Rangers Farm Report / Daily Report Primer Part 2

Per various reports, IF Justin Foscue will replace the injured Josh Jung on the Texas roster. Congratulations to him.

I wrote at length about Foscue’s bat last month. Short version: highly mature and patient approach, tough to whiff (especially on fastballs), decent exit velocity if a little light at the top end, a terrific contact rate that would be aided by a little less variance in his launch angles.

Foscue has played two games at second and one at first in AAA this season. I’m not expecting Foscue to slide into Jung’s spot on a regular basis, but since he is replacing him, I wanted to entertain the possibility. Foscue made 35 starts at third for Round Rock in 2023. Despite some practice there, he didn’t log any innings at the position in Spring Training games.

In his top-ten Texas prospect writeups, Grant Schiller of Baseball Prospectus described his 3B play as “a greater success in 2023 than anticipated, and it appears he may be able to man the position passably.” I would have written something similar last May or so and remember telling a scout making his first visit to to the Dell Diamond that I was more interested in Foscue at third than second. Since then, however, my quasi-enthusiasm has waned.

Last night, I re-watched every 2023 error by Foscue. That’s obviously a biased sample that would lead to a negative impression of even elite fielders, but I wanted to see what types of mistakes he was making at third (and second). I watched several “ordinary” plays as well. Nearly all of Foscue’s errors were on throws to first. He isn’t known for his range, but he’ll glove what he can reach with assurance. But when the situation called for a snap throw and no time to set his body, he sometimes slung or sailed his throws.

Can he play there occasionally? Sure. As an everyday replacement for Jung? I’m not seeing it. I’m happy to be wrong, though. Jung has been better than average defensively, compared to my expectation of dead-average.

I forgot to link to my video of his fine performance Saturday. Here you go.

Part II of the Daily Report Primer: Stats I Love and Loathe

The best prospects tend to receive aggressive assignments and are young for their levels. Down the road, they’re often omitted from my annual 40-Man / Rule 5 preview because they ‘ve forced their way onto the MLB squad months earlier (15 months earlier in the case of Evan Carter). If all you know about a player is his age, you actually know quite a lot. 18-year-old Anthony Gutierrez at Down East last year. 20-year-old Cam Cauley at Down East (and the Arizona Fall League). 20-year-old Carter at Frisco, Round Rock, and Texas. The Rangers are letting you know they’re well-regarded without you needing stats or confirmation from a prospect-oriented publication.

One shouldn’t get carried away with age, though. Of course, players drafted out of college will be older, so dismissing them for being 23 in high-A would be ridiculous. However, the older the player, the higher the expectations. (Incidentally, that a good many college players don’t handle A-level ball reinforces just how hard the pro game is.) Catchers tend to take more time, as do many pitchers.

The Rangers don’t promote as aggressively as a decade ago, and promotions feel more player-tailored and less driven by organizational culture. Still, with the exception of Frisco’s pitching staff, all of Texas’s full season squads had groups of hitters and pitchers below the league-average age.  

Slash Stats (Average / On-Base Percentage / Slugging)
In the Majors, batting average isn’t completely useless, but it matters far less than on-base percentage and slugging. In the minors, I still like to keep an eye on it. Putting the bat on the ball with frequency and authority is what gets players noticed and moves them up the ladder.

Here’s two fictional players with 500 plate appearances. Both have a .360 OBP and .440 slugging percentage:

A)    100 hits, 10 doubles, 25 homers, 80 walks, 160 strikeouts
B)    150 hits, 33 doubles, 8 homers, 30 walks, 60 strikeouts

Same OBP, same slugging percentage, very different hitters. Player A is kind of a cut-rate Joey Gallo, batting .238 with huge number of walks and good-but-not-elite power. James Outman was in that general range last year. Player B batted .319 but doesn’t walk much or offer much more than doubles power. There aren’t many Player B type nowadays. Luis Arraez is the best example.

Knowing the batting average in addition to OBP and slugging can be surprisingly informative. That said, even in the minors, OBP and slugging are much more useful.

These stats mean the least at lower levels and gain importance as players advance. They also matter more to offense-oriented positions. Except at the extreme margin and probably not even then, a first basemen cannot compensate for weak hitting with outstanding defense. He has to hit.

OPS (OBP + slugging) is grotesque aesthetically because it sums two stats with different denominators, but it nevertheless usually describes a hitter adequately. Still, I’m more inclined to just give you entire slash line.

Walks (Hitters)
The goal of a hitter is to reach base safely, so the ability to lay off iffy pitches can define a career. Walks create hitting situations with runners on base, wear down the pitcher, and mitigate inevitable slumps Aaron Zavala began 2021 with an 0-for-16 slump but also drew eight walks, producing a .333 OBP. Would that all slumps were so productive. Zavala gave his teammates eight opportunities to hit with a runner on base, and he scored three runs in those four hitless games. Fellow early slumper Justin Foscue reached four times and scored twice during his 0-for-18 start last year. It’s something.  

