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September 15, 2005
Getting on at the Ground Floor
Two Summers in the NY-Penn League
For a player, staying two seasons in the short-season Class A New York-Penn League virtually extinguishes a career, greatly reducing the odds of ever making The Show. For myself, two summers working for the Tri-City ValleyCats, Houston's NY-Penn League affiliate, allowed me to observe minor league development in its nascent stages, and get to know the characteristics of a level of the minor leagues often overlooked in performance analysis.
The two years that I spent as Tri-City's official scorer provided an apt summation of the low minors. In 2004, the ValleyCats were a dominant team, winning their division with a record of 50-25. Ace starter Ronnie Martinez and shutdown reliever Rodrigo Escobar led a pitching staff that finished second in the league in strikeouts and third in ERA. The 'Cats offense, powered by batting champion Ben Zobrist and home run king Mario Garza, finished second in runs scored and first in walks, as a bumper crop of collegiate prospects--Zobrist, Hunter Pence, Johnny Ash--carried the club all the way to the league championship series.
2005 was a complete reversal. The pitching staff was horrendous, giving up an astounding 68 home runs, nearly one per game, walking 363, and posting a 5.57 ERA. No other team surrendered more than 60 homers, 300 walks or had an ERA above five. The offense was superficially solid, leading the league in batting, but it fell short in the more important plate discipline and power departments, fading badly down the stretch with one home run in the final 18 games. The team limped to a 34-42 finish, 16.5 games off its 2004 pace. The biggest highlight was the late-season promotion of 2005 eighth round draft pick Koby Clemens, whose father Roger Clemens came to Troy to watch his son play, quickening the pulse of the New York Capital Region's sporting scene. Even the presence of the seven-time Cy Young Award winner, though, could not inspire the pitchers to throw strikes.
So it goes with NY-Penn League clubs. Just two players from the 2004 squad played a full season with Tri-City in 2005, the mark of a successful minor league system. What's good for player development, however, is terrible for fans. On the major league level, winning is the number one draw, but in the low minors, such a trend does not hold true. With almost zero continuity from year-to-year, teams cannot rely on the boost in attendance that a successful campaign typically brings in ensuing seasons. Clubs are forced to fall back on the kind of wild promotions--used car night, the Zooperstars, even Halloween in August--that are the stereotype of the minor league baseball experience. Such sideshows are viewed to be necessary with no star players to market: the short-season leagues are designed to be a quick stop in a player's ascent, and many prospects skip them altogether.
The nature of the NY-Penn League--the brief season, inexperience of the players and inconsistency of the overall weak competition--also make it difficult to divine meaningful information from performance. By applying the proper filter, however, useful conclusions can be dredged up from the depths of professional baseball's vast waters.
But first, some background. The NY-Penn League began in 1939, with the short season of 76 games introduced in 1967. The league begins in late June, after the draft, and concludes in early September. Affiliations change rapidly, but the current iteration has 14 teams, seven with National League affiliation and seven American, grouped into three divisions: The Stedler contains Tri-City (Houston), Oneonta (Detroit), Lowell (Boston) and Vermont (Washington), the Pinckney has Auburn (Toronto), Mahoning Valley (Cleveland), Batavia (Philadelphia) and Jamestown (Florida), and the McNamara is made up of Staten Island (Yankees), Brooklyn (Mets), Williamsport (Pittsburgh), New Jersey (St. Louis), Hudson Valley (Tampa Bay) and Aberdeen (Baltimore). Eight of the teams are from New York (six from the minor league hotbed upstate) but only one is from Pennsylvania, making the league moniker a misnomer. A brief four team playoff follows the regular season, with the 2005 championship series to be played this week between Auburn and Staten Island.
The NYPL contains, for the most part, two types of players--first year pros taken in the June draft, and second year players advancing from the short-season rookie leagues (Appalachian or Gulf Coast). There are also quite a few veterans kicking around--Vermont rightfielder Lorvin Louisa has carved out a career in the NYPL, with 2005 his fourth year in the circuit--although as mentioned above, spending more than a year in any one short-season outpost is a good way to drop yourself from any prospect radar screen. The 14 affiliated organizations generally start the bulk of their collegiate draft picks in the NYPL and their high school picks/international free agent signees in the rookie leagues, although top college prospects often jump right to the long season Single-A or even Double-A levels.
