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October 23, 2007

Wait 'Til Next Year

Defensive Snubstitutions

by Bryan Smith

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While going about the business of minor league player evaluation, I think we can sometimes forget that baseball is a team game. Often in the minor leagues, it seems a game between eight players that will never make it, and the one blue-chip player you came out to the ballpark to see. Scouts are able to watch a game with blinders that allow them to focus on one player's individual skills, independent of the other players around him. This is what separates amateur-talent scouts from the average baseball fan, but in statistics, we try to do this by accounting for context. What league was the player in, relative to his age? Was he consistently dominating? What type of environment was the player hitting or pitching in?

For a scout, evaluating a pitcher is about analyzing his stuff, and deciding whether his fastball and secondary offerings will play at the major league level. Statistically, it's evaluating the player on the merits of his strikeout, walk, home run, and hit ratios. However, the difference between the two is that when viewing a player through statistical lenses, that focus-those blinders-become a hindrance. If hit ratios are to be important in our analysis of prospects, we can't forget the impact of the defense behind those pitchers, just as we can't forget the stadium they pitched in.

Thanks to Sean Forman's great new minor league addendum to Baseball-Reference.com, I was able to go through the team defensive efficiency statistics (DER) for every full-season minor league team, but I also used Tom Tango's Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), which helps measure how well a pitcher pitched, regardless of how well-or poorly-his fielders fielded. Below are the ten worst defenses in professional baseball, along with a breakdown of the pitchers who were probably most hindered by their defenses.

10. Great Lakes Loons, Midwest League, Dodgers (Low-A)
Team ERA: 4.56
Team DER: .623
Team FIP: 3.84
Notable Pitching Prospects: Clayton Kershaw, James Adkins, Josh Wall, Steven Johnson

While the Loons' 4.56 team ERA will be the lowest figure in this group, they were still last, by a hefty margin, in the Midwest League with an ERA 80 points lower than the league average. It was a disastrous entry into the league, though the Dodgers foray into the Midwest did provide the league with its top prospect, Clayton Kershaw. That Kershaw was able to put up a 2.77 ERA in 20 starts while pitching with one of the minors' worst defenses behind him reflects his talent. Expect Wall and Johnson to show tangible improvements next season, Wall especially (he drew an honorable mention in my previous article about players Clay Davenport's minor league translations like more than public perception). Johnson has already looked better in his appearances in the Hawaii Winter League, posting a 3.00 ERA in four starts.

This also doesn't mean good things as far as the defensive futures for a pair of highly-regarded prospects, third baseman Josh Bell and second baseman Preston Mattingly. The quality Bell's offensive season (.289/.354/.470) was masked by the pitching-friendly Midwest League, but at third base he certainly didn't do his fellow Loons any favors. Mattingly, a former first-round pick, was a disaster at the plate (.210/.251/.297) and in the field, and his future prospects look more doubtful than ever.

9. Savannah Sand Gnats, South Atlantic League, Mets (Low-A)
Team ERA: 5.04
Team DER: .623
Team FIP: 4.70
Notable Pitching Prospects: None

After finishing 41-94, the Sand Gnats were a historically bad team this season, also posting the South Atlantic League's worst OPS and fourth-worst ERA. While the offense's problems could largely be blamed on youth-Francisco Pena was their regular catcher despite his age, 17-the pitching staff was relatively old. The Mets sent very few real prospects to the level, with Pena representing the only one with real upside. Shortstop Juan Ligares was part of the team's defensive problems, as the 18-year-old committed 40 errors in 83 games, and hardly made up for it by hitting just .210/.262/.317. Even if the defensive problems were fixed, however, I'm not sure this pitching staff would have had a name worthy of prospect status; perhaps Mets fans would become more familiar with former 16th-round pick Tobi Stoner. Here's hoping that at the very least the Mets send Savannah a better group of players in 2008.

8. Greenville Bombers, South Atlantic League, Red Sox (Low-A)
Team ERA: 5.31
Team DER: .623
Team FIP: 4.30
Notable Pitching Prospects: Dustin Richardson, Daniel Bard, Bryce Cox

In contrast with Savannah, the Red Sox's Sally League entry had a host of prospects, and while it appeared that they could hit, the team's defensive inadequacies helped lead to a 58-81 record. The team had Lars Anderson at first base, Chih-Hsien Chiang at second, and an outfield of Jason Place, Josh Reddick, and Reid Engel. The team's performance in the field might scotch notions that Place might stick in center, or that Anderson might not have to be relegated to DH in the future. No one pitcher was perhaps more affected by the unit behind him than breakout pitching prospect Dustin Richardson. A big southpaw from Texas Tech, Richardson's ERA improved when he was promoted to Lancaster in the California League, one of baseball's least-friendly parks for pitchers. Beyond Richardson, the other prospect I think will show the largest improvement in 2008 is Chris Jones. Perhaps a bit of a sleeper because of his history of injuries, Jones had 9.6 K/9, and his difference between FIP (3.17) and ERA (4.70) was among the league's most pronounced. With his combination of a low-90s fastball and a good curve, Jones could make an impact when as he converts completely to a closer's role in 2008.

