Dissecting the DSL

A couple of weeks ago, I was scanning box scores and came across the results from a game between the DSL Braves and DSL Blue Jays. I didn’t recognize any names, but it’s impossible to miss a line like the one posted by Jays infielder Leonardo Ferrini. Zero at-bats, two runs, three RBIs, and…wait for it … six walks.

Maybe you can’t walk off the island, but Ferrini’s .238/.394/.341 season line says you can try.

When the Dominican Summer League is in the news, it’s usually thanks to PED suspensions or age controversies. Even with increased publicity for international signings such as Michael Ynoa and Wagner Mateo, most fans don’t really know what goes on down there. And let’s be honest: Given the success rate of players at the Dominican academies, it probably doesn’t matter much. But that doesn’t need to stop us from probing a bit further.

The basics

Every Major League team has an academy in the Dominican. (The Brewers closed theirs a few years ago, but restarted operations on the island this season.) The DSL is made up of 33 teams, one for each MLB franchise except for the Brewers, who share a team with the Orioles. The Orioles also have a team of their own, while the Rangers, Yankees, and Cubs each have two teams.

Each team’s roster is capped at 35, with only 30 players active for each game. Almost every player is under 21, as league rules stipulate that only two players per team may be 21 or older. So far this year, about 1,200 young men have appeared in at least one DSL contest.

As you might imagine, few of those players go on to greatness. In fact, surprisingly few go on to anything, at least in professional baseball. I don’t have the data to determine exactly what percentage of DSL players graduate to stateside pro baseball, or the Major Leagues. A quick scan, however, doesn’t paint a rosy picture.

The official Minor League Baseball website provides DSL stats back to 2006. Of the top 10 batters that year by OPS, only three are still active in professional baseball: Two are playing in Low-A, and one, 23-year-old Rene Leveret, is posting a credible season in the Florida State League. Most of the others made at least an appearance in the U.S., but clearly they didn’t show enough against the higher level of competition.

DSL by the numbers

Considered simply by the age of the players, the Dominican Summer League can be considered a cross between high school baseball and the junior college game. The average age of DSL players this year is 18.6. For reference, the same measure for each of the four U.S. rookie leagues is between 20.5 and 21.1. (Those are skewed a bit high due to rehab assignments, but only a bit.)

Based on age, it seems reasonable to assume that the DSL game is sloppy when compared to rookie ball stateside. Certainly the pitchers must not be as polished as the college arms starting their careers in the lowest levels of the U.S. minors. To see how those assumptions hold up, here are a smattering of 2009 league averages for five different rookie leagues:

League  HR/AB  HR/FB   K/AB   W/PA  ROE/AB  BABIP    SB%   WP/9   PB/9  
DSL     0.009  0.040  0.227  0.109   0.038  0.303  0.638  1.399  0.326  
APP     0.021  0.083  0.236  0.084   0.028  0.355  0.650  0.960  0.224  
AZL     0.014  0.058  0.258  0.087   0.034  0.348  0.734  1.134  0.382  
GCL     0.010  0.064  0.228  0.089   0.032  0.298  0.650  0.889  0.171  
PIO     0.022  0.108  0.223  0.098   0.034  0.359  0.645  0.797  0.197

There is a lot of information here, so let’s take it in a bit at a time.

Power: Perhaps someone knows the size of DSL parks, but if they do, they haven’t published it anywhere I can find. Looking at home run rate and home run per fly ball, DSL hitters look overmatched. That isn’t a shock: With an average age so much lower than that of other rookie leaguers, they are at a much earlier stage of their physical development.

Peripherals: I expected to see way more of at least two of the true outcomes in the DSL. I imagined something more like high school ball, where the good pitchers strike out all comers, and the bad pitchers can’t find the strike zone. It’s true that the walk rate is somewhat higher in the DSL than in other rookie leagues, but not by a huge amount.

My first thought was that the walk is low due to freeswinging teenagers, but the strikeout rate counteracts that somewhat. It’s tough to know without DSL PITCHf/x, and I don’t think that’s very high on anyone’s list of priorities. Maybe DSL batters are swinging at everything and making weak contact, thus explaining the relatively low BABIP. Your guess is as good as mine.

Sloppiness: Again, I expected to see a bigger gap here between the DSL and other rookie leagues. After all, many of the players in stateside complex leagues have gotten three years of drilling with top college coaches. Yet the number of fielding errors (at least those that resulted in ROEs) is not overwhelmingly high. The one marked difference is in wild pitches; there are 70 percent more wild pitches and passed balls in the DSL than in the Pioneer League.

One possible explanation springs to explain the credible DSL defense, as indicated by ROE rate and BABIP. In discussing minor league defense, much is often made of field conditions. We’ve all seen comically bad hops on lower-level infields; in Wisconsin this year, one of those hops broke Brett Lawrie‘s nose. Perhaps, because the academies are run by the major league clubs themselves, the average DSL field is better kept than those in, say, the Appalachian League.

Final words

Maybe with a couple more years of data, we can attempt translations. Or not: Despite the surprising amount of polish apparently on display amongst Dominican teenagers, their success rarely extends very far into the U.S. minor leagues. Any attempt to adjust Ferrini’s walk-heavy batting line to the full-season minors would probably just give us some false precision along with the obvious statement that he isn’t yet very good.

Mental Health and the CBA
A particular bit of language in the latest CBA could have negative consequences for some players.

It’s a different game down there. It doesn’t have a huge impact on the U.S. minors, but it’s worth understanding a little better.

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Baseball America compiled a list of the top players that have played in the DSL and how they fared. Most of the Dominican stars in the ML got their start in the DSL. Guys like Pedro, Vladimir Guerrero, Magglio, Hanley, Aramis, Bartolo Colon, Johan Santana, Ubaldo, Edinson Volquez, Tejada, Ortiz, Adrian Beltre.




The Red Sox team has some crazy IsoD

Juan Ugas .200 BA, .382 OBP
Heiker Menses .186 BA, .367 OBP
Curtney Doran .203 BA, .379 OBP
Lewis Urena .255 BA, .411 OBP


I think the low BABIP and power numbers are indicative of a huge number of youngsters playing in a wood-bat league.