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System Thinking: On Following the Farm

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Jamar Coach/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Today is an off-day, and also the first day that AA and A+ gets underway. Here are a few thoughts for the uninitiated on following the minor league teams.

I began following minor league baseball around 1990, and even worked for an Independent team in the California League one summer. It was around the time the Astros were trending bad and I was looking for signs of hope. This was before the Internet, so the best way to get informed was to subscribe to Baseball America, a bi-weekly that looked like The Sporting News.

In college I subscribed to the Boston Globe and hung on every word from Peter Gammons. Information was hard to come by.

Around 2009, it was time to turn attention again to the farm system, as the glory days of the hitherto greatest period of success was on its last legs. And this time there was the internet. One could find summaries of minor league happenings. Today, of course, there’s, although it’s hard to pre-set it to show only Astro scores. Within the site you can find team pages with rosters and stats. I usually check in during the evening or in the morning, to read the whole box scores myself. Baseball America is locked hard behind a paywall, but has some prospect information, and Fangraphs gives a lot of details when they get around to writing up the Astros. If you follow the teams’ Twitter profile, you’ll also see some nice highlights.

Here at the Crawfish Boxes, we give a daily recap of what happened on the farm. In my 30+ years of interest in the Astros’ farm system, here are a few things I’ve learned:

  • There are four minor league full-season teams who play roughly 140 game seasons with one off-day/week. They are Sugar Land (AAA; Pacific Coast League), Corpus Christi (AA; Texas League), Asheville (A+, South Atlantic League), and Fayetteville (A; Carolina League).
  • Pick a few guys to root for. People with funny names, sleepers picked in the last round, lefties with crazy splits, guys coming back from injuries. If you’re on this site, you know who Drew Gilbert and Pedro Leon are. It makes it more fun to follow a few diamonds in the rough. Last year I just wanted Ty Whitaker to finish above the Mendoza line after an atrocious start.
  • Don’t bother with counting stats. Whether a prospect hit a grand slam or a solo HR, it’s the same batted ball result. Likewise, pitching wins and losses mean nothing.
  • For pitchers, pay attention to bb/k ratio and how many hits they’re yielding.
  • Team results aren’t super indicative. It’s fun when the teams are winning, but the Astros farm system is ranked 26th and most of their teams probably won’t have a winning record.
  • Minor league park variation is crazy. There are some extreme hitters parks, especially in the PCL and in the Carolina League. Don’t stress about pitchers not putting up great results. In 2014 Lance McCullers was 3-6 with a 5.47 ERA and a WHIP of 1.56 in the California League. That’s A+ ball. In 2015 he appeared in 7 games at AA before getting promoted to the majors. and dominating. Most pitchers in Asheville are going to have a bad ERA and a high HR rate.
  • For hitters, look for power and average (duh). BABIP in the minors can often mean that a guy hits the ball hard, in part because the defense isn’t as good and teams don’t shift as much. Walk rate shows a plate approach, but it’s not always a skill that translates. If a player has no power, he’s never getting walked in the majors. On the converse, a low walk rate is a red flag. It means a hacker who either has no approach or who doesn’t understand the strike zone.
  • Age to level is an important consideration. Drew Gilbert should crush A+ ball this year as a 1st rounder college guy. But if Ryan Clifford is killing it in Fayetteville, it’s more impressive because he’s 19.
  • Trust the scouts. They’re not perfect, but they have access to information that the rest of us don’t have. A pitcher may have a low walk rate, but that doesn’t mean command. If he throws 98, he’ll beat most guys in A ball. So if a scout flags command, it might mean more than the stats will show. Most of us in the comments here are fans rooting for these guys. It stings to hear a Keith Law or Kiley McDaniel criticize someone you’ve been following in box scores for two years, but they’re more right than wrong.
  • Go to a game. In 2018 I took my kids to Springfield, MO to see the Hooks play. It was the first week Tucker got called up. We got a foul ball. The next day in the hotel lobby (it was not a nice hotel) a hulking player passed right by. He didn’t play the night before but he signed our baseball. It was Yordan Alvarez.
  • If you subscribe to, you can watch minor league games for free. The cameras aren’t always great but it’s an amazing resource for accruing information. This is a new feature.

With any luck, we’ll have a minor league thread up later today, as well as on subsequent days when the Astros are off. There’s been a lot of winning in Houston recently, but there’s a nice yin and yang to following the farm system alongside the big squad. So when the Astros lose but you can find a way to go to bed happy because Jacob Melton hit 2 HRs and Spencer Arighetti K’d 10 in 5 scoreless innings.