Minor league baseball is back this year and that should bring joy to baseball fans everywhere. There are few things better than plunking down ten dollars (give or take five bucks) for a ticket and getting a great seat to watch a ballgame. Then there is all the food and fun that goes along with a ballgame. Maybe you’ll even get yourself a “beer bat.”
The quality of minor league baseball is also high. The secret that a lot of fans don’t realize is that that crappy infielder sitting on a major league bench hitting .190 is a far better baseball player than you could possibly imagine. The guys playing minor league baseball are just a tad worse than those players. Among the millions of people who grew up playing baseball throughout the world, the players in minor league baseball are among the few thousands who were so good that someone is willing to pay them to do it. (OK, not pay them much, but that’s a different article.) Most of the time, you’ll have a hard time telling the difference between it and major league baseball. Sure, there will be a few moments in each game where you think “a major leaguer makes that play,” but it’s often hard to tell the difference unless you’re really looking hard.
But maybe not in 2021. The sad secret is that after not playing for an entire season, the minor leaguers don’t look so hot this year. In an article written by J.J. Cooper for Baseball America earlier this week (subscription required), one scout called the quality of play this season as “god awful.” The anonymous scout later elaborated. “Tons of strikeouts, bad at-bats, bad defense. Sloppy play in general and lots of plodding games. It’s hard to watch.”
The stats back that up. As the article notes, as of earlier this week, fully 41% of plate appearances in the minor leagues are resulting in a walk, a strikeout or a hit-by-pitch. (In MLB, it’s 34%.) On average, there are 11 strikeouts for each team in a minor league game and 4½ walks.
Fielding is bad too. I know we don’t put a lot of weight on fielding percentage these days, but it’s a good way to tell if errors are up. And in the minors this year, they are, Fielding percentage has dropped from around .977 in the previous three seasons to .970 this year. Low-A always has more errors, but this year the collective fielding percentage in low-A is .961, which is ten points lower than in any season from 2017 to 2019.
But there are more mental errors as well. I don’t have data to back this up, but I feel like I’m seeing more guys trying to make throws that they have no business making, leading to more errors. Or runners taking an extra base because no one is covering that base. I’m seeing lots of wild swings at balls in the dirt or eight inches outside.
Cooper quotes a different scout about the problems with minor league baseball right now.
I know what minor league guys did for 18 months. They trained to increase velocity and spin and they trained to increase exit velocity. That’s it. No one picked up a glove.
That increase in velocity and spin is certainly leading to more strikeouts and more walks.
Defense has been the most obvious problem in the minors right now. While a player can work on his swing in a batting cage and pitchers can work on adding velocity and spin without a hitter, there is no good way to improve fielding skills on your own. Sure, a player can take ground balls on a practice field, but that’s no way to recreate the speed and conditions of an actual game.
Cooper quotes yet another scout saying:
Live game speed is probably the biggest adjustment right now, especially defensively. The game is getting fast on some guys.
Unquestionably, taking a year off from games has had a deleterious effect on the playing skills of minor league ballplayers. To be clear, none of these guys were just sitting on their rears binge-watching Netflix and drinking beer. (Or maybe none of them were “only” doing that is more accurate.) They were putting in the work. But there’s only so much work that can be done if there are no games to be played.
There are two positive things, however, that can be taken from this sad state of affairs. First, minor leaguers are going to get better. Re-emphasizing what talented ballplayers they are, minor leaguers will start playing better after they get a few more months of games in. This isn’t a permanent situation.
But even more positively, this mess emphasizes the need for minor league baseball. Major League Baseball decided to contract the minors this season, arguing that there was no need for each major league team to have so many minor league affiliates. But some front office types went even further. In an article titled “Do We Even Need Minor League Baseball?” by Travis Sawchik at FiveThirtyEight, front office executives (mostly from the Astros) were quoted as questioning the value of minor league baseball at all. They noted that the development of the skills necessary to play baseball at the highest level could possibly be better done in more controlled environments, like pitching labs and the like. This article was seen at the time (and in retrospect) as the opening argument in MLB’s decision to reorganize, contract and de-emphasize the minors.
This season is answering Sawchik’s question with an emphatic “yes.” Players spent all of last season doing exactly what some executives were suggesting would be more helpful to their development and we’re discovering that they just can’t play baseball all that well because of it. I’m not trying to diminish the usefulness of working on baseball skills in a controlled environment, but that has to be a supplement to playing the game rather than a replacement.
Because as it turns out, there is no better way to learn to play baseball than by playing baseball.