These are developmental leagues. Rosters aren’t constructed and games aren’t managed to win. Good prospects aren’t going to be benched if they perform poorly. Does the prospect quality of a system correlate to its performance in the minors? Here’s a chart of every team’s organizational ranking in 2021 per Baseball America and its full-season winning percentage:
Answer: kind of but not really. One higher spot in the rankings is worth about 1.5 wins out of 490 played. The correlation is very loose, and Tampa Bay (#1 rank and record) and Washington (#30 rank, #29 record) are doing all the work. Minus them, rankings and records are almost completely independent of one another. That said, over the years, the quality of Texas’s system has correlated pretty well to its record.
Not all rankings are created equal. An organization stacked with top-100 prospects will receive high marks even if depth is lacking, but that missing depth could result in a weaker record. Even if the Rangers put Corey Seager in Low-A (a move I’d advise against), there’s only so much one guy can do.
Some organizations emphasize winning more than others. For my outsider’s perspective, my concern isn’t about winning as much as excessive losing. What I’d hate to see is a Texas version of last year’s White Sox-affiliated Kannapolis club, which lost its first ten, then 16 of the next 20, and then dropped to 46 games under .500 until an 8-1 finish. That just doesn’t seem conducive to a positive development environment.
The Rangers have often employed a six-man rotation in the minors of their own volition. Now, the rigid six-games-a-week schedule practically demands it. For viewing purposes, the advantage is that certain pitchers tend to start on a certain day on the week, and one could more easily match a park visit to that start if inclined.
The median length of a start by a Texas full-season minor leaguer in 2021 was 4.0 innings. Only 41% of starts lasted five innings or greater. Even with this limited workload, Texas wants its starters to get their innings in, so pitchers will often be allowed to press through situations that might get an MLB starter pulled. What will get a starter pulled early is excessive pitches. If the inning’s count has crept into the mid-20s with no end in sight, the bullpen will be active. Once it surpasses 30, the pitcher (especially if younger) could be gone unless the batter he’s facing makes the final out.
Minor league relievers tend to pitch on a schedule rather than having situational roles, and the lost 2020 combined with expanded rosters (28 in AA/AAA, 30 in A ball) exacerbated that trend. Even in AAA, nominally the final training ground for the Majors, relievers usually pitch on prescribed days.
Pitching on consecutive days, already a rarity below AAA, became exceptionally rare events in 2021. In fact, for a good many pitchers, appearing on fewer than two days rest was uncommon. On August 7 in Round Rock, I was treated to an unexpected outing by Nick Snyder. He’d pitched on the 5th, so I assumed he was unavailable that night, but he made his first appearance of the season with fewer than two day’s rest. (It was, perhaps not coincidentally, his worst outing of the season.)
32-year-old James Jones appeared back-to-back once in AAA, as did 30-year-old Buck Farmer. Round Rock’s busiest relievers, all in their 20s but far from newcomers – Jake Lemoine, Ryder Ryan and Luis Ortiz – never did.
30 Texas minor leaguers saved a game last year. None had more than eight. Teams don’t have closers, or to the extent they do, they’re more like to rely on someone who might have a lower ceiling but is the most trustworthy at that level. In the last 14 years, nine Texas minor league relievers have recorded 20 saves in a season. None of them has ever subsequently saved a Major League game.
Perhaps with the lost 2020 further in the rear-view mirror, AAA will tilt slightly more toward MLB-like usage, but again, with so many relievers vying for innings, I’m not expecting much difference from last year.
Sometimes in critical situations, managers have leeway to use relievers more traditionally. Eudrys Manon, Leury Tejeda, and Destin Dotson earned the lion’s share of late/close innings in Down East’s 2021’s playoff drive. Frisco leaned heavily on 2021 draftee Chase Lee and Daniel Robert down the stretch. In fact, Robert made his first-ever no-rest appearance on the seasons’ final day. (Regretfully, he was on fumes, got lit up, and Frisco lost a division lead held the entire season to that point.)
They aren’t necessarily optimized for run production and often don’t align with the relative qualities of the prospects. Don’t worry about them.
