Understanding minor league levels

My mom likes to read my work. She doesn’t understand much of what I’m saying, but she’s a mom, so she’s supportive. It’s her way of trying to figure out what her only son is doing with his life as he approaches 30.

She still lives in the house I grew up in, just a few miles from Frawley Stadium in Wilmington, Del., home of the WIlmington Blue Rocks of the Carolina League, the Royals High-A affiliate. When I’m home to visit, I always go to a few games to check out the Carolina League, as I don’t get to see those particular players now that I live in south Florida. Naturally, my mom tags along, likely because coming to games with me brings back the nostalgic memories of watching me play on that very field.

Inevitably, we have the same conversation:

Mom: Now, what level are the Blue Rocks?
Me: Single-A
Mom: That’s the highest, right?
Me: No, that’s the lowest. Remember, the more A’s the better.
Mom: Oh yeah. You tell me that every time.

I simplify it for my mom. The Carolina League is certainly not the lowest level of the minors. If anything, it’s somewhere right in the middle. But I’m not getting into the nuances of short-season leagues, rookie leagues, complex leagues, and the fact that there are two different levels of Single-A baseball. Luckily for all of us, none of you is my mother.

I get questions on Twitter all the time about prospects, and many of them show a general lack of understanding about what it means to be at a particular level. Questions like whether a prospect currently in the Midwest League will get a late-season call-up show that people don’t understand how far away from major league-ready most players in Low-A ball are.

Prospects move at different speeds. Despite being just 18, Bryce Harper didn’t need much time in the minor leagues. Neither did Mike Trout or Manny Machado. These are exceptions, not the rule. They are important to remember because there are always exceptions, but it is equally important to recognize the prospects who are uniquely talented and not drag every prospect into that category, building up expectations that can’t possibly be reached by mere mortals.

Each minor league level offers its own unique brand of competition. To an even more specific extent, each league has its own identity, but even though the Carolina League may favor pitching and the California League may favor hitting, their levels of competition are roughly the same.

Below is a quick synopsis of the level of competition in each league.

Triple-A: A mixture of the game’s most major league-ready prospects, 4-A players, career minor leaguers, and the non-official “taxi squad” players for a major league organization.

For example, earlier this year, the Indianapolis Indians (a Pirates affiliate) featured Gerrit Cole, one of the game’s top pitching prospects. On and off of the squad throughout the season have also been Alex Presley and Josh Harrison, borderline major leaguers who are ready when called upon by the major league club to come up and fill a need. It also features Jeff Larish, a former moderately-regarded prospect who never panned out and has made a career out of being in Triple-A.

What prospects like Cole, or Oscar Taveras, who is at Triple-A Memphis with the Cardinals, experience in Triple-A is facing competition that has a plan. A large number of the players in Triple-A have major league experience under their belt, and a large number of those who don’t are older and have been in the minors for a long time. Cole and Taveras may be more talented than their opponents, but they are facing players who have a better idea of what to do with what talent they have. It’s a valuable learning experience for young players.

Double-A: The entrance to the “upper minors,” the jump to Double-A tends to be the most difficult for prospects, and tells us the most about them.

The Double-A level is where hitters and pitchers begin to have a plan. This is where pitchers can’t get by without a decent off-speed pitch and the hitters who can’t hit them are exposed. The competition is good, as evidenced by the fact that we see players jump from Double-A to the majors with relative frequency. Each organization has its own philosophy on doing so, but it does happen often because of the advanced level of competition. There aren’t as many players in Double-A with major league experience as there are in Triple-A, but one could argue that the pure talent level is actually higher because players are heading in an upward direction as opposed to the stagnation that tends to take place with some Triple-A players.

High-A vs. Low-A: Why are there two levels of A-ball and what are the difference? I won’t even pretend to know why they are labeled the way they are instead of there being four “A” levels, but there are differences between the two Single-A levels.

A-ball is the first real step into the world of professional baseball for most players. Yes, many of them spend time in short-season or rookie leagues first (I’ll get to them in a second), but a player doesn’t get a true feel for the world of professional baseball until he plays in a full-season league and experiences the grind of a five-month, 140-plus game season. Players drafted straight out of high school who jump straight to a full-season league (usually only first-rounders and other high draft picks), typically head to Low-A ball while college players sometimes jump straight to High-A ball.

Back in my college coaching days, I worked for a head coach who had been drafted and played a few years in the minors before returning to coaching. He once told me that he had more success in the more advanced levels than he did early on. The reason was that, in the lower minors, he faced pitchers with electric arms with no control or off-speed pitches to speak of, but who could reach the upper-90s or triple-digits. As he advanced, the pitchers were better and had a better plan, but he wasn’t blown away as often with ridiculous fastballs. His career ended likely because he lacked the bat speed to hit pitchers who can do both (major league pitchers), but his theory is valid.

Arms slow down over time. Arms in the low-minors are younger. Therefore, arms in the low minors have the ability to throw harder. Those pitchers can’t usually do much else yet, but they can throw hard.

Short-season and Rookie level: Not everyone is prepared to make his professional debut in full-season ball. Some high draft picks are up for the challenge, especially if they come from a top college program, but many players being selected right out of high school aren’t ready to take on competition two or three years older than them. That’s what the short-season and rookie leagues are there for.

