The Double-A Jump

Miguel Sano, right, had a .918 OPS in Double-A, which got him promoted to the majors. (via Keith Allison)

Miguel Sano, right, had a .918 OPS in Double-A, which got him promoted to the majors. (via Keith Allison)

In a sport where empirical analysis has become vitally important, little is now taken for granted within baseball. Indeed, one of the central tenets of sabermetrics is to question everything, to challenge even the game’s longest-held assumptions in the hopes of correcting any unseen biases. Conventional wisdom isn’t so much attacked as it is scrutinized and re-examined in a manner where faulty generalizations are remedied and room is made for nuance.

In the world of scouting, the jump from High-A to Double-A has long been seen as the most critical for a prospect’s future. Double-A, the thinking goes, is where a minor leaguer’s true ability is tested for the first time against competition that can also list “future big leaguer” as a realistic goal.

It’s the level where weaknesses are often uncovered — that hole in a hitter’s swing now exposed, that pitcher’s inconsistent command now a problem that needs fixing. If you excel in Double-A, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get a shot in the majors, and sometimes you’ll even bypass Triple-A altogether.

But why is Double-A the proving ground for prospects? Why is this level the place where the game’s most talented youngsters truly cement themselves as major-league ready?

Why, in other words, are the adjustments made at Double-A so telling and significant for a prospect? And is this still the case, as conventional wisdom has long assumed?

“Double-A isn’t a magical level where unexpected things happen,” FanGraphs’ lead prospect analyst Kiley McDaniel told me via email. “It’s more a product of how the minor league promotion system works.”

This reality becomes more clear when looking at the makeup of Triple-A squads, which aren’t stocked with prospects but rather used as “more of an inventory level for big league rosters,” as McDaniel puts it. While plenty of future major league stars make their way through Triple-A, the level is also filled with failed and fringy big leaguers who are in their late 20s and early 30s — aged long past the point where they can still be considered legitimate prospects. Every once in a while, said players will even become folk heroes.

A step below in Double-A, however, teams are still looking to shape future big leaguers from less fully formed balls of clay. Rarely do you see players aged into their late 20s (except on rehab assignments), and the overwhelming majority of players on the roster have a reasonable chance of reaching the majors.

As a result, McDaniel says, “Double-A is the highest level where development is still happening.”

Further down the minor league ladder in A-ball, the competition isn’t nearly so consistent and challenging, especially for baseball’s most talented youngsters.

Speaking about the differences between the lower levels and Double-A, long-time prospect writer John Sickels talked about the “winnowing process” that has occurred once players move into the upper minors.

“This sounds banal, but it is true: The players are simply better [in Double-A]. At the A-ball level there are many ‘organization players’ and roster-filler types who aren’t likely to succeed at higher levels…pitchers with 86 mph fastballs, position players who can defend competently but don’t have impressive bats, etc.”

Sickels also pointed out how there are 60 rosters at the A-ball level, but just 30 Double-A teams. “There are half as many roster spots to fill. It is the key step in distinguishing roster-fillers from genuine prospects.”

So what differentiates a minor leaguer who performs well at Double-A from those who simply succeed against weaker competition down in the lower levels?

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

For one, hitters have to show they can excel against pitchers with plus velocity and good secondary offerings.

“A Double-A pitching staff will have more genuine prospects, more guys throwing in the 90s, more guys with refined breaking pitches and more guys with sharper command,” Sickels said.

Consequently, young hitters who feast on easier competition due to athletic ability alone often have difficulty making adjustments.

As Al Skorupa, a member of Baseball Prospectus’ prospect team told me, “In A-Ball, some guys have loud enough tools that they succeed without refining their approach.” He said that’s no longer the case in Double-A, where pitchers “really throw more strikes and locate a lot more consistently.”

Given that pitchers possess better command across the board, hitters aren’t able to succeed by taking tons of pitches and getting ahead in the count against hurlers who don’t consistently locate their fastballs.

“Lots of hitters will show a falsely good approach in the low minors,” Skorupa said. “Those guys get promoted and suddenly you’re not waiting out Double-A pitchers like that. Suddenly you’re down 0-2 a lot and your slash line plummets. Most of these issues aren’t exclusive to the Double-A jump, of course. All these issues exist at every level jump to some degree. It’s just at that level, we see the biggest degree of differences.”