Walks and Strikeouts
Both tend to increase as you descend the organizational ladders. Walks exploded in low-A in 2021, partly because of an unscheduled year off and partly because of the automated umpiring used in the Low-A southeast. The highest six team walk rates and seven of the nine highest team strikeout rates in low-A history were set last year. Strikeouts, as you know, are at historic levels. Not that long ago, almost any pitcher with a 25% strikeout rate was noteworthy. Last year, the low-A San Jose Giants had a team rate of 31.5%. (San Jose’s home stadium has an notoriously difficult batter’s eye, but still.)
Errors and “Mistakes”
The number of miscues that give the opposition free runners or bases increases greatly at the lower levels.
If you attend an MLB game, the averaged combined walks, HBPs, errors, balks, wild pitches and passed balls you’re likely to see is nine. In low-A, it’s 14.
In 2021, Low-A as a whole had 1.6 stolen base attempts per game, the most in 20 years. Down East set an all-time low-A record for most successful attempts per game (2.41), and their total of 290 was only nine short of the record despite playing 20 fewer games than normal. Not coincidentally, a new rule limited pitchers to two “free” pickoff attempts per batter. A third attempt that didn’t result in an out was ruled a balk. Balks increased 60% in low-A compared to 2019, but I have no idea how much of the increase is due to the rule versus tighter rule enforcement and/or generally sloppier play following an absence of games in 2020.
Field and League Context
Here’s the park-adjusted league averages for Texas’s full-season affiliates in 2021:
Round Rock: 5.5 runs per game, .259/.337/.454 slash line
Frisco: 4.9 runs, .248/.332/.398
Hickory: 5.2 runs, .243/.329/.463
Down East: 5.1 runs, .241/.343/.377
Round Rock is pitcher-friendly relative to most of its peers, but the Pacific Coast League is so hitter-oriented as a whole that even Express hitters’ stats have to be viewed with a little cynicism. Down East scored a robust 5.3 runs per game despite an ordinary .244/.344/.379 line courtesy of all those steals and opposition miscues previously mentioned.
The likelihood of a .250 batter going hitless in any particular 30 consecutive at-bats is extremely small: about 1 in 5,600. Spread that to 36 hitters* (nine per Texas’s four full-season teams) and the likelihood that someone starts the season 0-for-30 is still tiny: about 1 in 150. But, if you take a whole season with all the hitters and a huge number of overlapping 30-at-bat subsets, there’s a decent chance somebody comes up empty for a long spell. That very thing happened to a good prospect last year, Luisangel Acuna. He brought a shiny .375 average into his fifth game and went 0-for-30 (with six walks and one HBP) over the next nine. Did he have a mechanical issue? A minor injury? Maybe. I don’t remember. Acuna fanned ten times, so 20 balls in play went for naught. Even the weakest of hitters should squeak out a few safeties in that span.
Statistical variance in baseball is much higher than most people think. It’s important not to place too much emphasis on the short run, whether good or bad.
* Of course, Texas isn’t going to stick with the same 36 minor league hitters game after game, but I’m trying to make the math easier.
Promotions and demotions aren’t made in a vacuum. A promoted player is necessarily taking someone else’s spot. Should that other player also be promoted? Demoted? Moved to a different position? Should the players share the position and moonlight at DH? Should the promoted guy move to a different position instead, and who would that affect? These decisions are sometimes complicated, and a player might advance more slowly than you’d like because Texas has to sort through all these issues.
Even in a deep system, most of Texas’s minor leaguers aren’t going to reach MLB or make much impact if they do. Texas has 26 (or 28) Major Leaguers and 200+ minor leaguers. The cold math turns most of them into “failures.”
They are not failures. They’re exceptional athletes in an industry with a limited number of jobs. If you’re the 2,000th best accountant in the country, you’re doing great, plus you can start your own business if you want. The 2,000th professional baseball player is in Double A, and he can’t start his own league to compete against MLB. Also, we can argue about the relative entertainment quality of the current high-strikeout era, but the players themselves have never been better. There are pitchers stuck in AAA with stuff that I guarantee would have made them passable MLB relievers a dozen years ago.
So, I want to be honest about a player’s chances, and I focus on the prospects most likely to help Texas in the future, but I’ll cover anyone having a great day.