Here Are 10 Ways To Improve Minor League Baseball
Few people care more about minor league baseball than editorial staff here at Baseball America. We are passionate about the players on the field, the ballparks and the people behind the scenes who make it happen. With all of this interest comes a lot of talk in our offices about—yes, you guessed it—baseball. And invariably, the conversation sometimes strays into ways we think the game could improve. Though minor league baseball may never have been more popular than it is now, we think there is room to make things even better. So in that spirit, we offer 10 ways to improve the minor leagues:
Three-League Triple-A Alignment
Reestablish three leagues at the Triple-A classification in order to reduce travel costs, create distinct league identities and align more closely with the geography of major league cities. The governing body of the minor leagues dissolved the Triple-A American Association after the 1997 season and distributed its teams between the International and Pacific Coast leagues, creating the Triple-A structure we know today.
The IL features no international teams—no Havana, no Toronto, no Montreal, no Ottawa—but that's a minor issue when compared with the geography of the PCL, whose teams range from the Pacific time zone to the Central, from Tacoma to New Orleans, 2,700 miles apart. Not only is the PCL's terrain screwy, but so are the run-scoring contexts of its two branches. We suggest the following breakdown, which features a reconstituted IL and PCL joined by a new Midwest-based circuit with 12 teams.
• International League (10 teams). Allentown, Pa.; Buffalo, Charlotte, Durham, N.C.; Gwinnett, Ga.; Norfolk, Va.; Pawtucket, R.I.; Rochester, N.Y.; Scranton, Pa.; and Syracuse. All 10 of these current IL clubs are in states bordering the Atlantic, though a balanced schedule may be required because of the six-four north-south split.
• Mid-American Association (12 teams). An unbalanced schedule would be possible with a six-team Northern Division of Columbus, Ohio; Des Moines; Indianapolis; Louisville; Omaha; and Toledo. A Southern Division would include existing PCL locales Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans, Oklahoma City and Round Rock, Texas, while incorporating Dallas suburb Frisco from the Double-A Texas League. Frisco outdrew all but 11 minor league teams last year, and its ballpark, which seats 10,000, is suited for Triple-A.
• Pacific Coast League (eight teams, coinciding with the number of major league teams in the Mountain and Pacific time zones). The new PCL would feature Fresno, Reno, Nev.; Sacramento and Tacoma in the West, and Albuquerque, Colorado Springs, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City in the East. We can get away with excising Tucson from the new PCL because it was intended only to serve as a temporary landing spot for the Padres' Triple-A affiliate.
Minors As A Proving Ground
Baseball is not a perfect machine, to use Bill James' phrase. But the place to experiment is not in the majors, it's in the minors, where mistakes don't affect million-dollar contracts or multimillion-dollar postseasons.
Major League Baseball has tried to address pace-of-play issues; the minors can help. Try a pitch clock in Rookie ball or a Class A league, using the 20 seconds already in the rule book. It has worked to speed up college baseball, so players are getting used to it at the amateur level. They can start getting used to it in the minors, and if it works, it can move up just like successful minor league players do.
The minors also can be a lab for additional use of video replay. The Arizona Fall League already is a lab for rules changes and has ballparks that are spring training facilities and thus more equipped for extra cameras needed for replay. With fewer fans, it's also a place to work out the delays that make video replay a nuisance. Quick, efficient replays would improve the game; long delays would give back any gains in a quicker pace achieved by a pitch clock.
Lastly, use the minors to rid baseball of an anachronism: the manager in uniform. In no other professional sport does a game stop as a matter of routine for the coach or manager to argue with a referee or umpire. Baseball managers are in uniform so that they can go on the field, but it's a tradition that serves no purpose. A tiny handful of calls get overturned every year, and a slightly larger handful of arguments between managers and umpires are entertaining. The rest are childish displays that just hold up the game.
No one pays to see the umpires and managers or coaches argue. So try these changes in the minors: Base coaches can argue but cannot delay the game to do so. If the game gets delayed, the batter gets a strike added to his count, with progressive penalties if the argument continues. Managers are automatically ejected if they interrupt play to argue; they can only come on the field to dispute a play between innings or during a stoppage of play such as a pitching change.
