New Ball Has Made 2019 A Season Unlike Any Other
We’ve written a lot about the new Triple-A baseball this year and how it’s changing the game. But every time we write about it, we hear many of the same questions. With that in mind, here’s a simple explanation of what is proving to be the wildest season of Triple-A baseball in our lifetimes.
1. So, what’s up with the ball?
Last year, Major League Baseball and the Triple-A leagues agreed to switch Triple-A to the major league ball so that there would be more uniformity between the highest level of the minor leagues and the major leagues. Before, Triple-A used Rawlings' standard minor league ball, which is made in a factory in China and is less expensive. The MLB ball is handmade in Costa Rica, and it has long been considered to be a more lively ball. In past years, major league pitchers on rehab assignments were allowed to use MLB balls, but sometimes they would decide to use the minor league ball instead because they felt they would get better results since the ball didn’t travel as far. The MLB ball has a tighter construction and lower seams in general (they are handmade) than the standard minor league ball.
2. Why isn’t the same ball used at every level of the minors?
Until this year, every minor league used the same Rawlings minor league baseball, but that ball was different from the Rawlings MLB ball. Now, Triple-A and the majors use the same ball while every team from the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League to Double-A use a different minor league ball—the same one they have been using for years.
There are two reasons why the MLB ball isn’t used everywhere in the minors. Cost is the main reason. But even if MLB and MiLB wanted to have everyone use MLB balls and were willing to pay for it, it wouldn’t matter. MLB balls are effectively handmade and use the best leather Rawlings can buy. It took Rawlings an offseason of work to build up the workforce and the supply chain to double the amount of MLB balls it made. In an interview with Baseball America before the season, a Rawlings spokesperson said that Rawlings could potentially scale up operations to produce enough baseballs for another classification for 2020 if MLB and MiLB so desired.
3. So, just how different is Triple-A baseball now compared to the rest of the minors?
It’s massively different.
Imagine if the 1930 MLB season was being played in the American League and the 1968 MLB season was being played in the National League at the same time.
Consider this. Let’s say that a 25-year-old outfielder goes to your average Double-A club and hits .250/.340/.400 with eight home runs over the first half of the 2019 season. Then, at the halfway point of the season, this same outfielder is promoted to Triple-A. Again, let’s assume that the Triple-A park he plays in is a neutral park that doesn’t give hitters or pitchers an advantage. In the second half of the season, our same outfielder goes out and hits .270/.350/.450 with 12 home runs.
Logically, the eye test would say that our hypothetical outfielder got a good bit better as the season wore on. After all, he improved in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, and he showed more home run power.
Actually, he got worse. In Double-A, the average hitter is hitting .241/.319/.371 this year. So the aforementioned .740 OPS means he was significantly outproducing his peers in on-base and slugging percentage. This year, the average Triple-A hitter is hitting .272/.349/.466. Therefore, the 25-year-old outfielder's .800 OPS is actually below-average among Triple-A hitters. In total, a .690 OPS in Double-A is average for the classification in 2019, but you have to post an .815 OPS in Triple-A to be treading water.
The leaderboards explain it as well.
There are six batting qualifiers in all of Double-A (30 teams) who are slugging .500 or better. There are eight batting qualifiers in all of high Class A (30 teams) who are slugging .500 or better. There are two batting qualifiers in all of low Class A (30 teams) who are slugging .500 or better. So, for the 90 teams in low Class to Double-A, there are 16 hitters who are slugging .500 or better.
In Triple-A, there are 43 qualified hitters in the Pacific Coast League who are slugging .500 or better and another 22 in the International League. There are 15 batting qualifiers in the Triple-A leagues who are slugging better than .600. No one below Triple-A is slugging .600.
One last crazy stat: The average Pacific Coast League hitter has a .480 slugging percentage. There is not a qualified hitter in the Midwest League slugging .480.
OK, one more: Seven different PCL teams have scored 20 or more runs in a game this year. Seven PCL teams have given up 20 or more runs in a game this year.
I lied. One more stat: There have been 15 PCL games where a hitter has hit three home runs. There were only six of those same occurrences last year.
OK, I just can’t stop: There have been four minor league teams who hit 200 or more home runs in a season this century (2001-2018). That’s four out of 2,160 team seasons. So, 0.19 percent of all teams playing in all 18 seasons of this century have hit 200 home runs in a season. This year, 14 of 30 Triple-A teams are on pace to top 200 home runs, or 46.66 percent.
To push this into overkill territory: The International League has averaged six hitters with 20 or more home runs in a season this decade. The decade high was 12 20-plus home run hitters in 2010. This year, the IL already has 18 20-plus home run hitters as August gets going, with another 20 hitters with 15 or more home runs who could join them. Last year, the IL had 14 pitchers who qualified for the ERA title who finished with an ERA under 4.00. That’s right in line with the league’s average of 15 sub-4.00 ERA qualifiers each year of this decade. This year, there are only three.
4. Are you sure it’s the ball?
Yes. It’s the ball.
Throw out whatever other theory you may come up with. It’s not that hitters are training differently. It’s not that pitchers in Triple-A have suddenly forgotten how to pitch. It’s not that a new super-secret undetectable PED is being passed around from Triple-A hitter to Triple-A hitter.
