The Farm Report -- 4/3/2019

Tomorrow's Starters
AAA: Taylor Hearn
AA: Brock Burke
High-A: Tyler Phillips
Low-A: Hans Crouse

That's a good group.

DAILY REPORT PRIMER -- PART ONE


Every year, I offer a primer on the structure and quality of minor league ball to aid your understanding of the games and my reports. I add, subtract, and revise it each time. This is the thought process that guides my daily reports. 

How Much Does Winning Matter?

The purpose of the farm system is to develop Major League players. Winning is a secondary goal. Rosters aren't arranged and games aren't managed to maximize wins. Some organizations emphasize winning more than others, but no club is going to bench a poorly performing prospect just so its high-A club might win another game or two. Roster composition is a complicated and sometimes contradictory assortment of goals: challenging some players, nurturing others, clearing logjams and filling holes. Even non-prospects are almost always assigned to a level befitting their talent.

The quality of a farm system doesn't correlate to a winning minor-league record. Even in the most heavily stocked organizations, high-quality prospects constitute only a modest percentage of the entire farm. Winning depends just as much on "organizational soldiers" and offseason additions as prospects. On a 2011 Spokane club with 12 future Major Leaguers, the hitter with the most trips to the plate was 1B Trever Adams (a decent batsman who briefly reached AAA), and a guy named Santo Perez (who topped out in low-A) led in innings.

On the whole, the Rangers have been great about fielding quality farm teams, but the last two years are an exception. In 2017, Texas posted its first losing record since 2006: a grim 321-367 overall, including losing records for all four full-season teams. Last year: a nearly identical 320-367, with only a late surge by Hickory (70-68) preventing another four full-season losing records. I’ve had to reconsider my assumptions, because the inferior records have dovetailed with a drop in the quality of the system. Have I been misleading you and myself the whole time?

I don’t think so. It’s all anecdotal, but I can find too many examples that puncture that idea. The 2013 Crawdads, one of the most talented and exciting in franchise history, didn’t win either half of the split-season division. The 2008 Spokane squad that led the league in runs and wins produced just one MLB hitter, and a brief one at that: Joey Butler. The 2015 Frisco RoughRiders had, at varying points of the season, Gallo, Mazara, Brinson, Cordell, Robinson, Asher, Alfaro, Nick Williams, and Jake Thompson. They went 60-79. 

The Rangers’ drafts are as risky as ever. I see fewer “safe” picks: meaty college OFs who are decent shots to bruise AA pitching, command-oriented collegiates without much velo. I feel like more picks are topping out at lower levels. Frisco's best record during the last four years is 63-79, including two recent seasons with the league's worst offense. My hope over the winter was to study this, because I don’t like to make arguments on feel alone, but work and fatherhood and all that fun stuff intervened, as it does. Maybe later.

Regardless, what matters most is the progression of the prospects. 

Starting Pitcher Usage

At the outset, starters will be limited to about 75 pitches and work up to 90-100. Older starters, especially AAA vets, have more leeway, and management will lean on them to provide more innings so that others can rest. As the season progresses, the Rangers may intentionally skip some starters’ turns in the rotation to keep them fresh and limit workloads. 

Younger guys tend to pitch fewer innings, as you’d expect, and the young ones who pitch more tend to have some college experience or were international selections who have been in the system since they were 16. In 2018, Texas took that to another level, keeping its top drafted pitchers out of real games completely. They’ll prepare for short-season Spokane.

Here’s a list of everyone 21 or younger who reached 140 innings during 2007-2018. Pitchers in red did so during the last six years:

Tommy Hunter: 163.2 (2008)
Wilfredo Boscan: 163.2 (2010)
Eric Hurley: 162.0 (2007)
Blake Beavan: 163.0 (2009)
Ariel Jurado: 157.0 (2017)
Omar Poveda: 153.2 (2007)
Zach Phillips: 151.2 (2007)
Derek Holland: 150.2 (2009)
Michael Schlact: 149.0 (2007)
Joe Wieland: 148.0 (2010)
Robbie Ross: 146.0 (2010)
Cody Buckel: 144.2 (2012)
Zach Phillips: 144.2 (2009)
Carlos Pimentel: 142.1 (2011)
Wilfredo Boscan: 141.0 (2011)
Neil Ramirez: 140.1 (2010)
Omar Poveda: 140.1 (2009)

Hi, Ariel. You’re not going to see the adjective “young” in front of “workhorse” very often in these reports, and added caution is only a part of that. The game has changed. Multi-inning relief isn’t necessarily mop-up duty anymore, and some quality prospects could enter games in the middle innings to face 6-8 batters. Jeff Springs was groomed for such a role after being pulled from the Down East rotation. Brett Martin and Mike Matuella might be used the same way.

That said, a starter has a good chance of reaching that count even if the game isn’t proceeding to plan. A minor league manager isn’t going to pull his lefty starter in the 4th just because he’s down 3-2 with the bases loaded and a tough righty at the plate. Not if that starter’s only at 70 pitches on a 90 count.

Instead, the early hook arrives if the pitcher has reached 30-35 pitches in the inning or has shown he can’t do anything but throw middle-middle meat. The score, in and of itself, doesn’t matter much.

Reliever Usage

A team's closer isn't necessarily the brightest relief prospect. He could just be the most trustworthy, and several relievers may share closing duties, especially at the lower levels. In the past 12 years, constituting 48 full-season teams, only eight Texas minor leaguers have achieved 20 saves, and none has gone on to record a save in MLB:

2007: Jesse Ingram (AA)
2009: Evan Reed (hi-A)
2010: Mark Hamburger (hi-A, AA)
2013: Cory Burns (AAA)
2015: Jon Edwards (AAA), David Martinez (AA)
2018: R.J. Alvarez (AAA) and Reed Garrett (mostly AA)

Especially early in the season and at the lower levels, relievers are going to pitch on a fairly regular schedule. Outings on consecutive days are rare, and three consecutive appearances is almost unheard of. Game situations and platoon matchups are much less likely to dictate usage. 