Speaking of pitching changes, try limiting them in the minors as much as possible. Our recommendation: Require pitchers to face at least three batters when they enter the game, barring injury. Tony La Russa is retired; he won't mind. But the fans watching games in the late innings when the pace of play slows to a crawl will thank you.
Operate Dominican Summer League As A Showcase Circuit
Major league organizations know they have to get their hands dirty to sign top Latin American talent. As is the case pretty much everywhere in the world, the intersection of big-money pro sports with the amateur level has led to corruption, with at times brutal consequences. Steroid abuse remains persistent in the Dominican Republic, as are a myriad of scandals.
Here's a way Major League Baseball can better regulate Latin talent and vet players so that clubs waste less money and fraud becomes more difficult. First, MLB signs all Latin players to their first contracts. Any player who wants to play has to sign a standard contract with MLB, not an individual organization. Next, the player has to play in the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League; if conditions warrant a return to the Venezuelan Summer League, currently down to five teams, that will help, but for now, the DSL becomes essentially the MLB combine for Latin American players.
Now that the players are in the DSL, allotted geographically to the nearest major league complex, they go through the investigation process to establish a true age and identity, go through a full medical exam and drug testing, while getting to take advantage of professional coaching and playing conditions. MLB provides a schedule, equipment and base pay.
A player would have to sign with MLB by May 1. By June 1, the DSL season could begin, and the 10-round draft of DSL players could occur Aug. 15. Anyone not drafted goes back for another year. The league's maximum age would be 21.
MLB and the union would negotiate aggregate bonus pools for Latin American players just as they did for the domestic draft, though obviously the pools would be lower. This plan may take some of the excitement and flair out of scouting Latin America, but the kickbacks, steroid scandals and corruption that plague the industry in the Dominican and Venezuela already should have accomplished that.
Changing The Tune At Ballparks
By now the dogs have certainly been let out. Nobody wants to get jiggy anymore or cares where Cotton-Eyed Joe is going. Coach isn't putting any of us in Centerfield and we're not going anywhere with the Village People. Am I ready for this? No way.
Yes, these timeless hits have timed out, and should be removed from every ballpark's playlist. And while we're at it, take away the Macarena, Mony Mony, and Hip Hop Hooray. No, this isn't a call for baseball purity or a rallying cry for grumpy old men to unite. The ballpark can be a party—and in the minor leagues, it absolutely should be. But please, just put down the Jock Jams CD. You want music? Follow the lead of the Richmond Flying Squirrels, who are one of the minors' biggest hits at one of the sport's worst venues. They welcome fans to the ballpark every night with a live band.
On another note, bigger is not always better, and that should certainly translate to the concession stands. Serving a triple-decker bacon cheeseburger smushed between a glazed donut may get the attention of Darren Rovell, but it does little to whet most people's appetite. Incorporating local flavors into the concession menu has much greater appeal—from barbecue in Memphis to fried bologna sandwiches in Toledo to Mountain Oysters (look it up) in Missoula.
What has made minor league baseball so great and such a booming industry over the past 25 years is creativity. So bring on the Zooperstars and Myron Noodleman. Drunk guys in sumo wrestling outfits? That's funny. Go ahead and launch hot dogs into the stands. The more mascots the better—just ask the Tri-City ValleyCats, they've got six. Let the kids run the bases on Sunday evenings and shoot off fireworks on Friday nights. And Thirsty Thursdays? We'll tackle that another year.
Tweaking Late-Season Transactions
September baseball sometimes is an odd run-up to October. Major league teams can call up everyone on their 40-man roster, leading to fun box scores but giving September games an almost spring-training feel at times. Capping major league rosters at 30 would reduce costs, give teams a bit of flexibility without tipping the scales toward deeper-pocketed teams, and still allow for minor leaguers to be rewarded with September callups.
