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Minor League Context: April 25

It seemed like only moments ago that the baseball season arrived, but now fans are approaching the end of April and analysts have more than ten percent of a season to consider. This is the time of year where performances creep into the territory where conclusions might be drawn, or at least interesting observations might be made. Brewers fans are especially wont to do this with the minor league clubs, since the big league club is “rebuilding” and the future is in Colorado Springs, Biloxi, Zebulon, and Appleton. But as one must be careful about how conclusions are drawn from early season MLB performances, one must amplify those concerns when dealing with minor league statistics.

Minor league stats are effectively meaningless, and especially meaningless without significant context for several reasons:

  • First, the league environments themselves are not as readily or openly tracked as MLB, meaning that fans are not likely to have as much as an easy grasp on which parks play like Coors or which parks play like PetCo.
  • A related factor impacting environment is that these professional baseball players are honing their skills, and often at different developmental stages. It’s easy to think this is more extreme in Class-A or Advanced A environments, where 19-to-20 year old Dominican Academy graduates might be playing with polished 22-to-23 year old college bats, and a set of recent draftees who might be anywhere from 19-to-21 years old, but this is easily just as extreme at Class-AA and AAA. In the advanced minors reside phenoms like Lewis Brinson, who has played each minor league level with little repetition, organizational depth like Victor Roache or Clint Coulter, 40-man Roster depth like Brent Suter and Michael Reed, and replacement players looking to either make their way back to the MLB or earn a living in the upper reaches of the minors.
  • These different developmental stages obscure competitive environments prior to considering the fact that many of these minor league players may be working on specific assignments from the Front Office, meaning that the objective in the minor leagues is not as clear as in the MLB (ex., these players are not specifically in the minors to win, they are in the minors to develop).
  • A player’s tools package, mechanics, and approach are most important, and it is unclear that minor league surface statistics easily translate those elements. A player who struggles through a minor league season while making a mechanical or approach adjustment may end up being a more desirable future asset than a player who shreds statistically but does not have the supporting tools, mechanics, and approach.

With this in mind, how do we read context into the minors? Baseball Prospectus offers several helpful statistics to this effect. One can use Opposing OPS to assess whether a phenom prospect is indeed phenomenal, or whether they are feasting on easy competition. Rickie Weeks was arguably a victim of this misunderstanding during his 2005 campaign, during which the 22-year old shredded the Pacific Coast League to the tune of .320 / .431 / .655. This looks all well and good until one determines that the .809 Opponent OPS Weeks faced was among the very weakest for Pacific Coast League regulars, and significantly easier than the .790 Opponent OPS faced by the median PCL player with 200 plate appearances. Brewers fans appear ready to commit a similar error of judgment with Lewis Brinson, who like Weeks is shredding the PCL (Brinson in his age-23 season) while facing some of the easiest competition in the league (.803 Opposing OPS versus .743 median for early season PCL regulars). Unlike 2005 Weeks, 2017 Brinson is also working in the easiest batting environment, which we can compare thanks to BPF, an index of park environment that Baseball Prospectus keeps for minor leagues.

Let me be clear: these statistics are not meant to diminish a player’s accomplishment. Lewis Brinson is hitting quite well, even with park factors and competition in mind; it’s just that these contextual statistics should help keep fans from expecting Brinson to immediately tear up the MLB when he reaches The Show.

With this background, here are the current batting environments faced by Brewers affiliates:

Affiliate (Players) Median oppOPS Median Age Brewers Park Factor Easy Competition? Tough Competition?
AAA Pacific Coast (212) .7385 26 116.5 Susac / Brinson / Rivera / De Jesus Cooper / Orf / Cordell / Wren
AA Southern (127) .660 24 98 No One Everyone
Advanced A Carolina (102) .695 23 102 Rijo / Ghelfi / Gatewood McDowell / Ray / Belonis / Erceg
A Midwest (197) .676 22 107 Everyone No One
Players With >10 PA

And now the pitching environments:

Affiliate (Players) Median oppOPS Median Age Brewers Park Factor Easy Competition? Tough Competition?
AAA Pacific Coast (228) .736 27 125 Woodruff / Garza / Cravy / Suter Wang / Archer / Burgos/ Scahill/ Hader
AA Southern (130) .650 24 97 Jungmann / Ventura Gainey / Derby / Snow / Ramirez / Lopez
Advanced A Carolina (105) .695 23 96 No One Everyone
A Midwest (211) .675 22 109 Myers / Drossner / Garza Desguin / Roegner / Jankins / Brown / Supak
Players With >4.0 IP

These tables should hopefully help to place individual performances in context. By using these tables, one can assess whether:

  • A player is young or old, or of median age, for their respective league.
  • A player is working in an environment that favors pitchers or batters.
  • A player is facing easy competition, tough competition, or median competition.

Teammates to Watch:

  • Brandon Woodruff versus Josh Hader. Thus far it’s easy to cite Brandon Woodruff’s 17/6/1 K/BB/HR line and 1.61 ERA as indicators of smashing success thus far, but the righty has faced opponents with a .702 OPS thus far. Granted, a .657 OPS-allowed still looks solid, and Woodruff is young in terms of age and developmental status in Class-AAA, so it’s not necessarily reason to be alarmed. Hader, on the other hand, appears to be struggling with command (15 K / 14 BB / 4 HR), but is facing opponents with a .169 Isolated Slugging Percentage. It will be worth looking for the scouting reports to emerge this spring, in order to assess any delivery or stuff issues, but Hader is receiving no benefits with his opponents faced.
  • Biloxi Bats versus Carolina Arms. Oh, the prospects! So these guys are not necessarily teammates, but each of these units is facing difficult competition. Given that the Carolina pitching staff features several prospects excelling despite the difficulties (Corbin Burnes, Cody Ponce, and Freddy Peralta for example), midseason call-ups from the Carolina pitching staff could create an All-Team-Tough in Biloxi.
  • Jake Gatewood versus Lucas Erceg. Lucas Erceg stormed the prospect scene after the 2016 draft, but few fans or analysts mentioned that the infielder faced relatively easy competition as a relatively polished college player in Class-A ball. Graduating to Carolina, the prospect is now facing a tough .644 Opposing OPS and is still knocking the ball around the ballpark (approximately 10 percent Extra Base Hits thus far). Jake Gatewood is coming into his own in Carolina, but along with some mechanical adjustments the youngster is also facing a .733 Opposing OPS. Granted, this is a case where notable mechanical adjustments are most important, as is the approach adjustment (21 K to 10 BB in 67 PA thus far). It is also worth noting that even though it seems like we’ve been following Gatewood forever, the corner prospect is still young for Advanced A ball.
  • Wisconsin Pitching vs. Wisconsin Bats. Forget Colorado Springs, Appleton is also playing tough for pitchers in 2017, which is giving young arms like Trey Supak and Thomas Jankins a trial by fire. Both pitchers have acquitted themselves well thus far, despite the tough environment, which means that those K / BB / HR lines for both pitchers might be even more impressive than they seem at first glance. Meanwhile, it’s worth applying a large grain of salt to several of those blazing hot Wisconsin bats, as these prospects have faced a relatively easy path thus far. Yet, in the case of players like Demi Orimoloye and Mario Feliciano, it is worth noting that both are significantly younger than the Midwest League median age, so it is nice to see these professionals forge their paths at such young ages.
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