The Pacific Coast League inherited its name from an old independent minor league from the 1930s. Joe DiMaggio played some for the now-defunct San Francisco Seals, and remains probably the most famous PCL player of all time. It’s safe to say that the league will never reclaim its former relevance, nor boast a player as good as DiMaggio. As a 20-year-old in his final season with the Seals, Joltin’ Joe crushed 34 home runs and racked up 270 hits in 679 plate appearances, good for a batting average of .398 and a slugging percentage of .672. Anyone who hits that well in today’s PCL will be called up to the majors before his 300th at-bat.
Since Major League Baseball came into its own in the 1910s and ’20s, it has slowly choked the vigor out of almost all of the minor leagues through, basically, a series of business deals. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, MLB’s first commissioner and noted hard-ass, was surprisingly distraught regarding MLB’s growing control over the minor leagues. He recognized that any league in which true competition took a backseat to the whims of a parent ballclub could not sustain the affection of its fans. He was right about that. Today, attendance at minor league games is driven by the low prices, family-friendly atmosphere, and the fact that there is fuck else to do in most of the towns we’re talking about. A few dedicated fans will come to see their MLB team’s best prospects, but there are probably more people in Papillion, Nebraska (approx. 20,000) than there are people in the entire world who care that Papillion’s very own Storm Chasers* are the reigning PCL champions.
*Officially called the Omaha Storm Chasers, but I’m guessing few of you noticed.
That said, the Pacific Coast League remains remarkable in one aspect. More than once on this site I’ve said that the PCL is the best league for hitters in North America. (If I blogged more hardcore than I actually do, I would have tricked out that sentence with the relevant links.) It’s true. I tweeted proof to my skeptic buddy earlier today, replicated here:
Despite regular and sizeable fluctuations, the PCL holds steady above the two major leagues in league-wide on-base-plus-slugging percentage. My aforementioned buddy suggested the Advanced-A California League as even friendlier to offense than the PCL. This graph demonstrates that, while the California League has gotten stronger over the years, it does not have the PCL’s pedigree for offense. I neglected all the other minor leagues for time’s sake, but given the PCL’s reputation that can wait for now. Here is another piece of evidence that players called up from the PCL, be they pitchers or hitters, need some sort of contextual correction on their statistics, especially when we mean to project how they will perform in the majors.
I made this point about Matt Shoemaker in a post not long ago. Shoemaker pitched for years in the PCL, with the Angels’ affiliate in Salt Lake City, and his statistics were never good. The strikeouts were there and the walks weren’t, but he gave up so many hits as to camouflage both of those strengths. His ERA ballooned to Marothian proportions, but consider that in 2012 the league ERA was 4.68 and the ERA for Salt Lake as a team was 5.18.
This map of the 16 teams in the now-bloated PCL shows you just how many clubs sit on the vast plateau created by the Rocky Mountains: six of 16. Only two of 30 MLB teams reside on the same plateau, and they (the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks) play in two of the best parks for hitters around. The elevation of these mountain towns results in thinner air and thinner air results in balls flying farther. I’ve collected the elevations of each PCL team’s home cities and sorted them in the following table.
The purple designates the Pacific-South Division, the highest division around. I’ve been spending the day trying to figure out how the schedule is determined and I think members of the Pacific Conference (which includes, besides the purple teams, Colorado Springs and Reno) play each other 16 times or so, and they play teams from the American conference much less than that. So we should find a disparity between Pacific and American teams, and the Pacific should be the stronger-hitting conference of the two.
Hypothesis: confirmed. Purple is Pacific; green, American. There aren’t many more ways for me to slice it. The elevation is probably the chief factor here, but credit whatever you want, the hits won’t stop coming.