This move also would help protect the integrity of minor league playoffs a bit more. In the grand scheme of things, who wins in the minors doesn't matter. But to the people who paid hundreds or thousands of dollars for minor league season tickets, keeping their teams somewhat intact for their minor league postseason would help deepen fandom and keep them more invested in the game.
This rule change also would eliminate major leaguers rehabbing during the minor league playoffs, such as when Andy Pettitte started for Double-A Trenton in the 2010 Eastern League postseason. Big leaguers can head to instructional league if they need to get some work in. The minor leagues are for developing young players, and for them to learn to win together, as a team. They don't need big league ringers tipping the scales.
Down With The Losers
To my mind, one of the biggest problems with any particular minor league game is that the level of intensity is not going to be high. Players will be professional, to be sure, and everyone will try their best to win, but when it comes right down to it, no one cares deeply about the outcome of any particular game, certainly not until the playoffs come around. This is the one clear advantage college baseball holds over minor league baseball. The desire to win in a college game is palpable and can't help but rub off on you as a fan. So what can we do to bring something approaching that to the minor leagues? Let's try relegation.
Relegation is a popular concept in Europe, perhaps best known in soccer. If you finish at the bottom of the standings in your league, it's more than just a bad year; your team actually gets kicked down to the next-lowest league. Similarly, it you finish at the top of one of the lower leagues, you get to move up to the league above you. I don't think this concept could ever even be discussed in other sports because there aren't enough professional leagues, and even in baseball I don't think a discussion of moving a major league franchise out of MLB would ever get off the ground. But in the minor leagues, where franchise values are tied more to markets and the guarantee of a major league affiliation than to a league, you might actually be able to do it.
It would make the most sense to do it by classification and limit it to full-season leagues (Triple-A, Double-A and Class A). We would lump Class A together to allow for geographic flexibility. If you divide Triple-A back into three leagues as proposed above, you would send down the worst team in each league in both Triple-A and Double-A. The winners of all the Class A leagues would have a round-robin playoff to determine three teams to move up, and each of the Double-A winners would move up. The teams would be allocated to a league based on geography.
To maintain the same number of affiliations at each level, when a team moved up or down it would pick up a new major league affiliate, which could be taken from the pool of available teams or traded with another franchise. It's too crazy not to work!
Make DH Rules Uniform
As a group, National League pitchers never have been big run producers, but they've gradually gotten worse at handling the bat through the years. According to data presented at FanGraphs.com, NL pitchers hit .153 in the first 10 years after the American League instituted the DH in 1973. Their collective .383 OPS was 55 percent of the NL average during that 1973-82 period, but that figure has dropped steadily with each passing decade, falling to 50.3 percent from 1983-92 down to 49.5 percent from 1993-02 to, finally, 48.6 percent since 2003.
One reason for the decline: Pitchers never bat in the minors until they reach Double-A, and even then they do so only when both clubs are affiliated with NL organizations. In reality, most NL starters will bat more times in one major league season—typically 50-85 PA—than they will in their entire minor league careers. Clayton Kershaw batted 21 times in the minors.
"The DH rule makes it more difficult for NL clubs," one assistant general manager said. "We can simulate bunting in practice, but nothing takes the place of games . . . It's frustrating and doesn't help, but there's nothing we can do."
Why not give NL pitchers a fighting chance by reigning in use of the DH at Double-A and Triple-A? Alternately, baseball could expand use of the DH to the NL, which along with Japan's Central League remains the only league in professional baseball worldwide that still features pitchers hitting.
Minor League Museum in Durham
Pat O'Conner had grander plans than just renovating the once-dilapidated Durham Athletic Park when he visited the former home of the Durham Bulls five years ago. He wanted to create a venue to honor minor league baseball's history, and the old tobacco warehouses beyond the right-field fence seemed like an ideal spot to build a minor league baseball museum. The ballpark got fixed up, and according to the locals looks better than when the Bulls moved across town to their new home in 1995, but those warehouses still sit empty as a sinking economy erased any potential financing for the project. And while Minor League Baseball has given up operations of the DAP, the need for such a museum has not gone away.
