The year was 2005.
For most Americans, it was a year marked by confusion and tumultuous change.
The world, once seen as soft and cuddly, like a giant teddy bear in a detergent ad, had been shocked by a series of events that left our citizenry shaken to the core.
It seemed that with every week came a strange, and often harrowing, new development - the death of Pope John Paul II, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, the frightening vision of Michael Jackson wearing pajamas to court. Collectively, these events affected us in ways that were perhaps beyond our comprehension at the time, and in ways we may still not yet understand.
the renewal in 2005 of "According to Jim" for a fourth season indelibly scarred our national psyche
Nobody, however, was as disturbed by the events of that fateful year so much as one man, who you know as the former GM of the Kansas City Royals. His name was Allard Baird.
Perhaps a victim of the chaos ensuing all around him, Mr. Baird decided to take action, making a drastic move that would end up having a monumental impact on the course of Royals history and would end up altering the lives of millions of fans. Or at least a couple of dozen of them.
That fateful action, of course, was Mr. Baird's controversial decision to move the Royals High A affiliate from Wilmington, Delaware to High Desert, Wherever. And now you know the rest of the story.
Or do you?
Actually, you do, probably.
But, that's not why we're here. We're actually here to see if this seemingly innocuous move really did have any meaningful impact on the Royals, at least in terms of player development. Sadly, we all know what sort of effect it had on the fans.
Had he known the BlueRocks would be back in the Royals family just a mere two years later, Racing Legend and lifelong Wilmington fan Jeff Gordon may not have taken his own life in 2005
Anyone with a passing interest in the Royals minor league system may already know some of the basics about the two teams. The BlueRocks play in a pitcher's park, in a pitcher's league. The High Desert Mavericks, conversely, play in a hitter's park in a hitter's league.
Does this mean anything? Maybe. While there's no definitive study on the matter yet, there is at least some anecdotal evidence that pitchers playing in a severe hitter's park will suffer at least in the short run.
One need only consider the "Coors Field Effect" to see the potential for disaster.
While most veterans that have signed with the Rockies have been able to regain their old form once they've found themselves playing with another team, there have been at least a few whose careers seemed to be over once they started pitching in the high altitude, most notably Pedro Astacio.
Sorry, Pedro. Pitching for the Nationals does not qualify as "still having a career"
What is most damning is that, until the recent introduction of the humidor in Coors Field, the Rockies have not been able to develop their own pitching. This could very well be attributed to the fact that not only is Coors Field a severe hitter's park, so is the Rockies' Triple A affiliate in Colorado Springs. While veterans may be able to bounce back after a year or two in Coors, it may not be so easy for prospects and younger pitchers who have not yet had success at the ML level, which should be cause for concern for Royals fans.
Mike Hazen, the Red Sox Director of Player Development, seems to support this argument in an interview found here in an interview at RedSoxNation.net, which ironically enough, was about the Red Sox moving their team this year from Wilmington to California. When asked "How will moving to a more hitter-friendly league affect the development of our pitchers, especially from a mental standpoint?" Mr Hazen replies "Results, to a certain extent, are a source of reinforcement, so it will have an impact."
On the flipside, he offers: "Pitchers can get into bad habits in a pitcher's park, because well-hit fly balls will be caught more often. Playing in a tougher environment will force you to have better command, which is a positive."
Now, that could just be spin by a guy who didn't really have a whole lot of options when it came to their team moving. He's trying to make limonades out of limes, so to speak.
Regardless, this second argument seems at odds with the conventional wisdom about rushing a prospect to the majors. Let me explain what I mean here. Most people argue against bringing up a pitcher to the majors before they're ready, because they'd likely get shelled and have their confidence shattered, perhaps to the point that they end up failing as a prospect.
Wouldn't, though, the result be the same if a pitcher got shelled for a year or two in the minor leagues? In fact, wouldn't it perhaps be an even greater hit to one's confidence? I'm sure a lot of young pitchers can rationalize it when they're made to look foolish by guys like Bonds, A-Rod, and Ryan Howard. It's probably a lot more difficult for a young guy to come to terms with the fact that he's giving up dingers game after game to guys like Graham Koonce.
Your grandkids may not be as impressed when you brag about giving up a homerun to this guy instead of to Ichiro
Even taking the mental impact of pitching in a hitter's park out of the equation, there could potentially be a very real issue with player development from a physical standpoint.
How so? Consider that more runs are created in a hitter's park, that means that more pitches per game must be thrown, and that means that bullpens will be relied on much more heavily.
While that doesn't seem on the surface to mean a whole lot, there can be a deleterious effect on a pitcher whose workload increases by as little as 25 innings per year. Tom Verducci covered this in his article on the "Year After Effect." It's a good read on how increased workloads stunt development (not surprisingly, three Royals are mentioned by name).
Unless the manager is judiciously using his bullpen, we would expect to see reliever's workloads increase substantially when being promoted from a pitcher's park in Burlington to a hitter's park in High Desert. Granted, Verducci's column was mainly dealing with starters, but it's not too much of a stretch to think relievers would be subject to the negative effects of a huge workload increase.
What does this all have to do with the Royals?
While it only lasted two years, it seems like the High Desert experience quite possibly may have stymied the development of our top pitchers there.
Going into 2006, for example, three of our top Royals pitching prospects were set to start playing for High Desert in Bill Buckner, Luis Cota, and Chris Nicoll.
I will need to confirm this information later, but I believe all 3 were considered in the top 10 or top 15 in Baseball America. However, look at their performance before, during, and after the change:
2005 - Burlington - 4.01 ERA, 1.39 WHIP
2006 - High Desert - 7.09 ERA, 1.64 WHIP
2007 - AWOL (anyone have any information on him?
2005 - Burlington - 3.88 ERA, 1.38 WHIP
2005 - High Desert - 5.36 ERA, 1.61 WHIP
2006 - High Desert - 3.90 ERA, 1.59 WHIP
2007 - Wichita - 4.66 ERA, 1.34 WHIP
2005 - Idaho Fall - 3.62 ERA, 1.28 WHIP
2006 - Burlington - 2.82 ERA, 1.08 WHIP
2006 - High Desert - 4.86 ERA, 1.38 WHIP
2007 - Wilmington - 6.49 ERA, 1.37 WHIP
On the surface, it would appear that it may have had a negligible effect on one pitcher (Buckner), and perhaps severely damaged the development of two others. Cota seems to have dropped off the face of the planet, so perhaps he's just given up entirely.
The jury is still out, of course, but it will be interesting to see if Baird's move turns out to have been a major folly. Until then, we'll just have to count our blessings that they moved the High A affiliate back to Wilmington before Rowdy Hardy made it up.