Why I Don’t Trust Rookie-League Numbers

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.

Comparable Players

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:

Defensive Stats by League, 2007
League FPct UER/9 ER/R
Statistics are courtesy of Baseball-Reference and ESPN.
MLB .984 0.36 .925
PCL .978 0.56 .894
TEX .980 0.50 .896
CAL .971 0.80 .858
MWL .967 0.73 .839
NWL .965 0.93 .824
AZL .952 1.23 .787
DSL .950 1.26 .741

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.

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84 Responses »

  1. wow this deal could really come back and bite the tigers on the ass in a few years if they cant sign Cabrera.

  2. Ah, CM, that’s no fun. I was hoping we’d have another great discussion on the merits of Trammell. And I am seriously interested in why you don’t think he belongs. Statistically he’s right in the middle of the roughly 20 SS who are in the HOF. No, he’s not in the elite with Wagner, Vaughn and Ripken, but surely there is room for more than just the Gods of the Game. Just how small a Hall do you have?

    Also, I thought after last year you were much more open to Blyleven. Didn’t we pretty firmly establish he is comparable to several of his peers (Carlton, Perry and Jenkins) who are in? Just cuirous because your reply to Didi surprised me.

  3. I saw that trade…Wow. There is serious talent getting moved!

  4. Am I missing something on Hart from the Brewers? I don’t see how he really helps us fill CF since he appears to be an atrocious defender. Yes, he looks like a pretty good bat, but that’s in Miller Park, not Petco. Are people looking at him as filling LF and then possibly RF after Giles is gone? That could make sense, but I’m just much more concerned about and focused on CF. Pardon my myopia.

  5. Field 39…Nice pull…there is a memory for you…not a good one either.

    Pat…I am so wrapped up in EOY business stuff, I don’t have time to get into it too much…I don’t recall ever being convinced that Bly belonged in, but I will have to go back to the posts from back then and review where we left it…

    As far as who gets in, I am really a big proponent of it is a place for the Greats, not the very goods…Trammel (again, I was/am a fan) was very good, not Great…Rice, very good…Bly, very good…Bill Maz, oh never mind…

  6. Re: 54 I was thinking LF this year RF next year for Heart. There was no Rumor I was more thinking out loud with that.

  7. 46: Crap for him? … Ellsbury (if he’s in it), Lester, Kalish, Lowrie, and Masterson. IMO, that’s a LONG way from crap. The Twins are getting a lot of players with a lot of years under contract who will have cheap salaries for a while … I like the deal for them, if that’s the deal, and I’m a Red Sox fan (along with a Padres fan).

  8. 57: err, scratch Lowrie according to Carroll’s brief update.

  9. Crap as far as getting impact players back I meant. Lester might be OK but I don’t think anyone sees him as an ace. Ellsbury is a younger Crisp who probably won’t hit much but is great defensively and the rest are a few years away from helping out. I’m not sure why they didn’t take the Yankees trade — Hughes will probably be just as good as Santana in a few years and a lot cheaper. If you are going to take bit parts (and that’s what those Red Sox players are) you should get one really good prospect in return.

  10. #19: Scott would be a nice acquisition. I hope it happens.

    #35: Bingo. This is covered on p. 187 of the 2007 Annual. (Can you tell I’ve been immersed in the book all day?)

    #49: Thanks for the fix on Bass. All better now. :-)

    #50: Solid.

  11. 59: Yea, I see what you’re saying. But Ellsbury’s also a guy who is going to make next to nothing for a few years and probably be an average to well above average player. Same thing with Lester, maybe to a lesser degree. Masterson is a real solid prospect. Kalish, ey, a throw in but not a bad prospect at all.

    The Yanks deal may have been better .. I don’t know. Anyway, I like how the Twins made out.

    60: GY, when (about) is the book coming out? I know you’ve answered that before, but I forget where. I really can’t wait to pick this one up.

  12. #61: I hope to crank it out earlier this time — by the end of February if possible. I’m psyched; I’ve been playing around with cover ideas this afternoon.

  13. 55: Not convinced; that’s not what I meant. You just seemed more open to him and recognized that he was not a John or Kaat but much more a Jenkins or Perry.

    Sorry you’re so swamped with year end. Take it easy.

  14. Tim Raines is one of the top 100 players in history.

  15. 62: Thanks, Geoff. I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be one of those books I read in a day or two (and that doesn’t happen often).

    Actually, I’ve got to finish reading The Book by Tango, MGL, Dolphin soon. I got through 3/4′s of it, then stopped for a while for whatever reason. Great book. I read Moneyball and Baseball Between the Numbers in a couple of days a while back … and for some reason I liked The Perfect Storm.

    Anyway, I’m hoping to pick up a couple for Christmas … mostly The Hidden Game of Baseball (and maybe Percentage Baseball … a real old one by Earnshaw Cook).

    And I can’t wait to get yours when it comes out!

  16. 65 – The Book is just fantastic, isn’t it?

  17. This place is getting crazy. I didn’t see Hacksaw demanding that this comment thread be “taken over” by the listeners.

