Response to “Do We Even Need Minor League Baseball?”
On September 9, 2019, FiveThirtyEight published an article by Travis Sawchik with the headline “Do We Even Need Minor League Baseball?” In the aftermath of the article, there was a flurry of online response pieces, most of them seemingly in opposition to the idea–or at least in opposition to the inflammatory headline. One humorous response, matching the headline’s tone, was Albert Burneko’s “Maybe You Just Like Watching Baseball Games.” I’m going to pretend that the FiveThirtyEight article didn’t have such an annoying clickbait headline and take a good honest look at the content of the article itself, which brings up some very good points and peppers them in among a poorly-researched and presented article. Let’s dissect.
The article starts out by stating that “Since the 1970s, Major League Baseball clubs have generally added more and more minor league affiliates. In 1979, there were an average of 4.7 affiliates per major league club. This season there are 8.2 — a total of 245 minor league affiliates, the most since 1948, spread across 30 major league organizations.“
I don’t doubt the historical comparison numbers, but this statement is ludicrously broad and misleading. That 245 number includes the specialty Rookie Complex leagues and apparently the Dominican Summer League in addition to the 160 teams that are generally accepted to operate within the main ecosystem of affiliated minor league ball. There’s a world of difference between, say, the Vegas Aviators and the Arizona League Athletics Green. Both are Oakland affiliates, but Vegas plays in a sparkling new stadium that in 2019 pulled in nearly an identical per-game average home attendance as the Miami Marlins. The AZL Athletics Green are a team, I guess. If you count trainers and players on the bench, maybe a hundred people watch a typical game. But, OK, the point stands. Most teams have taken on more affiliates since the 1970s, especially if you count these Complex teams that pop up willy-nilly whenever MLB teams feel like adding another. Boy, it’s almost like we are returning to the mid-Twentieth Century minors where there were many hundreds of affiliated clubs all across America. Sawchik was careful to cherry-pick data from the 1970s on, though, so we don’t have to concern ourselves with that.
“But the Houston Astros, a model of modern player development, bucked that trend a few years ago. After the 2017 season, they reduced their affiliate count from nine to seven clubs. The Astros believed they could become a more efficient producer of talent with fewer farm clubs.”
OK, sure. That’s really “bucking the trend.” The Astros had a slightly above average number of farm clubs and they went to having a slightly below average number of affiliates. They sold Greeneville to the Reds, people! Let’s all freak out! Though the ‘Stros probably had a bunch of reasons for dropping a few teams (more on that in a minute), it would be nice if there was an acknowledgement that rebuilding MLB teams sometimes take on more affiliates when they are flush with prospects and then have less need for these teams when they are contending. I don’t think that’s a main reason for Houston’s switchroo, but the Astros certainly fit this bill.
Then comes this chart:
I’m incredulous. This might be the most meaningless chart I’ve ever seen, and it’s on FiveThirtyEight, a media outlet that specializes in statistical analysis. Yikes.
I really don’t mean to be mean. I’m sure Travis Sawchik is a good dude and he just wrote a book with Ben Lindbergh, a baseball mind that I have a high level of respect for. But c’mon. You can put up a headline like that and then open your article with two lazy paragraphs and this insane chart. It’s disappointing, really. Sawchik has the goods–insider intel from MLB players, coaches, and front office. This is gold! Lead with a quote that makes your point.
“For the baseball people, it was a feeling that it was better to concentrate the coaching resources. We were trying to support a bunch of players that had a less than one percent chance of making the major leagues,” said an ex-Astros official whose current team didn’t grant him permission to speak to us.”
Right there! That’s a terrific point. Why hire good coaches and then ship them to the Appy League. Keep up the good stuff, Travis!
“The Astros felt comfortable cutting the teams in part because of data harvested from new tech. Since turning over the vast majority of their player development staff and minor league coaches under GM Jeffrey Luhnow, the Astros feel they have become better at identifying which players have a chance to rise through their system. For example, while a number of teams were experimenting with their first high-speed cameras this spring to study pitch grips and body mechanics, the Astros had 75 such cameras hard-mounted at stadiums throughout their minor league affiliates last season. According to the ex-Astros official, the team believes it needs less time and fewer games to understand potential, and it is better served by consolidating resources around their most promising players.”
Yep, yep, yep. This is definitely a thing. Technology is changing baseball in many ways. That’s the main premise of Sawchik and Lindbergh’s book and T-dog is right in his wheelhouse.
