Image credit: Pete Hansen (Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)
If current trends continue, before long there will be a season where no one wins a Minor League Baseball league ERA title.
The day is coming, and it’s coming extremely quickly. We actually came pretty close to that bizarre scenario this year. Just three pitchers met the Low-A Florida State League’s innings requirements to qualify for the leaderboards. Cardinals lefthander Pete Hansen was the league’s ERA champ with a 3.12 ERA in 112.2 innings. Yankees righthander Scott Hermann was both third and last on the ERA leaderboard with a 4.93 ERA in 107.2 innings.
It’s not a one-league issue. In the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, five of the seven ERA qualifiers posted ERAs above 5.00. Padres lefthander Jay Groome made the leaderboard with an 8.55 ERA. With only seven qualifiers, there is no such thing as posting an ERA too high to make the PCL’s ERA leaderboard.
Around the last time we unveiled a new BaseballAmerica.com website in 2018, I wrote about the need to adjust innings pitched requirements to better reflect the reduction in workloads for pitchers.
We have a new website now, but the same innings-pitched issue remains, and it’s a much bigger problem than it was five years ago.
In 2018, the number of MiLB pitchers who threw 120+ innings had halved in a decade. In the five years since then, that half has been cut in half.
Where Have You Gone, Joe McGinnity?
To qualify for a MiLB leaderboard in rate stats (ERA, opponents batting average, WHIP), a pitcher must throw 0.8 innings per team game played.
Nowadays, that’s much more the exception than the rule. A pitcher at the Triple-A level needs 120 innings to qualify. At the Double-A level, it’s 110 innings. In Class A, it’s 105 innings. At all levels, canceled games may reduce those requirements slightly.
Those levels are becoming harder and harder to cross as teams restrict young pitchers’ innings more and more.
The reductions in workloads over the past 20+ years is breathtaking. In 2001, there were 285 pitchers who threw 120 or more innings. In 2011, that number had dipped, but only to 243 pitchers. As late as 2016, there were 200 pitchers who broke the 120-inning mark.
Nowadays, it’s the exception more than the rule. There were 127 120+ inning MiLB pitchers in 2019. In 2022, there were 64. This year, there were 49, or roughly 1.6 pitchers per organization.
At the higher innings-pitched workloads, the fall off is even more dramatic. There were 117 pitchers who threw 150 or more innings in 2001. This year, there were three.
Tigers’ lefthander Tim Kalita’s 200 innings for Double-A Erie in 2001 is the last time a MiLB pitcher threw 200 innings. But that year, there were 64 MiLB pitchers who threw 160 or more innings. This year, Yankees righthander Mitch Spence’s 163 innings pitched made him the only minor leaguer to top 160 innings.
Not coincidentally, Mets righthander Tyler Stuart’s MiLB leading 2.20 ERA is the highest ERA for the minors leader in the past 40 years. It was the first time a MiLB ERA leader’s ERA wasn’t in the ones in decades.
Padres lefthander Robby Snelling had a 1.82 ERA in 22 starts, but the 19-year-old finished with 103.2 innings, so he did not qualify.
Fewer And Fewer Qualifiers
The MiLB’s 0.8 innings per team game is already an adjustment when compared to the 1.0 inning per team game requirement of the major leagues. It’s clear that if we want MiLB leaderboards to reflect who performed best across the minors, a further adjustment is needed.
Dropping the requirement to 0.7 innings per team game would drop the Triple-A requirement to 105 innings, the Double-A requirement to 96 innings and Class A to 79 innings. As small as those innings totals may seem, there are fewer pitchers today throwing 105 innings than the number that threw 140 innings or more two decades ago.
If the ERA qualifying rules are trying to reflect the best performers among starters who stay healthy and pitch, we’re missing many of them with the current rules.
If we use 120 innings as the cut-off, the drop-off in pitchers who qualify seems headed quickly toward zero.
While there are fewer MiLB hitters qualifying for batting titles, the drop-off is not nearly as severe.
The MLB innings requirement might also need a tweak. From 2001-2014, there were an average of 81 pitchers a year who met ERA innings qualifications, 2.7 pitchers per team. In the past three years, on average 39 pitchers have qualified for the ERA title, or 1.3 pitchers per team.
The trend for MLB pitchers isn’t as dramatic as MiLB, but it’s still a clear trend. MLB pitchers need 162 innings (1 inning per team game) to qualify for the ERA title.
There is no similar drop-off for MLB batting qualifiers, which are required to reach 502 plate appearances.
It may be tough to stomach the idea of a pitcher needing fewer than 100 innings to qualify for a league ERA title, but without making these kind of tweaks, ERA titles themselves may soon become irrelevant in the minors.