Even for Zavala, walks are a means, not an end. I do worry about players who seem to rely too heavily on walks, which is easier to do at the lower levels where control is often absent. Selectivity is a great attribute. Passivity, not so much. I occasionally see hitters looking passive at the plate, and honestly, much of the time i can’t blame them. Control is worse than ever nowadays. Why swing at junk? That said, eventually the hitter will rise to a level at which most pitchers not only have control but a semblance of command, and the hitter will have to adjust.

Strikeouts (Hitters)
To some extent, we can ignore hitters’ strikeouts. What really matters is how they perform when they don’t. Not to be flip, but strikeouts for hitters don’t matter until they do. At some point, they reach a level that forces a herculean batting average on contact just to get by. Prior to 2021, I gamed out how Adolis Garcia could achieve a .300 OBP with so many strikeouts. “Let’s say he can manage a 5% BB+HBP rate (well below league average) and a 30% K rate (well above, even in 2021). That means he needs to bat .263 for a minimum .300 OBP. And with all those Ks, that requires a .376 average on contact, about 50 points above the league average and better than what he’s done in AAA.”

That season, Garcia ended up with a 6% BB+HBP rate and struck out in 31% of his plate appearances, close to my guesses. He also batted .364 when he made contact, roughly the 75th percentile among AL batters with at least 400 plate appearances. So, very good in that respect. And what did that high average on contact get him? A .286 OBP, 9th-worst among that same set of batters. Incidentally, Garcia still strikes out a lot but upped his walk rate to 10% last year. He had 25 fewer plate appearances and 15 fewer hits, but he reached more often because of 25 additional walks.

Some hitters are exceptionally good at avoiding strikeouts, but not particularly to their benefit. Most of the time, weak contact on marginal pitches isn’t any better than a strikeout. While I certainly wouldn’t call Justin Foscue a “weak contact” type, I noted a while back that his exceptional ability to avoid strikeouts improved his walk rate but hadn’t contributed much to his  production on contact.

I do list ERA when recapping pitchers. Much of the time, it’s a handy stat, but it’s not the end-all and sometimes is lying to you. Let’s take two pitchers from the lower levels in 2023:

Player A: 3.86 ERA, 6% BB/HBP rate, 38% SO rate, .252 opposing OBP
Player B: 3.73 ERA, 19% BB/HBP rate, 24% SO rate, .313 opposing OBP

Player B had the slightly better ERA, but I’d pick Player A in a critical situation without question. B had a decent strikeout rate but gave nearly one of every five batters a free pass, and his opposing average on balls in play was unsustainably low. Pitcher A combined excellent control with a terrific strikeout rate, but a small handful of rough innings inflated his ERA. Usually, situational performance (such as runners in scoring position) tends to even out in the long run.

Sometimes a single terrible outing can wipe out a reliever’s ERA. An infamous example is John Smoltz back in 2002. He allowed eight runs in 0.2 innings in early April and needed three months of quality outings (including 37 saves!) just to drag his ERA below 4.00.

So, you’ll occasionally read something from me like “he’s pitched better [or worse] than his ERA would suggest.” If Players A and B continue to pitch as they have, Player A is far more likely to have the lower ERA eventually.

Player A is Kumar Rocker.

Homers, Walks, Strikeouts (Pitchers)
These are better indicators than ERA, which is often tied to luck on balls in play and how well relievers strand runners left behind.

Homers are trickier to analyze. More fly balls equal more homers, of course, but HR rates can bounce around crazily from year to year for no other reason than variance. Walk and strikeout rates tend to stabilize more quickly.

Walk and HBP rates are up across the minors post-2020, particularly at the lower levels. A combined BB/HBP of 10%, slightly problematic a dozen years ago, is now well below average in most leagues. My old rule of thumb was that a BB/HBP rate of 15% was untenable for a would-be starting pitcher because he’d run into trouble too often and force too many bullpen innings. Last year, among the 66 pitchers with at least 10 starts in the low-A Carolina League, more had a BB/HBP rate of at least 15% (21) than below 10% (15). So much for my thumb. More pitchers seem to be able to abide the higher walk rate because they’re darn near unhittable otherwise, and they aren’t being asked to face as many batters. Even so, as they climb the ladder, those walks are more likely to cause trouble.

Strikeout have risen so much that I still have to remind myself what constitutes an acceptable rate. In 2007, my first year on the job, the best team in the low-A Midwest League (which contained Texas-affiliated Clinton) had a strikeout rate of 21.3%. Last year, the worst team in the low-A Carolina League (including Down East) had a rate of 21.8%. San Jose set a low-A record in 2021 with a 31.5% rate. As I mentioned earlier, a rate of nine strikeouts per nine innings is below average.

