“CALL HIM UP!”
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard Pittsburgh Pirates fans type that phrase in response to a big game from a player, or a big week, or a month-long trend — well, I probably would have spent most of that money on drugs and therapeutic consumerism to deal with the frustrating realization that most fans don’t understand the complexities of minor league baseball.
Or, probably more accurately, most Pirates fans need some sign of hope that the time they are investing into their search for dopamine from their favorite Major League baseball team is time well-spent. The idea of a prospect who is performing well and ascending toward the majors provides a sign of hope. There’s usually a lot more going on behind the numbers.
I’ve been reporting on minor league baseball for 15 seasons now. The game has massively changed in that time. The draft has gone from 50 rounds to 20. The levels of the minor leagues have been reduced and simplified. Yet, the path to the Major Leagues still requires the exact same thing.
Let’s walk through each level for my own view of the path to the big leagues.
DOMINICAN SUMMER LEAGUE
2023 Average Age: 17.7 Hitters, 18.6 Pitchers
Talent Level: 0-20
Pirates Affiliates: DSL Pirates Gold (18.6/19.2), DSL Pirates Black (17.6/17.9)
To call every prospect here a “20” because they’re in pro ball would be extremely generous. A lot of these players are athletes who are being taught the game of baseball. The games here are filled with speed and an overall lack of control. It’s what you’d expect from a complex that is essentially putting players through high school, while also teaching them the game of baseball. I think it’s important to note which players are performing well at this level, but stats are misleading here.
As for promotions, you’re talking about a young kid going to a different country to start his career. There are some 16-year-old players who are that committed, and they usually get the biggest signing bonuses. Not just because they are the toolsiest of the toolsiest, the fastest of the fast, or slightly more controlled than the best of the least controlled. It’s more work ethic toward a singular focus, with a base level of aptitude — on and off the field. Those players will spend one year here, before a jump to the US. There is a long journey from the Dominican complexes to the top of the mountain. And you can’t walk off the island.
FLORIDA COMPLEX LEAGUE
2023 Average Age: 19.4 Hitters, 20.8 Pitchers
Talent Level: 0-20
Pirates Affiliate: FCL Pirates (19.7/20.0)
Just like the DSL, this league is full of athletes, more than pro baseball players. The best players from the international ranks quickly move to this level. It is essentially an early college environment. The players live at Pirate City. They play games at Pirate City. They ride the bus to games and back to Pirate City on the same day. They sometimes perform well enough to go across town to Single-A, but they’re still living in Pirate City. Compared to the DSL, the games here are more controlled. That said, they are very wild. There are errors. A lot of errors. Bad throws. Missed cutoff men. Extra bases. Overcharged fielders. Hitters hunting mistakes. Pitchers who make them often.
There are a lot of players at this level who are here not because they dreamt of a career in baseball, but because one is possible for them by their talent level and athletic abilities. They were the best player in their high school region, or they were one of the more mature and driven players from the Dominican. This is essentially a pure development level. There are barely any fans. These games are played at noon, on the surface of the sun, with an impending monsoon scheduled to arrive around 3:17 PM each day. The most driven and controlled players are going to get to go across town and play at night time. When it is still way too hot in Florida, but more manageable than the extremes of complex ball.
2023 Average Age: 21.1 Hitters, 22.2 Pitchers
Talent Level: 20
Pirates Affiliate: Bradenton Marauders (20.5/22.1)
MLB has consolidated operations at this level to play in the same city as the rookie level complex. For years, players would go from Pirate City, all the way to places like West Virginia and Greensboro, only to return to Bradenton for advanced A-ball. This made more sense when the minor leagues had short-season teams that provided a half-step to full-season A-ball. Now? The best players at the complex can be moved across town to play their games at night, in a structure that is the same across every level of the minors through Triple-A: One team each week, with six games in a row.
The play at this level still lacks control. There are still some players who are generously graded a 20. This is the level where you first find out whether a player is a professional. Having to go perform your athletic abilities under the lights each night is the introduction to the grind that is played out at the Major League level. Talent still dominates at this level, but a driven approach toward a career in pro ball is what sends that talent to higher levels. If a player is preparing each day and showing up each night ready to play, they will produce results.
2023 Average Age: 22.2 Hitters, 23.1 Pitchers
Talent Level: 20+
Pirates Affiliate: Greensboro Grasshoppers (22.7/22.5)
I almost view the Complex/Single-A process as a group operation. The Complex league allows for development, while the Single-A level allows for implementation of that development in more serious games. The High-A level, or advanced A-ball, is where players make an important leap. They go from largely being confined to Pirate City, to living on their own and having to commute to work each game. If the complex operations are like early college, High-A is like off-campus housing and a work-study program for older college aged students. They also have the challenge of playing in front of crowds each night, rather than the 500+ people in Single-A, or the 5+ people in the FCL.
