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New Ball Is Sparking An Offensive Explosion In Triple-A

MLB_Baseball_PatrickMcDermottGetty.jpg
(Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

Before the year began, we theorized that Triple-A baseball’s switch from the standard minor league balls of the past to the MLB ball could lead to a jump in home runs.

With the caveat that it’s very, very early in the season, it appears, if anything, we underestimated just how much of a super ball the MLB ball is proving to be.

The power explosion we’ve seen at the major league level has migrated to Triple-A. Talking to scouts over the past few years, they have frequently mentioned how hard it has been to calibrate their eyes to the difference between the conditions in the major leagues, where the ball flies, and the minor leagues, where the balls did not travel nearly as well.

The same problem still exists. It’s now just migrated to the divide between Double-A and Triple-A.

Last weekend, Lehigh Valley beat Rochester 20-18 in 10 innings in a game that saw the two teams combine for 15 home runs. Last April, the two teams each had 19 home runs in the entire month of April.

That was an outlier, but it’s not all that unusual this April. There have been 13 games where a Triple-A team has hit four home runs in a game. Playing with the MLB ball, the early returns for Triple-A baseball this season indicate that it is going to be a historic year for offense in the International League and the Pacific Coast League.

Strikeouts are up in Triple-A this year, which is true across all four minor league levels. Walks are also up. That’s a trend that is being seen around the game.

The BABIP (Batting Average On Balls In Play) in Triple-A baseball is running at 101 percent of last year’s BABIP—.322 this year compared to .317 last year. When the ball stays in the park, the numbers are largely what we have seen in recent years.

But the ball isn’t staying in the park. Last April, Triple-A hitters homered once every 47 plate appearances. As the weather warmed up, so did the home run rate. Over the course of the entire 2018 season, Triple-A hitters homered every 43 plate appearances. So far this year, they are homering every 32 plate appearances. Triple-A hitters are hitting home runs at a rate of 135 percent of last year’s rate.

That’s an amazing stat and one that should strike fear in the hearts of pitchers around the International League and the Pacific Coast League. After all, April is usually the month that turns home runs into long flyouts. It’s cold. The ball does not travel.

Because the rest of the minor leagues have continued to use the less-expensive traditional MiLB ball, we have a control group that allows us to see just how much difference the MLB ball has made.

Across the rest of the minors, the early season numbers are right in line with what would be expected. Offensive numbers start slow and then heat up with the weather. Across Class A and Double-A, hitters are hitting .231 (low Class A) to .234 (high Class A and Double-A). Those batting averages are 17 to 20 points below where they ended up for 2018. Slugging percentages are down roughly 30-35 points from last year’s averages as well. And home run rates similarly are down. In the first couple of weeks of the season, the home run rate at those three levels ranges from 81.6 percent of 2018’s numbers (low Class A) to 88.8 percent (Double-A).

That’s what we would expect. As the temperatures heat up, the ball flies further and offensive numbers go up. Those numbers have dipped a little more than they did for all of April last season, but within similar ranges. At the end of last April, all four full-season leagues were hitting home runs at 90 to 97 percent of their end of season rates.

Remember how Triple-A hitters are homering every 32 plate appearances? Just a level lower, Double-A hitters are homering every 53 plate appearances. Last year, MLB hitters homered every 33 plate appearances, similar to this year’s Triple-A rate. But the Double-A home run rate is comparable to a level we haven’t seen in the major leagues since the strike-shortened 1981 season.

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By 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday, all 30 teams have plenty of decisions to make.

Triple-A and the rest of the minor league levels are playing with two different baseballs. As far as offensive environments, it’s as if they were playing in two different eras.

Even if the Triple-A home run rate doesn’t increase with warmer weather, at the current rate Triple-A would see 1,200 additional home runs compared to last season. It would mean that the average Triple-A team would hit 158 home runs this season. Last year, Triple-A teams averaged 117 home runs and only three of the 30 teams hit 158 or more home runs. Right now, the average pitcher’s ERA in Triple-A baseball is 5.01. Last year it was 4.25.

We will know much more as the season wears on, but unless this offensive spike dissipates, the difference between the offensive environment in Double-A and Triple-A is so significant that significant allowances will have to be made in evaluating players. A hitter on pace to hit 15 home runs in Double-A could suddenly turn into a 20-plus home run hitter in Triple-A with no change in ability level, but just because the offensive environment is so different.

Of course, the argument could also be made that Triple-A’s home run-happy environment is more like the major leagues, where the same ball shows similar characteristics. From that standpoint, it may make scouts evaluations of Triple-A hitters and pitchers a little easier.

When the weather warms up, hitters' parks like Las Vegas and Reno could end up among the most extreme offensive parks the minors have seen this century. Ryan Howard’s 46 home runs in 2004 is the most homers we have seen in the minors this century. It’s fair to wonder if that mark might fall in 2019.

SOMETHING'S DIFFERENT
Double-A and the two Class A levels' offensive numbers are tracking below last year's numbers, which is to be expected in the cold weather of April. Triple-A baseball, which is playing with the MLB ball for the first time this season, has seen home runs spike dramatically in the early going.
Year/LevelBABIPPAsABRH2B3BHRAVG
2019 AAA.32337.833.55.38.81.90.21.2.262
2018 AAA.31737.233.54.68.71.80.20.9.261
Rate of change101.70%101.7%100.1%116.7%100.3%105.7%110.3%135.2%100.4%
2019 AA.30137.132.74.17.61.50.20.7.234
2018 AA.30936.833.04.48.31.60.20.8.253
Rate of change97.43%100.8%99.2%93.7%91.7%92.9%102.8%86.0%92.5%
2019 HiA.31036.932.74.27.71.50.20.6.234
2018 HiA.31536.733.04.48.31.60.20.7.253
Rate of change98.63%100.6%99.1%94.5%91.7%93.2%94.9%85.4%92.5%
2019 LoA.30736.832.64.27.51.60.20.6.231
2018 LoA.31436.332.84.38.21.60.30.7.250
Rate of change97.78%101.2%99.5%98.0%91.9%98.6%81.2%84.0%92.4%

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