Are you new to indy ball, either as a fan or a player? Here’s your crash course in independent baseball.
What is indy ball?
Independent baseball (or indy ball) is a group of leagues with teams that are not affiliated with any major league baseball (MLB) organization.* Each team is independently owned and operated.
*Starting in 2021, there are now four independent leagues that are considered Partner Leagues to the MLB; However, they still do not have an affiliation with any specific team/organization.
MLB teams have affiliated minor league teams (AAA, AA, High A, Low A and may have 1-2 Rookie teams at their spring training complex as well as one international summer team in the Dominican Republic). These players have contracts with a major league organization.
Independent teams have players that are signed to a contract for only that team. It does not mean that the talent level in indy ball is below affiliated rookie ball. In fact, indy leagues have an equivalent level of play to various affiliated levels (more on that in each league description).
How many indy leagues are there?
There are three “core” independent leagues that have been around and established for many years. These are the upper level indy leagues and are now designated as MLB Partner Leagues. These leagues offer the best chance to be seen by scouts and provide a great way to get signed to affiliated ball. The recently added Pioneer League was born after the restructuring of affiliated baseball. This rookie level league is the fourth designated MLB Partner league.
Under that, there are four lower level independent leagues that have been in operation for at least the last few years.
Anything outside of those eight leagues, are usually start-ups, potential scams and generally anything that is not established and has not earned any credibility yet. These pop-up leagues have been occurring every year.
What are the leagues? Can you put them in order from best to worst?
I put the leagues in the order that I thought made the most sense from top to bottom, basically by pay scale (these are rough figures or estimates from information that I’ve gathered from sources within each league. Official average salaries may vary. These are also based on numbers from a few years ago) and by average talent level. You could easily argue that a few can be moved around depending on what you’re trying to get out of indy ball, but this is the best representation I can give.
Atlantic League – this is the top independent league in the country. The Atlantic has teams full of former MLB and MLB affiliated players. Because of this, the level of play in the Atlantic League is very high, mostly comparable to AAA teams. The players in this league tend to be on the older side as far as indy ball is concerned. A lot of players are working to get back to affiliated ball, or are just there to continue playing their last few years as competitively as possible. The league consists of eight teams in the northeastern part of the United States with two more expansion teams coming over the next two seasons. The Atlantic League is the highest paying league in indy ball with a total team yearly salary of $225,000-$275,000 (based on the team). Maximum salary is $3,000 a month with an average salary around $2,000 a month for players – it obviously varies based on experience.
American Association – The American Association is a league consisting of 12 teams – 11 in the American Mid-West and one in Winnipeg, Canada. The league does have roster rules: “The roster limit for a American Association club is 23 players. Of those 23 players, a maximum of five may be veterans and minimum of five must be rookies. The remaining players will be designated limited service players and of those LS players only six (6) may be LS-4 (less than five years of service time). Two of these six players may be LS-5.”
Even with the roster rules, there is no age limit. This brings in a lot of players with experience, whether it be from other independent leagues or from affiliated ball. The rookie rule does ensure that players who were passed on in the MLB draft after college can get a chance to play in the American Association. The competition is very good and is often classified as around high A and AA in terms of affiliated playing level. Players are often signed from the American, but most of them have already had affiliated experience. The yearly salary per team is $125,000. The league minimum is about $300 a week with an average salary around $1,500 a month, give or take with experience.
Frontier League – The Frontier is the longest running independent baseball league. The league recently acquired the Can-Am League and has expanded their reach to Canada and more of the northeast while still having a strong hold in the mid-west. There are 16 teams spanning from Illinois to New York with three teams in Canada. They are also the only league out of the top four that has an age limit (27 years old). This ensures that younger players who either did not get drafted or got released from affiliated ball at a younger age still have a place to showcase their talents in an attempt to get signed by an organization. The Frontier League is a perfect place to go when you want to get into affiliated ball, but just need that chance to be seen and put up numbers.
