Checking in on the Eastern and Southern Leagues

The Eastern and Southern Leagues are two of three Double-A leagues in professional baseball. Each of these leagues will celebrate their annual All-Star game this week. The Eastern League All-Star Game will be held on Wednesday night in Altoona, Penn. The Southern League All-Star Game will occur tonight in Montgomery, Ala.

Top prospects in the Double-A leagues are usually about a year away from contributing to the parent club, but players occasionally make the jump from Double-A to the major leagues. Mike Pelfrey and Anibal Sanchez recently jumped to the big leagues from the Eastern and Southern Leagues, respectively. These two leagues are usually more pitcher-friendly than the Double-A Texas League. This year is no exception, and the runs allowed per 9 innings rate (RA) in both leagues are both below-average this year. The Southern League RA is 4.0 and the Eastern League RA is 4.2.

Eastern League

The following list represents the top 10 pitching performances (ranked by fielding independent ERA) among pitchers with at least 70 innings in the Eastern League this year.

ORG AGE  PLAYER             IP   W  L   H  BB   K HR   ERA FIP-ERA  Notes
DET  23  Humberto Sanchez 71.2   5  3  47  27  86  2  1.76    2.28  SP in Futures Game
TOR  23  Davis Romero     73.2   6  5  57  19  70  3  2.93    2.55
NYY  23  Jeff Karstens    74     6  0  54  14  67  4  2.31    2.65
NYM  26  Willie Collazo   97.2   6  5  81  13  72  4  2.86    2.68
NYY  21  Philip Hughes    72     5  3  52  23  76  5  2.75    2.86
PHI  22  Scott Mathieson  85.2   6  2  67  26  95  7  3.05    3.07
PIT  26  Shane Youman     74.1   5  2  57  16  44  3  1.57    3.10  Leads league in ERA
TOR  23  Kyle Yates       79     5  6  73  24  61  3  3.42    3.12
BOS  24  Kason Gabbard    73.2   9  2  51  25  68  4  2.57    3.19
TOR  24  Mike MacDonald  106.2   7  5 106  19  62  6  3.63    3.26
SF   26  Chris Begg      110     6  9 101  25  71  7  3.60    3.34  Leads league in IP

Now, let’s take a look at the most productive hitters in the Eastern League. Gross Production Average (GPA) is a simple rate statistic that properly weights OBP and SLG and scales it in a way that resembles a batting average.

ORG AGE  PLAYER             POS   AB   H  BB  SO  HR   GPA
WAN  24  Kory Casto          3B  297  84  59  66  13  .306  Leads league with .402 OBP
NYM  26  Michel Abreu        1B  233  79  18  52  10  .306  Leads league with .339 AVG
NYM  28  Randy Ruiz          DH  258  79  19  72  12  .300
BOS  24  Jeremy West         DH  272  83  27  41   8  .293
TOR  22  Adam Lind           OF  320  99  22  79  16  .292  Leads league with 16 HR
CLE  26  Jonathan Van Every  OF  215  58  26  70  10  .291  Promoted to IL
PIT  25  Vic Buttler         OF  295  91  22  39   5  .288  14 triples this year
NYM  26  Shelley Duncan      1B  245  63  30  53  15  .284
BOS  22  Chad Spann          3B  292  89  23  70   7  .281
DET  31  Kurt Airoso         OF  262  68  46  77  11  .279
PIT  29  Simon Pond          1B  292  83  35  70  10  .279
All Star Most Likely to Succeed

Philip Hughes struggled in yesterday’s Futures Game, but he just turned 20 years old and is already one of the best pitchers in the Eastern League. I get more e-mails about Hughes than any other baseball prospect, so I’ve been thinking about his performance a lot lately. Hughes has an above-average walk rate while striking out more than one batter per inning. Here’s something worth thinking about: Only one 19- or 20-year-old pitcher, Edwin Jackson, has had comparable strikeout and walk rates at the Double-A level during the past five years. That comparison is useful in two ways. First, it is an indication of how rare this kind of performance is for such a young pitcher. There is a temptation to dismiss Hughes as just another over-hyped Yankees prospect, but he really has had an exceptional career thus far. However, the comparison also illustrates how difficult it is to project young pitchers’ careers. Jackson was an outstanding pitching prospect, but he has not had any success since leaving the Southern League three years ago. So even if I declare Hughes “most likely to succeed” due to his accomplishments, you should be very skeptical of any kind of projection for a 20-year-old pitcher.

All Star Most Likely to Struggle

Sean Smith, a pitcher in the Cleveland Indians system, is 8-1 with a 2.36 ERA for Akron this year. He benefited from an exceptional batting average of balls in play (BABIP) during the first half, and I expect more of those batted balls to fall for hits in the second half of the season.

