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Negro Leagues

Negro Leaguers and Standard Deviation, Part II

Last week, we shared information showing that the standard deviation of offensive performance in the Negro Leagues and Latin leagues was considerably higher than that of the major leagues of the same era. But players in the Jackie Robinson era also played in the white minor leagues, and someone translating their performance to an MLB level would want to know whether the minors were more like the majors or the Negro and Latin leagues. Did those leagues have wider variation than the majors as well?

Before we turn to the record itself, let’s ask this question. Why might the white minors be dissimilar or similar to the majors in terms of STDEV? We explored some of the structural and game-play drivers of a wider standard deviation in the Negro Leagues last time out. Do they hold for the minors?

  • Leagues came and went: This is true of the minors, though not nearly to the degree of the Negro Leagues. The organized minors included hundreds of leagues.
  • Teams came and went, including during the season: Again this is true of the minors but infrequently true and covered by those hundreds of leagues.
  • Players in some cases jumped from team to team or league to league: Not true at all for the organized minors, which made up the vast majority of minor leagues.
  • The best Negro League teams were further apart from the worst than their counterparts in the majors: This is more difficult to ascertain, so I’ll leave it be.
  • The Negro Leagues had many teenage players and 40+ players: Not generally true, in fact, in many cases, affiliated teams had a narrow band of ages because teams served specific development purposes to the parent club.
  • Field conditions were likely worse than on MLB diamonds: This is surely true, particularly given the wide variety of climates and budgets in the minors, but not likely to the same degree as the Negro Leagues.
  • International leagues signed away large numbers of players who then required replacement: Not so much. The Mexican League snatched some career minor leaguers but few prospects.
  • Negro League teams typically had much shorter rosters than big league teams: Minor league teams probably had longer rosters than Negro League teams.
  • The Negro Leagues played much shorter schedules, which means some jumpier stats didn’t have time to stabilize as they would in the 154-game slate: Not at all true of the minors, the Pacific Coast League actually played a longer schedule for many years.
  • Negro League talent procurement and development was likely not as systematized and routinized as white organized baseball: Axiomatically, this is untrue of a great many leagues or teams in the affiliated minors.

So we already see that the conditions that made the Negro Leagues’ performances spread out further from the average than MLB’s in most cases either don’t apply to the minors or are muted. But we need to look at the stats to know whether or not STDEV was nonetheless driven by other factors, or whether it mirrored the majors. As we look at this question, we’ll examine the results level by level using the same technique as in our previous article.

AAA and Open Classifications

Although right around Jackie’s time, these leagues got new classifications or jumped a class, they remained the highest rungs on the sub-major ladder. (For a graphic that helps to visualize how the classifications of minor leagues has changed over the last hundred-odd years, check out this article.)

  • PCL = Pacific Coast League
  • IL= International League
  • AA = American Association (ceased play after 1962)
YEAR    MLB |     PCL    |     IL     |     AA
      STDEV | STDEV  ADJ | STDEV  ADJ | STDEV  ADJ
===================================================
1946   1.55 | 1.24  1.12 | 1.32  1.09 | 1.30  1.10
1947   1.46 | 1.61  0.96 | 1.58  0.96 | 1.52  0.98
1948   1.59 | 1.85  0.93 | 1.13  1.20 | 1.38  1.08
1949   1.50 | 1.44  1.02 | 1.58  0.98 | 1.56  0.98
1950   1.43 | 1.48  0.98 | 1.52  0.97 | 1.13  1.13
1951   1.50 | 1.66  0.95 | 1.22  1.12 | 1.71  0.94
1952   1.17 | 1.09  1.04 | 1.28  0.96 | 1.62  0.86
1953   1.49 | 1.14  1.16 | 1.53  0.99 | 1.52  0.99
1954   1.65 | 1.14  1.22 | 1.54  1.04 | 1.31  1.13
1955   1.43 | 1.18  1.11 | 1.51  0.97 | 1.20  1.10
1956   1.59 | 1.47  1.04 | 1.33  1.10 | 1.37  1.08
1957   1.85 | 1.23  1.25 | 1.24  1.25 | 1.41  1.16
1958   1.50 | 1.74  0.93 | 1.33  1.07 | 1.04  1.22
1959   1.39 | 1.12  1.12 | 1.42  0.99 | 1.16  1.10
1960   1.15 | 1.14  1.00 | 1.16  0.99 | 1.82  0.82
1961   1.64 | 1.54  1.03 | 1.27  1.15 | 1.17  1.20
1962   1.31 | 1.63  0.90 | 1.36  0.98 | 1.16  1.07
1963   1.22 | 1.01  1.10 | 1.08  1.06 |
1964   1.37 | 1.25  1.05 | 1.47  0.97 |
1965   1.29 | 1.36  0.97 | 0.87  1.24 |
---------------------------------------------------
AVG    1.45 | 1.37 1.04 | 1.34 1.05 | 1.38 1.07

How about them apples?! The high minors actually had less standard deviation than the majors. Before we draw conclusions, let’s see if that’s how things play out down the ladder.
AA Classifications
In each instance as we tour the minors, I’ve only included seasons where I’m aware that a top Negro Leagues candidate played in a given league. Therefore, there may be gaps in the information I’m presenting, especially compared to the AAA/Open leagues. As it turns out, we only have solid information for seasons in question from one league that would currently be considered AA, and that’s the Texas League. Other leagues included Negro League candidates, but their stats aren’t yet on BBREF, so I couldn’t include them.