MLB-type relief patterns are more common in AAA, where relievers are older and/or getting acclimated to consecutive outings. Even so, appearances against one or two batters are extremely uncommon. As I mentioned a few days ago, the new rule forbidding appearances of fewer than three batters (unless the inning ends) will have a negligible effect on Texas’s reliever philosophy.

Sometimes, odd usage patterns and especially back-to-back outings by a bright relief prospect are a tell that the front office is prepping him for promotion to Arlington. The Rangers used C.D. Pelham on consecutive days and in one-and-done situations once he reached Frisco last summer. Come September, he was in Arlington.

Batting Orders

You’re probably better off not knowing. They're not necessarily optimized for scoring runs. Sometimes the brightest prospects crowd the top of the order, but not always. Sometimes that bright prospect has a .280 OBP, but he’s going to lead off come what may. Meanwhile, the organizational soldier with the .360 OBP is hitting eighth. Just don’t worry about it. If the guy you like is in the lineup, be happy.

Defense and Pitcher Mistakes

I’ll let you in on a little secret: Major League ballplayers are really good! They don’t make many mistakes. Minor leaguers do, especially the young ones. Miscues increase dramatically down the minor-league ladder. Rookie-league players make many more recordable mistakes (errors, hit batters, balks, wild pitches, passed balls) than those in the Majors:



Now, compound those mistakes with all the additional overthrown cutoffs, ill-advised throws allowing runners to advance, botched rundowns, and misplayed balls that don't fit the technical definition of an error. I don't mean to suggest the low-level guys are inept. They’re great. But Major Leaguers are just miles out on the tail of the bell curve in terms of talent.   

Walks, Strikeouts and Power

Walk and strikeout rates in full-season minor leagues weren’t much different than the Majors last year, but in rookie ball, both are more frequent. Homers fall as you descend the ladder. They’re 60% more frequent in the American League than the low-A Sally League, and three times as common as in rookie ball. You rarely see the high slugging percentages in Arizona's rookie league as you do in Spring Training and the Arizona Fall League. Most of the young hitters haven't reached physical maturity.

Intentional Walks

International walks are declining in general, down nearly 40% in the AL over the last decade. In the minors, they’re rare by design, because, with less emphasis on winning, pitchers are expected to attack regardless of circumstance. On average, you’ll see an intentional walk about once every ten games in rookie league.

That said, what you’ll see is more batters being pitched around. By the time Joey Gallo was done with high-A Myrtle Beach, pitchers were throwing fastballs a foot outside and sliders at his feet, hoping he’d hack at something impossible to hit.

Running

The lower you look, the more teams run. In short-season leagues, stolen base attempts occur at over double the MLB rate, and in low and high-A the rate is about 70% higher. Would-be stealers are caught slightly more often in the minors. Sometimes, organizations let their players run more, not because they condone that style of play per se, but they want the players to get more experience.

Field and League Context

Here’s the 2018 park-adjusted league average runs scored per game for all of Texas’s clubs:

Texas: 4.9
Nashville: 4.3
Frisco: 4.7
Down East: 4.1
Hickory: 4.3
Spokane: 4.5
Arizona: 5.1

Down East has a pitcher-friendly park in a pitcher-friendly league. Nashville, despite being in the high-octane Pacific Coast League, favors pitchers strongly. Scoring is usually higher in the short-season league because of all the mistakes I mentioned earlier, as well as fewer balls in play converted into outs.

I'll try to provide context for player performance throughout the season. 

Be Patient!

Players need time. Many develop haphazardly, sometimes getting worse before they get better. In 2015, 1B Ronald Guzman inched toward non-prospect status with an ordinary .277/.319/.434 at high-A High Desert, then the world’s best hitting environment. Two years later, he posted full-season career highs in average and OBP at AAA Round Rock. Joey Gallo usually needed a break-in period upon promotion, and in 2016 he became unnervingly susceptible to high strikes, which weren’t a problem at the lower levels. Delino DeShields went from MLB starter to AAA and back again. For years, and as recently as 2017, Jose Leclerc had alarmingly bad control.

Players are trying new pitches, adjusting their swings, and adapting to instructions that render statistics meaningless in the short run. In 2017, most minor league starters pitched under an edict to throw nothing but fastballs the first time through the order. It wasn’t conducive to results, shall we say.

Don't 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 endure) 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.  It might be concerning, but probably not.

I receive more questions about promotions in April than June. That's fine -- I don't mind questions -- but understand that management didn't assign the players at whim and isn’t going to rearrange the system because a few guys are having a great (or terrible) April. If Leody Taveras hits .450 in April, he’s still spending May in Down East. (If Anderson Tejeda hits .450 in April and looks comfortable against lefties, he just might get a ticket to Frisco.)

Report Tone

My sense of humor is often mordant, but I’m not going to direct it at the players. I never badmouth anyone unless I personally see or hear something that truly warrants it. The "failures" stuck in AAA are still some of the best hitters and pitchers on the planet. I wonder how well some of us would respond to having our careers scrutinized so publicly. Imagine a horde of dubiously informed observers calling you a failure at 23. 

At the same time, the hard fact is that most minor league players aren’t prospects, and most aren't going to make it to the Majors. I'll give credit to anyone who does well on a particular day, but I focus on the guys who are more likely to help the Rangers someday.

Tomorrow

Part II: Which statistics are meaningful and which you should ignore.

 
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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