Scouting the System: The Chaos That is Minor League Baseball in 2021

How do you scout minor league baseball this year?

The COVID-19 pandemic forced a lost minor league season in 2020.

Major League Baseball followed by eliminating all of the short-season leagues.

They followed that by turning each remaining league into a circus.

The Triple-A level received bigger bases with a less-slippery surface.

All four infielders must have their cleats within the outer boundary of the infield dirt when a pitch is delivered in Double-A.

Pitchers must step off the rubber to attempt a pickoff in High-A.

You can only attempt two pickoff throws per plate appearance in Low-A. The rules at this level divide out further, with Low-A West having a 15-second pitch clock, and Low-A Southeast having an automated ball-strike system.

MLB has reduced the amount of minor leaguers, and the combination of the lost year has skipped guys over levels they would have played in during the 2020 season.

None of the league rules are consistent, but only in the most minor ways. Still, those minor ways can impact certain stats.

Kyle Glaser at Baseball America had a great breakdown of the full-season levels and the quality of play this year, which was simply described as ugly.

The Triple-A rule changes haven’t led to much, although the amount of injuries in the majors have depleted Triple-A rosters. BA quoted a scout saying that this has led to Double-A quality pitchers going to Triple-A. The league has seen an increase in velocity and a decrease in control.

The changes at the Double-A level don’t seem to have impacted the game or the stats as much. However, the players at the level are older, due to the need for replacements with guys going up to Triple-A. Rather than rushing guys from High-A to Double-A, teams will add older players to fill out the rosters. What this could be creating is a league full of Dave Littlefield type Double-A teams, full of guys who can play well at the level that is their ceiling.

BA noted that a lot of younger players got pushed to High-A after skipping over Low-A. We’ve seen that inside the Pirates’ system, most notably with 2019 first rounder Quinn Priester. The play has been reportedly sloppy, with walks up, strikeouts up, and fielding percentages down.

This raises questions on how to evaluate a guy like Priester, who was rushed to a higher level after barely any minor league playing time — with good overall results — but also isn’t striking out a lot of guys in a league where strikeouts are up.

And then, there’s Low-A.

The Pirates play in the Low-A Southeast league, which means pitchers get automated balls and strikes, and have two pickoff attempts per plate appearance. The automated strike zone has impacted the typical strike zone you’d see in the lower levels, which is impacting the game, per BA:

“Especially in Florida, it’s been a real s—show,” another AL pro scouting director said. “Long games, not a lot of strikes thrown . . . The automated strike zone has been an issue. If they’re using the major league strike zone in Low-A, it would be a very foreseeable problem. The zones are traditionally bigger at those levels, as they should be, to get a game in in less than four hours.”

The A-ball changes have focused on the base running game, and stolen bases are up in a big way. The Greensboro Grasshoppers currently lead their league with 121 steals in 153 attempts (79.1%). Two other teams have 100+ steals and only 80 games have been played. In 2019, Greensboro finished with 150 stolen bases in 227 attempts (66.1%). Different players. Different team. Different league. In High-A that same year, Bradenton had 109 stolen bases in 156 attempts (69.9%).

The Greensboro and Bradenton affiliates swapped levels and new leagues were created for those levels, so let’s just focus on the levels themselves for a second.

In 2019, the Low-A level the Pirates played in saw a 68.1% stolen base success rate, and 1.15 attempts per game.

In 2021, the Low-A level the Pirates are playing in has seen a 77.6% stolen base success rate, and 1.52 attempts per game.

The Pirates in 2019 had a 66.1% success rate and were attempting 1.64 times per game. They were stealing a lot more than average, with a lower success rate.

The Pirates in 2021 have an 84.2% success rate, and are attempting 1.22 times per game. Their Low-A talent is attempting less, and stealing a lot more.

It’s a similar story in High-A.

In 2019, the High-A league had a 67.7% success rate on stolen bases, and 1.18 attempts per game.

In 2021, those numbers both jumped to 75.4% and 1.35 attempts per game.

In 2019, the Pirates’ High-A affiliate stole 69.9% of the time successfully, with 1.16 attempts per game. They were about average to the league.

In 2021, the High-A affiliate has a 79.1% success rate and 1.91 attempts. They’re stealing a lot more than normal, and their success rate is higher than average.

In both A-ball levels, stolen bases are attempted more often, and are more successful.

Jumping to Double-A, the trend hasn’t held.

The Double-A level where the Pirates play has seen stolen base attempts go from 1.07 per game in 2019 to 1.02. The success rate has gone from 65.8% to 71.2% across the league.

The Altoona affiliate was below average in attempts and below average in success rate in 2019. This year they’re above-average in attempts and below-average in success rate.

The stolen base rates, due to the rule changes, are way up in A-ball in 2021, but not really impacted at the Double-A level. So, how do you evaluate a guy like Lolo Sanchez, stealing 24 of 30 so far this year in High-A? Sanchez is a speedy guy, expected to steal bases. His previous high was 33 in 48 attempts in 2019. He could top that total in fewer attempts this year.

Then there’s Jared Triolo, who has stolen 20 of 24. Speed isn’t part of Triolo’s game, but he is a smart baserunner. He had 16 steals in 19 attempts in 2019 between college and pro ball.

Some guys are good at spotting pickoff moves, and knowing not to budge until they see it. You can chalk these guys up to the “smart baserunner” tag. Other guys are just fast enough that they will get their steals no matter the rules. In a league where the pitcher has to telegraph his pickoff move, or in a lower-level where pitchers are limited on pickoff attempts, the system favors the smart base runners.

The problem is that this isn’t applicable anywhere else. Those rules are only in place at those levels. Just like a former Pacific Coast League hitter seeing his home run total inflated, we’re going to need to wait until Double-A to see how well the A-ball stolen base leaders do in a normal environment.

The same can be said for fielders who are limited with their defensive positioning in Double-A. That’s a set of rules that isn’t applicable anywhere else.

And what if some of those rules are applicable one day?

I put together this video of Jared Jones pitching for Monday’s article. Within that video is outstanding framing and receiving work by 2019 12th round catcher Kyle Wilkie.

It’s just that framing and receiving skills are massively reduced in value in a league with automated balls and strikes. That’s only one league for now, but an automated strike zone seems like one of the most likely minor league changes to make its way to the majors. Kyle Wilkie has displayed a poor bat so far, and if the importance of defensive skills are reduced, that changes how you approach the catching position.

If MLB infield shifts are eventually limited by the Double-A rules, it will change the way certain infielders are valued.

These are all minor changes to individual player values, and unlikely to break many careers. At worst, it will limit one-tool guys like Wilkie from getting a chance to develop the other tools in their game.

But, MLB eliminated 40 minor league teams, and all of the respective players lost jobs. They turned the remaining leagues into a science experiment. Why do they care if a Low-A backup catcher also gets lost in the shuffle?

The impact of the lost 2020 season, combined with the restructuring and the new rules, leaves the minors in chaos this year.

From that chaos, it’s still possible to scout and evaluate players. The chaos puts more scrutiny on the numbers, and more emphasis on the player reports. It also adds a few challenges for forecasting what you see at the lower levels to the upper levels, and eventually deciding what will Major League Baseball look like when the player arrives.

Every Thursday, we’ll be using this feature to provide the reports from what we’ve seen and heard throughout the system. Any notes we observe about a player, big or small, will be collected here. The hope is that this will eventually help sort out any noise from the numbers and all of the changes to the game in the last year.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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