AFL Thoughts: Tuesday BP

This is my week at the Arizona Fall League. I went to one game and two batting practices (from three teams: Phoenix, Scottsdale, Javelinas) on Tuesday. I previously wrote about the pitchers from the day. Here is my thoughts on the hitters. Note that if you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I saw Bryce Harper, but will see he’s not in this piece. Bryce will be getting his own post after I see another BP and his third game in the AFL today.

First, I want to start this piece with some thoughts on the utility of scouting batting practices. I have received this question from a couple readers, and I think it’s ground worth returning to. Yes, I think there is value to be learned from watching hitters take BP, especially in environments where they know scouts are watching, be it high school showcases or the AFL. Yes, scouts would rather see a player in 12 games than they would 4 batting practices — I’m guessing the number of swings you’d see in each of those scenarios would be close to equal — to see the adjustments and approaches that a player takes to meaningful at-bats. But when faced with time constraints, like you’re just in Arizona for four days, batting practice works. It lets you see a player do his best to square up a baseball, and it lets you see his best hack at doing so. I try not to be results-based in my batting practice “scouting” analysis, but it’s a lot more art than science, and I’m no expert.

Which brings me to an interesting scouting conundrum that popped up today, seeing the Phoenix Desert Dogs take batting practice for the second consecutive day. If you used just those two days, and those 40 swings, to make completely definitive judgments about players, there’s no question you would arrive at the fact that Austin Romine has more power (be it raw or present power) than Jerry Sands. The person who saw just 40 swings would, trust me, be shocked to learn that Romine hit just ten home runs this year where Sands hit 35.

You would be shocked because they have taken totally different approaches to the batting cage over the two days. For Sands, the focus has been hitting the ball the other way. At first, I thought maybe Sands was primarily an opposite field hitter, but given the sheer number of balls he’s hit towards right field in two days, I’m convinced it’s the orders he was given by the Dodgers. This is a guy not out there to show that he can hit the ball 400 feet, but working on improving his game by spraying balls around the park. Romine, on the other hand, has been fun for the home run fans for two days, showing something from the Jim Leyritz skillset: pulling balls to left field with the sole goal of clearing the fence.

But I’m not convinced he’s showing off either. I went back and reviewed the play-by-play logs of each of Romine’s 44 extra-bases from this year (AFL included), and he hasn’t quite been the dead pull hitter he’s shown to be in BP:

Left Field Extra-Base Hits: 13
Left-Center Extra-Base Hits: 4
Center Field Extra-Base Hits: 17
Right Field Extra-Base Hits: 10

Not a huge discrepancy, and we actually saw him hitting more extra-base hits to right field near the end of the season. What I wonder is if, in Romine’s case, the focus has been working with him to begin to turn his raw power into game power — to actually make him more proactive in pulling balls when given the opportunity. After all, the Yankees just had to look to their division rivals to the north to see how a hitter can blossom by utilizing that change in approach. I suppose what all this is coming to is a refutation of my earlier point, to make the hindrances of taking too much from batting practice obvious to you. I believe Austin Romine has some untapped power, and I think Jerry Sands looks, as I said yesterday, more like a .300 hitter than a 30 home run slugger, but I’ve seen them each swing 50 times in a developmental league cage. There’s value in this scouting trip, in seeing players builds and their swings and their actions, but each reaction is to be taken with some salt. And that’s before emphasizing that I am not a scout.

Caveats Be Damned, Thoughts From Today

I want to be sure to dampen my criticisms from yesterday about Brandon Laird. The guy has a funky swing, and his position is in question out here, but I’m not writing off the possibility that he will hit. I like what I saw much more on day two, where his great weight and hip transfers really stuck out. He drops the barrel of the bat well in the zone, and has good bat speed to generate line drive power. I think there are reasons to believe big league pitchers will be able to take advantage of him, but I also think he could be a second division slugger at some point.

If we were going to give a worst batting practice award for the day, there would be three candidates: Matt Wallach (Dodgers), Xavier Avery (Orioles) and Marc Krauss (Diamondbacks). Considering that Krauss had the best season of the three, .302/.371/.509 in the Cal League, he was certainly the biggest disappointment. Quite simply, the left-handed hitter has terrible bat speed, so I doubt he can catch up to many good fastballs. That’s hard to profile at the big league level. I’m not sure Wallach ever profiled there, but his level swing with questionable bat speed produces a lot of ground balls. Finally, Xavier Avery has pretty good hip rotation, but he doesn’t use his upper body well, failing to load his hands at all.

Today was my only day to check on the Javelinas, and I saw some things I liked. I worry about the “I told you” so e-mails coming from Dave Cameron and John Manuel as I write about Dustin Ackley‘s developing power, but he’s noticeably stronger since college. I would have conceded this possibility long ago, but the more encouraging development is a change in approach. When I saw him in college, Ackley was constantly hitting balls to left-center field, relegating himself to a singles hitter. This approach came back later in BP, but early on, he was pulling the ball with authority, hitting two balls over the wall into the bullpen. He’s not showing huge power, but an adapted approach would give me some confidence in projecting some 15-20 home run seasons at some point.

Ackley is inevitably being compared a lot to Jason Kipnis, the fellow second base convert that just happens to be on the same AFL team. Kipnis definitely has more power than Ackley, but there are some noticeable holes in his swing as well. Where Ackley can at least use the whole field, Kipnis is more limited, and he’ll never be able to post the same high batting averages. It’s still definitely Ackley ahead of Kipnis in that race.

To return the discussion to where it began — this is what the great writers do, I’m told — seeing Eric Thames (Blue Jays) in Scottsdale is why I believe that writing about batting practices has value. I went to Scottsdale with some subconscious knowledge of his 2010 good season (.288/.370/.526 in the Eastern League), but seeing him in person helps me answer those, “Should I believe or shouldn’t I?” questions that pop up in my chats’ queues. In this case, you should believe: he is really strong, and seems to have a nice understanding and usage of backspin. He also hit the longest home run I saw today, but there I go getting results-based again.




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3 Responses to “AFL Thoughts: Tuesday BP”

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  1. raygu says:

    good stuff, Bryan-keep them coming.

    Do you think Sands can be an everyday OFer in the majors, or is his future at 1B? They need more power in that infield.

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    • Bryan Smith says:

      His range looks a bit limited at first base, so I doubt the outfielder would go very well. But I do think he can be a good first baseman, showing a lot of ability on scoops so far.

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  2. Jim says:

    I was wondering about Ackley’s speed and base stealing abilities. I think at the time of the draft he was given speed of about 65-70 on the 2-8 scale, and I think the same with base-running. Would you still consider these the same? If I remember right he didn’t steal many bases this season, but I was wondering if you had a guess of how many bases he could steal in the bigs?

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