7. Bakersfield Blaze, California League, Rangers (High-A)
Team ERA: 5.37
Team DER: .621
Team FIP: 4.71
Notable Pitching Prospects: Edinson Volquez, Omar Poveda

In my last chat at BP, someone asked if third base prospect Chris Davis would possibly be able to stick at the hot corner. As an addendum to my answer there, the Blaze's presence on this list-and Davis' role as the team's worst defender-does not make it likely. Expect a move across the diamond or an attempt to see if he'll stick in the outfield, though it's unlikely that Davis will do his pitchers much good there, either. As for the pitching staff itself, it was a rather unimpressive lot, save for two brief visits from Edinson Volquez and Omar Poveda. Perhaps both appearances would have been better with a good defense behind them, though, particularly Poveda's, as his 10.6 K/9 in five starts reflects his budding dominance. We can also expect reliever Josh Giles (92 K in 72 IP) to have a better 2008 in Frisco.

6. Salt Lake Bees, Pacific Coast League, Angels (Triple-A)
Team ERA: 5.03
Team DER: .620
Team FIP: 4.47
Notable Pitchers: Joe Saunders, Jason Bulger, Ervin Santana

At the major league level, Joe Saunders was essentially the same pitcher in 2006 and 2007. His ERA+ was within six percent between the two seasons, and his strikeout rates were also not too dissimilar. While the peripherals suggest modest change, he was league average in both campaigns. At the Triple-A level during these two seasons, Saunders seemed a totally different pitcher. In 2006, he had a 2.67 ERA in 20 starts, thanks to a 7.8 H/9 ratio. In 2007 with Salt Lake, despite sporting improved walk and strikeout ratios, Saunders' ERA almost doubled (5.11). The difference makes Saunders the poster child of this exercise. It should come as no surprise that Saunders was better in Los Angeles than Salt Lake, as the Angels turned batted balls into outs seven percent more often than the Bees in 2007. While Jason Bulger's season in Triple-A looked mediocre-besides his 13.8 K/9-the Angels should be confident that Bulger could contribute in their major league bullpen effectively next April.

5. Kannapolis Intimidators, South Atlantic League, White Sox (Low-A)
Team ERA: 5.14
Team DER: .617
Team FIP: 4.12
Notable Pitching Prospects: Fautino De Los Santos, Kanekoa Texeira, Justin Edwards

In the White Sox's shallow farm system, Kannapolis was their deepest team, and if blessed with a better defense, the 69-70 Intimidators may have been able to compete for a title. However, some of the club's better prospects were also the cause of their defensive problems; Chris Carter and Lee Cruz are almost assuredly best suited to be designated hitters, and John Shelby proved to be a much better option in the outfield than at second base. Even an acclaimed defender like shortstop Sergio Miranda (a 2007 draft pick), seemed to catch the leather allergy. The impact was especially pronounced on the team's more lauded prospects, like top 2006 picks Matt Long (5.54 ERA) and Justin Edwards (5.79 ERA). Edwards is the better prospect, but his second-half ERA (8.44) indicated a great lack of endurance. In the end, it turned out that the best pitching prospects on the team were Fautino De Los Santos and Kanekoa Teixeira. De Los Santos' success in Low-A, like Clayton Kershaw's, should reflect more positively on just how good he is. Teixeria, the team's closer, had a 2.9 groundball/flyball ratio, but his numbers were hampered by the defense behind him. Pitching at home in the Hawaii Winter Baseball League, expect a big step forward from Teixeira.

