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What are non-MLB associated baseball league talent equivalents?

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We all know how good Yu Darvish’s stats are in Japan, but how good is the competition? Photo unknown via beatofthebronx.com

I’ve been working on this post for weeks; now is as good a time as any to post it.  I’ve always wondered, since we hear so much about players’ tearing up winter leagues or hear wonderful stat lines from players coming over from foreign countries (as we are now in the Yu Darvish mania).  So what is the talent-equivalent of the various leagues outside of the conventional MLB-AAA-AA-A-rookie levels?  I did a bit of digging around, asking questions and came up with the following approximations.  Feel free to debate if you think otherwise.

Foreign Pro Leagues

  • Japan: the Nippon Professional Baseball League rates, by various accounts, as a mid AAA-level talent league.  Baseball Prospectus’ Clay Davenport did a stat-heavy analysis in 2002 and concluded that the NPB was at least AAA level, perhaps close to MLB level.  However, the prevalence of mediocre players from the US going to Japan and being super-stars seems to indicate that Japan is no better than AAA, and may be a bit weaker.  And, not to claim this is about talent levels per race, but there have only been a very small number of Japanese-born players who were really impact players upon arriving here.
  • Cuba: per Dave Cameron (mentioned in a chat, need the link) the “general consensus” is that the Cuban pro league is about a High-A level of talent.
  • Taiwan/China: Taiwan had its own thriving baseball league for a bit, but merged it into the main Chinese league in 2003.  Given the small numbers of Taiwanese-born players who have made it to the majors, and the fact that the league serves mostly as a feeder into the Japanese league, its safe to say that the Chinese league is no better than a high-A level of talent.
  • Korea: As with the Chinese leagues, Korea mostly feeds into the Japanese league.  High-A talent levels.
  • European Leagues: Believe it or not, there are thriving baseball leagues all throughout Europe.  They even have multiple levels of play in certain countries (the Netherlands in particular).  However, based on the levels of talent of players that typically play in Europe, its hard to put the talent levels at anything close to our own Rookie leagues.  In fact, I’d suspect that most European pro teams are no better than a low division 1 college baseball program (such as GW or Catholic U’s teams).
  • Leagues elsewhere: there’s leagues just about every where else; wikipedia searches turn up baseball leagues in Australia, Asia, the far pacific.  I didn’t do any research here, assuming that these leagues are one slight notch above amateur leagues in the US.

Winter Leagues

Davenport also did a bit of analysis on the various winter leagues in 2004; I’ve taken his recommendations and adjusted them based roughly on observation over the past few years, since the winter leagues have been shifting in terms of talent attracted in recent years.

Most players who go to winter leagues fall into one of three categories:

  1. Natives of the country looking to provide support for their home town teams and home leagues (the Nats own Ramos, Flores, Pudge, Severino and Perez being good examples)
  2. Players looking to get in additional work after an injury-filled year curtailed their seasons.
  3. Players looking to work on a new pitch, a new swing or some other experimental part of their game.

So, the talent levels in these various leagues are usually all over the road.

    • Dominican Winter League: Seemingly the “best” winter league, having the most ex-patriots playing in the US.  Davenport’s studies from earlier in the decade showed that the talent level is roughly equivalent to AAA talent, an opinion that I still maintain.  Our own Yuniesky Maya tore up the DWL last winter, but struggled to be just a serviceable pitcher in Syracuse all year.
    • Puerto Rico Winter League : seems to be the 2nd strongest Winter League, but with slightly fewer MLBers than in the DWL.  So we’ll call it AAA level, but weaker.
    • Venezuela Winter League: The talent levels have dropped for a while, ever since political turmoil has taken over the country.  This is highlighted especially close to home in 2011 with the Wilson Ramos kidnapping case.  However, Nats farmhand Ryan Tatusko was kind enough to provide his opinion on the talent level and calls it “AAA talent.”   I think at best its a low AAA, as the league is clearly lower quality than Puerto Rico.  This last season’s version of the VWL seemed to be more talented that past versions though; perhaps this league is looking to challenge the DWL for pre-eminence in the winter leagues.
    • Mexican Pacific League: Its really hard to tell; the Mexican summer league is at best A-ball talent, but the winter leagues are quite a bit better, at least per Davenport’s studies.  Now?  I’d guess the MWL has degraded a bit and is probably on a par with Venezuela in terms of talent.  AA-level at best.

 

Other US-based Leagues/Levels

  • Arizona Fall League: the AFL rates somewhere between a AA and AAA level by and large, though for several reasons it rates as a very heavy hitter-league (pitcher workloads and ball-parks mostly).  Most of your pro teams send their top prospects from levels below AA and a number of AA and AAA (and even some guys who have MLB experience).  All told, that equates with a “good” AA league.  And since AA leagues are morphing into being populated with a team’s best prospects while AAA leagues are becoming repositories for “spare parts” for the MLB team, more and more the lines are blurred between AAA and AA in terms of “which team could really beat the other.”  Nationals fans saw this pretty clearly during Stephen Strasburg‘s minor league career; he was hit in AA but absolutely dominated AAA teams that seemed to be populated with backup catchers and backup infielders.
  • Top End Division I College Teams are probably not even as good as a Rookie league team, all things considered.  I had this debate with my father recently, noting that the best Div-1 team this year (South Carolina) was led by a pitcher (Mike Roth) who was a 31st round draft pick in 2011 and only has 11.7 scholarships to use to field a team.  A good chunk of college teams are guys on partial scholarships or are complete walk-ons.  Good college teams may each have a number of pro prospects, but usually only 1 or 2 legitimate prospects.  On the flip side, even a rookie-level team is ENTIRELY comprised of players who were drafted, and will include high school players who signed in lieu of going to college because they were considered good enough at the time to risk signing.  A college team may use a hot pitcher to beat a pro team in a theoretical 3-game series every once in a while, but a team full of professional hitters are eventually going to utterly dominate typical college bullpens, sunday starters and mid-week players.
  • Independent Leagues: probably rates somewhere around a pro rookie-league or slightly higher equivalent.  They’re usually full of guys who got cut from the MLB rosters and a collection of older veterans trying to hang on.  So, the younger players are (arguably) below rookie-league/short-A levels but the veterans are probably in the AAA level, bringing an average to somewhere between a low-A and rookie level quality.