  • TXL = Texas League
YEAR    MLB |    TXL
      STDEV | STDEV  ADJJ
=========================
1953   1.49 | 1.50  1.00
1954   1.65 | 1.59  1.02
1955   1.43 | 1.28  1.06
1956   1.59 | 1.51  1.03
1957   1.85 | 1.19  1.28
1958   1.50 | 1.26  1.10
1959   1.39 | 1.50  0.96
1960   1.15 | 1.44  0.90
1961   1.64 | 1.56  1.03
-------------------------
AVG    1.52 | 1.42  1.04

Yet again, a minor league is actually a little tighter than the majors….
A
Today we have Hi-A and Lo-A levels, but that split only occurred in 1990. Before that every A-level team was in the same category. Once again, we only have stats for one league (and one season in it) at this level.

  • WES = Western League
YEAR    MLB |     WES
      STDEV | STDEV ADJ
=========================
1958   1.50 | 1.83  0.91

B
If we’re starting to get into the exurbs with B leagues, we’re going to be out past the boonies with C and D leagues. The lower in the classification system we go, the more localized the leagues and teams are.

  • IIIL = Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League (aka: The 3I league)
  • NORW = Northwest League
  • WINT = Western International League
YEAR    MLB |    IIIL    |     NORW   |   WINT
      STDEV | STDEV  ADJ | STDEV  ADJ | STDEV  ADJ
===================================================
1951   1.50 |            |            | 1.39  1.04
1954   1.65 | 1.62  1.01 |            |
1962   1.31 |            | 1.27  1.02 |

C

  • AZMX = Arizona-Mexico League
  • CAL = California League
YEAR    MLB |    AZMX    |      CAL
      STDEV | STDEV  ADJ | STDEV  ADJ
======================================
1954   1.65 |            | 2.12  0.89
1958   1.50 | 2.13  0.85 | 1.24  1.10
1959   1.39 |            | 1.00  1.19
--------------------------------------
AVG    1.51 |            | 1.45  1.06

D

  • FLOR = Florida State League
YEAR    MLB |    FLOR
      STDEV | STDEV  ADJ
=========================
1958   1.50 | 1.43  1.02

My boss’ boss has more than a few pearls of wisdom inside her. She likes to say that a good rule of thumb for making decisions says that if something happens once, it’s an occurrence. If it happens twice, it’s notable. If it happens three times it’s a pattern, and you need to take action. So looking at the minor leagues, we see that nearly every league we’ve looked at, and most seasons in each league we examined, show up as having a lower standard deviation than the majors of the same season. This was at first a surprising result. But maybe it shouldn’t have been?

From an anecdotal and qualitative perspective, it does makes sense that minor league standard deviations are closer to the big leagues than the Negro Leagues were. Rarities such as .400 hitters or 60-homer hitters don’t litter the annals of minor league history, but such batting averages and equivalent feats of batsmanship do occur more often in the Negro Leagues. But that’s also a clue to the minors tighter variance.

I initially thought that because the minors tended to employ less experienced players in the farm-system model, play would be somewhat uneven. Similarly, the minors in this time had more independence than today and were at liberty to sign MLB vets who could no longer keep at job in the show. In the case of the PCL, which signed many such players, guys originally from out west may also have opted to forgo the worst of their decline phase in MLB to play out west nearer their homes. Today a so-called AAAA player might be in his late 20s or very early 30s, but back then, fringe types might be older. Indeed, from 1947 to 1954, the average age in AAA/Open leagues was around 27.5 for the AA, 28 for the IL, and 30 for the PCL. The Coast League was the most active in terms of signing ex big leaguers, for example LA-born and Portland native Joe Gordon for his age-36 season. The majors at that time were around 28.5 years old. From 2011 to 2015, the average age in the PCL was this close to 27 and roughly the same in the IL. The PCL lost three years in average age by becoming a development league, whereas the IL had lost only one year because its teams had been mostly affiliated all along.

In fact, the average age of a league tells us something simple and significant about why standard deviations were so tight: Everyone in the league is basically at the same developmental level. In the minors, if you’re too good, you get promoted quickly. If you’re too awful, you get demoted. If you stay the whole year, you’re getting appropriately challenged for your level of experience. That’s the whole point of the minors! Today this is much more apparent because the average the different levels is more highly stratified than ever. Rookie ball is filled with 18–20 year olds. Short season ball is all 20 or 21 year olds, etc. So no matter what other factors may contribute to the variance in a league, age/experience may be the most important. To be sure, this is isn’t ironclad reasoning, but it does pass the smell test for me.

OK, so we’ve now had a look at the Negro Leagues themselves and some of the leagues that Negro Leagues expats played in. Next time out, we’ll take a look at how all of this may change our perspective on the offensive value of some famous blackball heroes.

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