Independent Baseball: An Introduction

An Introduction to America’s Hidden Treasure

A baseball diamond in black and white

What is Indy Ball? For starters, Independent Baseball and the respective leagues is an unaffiliated level of professional baseball played across the country by players from all backgrounds and levels of experience. According to the Atlantic League website, over 40% of their players have MLB service time.[1] The level of competition would be comparable to the Double-a level of affiliated baseball as the experience level ranges from undrafted college athletes to former major leaguers trying to hold onto a career, including former all-stars. Occasionally, you will come across a former first-round draft pick trying to brush the dust off their prospect status and prove they can still be an elite athlete.

Regarding the idea of holding onto a career, it could be argued that the Covid-19 pandemic gave independent baseball a considerable boost to its pool of talent. The timing of the Covid-19 pandemic made the minor league situation even worse as fewer drafted prospects were now joining leagues, therefore more players were at an impasse with their careers. Let’s do some basic math: 40 rounds with thirty teams (not counting for the trading of picks or loss for punishment) equates to 1,200 prospects drafted every June. Well, in 2020 that number shrank to five rounds, so only 150 athletes were drafted. While that left over a thousand undrafted free agents, MLB decided to allow teams to sign any of the undrafted players at a cost. One positive of a smaller draft, due to the smaller number of drafted players means the fewer roster spots a team is required to create. For logical reason, for every player signed, that means one other player has to be released to keep a team balanced in both roster spots and finances. In 2021, and what appears to be the new norm, the first-year player draft will only be twenty rounds for a total of approximately six hundred ballplayers instead of 1200. Therefore, that means as a whole, 600 players potentially get to keep their jobs. Now all of this is theoretical as some teams have more picks than others, however, if a team has fewer selections they still have to fill roster spots. Now with fewer players being selected, means the other avenues ranging from the independent leagues to the various non-domestic programs have more opportunities to acquire players that would have been drafted in years past. As a result, there have been more talented athletes signing up to play independent baseball as a way to continue a career and hope for a second chance to be discovered by an MLB scout.

A lot of people have grown up with a local minor league team to cheer for, whether they realized it or not as there are currently one hundred and twenty different affiliated clubs spread across eleven leagues. Before the 2021 season, Minor League Baseball (MiLB) was turned on its head when Major League Baseball (MLB) decided to completely restructure and standardize the existing minor league structure. What was originally a dirty rumor turned out to be a gut check and eventual pink slip to several communities as eighteen different teams became extinct. Luckily for the remaining cities and towns, professional baseball would remain a feature. While the reorganization of MiLB has been a slap in the face to some communities, Indy Ball has been a much-needed saving grace. While it makes sense to consolidate and standardize the leagues while limiting the number of teams an organization can have, there are better ways to go about processing change. For some of the other teams that lost their affiliations, there was life after death. The entire Appalachian League transformed from the rookie-level to a collegiate summer league to provide top amateurs the opportunity to showcase their talent not only for professional scouts but for USA Baseball giving them a potential path to playing for the national team. Six other teams that lost their parent were formed into a new MLB Draft League. Four of the teams came from the NY-Penn League (Rookie) while Trenton and Frederick came from Double-A and High-A, respectively. This draft league gives each player multiple chances to showcase all of their skills in preparation for that year’s MLB first-year player draft.

While Independent Baseball most definitely existed before this rude awakening, its foothold as a serious component of professional baseball grew enormously. Once the dust had settled and the homeless teams either found a new home or went on a hiatus, MLB announced a new designation of being a “Partner League”. MLB designated four of the Independent Baseball leagues as partners: The American Association, the Frontier League, the Atlantic League, and the Pioneer League. This agreement allows more interaction between MLB and the surrounding communities while also (unfortunately) giving the league platform to test new rule changes.

