The Monday 9: Minor league baseball is great, and every major league team is mediocre

·16 min read

Welcome to The Monday 9, our weekly lineup of Things You Need to Know in baseball. The MLB season is a marathon, so get caught up each Monday morning right here at Yahoo Sports.

(Amber Matsumoto / Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto / Yahoo Sports)

Leading off: Minor league baseball is back. What does it mean that it was gone?

Five hundred and ninety-six days after the last game in 2019, minor league baseball is back. The pandemic erased an entire season last summer and then some at the start of this year, and Major League Baseball dis-affiliated 43 teams.

If you’ve thought about MiLB in the past year, it’s probably been consternation about what the contraction means for communities or intrigue about the experimental rule changes set to debut this season. But the primary purpose of the minors is as a development pipeline, and the sport is still coming to grips with what a season-plus without that will mean for everyone involved.

In the absence of minor league games last year, teams hosted secluded alternate sites to give higher level prospects reps and keep a pool of replacement players ready. It wasn’t all bad. If you squinted at them just right, stakes-less sim games and customizable training programs could look like a silver lining for some guys.

When I talked to Orioles GM Mike Elias about it in spring, he said there was, “a little bit of a blessing-in-disguise opportunity for a lot of these player development staffs to just dive in on all this downtime so to speak — or away from the limelight time — that they sort of wish they had along the way.”

That was maybe true for players learning a new position or pitchers who undertook velocity programs or tried to expand their repertoire. “But then a large part, most of the population of the minor leagues, was hurt by it,” Elias said.

That sentiment was echoed by Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, who cited the loss of a minor league year as the biggest impact coronavirus would continue to have on baseball — even beyond the well-documented concern about major league pitchers having to cover 162 games on the heels of a 60-game season.

“I actually think the long-term impact on the development of a lot of young players in our game, especially minor league players, is the biggest question mark,” Bloom said. “Not that workload for these pitchers is not a big issue — it is — but I do think there are some things that we think we know about how to ramp players up and maintain a good workload that could scale up to a longer season. It's the same season that these guys are used to preparing for. So at least it’s something that they’ve done, albeit not coming off of a year like this. But I think when you’re talking about young players, who need reps, who need development, and that got frozen in time and dramatically altered for every single one of them? We don’t know what that will mean for their progress, and the effects of that, if they are large, they will be with us as a sport for many years.” — Hannah Keyser

No. 2: But it’s not all bad

Even as we wait to see what a lost year of competitive development might mean for baseball as a whole, there are still plenty of highlights from the dozens of daily minor league games suddenly filling small town stadiums again.

Rays uber-prospect Wander Franco is proving that it wasn’t totally insane for fans to clamor for the 20-year-old to start the season in the majors even though he had never played above High-A. It only took him two games for the Triple-A Durham Bulls to demonstrate his full range of offensive ability: five hits, including a double, triple, home run, and a stolen base. Two-day cycles aren’t officially a thing, but they make for some pretty nice highlights.

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Meanwhile, Reds prospect Hunter Greene, the second overall pick in the 2017 draft, is back on the mound in Double-A after an entire extra year off (Greene had Tommy John surgery in 2019, which means he hasn’t pitched in a competitive game in 950 days).

How’d he look? Fast. Of his 43 fastballs thrown in a one-run, five-inning outing, 37 (!!!) were over 100 mph (!!!).

Even all the flamethrowers in the big leagues can’t desensitize you to that kind of performance. Over the past six years (as far back as Statcast measures), only 10 starting pitchers have thrown a total of 37 pitches over 100 mph in the big leagues.

Let me try saying that differently so you can sit with it another minute. If you’ve watched every single Luis Severino start since he debuted, you’ve seen him throw as many 100+ mph pitches as Greene threw in a couple hours last Wednesday night.

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Mariners president Kevin Mather resigned in February after making a slew of offensive, anti-player comments, including a quiet-part-out-loud admission of plans to manipulate the service time of top prospect Jarred Kelenic. And yet Kelenic still didn’t start the season in Seattle (an injury in March helped justify the demotion).

Relegated to Triple-A, Kelenic wasted little time making a case for throwing cost efficiency to the wind, clobbering a pair of home runs in his first game. He celebrated like a guy who knows he’s making his naysayers look stupid.

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Since then, he’s racked up four straight multi-hit games. — Hannah Keyser

No. 3: Is this parity? Or is everyone just average?

Early in the season, unexpected records dominated the storylines — the Red Sox were good, the Yankees were bad, the Royals surged into first, the NL West looked like a three-team race with the Giants sitting atop two expected powerhouses. Since then, the under- and over-performers have started to look a little more like their projections and records across baseball have coalesced right around .500. About a fifth of the way through the season, most teams are middling. It’s an extreme amount of average.

