Like Soto, Nashville third baseman Ryan Braun posted gaudy numbers in the PCL last season—gaudier, maybe, at .342/.418/.701 with 22 extra-base hits in 117 at-bats—and as luck would have it, he had played in exactly 162 big league games for the Brewers at the time of this writing. The results: .311/.352/.611 with 47 home runs, 40 doubles and 134 RBIs.
|Memphis center fielder Colby Rasmus|
Dodgers third base prospect Andy LaRoche has spent parts of the past three seasons at Las Vegas, logging 535 at-bats in the PCL and hitting a robust .308/.411/.557 with 32 homers, 33 doubles, 98 RBIs and with more walks (95) than strikeouts (82).
Big deal, right? Everybody knows the PCL is a hitter's league, where altitudes are high, the air is thin and ballpark dimensions are cozy. It's the type of environment where Soto, Braun, Kendrick and LaRoche should be expected to thrive. It's a place where pitchers' ERAs are inflated and their egos bruised.
This perception prevails, but it's one not fully supported by the facts.
Sure, a handful of PCL locales, like Albuquerque, Colorado Springs, Las Vegas, Salt Lake and Tucson, feature parks that rank among the minors' most notorious hitter's havens. But this is the same league that also features Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans and Tacoma, parks that can be downright stifling for offenses.
It didn't used to be this way. Traditionally, of course, the league's geography was confined to the Pacific and Mountain time zones, but the 1998 Triple-A realignment changed all that. Designed to set up the Triple-A World Series, the overhaul redistributed the American Association's eight middle American teams among the International and Pacific Coast leagues. Whereas Colorado Springs used to be the PCL's easternmost city, the league now stretches as far east as Nashville—or roughly an additional 1,000 miles. And it would take nearly 40 hours to travel by car the 2,733 miles that separates Tacoma and New Orleans.
The teams don't make that trip by car, of course, but it's still the greatest distance between two teams in one minor league. Compare that with the 3,355 miles of highway between Seattle and Miami, cities whose major league teams don't even meet in most seasons.
To coincide with Edmonton's move to Round Rock for the 2005 season, the PCL split its 16 teams into two eight-team conferences, with the Pacific Conference encompassing the traditional West Coast clubs, and the American Conference consisting of the Midwest teams brought over from the disbanded AA, plus Memphis (an expansion club) and the two relocated Canadian teams, Albuquerque (from Calgary) and Round Rock.
The realigned PCL:
• American Conference: Albuquerque, Iowa, Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans, Oklahoma, Omaha, Round Rock.
• Pacific Conference: Colorado Springs, Fresno, Las Vegas, Portland, Sacramento, Salt Lake, Tacoma, Tucson.
Because of the league's vast geography, travel is restricted as much as possible and teams play 78 percent of their schedule in-conference. Each PCL team plays:
• 16 games per season against the seven other teams in its conference, distributed evenly home and away (112 games), and:
• Four games per season against the eight out-of-conference teams, meeting half the teams at home and half on the road (32 games).
For example, Nashville, an American Conference team, plays 72 games in its own park this season; 56 games on the road, evenly distributed among the other AC teams; and 16 games on the road versus Pacific Conference opposition. This year the Sounds travel to Tucson, Las Vegas, Sacramento and Fresno; next year, they'll visit the other four PC cities.
As a result of this scheduling, the two conferences function almost as two separate leagues that feature a moderate (22 percent) interleague schedule. For sake of comparison, a major league team spends 9 percent of its schedule playing the other league.
|TRIPLE-A OFFENSIVE CONTEXTS,
|R/S • Runs per season by avg.
|R/G • Runs per game by avg.
|R/P • Total runs per game in avg.
This familiarity of opposition also serves to exaggerate the differences between the parks. When considering only traditional home/road runs per game splits, Sacramento's Raley Field would appear to depress scoring by a whopping 17 percent. But that figure is exaggerated by the amount of time the River Cats spend on the road in the Pacific Conference's great hitter's parks. In fact, Sacramento home games featured an average of 9.28 runs per contest over the past three full seasons, a total higher than half of the American Conference teams. (See Triple-A Offensive Contexts chart, at right.)
As highlighted above, each of the PCL's two conferences features a distinctly different run-scoring environment. Games played in Pacific Conference parks featured, on average, an extra run per game over the past three full seasons.
To get a picture of what this means for a team's run total, consider that a major league team would score 83 additional runs over the course of a 162-game season if its home scoring environment was improved by .51 runs per game. And this assumes that just half of the runs per park increase (1.02) would be rewarded to the home team.
