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Do MLB’s best players really skip Triple-A?

February 9, 2021

This story originally appeared on the Jumbo Shrimp's Shrimp & Grits blog on Medium. It’s a question that’s been asked somewhat consistently since the Jumbo Shrimp received an invitation to become the Miami Marlins’ Triple-A affiliate: Yes, Triple-A is the highest level of Minor League Baseball, but isn’t it just

This story originally appeared on the Jumbo Shrimp's Shrimp & Grits blog on Medium.

It’s a question that’s been asked somewhat consistently since the Jumbo Shrimp received an invitation to become the Miami Marlins’ Triple-A affiliate: Yes, Triple-A is the highest level of Minor League Baseball, but isn’t it just an extension of the major league roster and not a place for a team’s top prospects?

No doubt, it’s a valid question. Of course, a 26-man active roster in MLB necessitates members of the 40-man roster*, most of whom have galvanized at least some MLB experience, to be sent down to Triple-A. But in a way that surprised me when doing the research, Triple-A was also a spot for the best players coming up through the minor leagues, the ones who hadn’t yet reached The Show.

*The 40-man roster is the group of players who are eligible to be added to the 26-man active roster.

To answer this question, I decided to go to FanGraphs and sort both the top 40 pitchers and the top 40 position players over the last decade (2010–20) by WAR. No, WAR isn’t a perfect stat, but I wanted to use it over prospect lists because it gives us a general idea of a player’s value and therefore a listing of the best players for this exercise, while prospect lists just predict what a player’s skill-set and value may end up becoming. And yes, I did use an arbitrary timeline, but I was hoping to encompass the widest swath possible of the recent “best” players in baseball.

For the 40 pitchers, I created a trusty Excel doc with how many Triple-A games they appeared in, how many Triple-A innings they threw, how many Double-A games they appeared in and how many Double-A innings they recorded. For the 40 position players, I noted the amount of games they appeared in in Triple-A vs. the amount of games they played in Double-A on their path to the majors. During this process, I stripped any rehab assignments, to just gather information on each pitcher and position player’s rise to the big leagues.

I fully expected the position players to have more Triple-A experience than time at Double-A, with the opposite mark for pitchers. I don’t have a reason why, other than just a hunch. Instead, like many of my hunches, the opposite happened:

Thanks essentially to some relief appearances by Kenley Jansen, this group of 40 pitchers did appear in more slightly Double-A games. However, they threw almost 60 more innings collectively in Triple-A.

Among position players, it does seem like the practice of skipping Triple-A was a little more common among older players. Miguel Cabrera, Adrián Beltré **and Brian McCann each skipped Triple-A entirely while younger players like **Francisco Lindor, *Kris Bryant *and *Mookie Betts *seemed to have more of an even split between the two levels:

What does this prove going forward? I’m not sure, because the entire structure of the minor leagues are changing. But I do have another hunch.

With no more short-season baseball (rookie leagues like the Appalachian League and Short Season Class A leagues like the Northwest League have been eliminated), you would think that there would be less incentive to skip levels; it’s easier to push a player to jump a level when they’ve already moved up several rungs of the minor-league ladder. Additionally, with fewer rungs to climb (Low-A, High-A, Double-A and then Triple-A), the talent pool at each minor league level figures to be more condensed than ever — likely motivation for teams to move their players up one level at a time, to avoid rushing a player too quickly when each rung’s competition has risen, therefore making it more difficult to “conquer” a level.

What seems most plausible is this: Of course, Triple-A will continue to be an extension of the major league roster. But that’s a good thing; if a player is good enough to be on the 40-man roster, he’s good enough to be a major league player, even if he’s not on the 26-man active roster. Thus, in this regard, Jumbo Shrimp fans should be seeing the best talent available in the minor leagues.

They also should be seeing the best players on their rise to The Show, the ones not yet added to the 40-man roster. As evidenced above, MLB’s top pitchers already threw slightly more innings on average at Triple-A than Double-A while they were still considered prospects. The fewer levels included in the structure of the minor leagues figure to prevent top position players from spending a minimal amount of time at Triple-A, or skipping the level altogether.

That should represent even more good news for Jumbo Shrimp fans. Both _The Athletic’s _Keith Law and MLB.com each placed five Miami Marlins farmhands among their Top 100 prospects lists , tied for the third-most of any big league team (interestingly, Law had Edward Cabrera *as Miami’s №1 prospect, ahead of *Sixto Sánchez, who was the Marlins’ top prospect according to MLB.com). While the Jumbo Shrimp will now be a post for new Marlins general manager *Kim Ng *to fully utilize Miami’s 40-man roster, the First Coast also figures to see the cream of the crop of one of MLB’s top farm systems arriving in Jacksonville on their journey to the major leagues.