With a 23-35 record and the 2nd highest payroll in the National League, the San Francisco Giants are an easy target. Fans are angry, and they have a right to be. However, as I have tried to do throughout this rough stretch, I think it’s important to ensure that Giants fans have a solid understanding of why things are unfolding the way they are, and based on my experiences as a player and a coach, provide insight where applicable. By no means do I pretend to know precisely what goes on inside the dugout or in front office meetings, but what I can do, is expand on the occasions where I believe the general public is being fed information that is either misguided, or invalid all-together.
And thus, the reason for today’s post – to provide some insight and experience on a topic that is a prominent topic amongst the Giants community. Two days ago, Andrew Baggerly wrote an article in the San Jose Mercury News about how every minor league affiliate in the Giants organization is in last place, and asking the question “what the heck is happening down on the farm?” In browsing Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, this article has absolutely made its way around the Giants community, and has left the fan base clamoring for the removal of Bobby Evans, Brian Sabean, and John Barr (amongst several other option), and mistakenly assuming that Minor League wins and losses have anything to do with Major League performance. I like Andrew Baggerly and believe for the most-part, that he does a good job. However, it’s articles like this that promote an incorrect view of how the minor leagues operate and should be valued. As a result, the baseball community and Giants fans in particular are (rightfully so) responding in a way that realistically just doesn’t make sense.
When I was drafted back in 2004, I was immediately sent to the Toronto Blue Jays Short Season A-Ball affiliate, the Auburn Doubledays. At the time, general manager J.P. Ricciardi was well-known for his tendency to value advanced college players over projectable high-schoolers, and filled his draft boards accordingly. When I reported to Auburn, the entire team was made up of all 20+ year old kids, the overwhelming majority of them having played at least 2 years of college baseball (I played 4). In the infield alone, our catcher was an All-American from the University of Texas, our two first baseman were All-Americans from the Citadel and the University of Southern California, the 2nd baseman was an All-Pac 10 performer at Stanford, the shortstop was an All-SEC player at Vanderbilt, and myself (at 3rd). Our team finished the season with the best record in the New York Penn League with a 50-24 record, which I believe at the time, was one of the best regular seasons in NY Penn League history.
Why do I bring this up? Across our entire roster of collegiate All Americans and All-Conference performers, only 8 players out of 46 total, made it to the Big Leagues. Only 2 of them, pitcher Casey Jannsen and outfielder Adam Lind, accumulated more than 1 year in service time. So, while we dominated our respective league and put together one of the greatest seasons in league history, what did it amount to at the Big League level? Next to zero.
And that’s the underlying problem with Baggery’s article – wins and losses at the minor league level are 100% meaningless. While some front offices and organizations may claim they care about winning, nothing could be further from the truth, and my role within the organization was a direct reflection of that. At the minor league level, success is based solely on individual player development based around top prospects.
I was a 25th round draft-pick from a Division 3 school who’s signing bonus consisted of $1,000 and an airplane ticket (which I emphatically accepted). The Blue Jays had nothing invested in me, so my role starting from the bottom, was to prove that I belonged. In doing so, however, I was given two basic guidelines – #1) you won’t steal, and #2) you won’t bunt. As a utility infielder who was classified as a “bunter/runner”/small-ball type player, you can see how I wasn’t overly well suited to this offensive philosophy.
After some clarification, I was quick to learn that while a stolen base or bunt may help win games, that was no longer my priority. My job was to maximize the number of bats that I received as well as my teammates, namely the top prospects. Any sacrifice bunt or caught stealing (or free out, for that matter) would take away at-bats from the players the organization wanted (and needed) to develop. People may not understand this concept, but if you do the math, it makes perfect sense. If you take the average college game (for example), the number of outs that are given away via sacrifice bunt and caught stealing is likely around 3 (probably more on the West Coast, less other regions). At 3 outs per game over a minor league season, that’s 426 outs or another 47 at-bats per season for each player in the starting lineup. Could another 50 or so at-bats per season be beneficial to the development of a young hitter? I think we can all agree that it can.
I had the opportunity to hit with former All-Star Dwayne Murphy and Hall of Famer Frank Thomas in the batting cages during Spring Training of 2005, and I’ll never forget them telling me that the average player needs 1000 minor league at-bats to be mentally and physically prepared to handle Big League pitching. How those at-bats are accumulated depend on the organization’s desire or willingness to provide them. THAT in a nutshell, is how Minor League organizations operate in its simplest form – they determine who needs the most at-bats, they determine a way to maximize those at-bats, and they determine precisely what needs to worked on in those at-bats.
A perfect example of this process is today’s demotion of Christian Arroyo. Arroyo is being sent down for 1 main reason, a lack of plate discipline. According to Arroyo, “I think the biggest thing is working on my plate discipline. It’s hard to work on stuff when you’ve got guys playing well and I haven’t been swinging the bat of late. It’s part of the game that you’ve got to kind of deal with. I’m looking forward to getting back to playing every day and getting back to doing what I need to do. I’ll work on patience. When I started scuffling I started getting swing-happy and putting pressure on myself.”
When he’s sent back to Sacramento, every ounce of the organization’s energy will be put into getting this kid rep after rep to help him develop his plate discipline. The front office won’t care about homeruns, batting average, slugging percentage, fielding percentage – none of it. I would not be at all surprised to see people question Arroyo’s next promotion because of a lack of offensive production across the board since the demotion – but fans need to realize that the front office isn’t looking any anything else outside of plate discipline, or more specifically, is he swinging at better pitches and taking tough ones. Arroyo has already proven his ability to be a big leaguer – now he needs to adjust to life in the Big Leagues. As Dwayne Murphy told me, “Getting to the Big Leagues is easy, it’s staying in the Big Leagues that’s the challenge.”
The way I see it, the best way to view the minor leagues is to equate it to a Major League spring training. In spring training, players don’t care one bit about stats, instead they are focused on individual facets of their game they need to improve in order to compete at the highest level. For instance, you’ll see pitchers who are struggling with breaking ball command, throw 60% breaking balls in a spring training game despite them being ineffective, specifically so they can continue to work on it. In baseball, there’s no substitute for a game’s atmosphere so more often than not, Spring Training acts more as a platform to practice than to perform. The same can be said for many of baseball’s top prospects in the minors. Most have a proven skill set that has gotten them to where they are, and their path to the big leagues is dependent on them honing up specific aspects of their game. The only way to work on those deficiencies, is through game repetition.
As it pertains to the Giants, very few organizations have such a strong track record of developing their homegrown talent. Just prior to the season, Bleacher Report published an article that ranked organizations based on homegrown talent – the Giants were #2 of 30. Just because their minor league affiliates aren’t winning has no bearing on the players that make up this #2 ranking. And make no mistake, the Giants have been labelled as a “weak” farm system for years, but the reality remains that affiliates records don’t matter, the top prospects ability to produce in the Big Leagues does.
As a fan, just ask yourself if there’s a difference between the San Jose Giants going 142-0 or 0-142 as long as it continues to produce the likes of Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Joe Panik, Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, or Brandon Crawford? Criticizing the organization for a lack of wins and losses caused by poor production from a 19-year old is like criticizing a flower for not being pretty before it’s bloomed. These are unfinished products and their performance, especially in wins and losses, should carry absolutely zero weight. The only thing that matters is whether or not they can positively impact an area of weakness at the Big League level. Nobody in baseball has done a better job of that than the San Francisco Giants.