Changing the Natural Order

Like so many elements of today’s national pastime, the structure of minor league baseball has a direct lineage to Branch Rickey. The first sabermetrician, as it were, created the modern farm system around the time of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Almost nothing about baseball back then is the same today, and yet, the minor league ladder is never questioned. Each Major League team has six affiliates, to which they assign a contrived order of importance: Rookie League, A-ball, Triple-A, you know the drill. Players are given promotions when they’ve shown a “mastery” of a level, which is almost always either on the back of a hot streak, or because there’s someone below that is ready to take their spot. And for going on 80 years, we’ve simply assumed this is the way it should be.

With the goal that player development should be about building confidence and refining skills, I today offer an idea for change. My series on sinkers last week found how often good pitchers are let down by bad defenses at the lower levels of the minor leagues. With this suggested change, an onus would be put on young position players to value defense more, which can’t be a bad thing. Here’s my (fun?) six-step program to creating an entirely different Minor League structure:

1) Determine the best position for each regular season, full-time player.

2) During Spring Training, rank the players at each position defensively, in four quadrants: great, good, bad, terrible.

3) Do an extensive evaluation of the proportions and park effects at each affiliated minor league stadium.

4) Determine the groundball aptitude of all minor league pitchers, and like you did, separate the players in four quadrants: the most to least worm-burning pitchers.

5) Use this to build your minor league teams:
– Team 1: Groundballiest pitchers with great infielders, terrible outfielders, smallest stadium.
– Team 2: Second groundballiest pitchers with good infielders, bad outfielders, second smallest stadium.
– Team 3: Second flyballiest pitchers with bad infielders, good outfielders, second largest stadium.
– Team 4: Flyballiest pitchers with terrible infielders, great outfielders, most cavernous stadium.

6) Develop a series of challenges for each player that involves assignments to different teams to challenge their learned skills.

Yes, I think this is unrealistic, and no, I don’t think it is necessarily better than the current system. It’s Friday, though, and there’s no harm in having some fun. It also accomplishes some neat things:

1) It creates the best environment for pitchers to succeed. You’re playing to the pitchers’ strengths, and as a result, giving your best fielders the most chances to continue to improve their skills.

2) It creates a clear path for coaching assignments. For example, team 4 is most likely to be filled with power pitchers, who typically struggle with change-ups. The organization’s pitching coach that best teaches the change-up is thus assigned to this team. And so on.

3) The biggest weakness, without question, is that it would have disproportionate effects on offensive performance. Since it’s unlikely any other team would do this — the rest sticking to the traditional structure — you’re risking putting a “Triple-A” caliber hitter into a “Low-A” league/environment. And vice versa.

4) This all makes the farm director more important than ever before. With an understanding of his farm system, the director would be responsible for moving players around when they aren’t being challenged, and finding the best (and most ready) players to be called up to the Major Leagues. This shouldn’t be a difficult task, but it’s certainly asking more from the position.

At the end of the day, the minor league ladder still exists for the same reasons that closers, five-man rotations and sacrifice bunts do: because no one is willing to overtly challenge convention. Any editorial to do so is, admittedly, hot air, but this is still one structure that seems to skate by without questioning. I hope to hear about your opinions about the current structure, my suggested one, or any other ideas you guys have for change in the comments.

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14 years ago

This is a very interesting idea, but my biggest complaint is basically what you outlined in problem #3. Let’s say a hitter is an extreme flyball hitter and the major league team doesn’t care about his defense. Wouldn’t the ML team send him to Team 1 in the minors to exploit his ability to hit flyballs, thus making him seem better than he actually is?

I changed my mind, I have a new biggest complaint. This would be like hitters playing in a hitter’s park; teams would be wary of what that hitter’s true ability actually was, because he was likely hitting better than he would in a context neutral park.

14 years ago
Reply to  Bryan Smith

I guess I’m not sure why you’d do this. You don’t want “success” per se in the Minors–at least not the same sort of success you want at the major league level. For example, let’s say a FB pitcher plays in a cavernous minor league park with a great OF, and puts up wonderful (ly distorted) numbers. How exactly would that make him a better pitcher in the Majors? Or would that just allow the team to evaluate him more properly? (If so, Why would a cavernous park allow more accurate evaluations?)

Are you saying that your change would provide a better evaluation tool (perhaps, but I’m skeptical), or a better development tool (I can’t see why it would; in fact, it might retard development)? Which of these tasks is more important, in your opinion?