seen it for myself.) Every prospect has hurdles to clear, and this is one of his.
Pitch Velocity, Movement, Spin, Etc.
These are also critical measurements, really the most critical. All minor league parks have technology to track velocity, spin, release points, horizontal and vertical movement, etc. Unfortunately, this info isn’t readily available like for Major Leaguers. I’ll learn what I can, and since the minor league reorganization worked out perfectly for me, personally, I’ll be able to see many more Texas minor leaguers than in 2019.
Fielding is another grey area. Errors and fielding percentage are readily available but can be deceptive. Shortstop A might make a few more errors than Shortstop B, but if he also turns a dozen additional grounders into outs, isn’t he who you want? Sometimes I can help from observation and third-hand reports.