Of course, pitchers face similar challenges upon reaching Double-A. Where once they could dominate lower-minors competition solely with big velocity, hurlers now have to mix in secondary offerings and sharpen their command.

“One noticeable change for pitchers moving from High-A to Double-A is the ability to consistently locate a breaking ball while also throwing around 90 mph,” McDaniel said. “Those two abilities alone will likely get a pitcher through the A-Ball levels pretty easily.”

Just as hitters face a tougher brand of competition, so too do pitchers have to prove that they can continually succeed against better quality opposition. At a level where batters are beginning to develop a smarter, more refined approach, young hurlers can’t overmatch batters without their own well-executed plan.

“A typical Double-A hitter is less likely than his A-ball counterpart to chase junk pitches outside the strike zone,” Sickels said. “You’re more likely to find hitters capable of handling major league quality fastballs; there are fewer weak bats that you can just overpower. If your command isn’t sharp, or if you don’t have something to go with your fastball, those weaknesses will get exposed quickly in Double-A.”

As a result, fastball command and the consistent ability to get ahead in the strike zone grow in significance once a pitcher reaches the upper minors. The emphasis is less on developing and improving upon new offerings and turns instead toward sharpening up the rough edges remaining in one’s game.

Development, in other words, is no longer always the primary motivation. With the bright lights of the majors beckoning, the sharpening of tools into usable big league skills takes a more central role. And this notion — that Double-A is the place where the focus begins to shift toward the major leagues — is what separates the upper minors from A-ball. Adjustments are now made with a view toward how one can contribute at the major league level. Room for growth still remains, especially among the youngest players, but Double-A is where prospects begin preparing for how they’ll contribute in the majors.

As Skorupa told me, “In Double-A, it’s time to stop focusing on developmental issues with players and shift focus to ‘how can this player help the major league team in the near future?’”

“You really are just a phone call from the majors once you hit Double-A, so we’ve gotten to the point there where teams are thinking of your place on the depth chart.”

With the game far more competitive between the lines, players also have to take their preparation off the field more seriously. When a prospect reaches Double-A, there are few guys still remaining who can be labeled as “projects.” Players who have the talent but not necessarily the work ethic and/or desire to improve on their weaknesses rarely reach the upper minors.

“Players really need to have their heads on straight by Double-A. You can’t be someone who’s not taking his prep work seriously at this point,” Skorupa said.

Indeed, the increased professionalization of the game at Double-A is another challenge prospects face. The talent level is more uniform in a way many minor leaguers have never encountered before, with few youngsters able to succeed on their athletic ability alone anymore.

For the first time, a prospect who has long dominated his peers, from Little League to high school to the lower minors, might have to experience extended failure. A player’s aptitude for making adjustments, putting in the extra work and being open to advice from coaches only grows in importance.

What this underscores is the tremendous nuance in player development and all the adjustments prospects have to make — both on the field and off — at a young age to succeed against increasingly tougher competition. Just about every player who reaches Double-A has the physical skills to play in the big leagues, but those skills become less and less of a separating factor the further one climbs up the minor league ladder.

This is what makes projecting a prospect’s future performance so difficult, of course. The process of determining why one prospect failed while another thrived, why one youngster makes the necessary adjustments and the other can’t is remarkably opaque. So many factors affect a young ballplayer’s maturation, and organizations are just starting to focus on those.

Since hiring Gabe Kapler as the club’s director of player development last offseason, the Dodgers have begun concentrating on numerous new ways to aid the growth of their prospects. They memorably posted a sign in their dining room during spring training that declared the club as “the healthiest team in pro sports,” with Kapler emphasizing the importance of nutrition and eating healthy. Under Kapler, the team is also stressing the value of communication and mental health, two factors that have been frequently overlooked in player development.

You can bet the Dodgers aren’t the only organization bringing progressive thinking to the minor leagues, even if the club’s efforts are the most publicized. The impact these different approaches ultimately have on prospect development remains to be seen.

This season, of course, a bevy of talented youngsters have debuted in the majors, and many are making a big impact from day one. Plenty of rookies, moreover, have gotten their initial exposure to big league competition straight from Double-A in 2015, with the likes of Miguel Sano, Byron BuxtonMichael Conforto and Kyle Schwarber all skipping over Triple-A to contribute to their big league teams.

