Almost inexplicably, the proposed contraction of 42 minor league teams has largely become second-page news. Baseball’s biggest story just a few short months ago, a potentially cataclysmic alteration of the game’s landscape has found itself overshadowed by cheating scandals, managerial mayhem, and the controversial trade of a superstar by a deep-pocketed team. In arguably one of the most-tumultuous off-seasons ever, a hugely-important issue lies almost dormant within the news cycle.
Here at FanGraphs, we’re doing our best not to let that happen. My colleague Craig Edwards is taking an in-depth look at the situation — expect those articles in the coming days — and what you’re seeing here serves as a lead-in to his efforts. My own opinions aren’t included. What follows are the thoughts of a handful of high-ranking MLB executives, the bulk of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In the opinion of one GM, lawsuits are likely, if not inevitable. Speaking on the record would thus be an invitation to trouble. Another pointed out that the ongoing discussions are at the league level, and independent of individual teams. For that reason, offering a public opinion wouldn’t be in his best interest.
With no exception, each executive expressed that his organization’s bottom line is to optimize player development, regardless of the structure of the minor leagues. An American League GM put it this way:
“I don’t think [contraction] would change our operations that much in terms of what we’re focused on internally. We want to put the best resources in front of our players, and whether we have 10 minor league teams, five minor league teams, or somewhere in between, we’re going to do the same thing.”
Continuity came up multiple times. Asked if all organizations would be impacted equally by contraction, one executive pointed out that some organizations have multiple DSL teams, or multiple rookie-league teams, while others don’t. As he put it, “I’m of the camp that the more consistent we are in terms of number of teams, and number of players across minor-league baseball… that’s something I’d be supportive of.”
All agreed that losing a short-season team could prove problematic in terms of promotions. For instance, what do you do if a player in the Gulf Coast League is deemed ready for the New York-Penn League, but not for the South-Atlantic League? In essence, you’d either have to leave him stagnant or double-jump him to a level potentially deleterious to his development. Again, the importance of continuity. If all organizations face the same challenges, you have a more-level playing field.
A National League GM who weighed in on the question agreed. He also rued the idea that an indeterminate number of potential overachievers would never get that chance.
“There is definitely a subset of players that shouldn’t be making that double jump. With a lot of affiliates, you don’t face that challenge. The more players you have… it makes for a lot of good stories. Guys come out of nowhere. In that sense, I don’t love the idea of reducing it down.”
And then there are the towns. Losing a baseball team impacts a community, not just in terms of the fan experience, but also economically. One executive in particular was thoughtful when addressing that issue:
“Philosophically, is minor-league baseball entirely for player development, or is it also a business for these towns? We have prospects here, but we also have 12 kids who were drafted in order to give those other 12 someone to play with. Are we OK that this is part development, part entertainment business? We’re spending money on kids who are drafted and developed, in order to give players to that business. This is a philosophical question that needs to be answered.”
It is widely recognized that MLB owners have the money to continue “subsidizing,” and they could afford to do so more generously. This is especially true when it comes to minor-league salaries, which are a drop in the bucket compared to other expenditures. Eliminating affiliates isn’t necessary for that to happen. Therein lies the business part of the equation, which is intertwined with the greater good of the game. One executive I spoke to freely admitted that the best interests of MLB owners and the best interests of baseball as a whole aren’t the same thing.
The timing of June’s amateur draft came up multiple times. The consensus was that the draft should be pushed back, perhaps to the All-Star break, and that’s whether contraction goes forward or not.
Which brings us to the contentious negotiations between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball. As one of the aforementioned executives pointed out, those are taking place beyond the purview of individual teams — all he and his brethren can do is wait for a resolution, and then act according. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t things they’d like to see happen.
“I just want it to be well thought out,” expressed one of the NL execs. “I don’t want the tail to wag the dog. I think that’s the way it is now: the tail wags the dog. We have all these short-season affiliates, we have to draft 40 rounds, we’re filling out rosters. What we have now isn’t ideal. The way it’s set up could definitely be optimized.”
Aaron Civale doesn’t feature many four-seam fastballs. The Cleveland Indians right-hander threw the pitch just 3.2% of the time in his rookie season. And while upping that usage in 2020 isn’t necessarily a goal, having a higher-quality four-seamer is. Cognizant of the fact that he’s ”always been able to spin a baseball, but not really backspin a baseball,” Civale has been working out at Cressey Sports Performance in hopes of changing that dynamic.
As for his primary fastball, the 24-year-old Northeastern University product doesn’t throw a traditional two-seamer. He described the grip as “a little bit offset, creating almost one-seam spin; I spin at a different axis to create more of a lateral movement, versus just depth. The better I spin it —I do spin the ball well — the more it moves in the direction I want it to.”
Not surprisingly, technology is playing a role in his efforts to improve his sporadically-thrown four-seamer. The Indians sent Civale an Edgertronic to use over the offseason, and it’s helped him work on his release point.
“I’m typically on the side of the ball at release, so I tend to get a little baby cut on the ball from the spin axis,” said Civale. “The direction it’s spinning isn’t really conducive to carry. Having the Edgertronic and the Rapsodo allows me to see the immediate results of the spin axis and direction, which allows me to quantify potential small changes.”
Again, those small changes aren’t intended to remake the righty’s repertoire.
“It’s not something that’s being prioritized,” explained Civale, who logged a 2.34 ERA in his 10 starts with the Indians. “The goal isn’t necessarily for it to be a plus pitch, it’s more to help make my other pitches better. And because I do mix it in, I need to make sure it’s there when I need to go to it.”
