Rangers Farm Report: Games of Sunday 31 March / Daily Report Primer Part 1

Box Scores

AAA: Round Rock 8, Sugar Land (HOU) 6
Round Rock: 8 hits, 9 walks, 9 strikeouts
Opponent: 6 hits, 5 walks, 9 strikeouts
Record: 2-1

SP Adrian Sampson: 5 IP, 3 H (1 HR), 2 R, 1 BB, 4 SO, 77 P / 49 S, 3.60 ERA
RP Antoine Kelly: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 1 SO, 0.00 ERA
CF Elier Hernandez: 2-4, 2B, BB
C Sam Huff: 2-3, 2B, BB

After some difficult late-March outings that cost whatever chance he had of making the Opening Day squad, Adrian Sampson had a nice first start in AAA.

Justin Foscue and Trevor Hauver walked twice. The Astros aren’t known for good control in their minor league system and ranked among the worst in walk rate in the PCL the prior three years.

Depending on when you see him, you might wonder why Daniel Robert isn’t in the Majors. Not Sunday. Up six in the 9th, he retired only one of four batters and left with the bases loaded. Jesus Tinoco promptly surrendered a grand slam but recorded the final two outs.

Five Years Ago Yesterday
Part of my minor league roster preview: “Texas has only 40% of the current rotation under contract for 2020, and [Mike] Minor could re-emerge as trade bait.  The Rangers need a decent portion of their upper-level rotation prospects (Hearn, Burke, Hernandez, Palumbo) to pan out, or they’ll once again have to buy those innings on the free-agent market while they wait for the next wave of pitchers to advance.”

Daily Report Primer Part 1: How The Game Is Played
Every year, I publish a primer as a guide to my daily reports: how the minors are structured, how the game is played and managed, what I look for, what stats I follow and ignore. 

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 2023 per Baseball America and its full-season winning percentage:

In some years I’ve seen a hint of a pattern. Not so much this year, except perhaps having the three worst winning percentages among the seven worst-ranked clubs. Just like last year, the regression indicates one higher spot in the rankings is worth about three-quarters of one win over a span of around 600 games, and the confidence interval is vast. That said, over the years, the quality of Texas’s system has correlated reasonably well to its record. But for 2024, what does the Rangers’ current #12 ranking actually represent for its winning chances, given that their top two prospects likely won’t see an inning of the minors?

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.

Irrespective of how well farm quality translates to winning, I do prefer reporting on winning teams.

Last year, I wrote how the six-games-a-week schedule encouraged a six-man rotation. So it does, but the Rangers actually pushed against that a little more than I expected in 2023. Not uncommonly, a team would use a five-man rotation, and whoever was starting twice in the week would have a restricted count on Sunday.

Regardless, the idea of a workhorse has disappeared. In 2010, 20-year-old Wilfredo Boscan threw 163 innings in 27 starts, averaging 26.2 batters per start. The old format was 140 games in 151 days, so he averaged six innings every 5.6 days. A substantial workload, but not considered excessive at the time.

That would be inconceivable today. In 2010, 26 Texas minor leaguers averaged at least 18 batters per outing (minimum 10 outings). Last year, only nine did. In 2012, 18 pitchers faced at least 450 batters during the season. Last year, and in 2022, the number was four. In 2023, the median length of a start by a Texas minor leaguer was only 4.0 innings. The organization had only one complete game, itself a technicality in the form of Aidan Curry’s rain-shortened four-inning outing. There were only 73 complete games across the entire full-season minor leagues.

Surprisingly, Texas’s AAA starters haven’t tended to work longer on average than the lower levels the past two seasons. More bullpen starts and some struggles by pitchers expected to last longer have conspired to bring the median AAA outing length down, but even excluding obvious bullpen starts, AAA SPs aren’t throwing more than their lower-level colleagues.

Even with this limited workload, Texas does want 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. An unfortunate example would be Brock Porter’s professional debut: 32 pitches, six batters faced, four walks, only two outs recorded.

