The Most Fascinating Minor League Translations of 2023

Andrew Abbott
Joe Puetz-USA TODAY Sports

When making any prediction for a young player, dealing with minor league data in an absolute necessity. This still remains a relatively new thing in baseball’s history, with little attention given to minor league stats until Bill James introduced his method of Major League Equivalency in the 1985 Baseball Abstract. Twenty-five years ago, I wrote one of the first things of mine to ever hit the broader internet, a quick primer on how to calculate James’ MLEs. Working with the data was immensely difficult at the time, and even worse when James was developing MLEs. There was no central repository of minor league stats, and just getting the current year was highly difficult; on the young internet of the time, you basically had to copy and paste from Baseball America’s basic data. For past years, there was just about nothing outside of what you could get from STATS. As a youngster, I pretty much spidered the data off of STATS on AOL, which surprisingly had the most data available publicly at the time.

Sabermetrics was a more difficult task back then. Even when Baseball-Reference initially became the first actually usable website, powered by the Lahman database, for the first few years, stats were updated after the season. There was no minor league data there, or anywhere, really. That improved in subsequent seasons, and with more data than James had to work with, people such as Clay Davenport, Voros McCracken, and myself were able to put together our own systems. ZiPS never becomes a thing without minor league data to work on to make the inputs properly. Since James is the one that broke ground, I still call the ZiPS translations zMLEs. These days, I have minor league translations going all the way back to the 1950s.

As we approach midseason, many of the current minor league translations in the upper minors have become highly interesting the farther we get from Small Sample Shenanigans. I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight some of the numbers with relevance to the rest of the major league season. Remember: minor league translations are not actual predictions but should be treated like any other line of play, with the same possible pitfalls, the same need for context, and the same opportunity to be misleading in certain ways, such as freak BABIP totals (though ZiPS tries to adjust for the last one). All these lines are adjusted to the context of the parent club’s home park and 2023’s level of offense in the majors. All translations are through Monday’s games.

Christian Encarnacion-Strand, Cincinnati Reds – .321/.381/.624, 14 HR

The Reds have gotten a lot more interesting since last season, and a big reason is that there’s simply a lot more promise in the offense. Encarnacion-Strand’s lines look insane, enough that one ought to double-check that I actually posted his translation rather than his raw numbers. I didn’t; he’s hit .361/.431/.733 for Triple-A Louisville. You don’t see translations pop up like this every day. Last year, even setting an absurdly low 50 plate appearances as the qualifier, which just begs for a fluke result, the top translated slugging percentage was .475 by James Outman.

CES isn’t the only Reds minor leaguer hitting baseballs with malice aforethought. Matt McLain was at .302/.413/.593 before his callup (he’s hit .322/.375/.495 in his first 27 games in the majors), and Elly De La Cruz has impressed viewers after a .271/.340/.488 zMLE. Leaving Encarnacion-Strand in the minors at this point is getting ludicrous. The Reds have found themselves in real contention in the NL Central right now; how much more is he going to learn against minor leaguers with an 1.164 OPS? Fortune favors the bold, and the Reds have ample motivation to be ambitious here.

Andrew Abbott, Cincinnati Reds – 51 IP, 3.35 ERA, 17 BB, 70 K

Abbott has allowed a few too many walks in his two starts in the majors, but you can’t scoff at 11 2/3 innings of scoreless baseball and taking a no-hitter into the fifth in a major league debut. He just missed the ZiPS Top 100 in 2023, thanks to a fairly short performance history and ZiPS wanting to see him knock off a walk or so per nine innings. Ten very good starts, 15 (!) strikeouts per nine innings, and a walk rate cut by a third for Double-A Chattanooga suffices. He did, in fact, make our prospect team’s Top 100 this preaseason, ranking 91st. Graham Ashcraft is on the IL with a contusion, so the Reds don’t even have to keep going with a six-man pitching rotation in order to keep giving Abbott opportunities in the majors.

Matthew Liberatore, St. Louis Cardinals – 43.2 IP, 3.68 ERA, 16 BB, 45 K

Gordon Graceffo, St. Louis Cardinals – 22.1 IP, 4.17 ERA, 9 BB, 16 K

The Cardinals are in sore need of starting pitching, and the hope was that Liberatore could at least stop some of the bleeding. He’s had mixed results in the majors so far, though I’d argue his efforts in Monday’s night game against the Giants was the sharpest he’s looked this year. His FIP in the majors (4.23) is well below his bloated 5.14 ERA, but the translation thinks that he’s probably closer to the former. It’s also a marked improvement over last year’s translated ERA of 4.58. Given how Randy Arozarena, the main player sent to the Rays for Liberatore, has played this season and how little has gone right for the Cards, I expect them to give him every chance of success.

Graceffo was another player on the ZiPS Top 100 for the Cardinals, and while his ERA of 4.91 and FIP over five in five starts is not what you want to see from a top prospect, he’s also pitching in a league with an ERA over five. With StatCast data available for all of Triple-A this year, ZiPS sees his strikeout rate and walk rate both worse than you’d expect from his peripheral data. He’s not actually getting hit hard in the context of an incredibly high-scoring league. Liberatore is more likely to contribute this year, but St. Louis needs to find pitching wherever it can.

