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How aggressive have Cardinals minor league player movements really been?

“Aggressive player movement” is a phrase so commonly and casually thrown around in discussions of the St. Louis Cardinals minor league organization over the last few years that it is has become accepted as fact my many.

What does it really mean?

The words denote upward opportunity in the system addressed by promotions of players before more traditional and conservative measures of player evaluation may deem them ready. These openings might occur most often due to others’ injuries or departure from the organization due to poor performance or trades.

The subject came up right here recently in the context of evaluating the reasons why the Cardinals system dropped off in team wins and individual player recognition in 2009. Injuries, trades and aggressive player movement were each offered as theories for the slide in system-wide won-loss records as well as fewer all-star and best-of type selections.

How might player movement be measured?

After some thought and discussion, I am offering a method to determine how aggressive player movements within a season actually were – without undertaking the impossible task of accurately recreating and counting every individual transaction across the entire minor league system over multiple past seasons.

The data and the conclusions to be drawn from the process can either support or refute the perception of player movement having been a substantive factor in the system’s performance in a given year.

There are a finite number of active roster spots on every club. Each season at each level, some number of players suit up. This total will exceed the number of roster spots and system-wide, even the quantity of players under contract. This “double-counting” is entirely due to player movement between levels.

We can understand the comparative volume of player movement during a season simply by totaling the number of players that appeared on each roster up and down the system each year. Differences in the cross-system totals across years illustrate the relative quantity of player movement by season whether up or down.

To that end, I tallied the number of players that collected stats at the top six levels of the Cardinals system each season since 2004. I then calculated the year-to-year differences and the six-year average. With the methodology the same each year, these annual comparisons are completely valid, in my opinion.

Addressing potential questions

Knowing some will question the validity of the data simply because of the conclusions that can be drawn will make them feel uncomfortable, I decided to address several expected objections right up front.

First is the impact of rehab stints. When players from a higher level are in the recovery process from an injury, they often begin their playing return at a lower level of competition. This especially affects the Florida teams as many players that are not a true prospect at that level come and go during the season.

I addressed this by running two sets of numbers. The first includes all players that suited up while the second encompasses only those that saw ten or more games of action at that level. That factors out all those that did not accrue substantial playing time.

I can see why the smaller group might offer the reader a greater level of comfort with the data, but as you will see below, it doesn’t change the relative comparisons or the conclusions.

Here are the numbers:

Top six levels 6-Yr Avg 2009 YTY 2008 YTY 2007 YTY 2006 YTY 2005 YTY 2004
Players >10 G 223 228 -8 236 16 220 2 218 -9 227 17 210
All players 294 294 -9 303 13 290 17 273 -37 310 16 294

Another question might arise regarding the impact of the Cardinals Gulf Coast League affiliate. This creation of this new level in the system, added three seasons ago, might somehow alter the representation of this supposed aggressive player movement, I expect some will claim.

To deal with that potential concern up front, for the three years since the GCL team began, I ran the data for the top seven levels of the system in both flavors, with all players and excluding the under-ten games played subset.

Here are those stats:

Including GCL 3-Yr Avg 2009 YTY 2008 YTY 2007
Players >10 G 257 256 -9 265 15 250
All players 349 348 -4 352 6 346

The conclusions remain the same:

  • In 2009, in-season player movement across the Cardinals system was LESS aggressive than in 2008, despite the supposed high level of injuries, trades and the like this past season.
  • The 2009 level of movement was basically right on the system-wide six-year average (without GCL) and the three-year average since the GCL team began.

  • The results do not substantively change when the under-ten games players at each level are removed.

I close with this final observation:

  • 2008 was the only recent year in which in-season minor league player movement was significantly higher than average. Yet that was also the year during this period when the Cardinals system posted their best collective won-loss record.

Might that mean more roster churn is good?

Certainly that is not the case unless the players being called upon to step up are actually ready to produce. Despite an average number of in-season moves, the Cardinals system as a whole delivered below-.500 results in 2009.

That is fact.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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