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
Tim Kurkjian told a pair of good Greg Maddux stories on Friday at a Foundation To Be Named Later benefit event in Boston. The first laid bare just how well the Hall of Fame right-hander could read the tendencies of certain hitters. According to Kurkjian, Bobby Cox had come out to the mound to remove Maddux from a postseason game in a tense situation.
“You can’t take me out against this guy,” Maddux told his manager. “I know what he’s going to do. He’s going to pop out to the third baseman on the first pitch. You can take me out after this, but don’t take me out now, because he’s going to pop up to third base on the first pitch.”
What happened? He popped up to third on the first pitch.
The ESPN analyst proceeded to share another claim that came to fruition.
“Greg Maddux walked 999 guys in his career,” recounted Kurkjian. “He had 999 with three starts to go, and he told Derek Lowe, playing golf one day, ‘I’m not walking anybody else. I’m not walking 1,000 guys in my career.’”
Maddux worked 18 innings over those last three outings. He didn’t walk anybody.
An historical comp:
Mookie Betts’s last three seasons before being dealt from the Red Sox to the Dodgers: .299/.389/.535, 85 home runs, 140 wRC+, three Gold Gloves.
Fred Lynn’s last three seasons before being dealt from the Red Sox to the Angels in January 1981: .311/.396/.540, 73 home runs, 148 wRC+, three Gold Gloves.
Lynn was 28 years old at the time. The three players Boston acquired in the deal — Jim Dorsey, Joe Rudi, and Frank Tanana — went on to combine for 0.1 WAR while wearing Red Sox uniforms. Betts, arguably the best player in baseball not named Mike Trout, is 27 years old.
Major League Baseball has promoted Chris Young to Senior Vice President. Per a press release, the former big-league right-hander will oversee MLB’s on-field operations, and umpiring, departments. Young had been serving as Vice President, On-Field Operations, Initiatives & Strategy.
Maura Sheridan has been hired as the new play-by-play voice of the Cleveland Indians’ Carolina League affiliate, the Lynchburg Hillcats. The 23-year-old Syracuse University graduate spent last season as the No. 2 broadcaster with the Fayetteville Woodpeckers.
Blaine McCormick will be joining the Richmond Squirrels broadcast team this coming season. A recent graduate of Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, McCormick called games for the Boise Hawks last summer. The Squirrels are San Francisco’s Eastern League affiliate.
Gil Coan, an outfielder for four teams from 1946-1956, died earlier this week at age 97. Coan’s best years came with the Washington Senators, for whom he batted .303 in both 1950 and 1951. In 1954, he recorded the first hit in Baltimore Orioles history.
Last Sunday’s column noted that the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame would be announcing their 2020 inductees on Tuesday. They did so, and the honorees are Justin Morneau, John Olerud, Duane Ward, and Jacques Doucet.
A random shoutout to a Kelowna, British Columbia native who had a short-but-successful big-league career that ended with an elbow injury:
Jeff Zimmermann came out of the Texas Rangers bullpen 196 times from 1999-2001, with yearly appearance totals of 65, 65, and 66. In the last of those three seasons, Zimmermann was credited with 28 saves. His path to MLB was unique.
Undrafted out Texas Christian University, Zimmermann pitched for Team Canada, and for Barracudas de Montpellier in France’s Division Élite. He then returned to this side of the pond and pitched for the Winnipeg Goldeyes in the Northern League. The Rangers purchased Zimmermann’s contract from the indie-league club in January 1998.
Last Sunday’s column included a glimpse at the new player-development-focused class that Andy Andres is teaching at Boston University. Noted within those paragraphs was the fact that Peter Bendix, Mike DeBartolo, and Jeremy Greenhouse are among the 12 former Sabermetrics 101 students who have been hired by MLB teams. Of the nine not mentioned, here are the six who remain in noteworthy positions:
Ethan Bein, Senior Analyst R&D, Milwaukee Brewers
Joe Harrington, Coordinator Performance Sciences, Los Angeles Dodgers
Matt McGrath, Assistant Director Player Development, Los Angeles Dodgers.
Alex Merberg, Director of Baseball Operations, Cleveland Indians
Julia Prusaczyk, Analyst Baseball Development, St. Louis Cardinals
Will Vandenberg, Bio-mechanical Quantitative Analyst, Los Angeles Dodgers
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
How do baseball teams exchange medical information, and what does it mean for the Mookie Betts trade? Alex Speier explained the process at The Boston Globe.
Janie McCauley of the Associated Press wrote about how Alyssa Nakken is embracing her role as MLB’s first female coach. Nakken’s official title with the San Francisco Giants is Major League Assistant Coach.
Sticking closer to home, Stephanie Springer wrote about “The Astros, psychological safety, and MLB front office culture,” for The Hardball Times.
Over at The Tampa Bay Times, John Romano wrote about how all the Rays exes live in Texas… and in Boston and Los Angeles.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Babe Ruth hit 29 home runs in 1919, his final year with the Red Sox. Mookie Betts hit 29 home runs in 2019, [presumably] his final year with the Red Sox.
Mookie Betts has 37.2 WAR through his age-27 season. Andruw Jones had 47.1 WAR through his age-27 season.
White Sox outfielder Leury Garcia scored 47% of the time he reached base last year, the highest rate in MLB. The league average was 31%.(Per ESPN’s Sam Miller.)
In 1929, Chicago Cubs infielder Woody English had a 72 OPS+…. and scored 131 runs.
On this date in 1946, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Preacher Roe suffered a fractured skull upon hitting the floor after being punched by a referee during a high school basketball game. Roe, who was coaching one of the teams, had disputed a call.
Charlie Wilson, an infielder for the Boston Braves and St. Louis Cardinals in the the 1930s, was nicknamed “Swamp Baby.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.