The Aces have been the Diamondbacks’ Triple-A team for over a decade now, having replaced the Tucson Sidewinders for the 2009 season. They’ve had their share of success, winning four division titles since, most recently in 2017, and being the national AAA champions in 2012 (their roster that year included Adam Eaton and A.J. Pollock, as well as nine starts from Patrick Corbin, who’d be an All-Star the following season). This year, they had a new manager, Blake Lalli, who was the youngest manager in team history (he turned 38 in May), and also the first to have previously played for the Aces, in 2014-15.
As noted, they were the only D-backs affiliate to have a winning record this season, going 69-49 in a shortened regular season with a 120-game schedule. That meant they finished second in the West division of the AAA West, five games behind the Tacoma Rainiers. All 30 Triple-A clubs qualified for a radically different post-season in which each team played ten games. The record in those game was then used to determine an overall ‘Triple-A Final Stretch’ champion. However, the Aces went 1-5, with their final four games being canceled due to COVID-19 protocols. That left then ranked 28th in the Final Stretch standings.
We all know about the hitter-friendly environment in Reno, and that played up in spades, as the Aces averaged more than seven runs per game. That included a staggering run of five consecutive games where they scored 15, 21, 16, 14 and 15 runs: it included a 21-16 win over Las Vegas. Collectively, the team batted .294 on the season, with an OPS of .891. For comparison. Paul Goldschmidt batted .294 on the season, with an OPS of 879. That team OPS was, however, only 81 points better than league average, which at .810 was 85 points above the National League average this year. The Aces led the league in virtually every offensive category, including 2B, 3B, HR, BA, OBP and SLG.
On the other hand... Their pitching staff also led the league in runs per game allowed, at 6.61, as well as team ERA (6.29). Again though, that needs to be seen in the context of high PCL averages (5.74 and 5.40 respectively), then add on the effect of where the Aces play. In 2019, the last year for which I could find full season numbers, Greater Nevada Field had a park factor of 114 for runs, meaning it was particularly pitcher-unfriendly, even for the league. Reno hurlers allowed 198 home-runs over the total 124 games; that was the same as the MLB average this year, over a full 162-game schedule.
All stats need to be taken in the light of the above. To that end, I took a look at the hitters who had 50+ PA both for the Aces and the D-backs this season. The table below shows the stats for each man, separated into Reno and Arizona.
Reno vs. D-backs
That’s savage. The smallest gap was 132 points of OPS, for Jake McCarthy. He and Josh Reddick (184) were the only one where the different was less than two hundred points. Everyone else was higher. Some much higher, all the way up to Josh VanMeter at a staggering 768 points. He and Drew Ellis both saw their OPS cut by more than half in the major-leagues. Now, small sample sizes apply. But the absolute trend is clear. I did some rough estimates, and the weighted average OPS in Reno was 1.010 across 1,318 PA. In the majors, it was .680 across 1,095 PA, 330 points lower. When I last checked the “Reno effect” in 2016-17, the gap was .284 points, so a three hundred point adjustment seems credible.
Outside of the players mentioned above, whom we did see in 2021, the one whose numbers are most robust is likely outfielder Alek Thomas. He had 166 PA, and put up an OPS of 1.091. That would convert to a .791 OPS in the majors - better than every D-back hitter this year with 50+ PA, bar Ketel Marte. He’s still only 21, so I am excited to see what he brings to the table in 2022. Switch-hitting outfielder, Cooper Hummel, recently added to the 40-man roster, was also decent, with a 1.004 OPS, though is considerably older, having turned 27 last month. Anyone below that, is likely not going to hit at better than replacement level in the majors.
Naturally, the reverse is true when it comes to the mound. Numbers that are considerably higher than normal may still merit a look, as ERAs will be inflated by the environment. Of the nine men who started five or more times for the Aces, Tyler Gilbert (3.44) was the only one to have an ERA below 4.50. Edgar Arredondo was next, at 4.55, but he walked more batters than he struck out (K:BB of 11:13 in 29.2 innings). Humberto Castellanos was just below five, and his Reno ERA almost matched his major-league one (4.99 vs. 4.93). though his K:BB ratio cratered from 4.21 with the Aces to 1.93 for the Diamondbacks. Beyond him, it’s bleak territory, all the way up to the hell of Matt Tabor who had an 11.13 ERA over eight starts.
Out of the bullpen, there are a few names worth mentioning, though again the sample sizes there tend to be small enough to merit a disclaimer. As with the hitters, I’ll not talk here about the players who were seen in the majors. So outside those, Junior Garcia had a 3.94 ERA over 32 innings, with a K:BB of 31:17, but the best numbers overall probably belong to Jesus Liranzo. He threw 17.2 innings with a 3.06 ERA, and an excellent K:BB ratio of 22:3. Liranzo had bounced around the minors, having been signed by Atlanta back in 2012, and is apparently nicknamed ‘The Sushi’, for reasons I’ve been unable to determine.
The lack of much apparent talent based on these numbers is a bit concerning. Arizona’s pitching is in dire need of help, and we really need the likes of Corbin Martin and J.B. Bukauskas - players who didn’t perform as expected in the majors - to take the next step forward, while we await the eventual arrival of prospects from the lower levels.