Image credit: Dylan Crews (Photo by Rodger Wood/Diamond Images via Getty Images)
In the world of player development, an assignment speaks louder than words.
This year, major league organizations spoke loudly about how they view the top talent in the 2023 draft and also how they view competition levels in the minor leagues.
Five first-round position players reached Double-A or higher by the time Labor Day series began on Sept. 5. This date is important because Class A leagues still had a week of games remaining at this point on the calendar.
Brock Wilken joined the group of first-round position players at Double-A after the High-A season finished.
Not only is this a high total of first-round position players reaching Double-A or higher in their draft years—the previous high since 2001 was two players—but the amount of time this year’s draftees spent at the upper levels was notable.
Plate appearances at upper levels during players’ draft years
First-round picks since 2001
|Draft||Player (Overall Pick)||Org||AA||AAA||MLB||Total|
|2005||Ryan Zimmerman (4)||Nationals||252||—||62||314|
|2023||Nolan Schanuel (11)||Angels||76||—||132||208|
|2022||Zach Neto (13)||Angels||136||—||—||136|
|2006||Evan Longoria (3)||Rays||109||—||—||109|
|2023||Dylan Crews (2)||Nationals||85||—||—||85|
|2023||Wyatt Langford (4)||Rangers||54||26||—||80|
|2023||Matt Shaw (13)||Cubs||70||—||—||70|
|2008||Brett Wallace (13)||Cardinals||57||—||—||57|
|2012||Mike Zunino (3)||Mariners||57||—||—||57|
|2019||Braden Shewmake (21)||Braves||52||—||—||52|
|2001||Gabe Gross (15)||Blue Jays||51||—||—||51|
|2023||Kyle Teel (14)||Red Sox||39||—||—||39|
|2023||Brock Wilken (18)||Brewers||25||—||—||25|
|2003||Rickie Weeks (2) *||Brewers||—||—||14||14|
|2005||Trevor Crowe (14)||Guardians||10||—||—||10|
|2022||Brooks Lee (8)||Twins||8||—||—||8|
|2014||Matt Chapman (25)||Athletics||3||—||—||3|
|* Weeks negotiated a September callup into his first pro contract|
The top of this list is crowded by Ryan Zimmerman and Evan Longoria, two college third basemen with strong bats and elite gloves; the Angels’ two most recent first-round picks, mid-major standouts Nolan Schanuel and Zach Neto; and four other top college hitters from this year’s draft. All 2023 draft picks are displayed in bold.
While two first-round pitchers from this year’s draft—righthanders Paul Skenes and Hurston Waldrep—reached Double-A this summer, such rapid progression by top college arms is more typical, though it had tapered off in the past 10 years.
This list of college aces to reach at least Double-A in their draft years includes Carlos Rodon and Aaron Nola (2014), Michael Wacha and Marcus Stroman (2012), Trevor Bauer and Sonny Gray (2011), Chris Sale (2010), Ross Detwiler (2007) and Andrew Miller (2006). This group also includes James Simmons (2007), Cesar Carrillo (2005) and Kenny Baugh (2001).
Another subset of first-round college pitchers were rushed to MLB as relievers in their draft years: Garrett Crochet (2020), Brandon Finnegan (2014), Craig Hansen and Joey Devine (2005) and Ryan Wagner and Chad Cordero (2003). Zack Burdi (2016) and Drew Storen (2009) reached the upper minors.
But it’s the rapid promotion of first-round position players that marks a change in how organizations approach player progression timelines. Three prime reasons stand out.
The high quality of the 2023 college class
Crews and Langford were regarded as such high-quality hitters that they were drafted with the second and fourth overall picks—despite the fact that righthanded-hitting college outfielders have not historically been a popular target at the top of the draft.
Just seven righthanded-hitting college outfielders had ever been drafted with a top five overall pick before Crews and Langford, and none had been selected that high since Jeffrey Hammonds and Chad Mottola went fourth and fifth overall in 1992.
The high quality of data on amateur hitters
The level of data and detail that MLB organizations gather on amateur hitters today far outstrips what was available even 10 years ago. Teams can buy more confidently based on the wealth of batted-ball data and video that exists in Division I and in wood-bat summer leagues and high school showcases.
Training methods also have improved, and many college programs now employ former pro coaches.
The professional landscape has changed dramatically
Today’s minor league structure is not directly comparable to the pre-pandemic version. The entire minor league development apparatus has changed.
When MLB assumed control of the minor leagues in 2021—one year after the lost 2020 season—it condensed and restructured the player development system by eliminating the short-season Class A and Rookie-advanced levels. Concurrent with this, the draft was shortened from 40 rounds to 20.
The results of these changes have become apparent in the past three seasons.
The short-season Class A designation was created in the mid 1960s, in part because leagues such as the New York-Penn and Northwest fostered an environment perfect for players drafted that summer, especially college players.
The Rookie-advanced level served as an intermediary step between complex Rookie leagues and full-season ball. The Appalachian and Pioneer leagues played in front of fans and traveled like a pro team, but the season lasted for two and half months rather than five. Over time, these leagues were preferred for developing international prospects, who signed at younger ages and often benefited from more cultural assimilation to life in the U.S.
Cutting the number of draft rounds in half diminished the need for teams to draft an excess of organization players to stock short-season rosters. Thus, fewer college players are drafted today, but those who are drafted have more obvious and immediate pro potential.
The elimination of short-season and Rookie-advanced leagues has pushed more players from those leagues to Low-A assignments. As a result, the average age of batters in Low-A has fallen to 21 years old, which is the youngest this century and among the lowest figures ever for the level.
The Class A levels are now hybrid levels compared to their 2019 iterations. In terms of player age, Low-A now more closely resembles the disappeared short-season Class A level. High-A has seen the next largest reduction in average batter age, dropping from 22.5 years old in 2019 to 22.2 this year.
According to one scout, there are features of the new Class A leagues that facilitate younger, less experienced players: larger, 30-man rosters and routine off days on Mondays. These conditions make it easier to rest young players and apportion playing time as they adapt to a longer season.
The average pitcher age at Low-A has held steady at 21.9. And, in fact, we see this trend at every level of the minor leagues: younger position players than ever, but pitchers who are just as old—or even slightly older—than before.
Baseball America studied age trends at every minor league level since 2001, which marks the beginning of clear delineation between Low-A and High-A leagues and the requirement that all organizations field one affiliate at each full-season level. Baseball-Reference.com supplied the data.
The pitcher age at Triple-A is up the most dramatically, from 20.5 from 2017-2019 to 21.1 today. This is likely an extension of teams prioritizing MLB-ready relief or emergency options on Triple-A pitching staffs.
In the bigger picture, MLB organizations have proven repeatedly adept at identifying the best future hitters as teenagers. Pitcher development is not nearly so linear or predictable, and as average pitcher ages rise across the minor leagues, it is natural to conclude that organizations are comfortable pushing more arm development to four-year and junior colleges.
These realities now spur organizations to more aggressively assign their top draft picks, with a record number of 2023 first-round picks reaching Double-A or higher this summer. Because the minor leagues “play younger” than they once did, this may be the best way to generate meaningful information on these young hitters’ true abilities.