Can the Data Tell Us Whether the Cubs Are Getting Better at Player Development?

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Can the Data Tell Us Whether the Cubs Are Getting Better at Player Development?

Chicago Cubs

There are two important factors in having a great farm system: (1) how good are you at acquiring quality prospects? and (2) how good are you at developing prospects to their highest and best ability?

For over a decade now, we’ve generally known the Cubs to be at least average at number 1, but likely struggling badly at number 2. Player development seems to have become an acute problem for the organization as far back as 2015, hidden a bit by the fact that there were so many talented players in the organization by that point.

We’ve talked a lot lately about Cubs player development improvements – it has been the organizational focus for two years now, and it is absolutely going to be the predominant difference between the possible tiers of success for the Cubs over the next decade. We know that improving where the Cubs have been is critical going forward. The Cubs clearly know it, too.

But the thing is, it’s really hard to quantify in a meaningful way how player development – at an org level – is improving or degrading. We can kinda eyeball it, but that only tells you so much and it’s deeply subjective. It’s been made all the more difficult for our Cubs fan’ing purposes because the Cubs made this huge overhaul of the development system in 2019, and then the pandemic hit. So 2021 was the first year we’ve had to even gather data on performance changes for the Cubs’ prospects. It’s pretty hard to eyeball changes to an organization’s player development system based on just one season.

(My eyeball would say the Cubs have done a better job accumulating true prospects and keeping them on the prospect map during this period of time, but I’m still unsure whether they actually have a meaningful edge in development given all the injuries and the lack of upper-level breakouts.)

What if you COULD quantify changes in player development, though?

Well, Patrick Brennan tried in an article entitled, “Quantifying Player Development in the Minor Leagues.” So there you go!

You can read about his complex mathematical approach in his article, but the overly short version is that it uses changes in performance in the minor leagues (and big league equivalency data) as a way to track development changes at an organization-wide level. There are, from there, multiple ways to evaluate organizations using the numbers – you kinda gotta read the whole thing to really absorb it, so don’t judge too much based on my short-hand!

Looking only at 2021 performance by minor league players, relative to baseline expectations for performance from that group of players, you could theoretically determine which organizations were better or worse at getting the most out of their prospects (i.e., one way to think about player development). By that measure, the Cubs performed 10th best in baseball in “developing” – if we can call it that – prospects in 2021. The Royals, Yankees, Blue Jays, Dodgers, Astros, Pirates, Rays, Indians/Guardians, and Reds were the nine teams ahead of the Cubs. Again, this isn’t measuring farm systems. It’s attempting to measure how much your organization improved your prospects over the course of the year.

The Cubs were, incidentally, 10th best on the positional side and 10th best on the pitching side, in addition to being 10th best overall. Obviously we’d love to see them in the top five, but given our questions and concerns about player development going back a decade, being the 10th best developmental organization in 2021 – again, if that’s really what this accurately measures – seems pretty good, right?

Maybe more importantly, in my view, is asking whether this method shows IMPROVEMENT for the Cubs’ player development system. That is to say, if we accept that the Cubs were the 10th best player development organization in 2021, is that a big step up from where they were before 2021 (i.e., the first on-field year when their player development overhaul was in place)?

The answer seems like a resounding yes!

In Brennan’s data that goes back to 2018, the Cubs development ranked 6th *worst* in baseball. They were slightly below average on the pitching side (roughly average since 2018 sounds about right), and near the bottom on the positional side (again, since 2018, that also sounds about right). That data *includes* 2021, by the way, which was a great year for the Cubs. We have only the 2018-2021 data set to look at, but if 2021 was great, and the total is terrible … well, that means the 2018 and 2019 seasons were reaaaaally bad for the Cubs!

That, in turn, means that 2021 was a huuuuuge swing up for the Cubs from where they were in 2018-2020. It’s not a lot of years to study, and the upturn is just one year’s worth of data. For all we know, this stuff is really noisy. But overall, the systems near the top since 2018 sound about right, the levels the Cubs are at also sound about right.

In sum: the first analysis we have about player development suggests the Cubs made significant strides from 2018 to 2021.

Of course, the proof is always in the pudding. The Cubs now have one of the deepest pools of “legit prospects” in baseball from which to develop impact players, so if these changes are correct, we’d probably see a lot of breakouts next year. It’ll be interesting to see what this data looks like after 2022.

Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.