10 ways to remember the 2021 MiLB season

December 29th, 2021

The 2021 Minor League season technically came to an end on Oct. 3, the final day of the Triple-A Final Stretch. The 2021 year technically comes to an end Saturday at the stroke of midnight.

While others use these final days of the calendar to reflect on the last 12 months that were, we here at MLB Pipeline can do the same to look back on the 2021 Minor League campaign, with a little extra room for hindsight baked in.

These are 10 of the themes, moments and memories we’ll carry with us from this past Minor League season:

1. There was a Minor League season at all.
There were zero full-season Minor League games in 2020. There were 7,215 in 2021. It wasn’t always seamless or perfect, but after the coronavirus pandemic knocked out all of Minor League Baseball, it was such a joy to see games return this summer. No more relying on alternate training site reports. No more wondering how top prospects were spending their time behind closed doors. We got to see and track their progress in ballparks from coast to coast. Communities could gather around diamonds again and cheer on the local nine once more. From home plate to the dugout to the farthest seat in the park, fun returned to MiLB in 2021.

2. New structure
It wasn’t just the return of games that felt new this summer.

The 2021 season marked the beginning of a new format to Minor League Baseball, spearheaded by Major League Baseball. The 30 farm systems now use their four full-season affiliates (Triple-A, Double-A, High-A, Low-A) as well as complex clubs in Arizona, Florida and the Dominican Republic. Gone are Class A Short Season and Rookie-level leagues. The Pioneer League now stands as an MLB Partner League, while the Appalachian and MLB Draft Leagues operate as collegiate wood-bat circuits. Many organizations flipped some of their High-A and Low-A clubs (e.g. the old Class A Advanced Florida State League is now known as Low-A Southeast).

The good news is that the affiliations now in place can settle in for longer periods with Major and Minor League clubs signing 10-year player development licenses (PDLs). No more playing the affiliate shuffle every two or four years. Many (though not all) of the changes now locked in allow parent clubs and their Minor League teams to be closer geographically, making travel easier on players and fans alike.

3. Move to a six-game series format
The Minor League schedule looked a little different this year. All clubs at every full-season level moved to a six-game series model, meaning two teams would be matched up for six games at one location each week. This allowed for a designated off-day every week -- Wednesday for Triple-A West, Monday for every other full-season circuit. The six-game model limited travel -- a necessity during an ongoing pandemic -- and the scheduled off-day was a boost to players, coaches and Minor League staff. Having a consistent day off each week -- rather than two or three at inconsistent times in a month -- had its mental and physical benefits for those involved in the game.

Schedules for 2022 are already out, and the six-game series will return next spring with one caveat -- Triple-A West clubs will also have Mondays off. Garfield should look into taking on a Minor League schedule.

4. Rule changes
Several rule changes hit the Minors in 2021 and were spread out, according to level and (in some cases) leagues.

The most popular may have been the 15-second pitch clock that arrived at Low-A West. To see the effect the clock had, consider that California League nine-inning games averaged 3 hours, 3 minutes in 2019. This season that was down to 2 hours, 43 minutes. No other full-season league averaged lower than 2 hours, 53 minutes in 2021, so it was clear that the pitch clock did its job.

Low-A Southeast saw the introduction of an automated balls-and-strikes system (i.e. “robot” umpires) that was altered midway through the season following feedback from those in the game. The new zone, which went into effect in late July, widened the zone by two inches on each side of the plate (four inches total) and took about 3 ½ inches off the top of it. Also, a change was made to measure pitches at the middle of the plate, rather than at the front of it. These alterations were signs of how much ABS remains a work in progress and what it could look like in its final stage if it ever reaches the Majors.

Elsewhere, limitations on pickoffs and new stepoff rules sent Low-A and High-A stolen-base attempts skyrocketing. The top eight and 20 of the top 22 full-season teams on the steals leaderboard came from those two levels.

5. Tampa Bay’s dominance across all levels
The Rays entered the 2021 season with MLB Pipeline’s top farm system in the game. That ranking spoke to the top talent the organization had as well as its considerable depth. Tampa Bay put all of that to good use with a Minor League season for the ages in 2021.

Triple-A Durham, High-A Bowling Green, Low-A Charleston and the Florida Complex League Rays all won their league championships this summer. Durham (86-44), Bowling Green (82-36) and Charleston (82-38) also happened to be the only Minor League teams with 80-plus wins. Double-A Montgomery (62-55) came within one win of raising its own trophy in Double-A South but fell to Mississippi in a pivotal Game 5. All the same, Rays affiliates finished with a collective .653 winning percentage -- making them akin to a 106-win Major League squad but for an entire system.

