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Age in the Minors: Southern League

Now that the affiliated minor leagues are finished with their regular season games, I would like to investigate the context of minor league statistics in order to determine whether (or how) such statistics present meaningful information. Minor league statistics are extremely difficult to judge at a surface glance, since one may not know a player’s development stage, any specific development assignments from their parent club, how their age, assignment, and development fits within their specific league, how the competition in their league compares to other leagues, and/or whether the player is facing difficult or weak competition. Of course, many of these statistics can be found at BaseballProspectus, but the basic point is that these are contextual statistics that one has to dig into; it’s not quite like the ability to glance at a few areas of an MLB player’s line and understand (roughly, at a glance) how that player is performing. In this sense, minor league statistics are patently meaningless; scouting information, alongside contextual information about the minor leagues, is where one may find meaning about a player’s performance or development.

2016 Southern League
I am opening this ongoing series by discussing the Southern League, since the Brewers have a number of top trade acquisitions assigned at their Class-AA Biloxi affiliate. Furthermore, general fan and press sentiment suggests that many of these players had disappointing seasons. This tough, dismissive judgment seems suspicious when one considers important details like Jacob Nottingham gaining the ability to work behind the dish and stick at catcher (thereby strengthening his overall value and development); personally, I would peg Nottingham as a clear Top Five prospect candidate in the system, given the overall projection of his power and the increasing understanding that the youngster has the ability to play catcher.

This is not something that someone would immediately conclude from Nottingham’s .234 / .295 / .347 AVG / OBP / SLG batting line. Yet, compared solely to age-21 prospects in the Southern League, Nottingham carried one of the heaviest workloads, produced a batting line that was near-average for age-21 players, and demonstrated better than average isolated power. A skeptic might accuse me of using statistics to put lipstick on a pig, but in fact digging into the context of Nottingham’s season shows much more value in his batting line than one might initially expect; coupled within his defensive progress, that’s a fine season for a player that is three years younger than his league’s median age.

What is quite interesting in the Southern League this year is that batting performance fluctuates quite wildly by age, as pitchers taking the plate and late season call-ups, part time players, or MLB players rehabbing injuries impact the proceedings. Simply looking at the list of players working in AA at any given time shows the hodge-podge composition of that level, and the Southern League is no different; there are 19-year old standouts like Ozhaino Albies, second chance 22-year olds like Tyrone Taylor, somewhat stalling (on the surface) names like Billy McKinney, and lots of AA veterans and organizational depth (like Nick Ramirez or Dustin DeMuth, for instance).

For this exercise, I isolated players with more than five PA. This may sound arbitrary, and in some cases it is, but an empirical glance at the list suggested that this was a reasonable cut-off to include rehabs, short call-ups, and other oddities (as well as pitchers batting), while also isolating performances like would skew data too far in the other direction (such as 0 or 1 PA performances).

2016 Southern Bats Players G / PA AB / H 2B / 3B / HR SB / SBA K / BB AVG / OBP / SLG
Age 19 1 82 / 371 330 / 106 22 / 7 / 4 21 / 30 57 / 33 .321 / .391 / .467
Age 20 4 350 / 1478 1283 / 352 73 / 10 / 35 27 / 42 262 / 169 .274 / .361 / .429
Age 21 13 1085 / 4362 3905 / 1013 193 / 22 / 86 61 / 89 892 / 350 .259 / .323 / .386
Age 22 33 1880 / 7233 6445 / 1542 288 / 52 / 100 119 / 181 1434 / 572 .239 / .301 / .347
Age 23 50 2039 / 7843 6939 / 1700 311 / 37 / 147 221 / 301 1648 / 697 .245 / .317 / .364
Age 24 51 2438 / 9246 8236 / 2065 378 / 68 / 139 230 / 289 1873 / 761 .250 / .316 / .364
Age 25 52 2992 / 10929 9641 / 2436 452 / 76 / 156 221 / 326 2269 / 993 .253 / .326 / .364
Age 26 37 1651 / 6137 5433 / 1376 265 / 37 / 79 102 / 155 1134 / 523 .253 / .319 / .359
Age 27 28 792 / 2604 2306 / 539 103 / 15 / 35 17 / 29 542 / 221 .234 / .305 / .337
Age 28 5 242 / 903 775 / 182 31 / 10 / 10 8 / 12 215 / 87 .234 / .365 / .339
Age 29 2 72 / 300 258 / 56 11 / 0 / 6 0 / 0 64/ 35 .217 / .320 / .329
Age 30 1 68 / 257 211 / 64 12 / 1 / 13 0 / 1 37 / 39 .303 / .416 / .555
Age 31 1 5 / 21 16 / 8 4 / 0 / 0 0 / 0 1 / 5 .500 / .619 / .750
Age 32 2 55 / 142 127 / 32 5 / 0 / 0 0 / 0 32 / 10 .252 / .303 / .291
Age 33 1 5 / 23 22 / 6 1 / 0 / 0 1 / 1 5 / 0 .273 / .261 / .318
Age 35 1 2 / 9 6 /2 0 / 0 / 0 0 / 0 0 / 2 .333 / .556 / .333

