The world is on fire, or something like it. Nothing is normal right now as it seems the entire globe is combating the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. Sports are shut down almost world wide. Major League Baseball is hardly alone in not being able to play right now, and they are hardly alone in trying to not only figure out when they may be able to resume, but where and how. Everything is basically in a “brainstorm ideas” and “talk it out loud” stage rather than a full-on “plan it out” stage.
This past week we’ve seen leaked ideas that involved bringing every Major League Baseball team out to Arizona to try and play at least part of a season in the greater Phoenix area. The other plan was to essentially have a Cactus League and a Grapefruit League, where the two spring training leagues would become the de facto leagues for the 2020 season, replacing the American and National Leagues for the year.
It’s that latter plan of having two leagues playing at their respective spring training parts of the country that I wanted to dive into today. If that’s the plan that eventually happens, it’s going to lead to some real interesting things on the statistical front.
We don’t exactly have Major League stats of value from spring training because there’s just so much variance in the level of competition. But we do know how each league generally plays, and we do have minor league stats from the stadiums that will be used – and they tell two different stories.
Let’s first talk about playing in Arizona. We’ve all heard the stories about how breaking balls don’t work as well in Colorado, right? Well, they don’t work as well in Arizona, either. It’s not quite as drastic as in Coors – but the ball simply doesn’t break as well in Arizona as it does in many places where they play regular season baseball. The ball also flies better in Arizona, too. So you’re going to get a combination of less effective breaking balls and baseballs that travel further. That’s a bad combination for pitchers, but the hitters are going to love it.
On the opposite side of the country is the Grapefruit League. While there’s nothing there that alters how pitches work, there is the fact that the ball simply doesn’t travel as well there, particularly as the year moves along and the weather begins to change in the summer.
There are three baseball leagues that play in these ballparks, or at least some of them, during the Minor League Baseball season. The Arizona Rookie League takes place at the spring training complexes in Arizona (duh Doug, it’s called the Arizona Rookie League) and most of the games are played in the big league stadiums (some are played on the back fields at a few sites), the Gulf Coast League and the Florida State League are played at the spring training sites in Florida, mostly.
With two equal levels of play – complex level rookie ball – between the AZL and the GCL, we can see how different the two leagues are when it comes to offensive output. We looked at the two leagues over the last five minor league seasons and here’s the results:
That’s nearly a 30 point difference in OPS between the two leagues. If we assumed that games in Florida were league average, that would make the .699 OPS in the games in Arizona good for a 108 OPS+.
That situation, if it were to come to fruition, would be interesting to see play out. We’d all have to be doing park factor math in our heads without actually having a strong grasp of which parks were what based on the historical context that doesn’t really exist for big leaguers, along with trying to compare the stats between the two leagues.
But in this scenario, this could also have some impact on future earnings for players, too. Arbitration is based on numbers put up and past cases. Guys in Arizona are more likely to hit for more power and a higher average than guys in Florida. Likewise, pitchers in Arizona are more likely to post higher ERA’s than guys in Florida. That’s not going to hit starters, it’s going to hit relievers. And where that could really come into play with relievers is the saves category. If ERA’s are going to be up, that means blown saves will be, too. Which could mean fewer saves. Relievers get rewarded, heavily, for saves in arbitration.
And then there’s also how it could alter things a little bit in free agency, particularly for those players hitting the market following the season. While teams are certainly smart enough to understand how to adjust for park factors and all of that, of course there are also going to argue that “you only hit 27 home runs last year” or “you only slugged .457 last year” for guys playing in Florida. Likewise, pitchers that were in Arizona might hear about their 4.10 ERA last year – or hitters may hear things like “you hit 38 homers, but that was in Arizona and we don’t plan on playing there in 2021 through 2025, so we don’t plan to pay you based on that expectation.”
Things aren’t going to be normal for a while, even in sports. If they wind up playing baseball this year, it’s going to be different than we’ve seen in the past for more than the location. This particular plan, though, got the gears moving in my head about how different the two leagues would play, though, and what some of the ramifications for that could be.