These are developmental leagues. Rosters aren’t constructed and games aren’t managed to win, at least not as a primary goal. 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 2022 per Baseball America and its full-season winning percentage:
In some years I’ve seen a hint of a pattern. If you connect the dots for teams 12 through 25, you’ll get a decent approximation of Cassiopeia, but that’s not what we’re looking for. There was only the faintest of connections between farm ranking and winning percentage in 2022. By regression, one higher spot in the rankings is worth about 0.7 wins out of 552 scheduled games, and the confidence level is pitifully low. That said, over the years, the quality of Texas’s system has correlated reasonably well to its record. (Texas is the red dot.)
One reason the correlation is low is that 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. Also, think about where the prospects will play. Texas’s top prospect is Josh Jung by most accounts, and he won’t spend a minute in the minors this season unless on rehab assignment or if he woefully underperforms for Texas.
Some organizations emphasize winning more than others. For my outsider’s perspective, my concern isn’t about winning as much as excessive losing. In 2021 White Sox-affiliated Kannapolis 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 six-games-a-week schedule strongly encourages a six-man rotation, which Texas had already utilized at most levels for several years under the old format with fewer days off. At the upper levels in 2022, the Rangers would intermittently deploy just five. For viewing purposes, the advantage is that certain pitchers tend to start on a certain day on the week, and you could more easily schedule a park visit around that start if inclined.
In 2022, the median length of a start (excepting bullpen days) by a Texas minor leaguer was 4.2 innings, two outs greater than 2021, when the post-covid environment fostered more caution. Even with this limited workload, Texas wants its starters to get their innings, 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 yanked unless the batter he’s facing makes the final out. Round Rock’s Robert Dugger provided an example on Sunday by leaving with 34 pitches in 0.2 innings.
Surprisingly, Texas’s AAA starters did not tend to work longer on average than the lower levels in 2022, although that might be influenced by the difficulties of frequent starters Cole Winn and AJ Alexy. All four levels averaged 4.2-5.0 innings per start, and the difference in pitches between AAA and low-A was only seven per game. All four levels had exactly six starts that extended beyond six innings.
Some organizations have more fluid roles. Houston’s low-A squad used 21 starters. Ten of them started at least five games, and all ten also completed at least two games as a reliever.
Minor league relievers tend to pitch on a schedule rather than in situational roles. 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, has become exceptionally rare even in AAA. Among Round Rock’s eight busiest relievers, I found two occasions of back-to-back appearances. The first was by Nick Snyder, who’d been optioned two weeks prior and was probably near the front of the line for a recall at the time. The other was by Demarcus Evans. A good many pitchers are scheduled to pitch twice a week, so once every three games.
In the old days (circa 2018), pitching on consecutive days was a “tell” that a reliever might be headed for Arlington soon. Now, the relatively rigid AAA workloads and expansion of up-and-down relievers may have made that idea obsolete. AAA is still the final audition, but relief usage there operates less like the Majors than it ever has. AAA usage has also changed much more than low-A over the past decade:
Texas AAA in 2022: 40 relievers, 3.7 per game
Texas AAA in 2012: 22 relievers, 2.4 per game
Texas Low-A in 2022: 30 relievers, 2.4 per game
Texas Low-A in 2012: 20 relievers, 2.0 per game
46 Texas minor leaguers saved a full-season game last year. Jesus Tinoco led with 13. Only five pitchers had more than five. Teams don’t have closers, or to the extent they do, they tend to place trustworthiness above ceiling. In the last 15 years, nine Texas minor league relievers have recorded 20 saves in a season. None of them has ever subsequently saved a Major League game.
Sometimes in critical situations, managers have leeway to use relievers more traditionally. In 2021, 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. Last year, Nick Starr finished three of Frisco’s four playoff games.
Batting Orders, Position Player Starts
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.
Blaine Crim led the organization with 132 games played of a possible 147. Only four hitters played more than 110. Most regulars will receive a day off during the week.
Walks and Strikeouts
Both increase as you descend the organizational ladders. The combined BB/HBP rate in MLB last year was 9.0%. The minors ranged from 11.5% in AAA to 15.3% in the Dominican Republic.
Walks exploded in low-A in 2021, partly because of an unscheduled year off and because of the automated umpiring used in one Low-A league. In low-A history, the ten highest team BB/HBP marks and 20 of the top 21 have occurred in the past two years. Similarly, nine of the top ten strikeout percentages and 16 of the top 20 are from 2021-2022.
Strikeouts are at historic levels. Not that long ago, almost any pitcher with a 25% strikeout rate was noteworthy. In 2022, that would be below average in Low-A, which had a 25.5% SO rate. In 2021, the low-A San Jose Giants had a team rate of 31.5%.
Errors and “Mistakes”
The number of miscues that give the opposition free runners or bases increases greatly at the lower levels.
The 2022 numbers are nearly identical, so I didn’t bother with a new chart.
Likewise, fielding mistakes that don’t appear in the box score increase down the ladder. For example, fielder’s choices that don’t result in outs, throws to home that miss the cutoff and allow the trail runner to advance.
With MLB adopting the runner-friendly rules tested in the minors, you’ve probably got a better idea of how they affect the game. The Rangers have been especially adept at exploiting these rules. In 2021, 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. Last year, the Woodies stole 308, setting the low-A record and falling five shy of the most by any minor league team since at least 1990. Nevertheless, Down East’s success rate was actually below average. The Rangers have largely been willing to let youngsters try what they will and learn through failure.
Field and League Context
Here’s the park-adjusted league averages for Texas’s full-season affiliates in 2022:
Round Rock: 5.8 runs per game, .261/.346/.451 slash line, 0.97 park factor
Frisco: 5.6 runs, .251/.350/.419, 1.00 park factor
Hickory: 5.1 runs, .252/.339/.404, 1.00 park factor
Down East: 4.6 runs, .234/.327/.351, 0.97 park factor
A .400 slugging percentage in Round Rock is much different than .400 at Down East.
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. Frisco was neutral last year while division mates Amarillo (6.3 runs per team per game) and San Antonio (5.2) were on opposite ends of the spectrum.
The likelihood of a .250 batter going hitless in 16 consecutive at-bats is small: almost exactly one in 100. Spread that to 36 hitters* (nine per Texas’s four full-season teams) and the likelihood that someone starts the season 0-for-16 jumps to nearly one in three, still uncommon but not rare. Aaron Zavala, one of Texas’s most highly regarded batters, did just that in 2022, starting 0-for-16 (with eight walks) in his first four games.
Now, take under consideration the entire season. The likelihood of someone having an even longer hitless stretch is virtually assured. In 2021, Luisangel Acuna had an 0-for-30 stretch (with five walks). Justin Foscue is currently 0-for-11 to start the season despite five balls hit in excess of 95 MPH. Statistical variance in baseball is much higher than most people think. Don’t place too much emphasis on the short run, whether good or bad.
* 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 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 repertoires that I guarantee would have made them passable MLB relievers a dozen years ago.
So, I want to be honest about a player’s likelihood of reaching the Majors, and I focus on the prospects most likely to help Texas in the future, but I’ll cover anyone having a great day.