WTNYMay 23, 2006
Disappointing Midwest Teenagers
By Bryan Smith

Daunting. Professional baseball must be daunting to teenagers at first, given the degree of difference that their first full professional season entails. Away from home for the first time. Baseball everyday. For more than five months.

After falling in love with high school draft prospects, and paying large bonuses to deter them from college, Major League organizations ask a lot of their bonus babies. Furthermore, these players must deal with the stress of high pressure, as many are associated with high draft selections. Life is difficult, and oftentimes, baseball -- for the first time in their lives -- does not come easy.

Each year, a traditional article of mine is to identify a number of prospects that I believe will break out. In preparation for this list, I look for trends from past breakout prospects, and attempt to apply that to a new brand of prospects. Certain strikeout and walk rates, ISOs in a given stadium, a telling split. And as I've pointed out this year already, with the case of Reid Brignac, a less-than-stellar Midwest League debut.

In 2004, both Brandon Wood and Adam Jones played in the Midwest League during their first professional seasons, at the ages of 19. Neither played particularly well, both had OPS below .750, neither lived up to the first round status. It wasn't until the next season, when professional baseball became more routine, that results started to match their obvious talent. After missing out on the cases of Wood and Jones in 2004, Reid Brignac's 2005 sent out sirens to me that he was on the verge of a breakout. So far, that looks correct.

Each year there are examples of this, so I recently decided we need a better system of evaluating teenage Midwest League performance. For whatever reason, teenage struggles happen more often in the Midwest, likely because of more difficult stadiums, pitchers, and colder weather. We'll save a look at the South Atlantic League for another article.

The Baseball Cube, a fantastic resource for minor league research, has full data available since the 2002 season. In that timeframe, I went through every Midwest League team, and looked for players during their age 19 seasons, which mostly covered their first run through the MWL. I also looked for players with more than 100 at-bats at the level, to avoid sample size issues. Given those parameters, I found 45 player-seasons since 2002 from which to create a baseline.

16,531 .265 .334 .391 .725

Normally, a .725 OPS at any level would not raise eyebrows for a prospect, but for a 19-year-old in the Midwest League, it's average. However, when combing through the list of players, I noticed a group that was more prolific than the rest: first basemen. Five nineteen year olds played first base in the Midwest League since 2002 (Prince Fielder, Kila Kaaihue, Daric Barton, Casey Kotchman, Brad Nelson) and their combined batting lines is an astounding .289/.390/.480, and they make up for nearly a quarter of the home runs.

So, I went back through the study and corresponding Excel spreadsheet, and eliminated the five aforementioned players. First basemen are at the tail end of the defensive spectrum, and their ability to perform with the bat is paramount. How have the other 7 positions on the field fared in the MWL at 19?

.262 .326 .379 .705

Certainly, we can see the effect the first baseman had, as the average OPS drops to .705. Furthermore, there is an increase in the strikeout percentage (which went from 19.7% with all 45 to 20.0% without the 1B) and a decrease in walk percentage (9.3% down to 8.5%). Suddenly, the player with the .725 OPS is not even just average, but nearly 3% above it.

However, this was not quite enough. Given the fact that Wood, Jones and Brignac were all middle infielders, I wanted to further adjust by position. In fact, just last week, I mentioned Paul Kelly as an early potential 2007 breakout, seeing another teenage middle infielder hitting with sub par results. So, going back through the Excel spreadsheet, I eliminated all players that didn't play in the middle infield during their Midwest League stay. While we are left with a number of the original bad players, beyond Wood, Jones and Brignac lay other talents like Ruben Gotay, Ronny Cedeno, Erick Aybar, Josh Barfield and a few other good prospects.

A look at the average middle infield teenage Midwest League batting line, covering 24 players since 2002:

.260 .319 .368 .687

Another decrease. The average ISO is no down to .108, eighteen points lower than it was with the corner infielders, catchers and outfielders added on. Players are still striking out at about a 19-20% rate, but walks are down to about 7.8%, in relation to at-bats. Undoubtedly, players in this category should have even lower expectations than the rest of the group.

* * * * *

This season, I have counted 19 teenage players that currently reside on Midwest League rosters. At the end of the season, it's likely that many of those nineteen will not have impressive batting lines; many will look like early disappointments. However, this may not be true.

What I hope this article did is provide some context to teenage, Midwest League play. Even if MWL 2006 teenager Bryan Anderson finishes the season with a .270/.330/.400 line, we should consider it a small success. If Paul Kelly puts up that line, it will be an astounding forty-three points above the average for middle infielders at that age and level.

I hope this will be the first article in a series, as we also must tackle how our 45 test cases fared after exiting the MWL, how teenagers have done in the South Atlantic League, and how teenage pitchers have done in full season baseball. As I've said in the past, context is everything in minor league baseball, and there is much work left to be done in quantifying the importance of youth.


