#Hot Corner

Bill James on how to fix minor league baseball

What follows is a partial transcript of a panel discussion at last March's SABR Analytics Conference, featuring Bill James, Joe Posnanski, and Brian Kenny (you can watch the whole thing here). The themes discussed will be familiar to anyone who's read the seminal essay "Revolution" from The Bill James Abstract 1988.

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Bill James: In a lot of ways the minor league development system is sort of archaic ... One could certainly develop the same amount of talent a lot more economically efficiently if every team wasn't trying to develop everything independently ... From the standpoint of the game as a whole, there would be huge advantages to restructuring the minor leagues so that the players were not sorted as belonging to teams until they reached a much higher level.

Brian Kenny: Okay, then how would they be divvied up? Draft after ...?

Bill James: Sure. Suppose that you had more or less the same assortment of leagues that we have now, but players did not belong to a team until they reached a certain -- I mean, the quite exceptional talent, you're never going to get major league teams to back off from drafting the first round draft picks, and controlling them from an early age -- but most of the players could be just competing, trying to move up the ladder, and then when you get one or two years away, then there's a draft and you go off to a 40-man roster somewhere.

There are a lot of advantages to working it that way. For one thing, you wouldn't have teams constantly messing with minor league rosters for the needs of the major league team, so that the minor league ... rosters would have more integrity. And it would be easier for a minor league team to sell its product to the public because you're not losing your star second baseman in the middle of a season because the Double-A second baseman in the organization gets hurt and they need him up a level.

Joe Posnanski: The minor league experience is not nearly what it should be. There are so many towns around the country that have baseball, but they don't really have a baseball team. They have a team that is driven by the major league team, by the major league needs. So if you have a really good pitcher, you go out to the game, you bring your kids, and the guy has thrown six shutout innings and he's pitching great, and he's not there in the 7th because he's on a pitch count because of the major leagues, he's not really yours. He's not a part of your community, a part of your town. He might get pulled out at any time. It would be better for baseball if there was great connection to teams in all of the little [towns], not just in Cleveland and New York and Chicago, but Des Moines and Omaha and Austin ...

Bill James: The system that develops when each individual follows his selfish needs is often an inefficient system. This is just another example of it. The system that develops as a consequence of each team trying to fully develop all of their own talent is in many ways parallel to systems that are developed in other areas ... This is probably a bad example, but there are few things uglier than a franchise strip [mall] ... You think about why that happens, it's each one trying to get your attention creates a mess when you put it all together ... It's not that anyone's saying "Let's build an ugly restaurant." The ugliness results from everybody competing for attention ...

If you didn't have teams assigned to organizations, you would have more freedom to get committed minor league pennant races where there's a real focus on winning. I think it's very difficult to sell a product where the players don't care about winning. You go to minor league games, and you know there's not that much focus on winning, because things aren't done the way they would be done if they were focused on winning.

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