8 ways to appreciate the gap between the Majors and Minors

Minor League Statcast data now available at Baseball Savant

March 17th, 2024

Since reliable pitch tracking came online in 2008, we have more than 11 million tracked regular season and postseason pitches in Major League play. It’s a dataset that revolutionized the game, but what we haven’t had nearly so reliably is the same information for the Minor Leagues. We know prospects are good, professional players, and in some cases, future superstars. We also know playing down on the farm is not the same as being in the bigs. But how much of a difference is it?

While that information has existed in pockets and behind private walls over the years, today we can look at it a little more easily with the addition of Minor League Statcast data to Baseball Savant, which you can access here.

To be clear, what we have here is not a full and complete data set, at least in the same way it is for the Majors. For Triple-A, it includes all of 2023, as well as Pacific Coast League games and Charlotte home games in 2022. For Single-A, it dates back to 2021, but only for the eight Statcast-enabled Florida State League parks. There’s not any Double-A at all included at this time. Still, that’s nearly two million pitches, regular and postseason, and that’s more than enough to draw some broad conclusions.

So: What have we learned? Let’s share some big takeaways. (Unless otherwise noted, all comparisons here will be across 2021-23, regular and postseason combined.)

1) How much harder do Major League pitchers throw than Minor Leaguers?

Velocity is positively correlated to success, and while it’s not the only thing that matters -- yes, there are always outliers like Kyle Hendricks succeeding in the bigs throwing 88, while triple-digit flamethrowers who can’t find the plate in the Minors never make it up at all -- you’d absolutely expect that big leaguers throw harder than prospects. The eye test says so, and so do the scouting reports.

So, too, does the data. Let’s stick to four-seamers and sinkers as the truest test of velocity, and the gap between our three levels is expectedly large.

Four-seam/sinker velocity

  • MLB: 93.7 mph
  • Triple-A: 92.7
  • Single-A: 91.1

It stands out even more if we look just at the rate of those fastballs that touch 95 mph. In the Majors, it’s three times as often as in Single-A.

Rate of four-seam/sinkers 95 mph or faster

  • MLB: 32%
  • Triple-A: 19%
  • Single-A: 11%

Even understanding that we don’t have all of Single-A tracked, it’s hard to think that would meaningfully change across the board.

Unsurprisingly: lower-level batters have a harder time catching up with the high-octane heat they do see. You can see that Major League hitters can make somewhat more contact than their Minor League counterparts at pitches 95 mph and up, if we look at it by swing-and-miss rate.

Whiff rate on pitches 95 MPH+

  • MLB: 23%
  • Triple-A: 25%
  • Single-A: 29%

In addition, we can see something extremely interesting happening in the Cubs system, where 33% of their tracked four-seamers and sinkers have been 95 mph or faster, the most of any organization -- and the exact opposite of their Major League staff, which has rated 30th of 30 teams over the last three seasons at 14%. (In part, to be sure, because of Hendricks.)

On the flip side, the Marlins and Mariners are the two organizations with the least tracked velocity in the Minors, yet they’re two of the hardest-throwing staffs in the Majors.

2) How much more do Major League curveballs drop than Minor League curveballs?

A lot.

Because we’re comparing hundreds of different pitchers in different velocity bands, we’ll use induced vertical break, or IVB, which removes velocity from the equation and compares the flight of a ball to a theoretical spin-free pitch -- i.e., it attempts to tell you how much movement came because of what the pitcher was doing to it, aside from gravity.

Last year in the Majors, for example, the curves with the most induced break offered more than 18 inches of IVB, and the top of the leaderboard included curve specialists like Max Fried, Seth Lugo and Clayton Kershaw. Also on that list was St. Louis’ Zack Thompson, at -18.8 (a negative number, for a curveball, is good). When he was in the Minors last season, he was getting -18.2 inches, the most of any regular curveballers in our Minors dataset.

But in general, curves should curve less in the Minors, right? Yes.

Induced vertical break, curveballs

  • MLB: -9.6 inches
  • Triple-A: -8.2 inches
  • Single-A: -6.0 inches

The average Single-A curveball gets about two-thirds as much induced drop as the average Major League curveball. You’ll be unsurprised to know that the swing-and-miss rate against curves drops from Single-A hitters (37%) to Triple-A hitters (34%) to Major League hitters (32%).