As far as promoting players to the next level, I don’t think it’s just about results. A player drafted out of high school might get comfortable doing the one thing they consistently know in this career path — playing baseball. If they’re performing well at the level on the field, but they’re still getting comfortable with the independent living or the work/life balance, it wouldn’t make sense to give them a challenge in their comfort zone with a promotion. This is the first level where players really get to live the life of a professional baseball player. That life in April is different than in June, and that life in August is different than anything they’ve experienced before in their baseball careers.
2023 Average Age: 23.7 Hitters, 24.4 Pitchers
Talent Level: 30+
Pirates Affiliate: Altoona Curve (24.5/24.3)
The Double-A level is where players begin to show if they have the talent to play in the Majors. By this point, they’ve gotten used to playing every night for at least one full season. They’ve gotten used to living on their own, taking their careers into their hands, and showing up to the park each day ready to play. They’ve probably settled on an approach for their game, though they still make mechanical adjustments when needed. If they haven’t already, these players will also start getting more media attention, which will bring the eyes and expectations of unknown fans into the mix.
What defines a Major League baseball player is quite complex. It’s not just talent, though talent is needed. Work ethic is just as important. A player who is maximizing every single moment on the field can make it further than a more talented player who still lacks control from the loose play of the lower levels. This is the level where players go from the extremes of active vs passive play, toward finding their own balanced middle path toward the Majors.
2023 Average Age: 26.3 Hitters, 27.0 Pitchers
Talent Level: 35+
Pirates Affiliates: Indianapolis Indians (25.4/26.2)
Triple-A is to Double-A what High-A is to Single-A. The higher level is more controlled and more serious on the field. It requires more discipline off the field. If you’re in Double-A, you are probably there for a full season of facing a high percentage of MLB-quality talent. If you perform in Triple-A, you could find yourself in the majors by performing each night against guys who have already been in the majors. This is also where you finally see how serious a player is about an MLB career. Talent can get you to Double-A and beyond. A solid work ethic can do the same. The work ethic players usually max out in Triple-A or on an MLB bench, while the players who are talent-fueled use this level to refine their abilities in a consistent way that the Majors demands.
This jump is significant, as players will learn to play in front of 10,000+ people at this level on a regular basis. The sensory impacts, and the energy of the crowd are higher than any other level. Yet, still nothing compared to a sold out stadium in the majors. It’s a little bit easier to focus and maintain your game plan on every single pitch in Triple-A. That becomes exponentially more difficult in the majors, with 2-4 times as many people in the stands, hundreds of thousands watching at home, and stats that will be dissected by everyone on the internet to justify whether you are one of the best 26-players for the big leagues. Triple-A provides a development stage for the big leagues.
Reaching the Major Leagues, and every moment you are in the game at the highest level, is defining.
The ones who remain in the game learn to define themselves. They stick with their approach, they adjust to any setbacks, and they have the love for the game that allows them to continue the grind — day after day, week after week, year after year, inevitable flood of failing moments after inevitable flood of failing moments. This is a game that is always changing, and that requires a special type of player who is never satisfied with their current level of success, yet who can find success where 70-80% failure rates or higher are normal. The moment you find success, the rest of the league will find out how you’re doing it, and replicate it; or find your weakness and beat you that way.
Baseball is a game of 4D chess. From the DSL all the way to the Majors, every play begins with a pitcher throwing to a hitter. It starts with this 1-on-1 battle of chess every single time. This expands when you put the ball in play for the other fielders, men on base for the catcher to manage, or factor in the overall score and situational game strategy of a nine inning game.
Major League Baseball is a game that defines players, and the definition is out of their control. Most players struggle in the majors trying to be the Major League player they pictured somewhere along the way. They all want to be the player hitting the walk off home run as everyone celebrates. They all want to be the guy throwing the last pitch of the game that no one can touch with a bat. Every single player will get that opportunity they’ve envisioned at some point in their career — so long as they remain consistent to the player they are, and don’t try to force that big outcome every time.
At the end of the day, baseball is a majestic sport that allows for some random, never before seen event to happen every single night. Being a Major Leaguer is about doing what the ever-evolving moment calls for, and executing your individual talent and abilities to rise to and above the situation.
The challenge to remain in the majors is defining yourself through the game, rather than using the game to define you. It’s a slight distinction, with a major league difference.+ posts
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.