Stats only a small part of player evaluation in the minors
In the Major Leagues you either perform or the organization will find someone else to replace you. It is a results driven league where the numbers and wins are all that matters.
In the minor leagues things are much different. The focus is not on winning at all costs but on the development and nurturing of players to get them to the Major Leagues where they can then help the organization win.
But one of the toughest things to understand for fans and even the minor league players themselves is that stats in the minor leagues are not an important indicator for future Major League success. There are so many other variables a team looks at when evaluating a player such as age, size, ability, tools, makeup, upside and so on, that stats are just a piece to the overall pie.
"Really, we don’t use stats that differently than we use them in the Major Leagues, but ultimately in the Major Leagues what does matter is results and what gives us the best chance to win," Indians Vice President of Player Development Ross Atkins said. "The difference is it is not winning at all costs; however, we want to put guys in positions to have success. So it is less about using stats to determine what their projected results will be in the minor leagues and more about using stats to determine the best place to put them to have the best development opportunities."
The same stats are used organization-wide by the Indians to evaluate their players from the minors and Major Leagues. In some cases stats in the minor leagues are not available because of the lack of PitchFx data since few minor league ballparks — especially below Triple-A — have the technology.
"We are using the same stats, but we are using them in a different way," Atkins said. "In the Major Leagues we are using the stats to project what gives us the best chance to win and in the minor leagues it is what gives us the best chance to make them better. But all of the stats, metrics and information our analysts are coming up with we use all of it in the Major Leagues. We have less information in the minor leagues for obvious reasons but the actual formulas and metrics are very similar."
Several years ago a fan would only need to look on the back of a player’s baseball card and view the traditional stats like batting average, home runs and RBI for a hitter and wins, ERA, innings pitched and strikeouts for a pitcher to determine how good they were. But over the past 20-30 years teams have found better advanced stats to help them evaluate just how well their players are performing beyond a lot of those old traditional stats.
Due to the sensitivity of the information Atkins would not delve into what advanced stats the organization uses and values the most, but they have been on the record in the past of liking simpler advanced stats like isolated power which better shows a player’s power, OPS which is a good overall view of a player’s offensive production, and all of the rate stats for pitchers like walks per nine innings, strikeouts per nine innings and so on. There are much more complex advanced stats like hard hit percentage, weighted runs created (wRC+), pitch framing, offensive efficiency, and so on that they value as well.
They also have a ton of internal stats that are not available to the public which they compute to help them gather more information on a player.
"There are so many of them," Atkins replied. "We are always looking for any information that we can possibly get to help our players get better. In Player Development we are looking for stats that can show players positive trends, show players reasons to give them hope for progress and reason to help them believe they are realizing their goals."
Ultimately the stats are a tool to help players see where they are having success when they otherwise may not believe so, or helping them realize that what they are doing is not working and that a change is needed to get them on the right path.
"In the world of professional baseball becoming a Major League Baseball player is extremely difficult," Atkins said. "So we are looking for those stats and those metrics that we can put in front of our coaches and players and show them, ‘look, you are making this progress, look how hard you have worked and look how much you have achieved in this area.’ And on the flip side, there will be times when we can’t get through to a player about a trend or a tendency where we may use information to help them understand where they stand in a certain area so that they know they can work harder in a certain area to offset an area of concern or something that is keeping them from realizing all of their potential. That is different for a starting pitcher and a relief pitcher, a catcher and a first baseman, a defender and an offender, a baserunner and every position."
The information is different at each level and for each player as there is more information on a Triple-A player than an A-ball player depending on the availability of HitFx and PitchFx data. The Indians look at every single piece of information that they can get their hands on and there is not one particular piece of information that they value more than another. Whether that be factoring in a player’s age, where they are playing, when they are doing it, how they are doing it and who they are doing it against.
In the minor leagues it is a constant process of cycling through a ton of subjective and objective information. The Indians have an Analytical Department which helps compile all of that information, be it the subjective information obtained from coaches, scouts and so on, or the objective information derived from numerous stats.
"That is exactly what Chris [Antonetti] does on the Major League level and that is exactly what he supports us and helps us do on the minor league level is use the subjective evaluations and analysis from our coaches, pro scouts and amateur scouts and use the objective information that is inherent in the game and use the analytical information that our Analytical Department will take all of the objective and subjective and try and help us come up with a strategy to make the best decision in balancing out and weighting all of the information," Atkins said. "Even when it comes to moving a player Chris wants everyone’s input. He wants that I make a recommendation and say this is what we would like to do and he checks off all those boxes with me and factors in all of the pieces of the puzzle. That is exactly what we do on a daily basis with every decision. You are constantly balancing and weighting all of that information."
That same process is not just used internally, but externally as well when it comes to evaluating players the organization may be interested in picking up off waivers, in a trade or as a free agent.
"Hypothetically we already have something that is telling us this is roughly where we value this player," Atkins said. "So where are our questions and where can we get more information? Then there are phone calls to our pro scouts, amateur scouts, development staff and we piece that information back into our own decision-making models and then make the recommendation to Chris."
Stats can only help, but what is most important is identifying which stats are the most important and not getting too caught up in fresh ideas and concepts that are new to the industry.
"[All of the stats] are only beneficial, you just have to balance all of the information and weight it appropriately, that is the challenge," Atkins said. "For instance, someone will come up with a new idea or a new thought. It could be something anecdotal or it could be an analytical tool. If it is new you have to be careful not to weight it too heavily because it is new even though it is what is in front of you. On the analyst side that is exactly what they are doing is making sure that nothing is being weighted inappropriately. On the decision-making side that remains to be the challenge that you have to make sure that you are being objective and pulling back and using all of the information and not weighting something too heavily or not enough."
Ultimately, the end goal in the development cycle is to prepare a player as best as an organization can to get them up to the Major Leagues so they can impact the roster and help the team win. How they get there can vary, and the stats the team may use to evaluate them may be different from player to player, but in the end the stats used organization-wide from the minors to the Major Leagues are very similar.
"Like I said before, we use the same stats," Atkins responded. "We may weight them differently in our decision-making process because in the Major Leagues it is about winning and in the minor leagues it is about helping the Major League team win one day which means putting players in the best positions to develop."