Are We Paying Enough Attention to the Madness in Triple-A?

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Are We Paying Enough Attention to the Madness in Triple-A?

Chicago Cubs

People: I don’t think we’ve talked enough about the Pacific Coast League.

In fact, in some ways, I think it’s one of the biggest stories in baseball this year. For example, when I mentioned on Twitter that Iowa Cubs ace Colin Rea *led* the PCL with a 3.50 ERA, I was taken aback how many people responded with the a different version of the same surprise: A 3.50 leads the league?!

It hit me that we need to drive this home better and more.

As many of you may already know, the Triple-A minor league level began using the same baseball as the Major Leagues for the first time this season. Previously, the Majors used one ball, the minors another. The introduction of the new ball has shown us – with absolute certainty (as if there wasn’t already) – the baseball is juiced.

We can save our morality arguments for whether this is a good or bad thing, it’s simply a reality witch which all 30 Major League teams have to deal. Their previous models for contextualizing Triple-A numbers and projecting them into the Major Leagues, are broken.

These tweets by Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper (specifically the stuff about the Pacific Coast League where the Iowa Cubs play), really blew me away:

Wait, what?! I admit this has been a hard thing to get used to. I see, for instance, Donnie Dewees, a guy the Cubs traded for in Spring Training, posting a career-best .805 OPS, and I want it to matter. But that .259/.339/.466 batting line is good for just a 91 wRC+, actually a tick worse than his .266/.315/.423 line was relative to 2018 PCL league average.

A guy like Alec Mills is starting to feel like he’s going sideways, because his ERA is just 4.94 in his third or fourth go-around in Triple-A. But actually, that ERA number would be good for eighth in the league if Mills had enough innings to qualify.

Here are the PCL league averages entering the day:

  • Hitters: .278/.355/.480
  • Pitchers: 5.55 ERA, 8.9 K/9, 3.9 BB/9, 1.5 HR/9

Absolute madness. So when Theo Epstein is talking about Duane Underwood and says this, we have to respect that there’s truth in this simplicity.

The Cubs are entering an offseason, in which they’ll have very significant 40-man roster turnover. There will be decisions about protecting guys from the Rule 5 Draft that hinge on teams’ abilities to properly forecast which PCL numbers are purely environment-driven, and which suggest potential Major League success?

Some for the Cubs:

  • Trent Giambrone: is eligible for the Rule 5 and might hit 30 home runs … but also has an 86 wRC+.
  • Dixon Machado: is good defender and is a minor league free agent in his prime, with a .387 OBP and .502 SLG (both of which destroy previous career-highs).
  • Tyson Miller: allowed six home runs in 88.0 IP in Tennessee … and has allowed 10 in 27.2 IP in Iowa.
  • Dakota Mekkes: has a 5.27 ERA (more than double the number he’s posted at any other level), and it’s still better than the league average.

The list just goes on and on.

And more than ever, when we talk about players, we have to remember that batting lines aren’t equivalent from Myrtle Beach to Tennessee to Iowa. Nico Hoerner entered yesterday with a .330 OBP and .393 SLG. Neither number close to where we dreamed it to be. It feels like something of a disappointment.

But it’s good for a 112 wRC+ in the pitcher-friendly Southern League. How might we talk and think about Nico differently if his numbers looked like a PCL hitter with a 112 wRC+: .301/.380/.492?

I am positive I’ve fallen into the trap plenty this year. The sport is changing, and so must the analysis. Here’s to hoping the Cubs beat the competition in evaluating 2019 Triple-A performance: it’s going to be an important subplot league-wide this winter.

Author: Bryan Smith

Bryan Smith is a Minor League Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @cubprospects.