Some examples of rule changes and being a testbed, in 2021 the Atlantic League used a robotic umpire to call balls and strikes (as long as it worked…) as well as tying the designated hitter to the starting pitcher. In 2019, baseball history was made as Tony Thomas became the answer to a “Jeopardy” question. The league experimented with a rule allowing the batter the opportunity to steal first base. In laymen’s terms, if a pitch is made and subsequently dropped by the catcher, the batter has the opportunity to “steal” first base. The “Double Hook” as it is affectionately known, essentially states that when the starting pitcher is removed from the game, the team loses their designated hitter. The idea behind this rule is to encourage managers to stretch out their starter for as long as feasible, allowing a key bat to remain in the lineup. The downside to this is when your starter gets shelled in the first inning and now a team is down two players before they have recorded three defensive outs. With the 2022 season only weeks away, the league has announced the return of the dropped pitch rule, as well as modifications to the “Double Hook”. This season, if a team’s starting pitcher completes five full innings, they do not have to remove the designated hitter upon the first trip to the bullpen. This rule will hopefully convince managers to get the minimum out of every start and reward them for getting a quality start. While some traditionalists are not a fan of the designated hitter, this is a happy medium ground for both sides. Other ideas to have been tested include larger base sizes, pitch clocks, and a rumored limit to defensive shifts.

Currently, Independent Baseball consists of eight separate leagues that intend to play a regular-season: The American Association and their twelve teams, The Atlantic League with ten (with intentions to expand), the Frontier League (16), the Pecos League (16), the United Shore Professional Baseball League (4), the Pioneer League (10), the Empire League (4), and finally the Mavericks Independent Baseball League (4) for a total of 76 teams. By comparison, in 2020, the American Association only had six teams and the Pioneer League was a rookie ball league still affiliated with MLB. The Pioneer League has expanded from eight to ten teams with the Boise Hawks, a former Northwest League team, following other remnants to the improved independent league, as well as the Orem Angels becoming the Northern Colorado Owlz. To balance the league at ten, an expansion team called the Glacier Range Riders will begin to play in 2022. For brevity’s sake, the focus will be on the four partner leagues and their abbreviated histories.

The American Association, one of the oldest professional baseball leagues in the country, has a storied history between the different teams that have been members, as well as the different faces to grace their diamonds. The 1950s and 1960s proved to be a critical span for the league as three cities would have their teams replaced by new major league clubs. Kansas City became home to the Royals while Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota welcomed the renamed Twins (Senators) from our nation’s capital. According to the league website, in 1963 the league closed its doors due to the growth of MLB as a whole. The remaining teams were absorbed into the other two existing Triple-A leagues. There was a brief comeback as the new MLB teams realized they needed their own farm system, but once again the other two Triple-A leagues absorbed the new teams shuttering the American Association for a second time. On October 11, 2005, it was announced that two separate independent leagues, the Northern League and the Central League, were to merge and form a super league. This new formation would result in the resurrection of the American Association. Ten teams (Lincoln, St. Paul, St. Joe, Sioux City, Sioux Falls, Forth Worthless, Shreveport, Coastal Bend, Pensacola, and El Paso) would join in the first season, of which only three remain in the league: Lincoln, Sioux City, and Sioux Falls. St. Paul was lucky enough to gain affiliation, starring as the new Triple-A club for the Minnesota Twins thanks to the reorganization in 2021. A fourth team, Pensacola, technically folded after the 2010 season but was picked up in 2012 as the new Double-A affiliate for Cincinnati (now with Miami). Over the years and through the various formations, several stars have graced the league with their presence, including one each Max Scherzer who played for the Fort Worth franchise in 2006. The current league operates with twelve franchises in ten states across the central United States. They have announced the return of the mid-season all-star game, with the 2022 edition to be played in Chicago on July, 11.