There were individual stars here. Wander Franco, of course, graduated to the Majors after one last dominant push at Triple-A. Taj Bradley led full-season Minor League qualifiers with a 1.83 ERA. Shane Baz owned a 113/13 K/BB ratio before his ascent to the Majors. Colby White (1.44 ERA, 0.66 WHIP, 104 K in 62 1/3 innings) was arguably the Minors’ most dominant reliever. Josh Lowe enjoyed a 20-20 season at Triple-A. The list went on. It’s going to take a titanic effort for a farm system to produce a better Minor League season in the years ahead.

6. Orioles rise to top farm system spot
That said, graduations among the Rays ranks left the top farm-system spot up for grabs this summer. That was claimed in MLB Pipeline’s midseason farm system rankings by Tampa Bay’s AL East foes, the Baltimore Orioles.

Franco’s move to the Majors allowed catcher and 2019 top pick Adley Rutschman to take the No. 1 overall prospect slot. What made that all the more special was that his teammate and batterymate Grayson Rodriguez (No. 8) also became Pipeline’s top overall pitching prospect at the same time. That marked just the second time -- and first since 2017 -- that an organization could boast the top position-player and pitching prospect in its system. D.L. Hall, Gunnar Henderson and Colton Coswer give the group additional Top 100 heft, and players like Jordan Westburg, Kyle Bradish and Connor Norby are more than just depth names.

It’s clear Baltimore plans to build around this prospect core, and while it’ll need to do more to supplement the young names with additional talent, this climb to No. 1 is indicative of just how close the O’s could be to contention with the right moves and development.

7. The Minor League home run chase
This one could have been personal. Royals prospect MJ Melendez and Marlins slugger Griffin Conine were not only going neck-and-neck to claim the Minor League home run lead this summer, they were also bonded by their fathers. Melendez’s dad, Mervyl, is the head coach at Florida International, where Conine’s dad, Jeff (Mr. Marlin himself), works as associate head coach.

In the end, Melendez beat out Conine, 41-36. (Fellow Royals prospect Nick Pratto also finished with 36.) The final tally could have been much closer, if not for Melendez’s additional playing time in the Triple-A Final Stretch with Omaha that counted toward regular-season stats. He hit four more dingers after Conine’s Double-A Pensacola squad called it a season. Alas, you can bet there might be some bragging rights in South Florida this winter and in the Panthers dugout come the spring.

8. Bobby Witt Jr.’s 30-30 pursuit
Sticking with Royals prospects, Bobby Witt Jr. came so very close to joining an elite group of Minor League performers. The Kansas City shortstop finished with 33 homers and 29 steals between Double-A Northwest Arkansas and Triple-A Omaha. That left him one theft shy of becoming the Minors’ only 30-30 player in 2021 and the fifth since 2010, joining Kyle Tucker, Luis Robert and George Springer on that list.

Then again, you could make the case he did earn steal No. 30. Witt swiped his 30th bag on Sept. 30 at Iowa, only for the game to be canceled due to rain in the bottom of the third. Because the contest never resumed, the steal wasn’t official, leaving Witt’s total at 29. In theory, he could go for it again in 2022, but if he performs up to his incredibly high standards, he should be in Kansas City way too early to pick up significant Minor League counting stats.

9. Anthony Volpe’s breakout toward the Bronx
The 20-year-old Yankees shortstop had pedigree as a 2019 first-round pick coming into the season, but he quickly blew expectations out of the water. He hit .294/.423/.604 with 27 homers over 109 games between Low-A Tampa and High-A Hudson Valley. His 1.027 OPS and 170 wRC+ were both tops among full-season qualifiers. His 68 total extra-base hits ranked third-most in all of the Minors. Once thought of as a solid prospect who could do many things but little at an elite level, Volpe shot up to the No. 15 spot in the Top-100 prospect rankings, earning strong reviews for his hit tool and power potential.

There’s a lot of debate in New York these days surrounding the future of the shortstop position. Following his 2021, Volpe is closer than ever to claiming the six spot for his own for the long term.

10. Draft changes
The First-Year Player Draft is the entry point for many professional players, and that too saw some alterations in 2021. After a brief move to five rounds in 2020, the Draft switched to a 20-round format for this edition.

Even the timing changed. Traditionally held in June, the process was held in July to coincide with the All-Star Game in Denver. It was even held in that city as part of All-Star festivities. No longer were some college players still competing on their Draft days. That was important for Vanderbilt stars Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker, who went second to the Rangers and 10th to the Mets respectively. Leiter eventually made news by signing for $7,922,000 (the fourth-largest bonus in Draft history) while Rocker generated plenty of headlines the other way when the Mets did not come to an agreement with him before the Aug. 1 deadline.

The 2022 Draft time and location is still yet to be announced, but keeping it wrapped up in All-Star festivities is likely to be given heavy consideration.