Monday, July 15, 2013

Thoughts On Age vs Level(Part I)

Few subjects generate more heat and less light on baseball oriented websites than Age vs Level.  What is Age vs Level you ask?  It is the age at which a player reaches a certain level of play in the minor leagues while progressing to what is hoped to be a major league baseball career.  Why does it generate such intense discussion?  Well, IMO, because many analysts have a superficial understanding of the subject, yet aggressively use it to support their contentions.  Also, once you understand the concept, its fairly quick and easy to look up and apply so it is easy to become lazy and rely on it to the exclusion of more complex analysis incorporating multiple factors.  The origins of the concept arise from the fact that throughout baseball history, many Hall of Fame caliber players reached the major leagues at an early age.  It certainly seems intuitive that if a player has Hall of Fame tools and skills, they will manifest themselves early.  Someone did a study and sure enough, great ballplayers tend to reveal themselves with great performances at an early age.  Easy, right?

Well, maybe not.  First of all, there is more to talent acquisition in baseball than finding the next superstar.  Secondly, there are exceptions to every rule, and thirdly, multiple confounding factors that have to be considered.  In order to fully understand Age vs Level, you need to know something about how ballplayers enter professional baseball, which is very age dependent and you need to know something about the minor league levels and how players are generally assigned.

There are basically 3 routes through which young players can enter professional baseball:  High School, college and the international market.  Each is naturally tied to a benchmark age:  16 for international players, 17-18 for high school and 21-22 for college.  Junior college is an interesting alternative that splits the difference between HS and college, but still has relatively few players who take that route.

In professional baseball, there are basically 3 entry levels for players which can be conveniently divided according to what route they entered from:

The Dominican Summer League(DSL) is where most international signees get their first professional experience.  Because the minimal signing age for international prospects is 16, most of the players in the DSL are 17 or 18 with a few as young as 16 at the start of each season.

Most players drafted out of high school are assigned to a Rookie League(Arizona League, Gulf Coast League).  Since most players drafted out of HS are 17 or 18, many Rookie League players will be in this age group, but there will also be a mixture of DSL graduates who are 18-19 and JC guys.  Many teams will also will also assign college draftees from smaller programs, D2, D3 and NAIA ball to rookie leagues too.

Short Season League(Northwest League, New York-Penn League) is where college draftees from major programs generally get their first pro experience the summer they are drafted.  You will also see some rookie league graduates in these leagues.

For their first full professional season starting in the spring of the calender year following their draft, the top HS draftees are generally assigned to Low A ball(South Atlantic League, Midwest League), while the top college draftees are generally sent to High A(California League, Florida State League, Carolina League).

After their first full season assignment, most prospects advance 1 level at a time with AA and AAA being the final steps.  AA is generally the level that separates the true MLB prospects from the organizational players.  AAA is often just a place to put on a few finishing touches and make sure the kid can compete with guys who have spent some time in the majors.

In the next installment we will look at some case studies of Players who successfully worked their way through the minor leagues and are currently members of the San Francisco Giants major league ballclub.


  1. Great run down of all of the various situations and factors!

    I think one of the points you brought up is what makes it hard for people who are not prospect hounds to understand the nuances of age versus level.

    Many are focused just on the next star players and that is where you noted that they tend to rise quickly. That's why I feel the need to point this out, especially when the prospect is putting up numbers which in the majors would be a superstar level, like over .400 OBP. Not everyone recognizes that such a performance don't amount to much by the time that prospect reaches the upper levels of the minors, and disappears by the MLB. Rising is very very tough, and especially so if they are old for the league while doing this.

    And you are spot on, just because a prospect is old for a level, it does not mean that he can't be a productive player in the majors at some point in his climb. I find that those are the players who can make prospect watching really fun, finding those sleepers who rise up and then contribute to the team in some way, whether old or young, just not as a start, but as a complementary player.

    I look forward to your next post on this.

