UP TO SPEED?
Baseball America|August 2021
Quality of play in the full-season minor leagues had suffered from the lost 2020 season
KYLE GLASER

After more than 18 months without official games, minor leaguers were understandably rusty heading into the 2021 season. Scouts, coaches and executives throughout the game 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 through the midway point of the season. 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 were throwing fewer strikes, batters were swinging and missing more and fielders were failing to turn balls into outs at previously unseen rates.

Through July 11, the walk rate across the four full-season levels rose from 9.1% in 2019 to 10.6% in 2021, with an increase at each level. The strikeout rate rose from 23.2% to 25.9%, again with an increase at each level. The cumulative fielding percentage, meanwhile, dropped from .976 to .973, 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?’ ”

Here is a look at how the quality of play has changed at each of the four full-season levels in 2021. All scouts and executives were granted anonymity in order to speak freely.

TRIPLE-A

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.

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