Phillies reliever Ryan Madson knew that time at the Triple-A level helped him and he knew that he needed that experience.
"I felt I needed it," he said two years ago
Trenton Thunder third baseman Justin Snyder felt the palpable difference between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton - and it wasn't just in the pitching he faced.
"You notice that everything is a little more business-like as you move up," he said. "They come in and get the job done and they don't have to be told."
The maturation process for players isn't textbook. Every player has his own path. But learning to approach the game in a more business-minded way is a key point that some players take their time appreciating. Triple-A has taken on a repuation as one that can be skipped, or that it's roster-full of older guys who can't quite make the big league jump. That's only partially true. Yes, there are plenty of those, but there are also many who are there for the same reason Madson was. It's often necesarry and extremely helpful.
With Triple-a players there's more of a plan when they step to the plate or make a pitch. HItters are going to hit any mistakes they make. Pitchers can figure out the holes in a guy's swing and his weakest points a lot quicker. Players would be foolish to mistake older for less effective.
In Madson's case he logged a ton of innings at Double-A Reading and Triple-A Scranton (then a Phillies affiliate) before the Phils brought him up for good in 2004. He spent 2002 in Reading and finished with a 3.42 ERA in 171 innings pitched. He started 2003 at Class-A Clearwater, but logged 157 innings at Triple-A Scranton. He completed his regular-season time there with a 3.50 ERA.
His time with the Phillies in 2004 was a success and in 77 innings of work he had a 2.34 ERA. He followed that with his first full season with the Phillies, finishing 2005 with 4.14 ERA.
While arm strength and sharpening skills at that level are a major bonus, it goes back to what Snyder said about his brief time there. Being at that level is solid preparation for being a big league player and learning even more about approach and focus.
By contrast, Yankees reliever (still, right?) Joba Chamberlain pitched only eight innings at Triple-A before making his Major League debut. Chamberlain spent parts of 2007 at Class-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton, before his brief stint with Scranton and his Yankees debut.
While Madson's stint as a starter for the Phillies was disastrous, Chamberlain's situation has played out very differently and is far more complex. And although Chamberlain's first two full seasons with the Yankees were a success, consistency and reliability has been a glaring problem. The questions still continue about whether or not he should have been moved permanently (he has right?) to the bullpen. But Chamberlain's career has always felt like a rush-job to me.
When Yankees minor league outfielder Edwar Gonzalez went from Double-A to Triple-A for the first time in his career, and finished the season there, he observed the same things Snyder did.
"They do it because they're more experienced and don't need people telling them how to get things done," he said.
It's hard to pinpoint which players will benefit from the top level of developmental league and which players will do fine without it. There are a number of players in 2010's crop whose 2011 starts are uncertain. Two examples are Red Sox prospect Casey Kelly, who struggled in 2010 for Double-A Portland, and Blue Jays prospect Kyle Drabek, who made his debut with the Jays at the end of 2010, going 3-0. Both pitchers have high expecations on them. 20-year-old Kelly's difficulties have partially been blamed on rushing him through the system. I've previously praised the careful hand the Jays have used with Drabek on this blog.
Time for both players in Triple-A seems smart and even necesarry.
In this year's World Series there are two young players who saw some good top-level time. Texas Rangers rookie first baseman Mitch Moreland played 95 games for the Triple-A Oklahoma City Red Hawks. And San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey had two stints for the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies. He played in 82 games for Fresno.
For his part, Moreland hit a three-run home run in crucial Game 3 of the World Series.
Not saying the trip to Triple-A had a lot to do with it.
But, hey, it couldn't have hurt.