'It's Awful': Sloppy Play Rampant Across Minors After Unprecedented Layoff
Baseball is undergoing an unplanned experiment. If you take players away from actual games for 20 months, what happens when they return to the field?
Early on in the minor league season the answer appears to be plenty of poor play. Too many walks. Too many strikeouts. Too many defensive miscues.
Across the minors, the return of baseball has been eagerly anticipated. Communities that were left without baseball for the entire 2020 season packed the stands (as much as is allowed with coronavirus restrictions) to watch players return to action.
In the first few weeks of the 2021 season, what they’ve seen is a reminder that baseball is a sport that requires plenty of repetitions to master.
Just as a golfer can’t prepare his or herself for a major tournament entirely by hitting drives on a practice range, some patience is going to be required for minor league players to get back into the swing of things.
Scouts watching games at all levels of the minors were quickly taken aback by the quality of play, especially when it came to defense, quality of at-bats and pitcher’s command and control. Unprompted, a number of them reached out over the first week of the season just to note how subpar the standard of play has been, whether they were watching Class A, Double-A or Triple-A.
“It’s god awful,” said one pro scout. “Tons of strikeouts, bad at-bats, bad defense. Sloppy play in general and lots of plodding games. It’s hard to watch.”
It’s not that players didn’t work during their extra-long layoff, but with baseball there are aspects that can easily be worked on alone (increasing strength, velocity, bat speed, power) and others that can’t easily be replicated without getting out on the field and getting into game or game-type situations.
“I know what minor league guys did for 18 months,” said a second pro scout. “They trained to increase velocity and spin and they trained to increase exit velocity. That’s it. No one picked up a glove.”
Even if a player did pick up a glove, there’s no easy way to work on the timing required to know whether to try to throw to second or third on a ground ball or take the easier out at first base. A catcher can catch some bullpens, but that doesn’t replicate the experience of managing a game. And not every catcher has had pitchers around to practice receiving low-90s sliders.
“We grade tools. A lot of things about playing the game are skills,” said a third scout. “Skills require practice. Baseball is a game sport, not a practice sport. The pandemic has exposed a lot of things. One thing it has exposed is the limits of just the lab. You have to play games to get a feel for the game.”
Hitters are working to get their timing back. Pitchers are struggling with command and control issues. As of mid May, 41% of all plate appearances in the minors are resulting in a walk, strikeout or hit-by pitch (the MLB rate is 34 %). Both the current walk rate (12% of all plate appearances) and the current strikeout rate (28% of all plate appearances) are far beyond the rate ever seen before at any time in the minor leagues. In 2019, the minors set previous highs with a 24% strikeout rate and a 9% walk rate. So this year, another 9% of plate appearances are resulting in walks or strikeouts.
Put in different terms, if a minor league pitcher is walking 4.5 batters per nine innings and striking out 11 per nine innings, he’s right on the minor league average in both categories, even if both the walk rate and the strikeout rate seem sky high to anyone who has been watching baseball for a while.
But it’s not just walks and strikeouts. In 2017, 2018 and 2019, full-season minor league teams had either a .976 or .977 fielding percentage every year. This year, the collective fielding percentage is sitting at .970. Low-A understandably always has the lowest fielding percentage among full-season levels, but its current .961 fielding percentage is 10 points worse than its worst performance of the previous three seasons.
“Live game speed is probably the biggest adjustment right now, especially defensively,” said a fourth scout. “The game is getting fast on some guys.”
All of this will get better. By June and July, the rust that has come from never-before-seen layoffs will start to flake away. Hitters will get their timing back. Fielders will be less likely to botch seemingly simple plays.
But the quality of play this season also serves as a useful reminder. There’s been a lot of debate about the value of minor league games in a time where players can train and perform at hitting and pitching facilities. The state of the minor league game in the first weeks of the 2021 season is a useful reminder that there are parts of the development process that are best experienced by playing games and learning on the field.
And that’s some of what was missed by a lost 2020 season, which is why it’s so important that players are getting back on the field in 2021.