Sunday, May 1, 2011

Minor League Park Factors, League Run Environments and Evaluating Giants Players' Stats Part I: Fresno and the PCL

When it comes to evaluating the stats of minor league players, that can be a heated and touchy debate. Many people like to use numbers to project a players' chances of success at the Major League level, and there isn't anything wrong with doing that as long as you know which stats are important and ones that should be taken with a grain of salt. For example, John Bowker absolutely tore it up in the Pacific Coast League. However, as any Giants fan will tell you, Bowker's minor league success never really translated to the Major League level.

So what should Giants fans do in terms of determining whether Giants minor league player stats are for real or not? Well, two things should be kept in mind:

1.) Which leagues and levels tend to favor the hitters and which ones tend to favor pitchers?
2.) Which parks are hitter's parks and which ones are pitcher's parks?

Therefore, I wanted to take a look at each level and each park and see the park factors of each ballpark and run environments of each league in the Giants system. Of course, these numbers aren't sure fire. You still have to keep in consideration the plate approach of certain players (hitters with good BB/K ratios and pitchers with good K/BB ratios can overcome certain parks for example). That being said, I think looking at the park factors and run environments can be a telling sign of which players are having true success that can translate to the Major League level and which ones may struggle as they advance through the system or in the Majors.

Because of the length of this post, I decided to split it up into multiple parts. In this first part, I'm going to look at the Fresno Grizzlies, Chukchansi Park and the Pacific Coast League (and how it stacks against the International League), and what we should be looking for when it comes to evaluating Grizzlies players' numbers.

(For the record, I got the statistical information from Baseball Think Factory and The Hardball Times.)

Three-year weighted Park factors for Chukchnasi Park: 0.97 Run factor, 0.98 Hit factor, 0.93 Double factor, 1.13 Home Run factor, 0.98 Walk factor, 0.98 Strikeout factor.

Run environments for the Pacific Coast League (2007-2009): 5.1 runs per game, 5.0 base runs per game (base runs = baserunners * basesrunner scoring rate * home runs), 2.5 home run percentage, 8.5 walk percentage, 2.1 error percentage, 7.9 stolen base attempt rate (SBA/OPP).

Surprisingly, the run factor is actually below average at Chukchansi Park, which would suggest it's a pitcher's park. However, the home run factor at 1.13 is one of the highest factors in Triple-A. How is this so? Well, just judging by the dimensions of Chukchansi Park, it's not exactly a cavernous yard. So, while home runs may go out easier than most "average" Triple-A parks, other extra base hits are going to be harder to come by because of the smaller dimensions (hence the 0.95 double factor, which is below the 1.00 average).

In terms of the run environments of the Pacific Coast League, this really shouldn't be too much of a surprise. Since it's the last step for a player before he hits the Majors, the numbers are closer to what you would see in the National and American League rather than other leagues (mainly because players are more skilled, with most having some Major League experience). However, the PCL is a bit more of a hitter's league than it's counterpart, the International League, which tends to be more of a pitcher's league and favors "small ball."

To compare, the R/G average in the PCL was 5.1 and the BsR/G was 5.0, and the HR percentage was 2.5 and the stolen base attempt rate 7.9 from 2007-2009. In the International League, R/G and BsR/G was 4.4 and the HR percentage was a lot lower at 2.1. The biggest upgrade though came in stolen bases, as the SBA percentage was 9.5 percent, a 1.6 difference from the PCL.

There are a variety of factors in the differences between the International League and the PCL. Probably the biggest factor to the difference is the fact that the PCL is mostly situated in the West Coast and western part of the Midwest, where the weather is a lot drier. Weather and humidity factors aren't going to keep the ball in the park like in some parks in the Southeartern or Northeastern parts of the United States (where most clubs in the IL are located). Another big factor is the fact that the clubs with affiliates in the Pacific Coast League simply have more talent in Triple-A than the International League (the IL is lower than PCL in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging). It makes sense though, as most International League teams spend a ton of money on free agents to make up their roster and have most of their talent in the lower minors (like the Mets, Yankees and Red Sox) . There are some exceptions to the rules (Tampa Bay, Minnesota and Atlanta for example), but the PCL has more teams that rely on their own talent to stock their Major League rosters, and hence, there is going to be deeper talent at Triple-A (because guys are going to go up and down all the time).

What Does this Mean for Grizzlies Players?

I think you have to take a couple of things into consideration when evaluating talent on the Fresno roster: age is huge and hitting stats have to be taken with a grain of salt. In terms of the first point, it's one thing for a guy to dominate in Fresno, but guys in their late 20's or early thirties really are more four-A players rather than legitimate prospects. If you play long enough in the minors or the PCL, you're going to do well. That's a given. But can they do well at the Major League level? If they have been in the minors long enough, then there is probably some serious flaws in their game that prevents them from sticking to the 25-man roster, which just goes to show that stats can't be the sole component to evaluating a Grizzlies player.

In terms of point two, hitter's are going to have an advantage in the PCL because of the park factors and the fact that most pitchers in Triple-A are of the "four-A" mold. Just look at the Grizzlies rotation and you'll see that none of those guys are "elite" prospects by any measure. Most "elite" pitching prospects tend to bypass Triple-A all together and make the jump from Double-A to the Majors, so while the pitching in Triple-A isn't terrible, it isn't exactly stellar either. With these factors favoring hitters, offensive stats for Grizzlies (and most PCL) players are going to be inflated by some measure.

When looking at a Grizzlies offensive players, I would put less weight in stats like slugging and average and more salt into numbers like OBP and BB/K ratio. Because of the nature of Chukchansi, home runs are going to fly easier for hitters than they would at AT&T Park (simply because of the dimensions and weather factors), so to think power is going to "absolutely" translate from the PCL to the MLB level is usually unlikely (though the good hitters will translate it, but they also hit at other levels as well; guys who don't show power or consistency with their power until Triple-A are usually the ones you throw red flags at).

As for plate approach though, that is something that translates a little better. Do guys work the count and get on-base or are they wild swingers who don't walk much? And how much do they strike out? If they are striking out a lot in the PCL, how is that going to translate to the National League? It probably won't turn out good for that player when they get to the Giants roster. (Unless they are high walk guys as well, but even then, that's not a guarantee as some, like Bowker, didn't transition their impressive walk numbers to the Giants, but still flashed the same strikeout problems.)

When it comes to looking at Grizzlies players, yes the home runs and RBI and batting average numbers can be tempting, but it's important to not get too fooled by that. Like I said, while it could be a sign of a guy continuing to showcase power as they transition level to level, guys who suddenly have power outbursts in the PCL after not showing such skills in Double-A and lower are probably benefiting more from the League and Park rather than actually developing skills.

As for pitchers, most of the pitchers in Triple-A don't have much ceiling simply because most good pitching prospects spend little to no time in Triple-A (unless they are working some things out). If you are going to look at a pitcher, looking at strikeouts and K/BB ratio is probably the most important indicator of how they will perform at the Major League level. For the most part, guys who strike out a lot of batters, minimize balls in play and minimize their walks are the ones that succeed the most in the PCL (mainly because it's such a hitter's league and most BABIP numbers for pitchers are higher than the .300 average). Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of Grizzlies pitchers (or PCL pitchers in general) who sport these qualities, and the ones that do don't seem to stay in the PCL very long.

The reason? They are good pitchers and good pitchers make it to the Majors. They don't stick in Triple-A.

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