From this perspective, the significance of Double-A on a prospect’s path to the majors hasn’t changed one bit. If anything, the upper minors have  grown only more competitive and more vital to a youngster’s development into a major league-ready player. As Jeff Zimmerman has shown at FanGraphs, players are now hitting their primes earlier, with their best performances coming at younger ages than we’ve traditionally seen.

Much of this is the result of how players are developing down on the farm, and Double-A is still the place where a prospect must make the most crucial adjustments to his game. Not every minor leaguer who excels at Double-A will turn into a major league star, but the level still tells us the most about a prospect’s outlook.

With baseball’s best players only growing younger, Double-A remains the proving ground where prospects are shaped into major leaguers.

Alex Skillin has written for SB Nation, Beyond The Box Score, The Classical, Sox Prospects, Fire Brand of the American League, and Celtics Blog, among others. Read all of his writing on his website, and follow him on Twitter @AlexSkillin.
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Kevin Walker
8 years ago

Very well written article. Matt Duffy, San Francisco Giants and possible 2015 NL ROY also made the jump near the end of 2013 from Richmond. Agree 100%, best prospects are in AA

8 years ago

Conforto is another guy who made the jump from AA to the majors this year.

Paul G.
8 years ago

Bill James’s articles about the best minor league teams of all time discounted the famed Newark Bears team based on the fact that at the time AAA was more or less a warehouse for the extended roster and the real young talent was mainly in AA. More things change…

I do find it amusing that the healthiest team is eating all organic. Unless there has been some big breakthrough recently, organic food is no more nutritious than “regular” food, just more expensive. Still, it is better than eating at McDonalds and probably impresses the Hollywood set.

8 years ago
Reply to  Paul G.

In his New Historical Abstract, James contended that the 1937 Newark Bears weren’t as strong as the 1934 Los Angeles Angels because the Bears, a Yankees affiliate, were a “vassal team in a vassal league” (International League), while the Pacific Coast League was still a mostly independent league. His comment had nothing to do with the relative talent level of AAA vs AA – in fact, there was no such thing as “AAA” baseball in the 1930s, AA was the highest level of the minors (and both the IL and PCL were AA leagues).

Paul G.
8 years ago
Reply to  dshorwich

Correction noted and accepted. Alas, was going from memory.

Paul G.
8 years ago
Reply to  Paul G.

OK, it appears that I had my Extract articles mixed up. His his “Best Minor League Teams, 1960s” he makes the point that the AAA teams at this time were primarily “holding companies” populated with “largely indistinguishable veterans who had failed at the major league level, but whom the team wanted to keep at hand in event of an emergency.” He then goes on to discuss that in the lower minors teams would often bunch their best prospects together to get them used to playing together and winning. Three teams are highlighted: 1961 Reno (California League, Class C), 1962 Tacoma (PCL, AAA) , and 1967 Birmingham (Southern Association, AA). Relevant to the discussion here, Reggie Jackson and Rollie Fingers both jumped to the majors from AA. They may have also tried to do the same with Joe Rudi, but he failed and got sent down to AAA a couple of times before he figured it out.

So the general point was accurate, but the particulars very wrong.

8 years ago
Reply to  Paul G.

Organic food isn’t about what is in it as much as it is about what is NOT in it….

8 years ago
Reply to  Paul G.

They are probably referring to the absence of chemicals in the food that is organic. “Regular”, or the “food that is intended to be consumed by you and your children” by big Monsanto and the other demons, tends to put high amounts of preservatives, HFC, which is our best link to diabetes so far, aluminum (has no use in our bodies), and things like Red 40. Unfortunately, those that are not wealthy can not always afford to buy these types of foods so we have to eat the poison they feed us until we obtain enough money to buy a farm, livestock, and collect our checks to not grow extra food to keep the prices of the “regular” food high.

8 years ago
Reply to  HoratioSky

Where do you sign up to get a check for not growing food? Legit question. I farm and I have never gotten one of those.