“The Astros aren’t the only ones questioning the structure of the minor leagues in their organization. For decades, baseball has generally treated player development as a ladder. First comes Rookie ball, then multiple levels of Single-A ball leading up to Double-A, then Triple-A, then finally the majors. But recently some players — like young stars Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr., and lesser talents like David Peralta and Rougned Odor — have skipped rungs. And they aren’t worse for it.”
No, Travis! Stay in your lane, bro. Anyone who actually pays attention to how top prospects move through minors knows that it is not an exact ladder, and hasn’t been like that for years, if ever, really. Or if it’s a ladder, it’s a really weird freaking ladder. College players in particular often start at Double-A or Class A-Advanced and many star players are often promoted right from those mid-levels without touching the top rung of Triple-A. It’s always been the team choice, and if you’re going to say it’s a growing trend, then show us the data. A generation or two ago, there were “bonus babies” like Dave Winfield or Sandy Koufax or Catfish Hunter who skipped the minor leagues altogether. This is a terrible generalization of history presented in a way to inform the dear reader of how this mysterious minor league system works.
“So if some players are good enough to skip the upper levels of the minors, perhaps minor league resources should be spent trying to identify and develop those players — and perhaps a few rungs of the ladder ought to be removed. A Baseball America study of the 1981-2010 drafts found that only 17.6 percent of drafted and signed players reached the majors, and only 9.8 percent produced 0.1 career wins above replacement, a minimal level of production. Perhaps optimized skill development requires fewer games, and thereby fewer players and teams.”
Yes, we’re back on track. Good points all around, and His comment about a “few rungs being removed” came about a month before MLB’s initial PBA proposal to do just that very thing. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sawchik caught wind of that before the general public, but maybe he connected the dots on his own. Either way, that paragraph’s a winner.
“A year before the closing of two affiliates, in March 2016, the Astros hired Jose Fernandez to be part of their sports science department. He had worked with pro soccer teams in Europe. European soccer giants have centralized training centers focused on building skills rather than a decentralized sprawl of affiliates. The Astros were curious how FC Barcelona developed its players. Barcelona’s “La Masia” — which translates to “Farm House” — is regarded as one of the breeding grounds for talent. The information Fernandez shared was eye-opening. “On site in Barcelona, they have their whole development academy, from the little kids all the way up to the professional teams. They have one big campus. They do everything on-site. Everything is coordinated. Everyone is doing the same drills. Everyone was being measured with the same technology. That makes a ton of sense,” the ex-Astros front official said.”
Yes, but this isn’t a new thing and it isn’t that eye-opening. When MLB and the minor leagues hashed out the contentious 1990 PBA, the minors asked the majors to shell out more money. MLB reps responded by saying something to the effect of “oh, yeah! We’ll just stick all our players in our Spring Training complexes and ditch the minor leagues.” That didn’t happen, and there are other, bigger reasons why. I’ll get to those in a minute. It’s also worth pointing out that some MLB teams are already doing this to some extent. The Marlins and Cardinals have both their High-A and Rookie Complex affiliates housed in their shared Spring Training facility in Jupiter, FL. Many teams in both the Gulf Coast League and Arizona League have taken on multiple affiliates (e.g. AZL Athetics Green and AZL Athletics Gold) in the last few years. You also have teams like the Red Sox, whose Sally League affiliate in Greenville has their stadium built to Fenway dimensions. The Red Sox also own their High-A affiliate, and there’s a signficant trend toward MLB teams buying up their affiliates. It’s not the same as Barcelona soccer, but they’re already moving in the direction of more top-down control.
“While minor league baseball reorganized in 1963 to the classifications we are familiar with today (Single-A, Double-A, etc), the idea of affiliated minor-league baseball has fundamentally remained the same since Branch Rickey bought a stake in the Houston Buffaloes in 1919 and began building the first farm system. As Kyle Boddy, who runs the independent training facility Driveline Baseball, put it in my book, “The MVP Machine”: “Why is the minor-league system set up the way it is? Why does every coaching staff and player development staff feature the same titles, the same backgrounds and are approximately the same size? Why for so long has the minor league system been immune from disruption?”
I mean, good points I guess. But the reasons that the minor league system is “immune from disruption” go beyond merely player development. For now, let me take the time to point out that most of the minor leagues are about as old as, if not older than, the major leagues. Yes, Rickey had a good idea with the farm system, but the leagues and teams are not just there as vessels for prospects. They have their own history and fan bases. Burneko hammers this point home in his response article, and it’s surprising that Sawchik didn’t even make an attempt to head this off at the pass within his article.