In the past, Texas’s AAA workload used to have semi-rigid removal standards. Mid-inning pitcher replacement was uncommon; the expectation was a pitcher would finish an inning. I used to jokingly mock opposing managers who removed pitchers mid-inning just to have some authority into the proceedings. Well, the joke’s on me, because Round Rock manager Doug Davis, who took charge last year, loves the mid-inning switch. Honestly, such an approach adheres more closely to MLB management, so I can’t really complain.

Some organizations have more fluid roles. Houston’s two A-level squads had 19 pitchers who both started and finished at least three games. Texas’s Hickory and Down East teams combined for four. The traditionalist White Sox had none.

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. Last year, Round Rock’s eight busiest relievers combined for only five back-to-back outings: Yerry Rodriguez (twice), Chase Lee (twice), and Jacob Latz (once). Not even the experienced Jonathan Hernandez, optioned to AAA for much of the season, pitched on consecutive days.

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 even with manager Doug Davis’s predilection for mid-inning changes, relief usage 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 2023: 39 relievers, 3.6 per game
Texas AAA in 2012: 22 relievers, 2.4 per game

Texas Low-A in 2023: 34 relievers, 2.5 per game
Texas Low-A in 2012: 20 relievers, 2.0 per game

A good many “relievers” in low-A are tandem starters (think the DJ McCarty / Dylan MacLean pairing in Down East last year) working multiple innings, while in AAA, relievers commonly work a single frame, so more are needed on a given night.

45 Texas minor leaguers saved a full-season game last year, led by Antoine Kelly with 11. Only four pitchers had more than five, and 19 had exactly one. Teams don’t have set closers, or to the extent they do, they tend to place trustworthiness above ceiling. In the last 16 years, nine Texas minor league relievers have recorded 20 saves in a season. None has ever subsequently saved a Major League game.

Sometimes in critical situations, managers have leeway to use relievers who’ve proven their trust more traditionally. In 2021, Frisco leaned heavily on 2021 draftee Chase Lee and Daniel Robert down the stretch. In 2022, Nick Starr finished three of Frisco’s four playoff games. Last year was different, however. For example, Down East’s Paul Bonzagni and Izack Tiger had minimal pro experience, but both made multiple appearances in the Woodies’ five-game playoff run.

Batting Orders, Position Player Starts
Batting orders aren’t necessarily optimized for run production and or aligned with the relative qualities of the prospects. Don’t worry about them.

Players tend to receive regular rest. No Marcus Semiens in the minors. Elier Hernandez accrued 612 plate appearances last year, most in the system since 2012, and he missed 12 of 149 games. Even well-regarded prospects may find themselves in a rotation, receiving a day off each week to accommodate a crowded infield or outfield. Likewise, even the least heralded will receive occasional action. A typical team might have only 12 position players consisting of three catchers, five infielders, and four outfielders (with some positional flexibility, of course). Nobody is going to gather dust on the bench.

Walks and Strikeouts
Usually, both increase down the organizational ladder. The combined BB/HBP rate in MLB last year was 9.5%. The minor leagues ranged from 11.9% to 16%. Atypically, high-A exhibited the best control last year.  

Walks exploded in low-A in 2021, something I attributed to an unscheduled year off and automated umpiring in one league. True, but not the whole story, as rates of walks and HBPs have remained elevated. Since the reclassification of the minor league system in 1990, there have been 1,002 low-A team-seasons. The top 16 and 33 of the top 34 highest BB/HBP rates have occurred in the last three years.

Strikeouts have finally leveled off after years of increases, which is to say they remain historic. Not that long ago, almost any pitcher with a 25% strikeout rate was noteworthy. In 2022, all of low-A had a 25.5% K rate, and last year dipped to 24.7%. Nine of the top ten and 52 of the top 60 strikeout seasons in low-A have occurred in the past three years. No league at any levels averaged fewer than nine strikeouts per nine innings. Again, a pitcher with one strikeout per inning is at best average, usually below.

Errors and “Mistakes”
The number of miscues that give the opposition free runners or bases increases greatly at the lower levels.

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. The next 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. Last year, the team settled for a middle-of-the-pack 209.

Teams run much more often in the minors than MLB, ranging from 36% more in AAA to 156% more in the DSL. Across the minors in the US last tear, the success rate on the bases was 77%, and rates don’t decline despite the increased attempts.

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.

Report Tone
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 well over 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.

Ultimately, 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.