How do we know this? This is the gulf that was seen between the majors and the minors until this year. Scouts would often joke about how hitters who showed no power in the minors would be fine once they got to use the super ball that is the MLB ball.
Now that ball is being used in Triple-A, and Triple-A hitting stats have shot through the roof—just as was predicted long before the season began—while the stats at every other level of the minors (which continue to use the minor league ball) remain right in line with past history. We have a control group of sorts, as we have the rest of the minor leagues using a different ball.
And all you have to do is talk to anyone in Triple-A or go to a few Triple-A games. Balls that would appear to be easy fly outs are clearing the fence. Fooled hitters are hitting balls out of the park the other way.
5. How are pitchers handling it?
They aren’t happy. Talk to them privately and they are frustrated. (They also acknowledge that it’s not all that useful for a Triple-A pitcher to publicly complain as they hope for a promotion to the majors).
It’s been rough for pitchers across the board, but the new conditions may put control pitchers in the Pacific Coast League on the endangered species list. Pitchers who don’t miss bats have zero margin for error in parks where mistakes are consistently punished and even mishits sometimes clear the fence. The best way to describe the conditions from a sampling of Triple-A pitchers is that the current environment goes beyond being difficult to being unfair.
Take righthander Tyler Danish, for example. Danish’s changeup and above-average control helped him go 2-3, 3.01 pitching in the Triple-A Charlotte bullpen in 2018. He was called up for brief stints with the White Sox in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
Danish signed with the Mariners as a minor league free agent for the 2019 season, and they moved him back to the rotation, where he’d spent the majority of his minor league career career. Danish’s two months in the PCL proved to be a horror show, with stats that are hard to comprehend.
In his first start of the season, Danish gave up nine hits and 10 runs (all earned) in just 1.2 innings at Sacramento. Five days later, he gave up 10 hits and six runs in five innings as Tacoma hosted El Paso.
That would prove to be his best outing of his time with Tacoma. By the time he was released in late May, Danish had given up 44 hits, 41 runs (37 earned) and nine home runs in only 15.2 innings. As rough as his 21.26 ERA was, his .502 opponent average was even tougher to fathom. He is now pitching in the independent Atlantic League.
But he’s not the only one. Righthander Andrew Moore has a similar profile to Danish as a less-than-overpowering righthander. Moore made it to the majors briefly this year. In Triple-A, he has a 10.84 ERA with 72 hits in 49 innings this year.
Cubs righthander Matt Swarmer had given up 22 home runs in 241.2 innings over his career. This year, he’s given up 31 home runs in just 117 innings, which explains his 6.23 ERA. Albuquerque has eight different pitchers with ERAs above 8.00 who have thrown more than 10 innings. Joe Krehbiel has more appearances for Reno than any other pitcher (41). He has an 8.25 ERA.
Every team has a few of these examples. And as much as the pitchers may know that they now exist in a world where a 5.00 ERA isn’t all that bad, that doesn’t make it any easier, mentally, to handle an ERA that is far beyond any they’ve ever experienced.
6. How Are Hitters Handling It?
This season is one long stupendous party. We’re seeing some of the greatest statistical seasons we’ll ever see.
Between sporadic promotions to the major leagues, Reno first baseman Kevin Cron has hit 31 home runs in only 61 games this season with Reno.
Twelve different El Paso hitters have already reached double digits in home runs.
El Paso infielder Ty France has a decent chance to become the first full-season player to hit .400 in a season since Erubiel Durazo hit .404 in 1999 (while playing at El Paso and Tucson). France is hitting .391/.472/.771.
If France just keeps up his current stat line, he would post the highest minor league batting average of the century (topping Jose Altuve’s .389 in 2011). He would have the second highest on-base percentage of the century (trailing only Pat Magness’ .481 in 2005) and he would have the highest slugging percentage of the century (topping Phil Hiatt’s .722 in 2001). France doesn’t only have a chance at the modern-day Triple Crown, he could post a 21st-century sabermetric Triple Crown.
Nine different Triple-A hitters have hit more home runs this season than they had compiled in their entire careers coming into the season. That group is led by Yasmany Tomas. He had 16 career home runs before this season. This year, he's hit 29.
Yes, league context matters. But 40 years from now, when this year’s Triple-A hitters are telling stories of their playing careers to their grandkids, no one will remember that hitting 20 home runs in the PCL this year is much different than doing it in 2015.
7. What Happens Now?
MLB has said that the MLB ball (which means the Triple-A ball as well) is exhibiting lower drag this year and they are working to understand why. At this point, it is highly unlikely that MLB and MiLB would "go back” to having Triple-A using the minor league ball. After all, the same reason that MLB wanted Triple-A to use the same ball as the major leagues remains—it allows pitchers and hitters to get used to a different ball before they reach the majors.
So, the question of whether we’ll see similarly inflated offensive numbers in 2020 depends on what happens with the MLB ball. If the MLB ball returns to performance more in line with they way it has performed in the past, the Triple-A ball will do so as well and pitchers will get a breather. If it does not, expect another season of crazy home run records.