So giving the 2007 Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a team that scored 782 runs to rank 15th in MLB, an extra 83 runs would catapult them to fourth overall in runs scored—and that's brought about merely by changing their run-scoring environment at home.
|The Pacific Coast League enters
its fourth season of play under the American Conference-Pacific
Conference dichotomy, in which teams spend nearly 80 percent of their
schedule playing the same seven opponents. Because it's also been a
period of comparative stability—no new parks have been built, no teams
moved and very few affiliations were shuffled—it's a good time to look
back at what the change has wrought.
|First, how do the PCL's parks stack up when compared
head-to-head? Using home/road data from the years 2005 to 2007, we
arrive at the basic runs per game park factors (PF) for the 16 teams,
with 100 being average. So, for example, Albuquerque's 140 park factor
indicates that for the three seasons inclusive, the Isotopes scored and
allowed 40 percent more runs in home games than road games.
|Because in-conference opponents play each other so much,
though, their park factors are somewhat skewed. For example,
Albuquerque plays most of its road games in neutral and pitcher's
parks, making their park seem like Coors Field by comparison. To combat
this, we'll consider just the raw totals of runs scored per game (by
both teams) at each park from 2005 to 2007 (R/P). The second number
accounts for the units of standard deviation (SD) each total is from
the conference average (see chart above for averages), helping
us to identify parks especially conducive to either hitting or
|Better hitting parks will feature more runs scored, and
no matter how you slice it, Albuquerque is a fantastic hitter's park.
For point of reference, Coors Field, in its pre-humidor heyday,
averaged more than 14 and a half runs per game—but Albuquerque fell two
runs per game short of
Because of the differences between PCL conferences, it doesn't make sense to evaluate American and Pacific conference prospects using the same standard—much as we already know that head-to-head comparisons of International and Pacific Coast league prospects are unfair.
Batters in the American Conference, like Soto and Braun, play in a significantly lower run-scoring environment than their Pacific Conference counterparts, like Kendrick and LaRoche, and should be evaluated accordingly. (For more, see the conference averages chart at the bottom of this story.)
This is something to keep in mind when evaluating this year's crop of PCL prospects. Memphis outfielder Colby Rasmus, Oklahoma first baseman Chris Davis and (perhaps later this year) Nashville outfielder Matt LaPorta all play in the American, while Portland outfielder Chase Headley, Colorado Springs third baseman Ian Stewart and Sacramento outfielder Carlos Gonzalez all play in the Pacific.
Players aren't the only ones affected by the divergent environments of the PCL. Big league player development departments have to determine not only whether a prospect is ready for Triple-A competition, but also whether the PCL's varied conditions will hurt his development.
Young pitchers may begin to nibble and not attack the strike zone if enough of their pitches are hit for cheap extra-base hits. And young batters may develop bad habits, such as trying to pull everything in the air, or not waiting for a pitch to hit because the conditions are so favorable.
These concerns are overstated, if you ask Rockies assistant general manager Bill Geivett. The Rockies' top affiliate has called Colorado Springs home since 1993, Colorado's first year in the National League.
"I don't think (playing in the PCL is) anything different in terms of the game of baseball. But there's a lot more focus on pitchers because you don't get away with mistakes," he said. "If it's real important for a pitcher in any park to throw strikes, to keep the ball down and not walk people, then it's really important not do it in Colorado Springs.
"We don't have to teach them anything. The game teaches them. If you get the ball up and if you walk people in Colorado Springs, you're going to have problems. All in all, it's good. But it's also important that you don't get pitchers to shy away from contact.
"Now I say that about Colorado Springs, but that's anywhere. We tell players to use it as a tool and not an excuse."
For the Rockies, more than any other team, the PCL—and especially the Pacific Conference—offers a crash course on what life is like in Coors Field, though Geivett warns that there's no way to truly simulate the game at major league level.
And Colorado certainly hasn't been shy about assigning its top young arms to the PCL. Jeff Francis, Aaron Cook, Ubaldo Jimenez, Greg Reynolds, Franklin Morales and Jason Jennings all matriculated to the majors from the PCL. As did veteran righthanded reliever Matt Herges, who at age 37 spent 32 games with Colorado Springs last season as he tried to get his career back on track. As it turned out, Herges pitched well for the Rockies down the stretch (3.64 ERA and a 2.5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in in 30 innings) as Colorado marched to the playoffs. Afterward he told Geivett that his time there taught him that he couldn't get away with mistakes. "He really found out what he had to throw to get guys out," Geivett said.
But for other teams, especially ones that don't call Coors Field home, the PCL is still not necessarily viewed as a hindrance. Dodgers assistant GM De Jon Watson said that the organization does not alter plans or instruction for its young pitchers who must brave Las Vegas, which the Dodgers have called home since 2001.
"It's about keeping the baseball on the ground and executing a pitching plan," he said. "We're making sure we're sticking to what we planned."
Through the years, the Dodgers, like the Rockies, haven't been shy about sending their more promising arms to Vegas. Edwin Jackson, Chad Billingsley and Jonathan Broxton all spent a summer there, as Jon Meloan is this season.
Sticking to the script is something Watson and the Dodgers stress for their batters, too, even though Dodger Stadium is far less forgiving for them than Coors Field is for Rockies batters.
"We're trying to get all the kids to execute and swing the bat, regardless of the park," he said. "The key is to hit those mistakes when they get them. LaRoche, (Chin-Lung) Hu, (James) Loney . . . they all were there. We want them to be consistent with their work and preparation, and that will carry over when you play in the big leagues."
Geivett said that the Rockies' main concern for their position prospects is over-aggressiveness.
"Hitters can get to where they swing too much, because they want to put bat to ball and hit it in the air somewhere," he said.
