May 25, 2024

Why top hitting prospects are having a harder transition to the majors than in the past

While J.D. Martinez was building up in the minors, a Triple-A coach with the New York Mets asked him how he was feeling at the plate.

“OK,” Martinez replied. “But I haven’t seen any velocity.”

To Martinez, a 14-year-veteran who signed with the Mets in late March and missed nearly all of spring training, the lack of quality arms at Triple A was instructive, even alarming.

The difference between the quality of pitching at Triple A and in the majors is nothing new — Cleveland Guardians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti recalls former manager Terry Francona mentioning it to him a decade ago. But as the struggles of several top hitting prospects this season demonstrate, transitioning to the highest level might be more difficult than ever before.

Consider Kyle Manzardo, who made his major-league debut on Monday after hitting eight home runs in his last 13 games at Triple A. Manzardo, 23, began his Guardians career 0-for-7 with five strikeouts before getting his first major-league hit as a pinch-hitter on Wednesday. A small sample, to be sure, but also an indication of the challenges Manzardo and other young hitters face.

“It’s hard to replicate the stuff up here. That’s why you see so many of these kids get called up and struggle,” Martinez said. “This is where the dawgs come. This is the big boy league.”

So, while service-time manipulation is not entirely a thing of the past, even under new, collectively-bargained rules designed to discourage the practice, some teams simply prefer their prospects to get additional reps in the minors. Early success in the majors can be elusive. And this season, it seems, top hitting prospects are getting particularly humbled.

The Baltimore Orioles’ Jackson Holliday, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2022, returned to Triple A after starting his major-league career 2-for-34. The Pittsburgh Pirates’ Henry Davis, the No. 1 pick in 2021, also is back at Triple A after batting .162 with a .486 OPS.

The Tigers’ Colt Keith has struggled in the early part of his rookie season. (Nick Wosika / Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

The Detroit Tigers’ Colt Keith has a major-league low .414 OPS. The Milwaukee Brewers’ Jackson Chourio is at .609. The Texas Rangers’ Wyatt Langford, a first-round pick last July who hit his way onto the defending World Series champions’ Opening Day roster, was at .588 before he landed on the injured list with a right hamstring strain.

Those rookies had varying levels of experience at Triple A. Some likely will recover the way the Orioles’ Gunnar Henderson did last season, winning American League Rookie of the Year after producing a .651 OPS through May 12. The San Diego Padres’ Jackson Merrill, who not only jumped to the majors straight from Double A, but also did it while playing a new position, center field, might follow Henderson’s path after breaking out of a recent 0-for-20 slump.

Then again, linear progression for prospects hardly is assured, especially when major-league pitching is so much better than it is at Triple A. Stuff+, a metric that judges pitches by their physical characteristics (spin, velocity, movement), portrays the difference vividly.

Through Monday, the average Stuff+ of every pitch in the majors was 100. At Triple A, it was 86, down from 95 last season. Among major-league starting pitchers, that’s roughly the difference between Mitch Keller and Griffin Canning. Only 29 major-league starters had thrown 50 innings with a Stuff+ score of 86 or worse.

“You’re going from a place where there’s a few guys who have played in the big leagues, some people who might one day, to every single person is a big-leaguer and there are no breaks, there are no easy at-bats,” Guardians manager Stephen Vogt said. “You have the best defenders in the world trying to catch the ball and now all of a sudden you’re seeing pitches in situations that you’ve never seen before. A lot of people misrepresent that. They don’t understand how big of a jump it truly is.”

Beyond the most obvious reason — major-league pitchers are nasty! — players and club officials offer a variety of theories on why that jump seemingly is becoming more problematic:

Improvements in advance scouting

Minor-league parks are equipped with devices such as Rapsodo and Trackman, which provide real-time information about the velocity, spin and movement of a baseball. Yet, Orioles general manager Mike Elias likened the leap from the minors to the majors to “going from tiddlywinks advance scouting to every laser pointed at you imaginable.”

“If there’s a bigger gap than normal, probably my strongest hypothesis would be that advance scouting and planning is getting so technically robust and so concentrated,” Elias said. “You go from sort of doing a little bit of that in the minors with lower-quality info and less intensity, and then all of a sudden you’ve got 29 advance teams and pitchers who are able to execute those plans way better. The impact of that has compounded or accelerated in the last few years.”

