Reading Too Much Into Minor League Baseball Rankings

It’s that time of the year when baseball “scouts” are publishing their organizational rankings and that means one thing … it’s time for me to a) ridicule those who take these lists too seriously and b) kill the armchair scouts whose partisan critiques of these rankings are informed by little more than milb.com and third-hand reports. In other words, it is time to bust on those who think their MILB scouting degree came from Dartmouth when it really came from DeVry.

The catalyst for today’s rant comes courtesy of ESPN’s Keith Law who this week published his organizational rankings and his top 100 rankings. Law isn’t the only one who publishes this kind of material as Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus are in the game as well, but Law’s release is timely and it has “market moving” potential as Law has a broader audience courtesy of his employment with ESPN.

Now it is important to point out that Law is just one man and he can’t possibly be expected to have first person expertise on 5000+ minor league players and the nation’s top amateurs. It just isn’t possible as the universe is just too huge. So his work depends in large part on input from his network of sources, cross checked against available statistics. That said, this is his profession. He does occasionally see SOME of these players in person. He probably has good source material available. He has a network of guys who have eyes and are in the know. And he is a pretty smart guy. As such, I trust that his guesstimates are reasoned and educated.

There is, however, a small and vocal minority of baseball fans that don’t agree, particularly if Keith draws conclusions that don’t comport with their own partisan beliefs. And each year, they take to the chat rooms the moment Law (and others) publish their lists.

“How can Toronto and Boston be ranked so high? Keith’s bias, no dobut!”

“How can the Yankees be ranked so low? Not even an idiot would put this organization behind Philly.”

“Is Keith crazy … Zach Wheeler couldn’t carry John Lamb’s jock!”

This is the kind of stuff that gets discharged in the moments after Law publishes his lists. And it is heated as critics behave like jilted lovers if Law pans their organization. Mind you, the complaints are coming from people who don’t have Law’s job. They don’t have his network of eyewitness sources. They don’t have his travel budget. And they don’t have his background. Instead, they have MILB.com and a year’s worth of Baseball Americas to guide their opinions. That alone does not make one an expert in all things related to the Carolina League or the Southern League. And it certainly doesn’t arm someone with the tools needed to compare players who play in those two leagues.

My point here is the living room expert in these matters simply doesn’t know enough about this stuff to get real hot and bothered. And certainly not to the level of anger you see in the chats. Sure, there are some who think they are in the game by parroting a farm director or coughing up a K/9 ratio. And some even know there are two Brittons, one named Zack and the other named Drake. But the level of depth in this area is not deep. In fact, relative to basketball and football, it is pretty damn shallow.

The crime here is not that fans are uninformed. Instead, the crime is that many of the uninformed don’t know their limits. Consequently, that gives rise to situations where bellicose claims are being made in bars and chat rooms that are wholly unsupported by fact or first-hand experience. Do we not get enough of that in politics that we need to import it into baseball?

The other thing about these lists that I find interesting is just how caught up people get in the actual rankings. Listen, as I mentioned above, I think KLaw and others do a pretty good job giving their readers a feel for where clubs stand and where they are headed. But this is not science. In fact, there is a ton of guesswork embedded in these rankings. As such, the margin of error is huge. That fact seems to be lost on a great deal of those who treat these rankings as the gospel.

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