Pleasant Surprise of the First Half

Kevin Kouzmanoff has a .422 batting average for the Akron Aeros, but he doesn’t have quite enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title or the above rankings because he has missed time with hamstring and back injuries. Kouzmanoff has hit above .325 in each of his first two seasons in the Indians organization, so this performance isn’t a complete surprise. However, it’s very rare for any hitter to maintain this kind of success over a span of more than 200 plate appearances.

Disappointment of the First Half

Phillies pitching prospect Gio Gonzalez was an important component of last year’s Jim Thome trade. Gonzalez is leading the Eastern League in strikeouts, but is struggling for other reasons. First, he is walking far too many batters (4.25 walks per 9 innings). Gonzalez has also surrendered 16 home runs in only 99 innings pitched. His flyball tendencies are especially problematic in Reading, where he has allowed 11 of his 16 home runs. Gonzalez is only 20 years old and has plenty of time to re-establish himself as a top pitching prospect, but his Eastern League experience has exposed some significant problems.

Southern League

Here are some of the league’s top pitchers during the first half of the season:

ORG AGE  PLAYER            IP    W  L   H  BB   K  HR   ERA FIP-ERA  Notes
LA   25  T.J. Nall         81    8  2  55  14  103  5  2.22    1.84  Leads league with 103 K
ATL  24  Matt Wright       89    7  3  74  28   84  3  2.22    2.61
MIL  27  Corey Thurman     86    2  8  74  25   72  3  2.62    2.67
CHC  24  Chris Shaver      94    5  5  81  34   85  3  2.20    2.71
ARI  23  Micah Owings      74.1  6  2  66  17   69  4  2.91    2.72  Promoted to PCL
ARI  24  Steven Jackson    92    4  7  83  25   80  5  2.64    2.77
LA   29  Spike Lundberg    86.2  7  1  68  28   62  2  2.18    2.86
CHC  24  J.R. Mathes      103.1  8  4 104  19   73  6  3.22    2.87
FLA  22  Anibal Sanchez    85.2  3  6  82  27   92  7  3.15    2.88  1-0 with Marlins
ARI  23  Ross Ohlendorf   118.1  7  4 121  17   72  7  2.81    3.06

The top hitters are once again ranked according to Gross Production Average (GPA). The following GPA figures are not park-adjusted, but I will complement the cumulative numbers with information about possible park effects where appropriate.

ORG AGE  PLAYER             POS   AB   H  BB  SO  HR   GPA  Notes
CIN  22  Joey Votto          1B  333 109  43  76  19  .331  Leads league
LA   22  Andy LaRoche        3B  230  71  41  32   9  .309  Promoted to PCL
CHC  26  Nic Jackson         OF  221  69  25  44   3  .292
SD   23  George Kottaras      C  257  71  50  68   8  .290
CIN  25  Aaron Herr          3B  296  92  22  78  11  .288
TB   22  Elliot Johnson      2B  322  97  25  76  13  .287  10 of 13 HR at home
CHW  24  Corey Smith         3B  261  70  48  57  10  .284
ARI  24  James D'Antona      3B  272  76  36  56  12  .283  
ARI  23  Danny Richar        2B  316  98  38  48   5  .278  .327 GPA at home
CHC  22  Scott Moore         3B  299  83  25  86  14  .276
All Star Most Likely to Succeed

George Kottaras is developing into an excellent catching prospect. His contact skills are only average, but both his on-base skills and his power production have been improving over the past two years. His defense behind the plate is O.K., so he should be able to earn a starting role with the Padres in another couple years as long as he continues to hit.

All Star Most Likely to Struggle

Cubs pitching prospect Juan Mateo is 6-4 with a 2.50 ERA this season. He is hittable, however, and his fielding-independent ERA is a full run higher than his actual ERA. I expect mediocre results from Mateo in the second half of the season.

Pleasant Surprise of the First Half

Joey Votto has had an up-and-down career in the Reds system. This is a good year for him; he is on pace to hit over 30 home runs with a .400 OBP. Only one player, Josh Phelps, has finished with comparable numbers in the Southern League during the past five years. Chattanooga is a hitter-friendly place to play, but Votto has actually hit 13 of his 19 home runs on the road in the Southern League.

Disappointment of the First Half

Jarrod Saltalamacchia might have had the most disappointing first half among all minor leaguers this year. The highly-touted catching prospect was hitting .197 with 4 home runs when a wrist injury sidelined him in late June. Fortunately, I think his first-half numbers suggest a rebound in the near future. Saltalamacchia remains patient at the plate and has an acceptable contact rate. He also has a .244 BABIP this year, but his distribution of balls in play suggest his BABIP should be nearly 80 points higher than it is. He is launching plenty of line drives and fly balls (especially to center field) that just are not falling for hits as often as usual. If his wrist injury is not serious, I expect an improved batting average and power production in the second half.

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