Author Archive

Q&A: Reid Nichols, Milwaukee Brewers Director of Player Development

Reid Nichols is in charge of a Brewers system heavy on youth. The majority of Milwaukee’s top-rated prospects aren’t yet old enough to drink. Their ceilings are high, but they face long climbs to Miller Park.

Nichols has been the organization’s Director of Player Development – his official title includes Special Assistant to the GM – since 2002. His 13 years have featured numerous success stories, with the likes of Ryan Braun, Khris Davis, Yovani Gallardo and Jonathan Lucroy progressing through the minor-league ranks. As Brewers’ fans are well aware, other highly-regarded prospects have failed to meet expectations.

A big-league outfielder from 1980-1987, Nichols was the farm director – and for one year the first base coach – for the Texas Rangers before coming to Milwaukee.

——

Nichols on interdepartmental cohesion: “From my end it’s kind of been the same with the player development side. Our basic philosophy is to help make that bridge from the minor leagues to the major leagues as smooth as possible. Baseball is baseball. Nobody’s trying to recreate the game.

“I’m in the draft room with the projections of both of our rookie teams. I discuss that with our scouting director and the cross checkers, so they know who’s playing where. The first five to eight rounds, they pick the best player available. I stay out of that – they spend months working on their draft board – but I do tell them what we have and who is going to play. Read the rest of this entry »


Sunday Notes: Arroyo’s Rehab, Clark & the MLBPA, Doc Gooden, AFL Arms, ChiSox, more

Bronson Arroyo has a love-hate relationship with vacation mode. He loves to chill out and enjoy life – often with guitar in hand — but that all-too-familiar mound of dirt constantly beckons. The idea of not returning to it leaves him cold.

Arroyo was a paragon of health and reliability from 2004-2013. The tall righthander made at least 29 starts annually, but that streak ended when he underwent Tommy John surgery last July. Five months after signing as a free agent with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Arroyo found himself in unfamiliar territory.

“It’s been a weird experience,” Arroyo said earlier this week. “That first month, watching the team on the road, was the first time I’d been separated from a ball club. I’d be watching these guys play in San Francisco and I’d be sitting in the house in Arizona. It wasn’t cool.”

Arroyo didn’t spend all of his time in the house. When I semi-jokingly asked how long he was on the guitar disabled list, he said he was playing in his cast two days later. He then related how hard it is to keep him cooped up inside.

“After I got out of the hospital, the doctor called my girlfriend and asked ‘How is Bronson recovering?’” said Arroyo. “She said, ‘Oh, he’s fine. He’s at the casino playing Roulette right now.’ He was like, ‘What?’ So it didn’t have me down that long.”

Positive attitude aside, Arroyo realizes recovery from Tommy John surgery is a long and winding road. His therapy sessions last four hours and he won’t begin throwing until January. While his recovery is going well, he admits his arm can’t be deemed fully recovered until it is battled tested.

Until that time, Arroyo will cross his fingers. Being on the shelf for the first time in his career has been a stark reminder that no one plays forever. In all likelihood, he would if he could. Read the rest of this entry »


Q&A: Kevin Ziomek, Detroit Tigers Pitching Prospect (and the Next Drew Smyly?)

Kevin Ziomek carved up Midwest League hitters in his first full professional season. In 123 innings at West Michigan, the 22-year-old left-hander logged a 2.27 ERA and an 11.1 K/9. His top-flight numbers notwithstanding, he created surprisingly little buzz.

The Detroit Tigers took Ziomek in the second round of the 2013 draft out of Vanderbilt University, which helps explain the paucity of plaudits. When a high-round pick from a high-profile college program excels in Low-A, the reaction is typically “That’s what he was expected to do. Let’s see what he does at the next level.”

Despite his dominance, Ziomek’s chance to pass that next test won’t come until next season. (Tigers farm director Reid Nichols gave a non-specific answer when I asked why Ziomek wasn’t promoted.) One possible reason was an opportunity to spent the entire summer working under the tutelage of Whitecaps pitching coach Mike Henneman.

Ziomek, whom Baseball America ranks as Detroit’s second-best pitching prospect, discussed his under-the-radar 2014 performance at the end of the season.

——

Ziomek on his high strikeout rate: “Making pitches early in the count can put you in position to strike people out. What (the Tigers) want is for us to try to get people out early in the count. Then, if we get to that two-strike count, we can try to get that strikeout. Every pitcher – I don’t care who you are – likes to get strikeouts.

