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June 15, 2017

Flu-Like Symptoms

Meanwhile, Down on the Farm

by Rob Mains


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.)

Rank

Team

W

L

W-L%

30

Philadelphia

21

42

.333

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.

Rank

Team

W

L

W-L%

1

Philadelphia

148

105

.585

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.)

Year

Team

MLB W-L%

MiLB W-L%

Diff

2013

Astros

.315

.584

.269

2017

Phillies

.333

.585

.252

2012

Astros

.340

.538

.199

2003

Tigers

.265

.464

.199

2004

Diamondbacks

.315

.508

.193

2000

Phillies

.401

.580

.1783

2016

Twins

.364

.542

.1777

2002

Royals

.383

.557

.174

2014

Diamondbacks

.395

.568

.173

2010

Pirates

.352

.522

.170

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:

  • 2012 and 2013 Astros: You’ve probably heard of these guys. Just 55-107 in 2012, 51-111 in 2013, they improved to 70-92 in 2014 and haven’t had a losing season since, currently sporting the best record in the majors and best odds of winning the World Series.
  • 2003 Tigers: Man, this was a bad club. They were 43-119. Three years later, they played in the World Series.
  • 2004 Diamondbacks: They were 51-111. They won the division three years later, advancing to the NLCS, where they were swept by the Rockies.
  • 2000 Phillies: This club, at 65-97, was the seventh straight losing team in Philadelphia. They were below .500 again in 2002, at 80-81, and then were .500 or better for a decade, including five straight National League East crowns.
  • 2016 Twins: Say “Oh, yah” if you think it’ll continue, but so far last year’s 59-103 team is in first place in the American League Central.
  • 2002 Royals: Well, this stuff isn’t infallible. The 2002 Royals were 62-100. They were a surprise 83-79 the next year. However, they had a losing record for the next nine straight seasons.
  • 2014 Diamondbacks: The 64-98 club last year is currently only half a game out of first in the National League West with a seven-game cushion in the Wild Card standings.
  • 2010 Pirates: After a 57-105 2010 campaign, the Pirates had three more losing records before three straight postseason appearances.

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?

Year

Team

MLB W-L%

MiLB W-L%

Diff

1998

Yankees

.703

.501

-.203

1998

Braves

.654

.457

-.197

2003

Giants

.621

.435

-.186

2010

Twins

.580

.407

-.173

2017

Nationals

.609

.444

-.1654

2001

Athletics

.630

.464

-.1651

2001

Cardinals

.574

.412

-.162

2017

Astros

.667

.506

-.161

2000

Giants

.599

.443

-.156

2012

Reds

.599

.448

-.151

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.

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

Related Content:  Philadelphia Phillies,  Prospects

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