3) That means sliders must slide a lot more too, right?

Compared to the lower levels, yes.

You better believe it. Let’s look at this one from the framework of “what percentage of your sliders have more than 12 inches of horizontal break,” and the results are outstanding. For this, we’ll look just at 2023.

Rate of sliders (all types) to have 12+ inches of break

  • MLB: 26%
  • Triple-A: 25%
  • Single-A: 16%

Major League sliders are nearly twice as likely to have that kind of movement as Single-A sliders, which says a lot about how difficult it is to climb the ladder.

You can see it on a team-level basis, too. For example: The Yankees were one of the earliest adopters of the sweeper -- or “whirly,” as they often call it -- and over the last three years, only one team has thrown one more often. But far more interesting than how often is how much, by which we mean: Can we see a pattern in which organizations throw the sweepiest sliders? Just look at how much more sweep they got at Triple-A last year than any other team.

Rate of sliders to have 12+ inches of break, AAA teams

  • 59% // Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Yankees)
  • 40% // Salt Lake (Angels)
  • 38% // Norfolk (Orioles)
  • 38% // Tacoma (Mariners)
  • 37% // Worcester (Red Sox)

That’s a huge gap, and it’s mostly because of Greg Weissert, Ryan Weber, Matt Bowman, Mitch Spence, Sean Boyle and Zac Houston, all with at least 90% of their sliders breaking by a foot or more. At the other end, Rochester, the Triple-A affiliate of the Nationals, had only 9% of those high-breaking pitches.

4) Major League hitters must hit harder, though, right?

But all isn’t lost for hitters. While the pitches they face are indisputably nastier than what we see on the farm, the hitters themselves are more talented, too. We can see that by looking at hard-hit rate, which is simply the percent of batted balls that are struck with an exit velocity of 95 mph or harder. There’s a clear gap between the Majors and Triple-A, and then there’s a clear gap between that and Single-A. While we don’t have Double-A data, it’s pretty easy to estimate where it would slot in here.

Hard-hit rate

  • MLB: 39%
  • Triple-A: 36%
  • Single-A: 31%

Major Leaguers simply hit the ball hard more often, which absolutely tracks. If we look at the Minor League hard-hit leaders from last year, with a minimum of 100 tracked batted balls, you’ll see in the top 10 the expected combination of prospects on the way up (Kyle Stowers, Mark Vientos, Elly De La Cruz), up-and-down veteran types (Luke Voit, Alex Jackson), and players you’ve now learned something about -- like Yankees catcher Agustin Ramirez, who came in 10th on the list.

Obviously, moving on up the levels causes a hitter to see more difficult pitching. It was still satisfying, however, that when we looked at the 555 batters who had at least 100 tracked Triple-A balls in our data, that coming in 554th was Billy Hamilton, at 12.1%. In his Major League career, he’d been at just 10%. The skills are consistent.

5) So then home runs must go further in the Majors too, right?

They’d pretty much have to, and yes. It’s not a huge difference between the Majors and Minors, but it’s there.

Average home run distance

  • MLB: 400 feet
  • Triple-A: 396 feet
  • Single-A: 386 feet

That said, this might be an area where the tracking locations are hurting Single-A, since the parks not included are mostly in California, and tend to be some of the friendlier hitter’s parks in the Minors.

The longest tracked homer, for what it's worth: Jo Adell's 514-foot bomb last June, which came in the high-elevation environment of Salt Lake City.

6) Which Minor League systems barrel up the ball the most?

A barrel, to remind, is the perfect combination of exit velocity and launch angle -- hit it hard and in the air, basically. Last year in the Majors, the leader in barrels were exactly who you’d expect them to be, names like Ronald Acuña Jr., Shohei Ohtani and Aaron Judge. Perhaps, by looking into the Minors, we can see which teams are collecting the best mashers.

So sure, we could look at all 30 organizations and rank them by barrel rate, with Boston at the top and Toronto at the bottom, but that’s not exactly a fair look. That’s because while we have Triple-A tracking for all 30 teams, we don’t have that for all Single-A teams, and since the lower-level hitters are weaker, that skews things a little -- the top 10 organizations are all ones where we don’t have data on their Single-A teams. It’s not hard to guess why. Instead, we need to split it by level. When we look at it just at Triple-A, we find that … OK, it’s still Boston at the top and Toronto at the bottom.