  18. Ken Rosenthal is reporting the Luke Scott deal fell through. The Dodgers are now after Scott Rolen, hopefully they’re determined to trade Kemp/Loney/LaRoche since the Bedard thing doesn’t sound realistic.

  19. 68:

    Alderson was on the radio around 5:00 and said the Scott deal was not going to happen.

  20. http://www.rotoworld.com/content/playerpages/player_main.aspx?sport=MLB&id=157

    rotoworld quoting mlb.com says the padres have offered fukudome a 3 year deal averaging 8 million per. I gotta think that they are thinking of putting him in CF for this year, maybe shifting him to a corner next year or the year after. This keeps Headly as a potential solution for a corner. Probably also signifies that Cameron has said positively that he wont be accepting arbitration.

  21. Re: 71 3yrs/$24M aint gonna get it done unless he really likes fish facos!

  22. Re 41: “Again, this goes back to their incredibly poor drafting over the past few years”


    “It just shows the incredible short-sightedness of their player development and drafting personnel.”

    I’m calling bull….

    The Padres have a top 15 farm (from #29 last year)

    (my top 10 – get the scouting reports at MadFriars.com)

    1. Chase Headley
    2. Matt Antonelli
    3. Mat Latos
    4. Kyle Blanks
    5. Cedric Hunter
    6. David Freese
    7. Wade Leblanc
    8. Will Inman
    9. Chad Huffman
    10. Yefri Carvajal

    In that top 10, #8 came from the Brewers in the Linebrink trade and #10 was an international free agent. Each of the other top 10 came from the last three drafts. The Padres have some misses in their drafts (EVERYONE does) but overall they have drafted VERY well under Fuson. Teams are asking for Headley and Antonelli (of course) but they’re also asking for a lot of our younger, lower level players as well.

    I didn’t just put together a top 10, I did a full top 30 for the MadFriars.com guys. It’s a difficult organization to rank because there is SO MUCH depth. It is a TALENTED organization not a weak one…

  23. well, middling.

    re:70 I agree – looking at some of the other articles about fukudome, 10-12/year seems reasonable…. basically what Cameron was asking for the beginning of last year.

  24. I’m thinking more and more that either DeJesus or Gathright has a good chance to end up a Padre. The Royals splurged on Guillen and they offered arbitration to Emil Brown. With the two CF, Teahen at RF, Gordon at 3B, Butler at DH, it looks like the Royals would have too many OF. Unless they are going to platoon CF or move Teahen to 1B, one of those players are going to the bench.

    Hmm…..anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

  25. Dejesus would be great. I’m not ashigh on Gathright.

  26. “as high” — two words

  27. 74: It’s a better system than it was, but we still didn’t have the prospects to even consider being involved in the big trade discussions this year. I can’t recall an offseason in which so many big names were on the block, and we’re not able to compete. Detroit’s willingness to pay over slot allowed them to land one of the 5 best hitters in the game and a fine mid-rotation starter, and they’re plenty willing to reload the farm next June.

    Baseball America is not gospel, but they have not ranked any of the Fuson drafts as a Top 5 effort. The Pads are doing a better job of executing their plan, which seems to be acquiring as much college talent as possible. That’s partly because they believe college players are less risky, partly because college players are more likely to sign for slot. That plan, even perfectly executed, is not going to produce as much talent as one that allowed even one above-slot bonus per year, let alone two or three.

  28. 3/24M is not nearly enough to get Fukudome. MLBTraderumors is reporting that he’s narrowed his choices to the Royals or the Cubs. KT offering $8 million a year sounds more like they were targeting Fukudome based on what they thought would be a bargain, not that he would be a good fit in CF. I guess we weren’t serious after all. If we don’t get Fukudome I think our best case scenario is DeJesus but I still feel like we’ll see Cameron back next year, unless KT has something in the works that we haven’t even considered yet.

  29. They are offering him less than Brian Giles money, they are not serious.

  30. About the drafts, I think it would be helpful to try and separate what they’ve done since they hired Fuson from what was done before he was here. While the last 2 drafts could have been better(think Porcello instead of Schmidt) that doesn’t seem like a problem with the guy making the draft choices, but is a problem with the guy(s) making the draft budgets.

    By the way the offer to Fuckodome is 3/30(at least) so I’m not sure where the 8M a year came from.

    Additionally, probably shouldn’t believe what the article says about the Royals: they have said publicly that they won’t be bringing in another outfielder now that they signed Guillen.

  31. 82: There’s still a problem with a sizable percentage of the picks, particularly their fascination with the (college arms + marginal stuff + decent command) cohort. When the D&F was available they could occasionally land a younger high-octane arm without violating slot.

    Not that a high-octane arm can’t be found in the college ranks, but they often go quick, sooner than we will hopefully be drafting in the future. There’s just no rationale for almost completely avoiding 50% of the draft-eligible players. Picking them with no intention of compromising on bonuses isn’t very different than not picking them at all.

  32. Thanks Geoff for the numbers. This is great. Can’t wait to read them in the book.