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December 29, 2004
Promoting From "IS" to the Majors
I'm going to throw a concept at you here.
What if we were to treat the first segment of a player's major-league career as another step up the minor-league ladder? We could call it "Quadruple-A," but that phrase has a negative connotation because it is used to describe ballplayers who can't quite make it in the majors but who manage to excel at Triple-A. Instead, let's call it the "IS" level, IS standing for indentured servitude. Why so? Because these are the years a player owes an organization for signing him and developing him through the minors. (Yes, indentured servitude is meant to be ironic given the money involved.)
So, now we have Rookie, Low A, High A, Double-A, Triple-A and IS. In other words, six levels of baseball before a player earns his free agency, provided he is not granted it prematurely because an organization deems him unworthy of keeping around. Of these six levels, the IS level is, obviously, the most visible and most well-documented. It takes place against the best competition in full view of the game's top talent-evaluating personnel.
Now, for the purposes of this argument, let's equate being signed as a free agent at the end of the IS period to being promoted from one level of the minors to another. True, it's often another organization doing the promoting, but you see what I'm saying here: moving from IS to the next level constitutes a promotion from one level of baseball existence to another, albeit mostly financial.
I think we can agree on the point that there is a much higher level of visibility at the IS level. I think we can also agree that the statistics players generate at that level do not have to undergo the rigorous translations that those generated in the minors must endure. Obviously, we can also agree that quite a few organizations do not use minor league translations, but let's leave that out of this particular argument.
In spite of the obvious advantages in judging talent at the IS level versus the lower levels of baseball, I put it to you that a higher percentage of mistakes are made when promoting from this level than from any other. Not only is the percentage higher, but, because of the higher visibility, the obviousness of the failure is that much more apparent. Have we not witnessed this theory in effect during the 2004-05 offseason?
This isn't to say that teams don't often sign the wrong players out of high school and college, because they do. At that level, at least, they can be forgiven for being blinded by gaudy statistics and/or physiques. Down low, it often takes exposure to better competition to distinguish the pretenders from the authentics. The beauty of promoting from IS is that the numbers the player has generated have come against the very best competition there is. What is more--and this is the beautiful part of evaluating talent at this level--the competition will not change after the promotion! So while you might be able to forgive your favorite team for over-valuing an 18-year-old pitcher with a 0.42 ERA earned against a bunch of 15-17 year olds, can you really do the same if the team overvalues a pitcher who has shown himself to be exceedingly average throughout his major-league career? The former has excelled against the unknown and the latter has just gotten by against the very well known. Which one's career path is easier to foresee? Right: the player promoted from IS.
Let's take the case of Eric Milton, the latest player to be rewarded with a multi-year contract coming out of IS. Milton was promoted from that level by the Cincinnati Reds to the tune of three years at around $25 million. This was done in spite of some very obvious signs that Mr. Milton does not deserve this kind of financial attention.
First of all, without getting all sabermetrical, there is the matter of his ERAs. They are, at best, ever so slightly above average. Let's assume the Reds don't get all hung up on the more advanced metrics now available to any team that has Internet access and an intern savvy enough to know how to type "espn.com" into a browser. Surely they understand the concept of Earned Run Average? Milton has always been right around the league ERA.
What if they go a bit deeper? Without having to subscribe to a site such as Baseball Prospectus and learn a number of new metrics, they can familiarize themselves with some very basic facts. Milton gave up the most fly balls in the major leagues last year, 312. He also gave up the most fly balls relative to ground balls surrendered. The Reds gave up more home runs at home last year than any other team, including the one that plays in Denver. Does this sound like an ideal pairing of pitcher and park?
Last year, Milton was a well-supported (fourth-best in the National League) league-average pitcher who got pretty lucky on the balls he managed to keep in play. He allowed a .257 batting average on balls in play, one of the lowest figures in the league. If he were a groundball pitcher, that might be exciting news. He's nothing of the sort, of course.
If Milton were promoted out of the Reds system, you'd probably give them a pass because a team can only promote the talent they have on hand. Coming out of the IS ranks into a deal like this, however, leaves them wide open to a right good flaying. With a prospect in one's own system, a team is forced to make choices. With a free agent from another organization, a team is under no obligation whatsoever to even give him a second glance. This is the equivalent of leaving a nice safe spot behind a guard rail to run out on a highway in front of a speeding truck.
Shockingly, I think it's safe to assume that teams put considerably more time, effort and money into evaluating minor-league talent than they do free-agent talent. Does this seem like a daft supposition? If not, how else can we explain the offers being made this spring to players who have proven year-in and--except for perhaps the most recent season--year-out that they come with a spectacular downside at the prices they are receiving?
Why, then, do teams not follow the same guidelines when promoting out of IS as they do when moving people up the chain at the lower levels. I think, in the end, it's a simple case of availability. Free agents seem more alluring because there are fewer of them. Consider that each club has well over 100 players under professional contract at a given moment, and they can all seem rather faceless and nameless when compared to a man who has hit 25 home runs in a single major-league season, or gone 14-6 or been on a team that won the World Series. It's sad to say, but too many ballclubs remain enthralled with the known commodity, even when what is known is, at best, misleading.
Please do yourself a favor and read Jeff Hildebrand's article on interleague play attendance. This is an issue that has been crying out for an in-depth study and Jeff has delivered it.