Their roster rules state that: “Each club must carry a minimum of twelve (12) rookies (combination of R1 and R2 players) with no professional experience other than specified (by the league) and may carry a maximum of twelve (12) players with unlimited professional experience during the regular season and playoffs. No player or player/coach may have attained twenty-seven (27) years of age prior to January 1 of that playing season.”
They have also signed a deal with the California Winter League naming them as the only official winter league for the Frontier. This caused eligibility rules to change which essentially banned some players from the league if they play in what they deemed to be a “pay-to-play” league.
Since the league does have younger players, the level of play is a bit lower and not as polished as the American and is more comparable to High/Low A ball. The total team salary is set at $75,000 a season with a minimum of $600 a month and a maximum of $1,600.
Pioneer Baseball League – Beginning in 2021, the PBL will be an MLB Partner League with teams in Montana (Billings, Missoula and Great Falls), Idaho (Boise and Idaho Falls), Utah (Ogden) and Colorado (Grand Junction and Colorado Springs). The Northern Colorado Owlz, formerly the Orem Owlz, join the League for the 2022 season along with a new expansion team in the Flathead County, Montana.
Over the course of the season, each team will play 96 games in a split schedule. In the playoffs, first-half division winners will play second-half division winners in a one game playoff. The division playoff winners will meet for a final best-of-three series.
The Pioneer Baseball League is intended to serve as a developmental league, with no player on the Active List having more than three years of prior professional baseball service. Each team is limited to a roster of 25 active players.
United Shore Pro Baseball League – the USPBL is the newest indy league in this group, but they have established themselves as a league that is able to pay players, honor commitments, and be a place where guys can play professional baseball. The league focuses on developing young players and rookies. They often have players moving up to higher levels of indy ball or even having some signed to affiliated ball. One thing that makes this league unique is that all four teams play in the same stadium, Jimmy Johns Field in Utica, Michigan. For the most part, players here are on a low A/short season equivalent playing level and get paid close to a Frontier League rookie salary.
Pecos League – The Pecos League is one of the lowest levels of independent baseball, and it’s also one of the hardest on players. Teams play 72 games in 70 days while traveling in their own cars to away games. Conditions are rough. Some stadiums are nice, but others are not. With some teams, the players are responsible for taking care of the fields. Some players are placed with host families, but other guys are not and live with multiple teammates.
The league has expanded over recent years and has slightly improved in stadiums and talent with each season they are in operation. Right now, the league is at 12 teams with locations in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, and Kansas
The majority of the players in the Pecos League are found when they participate in (and pay for) their fall or spring camp. Players make minimal, if any, money. The pay varies by teams and is given usually based on ways the individual teams raise money themselves (youth camps, auctions, donations, etc). Essentially, if players make any money at all, their best hope is to break even from what they’ve paid for their training camp. The level of play is equivalent to around rookie ball at best. Now that the Frontier League has an exclusive deal with the California Winter League, they have banned Pecos League players. These players cannot be moved up to the Frontier unless they have had previous contact with the Frontier League.
Empire League – this is basically the Pecos League of the northeast. The Empire League mirrors the Pecos in many ways: The level of play is around the same (rookie level at best), pay is minimal, guys sleep in dorm rooms or with host families if available, and the field conditions and travel are rough. The schedule isn’t as brutal as the Pecos and some teams are even playing as an extension to the league in Puerto Rico, but it still isn’t glamorous as far as playing goes. Most players pay to attend spring training and are then placed on a team for the season. Because of this, they also fall into the category of players that are banned from the Frontier League. The league consists of six teams playing in the northeastern United States and Puerto Rico.
Where do players live?
The majority of players in independent baseball live with host families set up by their team. Others find themselves in hotels or dorms paid for by teams if not enough host families are available. Some are living in apartments or other arrangements with teammates that the players pay for out of pocket. Honestly, it depends on the league and even each individual team in regards to housing.
How can I play indy ball?
Each league holds open tryouts throughout the year. This site has a comprehensive list of all tryouts as they are brought to my attention. Bookmark the INDY BALL TRYOUTS page and check back frequently if you are interested.
