(“A Trip Around The Minors” will take a look at the various minor league affiliates of Major League Baseball teams and how they stack up against each other. Each week, a different level will be looked at, starting with Triple-A this week and working ourselves down the Minor League pecking order until we get to Low-A.)
Greetings and salutations to all. For those of you who have been a fan of my features here at TOC, I’m happy to report that I will be taking over the Minor League section of the site going forward. Mark Smith, who previously held this post, got a fantastic opportunity and has moved on from the site, so my hopes are that I can fill his shoes nicely, along with the features I will be doing from time to time. Expect the same Minor League Mondays and Coming Around The Corner, along with more coverage on the draft, which will be very interesting this year given baseball’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement. So without further ado, let’s take a look at how each long-season Minor League stands up across each level, starting with the oldest league in Minor League Baseball.
Beginning in 1884, the International League was the main starting ground for baseball’s next big prospects, but even that year might be a bit misleading. One of the three leagues that eventually combined to become the International League did begin that year, the Eastern League (you might know them now as a Double-A league, and will be the first of many times you will get confused during these pieces. So here goes.). That league eventually combined with the New York State League and the Ontario League in 1887, making a 10-team league.
From there, it’s a mish-mash of teams jockeying for status as Major League or Minor League ballclubs, and then after rivalries with other like-minded Triple-A leagues from the 60’s through the 90’s, the International League became what it is known as today with the teams joining up as affiliates for Major League ballclubs. As of the 2012 season, this is how the league shapes up with their current 14-team configuration:
North Division: Pawtucket Red Sox (Boston Red Sox), Lehigh Valley IronPigs (Philadelphia Phillies), Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees (New York Yankees), Syracuse Chiefs (Washington Nationals), Buffalo Bisons (New York Mets), Rochester Red Wings (Minnesota Twins)
South Division: Durham Bulls (Tampa Bay Rays), Gwinnett Braves (Atlanta Braves), Charlotte Knights (Chicago White Sox), Norfolk Tides (Baltimore Orioles)
West Division: Columbus Clippers (Cleveland Indians), Indianapolis Indians (Pittsburgh Pirates), Louisville Bats (Cincinnatti Reds), Toledo Mud Hens (Detroit Tigers)
One way to look at this League is that it matches up pretty well with the Grapefruit League for Spring Training. Only the Reds, White Sox and Indians are in the Cactus League from their affiliates above. Obviously, the league stretches out pretty far along the eastern part of the United States, with Gwinnett being the furthest south, just outside of Atlanta. The furthest west the teams would go is to Indianapolis, while the furthest north would be Buffalo. The most recent change to the league was when Syracuse ended its long-time affiliation with the Toronto Blue Jays and took on the Nationals in 2009.
So how does the league play? Well, compared to the Pacific Coast League (which will be the next installment), a hitter’s dream league, the IL lends itself to the pitching side of things, ranking in the top 3 of pitching environments on a year to year basis. In 2011, the only league that had less runs scored per game than the IL was the Carolina League in High-A, whose 4.19 runs per contest was just under the IL’s 4.34. That being said, the hitting was actually pretty average. Among the 11 leagues we will be profiling, the IL’s .260 batting average was tied for fourth-lowest with the South Atlantic League (Low-A), while the OPS (which I like better as an overall mark of advanced offense when comparing leagues) was the average point of the 11 at .729, sixth overall.
But the pitching marks are what drive the International League down offensively. Their 4.03 ERA is the fourth lowest amongst all full-season leagues, and the rest of their rate stats put them near the middle compared to the other leagues. The dramatic difference is how it compares to the PCL, who are in the most giving run environment in all of baseball, and is where pitcher’s ERAs go to die. This trend began in around 2005, where the average runs per game has been about 4.4 from then until last season. Before then, the two Triple-A leagues were nearly even in run scoring environments.
Some performances on the mound stand out in recent times. For example, Matt Moore’s 2011 campaign at Durham was just filthy. After dominating at the Double-A level with Montgomery (THE BISCUITS!), he came up for nine starts with the Bulls before moving up to the big leagues and had his best stint yet in the minors, albeit in a small sample size. He had 79 strikeouts over 52 2/3 innings, leading to a ridiculous 13.5 strikeout ratio while giving up only 33 hits and walking 18. Yep. He had a sub-1 WHIP and an over-4 K/BB ratio. That’s nuts. He’s not the only one, as Stephen Strasburg’s sojourn to Syracuse for the Nats was impressive as well in 2010. Over 5 starts, he had a sub-1 WHIP, striking out 38, while walking 7 and allowing only 18 hits in 33 1/3 innings. Obviously, those are the two best pitching prospects in baseball over the last couple of years, but that gives you an idea of how great pitching in those run environments can help push offense down.
Going forward, the IL will still prove to be a pitcher’s domain. Ballparks are big and the earlier parts of the season play into colder weather in both the West and North Divisions. That’s going to help drive offense down. Coincidentally, the latter part of the season sees high humidity levels and rain, which lends itself to playing conditions that make it hard to put up a lot of runs. All in all, the International League is a good place to go see a pitcher’s duel, even if it isn’t between the two great pitchers, and that’s simply because the offense is just too hard to come by now-a-days.