"But you can sit around and debate these issues for hours and not reach a conclusion. For hitters, confidence plays such a big part of what they do. We like the idea of developing hitters who have that type of confidence."
Left Turn At Albuquerque
|IL RUN-SCORING ENVIRONMENTS,
|As a control, let's turn our attention to the Triple-A
International League—where parks are more uniform and the run-scoring
environment lower—to examine its runs per park averages (R/P) during the same
time frame. Here the units of standard
deviation (SD) are derived from comparisons with the divisional
|* Relocated to Lehigh Valley in
|While more than half (nine) of the 14 IL parks feature fewer than nine total runs per game on average (when just three PCL parks can say the same), the IL does feature five environments that would fit right into the PCL's American Conference—Buffalo, Charlotte, Durham, Pawtucket and Syracuse.|
The Marlins' top farm club relocated from Calgary to Albuquerque for the 2003 season, in the process restoring baseball to the traditional PCL outpost. The Dukes had called Albuquerque home since 1972—and through the years featured the likes of Davy Lopes, Charlie Hough, Eric Karros, Pedro Martinez and Mike Piazza—but they set out for Portland in 2000.
Fans in Albuquerque went three seasons without Triple-A baseball, but the new iteration, the Isotopes, faces entirely different circumstances than its predecessors.
Today's Albuquerque franchise plays in the most extreme hitter's park in the league—but in the American Conference, where the Midwest-heavy geography presents a much lower run-scoring environment than in the Pacific Conference. Furthermore, when Marlins prospects do make the big leagues, they spend most of their time in the National League East's pitcher-friendly parks, beginning with Dolphin Stadium and extending to Shea Stadium in New York, Turner Field in Atlanta and Nationals Park in Washington. The lone exception is Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park.
Runs may be easy to come by in Albuquerque, but that hasn't impeded the Marlins from sending their brightest prospects there, according to farm director Brian Chattin. In this regard, the Marlins are on the same page with the Rockies and Dodgers, the difference being that Albuquerque pitchers get a bit of a reprieve when they go on the road because they're visiting places like Memphis and New Orleans most frequently, and not Las Vegas and Colorado Springs.
"Playing in Albuquerque hasn't created challenges for us," Chattin said. "We promote aggressively. It's just that if we feel that if a player's ready for big leagues, then we'll bring him up. But Albuquerque is a good environment—and the affiliate treats our players well—it's just that there are challenges to it.
"With pitchers, the breaking ball may not break as much, the sinker may not sink as much, but if you can locate, you can have success. Generally speaking, if you can locate and you can execute a gameplan, you can have success.
"For hitters, if the ball carries a bit more, it carries to all parts of field. We tell our guys to just focus on the middle of the field and they'll find success. That's the same for all levels of the game—we don't preach anything different."
Three of the Marlins' top minor league righthanders, Gaby Hernandez, Dallas Trahern and Eulogio de la Cruz, already call Albuquerque home, while a whole stable of the organization's finest young players are a rung below them at Double-A Carolina. Center fielder Cameron Maybin, righthanders Chris Volstad, Ryan Tucker and Brett Sinkbeil, second baseman Chris Coghlan and lefty Aaron Thompson all are plying their trade with the Mudcats. And despite their youth, all six are candidates to see time with the Isotopes this season if they develop as the Marlins anticipate.
But no matter how close these players may or may not be to Albuquerque, Chattin echoed the sentiments of Geivett, Watson and a host of others when he said: "Regardless of the difficulties of Triple-A, and regardless of park factors, it's not like the big leagues."
|PCL CONFERENCE AVERAGES, 2005-2007
|The Pacific Coast League enters its fourth season of play under the American Conference-Pacific Conference dichotomy, in which teams spend nearly 80 percent of their schedule playing the same seven opponents. Because it's also been a period of comparative stability—no new parks have been built, no teams moved and very few affiliations were shuffled—it's a good time to look back at what the change has wrought.
Pacific Conference teams score (and allow) more runs than their American Conference counterparts, as we've seen, but what does that mean for the component elements—on-base percentage, slugging, walks, etc.—of scoring runs? What does it mean for individual player performance? Ask no more. The following totals represent the conference averages for all players for the years studied, 2005 to 2007.
|Percentages are figured per plate appearance
|ISO • Isolated Power BIP • Balls In Play Average
|Pacific Conference batters compiled sizable advantages in average, on-base percentage, slugging and batting average on balls in play—and smaller advantages in isolated power, extra-base hit percentage and walk and strikeout percentage. Add it all up and it's readily evident why more runs are scored in the Pacific Conference: The ball is put in play more frequently, traveling further and finding more holes when it's hit. And when the ball is not put in play, more batters are reaching via walks, setting up the next batter for a chance to put the ball in play.
Somewhat surprisingly, the American Conference held an advantage in home runs per plate appearance—infinitesimal as it may be—though Pacific batters struck a higher rate of extra-base hits overall. Also of note, stolen base attempts also were a shade higher in the AC than in the PC, 11.0 to 9.6 percent, which seems intuitive given the lower run-scoring environment.