MLB Prospect Watch: How the juiced ball is impacting prospect evaluation at the Triple-A level

If you've followed the majors this season, you know that one point of contention is about the baseball itself. As we pointed out earlier in the year, there's reason to believe the ball is juiced -- meaning it's more aerodynamic, permitting longer travel at faster speeds. The result has been a season-long, league-wide home-run derby.

The impact of the juiced ball might be felt most by Triple-A pitchers, as the level switched to the big-league ball this season. Coming into Sunday, the International League had already launched 1,172 home runs this season -- they'd hit 1,555 all last eason. On a per-game basis, that's the difference between 1.26 homers and 0.80. Predictably, teams are scoring substantially more runs per game: from 4.16 last year to 5.26 this year.

To think, the IL is known as the pitcher-friendly league when compared to the Pacific Coast League. Over in the PCL, teams are yielding 5.64 runs per game -- as opposed to 4.97 last season. To put it another way, four teams have ERA over 6.00 and just one is under 4.00; in 2018, three teams finished below 4.00 and only one finished above 6.00.

Yet for as wacky as those numbers are, they haven't necessarily impacted the evaluative process, according to front-office analysts. As one who works for an American League team noted, scouts are supposed to make their judgement independent of statistics -- meaning bloated ERA and home-run rates shouldn't factor into their evaluations. It's not as though teams are unaccustomed to offensive friendly environments, either.

Besides, there is a potential silver lining for teams when it comes to the juiced ball, as it allows them to see how pitchers who may otherwise go unchallenged respond to adversity. As dumb as it sounds, a pitcher's ability to fail and move on in a tidy manner is an important part of the equation that doesn't always reveal itself until it's too late.

It helps that teams are smart enough to contextualize whatever numbers are being produced in these environments. Hence the Astros bringing up Rogelio Armenteros despite a 5.00 ERA this season in Triple-A -- a mark that wouldn't seem to merit a promotion, except the affiliate as a whole has a 5.42 ERA on the season. Of course, dominating in an offensive-friendly environment doesn't always mean one will have success at the next level -- just ask the Giants Tyler Beede, whose 2.34 ERA in Triple-A hasn't translated to the majors.

The key, then, for fans looking to evaluate their favorite Triple-A prospect is to keep context in mind. If it seems like they aren't playing the same game they were at the level in years prior, it's because they aren't -- not when it comes to the ball, anyway.

Now, onto the Watch.

Prospect watch

Pavin Smith's career and seasonal slugging percentages continue to fluctuate around the .400 mark. That's not what you want to see from someone most scouts regard as a first baseman -- even if he is moving around better this year.

Former first-round pick Travis Demeritte may never get an extended look due to his swing-and-miss issues. But in our opinion he deserves an opportunity as a bench player.

Seamus Curran has a great name and ranks second on the Orioles farm in home runs. That's about all there is to say about him.

Kutter Crawford seems like he's due for a promotion to Double-A at this point. He has the potential to stick in a big-league rotation someday. And yes, he throws a cutter.

Remember Ian Happ? He's hitting .232/.364/.425 on the season in Triple-A. 

Speaking of old familiar names, Kodi Medeiros was once the 12th pick in a draft. Now, he's struggling to throw strikes in Double-A. It's nearing the point where you move him to the bullpen and see if he can have a future in relief.

You have no real reason to know of Mariel Bautista, an outfielder in A-ball. But we wanted to note that he's been hit by seven pitches in 42 games this season. His bruises should not go in vain.

Will Benson, the organization's first-round pick in 2016, has 18 home runs and 18 steals (on 20) tries in A-ball. He's done his job in putting a miserable 2018 behind him.

Want an idea of how different Triple-A is from the majors? Drew Butera has a .417 on-base percentage on the farm this season. He has a career .557 OPS in the majors.

Fingers crossed that Casey Mize will make a full and quick recovery. He was arguably the top pitcher in the minors -- and seemed like he could've debuted this season if needed.

You've seen how Yordan Alvarez has taken to the majors. Now, note that Kyle Tucker has nearly matched Alvarez's minor-league production this season. The Astros are loaded, y'all.

It's been a while since we checked in on speedster Nick Heath. He's up to 38 steals on 45 tries. (His OPS is just .621, but who's keeping track of that?)

Jeremy Beasley has held his own in Double-A. But his arsenal is, by and large, more fringe than anything. He'll probably wind up in the bullpen as a splitter-heavy reliever.

Veteran knuckler J.D. Martin leads the Dodgers minor-league system in innings. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear he'll be working his way into the Show anytime soon.

Jerar Encarnacion has doubled his career home-run total this season. He's still too prone to striking out but when he does make contact he hits the ball hard -- as you'd expect from someone listed at 6-foot-4, 219 pounds.

Mario Feliciano is a 20-year-old catcher with an .832 OPS and 14 home runs in 64 games. That's good. He's also striking out in nearly a third of his plate appearances. That's bad. He has the defensive skills to be at least a backup someday.

We didn't expect Royce Lewis to be flirting with a .600 OPS at this point, but there's no reason to abandon hope.

Shervyen Newton doesn't have the numbers to back it up, but he's a solid prospect: a shortstop who may stick there and has above-average raw power. 

There was a point when Domingo Acevedo was a highly routed pitching prospect. It doesn't seem like he'll ever reclaim his past glory, but he still has a chance to become a big-league contributor.

More than 60 percent of Lazaro Armenteros's plate appearances have ended in one of the three true outcomes -- that's a walk, a strikeout, or a home run, for those unaware of the term.

Simon Muzziotti is a young and promising outfield prospect having the best statistical season of his professional career -- even knowing all that, it's still a little jarring that his OPS is just above the .700 mark. 

Mason Martin leads Pirates minor leaguers in home runs. He's the second best prospect in the system with the Martin surname and there's not much else to his game outside of his bat, so.

PCL pitchers would probably prefer to never see Luis Urias again.

Johneshwy Fargas has a heck of a name and has 23 steals on 33 tries. 

Justus Sheffield was supposed to be the headliner of the James Paxton trade. Unfortunately, he's moving in the wrong direction.

Adolis Garcia, a decently regarded outfield prospect, has nine walks versus 88 strikeouts this season. Seven hit-by-pitches helps balance it out a little more, but sheesh.

Onetime second-round pick Chris Betts is having a resurgent season. As if the Rays needed another quality prospect.

Sometimes you have to give it up for an organizational soldier. Tim DIllard, 35, leads Texas's minor-league system in innings pitched. He hasn't pitched in the majors since 2012.

Sean Reid-Foley continues to battle his command. He's walked 17 batters in his last five starts.

You wonder if Austin Voth will ever get another look for the Nationals
CBS Sports Staff

R.J. Anderson joined CBS Sports in 2016. He previously wrote for Baseball Prospectus, where he contributed to five of the New York Times bestselling annuals. His work has also appeared in Newsweek and... Full Bio

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