The collegiate versus high school/free agent divide is one of the defining characteristics of the league, and heavily influences its statistical tendencies. Collegians, of course, are more polished, and tend to hold the league hostage, especially the pitchers. The top five ERA leaders this year all came out of college, and all are at least 20 years old. Compare the composite 2005 NYPL batting line to this year's AL and NL figures:
Level AVG OBP SLG ISO* NL .262 .326 .414 .152 AL .268 .329 .425 .157 NYPL .255 .332 .368 .113*Isolated power: Total bases minus hits over at bats, or SLG minus AVG
Lower the mound! The NYPL appears stuck in 1968, and clearly the lower rungs of the minors don't see much steroid talk. The power drought becomes even more severe when you examine the five-year figures:
Year Level AVG OBP SLG ISO 2001-05 NYPL .250 .325 .358 .1082005 was a strong year for the hitter in the NY-Penn League, as batters socked 595 homers, the highest total since 1999, and walked 3,654 times, most since 2000. Even so, Auburn's Cory Patton led with just 14 home runs, and no one slugged .600. Examining pitching statistics shows how far ahead the pitchers are at this early stage:
Year Level H/9 BB/9 K/9 HR/9 ERA 2005 NL 9.11 3.27 6.53 1.02 4.23 2005 AL 9.24 3.01 6.16 1.07 4.35 2005 NYPL 8.84 3.53 7.87 0.57 3.94 2001-05 NYPL 8.56 3.34 7.74 0.50 3.68Just why is NYPL pitching so strong? Perhaps the parks are playing a role in the low-wattage offenses. The average dimensions of the 14 stadiums are 330-402-328 (LF-CF-RF), almost exactly what you would expect. There are some outliers--Oneonta's Damaschke Field is a cavernous 352-406-350, cutting down dramatically on homers (the Tigers have hit 25 at home the past two years and 61 on the road). In general, though, the league's ballparks are fair, and cannot be fingered as a suspect.
Moving beyond the common explanation that hitters face an adjustment when moving from aluminum to wood bats, and that hitters in general take longer to develop, could it be a discrepancy in age? The Blue Jays organization under GM J.P. Ricciardi has been particularly aggressive in pursuing college talent, leading to Auburn teams that have shredded the generally younger competition. The Doubledays' playoff roster (they won their fourth straight division title this year) contains 35 players, not a single one under 20 years old. Every other team had at least one teenager, although the league is older than one might expect: the final rosters for all 14 teams contained just 43 teens, an average of about three per squad. Twenty four of the 43 are position players--not a large majority, but perhaps enough to illuminate the reason behind the prominence of pitching. The age theory, however, proves to be incorrect:
Year Level Position Avg. Age 2005 NYPL Pitcher 21.21 2005 NYPL Batter 21.22The increase in college draftees that has occurred in the past 20 years has not affected NYPL pitcher age more than batter age, at least not based on 2005 data. In fact, Auburn had the oldest crop of hitters (21.83 avg. age) this year, led by collegians like outfielders Ryan Patterson (22 years old, tops in the league in slugging) and Patton (23, third), and the top five in slugging percentage were all college draftees at least 21 years of age. In terms of wins and losses, the four playoff teams (Auburn, Staten Island, Williamsport and Oneonta) have an average age of 21.27 years, while the three youngest teams--Jamestown, Lowell and Vermont--combined for a 20.90 average age and .447 winning percentage.
All this doesn't explain the league's power outage, but it does help put the stats into context. Outfielder Hunter Pence hit 31 home runs this year between the South Atlantic and Carolina Leagues, the highest total in the low minors. Pence showed what he could do last season with Tri-City as a 21-year-old, putting up a .518 slugging percentage, second in the NYPL, and .222 ISO, nearly double the league average. Offensive performance must be evaluated in an extremely forgiving light, and players well younger than the league average who put up solid power figures are especially rare: 19-year-olds Cory Middleton of Oneonta (22 doubles, .166 ISO) and Luis Soto of Lowell (team-leading 106 total bases) and 18-year-old Eduardo Nunez of Staten Island (team leading 120 total bases) have earned the right to be watched closely.
By the same token, NYPL pitchers must be carefully scrutinized. In a league where the average pitcher strikes out nearly eight per nine innings and has a sub-4.00 ERA, stats must be truly eye-popping to impress. As the BP annuals have repeatedly stressed, 22 and 23-year-old collegiate hurlers will have to peddle their wares on a higher, more-hitter friendly level to show real progress.
Don't think I'm against the elevation of pitching in the NYPL. If nothing else, the abundant strikeouts and absence of the double switch (the league utilizes the designated hitter) make things easy on the official scorer. The young pitchers do tend to struggle with their command, especially the Victor Zambrano-taught hurlers of this year's Tri-City staff. For the most part, though, without the longer television breaks between innings and the offensive machines of today's major league game, contests clock in at well under three hours.
Starting pitchers are sometimes forced to leave after three or four innings due to pitch count restrictions, but the "Creeping LaRussaism" of situational managing is absent, as relievers often work multiple innings at a time, left in to pitch through jams and challenge batters as part of their development, splits be damned. With runs much harder to come by, the percentages in the dreaded "small ball" also increase--it's tougher to rant and rave about the evils of the stolen base and sac bunt when you see the offending team has an OPS of .650.
It is, in many ways, a different game, baseball frozen in the bygone years when the pitcher held court. The NY-Penn League--with its own unique equilibrium between pitching and offense, apart from that of the majors or the multitude of other minor leagues--reaffirms baseball's remarkable capacity to adapt in varied ways to different environments, a timeless feature of the game's flawless design.