That’s how it seems looking at the records, certainly, but in an effort to quantify this in some way I made up a metric: How many teams are within two games of .500, and compared that to how many teams are above .600. It’s a little tricky to come up with a precisely comparable range since teams play a different number of games based on schedule and postponements. Here are the numbers through May 8 over the past decade (heading into Sunday’s games this year):

2011: Around .500: 9 / Over .600: 3

2012: Around .500: 7 / Over .600: 7

2013: Around .500: 5 / Over .600: 6

2014: Around .500: 10 / Over .600: 3

2015: Around .500: 11 / Over .600: 7

2016: Around .500: 10 / Over .600: 5

2017: Around .500: 11 / Over .600: 5

2018: Around .500: 6 / Over .600: 5

2019: Around .500: 6 / Over .600: 4

2021: Around .500: 16 / Over .600: 3

The 2020 season makes a rough comparison even rougher, but because it fits with the previously prevailing trend: Through August 30 last year (the same number of days) there were six teams within two games of .500 and five teams over .600. And the trend continues if you go back from 2011, too. In fact, to find a year with a greater percentage of teams within two games of .500 on May 8, you have to go back to 1974 when 14 of the then 24 teams fit the criteria. (That’s 58.3% of teams, compared to 53.3% for 16 teams this year.)

What does this mean?! I’m not sure. As a made-up stat custom designed to describe what already feels strange, it could just be capturing a fluke of this particular stretch. Is it the ever elusive parity? Or is it the result of not enough teams trying? Both of those feel like too squishy — and sort of contradictory — an explanation for something as definitive as results, especially since the 16 ~.500 teams span from big spenders like the Dodgers and Padres to the successfully thrifty Rays and the zagging Royals to the rebuilding Rangers.

But even an inexplicable (or at least, unexplained) phenomenon will still influence the season. A lack of separation between teams could keep things interesting into summer, but also put a damper on the trade deadline. — Hannah Keyser

ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - MAY 09: Corey Seager #5 and Gavin Lux #9 of the Los Angeles Dodgers are unable to field a single hit by Phil Gosselin #13 of the Los Angeles Angels during the seventh inning of a game at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on May 09, 2021 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Corey Seager and Gavin Lux take a tumble after failing to field a hit by the Angels. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

No. 4: What the Dodgers skid does and doesn’t mean

The mighty Dodgers have come upon hard times. After confirming our mental picture of them with a 13-2 start, the defending champs are 5-15 in their last 20 games and mired in third place — a whole two-and-a-half games back since, as noted above, every team is a middling team right now.

Should there be real concern for the stacked roster’s future? Well, yes and no. Mostly no.

The lineup has been exceedingly patient, but not finding the usual levels of power with Cody Bellinger still on the IL. It’s been a merely average offense during the cold streak, but that happens. Don’t worry.

Since May 1, the Dodgers have lost three games in walk-off fashion. In the crucial late innings, they sent Garrett Cleavinger and Mitch White to the bump in two apiece, and Alex Vesia to the wolves in one. Those are perfectly reasonable depth arms, but it is perhaps a quirk of injuries and early season laxity that they got high-leverage run. Still, the injuries aren’t going away. Starter Dustin May is out for the year, Jimmy Nelson is out for a while, etc. They will have to find some way to make sure a trusted arm or two is available when games are in doubt late. Especially because …

Much of the Dodgers’ eyebrow-raising record can be attributed to this: They are 1-6 in extra-inning games and 4-10 in one-run contests. That’s both jarring and almost sure to level out. What the Dodgers have lost so far is probably just a chance at the all-time wins record. Everything else is still very much there for the taking. — Zach Crizer

No. 5: Alex Reyes is finally here … but is he here to stay?

Yahoo Fantasy is taking a weekly look at who's hot and who's not — and whether you should believe in the streak. Here’s a sample from this week’s edition:

It has been a long, winding road for St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Alex Reyes to this point, but it's not hyperbole to say that he has been one of the best — if not the best — closer in baseball in the early going.

Reyes is tied for second in saves with 10, has given up just one measly run in 16 appearances, and he's yet to allow a long ball, either. Reyes has had a great start to the season — so maybe now is the time to start floating him to a saves-needy manager in your league.

Including this season, Reyes has played a combined 48 games since 2016. His injury history is well known, but even beyond the fear of an extended IL stint, regression is also coming in a big way for the flamethrower.

Consider that not only is Reyes' BABIP a microscopic .184 but he's also been getting out of jams and leaving men on base at a 95 percent clip this season. That's about as unsustainable as it gets. And while he's been effective, he's also been a bit wild, already walking 13 batters in his 16 outings.

All of those signs paint a rough picture of Reyes' rest-of-season outlook, and if there's any team with arms ready to take over the ninth-inning role if Reyes stumbles/gets injured, it's the Cardinals. Fantasy managers now have a choice to make: hang in there with Reyes when his luck starts to turn (and it will) or consider getting out now, on the trade market. — Mo Castillo

No. 6: Mutual hostility can be fun

On Tuesday night, the denizens of the Yankee Stadium bleachers had their first opportunity to taunt the Houston Astros since the sign-stealing scandal. And they made the most of it. The pent-up energy made for a fun atmosphere, yet it’s interactive pettiness that really adds the juice unique to live sports. So don’t tell Yankees fans, but we must give credit to Houston outfielder Michael Brantley for really elevating this scene.

