I spent most of Monday piecing together the minor-league chapter for the Ducksnorts 2008 Annual. Mainly I worked on the pitchers — Mat Latos and a whole lot of strike throwers with minimal upside.
Part of what I’m doing is trying to provide context for individual players. When you look at a stat line, you need to know something about the environment in which it was produced in order to make sense of it.
To that end, I’m playing around with comparables for key position players in the Padres organization (haven’t decided if I’ll do the same with pitchers). These have no predictive value but hopefully give some indication of how well a player performed relative to his current league.
For example, Cedric Hunter hit .282/.344/.373 in the Midwest League, which seems really low until you consider how much his league suppressed offense in 2007. If we compare Hunter’s numbers to league average and then find big leaguers who fared about the same relative to MLB norms, we get names like Shawn Green, Kenny Lofton, and Shane Victorino.
In other words, when someone asks how good Cedric Hunter was in 2007, we might respond that he was the Midwest League’s version of Victorino. Note that I’m not saying this is the type of player I expect Hunter to become. We’re looking backward here, not forward. We’re simply providing context.
Sample Size, Playing Conditions, and How Runs Are Scored
The trouble comes when we start digging way down to the lowest minor-league levels. There are a few issues at work in all of the short-season leagues, but particularly at the Rookie level. For the Padres, that means the Arizona League and Dominican Summer League.
- The first issue has to do with sample size. Teams in the Northwest League (better than Rookie ball but not quite at the level of full-season Class-A leagues) played only 76 games in ’07. Teams in the AZL played 56, while those in the DSL played 64. Hard to make a judgment based on such a small amount of data.
- The second issue deals with the playing conditions of these leagues. I don’t know how things work in the DSL, but I got a real eye opener back in July when I caught part of an AZL game on my way to Cooperstown for Tony Gwynn’s induction into the Hall of Fame. Among many other oddities, uniformed players operated the scoreboard.
- The third issue is that runs aren’t created in quite the same way at lower levels as they are at higher levels. One reason for this is that defense down yonder isn’t what it is up here. Players are younger and less experienced, playing conditions aren’t as good, etc.
Unearned Runs at Lower Levels
To that last point, here is a brief look at defensive numbers for each of the leagues in which the Padres have a team:
|Statistics are courtesy of Baseball-Reference and ESPN.|
This isn’t earth-shattering stuff, but what we see is a pretty straight progression in terms of fielding percentage, unearned runs per 9 innings, and percentage of all runs that are unearned. At lower levels, we see inferior defensive play, which contributes to a more troublesome relationship between offensive output and the scoring of runs (the league-average batting line in the AZL was .264/.350/377; there’s no way that should translate to 5.66 runs per game).
Again, this isn’t surprising and, as noted above, it’s not the only reason to be skeptical of short-season-league numbers. Still, even the obvious needs to be confirmed every now and then.