Against their age group, one can now more fully judge the Brewers Class-AA 2016 campaigns. First, let’s look at the young guys:

2016 Shuckers Age (PA) AVG / OBP / SLG Age Average Note
Javier Betancourt 21 (383) .224 / .285 / .321 .259 / .323 / .386 Better than average K / BB; near-average BB%
Jacob Nottingham 21 (456) .234 / .295 / .347 .259 / .323 / .386 3rd weakest competition (out of 13 players)
Clint Coulter 22 (102) .337 / .382 / .442 .239 / .301 / .347 Stunning Late Season Surge
Omar Garcia 22 (37) .185 / .389 / .185 .239 / .301 / .347 Huge BB%
Dustin Houle 22 (6) .167 / .167 / .333 .239 / .301 / .347
Chris McFarland 23 (246) .185 / .222 / .238 .245 / .317 / .364
Angel Ortega 22 (254) .235 / .252 / .312 .239 / .301 / .347 Below average K / BB
Brett Phillips 22 (517) .229 / .332 / .397 .239 / .301 / .347 Age-22 Home Run leader; significantly above average BB%
Domingo Santana 23 (10) .333 / .600 / .833 .245 / .317 / .364 Remember Santana is young: he’s in MLB but below median AA age
Tyrone Taylor 22 (519) .232 / .303 / .327 .239 / .301 / .347 Near average slash; better than average K / BB

Placing these seasons in context should illuminate a few points:

  • Brett Phillips had quite a good season, even considering his slump and other issues at the plate.
  • Good grief, Domingo Santana is young. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how young these guys are once they make the MLB; Santana is young even for the Southern League, let alone MLB!
  • Note that someone like Tyrone Taylor, who is basically forgotten among the luxurious OF prospects returned via trade, actually had quite a solid season for his age.
  • These statistics only cover the surface of judging these players’ contextual seasons, but this should be a start to offset some of the more dismissive press these players are receiving from other sources.

Here are some of the older depth players on the Shuckers:

2016 Shuckers Age (PA) AVG / OBP / SLG Age Average Note
Dustin DeMuth 24 (128) .270 / .336 / .339 .250 / .316 / .364 Moderate BB% and low XBH%
Victor Roache 24 (169) .243 / .337 / .412 .250 / .316 / .362 Great BB% and XBH%
Garrett Cooper 25 (329) .299 / .350 / .419 .253 / .326 / .364 Tie 3rd for doubles in age group
Gabriel Noriega 25 (255) .267 / .301 / .343 .253 / .326 / .364
Kyle Wren 25 (151) .283 / .383 / .370 .253 / .326 / .364 Low SB% and XBH%; exceptional K / BB
Tom Belza 26 (95) .233 / .295 / .337 .253 / .319 / .359
Johnny Davis 26 (238) .261 / .312 / .330 .253 / .319 / .359 Great SB and SB%
Rene Garcia 26 (129) .225 / .268 / .250 .253 / .319 / .359
Nate Orf 26 (156) .211 / .335 / .242 .253 / .319 / .359 Great strike zone control
Nick Ramirez 26 (113) .206 / .316 / .404 .253 / .319 / .359 Extreme home run leader for age group (by 8!)
Parker Berberet 26 (32) .111 / .200 / .296 .253 / .319 / .359
Brandon Macias 27 (121) .198 / .298 / .321 .234 / .305 / .337
Nick Shaw 27 (132) .250 / .315 / .302 .234 / .305 / .337

Given the stacked young minors and top prospects that the Brewers need to fit onto their 40-man roster, it is difficult to judge whether these guys will make the MLB with Milwaukee. However, some of these players have traits that may catch with other organizations, should they find themselves out of Brewers navy come winter. A player like Kyle Wren is particularly interesting; many fans wanted to see Wren called up, but if Wren did not make the MLB in a depth OF capacity in 2015 or 2016, it’s difficult to see him protected now that the club has many other choices for the offseason.

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