    1. I would counter that just because a prospect is not on a HOF track, does not make them a bad prospect. Anyway, we're getting a little ahead of ourselves here. We'll cover both the utility and limits of age vs level analysis in future posts.
      This was just a primer to help give points of reference for those future posts.

      I will add that sometimes when you jump all over a guy for being "old for the level", it can come across like you are trashing the guy and saying he is worthless a a prospect. I think you have to be careful not to use it like it is the final word on every prospect.

      I know you insist you are not doing this, but that is sometimes the way it comes across to me.

      There, I hope that was a bit kinder and gentler way of putting it!

    2. I guess my 2 cents is that I'm grateful to have a joint where I don't have to explain myself every time and qualify down to the nubbins. (Either to explain or to avoid snarky attacks). I assume good baseball IQ, and I most likely assume a bit too much familiarity with the prospects. I'll try and throw in qualifying info better.

      I usually assume that everybody understands we're talking long shots once we're out of the top picks each year.

      Age/level is an important factor, but I really think its been twisted way out of proportion by a couple of popular studies, conclusions on which I really don't think have been proven out at all.

      And for me the fun part of prospecting is to find the guys who grind it out. It doesn't take much to get excited about Clint Frazier.

    3. I have taken your advice to heart, I will try to br better at not going too far the other way. I am grateful too that you run your blog so well, thank you for creating a great place to discuss things Gigante.

  2. Doc B,

    Can you also cover the variable of age vs. level in regards to minor league service time and team control before they have to be added to the 40 man or exposed to MiLB free agency. I assume that this caps how long you can expect to hold onto a prospect vs. losing them since only so many guys fit on the 40 man.


    1. There is a lot to cover and I don't want to drift too far afield. It's a bit murky to me to because there seem to be so many exceptions but basically here's what I understand:

      It's based on age, but it makes it easier to think in terms of college vs HS draftees. For College draftees, the team can keep them in the minor leagues for 4 years, including the summer they were drafted, before exposing them to the Rule 5 draft. They can protect the player from the Rule 5 draft by placing them on the 40 man major league roster. After that, they have 3 "Options" in which they can send the player to the minor leagues for the season. During a season, they can call the player up and send him back as many times as they want and it still counts as only 1 option.

      Same story for HS drafteed except the team can keep them for 5 years before exposing them to the Rule 5 Draft. International prospects are the same as HS.

      After 6 seasons in the minors without being added to the 40 man roster, a player is eligible for free agency and can sign with any team.

  3. Too me it's always come down to when these guys are in HS and dominating they are often referred to as "a man among boys". Then after getting drafted and signed they become a boy among men so to speak as they advance up the chain. The ones that adjust and continue to out-perform their age, given the level they are performing at, will continue to perform as if they are a "man among boys" even though they are now among men. Those are your future superstars. And it's all on a relative basis. These guys you cite were young relative to their league. They advanced earlier and faster then most other prospects. The top 1-2%'ers. I've found that those are the ones to keep an eye on. It doesn't always work out and I get that Wade Boggs toiled in the minors until he was 27 or whatever, but it's the way to bet. I can't believe people picked a scab over an 18 month difference between Cain and Hernandez. That's SABR-rattlers for you ( and I am one ), it's not that much of a science IMO.

    1. That's the nail on the head, it is very much an art, not a science, and we are talking generalities, not absolutes, it is the way to bet. That's what I've been trying to say, it is the way to bet regarding superstar prospects.

      And I agree, those are the future superstars. DrB's point is that we could be bypassing potential contributors who complement the stars, and I do see that point, and further agree with that point, but that is what most people look at prospects for, the superstars, not the Pagans and Winns and Scutaro's who the people here would also value highly, but differently. Hence why I point this out on occassion (if I did it every time, I know I would be terribly annoying), as while the crowd here mostly understands this point, I assume there are newbies coming in over time, I see new names here all the time.