You’ll note that Brantley was not even on the sign-stealing Astros teams, having joined in 2019, and has made approximately zero controversial statements in his career.

In the second inning, as the crowd serenaded the Astros with various expletive-laden niceties, Brantley gave chase to a foul ball that rattled around in the left field corner. As the chanting paused just long enough for arms to jut out toward the potential souvenir, Brantley picked up the ball, looked into the stands and chose to live in the narrative — turning and flipping the ball all the way back toward his own dugout.

The next inning, when he came to bat, the crowd had a new hook to latch onto. But Brantley flipped the script on them, walloping a home run deep into the right field stands, in the deck above the bleachers.

A new chant began: “THROW IT BACK! THROW IT BACK!”

The ball plopped down in the grass a few moments later, two souvenirs sacrificed to solidify the drama. — Zach Crizer

Cincinnati Reds teammates mob Wade Miley (22) after he pitched a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians in a baseball game, Friday, May 7, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
The Reds mob Wade Miley after his no-hitter vs. Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

No. 7: Too much of a good thing?

On Friday, Wade Miley threw the fourth no-hitter of the 2021 season (sorry, MadBum). The element of luck required for such a feat makes it hard to scale. For instance, there were four no hitters through the same stretch in 1917 and only one the remainder of the season. (The St. Louis Browns no-hit the Chicago White Sox in consecutive games on May 5 and 6 to really drive home how random the rate can be for relatively rare occurrences.)

That said, the rest of the league-wide stats so far this season do little to dispel the notion that we could be on pace for a record number of no-hitters. If they continue at this clip — again, unlikely, but for argument’s sake — we could end up with 20 (!!) no-hitters this year. And a whole lot of push notifications. On the whole, that’ll be just another sign that Something Needs To Be Done to change the balance between offense and pitching, but what about on an individual basis?

Lately I’ve been thinking about whether no-hitters are less impressive if there are more of them. The obvious answer is: Yes, of course. Scarcity is basically baked into how we value anything, and certainly how we experience spikes of excitement around athletic feats. Inflation is real; overexposure dulls the impact.

But does that mean Joe Musgrove’s no-hitter is less worthy of the celebration it merited at the time because John Means accomplished something similar a month later? Are no-hitters in September not as special as one thrown in April? This is, of course, a jaded sportswriter problem almost exclusively. Fans of individual teams shouldn’t have to worry that the achievement of some other club’s ace earlier in the spring undercuts how cool it would be to root for one of their own. And that’s to say nothing of the players themselves, who don’t control the environment in which they pitch.

I’m not sure anyone actually needs a take on how to feel about no-hitters. If you want to write the whole lot off as fluky anyway (you’re not wrong!) that’s fine, too. But before we’re too deep into a season that seems destined to be defined by dominant pitching, consider this a suggestion to take the individual performances at face value anyway. You start tempering accomplishments with asterisks in real time, all of baseball history suddenly looks muddy with context. The total lack of hits across the sport is not going to go unnoticed, unremarked upon, or unaddressed. I’m just saying that on the days that there are no hits, instead of just a few hits, we should still enjoy that. — Hannah Keyser

No. 8: Rat or raccoon?

The ultra-Metsy saga of Jeff McNeil and Francisco Lindor’s tunnel scuffle turned concocted wildlife sighting is nonetheless a picture of ambiguity. There probably was no rodent to judge or misjudge as rat or raccoon, but instead the incident itself has bloomed into a revealing test to rival that of the rabbit or duck image.

(Public domain)
(Public domain)

Researchers once found that Swiss study participants predominantly saw a bunny in the spring, around Easter, but a duck in October. Context and unrelated thought patterns spinning in their brains at the time affected how they saw the image.

Lindor has spun it with a smile as he and the Mets offense jolt to life. GM Zack Scott has expressed disappointment at what the story ballooned into, perhaps still set on making sure tenure won’t be marked by intermittent circus acts (sorry, you can’t change the Mets). Everyone else has mostly been bemused. But the ultimate impression of the unseen clubhouse confrontation will ultimately be shaped by untold unforeseen future events.

So: Mundane, miserable rat feasting on the discord of a disappointing team? Or the triumphant raccoon adventuring into uncharted territory? The answer will probably change several times by October. — Zach Crizer

No. 9: What to watch this week

The Rays and Yankees square off starting Tuesday to try and solidify a predominant challenger to the surprising Boston Red Sox in the AL East.

Also Tuesday: Shohei Ohtani is set to take the mound for the Albert Pujols-less and increasingly desperate Angels against the Astros.

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