“MLB’s approach to the minor leagues is ripe for change in part because of how much data can be collected off the field these days. Independent hitting instructor Doug Latta tells his clients that they “don’t need much space to get better,” as improving via reps, video analysis and ball-tracking tech lessens the need for a player to play in regulation games. Latta worked with Marlon Byrd, Justin Turner and Hunter Pence in various storage-like facilities just before they changed their approach at the plate and improved their performance. Cody Bellinger was already a good major league player but became great this season after he changed his swing in similar modest spaces last winter. While batting cages have existed since Rickey invented them, they’ve never been the feedback machines they are today when outfitted with ball-, bat- and body-tracking tech.
On the pitching side, it’s perhaps even easier to gain skills. Adam Ottavino designed a new cutter last winter in a vacant Manhattan storefront that he outfitted with baseball’s cutting-edge tech. The Los Angeles Dodgers held several low-value minor league pitchers back from minor league games in 2016, giving them something of an extended spring training at their complex to see if they could improve throwing velocity. Dodgers pitchers Corey Copping and Andrew Istler learned how to throw harder and subsequently became trade chips last summer.
Author Daniel Coyle has written about the benefits of shrinking training space — like Brazil’s futbol de salao (indoor soccer) — to increase reps and feedback. “How do you tighten the [feedback] loop, and deliver the right signal in a timely way?”
This past winter, the Philadelphia Phillies tried to become more like the Astros, rethinking how they teach and train in the minor leagues. Two progessive hitting instructors were asked to implement new ideas, new programs and new technology for the 100-plus minor league hitters in the system, tailoring individual plans for each. They have transformed batting cages at each facility into feedback labs. Phillies minor leaguers in A- and Rookie-ball are required to wear sensors on their bats to record bat speed, bat path and biomechanical data. The Phillies also set up a device to track every ball hit in every batting practice before every minor league game. For decades, box scores were the only sources of data on player progress. But now practice is producing more data than games.
“The game is the ultimate test but that’s only three or four at-bats a night,” Russ Steinhorn, one of those progressive hitting instructors, said. “The practice before games, you might be taking hundreds of swings. … For me, the practice environment, the lead-up to the game, is the most important. That’s where the development happens.”
While there are rules on how players are assigned to teams, the ex-Astros official suspects we could see fewer affiliates one day and more time spent at facilities. “I think down the road in a few years you will see a guy go to an affiliate and play for a while and the team says, ‘OK, you’ve demonstrated that what you mastered at the training facility is working in games. So now it’s time for you to add a changeup.’ So it’s back to the training facility.”
This is boring, but we’re right back in Sawchik’s wheelhouse. This should be the conceit of the article. (By the way, the Phillies currently have nine minor league affiliates, if you count the GCL and DSL, as Sawchik did in this intro).
“Still, Seattle outfielder Mitch Haniger — who has worked with Latta and hitting coach Craig Wallenbrock to improve his swing — says minor league games will never be replicated despite whatever gains are made in technology. “You can’t really simulate facing a pitcher in front of thousands of people,” Haniger says, “and failing in front of a whole bunch of people.”
Here’s the token concession to what makes the minors unique. But still, we are only looking between the blinders of player development.
“On a late May afternoon in Erie, Pennsylvania, the Erie Sea Wolves — the Double-A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers — hosted the Bowie Bay Sox. A light fog rolled in off the lake, UPMC Park was perhaps at half capacity. While minor league baseball remains popular and big business for big-drawing clubs like the Columbus (Ohio) Clippers and Lehigh Valley (Pennsylvania) Iron Pigs, minor league attendance declined last season for the first time in 14 years last season and by 1.38 million fans. Erie is averaging 3,315 fans this year, 10th out of 12 clubs in the league. Top prospect Casey Mize, the No. 1 overall pick in 2018, pitched that day like he was ready to fit in the Tigers rotation. He tossed eight shutout innings on 89 pitches. Speaking afterward in a cramped, dated and faux wood-paneled clubhouse, where the players consumed postgame meals on card tables before their lockers, Mize seemed ready for another challenge. When asked about the practice of aggressively promoting players upward, Mize said, “I think failure is part of it and needs to be part of it. I see positives in being forced to fail.”
I love this. If Sawchik is intent on bringing down the minors, he cherry-picked the perfect example. Erie is indeed a weak team that has no business being at Double-A and probably won’t survive the next PBA. Casey Mize is a prized prospect who should never be exposed to the indignity of faux-wood paneling and card tables. Yuk, yuk. I love it.