Triple-A barrel rate team leaders

  • 9.1% // Worcester (Red Sox)
  • 8.7% // St. Paul (Twins)
  • 8.1% // Durham (Rays)
  • 8.0% // Lehigh Valley (Phillies)
  • 7.9% // Norfolk (Orioles)
  • 7.9% // Sugar Land (Astros)

However, there’s a trick here, and that’s this: Not every Minor Leaguer is a prospect on the way up, at least not in the way you think. When you look at the WooSox leaders, you’ll see Ceddanne Rafaela and Wilyer Abreu, a pair of young outfielders the team expects to break through in 2024. But you’ll also find Bobby Dalbec, who turns 29 this year and hasn’t been able to stick in the Majors despite parts of four seasons there, and Daniel Palka, 32 years old, who hit 27 homers for the White Sox back in 2018 before going to Korea.

That all counts, but it’s not really young up-and-coming prospects, either, is it? Let’s do the same thing -- but only for players who were 25 or younger. The list changes considerably.

Triple-A barrel rate team leaders (25 and under)

  • 10% // St. Paul (Twins)
  • 9.3% // Tacoma (Mariners)
  • 8.8% // Oklahoma City (Dodgers)
  • 8.6% // Sugar Land (Astros)
  • 8.4% // Louisville (Reds)

Different, right? Looking at the Twins leaders, we see that four of the names there -- Alex Kirilloff, Royce Lewis, Edouard Julien and Matt Wallner -- eventually made it up to the Majors to make big impacts on the 2023 Twins, and they’re being counted upon in 2024, too. Keep an eye out for young catcher Jair Camargo, who had a 17% barrel rate. He was acquired in 2020’s Kenta Maeda trade, and he’s making Jim Callis’ scouting report look very good.

7) Does the third time through the order effect work in the Minors, too?

By now, everyone knows about the ‘third time through the order’ effect in the Major Leagues, the one that’s helped shorten starting pitcher outings because the numbers so clearly show that a pitcher is less effective the third time he faces a batter. While it’s a recent discussion, it’s not a recent effecteven Bob Gibson, for example, was 27 points of OPS worse the second time through than he was the first time, and then 48 points worse the third time than the second time.

So: Do we see the same effect happen in the Minors? It’s tricky at the lower levels, because it just doesn’t happen as often. (In the Majors, 20% of pitches from starting pitchers came the third time through or beyond, and it’s a nearly identical 19% at Triple-A. But at Single-A, it’s halved, just 10%.)

Still, let’s look at what the numbers say.

OPS by times through the order, SP (1st/2nd/3rd+)

  • MLB: .700 // .735 // .775
  • Triple-A: .768 // .828 // .829
  • Single-A: .693 // .731 // .741

So what can we take from that? They all get worse from the first time to the second time, between 35 points of OPS and 60 points worse. They all get worse from the first time to the third time, between 45 points and 75 points worse. The effect lives!

The effect is actually most pronounced at the Major League level, and somewhat less so at the Single-A level. Why is that? It’s not because Single-A pitchers are more talented than their Major League counterparts, of course. It could be about the lesser talent of the batters they’re facing, or that the fact that it’s so rare for it ever to happen at that level means that only the best of the best are even given the chance to do it.

8) Do pitchers have lesser command in the Minors?

You’d think so, right? Command and control are difficult things to measure, but we have some ways to get at it. Is it how often you hit the outer edges of the strike zone? Advantage, big leaguers.

Outer edges of zone rate

  • MLB: 43%
  • Triple-A: 40%
  • Single-A: 39%

Is it how often you throw strikes at all? Big leaguers are a little better at hitting the zone, too.

In-zone rate

  • MLB: 49%
  • Triple-A: 46%
  • Single-A: 43%

How about just how often the pitcher gets ahead with a strike on the first pitch?

Rate of plate appearances with an 0-1 count

  • MLB: 50%
  • Triple-A: 47%
  • Single-A: 46%

It’s not that any of this is surprising. It’s expected -- of course Major Leaguers are better than Minor Leaguers, as that’s the entire point of progressing through a system. It’s just that now it’s a little easier to put some numbers to it, and in some sense, that the gap isn’t even larger tells you a lot about just how talented all these prospects are. You can view all of the data here.