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Farm Futures: League Inequalities

Jason Collette

Jason Collette

Jason has been helping fantasy owners since 1999 at RotoJunkie, Fanball, Baseball Prospectus and now here at RotoWire. He covers the Tampa Bay Rays at theprocessreport.net. You can hear Jason weekly on many of the Sirius/XM Fantasy channel offerings throughout the season as well as on the Towers of Power Baseball Hour Podcast on iTunes. He was selected as the Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year by FSWA in 2013.

A few weeks ago, we took a look at park factors and how some prospects are made and broken by playing in certain parks in the minor leagues. It also goes without saying that because the parks are not equal, the different leagues in the minor league system are also not equal. For example, a .277 batting average in the International League was 14 points above the league average, but in the Pacific Coast League, that was right at league average. A 4.50 ERA would be bad in just about any league but that would have been better than league average if the pitcher was in the Pacific Coast League or the California League. Here is a breakdown of the league average player and pitcher in each of the advanced leagues as well as a few notes on players that were in those leagues in 2010.

International League

- League hitting: 27 years old, .263/.330/.410, .147 ISO, 0.44 BB/K, 5.4 SpeedScore
- League pitching:  27 years old, 4.15 ERA, 9.1 Hits/9, 0.9 HR/9, 7.3 K/9, 2.2 K/BB, 3.96 FIP

This league tends to be a delicate balance of "Four-A" players and legitimate major league prospects. After all, Barbaro Canizares led the league in hitting with a .341 average as a 30 year old but new Rays' starting first baseman Dan Johnson led the league with 30 home runs at the age of 30. This is why Freddie Freeman and Jesus Montero were so impressive last season as both of them were only 20 years old last season and Freeman had a .319/.378/.521 slash line last season while Montero had a .289/.353/.517. Dan Johnson's 30 home runs speak to his legitimate power threat, but Freeman and Montero hitting 18 and 21 respectively are more impressive considering the experience difference.

Pitching-wise, Jeremy Helickson dominated the league as a 23-year old starting pitcher with 12 wins and a 2.45 ERA which was well below the league average. Hellickson and Ivan Nova were the only pitchers in the entire league that made more than 20 starts and had an ERA below 3.20. Nova certainly had his problems working deep into games at the major league level but he earned that promotion with this work. Carlos Carrasco has already gotten some early praise in Indians camp and the young pitcher had better than league average metrics across the board. Former top prospect Jason Hirsh a 3.90 ERA and nine wins in 19 starts at Scranton, but was older than league average and his K/9 and HR/9 were below league average

Pacific Coast League

- League hitting: 27 years old, .277/.348/.432, .155 ISO, 0.51 BB/K, 5.7 SpeedScore
- League pitching: 27 years old, 4.78 ERA, 9.7 Hits/9, 1.0 HR/9, 6.9 K/9, 1.9 K/BB, 4.19 FIP

The PCL is infamous for the same mix of players as the International League, but with loftier stats thanks to loftier altitudes. For example, 62 players last season that had at least 150 plate appearances in the league hit .300 or higher and three players had slugging percentages over .600. John Lindsey was an amazing story last season as he finally got called up to the majors after 6342 plate appearances in the minor leagues. Last season, he had a .353/.400/.657 slash line in Albuquerque which is the premiere launching pad in the league but Lindsey was 33 years old and one of the elder statesmen of the league. Mark Trumbo's .301/.368/.577 line stands out but his below league average BB/K rating is a caution flag as you create your dynasty league cheatsheet.

The league ERA was 4.78, but Michael Kirkman's 3.09 ERA last season in 131 innings stands out. His 1.9 K/BB rate is not great, but it is right at league average and his 8.9 K/9 is well above league average and tops amongst all starters  with at least 100 innings pitched. This is one of the reasons why Kirkman is someone I am high on for 2011 to make noise out of Texas, and last season working in relief he showed signs of his potential. The ERA leaderboard of the league are a figurative who's who of busted prospects: Anthony Lerew, Bryan Bullington, and Thomas Diamond show up on the list as well. This league is brutal on pitchers, so when looking at prospects here, check the skills and compare to the league average rather than be turned off by Lance Lynn's 4.77 ERA. If you do, you overlook the fact Lynn was better than league average in every other metric last season and one of the reasons he could be a factor in the suddenly thin Cardinals pitching rotation in 2011.

Eastern League

- League hitting: 24 years old, .259/.332/.397, .138 ISO, 0.47 BB/K, 5.4 SpeedScore
- League pitching: 24 years old, 4.21 ERA, 8.9 Hits/9, 0.8 HR/9, 7.3 K/9, 2.1 K/BB, 3.90 FIP

If you were strictly working off a spreadsheet when drafting, Matt Rizzotti would be a dream as he hit .361/.452/.635 in 310 plate appearances in Reading. Rizzotti's numbers are unbelievably impressive but he was league average for age and there is that giant problem known as Ryan Howard's contract in his way as well. Never mind that his bat is eons ahead of his work in the field which is what slows down many climbs to the big league level. The Eastern League was a breeding ground for prospect success as Domonic Brown went off on a .318/.391/.602 slash line in 271 plate appearances, Jason Kipnis was at .311/.385/.502 in 355 plate appearances, and Brandon Belt raked at a .337/.413/.623 clip in 201 plate appearances. The two names that led the league in home runs should bring back some failed memories; Joel Guzman led the league with 33 home runs while Tagg Bozied finished second at 27.

