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July 11, 2013

Skewed Left

Planning the Best Baseball Road Trip

by Zachary Levine

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Sometime during the second game of a doubleheader in Batavia, N.Y. on a Monday night, you start to realize just how much baseball there is. So when you return home from that game, you look up the fact there were 14,423 games in the majors and the affiliated minor leagues last year, and all of a sudden hitting six games in four days doesn’t sound so impressive.

It is something that every baseball fan with the necessary mobility should try once, though. And then after you try it once, you’ll start picking your next trip before you even take the ticket stubs out of your pocket.

While much has been written on the topic from people with much more exhausted odometers than mine, the advice here might sound a little different. It starts with asking a lot of questions. There is no better learning experience than a baseball road trip if you ask the right people the right questions. Talk to scouts before or after games, and find out what their life on the road is like. Talk to stadium employees on a night when there is an announced crowd of 908. Read the history of a town of 15,000 during a pitching change and gain an appreciation for where you’re just passing through.

If what I learned from six games in four days sounds like a scrambled stream of consciousness, it’s because it’s supposed to be. You have a lot of thoughts on the road. The fact that you’re with two of your best friends for most of the trip increases the number of thoughts way more than threefold.

1. The trip
Friday, July 5: Lowell (BOS) at Tri-City (HOU), Short-season A, Mark Appel’s pro debut
Saturday, July 6: Jamestown (PIT) at Auburn (WAS), Short-season A, doubleheader
Sunday, July 7: Pawtucket (BOS) at Rochester (MIN), Triple-A
Monday, July 8: Jamestown (PIT) at Batavia (MIA), Short-season A, doubleheader

This actually was not my most impressive trip. That one was five games in four days, but it was five ballparks and required attending an 11 a.m. game and a 6:30 p.m. game in the same day, four hours of driving apart. We just made it.

But it was an easy trip as an Upstater, and one that was complete with side trips to Cooperstown, the Finger Lakes, and Canada along the way.

2. The best player I saw
One of the best parts of a minor league trip comes years later when you’re able to say “I saw that guy when,” so even if you’re not saving scoresheets, pay attention. The best player I saw on the previous trip was Altoona Curve outfielder Andrew McCutchen, and while he didn’t play well in either of the games I saw him play in the minors, it’s still awesome to recall.

The best player I saw, despite seeing the Appel debut, was Xander Bogaerts. It was my first live experience with the no. 3 prospect on Jason Parksmidseason top 50. He hit the ball sharply to all fields; even his flyout was a bullet. And the climax was a three-run home run over the left field bullpen and off the scoreboard in Rochester (video here). He was a bit laughable in the field—not the kind of stuff that has you thinking he’s not agile enough to be a shortstop, just a throw he should have eaten and a popup that he lost on a cloudy day. But I’ll remember that bat.

3. Find something weird outside the lines
In 2007, before the Altoona Curve game, it was a trip to the ballclub’s namesake, the Altoona Curve, which is a railroad feature that allowed trains to be able to climb a particularly steep mountain. Turns out there was a visitor’s center and people and everything.

This trip featured an even more obscure place. In Buffalo, in the shadow of the Peace Bridge to Fort Erie, Ontario sits a small monument in an otherwise mostly quiet marina. The plaque commemorates the Fenian Invasion, a little-known piece of American history, Canadian history, British history and Irish history that can be summarized fairly briefly. After the Civil War, a few hundred Irish men who had fought in the war got together and straight-up invaded Canada. They succeeded in making a few captures in the name of “encouraging” the British to surrender their control of Ireland. The raids were squashed in short order thanks to some U.S.-British diplomacy, but just months after the first one, Britain ceded control over Canada (1867), with part of what is now celebrated as Canada Day being the crown’s disinterest in defending such a large piece of land.

Here is the monument, five miles from the home of the Buffalo Bisons.

4. The second-best player I saw
As always, when you’re on a road trip like this, you’re dealing with tiny samples and not sitting on a team and getting multiple looks at guys. Still, it was hard not to be impressed with the 1 2/3 innings we saw from Marlins relief pitching prospect Colby Suggs.