Jason S.
8 years ago
Reply to  EroticWaffles

Washington Post article from 9 years ago about how people get paid subsidies simply because they own land that was once used for agriculture. The subsidies are supposed to encourage family farms but as the subsidies aren’t tied to specific crops (ie. You may get paid for growing rice but you don’t actually have to grow rice – or grow anything at all), they’re basically a handout. So while you may be correct that nobody is technically being paid specifically to grow nothing, at least 9 years ago and earlier (I have no idea what the current situation is) it was indeed possible to get a subsidy for “farming” and the payment system didn’t require you to do anything other than just own the land that the payments covered. So from a certain standpoint, it is basically getting paid to “grow nothing”.

8 years ago
Reply to  Jason S.

Direct payments are no longer a thing and haven’t been since the last farm bill. They were paid out by base acres which are allocated based on past growing history and only certain crops are eligible . To my knowledge, reallocation has only happened twice since 2000. What probably happened is the land was recently taken out of production but the base acres still apply.

Regardless, the DCP was not a good program and I was glad when it was eliminated. Now most government programs are intended to act as supplemental insurance which is a much better system.

Marc Schneider
8 years ago
Reply to  Jason S.

The original idea of paying people not to grow food was in the New Deal. It was designed to help farmers-primarily family farms then-that were struggling to survive. In the first half of the 20th century, the plight of farmers was one of the key issues for reformers given how many Americans were farmers. So the idea was to raise farm prices in order improve the quality of life for farmers. It was not, as Horatio Sky suggests, to help agribusiness make more money. Now, of course, these programs survived long after most people had moved off farms and most farming was now commercial done by huge corporations. The real problem now, as I understand it, not so much farmers being paid not to grow food, but the biofuel mandates, which takes away crops that would ordinarily be used for food and now uses it to make gasoline. This, in turn, reduces the amount of farmland being used to make food and, of course, raises prices.

8 years ago

Just curious: You sometimes hear about prospects skipping from Double-A straight to the Majors, but how often do prospects manage to skip from Single-A to Triple-A like Albert Pujols did (and he wasn’t in AAA for very long, either)?

8 years ago

Nice article, I definitely appreciated the perspectives of the respected prospect analysts. However, I do find it a bit ironic that you opened with a discussion on “conventional wisdom” being verified or debunked by data, and then went on to write the entire piece essentially quoting “conventional wisdom” type of claims. Again, it was still a valuable and interesting article, I just feel that your opening paragraph set the stage for a more analytical type of article. At the very least, I feel that in an article suggesting that Double A is the most important jump to make, it would have been valuable to have explored that level’s correlation with major league success in comparison to other levels to see if that claim actually holds true.

8 years ago
Reply to  BenDrozdoff

Excellent points, Ben. (And thanks for the article, Alex!)

Also, I realize the article wasn’t intended as a doctoral thesis, but I believe some important nuance is absent. Firstly, the statement that “there are 60 A-ball teams and only 30 AA” is deeply misleading, as A-ball is divided into low-A and high-A, with, not surprisingly, 30 teams in each.

And when it comes to high-A, not all competitive environments are created equal — in fact far from it. The Florida State League for example is quite a difficult place for hitters, especially flyball hitters/power bats. A batter who enjoys conspicuous success in the FSL (at a reasonable age) will almost invariably go on to AA success.

Conversely, the high-A California League is murder on pitchers, and any twirler who performs well in The State That Rain Forgot is likely to keep doing so in AA.

Re the relative talents in AA and AAA, however, there’s nothing for even a neurotic nitpicker like myself to criticize. Well done on that score, sir.

Barney Coolio
8 years ago

So, “throwers” i.e. pitchers who just heave the ball really fast with very little forethought or breaking action have a harder time surviving in AA. Sure.

But, do such “throwers” no longer exist in the majors?

Randy Johnson said he was once a “thrower” when he was a young MLB pitcher. Perhaps, times have changed since the late 1980’s, or perhaps The Unit is underestimating his pitching ability as a youth.

Yehoshua Friedman
8 years ago

It would be nice if all or most AAA teams were independent, with promotion or relegation on the basis of record or playoffs. It would give the veteran AAA guys hope and AAA fans hope of seeing the majors. The atmosphere of the old PCL where the games drew large attendance and played really high-quality baseball. Really, for what the average Joe Fan knows about what he sees, you could save a lot of money and have a great experience by watching minor league ball games. Eventually the fan could see some of the guys he once knew showing in the big time. Let’s hear it for MiLB!