Six-game series in the minors

The St. Louis Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter was taken aback by the minor-league schedule when he spent the first part of the 2022 season at Triple A with the Texas Rangers. Teams at all levels now play six-game series, a format the sport implemented in 2021 to reduce travel during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If the big leagues adopted that schedule, offense would go through the roof,” Carpenter said. “When you’re facing the same guys all the time, the advantage goes to the hitter.”

Carpenter might be onto something, as evidenced by the OPS and runs per game figures at Triple A in series of six or more games since 2021, according to STATS Perform.

Games 1-4: .778 OPS, 5.35 rpg

Games 5-7: .787 OPS, 5.47 rpg

The splits, in smaller samples, are even wider this season. Hitters, once they reach the majors, do not always get the benefit of multiple looks at a reliever in a three- or four-game series. And they never get two looks against one starter.

Minor-league roster limits

The Guardians’ Antonetti sees only one potential difference from the past: The reduction this season in the number of minor-league players an organization can put under contract from 180 to 165. Double-A and Triple-A teams went from 36 players on their roster to 33, with 28 active.

Major League Baseball and its owners cut roster sizes in an effort to keep costs relatively flat after they agreed to increase salaries for minor leaguers, guarantee them in-season housing and pay them during spring training and other times they work at team facilities outside of the regular season.

“Some of the players (who) have gotten squeezed out are the Triple-A veteran or the guy that has two or three years of major-league service but hasn’t really established himself,” Antonetti said. “Maybe some of those spots that had been filled by those veterans who had major-league experience are now filled by prospects.”

Carpenter, who was drafted in 2009 and made his major-league debut in 2011, recalled his difficulty as a young hitter facing such veterans at Triple A. Prospects generally are less polished, though the Pirates’ Paul Skenes, who will make his major-league debut on Saturday, was an obvious exception.

Teams use internal projections to forecast how their prospects might perform in the majors. Those projections do not always prove accurate — the Orioles, for example, surely did not anticipate Holliday going 2-for-34. But besides determining where a player stands in his development, teams must also evaluate how he might fit on their roster. “Those two things have to align for guys to get to the major-league level,” Antonetti said.

Manzardo certainly looked the part after popping OPSes above .900 in both the Arizona Fall League and major-league spring training. But the Guardians had an accomplished left-handed hitter, Josh Naylor, at first base, and two other lefties, Will Brennan and Estevan Florial, taking some of the at-bats at DH. Only after an injury to Steven Kwan did they see an opportunity for Manzardo, knowing they would need Brennan and Florial more in the outfield.

The Guardians kept Manzardo in the minors long enough to secure an extra year of club control over him, but probably not long enough to keep him from earning an extra year of arbitration. Might he still be at Triple A if Kwan was healthy? Sure. But the team did not manipulate service time when it named Kwan to its Opening Day roster as a rookie in 2022, or when it promoted pitcher Tanner Bibee last season in late April, when he was still likely to qualify for Super Two status. Bibee wound up gaining a full year of service by finishing second in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting.

The Tampa Bay Rays have their own version of Manzardo — infielder Junior Caminero, who is batting .315 with six homers and a 1.005 OPS at Triple A. Wander Franco reached the majors at the same age, 20, and excelled. But Caminero is not considered as advanced a prospect as Franco was, particularly on the defensive end, and the Rays lack an obvious spot to play him.

“It feels like the gap between Triple A and the big leagues is as great as it’s ever been and it’s that much harder to assess a hitter’s readiness as a result,” Rays president of baseball operations Erik Neander said.

“Speaking mostly on our own experiences, when providing a young hitter major-league opportunity we have to feel confident that they are well prepared to take a step back before they take two steps forward, and that your major league team is in a position to support that journey, too.”

The journey is not getting any easier. Orioles rookie Colton Cowser, who earned an AL Player of the Week honor in early April, was in a 4-for-35 slump before going 2-for-4 with a double and a sacrifice fly Wednesday night. The good ones always come out of it. But the task is more difficult in the majors than the minors, where a pitcher who dominates at one level gets promoted to another.

“If it was 1999 and you were facing Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson, they would be in another league if they could be,” the Orioles’ Elias said. “But in the major leagues, there is nowhere else for those guys to go.”

The Athletic’s Zack Meisel and Eno Sarris contributed to this story.

(Top photo of Jackson Holliday: Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)