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The Cardinals and fun with league translations

Recently Fangraphs ran a piece about Yoenis Cespedes that was interesting to me—and I mean no offense to Jack Moore (no relation), who wrote a perfectly compelling article about Yoenis Cespedes—primarily because I must be the last person to hear about Clay Davenport's new website, which is about eight months old. Davenport, if you weren't buying Baseball Prospectus back when all you could do was buy Baseball Prospectus, was the king of league translations during the early days of the online baseball community. He's compiled an enormous mountain of minor league data and translations, most of which were mouldering beneath an incredibly slow section of the BP website. Now it's all on WordPress, and it's awesome.

Not only does he have the Cuban League stats and (presumably rough) translations from the FanGraphs article, he has historical minor league data and more Japanese stats than you're likely to find anywhere else on the internet. Some personal favorite translation pages from my first look around his site.

So Taguchi: The So Taguchi narrative was always that he was completely unprepared to play Major League Baseball when he arrived in the states, and worked to become a capable big leaguer later on. I don't know just how true that is, but it is true that his Japanese stats don't suggest much. In the two years before the Cardinals signed him his untranslated numbers make him look like nobody so much as So Taguchi—.280/.343/.386 for the Orix Blue Wave, compared to his career MLB line of .279/.332/.385.

Translated, those Japan numbers leave him well short of being a competent MLB outfielder—.251/.308/.347. If he really did make a stark improvement in St. Louis, it would explain his successful return to backup outfield-dom in Japan; in 2011, his age-41 season, he hit .256/.326/.336 for the renamed Orix Buffaloes.

Allen Craig: I always had trouble contextualizing Allen Craig when he was a minor leaguer, because at every minor league jump he ended up having the same season, superficially—.300 average, enough walks, enough power. Not only did he seem immune to league quality, he didn't have any of the slack you expect to see in a guy who will eventually be an effective MLB hitter; it took Jack Cust, for instance, a .285/.429/.516 minor league career to hit .242/.374/.439, and he was polite enough to get a little worse at each rung, so you could guess at his real career shape underneath that .345/.530/.601 rookie league line.

The Davenport translations at least make it a little easier to see the improvements he was making. Now, instead of being a .300/.370/.500-ish automaton, he goes from an adjusted .242/.289/.374 in short-season State College to .281/.331/.475 in pitcher-friendly Palm Beach; now his down-season in hitter-friendly Springfield (.260/.315/.412) is more obvious, and his readiness for the Majors emphasized in his .300 lines in Memphis.

Ivan Cruz: Ivan Cruz! The Cardinals were only the last stop on Ivan Cruz's tour as a minor league hitter, but somehow watching his league-leading PCL totals on the Busch Stadium scoreboard crawl all 2002 made him feel like a true Cardinal to me.

The other day Baseball Nation ran a nice piece on AAAA sluggers which mentioned Cruz, but I think he's a good example of just how misleading the term is when people (like Kevin Goldstein, quoted in the article) use it to mean "A guy who puts up gaudy numbers in the minors but won't hit in the Majors." Used that way, the term suggests your AAAA slugger in question has always killed minor league pitching, but a guy like Cruz was middling even by minor league standards for the early part of his career—he was just good enough to put up nice counting stats that can be added together, as Goldstein does, to look gaudy.

Sure, he hit 181 career home runs in AAA, but the first 28 came in seasons when he slugged .388 and .446; he didn't turn into the real Ivan Cruz until he was 31—older than most GMs are willing to risk, let alone the turn-of-the-century Pittsburgh front office—when he hit .326/.365/.681 in AAA Nashville, good for a .274/.319/.509 translation. At 32 he spent most of the season hitting .402/.449/.794 in the moon gravity of the Mexican League; at 33 he was in Japan; and at 34 he was in Memphis, hitting well (.280/.349/.566, with 35 home runs and 100 RBI) but not call-up-this-34-year-old-PCL-first-baseman well (.248/.309/.447 DT.)

Minor league translations cut into the AAAA-slugger myth from two sides. They show, by adjusting for the high offensive levels of the PCL, that many guys who get the label would never hit MLB pitching in the first place, but they also show that the very best hitters who get the label were victim more of circumstance, inconsistence, and player movement than some phantom vulnerability to Major League pitching. Ivan Cruz wasn't stuck permanently in AAA because he couldn't hit a real slider; he was stuck there because he wasn't Ivan Cruz until he was 31, he left for Japan when he was 33 (and then 35), and he wasn't good enough to catch Tony La Russa's eye at 34.

Matt Adams: Speaking of minor league sluggers who might not be good enough for the majors, Davenport's 2012 projections—which look like but are not PECOTA—mostly agree with ZiPS, giving Adams a .257/.305/.422 projection in 2012. One more way of imagining just how inflated hitting numbers are in Springfield/the Texas League: The difference in translated MLB numbers for Adams's .923 OPS in AA and his .896 OPS in the Midwest League the year before—despite the higher OPS in a league two levels up—was just .035.

Tommy Pham: Finally, something that loves Tommy Pham as much as I do. Here are the DTs of Pham's career to date, which do a pretty good job of illustrating the point at which he abruptly learned how to hit:

AGE    LG   AB   H  2B  3B  HR  BB   SO   AVG  OBP  SLG
 19    A-  247  43   9   3   2  18   66  .174 .230 .259
 20    A   319  64  10   2  14  21  119  .201 .253 .376
 21    A+  345  78  16   3   9  30  102  .226 .291 .368
 22 A+/AA  370  97  27   4   7  49   92  .262 .348 .414
 23    AA  147  38  11   2   4  14   41  .259 .323 .442

His raw AA numbers, while I'm advocating—.314/.398/.527 in 264 at-bats. His projection isn't nearly as rosy as his translated numbers, because of how few at-bats he's had since he turned the hypothetical corner, but if he ever manages to stay healthy he's likely to reach the Major Leagues in a hurry if he continues to look like a league-average-hitting center fielder.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that writing the last 1000 words in this blog hasn't been nearly as much of a timesink as discovering that this website exists. There are minor league and NPB stats dating back to 1990 on here—waste some time, find interesting things, and post the results in the comments. (Before I go: Tuffy Rhodes and, to atone for basing my original case for the Mark Mulder trade being a disaster on his age-18 season, Daric Barton.)