The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of A-Ball
This week I thought I would take a look at the top hitting and top pitching teams in Advanced A-Ball. Interestingly, if you had looked at these two teams' rosters before the season began - and before you knew what city they were playing in - you might have thought the rankings would be exactly the opposite.
As of right now, the Kinston Indians (Cleveland Indians) club is the best team in A-Ball in terms of team pitching, with the Wilmington Blue Rocks (Kansas City Royals) club not far behind. The Lancaster JetHawks (Boston Red Sox) club is the best team in terms of hitting. However, if you look at things from a purely prospect standpoint, Kinston has a better offensive team, while Lancaster theoretically has more pitching prospects.
That, however, is where park factors come into play. Lancaster is known as an extreme hitter's park, while Kinston is more of a pitcher's park, which can be witnessed through these Weighted Park Factors, obtained via BaseballThinkFactory.org.
2004-2006 Weighted Park Factors:
Runs Hits 2B HR BB SO Kinston 0.95 0.94 0.96 1.01 1.05 1.02 Lancaster 1.22 1.15 1.02 1.60 1.11 1.00
The numbers above bear out the fact that hitters have an advantage over pitchers in Lancaster. The club is leading all of A-Ball in homers and by a rather large margin. Kinston, on the other hand, is truthfully not exactly a pitcher's park; it's actually about as close to neutral as you can get.
As a major fan of prospect watching and the minor leagues in general, I dislike the fact that ballparks are so different. You cannot accurately gauge a player's success without looking at his home park's factor. In a perfect world, every park would be neutral.
Lancaster Offence (out of 30 Advanced A-Ball clubs):
HR: 45 (1st) AVG: .291 (1st) OBA: .386 (1st) SLG: .486 (1st)
Lancaster's offence is led by outfielder Bubba Bell. The 24-year-old is not considered a prospect due to his age and lackluster numbers before reaching the launching pad known as Lancaster. He was drafted in the 39th round out of Nicholls State University by the Red Sox in 2005 and hit only .298/.373/.430 before this season. Bell's average has been similar at home and on the road but his slugging percentage is 100 points higher in Lancaster.
First baseman Aaron Bates is arguably the top hitting prospect on the club. He was a third round pick of the Red Sox in the 2006 draft out of North Carolina State University. Interestingly, Bates is hitting better on the road (an OPS of 1.082 vs 1.029). He has, however, hit with more power at home. Bates has struggled somewhat with men on base and is hitting .422 when the bases are empty.
Infielders Iggy Suarez and Tony Granadillo are having surprising success in Lancaster. Suarez, 26, is a former 24th round pick in 2003 out of Southwest Texas State University and has a career .246 average. This season, he was hitting .379/.475/.530 before a promotion to Portland where he is struggling at .154/.267/.231.
Granadillo, 22, is a former minor league Rule 5 draftee out of the Cardinals' system. He has picked up where Suarez left off and is hitting .373/.522/.612 as a part-time player who has earned a starting gig. The Venezuelan shortstop is hitting .500 against lefties and has more walks than strikeouts (16/11).
ERA: 5.01 (28th) Hits: 379 (29th) HR: 30 (27th) BB: 145 (26th) K: 246 (15th)
This is truly where the team's strength lies, whether the stats bear that out or not. Four of the Red Sox' top eight pitching prospects are currently toeing the rubber in Lancaster, including Michael Bowden, Justin Masterson, Kris Johnson and Daniel Bard, who is currently injured.
Bowden arguably has the highest ceiling of the quartet, although Bard has slightly better stuff. Bowden was taken in the supplemental first round (47th overall) by Boston out of an Illinois high school. His fastball is in the low 90s but he has solid secondary pitches, plus command and he knows how to pitch, which has helped him survive Lancaster so far this season.
Impressively, Bowden - a right-hander - has held lefties to a .173/.230/.210 line. His home line against all batters is also impressive at .257/.295/.333 but his road line is even better at .133/.161/.150. On Saturday, Bowden lowered his ERA to a shocking 1.37 with seven innings of one-hit ball against San Jose. He hasn't allowed an earned run in his last three starts and could see Double-A very shortly, especially if Boston decides to promote Clay Buchholz (1.85 in six starts for Portland) to Triple-A.
Bard has been awful at Lancaster. For a college player, Bard's pitching skills are extremely rough and it was a bit of a shock to see Boston promote him so aggressively to begin the season - and his pro career after signing late in 2006. Whether it was the triceps tendinitis that landed him on the disabled list or Lancaster's reputation as a tough park for pitchers, Bard walked 22 batters in 13 innings.