“Guys coming out of the college game have a tendency to throw a lot of pitches that are unnecessary. Keeping my pitch count down is something I improved on over the course of the year. I threw first-pitch strikes and got ahead, and as a result my strikeout numbers went up. In a way, I got more strikeouts because I wasn’t trying to strike people out.” Read the rest of this entry »


Q&A: Dave Owen, Detroit Tigers’ Director of Player Development

As Detroit’s director of player development, Dave Owen is in charge of a farm system seemingly short on sure-thing talent. The team’s top prospect (according Baseball America), Devon Travis, was traded to Toronto for Anthony Gose. The No. 2 prospect, Steven Moya, struck out 161 times in Double-A. No. 3, Buck Farmer, had an 11.57 ERA in a four-game cameo after being promoted to the big leagues. No. 4, Derek Hill, is 18 years old and hit .208 in rookie ball.

It would be a mistake to dismiss the potential of the Tigers’ system. Moya had 35 home runs this year and has light-tower power. Farmer’s failure followed eye-opening performances in the minors. Hill was the 23rd-overall pick in this year’s draft.

The trio doesn’t represent the only talent in the pipeline. Jonathon Crawford, the Tigers’ first-round pick on 2013, had a 2.85 ERA in low-A West Michigan. Kevin Ziomek, last year’s second-round pick, had a 2.27 ERA and an 11.1 K/9 on the same club. A number of other players possess potentially promising futures as well.

——

Owen on the organization’s approach with first-year players: “We let them play. We want to give the kids a chance to breathe. I don’t think it’s right to do much with them the first year. We don’t have all the answers. How can we start making adjustments the first time we see a kid play? That first year is such a whirlwind for them anyway, with the draft and everything going on. We want to see them and evaluate, and we”ll eventually work in a few tweaks here and there.”

On Derek Hill: “We got Derek this year in the draft, so I’ve just seen him a little bit. It’s a small sample size, but this guy is exciting. He’s fun to watch. He’s just a young kid – he’s just out of high school – but he can really run. He’s a glider who runs easy and can really cover some ground. He’s a true centerfielder. At the plate, it looks like he’s going to be able to use all fields. I can see him being a base stealer. This kid has the raw potential to be a really good major-league player.”

On Steven Moya: “He’s got a chance to be a special guy. He’s got great power and it’s not just pull. He’s got power all over the park. He can go out to left field and center field. It’s a nice package. He’s a big, young man – a big, strong kid. He’s got a great body.

“Sometimes he is (too aggressive). He’s still learning himself as far as strike-zone discipline and pitch recognition. Mo’s working on that. He’s learning how teams are going to attack him – how they’re pitching him — and he’s learning how to make adjustments to compensate for that.

“It’s important to be realistic and know you have weaknesses that you need to make better. Mo does. He has a tremendous idea of what he needs to do and he’s very diligent about working on them.”

On advancing players through the system: “Our role is to get these kids in spots to gain experience and have success. We want to give them an opportunity to grow as players. Movement, as far as promotions from one level to the next, is really… a lot of it depends on success. A lot of it depends on how they’re playing. You want to keep challenging these guys. Let’s say a player is in Grand Rapids, our (West Michigan) low-A ball club, and he’s tearing it up. If you don’t feel that league is challenging him anymore, you push him to the next level. You keep doing that and hopefully he ends up in Detroit.”

On aggressively promoting Buck Farmer: “Sometimes it just comes down to timing – specific needs our organization needs at a specific time – and at that time it was Buck Farmer. It very easily could have been Jonathon Crawford or Kevin Ziomek. There were quite a few guys on that Grand Rapids team that are good-looking prospects.

“As a group, we just felt like (Farmer) was a kid who had the weapons to compete. Not that the other guys don’t. This is definitely not any disrespect for any of of other players, it’s just that we felt it was the right time to give him a shot.”

On Jonathon Crawford: “Jonathon has tremendous ability. He’s a kid who was our top pick, so we expect really good things out of him. He’s kind of in the same mold of a lot of those guys – with Kevin (Ziomek), with Chad Green, with (Austin) Kubitza, with Buck. It’s about consistency with his pitches, consistency with his delivery, commanding his fastball and his secondary stuff. When he’s right, man, he can dominate. He has power stuff. It’s really exciting. And he’s a good athlete. He’ll find his place.”

