As gap between Triple A, MLB widens, is the minor league reset fading away? (2024)

TOLEDO, Ohio — A door swung open, and Spencer Torkelson emerged. The No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft stepped out into a gray hallway under fluorescent lighting. He forced a smile.

Despite the fact Torkelson homered 31 times in the major leagues last year, he is here playing with the Toledo Mud Hens instead of the Detroit Tigers, back in the same place he was two years ago.

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Torkelson was not blindsided when the Tigers sent him back to Triple A on June 3. He saw the inevitable approaching with each mounting 0-fer. It seemed especially palpable when the Tigers needed a right-handed pinch-hitter June 2 in the 10th inning against the Boston Red Sox. Rather than turn to their power-hitting first baseman, manager A.J. Hinch instead inserted catcher Jake Rogers. Rogers had a .607 OPS, Torkelson .597. After the game, Torkelson got the call into the manager’s office.

“Definitely kind of saw the writing on the wall when I didn’t pinch-hit,” Torkelson said. “But it’s a results-oriented business.”

Now back in Toledo, Torkelson faces a challenge familiar both to himself and players around the league. In today’s game, where people in the industry constantly harp on the gap between Triple A and the big leagues being wider than ever, how can a struggling player make meaningful improvements? And even if the stint in the minors goes well, how does that player know if the changes will stick — and whether the organization will even trust those numbers, considering the declining reputation of the level?

“It can be a lose-lose for the player,” Hinch said. “If he does well we mitigate that with, ‘Well, it’s Triple A.’ If he doesn’t do well, we hammer him about performance.

“We want it all,” Hinch added. “We want the player to dominate the level that he’s at. But we have to look at it at a deeper level given the gap between the two levels.”

That puts players like Torkelson in a tough position. He has been given the opportunity for a reset. But even that may be treated with suspicion.

In his first 23 games at Triple A, Torkelson hit .261/.355/.435. But Triple-A stat lines rarely tell the whole story. Torkelson, for instance, is working to improve his ability to hit high-end velocity. In Toledo, he is currently hitting .273 against fastballs of 93 mph or higher, an improvement from when he hit just .131 against those pitches and missed a puzzling amount of center-cut fastballs in the majors.

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“I think my swing, my hitting ability, my power plays at any level,” said Torkelson, who was also demoted midway through his 2022 rookie season. “I guess that’s what makes it a little easier to figure it out here with some in-game reps and a lot of cage work. It isn’t really who’s on the mound. When I’m right, I can succeed.”

Torkelson will spend an undetermined amount of time trying to get right in Triple A. But can he really extract value from his time back in the minors? And how can his team know whether he’s actually making progress that will translate to the game’s highest level?

“I think,” Pittsburgh Pirates manager Derek Shelton said, “that’s the thing that everyone’s trying to figure out.”

Cincinnati Reds outfielder Nick Martini is a prototypical journeyman. He reached Triple A for the first time with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2015. He has played at that level every year since, aside from KBO stints in 2020 and 2022. He has witnessed and experienced the changes in the league over that time.

“When I first got there, there were more older guys, maybe more pitchability and stuff,” Martini said. “You’d face guys with six years, seven years (experience) in ’15, ’16. I think now, maybe, it’s more like a prospect-ish league.”

Anecdotally, changes in the sport at the MLB level have also altered the Triple-A game. Because of baseball’s obsession with stuff, older pitchers who hit the corners may be phased out in favor of stuff-heavy prospects. The prospects with the best stuff, though, tend to get to the majors quickly. The net result is fewer MLB-caliber pitchers in Triple A. Roster cuts in the minor leagues may have accelerated this phenomenon.

“You’re still going to see the velocity,” Martini said, “but you might see a couple more over the heart of the plate.”

Given the wide gap between levels, there’s an anecdotal increase in teams being willing to see players make the adjustment at the MLB level, struggles in the interim be damned. The fact young hitters are struggling in the majors is no longer a newsflash. Only six qualifying MLB players age 24 or younger have an OPS above .800. The growing question: What can teams do about it?

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Each club has its own balance. On the Baseball isn’t Boring podcast, Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash framed struggles for young players in the major leagues as a sort of prerequisite.

“I think we, as a Rays organization, have learned the big leagues are tough,” Cash said on the podcast. “It’s challenging. It’s getting better. The separation, the gap between Triple A to the big leagues, I think you could argue is as great as it’s ever been. Sometimes, what we’ve learned is there’s a benefit to getting a guy up with the thought that there’s a chance he goes back down and he’s better for it.”

So then, even if the stats and the physical skills may not be direct translations, is there still benefit in the classic reset?

Nick Gonzales of the Pirates, the seventh pick in the 2020 draft, is among players who have benefited from extended time in Triple A. He spent the bulk of the 2023 season in the minors. After hitting .216 in his first 31 games with the Pirates, he was demoted and later brought back for the final four games of the season.

Gonzales had a strong spring, but the Pirates sent him to Triple A for more seasoning. He posted a 1.039 OPS over 30 games and finally returned to the majors. Through Sunday, he was hitting .280 with a .755 OPS with the Pirates.

“It’s a little bit easier to make those adjustments (in Triple A) rather than it is here, just in terms of the schedule, playing the same team for six days,” Gonzales said. “I think it’s important. I can say from my experience, it helped me.”

Perhaps baseball’s highest-profile reset is playing out right now in Triple-A Norfolk. At the conclusion of spring training, the Baltimore Orioles decided to send No. 1 pick Jackson Holliday to Triple A. Holliday was the No. 1 overall pick who showed all the makings of a future star. He promptly posted a .333/.482/.595 line over his first 10 games in Norfolk.

