How changes at Class A Advanced will affect prospects, league stats
August 24, 2016
The biggest news in Minor League franchise movement in quite some time came down this week when Minor League Baseball announced that two California League clubs -- High Desert and Bakersfield -- would be contracted and, as a result, two teams would be added to the Carolina League.
As part of the realignment, the Texas Rangers will move their Class A Advanced affiliate from High Desert to Kinston, North Carolina, where the Cleveland Indians last had a farm club before that team moved and became the Carolina Mudcats for the 2012 season. Other dominoes may soon fall with Fayetteville looking like an option for the other new Carolina League club and the Astros appearing to be the corresponding parent, though nothing has been officially confirmed yet.
The fans of Kinston can rejoice in the fact that Minor League Baseball is back, and that's certainly the fun part in all this. But on the other side, two Minor League front offices will close their doors while local fanbases lose their close connection to the Minors. MiLB.com's Benjamin Hill broke down what this all means from a business and personal standpoint for those closely involved, calling 2017 "a season of change."
What we're here to do now, though, is focus on the baseball side of the equation. What does this movement mean from a baseball standpoint for the Rangers' farm system? How will two fewer teams impact the California League? What will the addition of Kinston mean in the Carolina League? Let's get some answers.
What will the moves mean for Rangers prospects?
It's no secret that High Desert's stadium has been one of the most extreme hitters' parks in the Minors, even by Cal League standards. By that same token, the new Kinston club will move right into Grainger Stadium, for which we have park data from its final season in 2011. Not only is the Carolina League known for being friendlier to pitchers, but Grainger is even easier on the arms, comparatively.
First, let's consider the raw data between High Desert in 2016 (as of Tuesday) and Kinston in 2011. In the table below, (H) stands for Home and (R) indicates Road, so R(H) indicates runs scored at home and R(R) indicates runs scored on the road, for example:
High Desert (2016)
Teams have averaged 6.13 runs, 1.43 homers and 9.52 hits per game played at High Desert this season. At Kinston in 2011, those numbers were much lower at 3.74 runs, 0.60 homers and 7.39 hits per game. That's a 38.9 percent drop in runs, a 58 percent drop in home runs and a 22.4 percent drop in hits.
To put it more starkly, consider the park effects of both yards. (Reminder, a park effect of 1 means the park is neutral. Anything higher gives the advantage to hitters. Anything lower is advantageous to pitchers.)
High Desert (2016)
Those numbers obviously back up the raw data above, distilled in a simpler way.
So to get back to the original question, what does this mean for future Rangers prospects? The most important bit is easily that future Texas pitching prospects won't have to take the mound while fearing that any fly ball that reaches the outfield has the chance to go over the fence. Artificially bloated ERAs will hopefully go out the door as well. Coaches have often noted that the conditions in High Desert can help teach hurlers the importance of keeping the ball down in the zone to force relatively harmless ground balls, a lesson that can also be taught in Kinston, of course.
Concerns about confidence and results perhaps led the Rangers to promote 20-year-old right-hander Luis Ortiz (now with the Brewers) to Frisco after only 27 2/3 innings at High Desert. MLB.com's No. 58 overall prospect is obviously talented, but even that was a quick push as he became one of the youngest pitchers at the Double-A level. What's more, it could be behind the cautious approach to 2015 fourth overall pick Dillon Tate, who started the season at Class A Hickory despite being an advanced arm coming out of college. (Note: Tate put up a 5.12 ERA in 65 innings at Hickory before being traded to the Yankees, so the Rangers may have had other reasons for holding him back initially.)
Going back even further, the Mariners -- High Desert's parent club from 2007 to 2014 -- aggressively had then-top prospect Taijuan Walker skip the Mavericks in 2012 and start the season at Double-A Jackson at just 20 years old.
On the flip side, hitters could have their stats artificially aided in those same environs. Take the case of Travis Demeritte, a former Rangers prospect who was dealt to the Braves last month but still ranks second in the circuit with 25 homers over his 88 games with the Mavericks. Of those 25 homers, 15 came at home versus 10 on the road, despite the fact that he had nine fewer at-bats in High Desert. Other splits to consider -- 38.4 percent of Demeritte's hits went for homers at home compared to 23.8 percent on the road, while his isolated slugging percentage was .354 at home and .271 on the road. It's undeniable that the slugging second baseman's overall stats were aided by playing in High Desert, and while he's not the only case, his is fairly representative.
What does this mean for the leagues?
It's fair to wonder what the subtraction of both High Desert and Bakersfield will mean in how we view the new eight-team California League and what the addition of Kinston will do to our perception of the Carolina League. (Of course, a full explanation can't come until the second added Carolina League team comes into view, so considering only Kinston will have to do for now.)
To the table, where each data point is per-game averages for an individual team.
California (minus HD and BAK)
Carolina (plus Kinston 2011)
MiLB average 2016
High Desert 2016
So expect the California League to remain a hitter's haven, just less so, while the Carolina League shouldn't be affected too much, remaining fairly close to the Minor League average across the board. Even without any home games at High Desert or Bakersfield, the Cal League would see 10.3 percent more runs, 23.8 percent more home runs and 4.9 percent more hits than the average Minor League circuit. The Carolina League falls only 1-3 percent off those Minor League averages across those three categories, assuming Kinston's park factors don't change from 2011.
So while 2017 will be a big change for Rangers prospects and the overall landscape of both the California and Carolina Leagues, it shouldn't alter too much the way we perceive performance based on park factors in either circuit.
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.