The gap between starters and relievers has shrunk. Comparing the 50 busiest starters in 2007 to the 50 relievers who finished the most games, relievers struck out about 36% more batters. In 2023, that difference was only 12%. 

HBPs are kind of an afterthought in typical stat-watching, but they’ve risen greatly in recent years, and some pitchers are plunk-prone enough to seriously degrade their performance. Last year, low-A St. Lucie hit 130 batters in 128 games.

As you can see, I tend to refer to these stats in rates per batter faced rather than per nine innings. Per-nine accounting can be skewed by the number of runners allowed. If two pitchers strike out a batter per inning, they obviously are striking out an identical amount per nine innings, but if one is allowing one runner per inning and the other two, the stingier pitcher has a 25% strikeout rate compared to the other guy’s 20%. That 5% is meaningful.

Opposing Slash Stats
The opposing batting line relates closely to the pitcher’s core peripherals. I mention it often and think it’s interesting. Every year, I wish it would gain more traction, but it doesn’t.

Field and League Context
Here’s the park-adjusted league averages for Texas’s full-season affiliates in 2023:

Round Rock: 5.9 runs per game, .264/.360/.440 slash line, 0.97 park factor
Frisco: 5.2 runs, .253/.343/.404, 1.00 park factor
Hickory: 5.0 runs, .245/.338/.397, 1.00 park factor
Down East: 4.4 runs, .221/.332/.341, 0.96 park factor

Round Rock suppresses offense 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 has a pitcher-friendly park in a pitcher-friendly league.  

The homer rate in low-A is about 40% lower than MLB. A good many players haven’t reached full physical maturity.

Fielding is trickiest to evaluate from an outsider’s perspective. Fielding percentage rarely tells the whole story.

For example, over the course of a season, let’s pretend two infielders share shortstop duties equally. On their first 400 grounders, they’re identical statistically. But then on their next 20 grounders apiece, Shortstop 1 never touches a single one, but Shortstop 2 reaches all of them and turns 15 into outs and throws 5 into the stands, allowing those hitters to reach second. Shortstop 2 will have a worse fielding percentage, but he also turned 15 more balls into outs. Would you rather an opposing batter reach first safely 20 times, or reach second 5 times but get put out the other 15 times? Shortstop 2 is far more effective despite making more errors.

Even with no stats, you can learn plenty simply from where someone plays. 85% of Evan Carter’s outfield starts in Frisco were in center. Dustin Harris only played in left. An unprecedented two-thirds of Trevor Hauver’s OF starts were in right, perhaps partly in deference to Harris while he was in AA, but also because he’s improved out there.

Statcast data became available for Texas’s AAA league in 2022, and oh how I adore it. Pitch speed, horizontal and vertical movement, exit velocity, and launch angles, all giving me a new realm of information to analyze.

Did the starter emphasize a changeup and ditch his curve last night? Did he hold his velocity deep into the outing? Is a hitter seeing a particular type of pitch more often, and to what effect? Are his homers certainties in most MLB parks or PCL gifts? Did a pitcher who allowed five runs get nickled-and-dimed? I can answer those questions even if I didn’t see them game.

I categorize every ball in play based on what it typically produced in the Majors, not in AAA. Plenty of balls that become extra-base hits in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League may just be long outs in a typical MLB park.

Some examples of the analysis I was able to provide last year that would have been absent or in the form of observational anecdotes previously:

Sam Huff, of all people, was aggravatingly grounder prone.

Jonathan Ornelas, despite a .359 slugging percentage, has serious, MLB-worthy top-end exit velo. He, too, is hindered by a high grounder rate, which at least makes superficial sense given his more modest stature compared to Huff.

Dustin Harris batted a respectable .273 with a .455 slugging percentage, but his exit velocity was alarmingly low. Also, while he wasn’t necessarily whiff-prone against breaking stuff, his production against it was sorely wanting. (The good news is that if last year included a minor but nagging injury or a mechanical issue that could be corrected, he could really break out in 2024.)

Justin Foscue’s swinging strike rate against fastballs was a comically low 4%, yet he actually hit better against breakers (.281 with a .531 slugging percentage). He’s a mature hitter, if not quite fully developed.

OF JP Martinez deserved his call-up, but his .298/.418/.543 line in AAA included more than a little luck in terms of grounders and soft shots finding holes.

Cody Bradford really was all that. All his pitches were effective.

Marc Church’s slider was glorious. 50% of opposing swings drew air! The fastball probably prevented a 2023 MLB debut. Not enough whiffs, plenty of hard contact.

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 began 2022 0-for-16 (with eight walks). Last year, Justin Foscue didn’t collect a hit until his 18th at-bat.

Now, consider 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). Abi Ortiz, who batted .294 overall, followed a 1st-inning homer with 20 hitless at-bats last August. 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.

Runs Scored, RBI, Pitcher Wins/Losses

Ignored except as occasional anecdotes. All are byproducts of more important measure of production.