Luis Matos, San Francisco Giants – .323/.373/.449, 4 HR

Matos did not make the ZiPS Top 100 last year, but he will next year. Or at least, he would if not for the fact that there’s a good chance that he sticks in the majors after his recent callup by the Giants, which would render him ineligible for any prospect lists! The book on Matos was that he was too aggressive at the plate, but he’s done what Gunnar Henderson did last year, bumping his walk rate by 50% and slashing his strikeout rate in half. That’s not an easy feat, especially while being promoted aggressively to leagues in which you’re one of the youngest players. His 2024 projection now stands at .263/.321/.382, with a 94 wRC+ and 1.5 WAR, but that’s only in 119 games, and ZiPS may be underselling his defense (it has him two runs below average in center). Matos brings some fresh blood to a very old outfield in San Francisco.

Keston Hiura, Milwaukee Brewers – .279/.334/.585, 11 HR

I remain perplexed by how the Brewers use Hiura. When his contact struggles were at their worst, they were extremely generous with the opportunities, but as his contact rate showed progress and his overall numbers improved, they’ve seemed less and less interested in having him on the roster. Given how awful Milwaukee’s offense has been, it seems absurd that the team isn’t looking at Hiura again; if the Brew Crew isn’t interested, I think another team who wants a high-risk upside play ought to be, and I doubt the asking price would be very much at this point. Hiura’s 115 wRC+ in the majors last year would actually lead the team right now (except for Abraham Toro’s 287 in nine plate appearances).

Jo Adell, Los Angeles Angels – .220/.291/.447, 13 HR

While Encarnacion-Strand is crushing it in Triple-A, it’s important to remember that there’s a lot of helium to remove from Triple-A stats, especially given the bloated offenses these days in both the International and Pacific Coast League. While it was fun to see Adell hit a home run in his only game in the majors, and while you should rarely write off a 24-year-old prospect, he’s not really dominating the upper minors. The 44% hard-hit rate is solid, but he’s still too much of a strikeout machine — nearly 15% against minor-league pitching — and a 32% out-of-zone swing percentage is a problem when you’re only making contact with half of those pitches. There are still major holes in Adell’s offensive game.

Jordan Westburg, Baltimore Orioles – .276/.337/.490, 17 HR

Colton Cowser, Baltimore Orioles – .300/.417/.455, 8 HR

It’s nice to see Baltimore’s farm system transition over the last five years to an embarrassment of riches from an embarrassment of… embarassments. Westburg has long been a ZiPS favorite, and this year, he’s already only one off last year’s Triple-A home run total in about 150 fewer plate appearances. Before the season, ZiPS gave him a 2024 projection of .233/.310/.392 — decent for a shortstop, but not at most other positions. That’s up to .247/.321/.425 with 20 homers now, which means that the Orioles’ already complicated decisions as to who to give plate appearances to are getting even tougher. Cowser’s weak Triple-A debut last year was enough to bump him out of the ZiPS Top 100, but his performance this year is putting him right back on.

Mason Montgomery, Tampa Bay Rays – 46.1 IP, 4.72 ERA, 28 BB, 42 K

Where ZiPS sees Graceffo as pitching with better control than his numbers indicate, it provides no such silver lining for Montgomery. The Rays are usually terrific at finding late-inning reinforcements, but ZiPS is skeptical that this is the year that Montgomery will be an addition for the stretch run. And while Tampa Bay isn’t exactly in sore need for pitching, given the rate at which its hurlers have been going on the IL, more is generally better.

Símon Muzziotti, Philadelphia Phillies – .328/.366/.439, 3 HR

Muzziotti’s projection using the full ZiPS model still isn’t impressive at .266/.325/.368, but it represents a nearly 70-point bump in OPS from his preseason projection. It still doesn’t look like he’ll hit for any kind of power, but he’s a solid contact hitter, enough to provide depth to the Phillies, a team that has had problems with outfield depth, especially players who can at least fake being a center fielder. I wouldn’t leapfrog Muzziotti over Cristian Pache and would still prefer to see what the former Brave can do when he returns from his knee injury, but I’m not sure Dalton Guthrie is the better role player option.

If there are any other translations you’d like to see for players you find interesting this year, let me know in the comments!





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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phillymember
11 months ago

Roman Anthony would be an interesting one. He’s line in lo-A was very unimpressive- mostly walks and supposedly hard hit ground balls. There has been buzz about how good his underlying metrics (chase rate, EV, etc) are and the Red Sox seem to agree since they promoted him to hi-A this week. Would be fascinating to see what ZiPS makes of this new fangled bad production/good metrics type of prospect.

phillymember
11 months ago
Reply to  Dan Szymborski

After posting I realized he was probably too far away for a translation to be meaningful. But I do wonder about the general idea – how much if anything does these newer underlying metrics improve projections? The Red Sox seem to think Anthony’s swing decision and EV data are more important than his top line production. I don’t think I’ve seen any public studies to support that.

airforce21one
11 months ago
Reply to  Dan Szymborski

Where can we find the ZIPS projections/translations for minor leaguers?

John DiFool2
11 months ago
Reply to  philly

Chase Meidroth at AA is the Red Sock I want to see. .434 OBP with some definite power (.494 slg).