As gap between Triple A, MLB widens, is the minor league reset fading away? (1)

Jackson Holliday’s first MLB callup didn’t go quite as planned. (Kim Klement Neitzel / USA Today)

At last the Orioles promoted Holliday, and you may know what happened next. Holliday began his major league career 2-for-34 and was demoted to the minors after only 10 games. The Orioles actually pulled the plug on Holliday quicker than many teams have with prospects over the past couple of seasons.

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Back in Triple A, Holliday now has an .895 OPS, but the Orioles are not rushing him back to Baltimore. Teams, perhaps more than ever, are having to dig into underlying numbers and trying to determine what is real and what is not.

“There’s so many more details that get exposed in the big leagues that we try to look at a little deeper when we’re looking at Triple-A players,” Hinch said. “It’s not easy, because we don’t want to create the notion that statistics don’t matter or (how) you perform doesn’t matter, because it does. But it’s not always the end-all, be-all.”

The reasons Triple-A performance does not always translate to the majors are numerous. The most obvious is the talent level. The best players are in the majors. Pitching is always at a premium. The top arms typically spend little time in Triple A and instead vault to the big leagues, where pitching is better than ever and offense is at historic lows.

“Everybody in the big leagues throws 100,” Shelton said. “It’s not that there’s not velocity in Triple-A, it’s just not the amount of velocity there is (in the majors). And, not only velocity of the fastball, but the velocity of the breaking ball. You see multiple guys that throw 90 mph sliders and 92 mph sliders and 88 mph curveballs. Like, it’s a big difference.”

Entering this past weekend, the average velocity for MLB four-seam fastballs and sinkers was 93.9 mph. In Triple A, it is 92.7.

In the major leagues, pitchers throw sliders (including sweepers and slurves) 22.6 percent of the time, at an average of 84.9 mph. In Triple A, sliders are thrown only 17.6 percent, at an average of 83 mph. Drop-offs in the Stuff+ metric tend to be even more stark.

And just as hitters are focusing on underlying factors they hope will get them to the big leagues, pitchers are doing the same. Hitters may not have their weaknesses attacked with the same ruthlessness.

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“The scouting report doesn’t matter,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “You’re pitching to develop whatever you need for that guy to make it to the big leagues.”

The minor leagues also shifted schedules before the 2021 season, in part to aid physical recovery and ease the grind of minor-league travel. Teams now play six-game series. Hitters see the same relief pitchers multiple times and even see the same starting pitchers within the span of a week. If familiarity breeds contempt, it also sometimes breeds higher batting averages.

“Six games around against the same pitching staff, at one point, probably the weekends become quite a bit easier,” Cora said.

For those reasons and more, the run-scoring environment is drastically different. In the major leagues, the leaguewide batting average is .242 as opposed to .259 in Triple A. The walk rate in Triple A is 11.1 percent compared to 8 percent in the major leagues.

Some of this may be a product of the pitching. Some of the excess walks could be the unintended consequence of experimentation with the automated strike zone.

“The ABS, it narrows zones down a little bit, which makes it a different ability to hit,” Shelton said. “I think we’re all kind of looking into it. I just think major league arms are so good now that that’s the biggest separator.”

As gap between Triple A, MLB widens, is the minor league reset fading away? (2)

Rob Refsnyder established himself as a big league regular thanks partly to mid-career time in Triple A. (Gerry Angus / Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

Through his age 29 season, Rob Refsnyder had a career 65 OPS+ in the major leagues. He was constantly the 26th or 27th man on major league rosters. He bounced up and down, signed minor-league deals and made the majors with five different clubs. He has 2,079 career plate appearances in Triple A.

Today, he is hitting second or third most nights for the Red Sox.

Having seen all sides of the equation, Refsnyder looks back and credits certain coaches with helping him make tangible improvements. He praised the Minnesota Twins’ player development system and coaches such as Minnesota’s Matt Borgschulte, Texas’ Cody Atkinson and Boston’s Peter Fatse.

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“There’s a lot of things that you can work on if the organization gives you a really good plan,” Refsnyder said. “Like, ‘Hey, like, we want you to drive the ball a bit more. We want you to do this, this and this.’ … Now, there are a lot of people in Triple A that have no idea what they need to work on. But I think it’s a little bit better than when I was going through all that stuff.”

Although Torkelson did not dive into what, if any, tangible adjustments the Tigers want him to make, he is slowly showing better signs in Triple A. He homered twice June 25 against the Louisville Bats, one of them off a 95.2 mph fastball.

“I’ll never be the one to walk in someone’s office and be like, ‘I’m ready. Call me back up,’” Torkelson said. “They have an idea of what they want to see. … The front office makes the final decision. If they believe I’m ready, I’m ready.”

Despite all the data backing every front-office decision, there are still unsolvable mysteries in the player development puzzle.

Torkelson hit 31 home runs last season and seemed on a path to greater improvements.

Refsynder was a relative nobody into his 30s. Now, at 33, he is hitting .322 for the Red Sox. Talent gap or not, Refsnyder knows as well as anyone how unpredictable certain parts of the game remain.

“Anybody who’s so certain it’s going to translate, I call bulls— on it,” Refsnyder said.

— The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrans and Chad Jennings contributed to this story.

(Top photo of Torkelson: Duane Burleson / Getty Images)

As gap between Triple A, MLB widens, is the minor league reset fading away? (2024)

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