- When we talk about the park factor of a particular minor league venue, we're most often referring to how that park plays in relation to the other parks in the same league. This can be a bit misleading because individual circuits vary widely in how they affect run scoring. For instance, a park factor of 1000 in the California League is hardly the same thing as a park factor of 1000 in the Carolina League.
When dealing with minor league park factors, it's a good idea to develop at least a cursory handle on how the league as a whole plays. A good place to get this information is on Clay Davenport's Minor League EqA Page. On the far right side of the first page, you'll see a column headed "RPPA", which lists the average number of runs per plate appearance for each circuit. Here's how the affiliated leagues rank so far this season, from highest- to lowest-scoring:
1. Pioneer 0.161
2. Pacific Coast 0.140
3. Appalachian 0.138
3. California 0.138
5. Northwest 0.137
6. South Atlantic 0.132
7. International 0.130
7. Texas 0.130
9. Eastern 0.127
10. Midwest 0.124
11. Carolina 0.121
12. Florida State 0.120
12. New York-Penn 0.120
14. Southern 0.119
Something to keep in mind as those minor league park factors get bandied about from time to time.
- The Braves were certainly pleased when OF Jeff Francoeur made a remarkably speedy recovery from a broken cheekbone. Francoeur, the best non-Andy Marte position prospect in the system, was initially expected to miss the balance of the season after incurring the injury in early July. Instead, he was sidelined just over a month.
At High-A Myrtle Beach, probably the most brutal park for hitters in pro ball, Francoeur hit .293/.346/.508 in 87 games. While the plate discipline leaves much to be desired (19 unintentional walks in 364 plate appearances), the power is for real. When a 20-year-old puts up an ISO .215 and cracks an extra-base hit every eight at-bats while toiling at Myrtle Beach, he's a praiseworthy talent. Francoeur also boasts a cannon arm, and he has the defensive chops to stick in center and perhaps be a plus defender there.
Earlier this month, the Braves promoted him to Double-A Greenville. It's only been five games, but that one of the best organizations in baseball saw fit to promote a player so young to the high minors just days after his return from a serious injury speaks volumes. Right now, he looks like another Georgia-reared prep draftee made good.
The Braves' player-procurement strategy is neither de rigeur nor one I'd strictly adhere to myself, but, my gosh, they do it well.
- I'm not necessarily looking to contribute to Nate Silver's recent Tiger-inspired bonhomie, but, Detroit, we have a prospect: OF Curtis Granderson merits watching.
The Tigers drafted Granderson out of the University of Illinois-Chicago with a third-round pick in 2002. He's capable of playing all three outfield positions, but his modest speed means he's best suited to a corner spot. That, of course, raises the bar for him offensively. In his previous two pro seasons at short-season Oneonta and High-A Lakeland, Granderson combined for a line of .286/.365/.458. In the FSL, he showed good gap power and solid on-base skills despite skipping over Low-A entirely.
In 2004, he's taken a quantum leap forward. At Double-A Erie (generally a hitter's park in what's generally a pitcher's league), Granderson is hitting .318/.419/.547 this season. He's also smacked 47 extra-base hits and drawn 69 unintentional passes in 501 plate appearances, which is a notable uptick over year-ago levels. At 23, he's neither young nor old for the level.
Coming into this season, the concerns were that Granderson wouldn't draw enough walks or hit for enough power to play left field (his likely permanent position) at the highest level. His performance in 2004 has helped assuage those worries. It's been a long time since the Tigers boasted a noteworthy position prospect in the high minors, but they now have one in Granderson.
- Daric Barton rolls on. Despite being one of the youngest players in the Midwest League (he just last week turned 19), Barton is hitting .326/.456/.546 in 81 games. Peoria is a modest pitcher's park in a circuit that as a whole is fairly tough on run scoring. Barton also spent some time in extended spring training this season after undergoing minor elbow surgery in January.
Buried within that impressive batting line are his excellent walk rate (54 unintentionals in 351 plate appearances) and a noteworthy ISO of .220. Those are very promising numbers, especially for a catcher.
And speaking of his position afield, there have been rumblings, almost from the moment he was drafted (28th overall in 2003), that he wouldn't stick at the position. Barton is athletic behind the plate and has good receiving skills. It's his throwing arm that's the problem.
This brings me to the larger point. Organizations tend to get a little too hung up on throwing arms for catchers. Deterring the running game via a catcher's throwing ability is nice if you have it at your disposal, but it's no reason to rearrange a young player's career. Most statistically inclined folks realize that the stolen base is an overrated offensive weapon (notice I'm not saying speed is overrated--merely the stolen base). I'm of the opinion that even most statheads overvalue its utility. The logical extension of this is that it's not a fatal flaw if teams steal a few bases on you.
In my mind, the most important criteria for determining whether to keep a young catcher at the position are these:
Is he a capable enough receiver that he doesn't squander strike calls or otherwise frustrate his battery mate?
Can he physically withstand the rigors of the position?
Are those rigors retarding his development as a hitter?
In Barton's case, his offensive potential is such that the Cardinals need to give him every opportunity to become a major league catcher. He was a third baseman his senior year in high school, and the fact that he doesn't have as much positional wear and tear on him is another point in his favor.
If he's simply unworkable at catcher, that's one thing. But that's not the case. Moving him to a corner slot--thereby reducing his value--because of a sub-optimal throwing arm is unwise. My hope is that the Cardinals realize how much marginal production they stand to gain by continuing to deploy Barton as their catcher of the future.
- Has there been a more disappointing season than James Loney's? I remember seeing him for the first time in spring training and being mightily impressed by the ease of his swing and the "trampoline" quality of his bat. I knew most scouts loved him, and I knew that injuries sapped his production last season. Like a lot of people, I expected large, wide and big things from him in 2004.
Instead, here's what we've gotten: .249/.322/.347 in 92 games. Yes, mitigations abound. First, he's 20-year-old who's competing against a substantially older Double-A peer group. Second, the Southern League is playing as the worst hitter's circuit in the minors this season. Third, he missed more than a month of action with a broken fingertip.
By no means am I prepared to dismiss Loney as a prospect. The Dodgers have rushed him along (Loney skipped the Sally League, and he was promoted to Double-A this season despite a lackluster, injury-dampened performance in the FSL last year), and he's facing some unaccommodating circumstances in Jacksonville this season. Still, those numbers are awful for a first-base prospect. The Dodgers would probably do well to return him to Double-A next season and leave him there the entire year. The 2005 season will be critical, and I have no idea what to expect from him.