Friday, February 15, 2008

Baseball America Embarassment

As a former long-time subscriber to Baseball America I can only shake my head in embarrassment at the level that formerly worthwhile publication has fallen to. Here is a link to their most recent "analysis" This article creates a new statistic, as if we really needed another one, called "Closest to the Majors" score. You can check out the link for a full appreciation. But the short version is a number created by multiplying a player's last minor league level (1-5, Rookie to AAA) and his rank in his teams top ten. The team CTM is based on adding these top ten numbers together.

Where do you start with something as awful as this measure. To begin with, he used BBA's top ten rankings as a starting point for an "objective" measure of a team's farm system and clearly the top ten rankings are not objective, but subjective, judgments. But that is really a quibble.

The real problem is that that BBA rankings reflect players relative to their teammates. So a team with 10 major league ready prospects at AAA will lose points in this score if they also have higher rated prospects in their lower leagues. This makes the team ratings almost useless. Try to figure out why adding four prospects from the Mets in the Johan Santana trade, including a couple likely to start the season on the major league roster, made the Twins system further from the majors. The answer is because they got one young guy who is now their number one prospect. The score may tell you something about each team's top ten prospects, but it tells you nothing about their farm system or how they compare to other teams.

But that is just a starting point. The other problem is that when you start looking at individual player scores you arrive at ridiculous results. For instance, does anyone think that a number nine prospect in high A ball (who gets 6 CTM points) is closer to the major leagues than the number 10 prospect who is at AAA and gets 5 CTM points. In fact, that number 10 prospect at AAA is further way than any of the top 4 prospects who are in rookie ball or higher and the top 8 prospects who have reached low A ball. This is one of those cases where you need to take away the inventor's calculator and force him to understand math. Because being able to calculate a number doesn't give it meaning.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Twins 2008

Twins fans are likely to have their patience tested this season. One look at the rotation tells you that April and May are likely to see a lot of young pitchers trying to demonstrate they belong in a big league rotation. And its very likely some of them will be demonstrating that they don't belong. At least not yet.

But with all the questions in the rotation, there are also a lot of potential answers. And that is true of the position players as well. The Twins talent last year was very shallow. This year, its not. Looking at the team position, by position they have major league players at most positions and young players who might be able to take the job if someone stumbles or gets hurt. In a couple cases, they have players who, by the end of the season, might just be better than the veteran who has the job to start.


This was a position of depth last year and it remains that way this year. Mauer and Redmond provide a solid major league catching staff. Behind them are young prospects Jose Morales and Drew Butera, one an offensive catcher, the other defensive. They aren't going to take the major league catchers' jobs. But they provide some real depth in case of injury.

First Base

Here the Twins are thin after Justin Morneau. If he should get hurt, the Twins would be scrambling to find a replacement. This is the thinnest position in the Twins system.

Second Base

Brendan Harris probably has this job to start the season. Punto is the backup. But Alex Casilla may be ready to take the job away from Harris by mid-season.


Clearly Adam Everett will start the season for the Twins at shortstop. His bat will never impress anyone but his defense will. Again, Punto is the backup. But also again there are players in the minor leagues who could take Everett's job, regardless of his defensive skills. Casilla is one guy who could do that. The other is Trevor Plouffe. Its not going to happen to start the season, but by July either of these two could be forcing their way onto the major league roster.

Third Base

Mike Lamb is going to the starter. Chances are he will not hit lefties and Punto will see most of his action at third base against left handed pitchers. The minor league options here are not strong. Buys like Watkins, Basak and Macri are not going to take the job away from Lamb. Cut Harris might if Casilla is ready to take the job at second base.


Punto will have this job. The minor leagues have players like Basak, Macri, Watkins and Tolbert. None of them have the defensive skills you look for at shortstop. But they give some depth to the infield in case of injuries.

Left Field

Delmon Young is set here. There isn't anyone in the minor leagues who would take this job even if Young was hurt. Jason Kubel is the backup. Craig Monroe can play left. So, probably, can Michael Cuddyer.

Center Field

There are three guys in this competition, and really only one likely winner. Gomez will start the season in center field unless he really struggles in spring training. But Pridie or Span could take the job away from him if he stumbles to start the season.

Right Field

Cuddyer starts here, Young is probably the backup. Monroe can play right and Kubel probably can in a pinch.

Extra Outfielders:

Monroe, Kubel will be available as backups in the outfield. Monroe can play center field, but its possible Pridie could win a roster spot out of spring training as well and give the Twins a true center fielder as a backup to Gomez. Span and Pridie would both be players who might start the season in the minor leagues, but win a bench job sometime during the year.


Kubel will be DH'ing most of the time. He will probably not see much duty against tough left handers. At least, not to start the year.


The Twins appear to be much deeper than they were last year. They will start the year with some true prospects at AAA, players who should improve and eventually win major league jobs. Combined with the young pitching staff, that may mean a team that is much better by July than it was in April. Its unlikely the young players will develop quickly enough to make the Twins contenders this year. But its not impossible. A lot will depend on how close the Twins can hang in while they are sorting out all the young talent.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Santana's No Trade Clause

There have been a number of comments in the blogsphere about how Santana's no-trade contract had the Twins over the barrel. It is rumored that Seattle was interested in Santana, but he told the Twins he wouldn't waive his no-trade clause for a Seattle trade. There may have been other teams interested as well, but Santana's no-trade clause gave him the power to limit the market. The result was the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox were really the only teams in the race.

I think this misreads the situation. The Mets were probably not prepared to surrender four top prospects without an agreement from Santana on a long term contract. Likewise, with or without a no trade agreement, any other team giving up that much value would want to make sure they had more than a couple draft choices in compensation after one year.