There are museums that commemorate nearly every aspect of baseball's history, from Cooperstown to Kansas City to Ontario. But there is no place dedicated to the wonderful and unique history of minor league baseball. And there is no better spot for it than Durham. After all, it is this city's team and old ballpark that starred in the movie that helped kick-start the sport's renaissance in the late 1980s. The Bulls have taken over operations of the DAP and its ownership group, Capitol Broadcasting, could help make the museum a reality. The Bulls have played a key role in the rebirth of downtown Durham—Capitol owns the American Tobacco commercial development near the new ballpark—and the newly minted Durham Performing Arts Center sits just around the corner. Adding a minor league baseball museum down the road could help make the city a truly unique destination.
And we know just the person to help make this vision a reality: Dave Chase. After all, it was Chase who went to Memphis a little over 10 years ago with the goal of building a minor league museum before he got enlisted to run the Triple-A Redbirds. The former BA publisher has the know-how and respect in the baseball community to get the job done.
Much like all 30 organizations must field one (and only one) team in each of the four full-season minor league classifications, applying those same rules at the short-season level could go a long way toward codifying the current haphazard structure.
For example, seven organizations have multiple Rookie-level teams, all but three organizations (Diamondbacks, Mets and White Sox) operate complex-based teams, and one-quarter of organizations have no short-season Class A affiliate.
Our solution: Require each organization to field one complex-based team in either the Rookie-level Arizona or Gulf Coast leagues, as well as one other club at the short-season level. Such a scenario would require tough choices to be made, seeing as the 40 clubs in the current Appalachian (10), New York-Penn (14), Northwest (eight) and Pioneer (eight) leagues would need to be winnowed down to 30, and perhaps one of the leagues would be excised to arrive at three equal in stature. As a concession to the restructuring, teams in the complex leagues could use modified rules, such as larger rosters and looser substitution rules.
With the June draft being reduced from 50 rounds to 40 this year, perhaps we've reached the point where it makes sense to make similar reductions in the lowest reaches of the minors. Independent leagues, such as the Frontier, would still exist to showcase players who might slip through the cracks of affiliated ball.
The Challenge: Prospects Vs. Big Leaguers
By the time the last week of March rolls around, most everyone is ready to break camp and head north—with or without the team. So let's trim that spring training schedule by a couple of days and add a wrinkle to the exhibition season: prospects versus big leaguers at minor league ballparks.
A couple of teams have adopted this concept in recent years. For example the Braves will be heading to their Triple-A Gwinnett affiliate on April 3 to take on their system's top prospects—a team that will be skippered by Bobby Cox. The Reds and Rays will play in games against teams of their top prospects as well, but those will be at their major league parks. We say bring them to the minor league cities!
Not only is this a great opportunity for fans in the minor league towns to get a look at the big league team, but it also gets them acquainted with the prospects who may soon be playing for their team. And just as important, it's an extra chance for the minor league team to fill the ballpark, a bonus for operators whose profit margins can be quite thin. That's particularly helpful early in the season, when the weather hasn't warmed up, school isn't out, and crowds can tend to be smaller.
So we propose each big league team rotates the game among its four full-season affiliates. Perhaps the Cactus League and Grapefruit leagues can alternate tours each year. The details can be worked out among the teams, but pitting prospects against major leaguers should be a winning formula for everyone.
We could also improve minor league all-star games, another reliable draw for minor league operators, by staging more league vs. league (a la the California and Carolina leagues) or classification-wide (a la Triple-A) games. Such games have more star power by drawing from a deeper pool of players.
And while we're talking all-star games, let's also spice up the Home Run Derby at all levels. Minor league derbies should follow Salt Lake City's example. Last year, the Buzz brought in local prep slugger Kayden Porter, who nearly won the derby using a metal bat against Triple-A vets using wood.
All-star hosts should mix in local amateurs or even softball players as much as possible, and we love the metal bat idea. When hitters are down to their last out in a Home Run Derby, let's give them the baseball equivalent of the bonus ball in an NBA three-point contest. They get a metal bat and get to go to town until they don't hit a homer. Just tell the kids shagging flies in the outfield to pay attention!
—Josh Leventhal/John Manuel