Semi-Pro and Amateur Teams

I’m guessing that when the old Class-B/Class-C/Class-D leagues died out in the 50s, those players then began percolating into what we now see as an improved and thriving College baseball industry, Semi-Pro leagues scattered around the country, and the (now) official Indy league designation.  I always attribute the death of these low-class leagues to the advent of Television, which replaced the (usually) one source of nightly entertainment for small towns across America, which before the mid 50s would have been baseball.

Here in the DC area, there’s a “semi pro” league that is the combination of two long-standing leagues (the “Industrial League” and the “Credit Union” league) that features very good baseball.  Ex division-1 players, ex Pros, good baseball.  Back in the 50s this probably was a class-D level league (assuming that class-B was what has become the rookie leagues and class-C has morphed into the Independent leagues).

Summary

Here’s a table summarizing the above data, along with some clarifications from the comments after-the-fact, in order of best to least quality.

Foreign League US Pro Equivalent Estimate
Japan (NPB) Mid AAA
Dominican Winter League Mid AAA
Puerto Rican Winter League Mid-Low AAA
Venezuelan Winter League Low AAA/High AA
Mexican Pacific (Winter) Low AAA/High AA
Mexican Summer Low AAA/High AA
Arizona Fall League Low AAA/High AA
Atlantic League (Ind) High AA
Cuba High-A
Taiwan/China High-A
Korea High-A
American Association (Ind) High-A
Can-Am League (Ind) High-A
Frontier League (Ind) Low-A
Other Independents Rookie Ball
European (Dutch, Italian) Low Division 1
Other Foreign (Australia) Div II/Div III

Do you agree/disagree with these ratings?  Please feel free to comment and discuss.

 

 

 

6 Responses to 'What are non-MLB associated baseball league talent equivalents?'

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  1. The indy leagues are much better than most people think. Do they vary in quality? Absolutely. The Atlantic League is the best, in part because they have no roster rules, but mostly because they a higher salary cap and focus on signing six-year FAs. It’s roughly AA baseball, with the playoff teams able to hang with the AAA also-rans.

    When I was following it, the Can-Am League was roughly a High-A quality league. As noted in the column, this is large part due to each team having 4-5 guys that have or could play at AAA (e.g. Frank Charles with North Shore). A fair amount of guys released from the Carolina League used to hook on in the Can-Am. The American Association, nee the Central Baseball League, nee the Texas-Louisiana League is arguable on par, though it’s a lot like the NL-AL thing: The Can-Am being the pitcher’s league, the AA being the hitter’s league.

    The Frontier League, which is now the oldest continually operating indy in the modern era, is more like Low-A, mostly because of its simple roster rule: 26 or younger. It’s not uncommon for guys to “move up” from the Frontier to the Can-Am or American Association.

    Most of the upstarts — Golden, United, etc.. — are as you describe. All the indys have taken a beating during the Second Depression (or Great Recession), but these leagues have been hit harder because they’re in smaller, midwestern towns or in over-extended bedroom towns in California and Texas.

    Luke Erickson

    9 Jan 12 at 10:40 am

  2. I should have done more delving into the Indy leagues … frankly I had that post written for weeks but kept forgetting about it so I wanted to get it out there before it was totally useless. You ever do that? Look in your drafts and suddenly you have 40 drafts that are a year old on cool topics that you started but never finished? ugh.

    Thanks for the feedback.

    Todd Boss

    9 Jan 12 at 11:17 am

  3. Lots of useful stuff, not to mention you threw one right in Luke’s wheelhouse.

    The only quibble I have is the Japanese leagues. The upper tier of players is close to MLB, it’s just that it gets thinner very fast.

    Mark L

    9 Jan 12 at 8:01 pm

  4. Nice post Todd. Lot of information summarized fairly concisely. I think most of your assessments are pretty spot on. Luke’s comments on the Indy Leagues are also pretty accurate, as they do vary to some fairly wide degrees. Generally speaking, however, you nailed that one as well.

    Aaron S.

    9 Jan 12 at 10:39 pm

  5. European baseball — particularly in those Central and Eastern European countries where baseball was just beginning to take root — is being hurt by baseball/softball’s having been removed from the Olympics. National sports federations in most of Europe receive money from the government and that money is doled out largely to Olympic sports. The talent pipeline that was beginning to develop in the early 2000s is drying up because youth leagues aren’t getting funding for baseball. It’s a shame, because the game was beginning to catch on in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and few other former Warsaw Pact countries; MLB had funded some nice facilities and start-up programs there in the early 1990s. Not to get too political, but the Olympic movement’s decision to drop baseball/softball was significantly fed by animosity toward the Bush administration and the Iraq war.

    Eugene in Oregon

    11 Jan 12 at 9:43 am

  6. Interesting point about the decline of European baseball. I always figured the Olympic committee dropped softball/baseball since they are American sports and another opportunity to basically give gold medals to the USA. But clearly the anti us sentiments globally factor in.

    Todd Boss

    11 Jan 12 at 2:20 pm

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