Disappointing Midwest Teenagers
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.
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?
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:
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.