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Let the Kids Play

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Mike Hazen needs to speed up the youth movement

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Arizona Diamondbacks
Josh Rojas and Pavin Smith celebrate
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The main reason I have often advocated for a youth movement and rebuilding process to hurry up and get started is because it takes so darn long. One of the main issues I’ve encountered when discussing the Diamondbacks minor league system and how long it will take to become competitive again is communicating clearly just how long it takes for players to develop into above average, every day major leaguers. We often see and use the phrase “ETA” when talking about prospects. But typically there isn’t much positive impact by these players initially.

Sure, there are stars like Juan Soto or Fernando Tatis Jr that have an impact almost right away at a very young age. But they are by far the vast minority. And even those two didn’t get enough playing time in their first major league season to qualify for the batting title.

Even Vlad Guerrero Jr, who DID qualify for the batting title his first two seasons while still extremely young, took until his 3rd season in the majors to become a breakout star. Prior to that, he was “only” an average major leaguer despite playing enough to qualify for the batting title. That’s nothing to sneeze at when you are called up that young, but generally it takes more than one young player being above average and playing every day to start moving the needle towards contending for the playoffs.

So before talking about quality, let’s talk about quantity. Due to survivor bias, when we talk about playing time, quantity generally but not always equals quality. Or at least enough of quality to justify playing a 1st or 2nd or 3rd year player nearly every day. Obviously this will vary from organization to organization, depending on their payroll budgets and where they are in the success cycle. But just to keep this as simple as possible, we’re going to look at how many players had enough PA to qualify for the batting title or IP to qualify for the ERA title. We are going to focus on the population of players in their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd year in the league in total and as a percentage of the MLB population reaching those levels.

Batting Title Qualification requires 3.1 PA for each scheduled game. In a 162 Game season that equals 502 PA

This should be pretty straight forward. There are usually around 140 players to qualify for the batting title each year, although this has been trending downward. (Had 2020 been a full season that number would have dropped under 140 due to attrition). 1st year players make up a minuscule amount of these. That number increases gradually, but even through year 3 these players still make up less than 20% of all major leaguers getting near full time playing opportunity.

The Diamondbacks have only had a first year player qualify twice in franchise history, 1998 Travis Lee and 2004 Chad Tracy . Pavin Smith has been the only player to qualify in his 2nd season in the Mike Hazen/Torey Lovullo era and there have only been 10 second year players in franchise history to qualify. Josh Rojas is the one and only 3rd year player to qualify since 2017, and there have only been 10 of those in franchise history as well.

Obviously you need good prospects to justify putting them on the field, and in the first 2-3 years of Hazen’s tenure the organization just didn’t have the horses to promote. But clearly, we need to temper our expectations when it comes to the position player prospects coming up and getting significant playing time. It’s not just about “ETA”, it’s about how long before they can play every day and start making a real impact. A good rule of thumb is simply to look at ETA + 3 years.

ERA Title Qualification requires 1 IP for each scheduled game, or 162 IP for a full MLB schedule.

Obviously I’m only looking at starting pitchers in this instance and the number of overall ERA title qualifiers has dropped dramatically over the last few seasons due to changes in how bullpens are deployed. But this still helps illustrate what I’m talking about above, but from the pitching side:

It’s interesting to note that the percentage of pitchers getting to ERA title qualification mirrors the hitter percentage almost exactly. The Diamondbacks have a number of up and coming starting pitching prospects. But how long will it take for them to get up to 162 IP ? Even without injury, it usually takes more than 2-3 years for most young pitchers to get there. The Diamondbacks have had just two pitchers qualify in their first year, Brandon Webb in 2003 and Merrill Kelly in 2019, and Merrill was obviously a special case, having been a full time starter in Korea the 3 years prior with an already built up workload. The Dbacks have had only 5 pitchers qualify in their 2nd year, most recently Zac Gallen in Pandemic shortened 2020. Sadly, the number of 3rd year Dbacks pitchers to qualify is even lower, at just 4.

So I believe the evidence is clear. Before we even begin to project or speculate how good a prospect may be, we need to temper our expectations for how much they can move the needle towards playoff contention within their first 3 years of arrival in the major leagues. You can’t have impact if you don’t get to play and in the Mike Hazen era he’s opted to give almost all the paying time to veterans. It’s time for a dramatic shift.

The only way to speed things up is let the kids play as much as possible and see who develops. There will be bumps in the road, and 2022 could be ugly in the W-L record by doing so, but if they want to have a team capable of contending by 2024, this is what they have to do. Stop stalling and get on with it !