Pontes: Why Is The Quality Of Minor League Baseball So Bad? | Friday Intel


Image credit: (Photo by Zach Lucy/Four Seam)

This is the type of story I didn’t think I’d ever write. A story with the type of trite, petulant editorializing about the quality of baseball I’m watching. After all, my profession is watching and following baseball. Even on my worst days, it beats 40-plus hours a week in an office. 

That said, the quality of minor league baseball I’ve watched this year is the poorest I can remember. Many throughout the game share this sentiment. Just last week, I heard scouts joke about it on more than one occasion while sitting in the stands at a game. 

There’s likely several factors at play. Tightening domestic roster caps have eliminated jobs, but it also messed with the natural order of things. The elimination of short-season levels removed a rung in the minor league ladder and forced aggressive assignments for far too many players over the last few seasons. There’s a significant bump in quality of play with each level you climb, and the move from complex league play to full-season seems to be a more considerable challenge. 

Fundamentals are worse; there are more walks and a lot fewer strikes. There seem to be less and less players with well-balanced skill sets who show the ability to play a position at an average major league level while providing average or better offensive output. Back in October, Baseball America’s Matt Eddy took a deep dive into data showing that walk rates are trending up at every level of the minors. 

Comparing Low-A now to pre-reorganization is difficult. The cities and leagues have changed. The South Atlantic and Midwest Leagues are now High-A, and the California, Carolina and Florida State League have flipped to Low-A. In addition, the Florida State League uses a version of the automated ball-strike (ABS) system.

With those caveats acknowledged, there is statistical evidence that quality of play is down. Low-A pitchers are throwing strikes less successfully now compared to before MiLB’s reorganization. In 2019, the median strike percentage in Low-A was 63.5%. So far this year, the rate is 62%. And the robo-umps of the Florida State League aren’t to blame for this drop. The median strike rate for the Carolina and California Leagues is actually even lower at 61.5%.

Since the minors were reorganized in 2021, the median strike rate in Low-A has yet to top 62%. Before reorganization, it was 63.5% or 64% every year from 2016 to 2019.

The almost contradictory part of all this is I don’t feel as if players on the whole are any less talented than they were in the past. In fact, I believe they’re more talented. 

It’s not hyperbolic to say players today are better trained, more athletic and stronger than in years past. Of course, with the player pool shrinking, the overall bar to clear to earn a job in professional baseball is higher. Which brings us back to the same question: Why does it seem like the overall quality of play across full-season levels is worse? 

The elimination of lower levels has pushed players more rapidly, as has the roster constraints, but what about the rule changes? The introduction of the pitch clock, defensive shift rules and automatic strike zones all come with their benefits. But they also come with drawbacks, which often manifest themselves in the form of more walked batters as pitchers toe a thinner and thinner line.

It’s not the players, the analytics or any of the popular narratives around quality of play—it’s the environment. Baseball is a game of failure, yes, but it’s also a game of confidence. Teams task player development with finding synergy between challenging players and limiting exposure to opportunities players are not prepared for. 

Perhaps time will reveal that it was all worth it, and the tightening of roster limits, the condensing of talent in the minor leagues and aggressive assignments will prove wise. In the interim, it’s made for some below-average games throughout the minors. 

The rash of pitching injuries certainly hasn’t helped, either. When planning to go see a starter on the hill, it’s all-too-common to have those plans dashed with unfortunate news of an injury. Promising breakouts like Luis Perales, Owen Murphy and Grant Taylor all joined the list of injured young pitching prospects just in the past few weeks. Less quality starting pitching means poorer quality of games. 

I’m not sure if this is a fixable problem, either. The rules aren’t likely to revert back any time soon. Everyone is trying to solve the injury epidemic to little success, and there is no chance short-season ball returns. A more optimistic outlook would be to view the last few years as an adjustment period in a new minor league structure and that teams are still figuring out how to navigate it. But it has created a noticeable decline in the quality of the product. 

This is in no way an indictment on baseball, as it’s still the greatest game in the world. It’s simply an observation of what’s been brewing in the professional game for years now. 

An Ode To The Cape Cod Baseball League

It’s no secret that the Cape Cod League is among my favorite baseball experiences and my favorite area of coverage. Not to get too sentimental, but the Cape League is near and dear to my heart. I grew up 25 minutes away from the Bourne Bridge, and being so close to the top collegiate summer league always felt like my area’s contribution to the bigger baseball landscape. 

Beyond the sentimentality, there’s a stripped down uniqueness to the Cape. Attendance is free (though small donations are encouraged), which is a particular breath of fresh air in this period of modern sports where gambling and advertising drive revenue for major sports leagues.  And the constant flow of talent throughout the league provides an opportunity to see a large group of potential draft picks in a very short window of time.

Published in 2004, James Collins’ “Last Best League” follows a summer with the Chatham Anglers (then called the Chatham A’s) and gives insight into the dynamics of a Cape League team. The title always stuck with me, as in many ways this is where dream meets the opportunity. The Cape’s primary function is to provide the scouting industry looks on top collegiate talent competing against other top talent using wooden bats. 

When you look out onto any Cape field, it’s not unreasonable to see a handful of future major leaguers and a dozen future professionals. For many players, it’s where the rubber meets the road in a lifetime spent chasing the dream of professional baseball. Players are not paid, there is no over-the-top pregame ceremonies, no alcohol, no gambling. It’s baseball in its purest form. It’s not unusual to see kids organize a wiffle ball game at any Cape park throughout the summer. Nor is it unusual to see 50 kids lined up for autographs.

It’s a pure unbridled baseball experience in and date and time where there are few. 

Download our app

Read the newest magazine issue right on your phone