The context of age in the minor leagues

I went to yet another wedding this weekend. For anyone who reads my work in any of the various places I write or follows me on Twitter, you know that weddings have been an overriding theme of my summer, and for anyone who has been through their 20s, you understand why.

Everyone knows how weddings work. You see people you haven’t seen in a while, they ask you how you’ve been and what you’re up to these days. For me, that involves trying to explain how being an internet baseball writer is an actual job to—in the case of this weekend—a number of successful lawyers. Only girlfriends’ dads pose a tougher audience.

Of course, once I explain that I cover minor league prospects, I am always presented with the following question: “Do you know ? He’s my ‘s and he got drafted by the .” It’s like a minor league Mad Lib. I spend as much time following prospects as anybody in the world, yet in all this time, I’ve never had anyone give me a name I recognize.

You see, family members of minor leaguers don’t understand the hierarchy of minor league baseball, the one that separates the prospects from the non-prospects and doles out playing time based on draft status and signing bonuses, and a wedding is hardly the place to explain it to them, despite the open bar. They don’t need to know that their 24-year-old nephew playing in Batavia will be out of work at the end of the year, and I’m certainly not going to be the one to tell them.

But this type of context is important for fans trying to comprehend the numbers they’re seeing from minor league players. Twenty home runs from Player A and Player B may signify two extremely different things, depending on the context in which they take place.

For example: 38 home runs in Double-A seems like an incredibly impressive accomplishment, but for Darin Ruf, all it got him was a ticket to Triple-A to start the 2013 season. Why? Because when those 38 home runs were hit by a 25-year-old who had never approached power like that before. It’s difficult to determine how much of it is a true accomplishment and how much of it is the result of picking on younger competition.

The average age of players in the International and Pacific Coast Leagues (Triple-A) is around 26. As I explained a few weeks ago, Triple-A includes a lot of veteran major leaguers. The average age for the Double-A leagues is just slightly over 24. For High-A it’s a hair under 23 and for Low-A ball it’s around 21-and-a-half. Most prospects are below the average age for their league, as the league ages are skewed higher by the non-prospects who spend multiple years there and fail to advance.

Age is one of the most important forms of context in the minor leagues. For 2012 first-round pick Lance McCullers to be striking out over a batter per inning in the full-season Midwest League at the age of 19 is impressive. For Dodgers Mexican left-hander Julio Urias to be doing it at 16 is downright astonishing. At the age of most high school sophomores, Urias has been competing against the likes of Byron Buxton and Carlos Correa, and succeeding. The context of his age is incredibly important.

Being young for a level is not, in and of itself, an indicator of success. Often, a player having been young for his league is used as an excuse for average play. The Mets did this for years in the late 2000s, promoting their international prospects aggressively despite never seeing them truly excel at any given level, with Fernando Martinez becoming the tragic example of what this strategy can do to a talented player. It isn’t the only reason he failed, but it certainly didn’t help.

Being old for a level can have a negative effect as well. Andrew Lambo, a former top prospect with the Dodgers, was just called up by the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday. Lambo toiled in the minors for four months this season despite being a corner outfielder with 31 home runs in the upper minors in an organization with terrible major league right fielders. Why? Because he just turned 25, and the Pirates couldn’t be sure of the legitimacy of what he’s accomplished.

Sure there are other reasons Lambo was ignored while his major league team had a need for the one thing he’s good at—his past three well-below-average seasons come to mind—but among the chief reasons for Lambo’s continued presence in the minors is that 24-year-olds are supposed to dominate Double-A pitching. Most major league 24-year-olds would. To do so is not the great achievement that his 31 home runs would suggest it to be.

None of this means that Lambo can’t contribute, of course. It just means that we mustn’t get overexcited about his arrival in the majors. Ruf has turned into a very usable player in the major leagues, but he’s probably not the middle-of-the-order bat many Phillies fans were hoping he could be. He is, however, better than Delmon Young, but that’s a comparison for another day.

When looking at minor league numbers, age should be mentioned in the same breath as walk rate, strikeout rate, and wRC+ (one of my favorite all-encompasing stats, because it involves, you guessed it, context). Compare a player to his peers, but make sure that he was in fact playing against peers. If he is dominating against older competition, get excited, but don’t use young age as a crutch for mediocrity. In the same light, don’t completely discount performance because of age, but use it as a way to temper expectations until a player proves himself against more appropriate competition.

Age is often thought of as just a state of mind, but for minor leaguers, it’s just another stat to give us context into the validity of what we are seeing.

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Comments

  1. Carl said...

    Hi Jeff,

    1) An Internet writer is a real job.

    2) Your writing is having an effect, as the WSJ had an article yesterday downplaying Flores’ numbers in Las Vegas saying his .315 and 21 HRs and 85 RBIs would translate to .260 w 10 HRs and 50 RBIs in NY. 

    I was disappointed in the article, and argued on the WSJ site and MMO (A Met’s blog) that the article’s author ignored the context of a 21 year old who has not finished growing physically & having 4-5 years less experience than his counterparts, would translate into a much better Major Leaguer than .260 w 10 HRs.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Rockets Redglare said...

    Carl is of course much better informed than I.  I totally agree with his #1 and Jeff does it well.  I love baseball in all it’s forms. I can watch my local legion team as easily as the Sox.

    You smart Sabermetrics dudes blow me away.  Ted Williams was the greatest hitter of all time, wanta fight. lol.

  3. DD said...

    As an old Bill James devotee I do appreciate the importance of a prospect’s age in evaluating his chances.

    One thing, though: I would expect a more accurate player appraisal if one considered not only the player’s age, but also the time the player spends in development.  By which I mean, just because a player makes the decision to actually finish college, and therefore begins his path through the minors at an advanced age, he doesn’t automatically become a worse player.  He DOES present a foreshortened career arc, of course, but a guy such as Josh Satin of the Mets, who can hit, shouldn’t be tossed into a bin with a lot of players who finished out Double A ball on their third try.  I suspect a lot of poor evaluations occur from ignoring this detail.

    I would be interested in your thoughts on this.

  4. Frank Jackson said...

    Some years ago I read an interesting article (can’t remember the magazine or author) on what happens to prodigies.  The main thrust of the article was based on a long-term study of children who displayed exceptional talent.  I believe they limited the study to musical and mathematical talent. 

    At any rate, they found out that eventually other people caught up to most prodigies.  While a 12-year-old solving incredibly difficult equations or playing concertos is noteworthy, over time a lot of less talented people get to where the prodigies were.  It’s sort of like being born on a mountaintop as opposed to climbing up there.  A great head start doesn’t insure your winning the race. 

    So if the prodigies remain where they are, as they age, they find they have a lot more company and are no longer so unusual.  Starting at a high level and going onward and upward from there is truly rare.  And I’m thinking the same applies to baseball phenoms.

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