Wednesday, April 29, 2009

How I analyze the results of minor league games

Since I obviously cannot attend most minor league games, and most scouting material is isolated observation of a small sample of games from scouts with varying degrees of bias, the obvious next best way to track the minors is to check out the box scores and game logs from Minor League Baseball, do a little bit of internet research and try to piece together where every key player stands, which players in the peloton are emerging as key players, and which prospects may not be long for their prospect status.

For each game played, I scan the box scores. I pay attention to multi hit games, RBI base hits and extra base hits. Since hitters fail on average 70% of the time, I pay little attention to hitless and weak performances on a game to game basis.

For pitchers, I track every line score of every pitcher, noting anomalies such as wild pitches, hit batters and balks. Since each pitcher is a focal key to how the ballgame proceeds, it's important to note how each one does, good or bad, as each performance helps provide guidance of how to evaluate the hitting performances.

Wind speed and direction is also a factor: Hitters have an easier time hitting home runs with a 20 mph wind out to center, pitchers have an easier time getting hitters out in cold conditions, and it's very difficult to get an extra base hit, let alone a home run, with a wind blowing in from the fences. I'm also cautious about good pitching numbers in a blowout for the same reason as hitting numbers.

I try to note past histories of opposing players when noting particularly good or bad performances by the team I'm studying. If the hitters teed off on a historically poor pitcher or someone struggling, I give it less credence than if they did so off an ace.

I note the score and the progression of scoring: I may give less credence to big hitting numbers in a high scoring game or a blowout, since in both cases hits may have been easy to come by, and in the case of a blowout there was little pressure to succeed or fail, which does not necessarily reflect competitive game conditions. Now, if a pitcher notched those 8 strikeouts in 5 innings while the game was close, or a hitter drove in those three runs while the game was close, that means something since there was more pressure... while ringing up K's or base hits in garbage time doesn't mean as much.

In a low scoring game, I first note the weather to see if the wind was blowing in. Then I note the scheduled pitchers: An ace will obviously shut down most lineups, and I won't be as critical of hitters who don't do well if they're facing a phenomenal prospect. Then I note the hitters: If a pitcher shuts down a lineup full of poor hitters that swing themselves into lots of outs, that means less.

I note the playing environment. The Cal League and Pacific Coast League is very offense friendly due to warm and high altitude playing environments that fuel home runs. So I'm careful about overrating strong hitting numbers or careful to criticize pitchers who put up poor numbers. The Midwest League is very pitcher friendly as most of the college age and teenage hitters are new to pro ball and the weather is cooler. I'm careful not to overrate a good pitching effort, as well as careful not to come down too hard on hitters who struggle.

Likewise, a great pitching effort in the Cal League deserves note, as does poor hitting at that level. And a fine hitting season in the Midwest League deserves as much significant note as a pitcher who can't seem to keep a lineup under control there. But that gets into macro analysis, which is another story.

- For starting pitchers, I track the result of every ball in play, free base or strikeout. This will often tell me more about what said pitcher did than the line score.

A pitcher who allowed two runs but gave up a lot of line drives probably left a lot of pitches up in the zone, and could get hit hard by a better lineup. A pitcher who gets a lot of groundballs works down in the zone, indicating a pitcher that can do consistently well against most lineups since it's hard to generate consistent offense off groundballs. A pitcher who got groundballs, didn't walk anybody and still gave up 5 runs probably had bad luck: His infield defense probably let him down. With better fortune on the groundballs, he typically has a better night.

When possible, I'll search through Google News for news on the completed games, to see if there were any quirky developments that produced these results, or why particular players were missing. Sometimes a grounder through the hole takes a weird bounce that only a beat writer can note. Sometimes a player came out of the game due to an un-noted injury. Sometimes a player's dealing with an illness or injury that hampers his performance. Sometimes the box scores don't tell the full story about the weather: Maybe it was windier than it seems, or an intermittent drizzle of rain killed the offense. And when the game log notes an ejection or injury, usually it won't tell the story but a beat writer who watched the game will.

This sounds like a lot of effort, and when you recap the games it can be. It can take an hour or so just to recap four games in your team's minor league system, and two hours plus to cover ten (an average number of teams an organization has in play once the rookie leagues start). And that's two hours if you just hit the highlights and keep the in-game coverage to a minimum.

So why do it? Couldn't I just track the top prospect lists on Baseball America and and ignore everybody else?

Well, not every player in MLB was a top prospect coming up. Rotations, lineups, benches and bullpens are full of 24th and 37th round picks that slid under the radar, minor league castoffs who figured things out with a new organization, and international signees who diligently stepladdered in obscurity through the system.

Many of the ballplayers you see on MLB fields today weren't Baseball America Top 100 prospects, multi million dollar international signees, or top draft picks. Anyone looking to seriously track a team's minor league org does themselves a disservice to focus on a top 20 list parsed by a national media outlet. That's like watching an episode of NBC Nightly News every night and considering yourself fully informed on World News.

Some star prospects or future MLB regulars tend to pop out of nowhere to many. But if you're tracking every level of the system, they don't pop out of nowhere at all: You see their growth on a day by day, week by week, month by month basis.

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