These leagues begin after the draft, in late June. The are filled primarily with recent draft picks as a way to transition into professional baseball with other players in similar situations. Some players are there for only a few weeks before proving that they are ready for more advanced competition. Others need a few months or even a year or two to get acclimated.

Not all short-season and rookie leagues are the same, however. For instance leagues like the New York-Penn, Northwest or Pioneer involve travel, minor league stadiums, and all of the rigors that come with the lifestyle of professional baseball. These are the more advanced short-season leagues. In addition to acclimating a player to professional competition, they help him transition into the lifestyle of a professional ballplayer. The travel isn’t as rigorous as in, say, the South Atlantic League, but it still a transition, especially for players coming from high school baseball.

There are also short-season leagues that take place on the team’s spring training complexes. These are technically classified as rookie ball, and the ones you’ve heard of are the Gulf Coast League and the Arizona Rookie League. The games are played on back fields and there are no crowds, save for a few girlfriends and scouts. There are more players then fans. This is typically the first stop stateside for international free agents and for lower-level draft picks.

International signees, because they tend to sign before they are even 18, typically stay in one of the rookie leagues in their own countries, either the Dominican or Venezuelan Summer League. After a year or two there, they typically make their way stateside and join one of the other short-season leagues.

As you can see, each league offers a different talent level and a different experience for the minor league player. Most players take them level-by-level, but occasionally, skipping one makes the most sense. Still, there is a noticeable divide between the upper and lower levels of the minor leagues.

Each level serves its purpose in the development of young players. Each player takes each level at his own pace, but few skip over them completely. So when asking about a particular player and when he may be coming to the majors, keep in mind just how far away he really is from appearing on your TV.

And remember, the more As, the better.

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Comments

  1. Jon J. said...

    The Appy League and Pioneer League are classified as a Rookie-level while NY-P and Northwest are Short-season A leagues, whats the difference is it similar to Low A and High A?

  2. Jeff Moore said...

    Jon,

    There’s not much difference between the Rookie and short-season leagues, other than the ones that take place on the spring training complexes and the ones that don’t.  All three of them play in their own stadiums, so they’re all roughly the same.  They are, however, a step down from Low and High-A ball.  The SS and R leagues are typically the first time playing professionally for most of the players, so there’s a lot of mistakes.  It’s often not much better competition level than high-level college baseball, which is why some of the best college draft picks often skip these levels altogether and go straight to full-season leagues.

  3. Paul G. said...

    So how did we end up here from the old classifications of D, C, B, A, AA?  (I believe AAA was a later invention.)

  4. Jim G. said...

    Great article, Jeff. Although I will contend that if your mom likes to read your work, one of us indeed is your mother…..

  5. KevinL said...

    Jeff,
    you’re wrong. You start out saying your mom likes to read your work. So one of us most be your mother!
    Good article. Wondering about returning players who aren’t ready to start full season ball. Do they report to spring training and hang out at the complex after the regular leagues start, going through the baseball paces, until the short season teams begin?

  6. Robert Haymond said...

    I am a longtime baseball fan and recall when we had leagues all the way from Triple A to D.  I have never been satisfied understanding the current monickers and what they meant, i.e., why Double A can be more difficult than Triple A.  At any rate, you’ve clarified this and much more.  Thank you.

  7. Alex Connors said...

    Great idea for an article, certainly something even the most avid baseball fans dont fully understand.  One thing im curious about:  Do all teams have a team at every level?  Ive heard people say that the Astros have more minor league affiliates than other teams, so do they have more than one team at each level, or do some teams not have affiliates for certain levels?  Thanks a bunch.

  8. Krog said...

    Good article! A follow-up on the differences between specific leagues (Pacific Coast versus Sally, etc.) would be useful as well.

  9. Mike Fast said...

    Alex, all 30 teams have the full complement of four full-season minor league affiliates. 

    The Astros are one of nine teams that has three domestic short-season affiliates. For the Astros those are, in increasing order of difficulty, the affiliates in the Gulf Coast League (the lowest domestic rookie level), the Appy League (advanced rookie), and the NY-Penn League (short-season A). 

    The teams that have only two domestic short-season affiliates typically do not have a team at the advanced rookie level (Appy and Pioneer leagues).  Teams at that level are typically a hybrid of high school players from last year’s draft class who weren’t advanced enough to make it to full-season ball, the Latin players being promoted from the complex leagues (GCL/AZL), and college players from smaller schools or later rounds in the draft.  A team without an affiliate at this middle short-season level will have to send its promotions from last year to the somewhat more advanced competition in the short-season A league (NY-Penn or Northwest) and decide whether it wants to challenge the newly drafted college players with short-season A competition or send them to the easier/younger complex leagues.

    The Astros also have a team in the Dominican Summer League.  Several teams have either two teams in the Dominican Summer League (Mets, Orioles, Pirates, Reds, Yankees) or a team in DSL and a team in the Venezuelan Summer League (Cubs, Mariners, Phillies, Rays, Tigers).

  10. Amy MacNabb said...

    My son was just drafted in the 18th round by the Padres. He was born and raised in SD so we were thrilled. I am embarrassed to say that I did not know anything about the different levels of minor ball. This is a great article and spelled it out clearly. Thanks and go Padres!!

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