4. Las Vegas 51s, Pacific Coast League, Dodgers (Triple-A)
Team ERA: 5.40
Team DER: .617
Team FIP: 4.62
Notable Pitching Prospects: Hong-Chih Kuo, Jon Meloan

To find the Dodgers' Triple-A affiliate near the bottom of this list is surprising given the highly-acclaimed defensive prospects that logged significant playing time with the team: Matt Kemp, James Loney, Chin-Lung Hu, and Andy LaRoche. Setting aside possible environmental effects (here and at Salt Lake), we can probably assume it was the rest of the 51s defense that plagued the team, including veterans like Wilson Valdez and Marshall McDougall. The group of pitchers affected by the defense were largely non-prospects, or borderline guys like D.J. Houlton and Rick Bauer. The latter performance of that latter pair make me think a team could do worse than filling out a pitching staff with those guys, and Meloan's dominance at the level promises for a big 2008. A lesson the Dodgers could learn: when filling a team with largely minor league veterans, picking up a few solid defenders rather than a hitter like McDougall might be the best thing to help inspire some confidence in your young pitchers.

3. Hagerstown Suns, South Atlantic League, Nationals (Low-A)
Team ERA: 4.76
Team DER: .614
Team FIP: 4.27
Notable Pitching Prospects: Jhonny Nunez, Marco Estrada, Cory Van Allen

The slow resurgence of the Nationals farm system began at its lowest levels this season, and while the play of many among this year's crop of Suns was cause for optimism, the team's defense was atrocious. The pitcher most affected was Jhonny Nunez, a live-armed hurler acquired from the Dodgers for Marlon Anderson a year ago. While Nunez did manage to allow fewer hits (97) than innings pitched (106 2/3), better defense could have created a better ratio, and generated more recognition. The team also had a pair of pitching prospects stop by briefly, Estrada and Van Allen, and despite good strikeout rates, both players were affected by the team's bad defense. While Estrada has the better arm, Van Allen's command from the left side (just six walks in 54 2/3 innings at the level) might make him the more intriguing prospect. While the everyday defense didn't feature any noteworthy prospects, the team had brief help from high 2006 picks Chris Marrero and Stephen King. If the team DER is at all reflective of their play, Marrero has a lot of work to do in the outfield, and King might need to be moved across bag at the keystone.

2. Portland Beavers, Pacific Coast League, Padres (Triple-A)
Team ERA: 5.09
Team DER: .614
Team FIP: 4.43
Notable Pitching Prospects: Jared Wells, Cesar Carillo, Clay Hensley

Portland had constant turnover this season. Perhaps the Beavers' defense could be blamed on the roster's day-to-day inconsistency, or possibly it tells us that people like Jack Cust, Paul McAnulty, and Vince Sinisi don't belong in the outfield. Last-place Portland had a disastrous 10.6 H/9, but perhaps pitchers like Jack Cassel, Mike Thompson, and Tim Stauffer weren't entirely to blame. The one pitcher with the most talent that seemed affected by the team's glovework was Jared Wells. A proven workhorse over his five-year minor league career, Wells had what should have been his best season to date marred by Portland's defense. The Padres converted Wells to relief in June, and it seemed a prudent decision, as the right-hander didn't allow another home run and struck out 47 batters in 45 1/3 innings of relief work. I've compared Wells to Ryan Franklin in years past, but it now appears that Franklin's relief work might be at the low end of the spectrum. Expect Wells to be yet another good, cheap reliever for the Padres in 2008.

1. High Desert Mavericks, California League, Mariners (High-A)
Team ERA: 6.44
Team DER: .589
Team FIP: 5.36
Notable Pitching Prospects: Chris Tillman, Austin Bibens-Dirkx.

While the other nine defenses on this list were abysmal in 2007, none were even close to the worst in baseball. The Mavericks were historically atrocious, converting only 59 percent of balls in play into outs. The implications of the team's horrible defense were the minor leagues' worst team ERA (aided by a hellish hitter's park), which helped lead to a 54-86 record. Only one name sticks out to me on defense, 17-year-old whiz kid Carlos Triunfel. While Triunfel's offensive competence despite his youth makes him one of the game's better prospects, he certainly shouldn't be seen as a shortstop for much longer. Given his arm strength, expect a move to the hot corner. Triunfel and his other infield mates were the downfall of the pitching staff, and particularly obscured one particular pitcher's good minor league season. Initially, I had assumed that Chris Tillman's 5.26 ERA was the result of the Mariners' standard aggressiveness with minor league promotions; I thought Tillman wasn't ready for High-A. However, it turns out that the right-hander was ready enough, as his 4.43 FIP indicates that it was the defense that let him down. If Seattle stays aggressive and pushes Tillman to Double-A, but provides him with a better defense in 2008, I'd expect him to finally have his coming-out party as one of the minor leagues' better pitching prospects.

Bryan Smith is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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