Righties hit a respectable .259/.444/.296 against him, but lefties pasted him at .412/.571/.706. Bard's wildness has made him ineffective at home and on the road (OPS 1.198 vs .846) but the real difference can be seen in batters' slugging numbers against him at home (.676) versus on the road (.333).
Both Johnson and Masterson have struggled mightily in the California League and, more specifically, in their home park. Masterson has allowed 27 hits in 13.1 home innings, while Johnson has allowed 15 hits and 11 walks in 12.2 home innings.
I certainly wouldn't give up on the pitchers just yet. Considering the team is last in nearly every pitching category and the numbers show Lancaster is an extreme hitters' park, Masterson, Johnson and even Bard should be given some slack. Bowden, on the other hand, looks like an absolute stud.
I would not trust any of the hitters to repeat their Lancaster performances in Portland, although Bates has some potential.
HR: 33 (5th) AVG: .244 (27th) OBA: .328 (16th) SLG: .404 (7th)
On a team with three highly-drafted college bats and one promising player from high school, you would probably expect to have a solid offensive attack. However, all four players - Wes Hodges, Josh Rodriguez, Stephen Head and John Drennen - have struggled.
Hodges, a second round pick in 2006, is currently hitting .242/.290/.473 and the right-handed batter out of Georgia Tech has struggled against minor league southpaws to the tune of a .150 average in 20 at-bats. He is also hitting .125 on the road.
Rodriguez was another one of Cleveland's four second round picks (including the supplemental round) in 2006. His line currently sits at .200/.290/.374, although he has shown slightly better command of the strike zone than Hodges (15 walks compared to five). Rodriguez is also struggling on the road with a .176 average.
Head set the world on fire in his first pro season after signing out of Mississippi as a second round pick. In his debut season, he advanced as far as Kinston but has hit a wall. Head is now in Kinston for a third straight season and has yet to figure out Advanced A-Ball pitchers. In a continuing theme, Head has struggled on the road with a .176 average and only one RBI.
Drennen has moved fairly quickly for a high school hitter but Kinston continues to give him trouble in his second attempt at Advanced A-Ball. He has the "best" line of the four hitters at .233/.313/.408 and is possibly heating up with the weather with a .279 average in the month of May. Drennen is also the only one of the four hitting above .200 on the road (.228).
ERA: 2.68 (2nd) Hits: 264 (2nd) HR: 18 (7th) BB: 81 (1st) K: 211 (29th)
David Huff is a recognizable name in the Kinston rotation mainly because he was Cleveland's first pick in the 2006 draft. However, put up your hand if you had heard of Kevin Dixon, Frank Herrmann, Sung-Wei Tseng or Ryan Edell before the season began. No one? Or is that a hand up in the back? All four have excelled in Kinston's rotation with ERAs under 4.00.
Huff doesn't have great stuff but he was considered a "safe pick" out of UCLA. The left-hander currently has a 1.89 ERA in 38 innings. Left-handed batters are only hitting .182/.182/.182 against him. Huff has also kept the ball in the yard with just one homer allowed, and he has walked only seven batters.
Dixon was taken in the fifth round of the 2005 draft out of Minnesota State University and, again, possesses average stuff. He has kept the ball on the ground in Kinston (1.67 GO/AO) despite giving up three homers. Ten of the 16 earned runs that he has allowed came in two games. Right-handed batters are hitting .310 against the 6'3", 225lbs right-handed pitcher.
Herrmann, soon to be 23, has yet to lose a game in six starts this season, although he has only two wins. The former Harvard University hurler does not strike out many batters (20 in 31.2 innings) but he does not beat himself and has allowed only three walks this season. Herrmann's future probably lies in the bullpen. The right-hander has struggled against left-handed batters and they are hitting .319/.347/.532 against him, compared to right-handers at .227/.275/.427.
Tseng is a Taiwanese pitcher who made his pro debut in April and skipped the lower rungs of the minor leagues. He was given a $300,000 contract by Cleveland and was considered the best amateur pitcher in Taiwan. He has appeared in a number of International tournaments, including the World Baseball Classic. He has had little trouble adapting to baseball in North America and currently sports a 3.22 ERA. However, he has struck out only 25 batters in 36.1 innings so there is work to be done.
Another lefty, Edell was an unheralded eighth round pick in 2005 out of the College of Charleston, yet he has done nothing but succeed in pro ball. He currently has a 3.26 ERA and has allowed only 21 hits in 30.1 innings of work in Kinston. Opposing batters are hitting only .198 against him and left-handed batters have a .077 average.
It is hard to know exactly what to make of Cleveland's college hitters and pitchers in Kinston. If I were a betting man, I would predict that the pitchers have a much better chance of succeeding at higher levels, while the batters probably won't amount to much unless they improve significantly in the near future.