The league had one of the higher average ERA's in the minors, but that did not stop Kyle Drabek from having one of the league's best ERA's and strikeout rates despite being two years younger than the league average. Zach Stewart was another young arm in the league that came in well below the average ERA at 3.63 but the rest of his skills were below league average across the board, which tempered some of the expectations people had placed on Stewart's arm.

Southern League:

- League hitting: 24 years old, .263/.337/.390, .127 ISO, 0.47 BB/K, 5.7 SpeedScore
- League pitching: 24 years old, 3.99 ERA, 9.0 Hit/9, 0.7 HR/9, 7.4 K/9, 2.1 K/BB, 3.68 FIP

This league has traditionally been one of the tougher hitting leagues in the minors, but that shifted over to the Texas League for last season. 20 different players that had at least 150 at bats hit at least .300 in the league last season, and names such as Brent Morel, Lorenzo Cain, Brandon Guyer, Robinson Chirinos, Mike Stanton, and Trayvon Robinson populate that list. Stanton has obviously already had a major impact at the major league level but the rest are all widely considered top 10 prospects in their respective organizations and bear watching as they move onto Triple-A to start the season to see how their offense holds up. The fact Stanton put up a .313/.442/.729 slash line while being four years younger on average than the pitchers he was facing makes that ridiculous slash line look even more impressive.

The pitching efforts in the Southern League were highlighted by Seattle's Michael Pineda, who at 21 years old went 8-1 with a 2.22 ERA in the league in 13 starts with a 9.1 K/9 and a 4.6 K/BB while allowing just one home run in 77 innings. Chris Archer, then with the Cubs, had a 1.80 ERA in 70 innings winning eight of his 13 starts and struck out nearly one per inning but did walk five per inning. The oft-repaired Mark Rogers had a better than league average ERA at 3.71, but the rest of his skills save his strikeout rate were below league average. The 27-year old Dane De La Rosa has gotten some early attention in the Rays' camp in their wide open bullpen and he dominated Southern League batters last season striking out 75 in 73 innings while giving up just three home runs in 73 innings pitched.

Texas League:

- League hitting: 24 years old, .260/.334/.387, .127 ISO, 0.49 BB/K, 5.4 SpeedScore
- League pitching:  24 years old, 3.98 ERA, 8.9 Hits/9, 0.7 HR/9, 7.2 K/9, 2.0 K/BB, 3.84 FIP

Three players put up OPS over 1.000 last season in this league: Mike Moustakas, Paul McAnulty, and Clint Robinson. Moustakas was just 21 years old as he raked at a .347/.413/.687 rate over 298 plate appearances while Robinson put up similar numbers as a 25 year old and McAnulty did it as the elder statesman in the league at age 29. Although Derrick Robinson was caught stealing 34% of the time last year, he still swiped 50 bases in a league where nobody else stole more than 33 and his 7.9 SpeedScore dwarfed the league average.

Texas League pitching was led by non-prospect Everett Teaford who went 14-3 with a 3.36 ERA in 27 games but prospects like Simon Castro out-paced the league. Castro had 23 starts in the league and had a 2.92 ERA with a 7.4 hits/9, a 7.4 K/9, and a 3.0 strikeout to walk ratio. Danny Duffy only made seven starts in the league but had ratios of 8.6 hits/9, 9.3 K/9, and a stellar 4.6 K/BB. The youngest pitcher in the league was Jordan Lyles, who was just 19 years old but he made 20 starts in the league with a 9.4 hits/9, a 8.1 K/9, and a 3.3 K/BB. Unfortunately, Martin Perez did not find much success; despite a 9.1 K/9, he gave up 12 home runs in 100 IP and 167 baserunners, leading to the worst WHIP of any pitcher with 100 or more innings pitched in the league at 1.68.

California League

- League hitting: 23 years old, .275/.345/.423, .148 ISO, 0.43 BB/K, 6.1 SpeedScore
- League pitching:  23 years old, 4.57 ERA, 9.7 Hits/9, 0.9 HR/9, 7.8 K/9, 2.3 K/BB, 3.82 FIP

36 players hit at least .300 in this league last year and four of them had OPS greater than 1.095 last season. Brandon Belt paced the league hitting .383/.492/.628 in 333 plate appearances. Note that this league has one of the highest SpeedScores in the minors as pitchers have raw pickoff moves and catchers are still working on their footwork. Angels outfield prospect Tyson Auer (from my alma mater, the University of Central Florida), stole 40 bases in only 296 plate appearances which tied for the second best effort on the season despite in playing in less than half of the league's games. Five different players had double-digit triples totals as well, paced by the Giants' Francisco Peguero, who hit 16 triples and threw in 19 doubles, 10 home runs, and 40 steals. The league average OPS was .768 and 59 players were able to do that in a league for hitting.