In case there are any questions, I thought I should probably leave the list of players used for the study, as well as the nineteen I mentioned that are currently on MWL rosters. The lists...

Used in this study: Trevor Plouffe, Prince Fielder, Steve Moss, Ozzie Chavez, Brad Nelson, Kila Kaaihue, Ruben Gotay, Donnie Murphy, Brandon Wood, Sean Rodriguez, Erick Aybar, Jeff Mathis, Casey Kotchman, Lorvin Louisa, Edwin Encarnacion, William Bergolla, Matt Bush, Luis Cruz, Josh Barfield, Pedro De Los Santos, Robinson Chirinos, Jose Reyes, Ronny Cedeno, Daric Barton, Matt Moses, Carlos Gonzales, Emilio Bonifacio, Jarred Ball, Reid Brignac, Wilkin Ramirez, Brent Clevlen, Scott Moore, Matt Tuiasasopo, Asdrubal Cabrera, Adam Jones, Oswaldo Navarro, Daniel Floud, Luis Oliveros, Joe Mauer, Rudy Guillen, Joaquin Arias, Erold Andrus, Hector Made, Eric Duncan, Estee Harris.

Current teenage MWLers: Cameron Maybin, John Matulia, Justin Upton (18), Kyle Blanks, Daryl Jones, Jesus Lopez (18), Jay Bruce, Jeffrey Dominguez, Michael Saunders, Bryan Anderson, Colby Rasmus, Alberto Martinez, Jose Vallejo, John Whittleman, Allan De San Miguel (18), Paul Kelly, Henry Sanchez, Andrew Thompson, Dylan Johnston.


There's hope for Dylan Johnston? Hoo-rah!

In any case, interesting stuff.

What are you thinking about what Jay Bruce is doing so far in Dayton? He started off somewhat slow in April and has been tearing the cover off the ball in May. For the season he is slugging over .550 with 9 Home Runs.

I think the cold weather in the MWL is probably a bigger factor than most people think. Most teenagers in the MWL are either carribean talents or upper round draft talents, who are largely from the sunbelt states. This isnt just the first time they have to deal with professional baseball, but the first time they have to deal with rustbelt weather.

APiNG, thanks, and yes, there is hope for Johnston. Only 13 of the 45 players that I have numbers for had OBPs above .350 as a teenager, which Johnston is on pace for. Of that group, many are already in the Majors, and in the end, probably 10 or 11 will have some Major League experience. The problem, of course, is the slugging percentage. It's even below average for your middle infielder, and would be the worst of the .350+ OBP guys. Given his low ISO and high strikeout rates, his best 3 season comps are Matt Tuiasasopo, Brent Clevlen and Kila Kaaihue.

Doug, Bruce is having a fantastic season, especially in terms of power. Only 6 players in the database had ISOs better than .175 since 2002, the group includes Fielder, Encarnacion, Barton. Bruce's current .283 ISO would be the best. Given his low walk rate and high strikeout numbers, he best profiles with Brad Nelson and Edwin Encarnacion, of which he is doing better than both. Bruce is looking like a great pick.

Sanchez, well said.

Bryan, have you noticed that a disproportionate number of the hitters you identify as having "breakout seasons" after leaving the Midwest League played high A ball in the California League? Of course their numbers got a lot better when they went to the California League. It's the California League! A hitter's paradise. How did Brian Dopirak do when he left the Midwest League and went to the Florida State League? Crash, bam, tinkle. I think players in the South Atlantic League usually move up to either the FSL or Carolina League. That is why you notice these "breakouts" for players leaving the the Midwest League. Of the 16 MLB organizations represented in the South Atlantic League, only 2 have California League affiliates, the Giants and the Rockies, and neither of those teams drafts many HS hitters, so teenage South Atlantic league hitters almost never get to experience the wonders of Californa League stats inflation. One such hitter who did experience the Califonia League "breakout" year: Jason Nix. He hit .246/.340/.400 as a 19-year-old in the South Atlantic League, had a "breakout" year by hitting .281/.351/.475 in the Californa League, and then completely imploded when he went up to Double A. It must be said though that the Rockies' South Atlantic League affiliate plays in an extremely hitter-friendly park (by South Atlantic League standards), so Rockies' hitters in low A already benefit from stat inflation.

Small correction: Adam Jones' birthday is August 1, so he played the vast majority of his MWL season at age 18 (baseballcube seems to have altered their age scale recently for some reason, no longer using the more reasonable July 1 as the cutoff for "age-X years").

the ball just doesnt carry in the mid-west like it does in a desert or at high altitude or the south even, its too cold and damp really. Where they come from might be a factor, but not by much. The latin guys get hot in the hot? I dont see the stats to support that, Sanchez. From now on, I refer to you as Dusty Baker, or Carlos Mencia, take your pick. For the record- both are pretty much dumb in my book.

PS- Albert Pujols is a latin guy, but he played formative years in midwest. So his stats are not part of 'latin guys' projections.