Okay, he probably won’t end up being the second-best player we saw. Suggs was drafted with the last pick of the second round last month, no. 73 overall, as a college reliever out of the University of Arkansas. That’s usually a predictor of a fast rise, and the stuff was way too good for the New York Penn-League. Despite the NYPL being generally the worst offensive environment in baseball—the pitchers are ahead of the hitters, who are using wood bats for the first time—it’s not an extreme strikeout league and is actually mild (7.6 per 9) compared to say the offense-happy Cal League’s 8.4 per 9. But Suggs had some exception swing-and-miss stuff and good velocity. Given the state of Miami’s club, expect him in the majors before you finish reading the next section.

5. Tim Hortons doesn’t have an apostrophe.
And Timbits >>> Munchkins

6. The most unusual player I saw
It had to be Jin-De Jiang, a Taiwanese Pirates catching prospect at short-season Jamestown. I absolutely abhorred the body, which is listed as 5-11, 220 and which is not carried well at all. But I loved the approach for the 20-year-old who came to the U.S. for a reported $250,000 bonus. Jhang strikes me as a patient hitter, is up to .354/.431/.563 in the extreme pitchers’ league, and has more walks (21) than strikeouts (20) in 204 plate appearances between the Gulf Coast League last year and the NYPL this year.

It’s impossible to deny that part of what made him stand out, in addition to the body, is how unusual it is to see a catcher from the Far East in the U.S. professional ranks. Pitcher: sure. Outfielder: rarer, but sure.

There have actually been only two catchers ever from Japan, South Korea or Taiwan, which ranks pretty low on the list of all 81 modern era players from those countries listed by their primary position.

Position

Players

P

58

C

2

1B

2

2B

4

3B

1

SS

3

LF

4

CF

2

RF

5

Source: Baseball-Reference.com Play Index

One of them was Keith McDonald, who was born in Japan but played college ball at Pepperdine and was drafted. The other: Japanese-born Kenji Johjima, who spent his early-30s seasons with the Mariners from 2006-09.

7. What level should you see
So maybe Upstate New York wasn’t the greatest choice for a baseball road trip. Yes, there is quantity—there are 11 affiliated minor league teams in New York (no Mets jokes, please) including nine outside of New York City. But of the nine, eight are in either short-season ball or Triple-A, which I find to be the two worst levels of the minors.

Triple-A is well documented as a waiting room for the majors without many exciting prospects, and the short-season leagues just have some poorer baseball and too many guys who will wash out.

Your mileage may vary, but I’d rank the levels in terms of watchability:

1. Double-A
2. High-A
3. Low-A
4. Triple-A
5. Short-season

If I were drawing a minor league road trip from scratch without placing much importance on starting point, I’d try to focus it around as many A and Double-A games as possible.

8. So where should you go?
I hope you’ll leave your favorites or your wish list in the comments below, but it has to be somewhere in Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas, doesn’t it?

Florida has the most teams at 14, plus all the GCL teams, and California is second with 12, but you’re essentially getting all high-A games in one league and not always the greatest variety of cities. Montana, believe it or not, has the most teams per capita with four Pioneer League teams and only a million people, but it’s a huge state and not a great level. Maryland leads all multi-team states in density of those teams per unit of land area, with five minor league teams in a state 1/16 the size of California.

I’d probably start there. You’re on the southern frontier of the Double-A Eastern League and the New York-Penn, and if you go south, you’re right in the heart of the low-A South Atlantic League and especially the high A Carolina League. If Triple-A is your thing for name recognition, you have Norfolk, Durham, and Charlotte, and don’t forget the O’s and Nats if you want to throw the real thing in there.

Pennsylvania is an excellent choice, too, with two major league teams and eight minor league teams, many of which play in brand-new facilities. Here’s a great map from MILB.com that might help you out.

No matter which area you choose, do it with open ears—as you can see, just this four-day trip produced a wide array of scrambled thoughts. And do so with a good eye for things beyond the outfield wall and, most importantly, plenty of sunscreen.

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

Related Content:  Minor Leagues,  Road Trip

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