If you’re not a super serious baseball fan, you probably have no idea what minor league baseball is, and that’s okay. The game of baseball, in general, seems to be the only major sport in America where players are still developing and refining their skills even through their mid-20s. Even the very best high school and college players do not possess skills refined enough to compete immediately after being drafted. Any story of a player skipping minor league baseball is noteworthy.
Since the turn of the century, only Xavier Nady, who was drafted out of Cal Berkeley, and Mike Leake, drafted out of Arizona State, have skipped minor league baseball all together after being drafted out of either high school or college. However, both barely count. Nady received a lone at-bat for the Padres and began the following year in the minors. Mike Leake did not play the year he was drafted but came back the next year, giving him extra time to develop. The last American-born and drafted player to truly skip the Minors entirely was John Olerud from Washington State in 1989.
Each major league team provides players for their own minor league teams. The lowest rung on the minor league ladder is Rookie ball. The Arizona League and Gulf Coast League hold the rookie ball teams for all 30 MLB organizations. There is also an advanced/upper rookie ball level, but not all organizations have a team at this level. Usually high schoolers and lower drafted college players begin at rookie levels. The next level is short season single-A ball, where the season does not start until the end of extended spring training. One level is regular single-A, sometimes referred to as low-A. The next level up, and the last level of single-A, is advanced single-A. The best college players, or simply the oldest players drafted, usually begin at some variation of single-A ball.
The next jump is said to be the greatest in minor league baseball. Although going up each level in general can be a tough task, there is no greater adjustment than the jump from single-A to double-A. This is because by the time a player has reached double-A, they have been in the minors for some time, and have thus refined their skills and raw talent. The game becomes much cleaner. The next level is triple-A. Although technically above double-A, this level is not necessarily more competitive. Sometimes organizations will stash backup players at triple-A, so the players at that level tend to be more experienced, but not always more talented. Sometimes organizations will call up players directly from double-A, skipping triple-A.
As I mentioned before, baseball is the only major sports in America that possesses this type of farm system. In the N.B.A., the best players coming out of the draft are ready to make an immediate impact on the court. For example, the Lakers didn’t stash Lonzo Ball, the no. 2 overall draft pick, in the G-League, the N.B.A.’s lone minor league level, until he was ready. Instead they anticipated he would be an impact player this year. Call-ups from the G-League are so rare they qualify as news. Whereas, in baseball, players get called up from the minors all the time. The N.F.L. has no minor league system of any kind. The N.H.L. is the only other sport that views minor leaguers as legitimate prospects, but to an extent that does not compare to baseball.
For whatever reason, players take much longer to develop in baseball. Being able to predict which players will develop into stars is a difficult task in and of itself. This is mainly because many baseball players are late bloomers.
To a member of the general public, the idea of watching raw, undeveloped players on a small stage might not be as appealing as going to a major league game. However, in recent times, minor league baseball has seen a huge surge in popularity. According to a league report posted by Minor League Baseball (MiLB), minor league teams drew almost 42 million fans in 2017, the the 13th consecutive season of drawing at least 41 million fans. The Dayton Dragons, the single-A team for the Cincinnati Reds, hold the North American record for most consecutive sellouts in all professional sports leagues, with a streak of 1,246 consecutive games. Their ability to draw fans is unparalleled.
Soon enough, minor league teams may be able to compete for attendance with their own parent clubs. Last week, the Marlins double-A team, the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp, drew a crowd of 6,960 fans, edging their parent club, who drew 6,150 fans.
Although this is probably more of a manifestation of current popular displeasure the Miami fan-base has with how the Marlins traded their three best players, it is still noteworthy that minor league baseball is much more popular than one might think.
A variety of factors might be fueling this popularity, including accessibility. Major league games are becoming more and more expensive, with parking cost and food costs rising in addition to the price of the ticket. My local minor league team in Southern California charges around $15 for the best seat in the house, which might not even get you parking at Dodger Stadium. The price isn’t the only thing that makes minor league games accessible. There are 176 Mi.L.B.-affiliated teams, far outnumbering the M.L.B.’s 30. Many of these teams are located in places where there is no Major League Baseball team nearby. Utah, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and New Mexico are states without an M.L.B. team, but with a number of Mi.L.B. teams.
If you haven’t been to a minor league baseball game, I’m sure there is a team in your area. Minor league teams take pride in providing a fun, family-friendly atmosphere for those looking for a more peaceful experience at the ballpark. Given the relative affordability and incredible atmosphere, it’s no surprise we have seen such a rise in popularity the past several years.