The Atlantic League continues to improve and expand. The 2019 campaign presented eight teams but that would quickly change. The Sugar Land Skeeters, out of Texas, finished as the runner up losing 2-3 in the championship series. After the reorganization rumors became reality, they were contacted by the Houston Astros and became the Sugar Land Space Cowboys. This new moniker matched their new affiliation, serving as the Triple-A club for the Astros in the Pacific Coast League (briefly Triple-A West). The New Britain Bees are another team that is no longer with the Atlantic League, moving down to the Futures Collegiate Baseball League. Furthermore, the reorganization allowed for the Somerset Patriots to slide in as the new Double-A affiliate for the New York Yankees, replacing the Trenton Thunder (which might have ruffled some feathers). All of the moving around and affiliation swaps paid dividends and ultimately increased the talent level of the Atlantic League. With several new spots to fill, the league took advantage of two now homeless teams bringing in the Lexington Legends and West Virginia Power (now Charleston Dirty Birds) from the cold. As luck would have it, Lexington in their first year of competition in the league, won the championship defeating long-time stalwart, the Long Island Ducks. There are rumors that in the coming years, Hagerstown will join the league as an expansion giving central Maryland another professional baseball option. Hagerstown was another victim of the reorganization efforts. The league as a whole, has been a feasting ground for scouts. In 2021 alone, over 70 players had their contracts purchased by outside leagues, including at least 52 of them returned to affiliated baseball. A majority of these players began their new assignments at the Double-A or Triple-A level, which is completely appropriate.

The Frontier League was formed in the offseason between 1992 and 1993 when a group of gentlemen got together in a determined manner to find a way to better provide professional baseball for the Ohio valley region. The ending result was the formation of another independent league. The league played its first games in June of 1993, but two weeks into the season, two teams already had to fold due to financial constraints.[2] Nonetheless, over the past thirty years, the league has been able to grow to 15 teams expanding into new markets while still attracting high-quality athletes. Last year, 48 players were signed by MLB organizations proving once again that Independent Baseball contains talented individuals, a diamond in the rough so to speak. Of note, the Washington Wild Things out of Pennsylvania, are celebrating their 20th season. It is so exciting to see teams celebrate their longevity and prove that Independent Baseball is a legitimate function. Another fun part about the Frontier League is they host a mid-season all-star game, just like MLB and their affiliated leagues do, giving fans and scouts alike to see the cream of the crop in one place.

Finally, the Pioneer League and all of its glory began in 1939, but professional baseball has had a regional presence since 1901. The Utah League was established creating the first professional baseball league in the mountain states region. Over the next twenty years, the league’s name would change but baseball persisted until 1929 when the stock market crashed. The league would make a comeback when a group of six teams, including longest-tenured Idaho Falls, helped birth the newest rendition of the Pioneer League. Since then, the league has further expanded to its current membership of ten squads across four states. In 2021, the league welcomed over 800,000 fans in its first season as a partner league, as well as twenty five players, were signed by MLB organizations to continue their careers in affiliated baseball.[3] While this will sound like a broken record, independent Baseball will play a large role in professional baseball for the foreseeable future. With the continuance of a smaller MLB First-Year Player Draft, these teams can continue to feast on young talents that (for similar pay) can play closer to home while still getting noticed by scouts.

Independent Baseball is a viable option for players on all ends of the career spectrum, while also offering a reasonably priced community event for all ages. The continued growth in all four partner leagues will continue to patch the holes torn by MLB’s selfish actions in communities across the country, while also affording fans a chance to maybe see and interact with a former star at a more personal level. All things considered, the covid-19 pandemic might have given Independent Baseball the grassroots boost it needed to garner the respect it deserved.

With the 2022 season almost upon us, please stay tuned for future writings regarding key players to watch for, more league updates to include expansion and/or realignment, and analysis regarding the new rules, signings, and occurrences in America’s favorite pastime. The 2022 season is set to kick off with the Atlantic League opening its doors first on April 21, followed by the Frontier League (May 12), quickly next the American Association (May 13), and last but not least, the Pioneer League on May 21.




Written by Michael Sain

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