The reality is that Twins only controlled one more year of Santana. With or without a no-trade clause, Santana had complete control over who he plays for beyond 2008. That, not Santana's no-trade clause, was the real limit on the value the Twins got for Santana.

Some people have suggested the Twins have "learned a lesson" and won't be handing out any more no trade agreements. Hopefully that isn't true. The Twins, like most teams, are reluctant to give players no trade agreements. But the Twins, have also been very successful creating the kind of environment where players want to stay. As a result, some players have been willing to give them a hometown discount. That kind of deal is tough to get without assurance for the player that he won't end up playing cheap somewhere else. It would be foolish for the Twins to abandon all no trade deals because of the experience with Santana.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Minor League Baseball Isn't the Same Game

Twenty years ago Bill James made the somewhat startling claim that minor league results, "properly evaluated", predicted major league results as well as major league results do. He then made some statistical calculations called "major league equivalents" that purported to translate a player's minor league results into equivalent major league results.

Looking at James original calculations, there are people who were never successful in the major leagues who had outstanding "minor league equivalent" seasons. There are now several different systems out there to "properly evaluate" minor league players using statistics by creating their major league equivalents. It is difficult to completely evaluate these system sbecause most of them are moving targets that get "refined" each year. (A problem that is ubiquitous in the sabr community.) Perhaps as important, it is not clear what the criteria are for success. Most of the recent systems don't even attempt to evaluate players below AA and James himself made no claims about pitching results.

The problem is that sometimes major league success predicts future major league success. And sometimes it doesn't. The same is true of minor league success. In fact, when "major league equivalences" are criticized for their failure to accurately predict major league success, the usual defense is to point to similar failures in major league statistics. There is no doubt that statistics are crude tools for player evaluation, but for identifying prospects they are even cruder. There are many career minor league players who have had success while only getting, at most, a sip of the big leagues.

So why is minor league success not an accurate predictor of major league success? The answer is really that minor league baseball is not the same game. This is not to suggest the rules are different. Or that the skills that make a successful major league player won't make that player successful in the minor leagues. But some of the flaws that exist in every minor league player, the things that keep them in the minor leagues, allow other players to be successful even with their own flaws that keep them in the minor leagues.

We have all heard about the young hitting prospect who fails because they never learn to hit a breaking ball. In the minor leagues, there are a lot of pitchers who can't get their breaking pitches over the plate. Which means the hitter can have success by laying off the breaking ball and only swinging at fastballs. Most major league pitchers will just feed them a steady diet of breaking balls in the strike zone unless they show they can hit them.

Likewise, there are minor league players who have to "cheat" on 90+ fastball. Fortunately, they can cheat in many situations since they know a fastball is coming. Its the only pitch the pitcher can throw consistently for a strike. And the pitchers who can control their other pitches often lack 90+ fastballs. If they had stuff and control, they would already be in the major leagues. The flip side of that, for the pitcher, is that with a 95+ fastball, you don't need to throw anything else because, even cheating, that hitter is going to have a tough time catching up to it.

So what are some of the other differences?

In the minor leagues hitters will chase breaking pitches out of the strike zone, while major league hitters will lay off it and force the pitcher to throw strikes.

In the minor leagues, a pitcher can have success throwing hard and harder. In the major leagues, they need to be able to change speeds because no matter how hard they throw the hitters can catch up with it if they know a fastball is coming.

In the minor leagues, you can be a successful hitter with large holes in your swing because many pitchers lack the control within the strike zone to consistently take advantage of those holes. Major league pitchers largely don't.

In the minor leagues, you can have success sitting on fastballs. In the major leagues, you have to be able to hit a pitcher's breaking ball.

In the minor leagues, a pitcher needs to be able to throw the ball over the plate. In the big leagues, the pitcher needs to be able to throw quality strikes and locate their pitches in the strike zone.

Of course major league players have flaws too. Which brings us to the most important difference. There is a huge jump from the minors to the majors. People tend to think of baseball talent as a pyramid with the only a few players at the peak. But the reality is that it is more like a mountain, with the slope becoming steeper and steeper the higher you go. The difference between AAA players is not remotely comparable to the difference between big league players.

Just consider the difference between a major league star who gets 33 hits in 100 at bats and the marginal major league player who gets 25. A comparable difference for the next level would be a hitter only able to get 17 hits, well below the Mendoza line. While the jump from the minors to the majors is large, its not that large.

Does that make minor league results meaningless? No. But it means that without understanding the context of those results you can get fooled into thinking a minor league player is better than he is.

How about worse? Are there players who struggle in the minor leagues and then blossom at the major league level? Not really very often. Where they do, the issue is usually less their skills than that the minor leagues focus on player development. Players are sometimes asked to do things that reduce their immediate success in order to develop the skills they need to be successful in the big leagues. Pitchers, in particular, may be working on pitches that they wouldn't be throwing if success were the only criteria. They are working on a changeup or locating their breaking pitchers. And managers will leave a pitcher in the game even when they might be struggling. Likewise hitters, especially as they move to a new level, may be asked to shorten their swing or change their approach in other ways that reduce their immediate success.

The key thing to remember is that it is a different game when most pitchers throw 90+ and most hitters can hit a 90+ fastball. Its a different game when most pitchers can throw breaking balls for strikes and most hitters can hit a breaking ball. Its a different game when most pitchers can locate a pitch in the strike zone and hitters don't easily chase pitches that are out of the strike zone. Major league baseball is a different game than minor league baseball. And while minor league success is not meaningless, its not always meaningful either.

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