“Some influencers of modern skill-building suggest that athletes ought to push themselves through practices like weighted-ball training — called overload training — to hasten development. To increase skill, take on more than you’re used to and the body adapts and skills improve. But how does that translate to games? In the NBA and NFL, top amateur players get thrown straight into the fray against top professionals. In baseball, top prospects spend years against lesser competition. How do you improve against inferior players?”
Yah! What a terrible paragraph! Burneko hammers him on this one too, but c’mon, Travis! You’re bringing up the NBA and NFL, both of which do not allow players to go straight from high school to the pros. Instead they go through the cash-grab dog-and-pony show of NCAA competition, facing up against–gasp!–inferior players. Meanwhile in baseball, an MLB team has every right to draft a player right out of high school in the June Draft and have him in a major league lineup in July. As far as I know, MLB teams could do this, but they don’t. There’s always hand-wringing about bringing them up before they’re ready, and let’s not even mention the service time issue. Even polished college players who could certainly go right to the show are kept on the shelf rather than having their clock started. But it’s major league teams that are choosing to do this, not minor league teams who have absolutely zero say on roster moves.
“Major league [prospects] are seeing a lot of competition that is not helping them,” the ex-Astros official said. Because of this idea that players are feasting on lesser talent, minor league numbers can distort evaluation. All-Star pitcher Walker Buehler has been part of cutting-edge training techniques with the Los Angeles Dodgers and when pitching for Vanderbilt University. While much has been said of the low pay and financial struggles of minor-league players in recent years, Buehler thinks there’s another problem: There are too many players that aren’t MLB-quality in the minors. “At any affiliate, there are three players who have a chance to play in the majors. The rest of the players are there so they so they can play. I don’t think that’s fair,” Buehler told FiveThirtyEight. “You are preying on their dreams.”
This is very good stuff! If Sawchik had led off the article with this paragraph, his article would’ve packed much more punch. I mean, getting a painfully true quote from a player, whose view aligns with MLB management? That is a seriously good point, and Buehler’s quote has stuck with me more than any other part of this slipshod article. Let’s end it.
“Rethinking the minor leagues is being discussed at the highest levels of the sport. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told The Athletic in July that “we have to look at the efficiency of the [minor league] system that we’re running right now, how many teams, how many players, what we’re paying players, and all those issues are obviously related.” What that means for the future of the farm system suggests it could, and perhaps should, look much different than it does today.”
Yep, this was a good hint about the PBA proposal, and leads us right into where we are at the close of the 2019 baseball season. Before I wrap this ridiculous response article up, I want to tie back to a point I hinted at earlier. It ties into the headline, which was “Do We Even Need Minor League Baseball?” This is the headline that freaked out the internet and caused Sawchik’s article to get a bunch of clicks, but it is fundamentally ludicrous. What would happen if the entire system of major and minor league affiliates was scrapped overnight? I do think that MLB teams would eventually be able to build or upgrade their theoretical centralized training facilities, and I think they could handle it with relative efficiency.
But what about building up their fan base in mid-sized cities–especially within their television market? Even a measly Rookie level team like that in Grand Junction, Colorado helps the Rockies develop fans and sell tickets in the Grand Junction area. On a larger scale, how about the ~9,000 per game average fans of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, a Phillies affiliate that plays in Allentown, PA, a hotbed for Phillies fanatics? Those Pig-heads want to get a glimpse of future Phillies before the product is even on the market, so to speak. By the time their in Philly, they are familiar names. That is very valuable for the big league club.
Thinking bigger, what about Las Vegas, Buffalo, Sacramento, San Antonio, Indianapolis, Charlotte, Nashville, Columbus, Memphis, Vancouver, Salt Lake City, Jacksonville and on and on? Does Sawchik really think MLB would want to loosen their iron grip on these cities? Sure the big leagues may expand a bit, in a similar way to how Branch Rickey’s Continental League spurred on the New York Mets, Houston Astros, Minnesota Twins, etc., but they aren’t going to take on all those new teams–especially with the likes of Montréal, Portland, Monterrey, etc. waiting in the wings. What if all those big markets banded together and formed their own indy league, or merged with a league like the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball? My guess is that interests in the MLB front office wouldn’t be too keen about that. So, “Do We Even Need Minor League Baseball?” Well, even with the rise of player development technology and even with the radical PBA proposal in mind, my guess is that if that big question were truly being raised, nearly everyone, MLB teams included, would answer with a resounding “yes!”
The minors are a hell of a lot more powerful than the MLB affiliation system. I wish that Travis Sawchik, a smart guy with some very salient points, had done enough research to come to this conclusion on this own before publishing an uneven and somewhat lazy article with a clickbait headline.