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The Basics of Minor League Baseball

Since the same questions come up over and over about minor league baseball and prospecting I figured putting together a post that covers all the basics would be handy and/or useful. It’s formatted like an FAQ from ye olde usenet days for easy searching.

1. Classes and Leagues

There are several levels in MiLB, starting with the rookie leagues and topping out in AAA. Here’s a full listing with some basic notes:

Rookie League - Gulf Coast, Arizona, Frontier and Appalachian Leagues These leagues are where young international signings, normal high school players and project prospects generally start out. The GCL and AZL are located on team complexes meaning that they get extra care from the powers that be. They play about 70 games

Short Season A - New York-Penn and Northwest Leagues For most teams A- is where you dump all your college players after they’re drafted and signed. Young players who are not ready for full season may also make an appearance here. They play about 70 games.

Full Season A - South Atlantic and Midwest Leagues The first full season league. Full of prospects and dreams. Advanced (also known as “polished”) pitchers will destroy the young hitters here and often do not spend a full season at this level.

A+ - Florida State, Carolina and California Leagues This is the first level where good prospects who have been performing well start to struggle. Hitters are now facing pitchers with legit breaking stuff and pitchers are facing more batters who can hit good fastballs.

AA - Eastern, Southern and Texas Leagues This is where your favorite prospect will bust. Teams are full of decent hitters and pitchers with decent raw stuff. Players who sleepwalk through A+ arrive in AA and find more plus breaking balls and hitters who won’t swing at their below average changeup in the dirt. Even good prospects repeat AA pretty often.

AAA - International and Pacific Coast Leagues Remember that guy who played for that team 5 years ago? This is where he is now. There are some prospects in AAA but the rosters are full of fringy guys who just didn’t quite make the cut to stick around in MLB and lots of guys who used to play in MLB but are not good enough anymore. And Josh Towers.

2. Specific League Quirks

Some of the minor leagues have special quirks due to locations (lots of arid climates, for example) and parks. It’s important to know this stuff when looking at stat lines.

Pacific Coast

Florida State

This is a general thing, there are some parks within these leagues that are pretty normal but overall the entire league numbers are skewed and need to be accounted for. So if you’re looking at a guy playing in High Desert in the CAL and see that he’s hit ninety-million homeruns you should dig a bit deeper before you get all happy in the pants.

There are of course parks that skew one direction or the other in every league but don’t disrupt the overall run environment the same way.

3. Age and the Minor Leagues

Age is a very important thing to look at in MiLB when you’re getting all happy for a guy. That 26 year old in A who is striking out 15 per 9 isn’t someone to get excited about. Here’s some numbers on median age pulled from Baseball America about the 2012 season:

Full Season A
League		Median DOB	Median Age
Midwest		11/28/89		22
South Atlantic	01/06/90		22
League		Median DOB	Median Age
Carolina		11/01/88		23
California		10/03/88		23
Florida State	12/20/88		23
League		Median DOB	Median Age
Eastern		12/20/86		24
Texas		10/20/87		24
Southern		11/03/87		24
League		Median DOB	Median Age
International	01/04/85		26
Pacific Coast	07/03/85		26

Guys who are younger than the median age and doing very well (or even just holding their own depending on how young they are) are worth keeping an eye on. Guys who are the median age or a tick above shouldn’t be written off. Guys who are way old should be considered with extreme caution.

4. Tools and Stuff

Tools are the fundamental basic baseball skills that scouts grade for position players. They are:

  • Batting— Hitting for average, making good contact, etc. Sometimes simply called “Contact” or “Hit tool”.
  • Power— How far does this guy hit baseballs?
  • Speed— Catcher speed or Brett Gardner?
  • Defense— Fielding (in)ability
  • Arm — How well a player throws. Affects where he can play on defense.

The elusive Five Tool Player has average or better ratings in all these tools. Some 5 tool guys of the recent past include Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds in Pittsburgh, and Ken Griffey, Jr.

A toolsy prospect is a player who projects to have a bunch of above average tools but will never put it together and will make you cry if you love him.

Pitchers don’t have tools the same way but their deliveries, command and control are often evaluated in a similar way.

  • Control— Can this guy throw strikes?
  • Command— Can this guy hit the catcher’s mitt?
  • Delivery — Is it smooth or extreme effort? Any weird hitches?

Stuff! Pitchers throw it. Some of it is good and some of it sucks. Mike Mussina knew what to do with it and Daniel Cabrera never figured that out.

Stuff refers to the quality of the pitches a pitcher has in a vacuum. 98MPH fastball and a slider that resembles a boomerang? That is excellent raw stuff! Does it mean the pitcher is the next superstar of the baseball world? Not necessarily. You have to be able to get it over the plate and occasionally put the pitch where the catcher wants it to go.

A project pitcher is one with excellent raw stuff who hasn’t put it all together yet. He will walk every other batter he faces and be kept around for a long time and never fill that hole in your heart.

5. The 20-80 Scale and You

The 20-80 scale is used to evaluate the quality of a player’s tools. Here’s the scale:

20 Very Poor (“Catcher Speed”)
30 Well-Below Average
40 Below Average
45 Fringe-Average
50 Average (Kyle Lohse’s fastball)
55 Solid-Average
60 Plus
70 Plus-Plus
80 Top-Tier (Barry Bonds’ power)

Scouting reports generally grade on future projection rather than current tools, but you’ll often see grading on both current and future tools. This gives an idea of where a guy is in his development.

6. Pitching Prospects

A few rules about pitching prospects:

  • Your team’s #1 pitching prospect does not project to be a #1 starter
  • Pitching prospects exist to die horribly of various arm injuries
  • That guy who walks too many people will never stop walking too many people

Most good pitching prospects do not project to be #1s. A #1 starter the way you see it thrown around in scout terms means a pitcher with 3 plus offerings, a plus-plus pitch, durability, and superior command/control. Just because a pitcher is a rotation anchor does not mean they’re a #1 in this sense (and that’s fine).

Current MLB pitchers you could identify as a “True #1” are:

  • Roy Halladay
  • Cole Hamels
  • CC Sabathia
  • Justin Verlander
  • Cliff Lee
  • Tim Lincecum before he tripped and fell over a cliff
  • Stephen Strasburg
  • Clayton Kershaw
  • Felix Hernandez

So as you can see they are rare creatures. Don’t be upset if that guy you really love is projected to be a #3, that’s still a really good pitcher (think Andy Pettitte).

7. Minor League Statistics

Looking at stat lines in MiLB is fun but be careful about things like age vs level, league and park run environments, raw stuff, and low minors vs high minors. Young pitchers and hitters projected to go far in this world do not necessarily post mind-boggling numbers in the low minors (often because they are very young for their leagues), though by the time they hit AA you want results.

Anytime you see a guy putting up interesting numbers try and find a scouting report. It’ll give you a better idea of their raw ability and red flags. A Division I pitcher should be tearing up the SAL, for example but maybe he doesn’t have that third pitch to help him stick as a starter as he goes up the ranks.

Repeating levels isn’t necessarily a ding and happens fairly often to shelter pitchers from Hell Parks and to give guys who are young for the league more time, but if a guy is in his third season in A+ and finally getting good results you should be skeptical.

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