June 15, 2017
Meanwhile, Down on the Farm
I was going to show you two lists of major-league teams, ranked highest to lowest. There are 30 teams, so that kind of list can run pretty long. Maybe you don’t like reading tables with 30 lines. So I’ll do you a favor. I’ll shorten the first list for you. It’ll still make my point, but you won’t have to plow through as many rows.
This is a list, truncated, of the 30 major-league teams, ranked from best to worst in winning percentage. (All figures in this report are through games of Tuesday, June 13.)
OK, you probably already knew that. The Phillies weren’t supposed to be good this year, but they’ve been really bad. On pace to lose 108 games bad. Only team in the majors with, by our estimates, a 0.0 percent of making the playoffs bad. Currently 3.5 games behind the obviously tanking Padres bad.
Next, I’m going to list the records of each team’s minor-league system. Minor-league affiliates have played about 250 games so far. The short-season and rookie leagues haven’t started yet, but the Triple-A, Double-A, High-A, and Low-A seasons are well under way. Here is a truncated list of all 30 minor-league systems, ranked from best to worst in winning percentage.
OK, so you get what I’m doing here, right? The Phillies have the worst record in the majors. Their minor-league affiliates have the best record. That’s noteworthy.
I looked at every team from 1998 to 2016, which is the entire 30-team era. The correlation between major-league record and minor-league record is 0.08. That means there isn’t a relationship. Sometimes good major-league teams have good affiliates. Sometimes they don’t. A correlation coefficient of 0.08 means there really isn’t anything going on.
So a large difference, like for this year’s Phillies, is uncommon. How uncommon? Here is a list of the 10 organizations since 1998 with the largest difference in winning percentage between their minor-league and major-league teams, ranked by the size of the gap. (After consulting with our minor-league editor, Craig Goldstein, I decided to stick with the minor-league winning percentage used above for this year’s Phillies: Combined record of Triple-A, Double-A, High-A, and Low-A affiliates, excluding results from short-season, rookie, and winter-league teams.)
These are, let’s face it, some pretty bad teams. But there is a lot to be hope here for the current Phillies. Let’s go through these teams in order:
What can we conclude from this? Well, for starters, teams that lose 95-plus games in a season are due for regression, so we shouldn’t be surprised by improvement. But when that probabilistic improvement is buttressed by an exceptional farm system, the improvement can be dramatic.
How about the opposite situation, in which a team with a strong major-league record contrasts with a poor record in the minors?
If having a poor major-league record and a strong minor-league record, like this year’s Phillies, is a harbinger for better days ahead, perhaps a good major-league record and a comparatively weak minor-league record is a sign of imminent collapse. Fortunately for this year’s Nationals and Astros, both of whom appear above, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Of the teams listed above, only one—the 2010 Twins—didn’t have a winning record the next season, and most played in the postseason the following year. Most remained good teams for several seasons, highlighted by the teams at the top of list; the 1998 Yankees won the AL East the next eight straight years and that season’s Braves won the NL East the next seven years. Their relatively lackluster farm systems didn’t prevent them from remaining excellent teams.
So what does this tell us? Well, the hot starts of the Astros and Nationals relative to their farm systems shouldn’t be a cause for worry in upcoming seasons. They could very well stay good. The Phillies, though ... there just aren’t a lot of examples of teams with very poor major-league records and very good minor-league records failing to succeed, often in short order. So longer-term optimism is warranted.
There are Phillies fans clamoring for call-ups from the minors to replace the struggling major-league club. The numbers here suggest that may not be the best course of action. Yes, it’s only mid-June, but the club’s already 17.5 games out of the division lead and a similar distance out of a Wild Card. Assuming all the other teams continue to win at the same level they’ve maintained so far this season, the Phillies would have to go 77-22 (that’s a .778 winning percentage) for the rest of the season just to tie Arizona for the second Wild Card. That’s, um, probably not going to happen.
So it makes more sense to leave the team’s top prospects—shortstop J.P. Crawford, catcher Jorge Alfaro, outfielders Nick Williams and Mickey Moniak, pitcher Franklyn Kilome—in the minors (where only Williams, at Triple-A Lehigh Valley, and Kilome, at High-A Clearwater, are doing particularly well, as it happens) rather than start the service-time clock ticking on a lost season. If the team follows form, success will come soon enough.
Thanks to Craig Corelli for idea generation. Minor league affiliate data for 1998-2013 compiled by Rob McQuown. For 2014-2016, affiliate records by level courtesy of Pete Palmer. Data from Palmer's and Gary Gillette's Minor League Database. Contact GGillette@HiddenGameSports.com.