Other players turn to winter leagues to become noticed. There are multiple pay-to-play winter leagues available for players looking to continue playing during the off season. Each has their own pros and cons which I listed in this article here: Fall/Winter Leagues… Is One Right For You?
Another alternative is to join the Black Sox, a traveling team of unsigned players that play spring training games against every independent league. This is a great way to play in live games in front of people who can sign you. You can read more about the Black Sox and what they’re all about here: The Black Sox Road Warriors Are Back At It Again. I also spent two days with the team, and you can check out that experience HERE.
Players can also reach out to teams on their own to establish connections and make contact with the right people within team’s front offices. All it takes is a visit to an individual team’s website for more information. Social media groups and websites such as Meet a Prospect and Baseball Waiver Wire also help players network and put their names out there for potential jobs.
What’s the hardest thing about playing independent baseball?
Basically, everything about “the grind” is hard, and you have to be mentally prepared for it all. When I ask players this question, the majority of them said that it was harder on them mentally than physically, especially in the beginning.
Independent baseball is not easy.
You’re away from your family, significant other, and friends for months out of the year for little pay. You’re on long bus rides or drives to away games with few days off. You play in smaller cities where there isn’t always an abundance of things to do. You will have to stretch your meal money just to eat. Some times it won’t be about eating healthy, it’ll be about eating anything because you’re hungry. You may end up with leftover concession stand food as your post game spread night after night. It’s tiring.
Times will get tough, and the pressure will be there for you to perform or get out of a slump because the next guy is right there waiting for his opportunity. You’re constantly trying to move up to a better league, stay afloat in the league that you’re in, and try to help the team you are on win. Players are expendable at this level. You may get released, you may get traded, some times multiple times in one season. You have to be prepared for the emotional roller coaster that is independent baseball.
Just remember, wherever you are, there are hundreds of guys ready and willing to take your place. Stay level headed. Work hard. Make the most of your opportunity.
So, indy ball is just semi-pro right?
We don’t use the term “semi-pro” in independent baseball because it honestly makes no sense. If you get paid to play, you are technically a professional. There have been plenty of arguments about this statement, but by using the actual definition of a professional, independent baseball players are professional athletes over the course of their season.
Is it possible to make it to the MLB from indy ball?
Absolutely! There are hundreds of success stories from all over independent baseball of players moving on to affiliated ball with many of them moving all the way up through the system to the MLB level. There have even been players from as low as the Pecos League that have managed to work hard, re-establish themselves, and get a call to The Show!
How is independent ball different from affiliated ball once you’re playing it?
While it is essentially the same game, there are difference between the two. Besides the variation in rules for extra innings (a few leagues have adopted the “international tie-breaker rule), there are also some differences that have nothing to do with the actual play on the field.
Affiliated teams have a main goal of developing players to improve the organization as a whole. In independent ball, each team’s main goal is to win. Of course teams and leagues want their players to get an opportunity to move up to affiliated ball, but they are more interested in bringing fans into the ballpark and winning championships.
Another difference is status. In affiliated ball, a lot of how you’re perceived by the organization is based on how valuable you are to them. The higher you were drafted or the more money they have invested into you, factors in their decision for playing time, advancement, etc. They are definitely willing to give players more of a chance in affiliated ball. In indy ball, none of that matters. It doesn’t matter what you did in high school, college, or if you were in affiliated ball. It may help you get noticed and signed, but once you’re on an indy team, you’re there to help the team and win. If you don’t produce, there are plenty of other players ready to take your spot, and they will not hesitate to release you.
But even with these main differences I always feel as if indy ball, while still very cutthroat and often times political, is fun and has a more laid back and easy vibe compared to affiliated ball. You’re in it to win it with your teammates. You’re all out to prove something… together.
More useful information:
Rosters, stats, league standings, attendance records, schedules, transactions, etc. for every league except the Empire League can be found on Point Streak.
Links to watch games that are broadcast online can be found HERE.
Leagues/Teams Directory can be viewed HERE.