The league is a tough place to pitch due to the hitting-friendly conditions but that did not stop Aaron Miller from posting a 2.92 ERA in 17 starts last season. His control numbers were actually below league average but his hits/9 was a miniscule 6.7 – a full three hits/9 below the league average. Juan Nicasio's 3.91 ERA might not impress that much on paper, but compared to the league average it is not as bad. Additionally, Nicasio had a 5.5 K/BB which was best amongst all starting pitchers in the league and he also had a 8.7 K/9. It is very important to compare pitchers to the league average in this league because of its unique conditions.

Carolina League:

- League hitting: 23 years old, .260/.330/.388, .128 ISO, 0.42 BB/K, 5.5 SpeedScore
- League pitching:  23 years old, 3.90 ERA, 8.9 Hits/9, 0.7 HR/9, 7.7 K/9, 2.4 K/BB, 3.53 FIP

Compare the slash line for this league to the one in the California League – yes, there is a 50 point difference in their OPS's. The Royals farm system is the best in baseball and it is no surprise to find their prospects at the top of the leaderboard. Eric Hosmer and Will Myers were the two top batting average performers, hitting .354 and .346 respectively, which was well above the league average. Devin Mesoraco was the only player in the league to have an OPS over 1.000 as he hit .335/.414/.620 in 181 plate appearances before the Reds decided he was a men among boys down there and bumped him to Double-A.

John Lamb only made 13 starts in the Carolina League but left with a 1.45 ERA and a 10.0 K/9 and a 6.0 K/BB in those 75 innings pitched – at the tender age of 19. His teammate Will Smith struck out 51 while walking just four batters in 55 innings across eight starts as a 20 year old. The most innings in the league were thrown by Nathan Jones who threw 152 innings and won 11 games in 28 starts. Jones is 24 years old, still stuck in High-A ball, and his K/9 was just 6.4 last year despite the fact he throws in the mid 90's with one of the best breaking balls in the organization. That has all the makings of yet another power arm in the White Sox bullpen in the future.

Florida State League

- League hitting: 23 years old, .255/.324/.364, .110 ISO, 0.40 BB/K, 5.7 SpeedScore
- League pitching: 23 years old, 3.67 ERA, 8.7 Hits/9, 0.5 HR/9, 7.7 K/9, 2.5 K/BB, 3.27 FIP

This is my backyard so these are the minor league games I get to attend in person and watch the hitters struggle to hit in the large ballparks that the major leaguers spend the month of March. The .110 Isolated Power rating for this league is the lowest of all of the advanced leagues by 17 points and it is also the only league whose average OPS is below .700. This is why Brett Jackson's .937 OPS in 312 plate appearances for Daytona stands out as a 21-year old. Quincy Latimore's power production looked pretty as he had 52 extra base hits and 100 RBI last season, but that .767 OPS came at the expense of just 30 walks and 136 strikeouts and that kind of approach tends to suffer when hitters go to Double-A. Anthony Gose gets a lot of attention because of his blazing speed, but he was thrown out in 32 of his 77 stolen base attempts last season and walked just 45 times while striking out 132 times in 574 plate appearances. I think he could be a long lost relative of Esix Snead.

The pitching numbers in this league tend to look better than their other High-A peers because of the same park factors that challenge the hitters. 21 year old Joseph Cruz from the Rays paced the league with 13 wins on a team that finished below .500 and had a 8.3 K/9, 8.7 hits/9, and a 3.4 K/BB. His teammate, Matt Moore dominated the league striking out 12.9 per nine and limiting the league to just 6.8 hits/9 and for that, he went 6-11 with a 3.36 ERA. Dellin Betances starred for the Tampa Yankees going 8-1 with a 1.77 ERA and limiting batters to just 43 hits in 71 innings while striking out 88 batters. The switch-handed Pat Venditte struck out 85 in 72.2 innings and gave up just 49 hits and 14 walks but the 25 year old pitcher should succeed at that kind of level as one of the oldest pitchers in the entire league.

We know how often park factors are overlooked when looking at prospects for your league, but league conditions are looked at even less. Most people just write off the Pacific Coast League and the California League as launching pads and lump the rest of the leagues into one group when in fact, there is variety amongst them as well. An .725 OPS barely draws a glimpse in the Carolina League but it is well above the Florida State League average. Pitching wise, the skills are all quite similar except for the FSL's dominance of K/BB, but there is an ERA variance from 4.78 to 3.67 in the advanced leagues or a FIP variance from 4.19 to 3.27.