Second of a four-part series on major league baseball prospects.
The clamor for the defenestration of Kevin Youkilis in favor of upstart Will Middlebrooks started when Middlebrooks crushed the ball for three weeks in Triple A in 2012.
Jackie Bradley Jr. became a spring training celebrity in 2013, and the biggest question about whether he belonged on the Opening Day roster was how his free agency status would be affected years down the road.
Xander Bogaerts was a star upon, and even before, his big league debut with the Red Sox in August 2013.
Because elite baseball prospects arrive with a well-known track record and years of hype, the expectations about what they might be able to produce upon their arrival have swollen. Yet a case can be made that prospect hype has never been more misleading.
Top minor leaguers are identified and known to swelling public ranks from the start of their professional careers. For the best prospects, the notion of developing in obscurity and arriving without a known portfolio is no longer realistic – particularly among Red Sox fans who have tremendous proximity to three levels (Lowell, Portland, Pawtucket) of the team’s farm system in New England as well as a wealth of prospect media coverage. Anticipation becomes immense.
A player’s statistical and scouting profile fires imaginations of what he might be, the boundlessness of potential. Those daydreams rarely consider the sometimes-nightmarish challenge of the transition to the big leagues.
“The expectations that some players come to the big leagues with have grown to the point where this assumed performance is just going to take place because of a track record they’ve put in at the minor league level,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said in late 2014. “As this projection extends out, publicly there’s already a sentiment and evaluation about what this player is going to be. Anything less than that, he’s failed. But the path to getting to that point may take a different course.”
“It may take a couple of [trips between the majors and Triple-A] up and back. The guy’s talent doesn’t change, but the path to realizing his major league potential varies. That, to me, is what has changed [since Farrell was a farm director in Cleveland from 2001-06]. It’s the projection and anticipated performance that gets out there too soon, too fast.”
Hype meets reality
As the Red Sox experienced in painful fashion in 2014, the view of what a player might become does not always align with the realities of his transition to the big leagues. Indeed, a case can be made that the scale of the transition is more daunting than ever, making possible something like the startling struggles of Bogaerts, Bradley, and Middlebrooks a year ago.
That trio – all of whom were viewed at different points as being in the conversation about the best few dozen prospects in the game, and in Bogaerts’ case, the best few prospects overall – spotlighted the disparity between prospect status won with standout minor league performances and big league reputations earned through sustained performance against the highest levels of competition.
“This is a challenging level. This is a pretty spectacular place. These are the best players in the world, and no matter what you think you’re ready for as a young player, once you get here, this experience is a little bit different,” Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo explained during the season. “There are some twists and turns. There are some different roads you have to prepare yourself for but that you can’t quite prepare yourself for the correct way unless you’re here and learn. … We’re trying to close that gap as much as we can between Triple A and the big leagues. You just can’t quite do it.”
Why the gap is widening
The gap appears to be growing thanks to some of the advances made by pitching staffs and defenses. Lovullo recalled one rookie returning to the dugout and shaking his head after striking out against a right-on-right, frontdoor cut fastball that clipped the inner edge of the plate.
“He came back to the dugout and said, ‘Wow, I’ve never really seen a pitch like that in the minor leagues,’” Lovullo said. “They are attacking guys a little differently at this level. You can’t quite get that experience unless you’re here to face that front-door cutter.”
No team is immune from the development.
“This is not unique to the Red Sox,” said Sox assistant GM and former farm director Mike Hazen. “Offense has ticked back in baseball. I think it would naturally be appropriate to put the position player performance in that context. … It’s understandable or should be expected that the offensive expectations for a young player should probably be reflected in that.”
It’s not just that righthanded hitters are seeing cutters from righthanded pitchers. The game is evolving in ways that make it ever more difficult for young players to translate their Triple A performances to the big leagues.
Stuff is better than ever, resulting in record-setting strikeout rates. The 2014 season was the ninth straight in which the strikeout rate went up, with 20.1 percent of all batters getting punched out – the first time that more than 20 percent of plate appearances ended in a strikeout.
Can’t hit 95 mph? Good luck. Whereas just 3.8 percent of relievers in 2007 (a time when someone like Jonathan Papelbon represented an outlier) featured an average fastball velocity of 95 mph or better, a whopping 13.8 percent of relievers in 2014 – a 267 percent increase – averaged 95 mph or better. Most did so not just with four-seamers down the middle but with heat that they commanded with explosive late life.
Advance scouting reports are better than ever, with precise game plans that map hitters’ weaknesses as never before coinciding with the stuff to exploit them in unprecedented fashion. Meanwhile, though there’s compelling evidence that the overall impact of shifts has been exaggerated considerably, some players have been wrecked by those alignments.
All of those elements suggest that the gap between Triple A and the majors is bigger than ever. Statistics back the claim.
The standard for a league average player in Triple A in 2014 looked fairly similar to the league average in any year in Triple A starting in 2006.
In the International League, the average player in 2006 posted a .258 average, .326 OBP, and .389 slugging mark. In 2014, the league average was actually better than those numbers across the board, with a .261/.331/.393 line. Over a nine-year period, averages in the International League have been tightly clustered.
While the Pacific Coast League is by nature a more offensive league thanks to ballparks that were seemingly concocted in zero-gravity experiments, it, too, has yielded fairly consistent numbers from 2006-14 save for one outlier season in 2011.
Major League Baseball, on the other hand, is amidst a precipitous offensive decline. The league-average MLB line in 2006 was a .269 average, .337 OBP, and .432 slugging mark. In 2014, the league standard had dropped to a .251 average (6.7 percent drop), .314 OBP (5.0 percent drop), and .386 slugging mark (10.6 percent drop).
What does that mean? Run prevention and the suppression of offense have improved markedly in the big leagues. It’s remained essentially unchanged in Triple A. The gap has widened. As such, while a presumption of transitional challenges to the big leagues already existed, the change in altitude (and corresponding breathlessness) in recent years is even greater for prospects who make it to the big leagues now.
Even players who represented rookie success stories and seemed poised for stardom – Manny Machado and Wil Myers come to mind, as does Middlebrooks – have had their lunch handed to them in subsequent years. Even a megatalent like Bryce Harper saw his OPS decline by 86 points in 2014.
“They’re getting their butts kicked right now – a lot of the young guys are,” Joe Maddon, then the Rays manager, concluded near the end of the 2014 season. “Based on what you’re seeing with pitching, defense, and offense declining, these guys are getting caught up with all of this right now. They’re no different than anyone else, but it’s more obvious and exaggerated.”
Teams are thus confronted with a stark challenge: Can anything be done to smooth out the transition? For the Red Sox, are there any measures they can undertake to help Blake Swihart or Mookie Betts from becoming the next cautionary tale, or to help Bogaerts get beyond his 2014 challenges?