'It's Ugly Baseball:' Quality Of Play Across The Minors Has Suffered In 2021
After more than 18 months without official games, minor leaguers were understandably rusty heading into the 2021 season. Scouts, coaches and executives throughout baseball expected there would be a decline in the quality of play in the minors this year, simply because players needed time to get back up to game speed in competitive environments.
Even in that context, the caliber of play in the minor leagues this season has been the subject of harsh criticism from evaluators across the country. By both visual and measurable accounts, the overall quality of play in the minors has dropped drastically in 2021.
“It’s god-awful,” one pro scout told Baseball America early in the season. “Tons of strikeouts, bad at-bats, bad defense. Sloppy play in general and lots of plodding games. It’s hard to watch.”
At nearly every full-season level, pitchers are throwing fewer strikes, batters are swinging and missing more and fielders are failing to turn balls into outs at previously unseen rates.
Through Aug. 4, the walk rate across the four full-season levels rose from 9.1% in 2019 to 10.4% in 2021, with an increase at each level. The strikeout rate rose from 23.2% to 25.6%, again with an increase at each level. The cumulative fielding percentage, meanwhile, dropped from .976 to .974, with a decrease at each level. Batting average on balls in play increased—meaning fielders were failing to convert more balls in play into outs even when they weren’t charged with errors.
The cumulative effect is a level of play in the minors that is the lowest longtime scouts and executives can remember, and a sense that the gap between the majors and minors has widened.
“It’s ugly baseball,” one longtime National League executive said. “It’s like, ‘What are we doing?’ ”
When the season began, the overall sense among evaluators was the caliber of play at Triple-A was the same as usual. But with the sharp increase in the number of injuries in the majors early in the season—USA Today found a 160% increase in the number of soft tissue injuries through the first two months of the season compared to the first two months of 2019—the talent level at Triple-A thinned rapidly as players were called up en masse.
Additionally, major league teams continue to carry taxi squads on the road as part of health and safety protocols this season. As a result, up to five players who would normally be at Triple-A are often instead traveling with the major league team.
“Where you really see the difference is the pitching,” one longtime NL executive said. “Between injury callups and taxi squads, every Triple-A team is down four or five pitchers, and they’re being replaced by guys who really should still be at Double-A.”
The average fastball velocity at Triple-A increased from 90.8 mph in 2019 to 91.7 mph in 2021. While velocity has increased, however, control has declined. The average walk rate at Triple-A was 9.5% in 2019. It is 10.2% in 2021.
Double-A is the one full-season level where evaluators said they don’t feel the quality of play has dropped significantly, though that may be a case of everything being relative. Walks are up a little more than 1% and strikeouts have increased nearly 2.5%, but those increases pale in comparison to their counterparts in the Class A levels. Fielding percentages have remained relatively stable, hovering around .975.
“I can’t say I’ve noticed too much of a difference at (Double-A),” one American League pro scouting director said.
The jump from High-A to Double-A is widely considered to be the largest in the minors, and teams have largely eschewed rushing players from the lower levels to fill roster spots at Double-A. Instead, they’ve dipped heavily into the minor league free agent pool or signed players out of partner leagues, formerly known as independent leagues. While many of those players lack prospect status, they tend to be more experienced and play cleaner baseball.
The Angels’ Double-A affiliate at Rocket City is a prime example. Eleven of the 33 players on their active roster or injured list—a full one-third of the team—were signed as minor league free agents or purchased from a partner league. Many are 26 or older and no longer candidates to reach the major leagues, but they are experienced enough to execute the basics. The result is that Double-A is comparable to what it once was in the eyes of many evaluators, even if the talent level isn't quite as high.
“Double-A is, I dunno,” said another executive. “It’s fine. It’s not great, but it’s fine.”
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The decline in the quality of play in the minors is most apparent at the Class A levels. High-A is generally the level where top college players are assigned for their first full season, while high school and international players generally spend at least one season in the Rookie levels and another at Low-A before reporting to High-A.
The canceled 2020 minor league season instead meant many of those younger players never got their season in Low-A. Instead, they jumped straight to High-A with only a handful of Rookie-level games—played more than a year and a half ago—on their resumes.
The lack of experience had shown prominently at High-A, with players struggling to execute basic fundamentals.
“You used to go to a High-A game and it was crisp,” said a special assistant with an NL club. “Guys throw strikes, hit the ball, catch the ball, throw it to first. Now you’re seeing a lot more throwing to the wrong bases, not being able to execute rundowns. I was at this (High-A) series and they couldn’t catch a fly ball. Both teams. There were multiple balls over three games that were just dropping. Guys missing popups. It was just awful baseball.”
The gap is yawning between High-A now compared to even 2019. Walks are up nearly 2%, strikeouts are up more than 3% and fielding percentages are down nearly 3%.
With the changes, the time of game in each of the three High-A leagues is more than three hours. As recently as 2018, none of the three High-A leagues had an average game time longer than 2 hours, 56 minutes.
Low-A is where the biggest decline in the quality of baseball this year can be found. Due to the canceled 2020 minor league season, many players who normally would have begun their careers in the Rookie levels instead began their careers in Low-A.
On top of that lack of experience, Major League Baseball introduced some of the most disruptive minor league rules changes at the lowest levels, namely introducing automated ball-strike technology in Low-A Southeast.
Pitchers are generally still working on basics like fastball command at Low-A. In the past, umpires generally gave the pitchers some leeway to keep games moving. Now, largely due to ABS being used in Low-A Southeast, walks at the level are up 2.2% from 2019. MLB ended up modifying the ABS strike zone in July by lowering the top of it and widening it.
“Especially in Florida, it’s been a real s---show,” another AL pro scouting director said. “Long games, not a lot of strikes thrown . . . The automated strike zone has been an issue. If they’re using the major league strike zone in Low-A, it would be a very foreseeable problem. The zones are traditionally bigger at those levels, as they should be, to get a game in in less than four hours.”
More walks, longer at-bats and more time between balls in play has meant less engaged fielders, which in turn has yielded poor defense.
The fielding percentage across all Low-A leagues in 2019 was .972. It is .967 this year.
“I think the pace has a lot to do with it,” the NL special assistant said. “We’re always working on the pace of play. These pitchers, their stuff is so good, and they can’t throw strikes and then it’s ball three and then it’s three foul balls and a ground ball. The infielders aren’t in rhythm. Everybody is hunting a strikeout. That to me is the culprit of this whole thing.”
Batters have struggled even when pitchers throw strikes. The strikeout rate in the Low-A leagues was 23.7% in 2019. In 2021, it is 26.2%.