Astros See Minor League Titles Pay Dividends
No matter how many dogpiles and post-game celebrations you are a part of, you never really plan what to do.
The final out is recorded, the sprint and the screaming begins and rational thought is replaced by euphoria.
Tyler White has become an expert. His three years as an Astros minor leaguer have each ended in championship celebrations. And in every one of those years, the celebration is always just a blur of excitement, a mass in the middle of the field and a lot of yelling.
|MASTERING THE MINORS|
|Since general manager Jeff Luhnow arrived in Houston before the 2012 season, the team has had the best record in the minors and has won the most minor league titles.|
White and his teammates have learned from experience. Triple-A Fresno’s Pacific Coast League title never turned into a dogpile—too much risk of someone getting spiked or otherwise injured. Instead, it turned into a mosh pit around the pitcher’s mound. For many of the players in the celebration, this wasn’t their first championship. They’ve lived and learned.
"It’s never bad to be labeled as winners. That’s definitely a good thing,” White said.
White was on short-season Tri-City’s New York-Penn League champs in 2013. He and several of those same teammates moved up to high Class A Lancaster to win the California League title in 2014. And last year he earned a midseason promotion to Fresno, where he helped the Grizzlies win the PCL and a Triple-A National Championship.
White is an anomaly in that he’s gone three-for-three on winning titles, but if you are an Astros minor leaguer of recent vintage, there’s a good chance that at some point you’ll win a championship and learn to enjoy the feel of a celebration. Last year, Houston sent six of its seven minor league affiliates to the playoffs. The Grizzlies and Rookie-level Greeneville (Appalachian League) each won titles. Over the past four seasons, Houston’s minor league teams have won six minor league titles—tied with the Diamondbacks for the most over that stretch. The Red Sox have five minor league crowns, the only other team with more than three.
In spring training, the Astros award championship rings to their minor league teams that won titles the year before. The team flies in the minor league team’s general manager, there’s a dinner, general manager Jeff Luhnow speaks and the team is honored in front of the organization.
"You come in and get a really good meal. It’s a blast,” White said.
Two years ago, Carlos Correa’s impromptu speech at the low Class A Quad Cities’ ring ceremony was a further indicator of why the Astros’ believed he was a natural leader. The Astros have gotten plenty of practice at throwing a party. With at least one title every year, the Astros’ have had a reason to have a championship banquet every spring training of Luhnow’s tenure so far.
It has been an impressive run of success at the minor league level for the Astros. Houston spent the first several years of Luhnow's tenure as the worst team in baseball at the major league level before turning into a playoff team in 2015. In the minor leagues, the success came much more quickly.
From 2012-2015, the Astros won 55 percent of their minor league games, easily the best in the minors over that stretch (the Mets are second).
What makes that surprising is just how bad Houston was in the minors right before Luhnow and his staff arrived. From 2008-2011, Houston finished with the worst record in the minors three times in four years--and the one year they weren't 30th, they were 29th.
During those four years, Houston's minor league teams had a collective .417 winning percentage. From 2008 to the present, no other organization has had any one season where their affiliates finished with a winning percentage that poor. No other team has won less than 46 percent of its games over that time period.
“When Jeff and the regime came over a few years back, the organization not only wanted to replenish the talent in the system but also change the culture," Astros' director of player personnel Quinton McCracken said.
The rebuilding effort that began in 2011 under previous general manager Ed Wade started to lay the groundwork, but Luhnow's scouting and analytics-based approach has helped the Astros' win at every level in recent years.
When Luhnow was scouting director in St. Louis, the Cardinals had a knack for getting value both at the top and much deeper down in their drafts. Not coincidentally, the Cardinals won 52 percent of their minor league games and five minor league titles from 2008-2011.
Houston has seen a similar payoff. The Astros had developed an impressive depth of minor league talent. They are winning with youth and prospects. Fresno won the Triple-A National Championship with the youngest lineup and the second-youngest pitching staff in the Pacific Coast League. Double-A Corpus Christi had the best record in the Texas League (89-51) with the youngest lineup and the youngest pitching staff in the league. Greeneville won the Appalachian League title with the third-youngest lineup and second-youngest pitching staff in the league.
“It's been a collective effort. Changing the whole image of the organization," McCracken said. “When you draft players and develop them properly, the end results are teams that are competitive . . . It starts with the foundation of drafting quality, talented players that have those intangibles and that winning mentality. The Correas of the world, the (Alex) Bregmans, they make players around them better. That can be contagious. It raises the bar."
So just how valuable is winning in the minor leagues? Well, it depends. It's possible to have rather meaningless success by stacking a team with players who aren't age-appropriate for the level. But if you can win with prospects then you might have the makings of something, especially if you are trying to turn around a team that has been losing for far too long.
“The primary goal of the development system is to produce major league value," Luhnow said. “Developing players should always be the primary objective, and has been both with the Cardinals when I was there as well as the Astros since I've been here. Having said that, developing players while winning is the optimal outcome and the winning speeds up their development. Players that have a winning mindset in the minor leagues carry that over to the big leagues and it is an advantage. The talent gaps between teams is small in pro ball and often the teams that win are doing all the little things right. That's a mindset that helps in the show."
The Royals front office knew a lot about losing. When Dayton Moore's front office staff arrived and started trying to rebuild the organization, they knew that they weren't going to be winning in the big leagues soon, but they believed they could build a core of young talent that would win on its way up.
“It was a very conscious effort," said Royals assistant general manager Scott Sharp, who formerly was the farm director. “We had not won at the major league level. The focus was on scouting and player development. The idea was, we'll take this group and put them together. If they win in the minor leagues, that will translate to the major leagues. They will expect to win because they have won all along as teammates. So when they get to the majors, 'Why can't we win here?' ”
Kansas City tried to group Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Danny Duffy and others together throughout the minors hoping they could build a tradition of winning together.
The Moustakas-led Burlington Bees won the 2008 low Class A Midwest League title. Much of that same group won the Double-A Texas League title in 2010 thanks to Hosmer's six playoff home runs, including two, two-run home runs in a 6-5 win in an elimination game against Springfield. A year later, many of the same players won the Triple-A Pacific Coast League title with Omaha.
When Hosmer hit a two-run home run in the 11th inning to beat the Angels in Game Two of the 2014 American League Division Series, many Royals flashed back to his Texas League heroics. When the team arrived in spring training in 2015 motivated to win a World Series, Sharp couldn't help but think about how many of those same players responded to a surprisingly early playoff exit in the 2009 high Class A Carolina League.
“I think it was a very conscious effort to teach these guys, 'Hey, you can win.' You're going to win with these guys here and at the major league level," Sharp said. “When you bring those players up together they become accountable to each other. They have shared in those experiences instead of a collection of players who hadn't played together before. I think it's how you define winning at the minor league level is the most critical part. It's extremely important to win at the minor league level, but you have to do it with the right types of players. You can't put fifth graders in a second-grade dodgeball game to win it. But if you teach the second graders to win, that's important."
When the Royals get their World Series rings, it will be Duffy's seventh championship ring (2008 Midwest League, 2010 Texas League, 2011, '13 and '14 Pacific Coast League, 2014 American League and now 2015 World Series). It's fair to say that this latest ring will be a little pricier than the other six in his safe.
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No Astros player has seven rings, but many have two or three. And more and more Astros are reaching the majors having won on a smaller stage. And Houston has reason to believe that will pay dividends in the big leagues as well.