Friday, June 13, 2014

The Jumps Between Minor Leagues

   We've been on this topic of player development being an ongoing, and sometimes lengthy process for a while now. Most often when we think of that process, we think of the jump between AAA and the Major Leagues as being the biggest.  In the opinion of most sources we've consulted, that leap is just one of many major players have to make, and the gap between A ball and AA may in fact be the biggest.

   A ball is actually divided up into four different levels.  At the bottom rung is complex ball, for players drafted right out of high school,  college players drafted in the low rounds, and international players (many of whom played in complex leagues in their own countries, essentially making a fifth level).  Complex teams train and play at the spring training site of their parent club, on the back fields, with only a smattering of team officials, parents, and girlfriends watching.  Players at this level are learning about what being a pro player and playing every day is all about.
   Above the complex leagues is short season ball, with compacted seasons that begin in mid-June, and wrap up playoffs by the first weekend in September. This is the next step for complex league grads, as well as the first step for top college draft picks.  Life here essentially is the same as in the lower level in that the players are constantly learning and refining their skills, but with the added element of travel, and playing in front of bigger crowds.
  Finally, we get to A ball, which actually is divided into two levels.  Low A ball is for players who are getting their first shot at playing almost every day from April to September, after which (if they're successful), they move on to High A ball.
   So, by the time a player makes it to High A, he already has had several jumps and corresponding adjustments to make.  But the jump from there to AA  is considered by many to be the biggest one of all.
  Jeff Moore penned an article in the Hardball Times about the transition between the two levels, in which he termed AA ball "the entrance to the 'upper minors'."  AA is where, according to Moore, "hitters and pitchers begin to have a plan."  At this level, players can no longer get by on the strength of their raw skills and talents alone.  A pitcher who doesn't have an effective off-speed pitch, for example, will not succeed, because the hitters on this level will sit and wait on his fastball, which AA hitters can get around on more consistently than the lower level hitters can.  Similarly, a hitter who can't hit a good off-speed pitch will be exposed, too.
   The competition at AA is much closer to that of the major leagues than the low minors are, Moore suggests, and he points to the number of players who have jumped from AA to the majors as a result.  When the Blue Jays had their farm team in Las Vegas and the aerodynamic environment of the Pacific Coast League, they preferred to have their top pitching prospects performing in the more pitcher-friendly confines of New Hampshire (when Brett Cecil was demoted to get himself together a few years ago, the club sent him to the Fisher Cats, in order to protect his confidence). Some teams even prefer to keep their top prospects at AA if they're part of a winning group, rather than promote them to a mediocre AAA club.
   Moore even went as far as to say that:
          " could argue that the pure talent level (in AA) is higher because players are
           heading in an upward direction as opposed to the stagnation that tends to take
           place with some AAA players."

    To further demonstrate the difference between the upper and lower minors, Moore related the story of a college coach he had worked with who had played a few years of pro ball before turning to coaching.  The coach told Moore that he had more success in the upper levels than he did in the lower ones.  The reason was that the pitchers he faced in the low minors had electric arms, but no control.  As he moved up the ladder, he found that pitchers had better secondary pitches and control, but didn't throw overwhelming heat without a clue where it was going.
   We spoke with the Blue Jays Matt Boyd, who was promoted to AA in early May, after being lights out in High A ball with Dunedin.  Predictably, he struggled, and after a month, he found himself back in Florida.
We asked him about the differences between A and AA:

     "The biggest difference is the experience of the hitters, I faced a lot of older hitters, and they had better approaches. But I know my failures were due to my own doing, (to) sort of speak. I wasn't throwing the same as I did in Dunedin. I hurt my foot in my first start and after it healed I couldn't repeat my mechanics. That was my downfall, I couldn't repeat what got me success in high A."

   Boyd has continued his domination of FSL hitters since his return to the Sunshine State, taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning in his most recent start.  While teammate Daniel Norris might be next in line to fill the rotation spot in New Hampshire left by the promotion of Aaron Sanchez to Buffalo, it's only a matter of time before Boyd is back in AA, and he will no doubt be better prepared for his next trip to the "Upper Minors."

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