« Weekend Photo | Main | Transactions For Opening Day »

March 30, 2007

Newberg Report Special: The Pacific Coast League

Many of the Ranger affiliates discussed so far have long and interesting histories, but those histories are not intertwined with Texas. To be sure, affiliations are often short-lived, especially at lower levels. As you’ve read, Texas’s recent history is especially turbulent. When the franchise pulled up stakes and moved its Spring Training home to Arizona in 2003, it ended three decades of mostly eastern-based minor-league relationships.

The AAA Oklahoma Redhawks are the proud exception. Since both New York teams terminated lengthy affiliations over the winter, Texas and Oklahoma now have the fifth-longest association in AAA:

Atlanta – Richmond, since 1966 (when Braves moved out of Milwaukee)
Kansas City – Omaha, 1969 (affiliate since beginning of franchise)
Boston – Pawtucket, 1973
Chicago Cubs – Iowa, 1981
Texas – Oklahoma, 1983

Indeed, Oklahoma has changed its name, nickname, league and stadium since affiliating with Texas.

Oklahoma City’s connection with professional baseball began in 1904 as the Mets of the Southwestern League. The team began a fifteen-year membership in the Western League in 1918, followed by 22 years in the Texas League. While in the TL, Oklahoma City was known as the Indians and usually (but not exclusively) affiliated with Cleveland.

After four baseball-free years, Oklahoma City rejoined pro ball in 1962 as the 89ers of the American Association, a Triple-A league situated in the Midwest. (“89ers? refers to the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889.) One year later, the league folded and its teams were divided into the Pacific Coast League and International League, with Oklahoma City joining the PCL. In 1969 the Association reformed and OKC rejoined. During its first 21 years, the AAA 89ers united with Houston, Cleveland and Philadelphia. In 1983, the 89ers affiliated with the Texas Rangers, which had plowed through five AAA affiliates in the eight years since leaving Spokane.

1998 would be a momentous year for Oklahoma City baseball. First, the American Association disappeared for good, and the 89ers returned to the PCL. Second, the team dropped the “City? and changed the nickname, becoming the Oklahoma Redhawks. Third, the team moved into a new stadium.

From 1961 through 1997, the 89ers played in All-Sports Stadium, located on the state fairgrounds in western OKC. For the following season, the team moved to the new, state-of-the-art Bricktown Ballpark constructed at the edge of downtown. Originally sponsored by Southwestern Bell and then the abbreviated SBC, the park now has “AT&T? in its moniker. Actually, since Southwestern Bell renamed itself SBC, and SBC later purchased AT&T and assumed its name, sponsorship hasn’t changed at all.

The Redhawks bring plenty of fans to the Brick. Oklahoma ranked fifteenth in per-game attendance among all minor-league teams in 2006. They also ranked sixth in the 16-team PCL and 12th among the 30 AAA teams. (Three lower-level teams outdrew them: the AA Frisco Roughriders, the low-A Dayton Dragons, and the short-A Brooklyn Cyclones.) The park also hosts the Big 12 college baseball championship tournament, and in 2006 it hosted the first Bricktown Showdown, a one-game playoff between the winners of the PCL and International League.

Oklahoma has claimed four titles as an AAA club, twice in the PCL (1963 and 1965) and twice in the Association (1992 and 1996). While affiliated with Texas, the 89ers/Redhawks have had three league MVPs: Steve Buechele in 1985, Juan Gonzalez in 1991, and Lee Stevens in 1996.

As for the Pacific Coast League, it began in 1903 as an independent league and joined Organized Baseball the following year. The Los Angeles Angels, Oakland Oaks, Portland Browns, Sacramento Senators, San Francisco Seals, and Seattle Siwashes comprised the original members. For fifty years, the PCL was the dominant league on the west coast. During the 1950s it was classified as “open,? ostensibly a level above AAA. The league aspired to become a third major league, but the arrival of the Dodgers and Giants dashed those hopes. Additional cities once hosting a PCL team and now part of MLB are Dallas/Fort Worth (well, close enough), Denver, Phoenix, and San Diego.

The 1960 Tacoma Giants featured future Hall-of-Famers Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, and (briefly) Gaylord Perry. In 1964, the league included Tony Perez, Phil Niekro and Fergie Jenkins. Warren Spahn, who won 363 MLB games over 21 years, finished his career in 1967 as a 46-year-old member of the Tulsa Oilers.

The PCL splits its teams into four divisions. Oklahoma fights Round Rock (Astros affiliate), New Orleans (Mets), and Albuquerque (Marlins) for the American South division crown. After a 144-game schedule, the champions of the two American divisions play a best-of-five, as do the two Pacific champs. The winners play another best-of-five for the league title. Incidentally, only four of the Pacific Coast League’s sixteen teams are within 200 miles of the Pacific Coast. Nashville is 1,750 miles to the east.

Among Oklahoma’s fifteen batters with the most at-bats and fifteen pitchers with the most innings in 2006, their origins are as follows:

0 – 2006 draftees
0 – 2005 draftees
0 – 2004 draftees
1 – 2003 draftee
3 – 2002 draftees
0 – 2001 draftees
2 – 2000 draftees
1 – 1999 draftee
1 – 1996 draftee (guess who?)
2 – undrafted free agents
5 – undrafted free agents signed from another team
4 – minor-league free agents (with MLB experience)
9 – trade acquisitions
2 – MLB waiver claims

The Oklahoma roster has the broadest range of origins and ages among Texas’s minor-league teams and the smallest percentage (33%) of players originally signing with the Rangers. In 2006, ages ranged from 21 (Joaquin Arias, John Danks) to 34 (Jamie Burke, Adam Hyzdu); hitters averaged 26 years of age, pitchers 26.5.

While the typical AAA team will have many more players of Major League caliber than a Double-A team, it often has fewer prospects. One reason is that many of baseball’s elite prospects may spend only a brief period in AAA or skip it entirely. Mark Teixeira and Ivan Rodriguez never played a game for Oklahoma. Michael Young lasted seven weeks before his promotion to Texas. Hank Blalock started his first MLB game after bypassing AAA, though his slow start in 2002 soon led to four months in a Redhawk uniform. Another reason is that MLB teams need reinforcements in case of injury. AAA teams abound with players like John Wasdin, Adam Hyzdu, and Jamie Burke, veterans who never achieved (or failed to retain) assured roster spots in Major League baseball but have the ability to fill in for short periods if needed.

Despite its reputation as a hitter’s paradise, PCL offenses scored 3% fewer runs per game than the American League in 2006 (but 2% more than the NL). The Brick put Detroit’s pitcher-friendly Comerica Park to shame last year. The Redhawks and their opponents scored only 7.2 runs per game in Oklahoma versus 9.6 on the road. Bricktown Ballpark also depressed home runs by nearly 20% relative to other parks. The park-adjusted, league-average ERA in Oklahoma last year was only 3.89, and the adjusted batting line was a mere .259/.331/.387. To make a long story short, Jason Botts was even better than you thought.

Bobby Jones returns to manage the Redhawks after a one-year stint as Ranger first base coach. Jones has sixteen years of managerial experience in the Texas system including six in Oklahoma. Andy Hawkins will again coach Oklahoma’s pitchers.

If you’d like to see each PCL team’s facilities, download this file, and open it within Google Earth.

This concludes my rundown of the Texas minor-league system. Up next: baseball!

Posted by Lucas at March 30, 2007 05:17 PM