On Kevin Ziomek: “Kevin has a great feel for pitching. I’m really looking forward to him continuing his growth. He’s got three average-to-plus pitches, and he’s got some deception in his delivery. He’s a good-looking kid. He’s got that first full season under his belt and he’s been through a spring training, so he knows what to expect next year. I know we expect a lot out of him.”

On Robbie Ray: It’s hard to go to the big leagues and stay. A lot of guys will go to the big leagues and then get send back down. They’ll use that to help them and Robbie is one of those guys. He understands now what it’s like, and that are adjustments to make. Baseball is a game of adjustments. You get there and see what it’s all about – you get in the mix – and find out ‘this wasn’t working as well as I thought it should be.’ You work on that and get it right. You make yourself better so you’re more prepared when you go back. Robbie has a tremendous arm. With him, I think it’s more location and repeating his delivery.”

On the Devon Travis deal: “Dave Dombrowski is very smart and he’s always going to ask for a lot of opinions, not only of me, but of other people in our organization. We all have our opinions of what a guy is going to do in the future, and how he fits. It’s ultimately Dave’s decision – he’s the boss – and he’s going to do his homework before he makes this kind of move.

“I talked to Devon after the trade was made and told him how much we appreciate what he did for the Tigers. He’s a young man who is very professional. We do everything we can to help all of our guys grow as players, and I wished Devon continued success.”


Sunday Notes: More from the GM Meetings

Two things stood out when I talked to Miami Marlins president Michael Hill in Phoenix this week. One was the importance of character when building a roster. The other was seemingly contradictory and had to do with the team’s home ballpark.

Hill brought up character after first citing track records, scouts evaluations, and statistical data.

“We look at if a player is a fit for what we are trying to do, and that’s a holistic statement,” Hill told me. “There’s more that goes into it than just the pitching, fielding and hitting. We’re bringing a personality into our clubhouse and put value in how a particular player may fit the context of our club.”

I wasn’t particularly surprised to hear Hill say that. When I visited the Marlins’ clubhouse this summer – technically, the visiting clubhouse in Atlanta – the vibe was positive. I spoke to several players and all were personable. But I did find it notable that Hill brought up character, so I asked just how much of a factor it is. Read the rest of this entry »


General Managers on the Current Run-Scoring Environment: Thoughts from Phoenix

There is no disputing that offense is down. Teams are scoring fewer runs and hitting fewer balls over fences. Strikeouts numbers have grown precipitously. Some of the reasons behind those changes are clear. Others are more speculative. The bottom line is that the offensive environment isn’t what it was as recently as a handful of years ago.

The downturn begs two questions: 1. Is this an irreversible trend (barring rule changes), or is it simply a cyclical dip? 2. How does it impact roster-building decisions?

With the GM meetings taking place in Phoenix this week – yes, the weather was pristine – I decided to ask those very questions to a cross section of the decision makers. Not surprisingly, opinions varied.

Let’s start with the first of the two questions: Trend or Cycle?

Rick Hahn, Chicago White Sox: “There are elements like the strike zone and the velocity we’re seeing out of pitchers. Those have had a dampening effect. Defensive shifts have conceivably brought down the offensive effectiveness of some players. So, there are some tangible reasons to point to, but I do think part of it is just the cyclical nature of the game.”

Chris Antonetti, Cleveland Indians: “I’m not sure how far into it we are, but I think there are a number of different factors that have impacted the offensive environment in baseball. I don’t think it’s just a blip on the radar. I don’t necessarily see that dynamic changing if we don’t consider measures to maybe make some adjustments.”

Terry Ryan, Minnesota Twins: “No I don’t (think it is an irreversible trend). In fact, I absolutely don’t. Pitching is better, and sometimes you go through streaks where there just aren’t that many hitters coming up, or people producing on the offensive side of the game. I think that will correct itself.”

Doug Melvin, Milwaukee Brewers: “You have to be careful to make sure the cycles of offense and pitching are really that – a cyclical thing. There are probably some things affecting it a little bit, like bullpens and match-ups. The schedule is still a grind. There were also some good-quality hitters hurt over the course of this year – guys like Joey Votto – which affects offense. It could bounce back.”

Dave Dombrowski, Detroit Tigers: “That’s a great question and I’m not sure I know the answer. In my estimation, the game is probably going to look at that topic. Right now, unless some things change, I think run production will continue to be down. I don’t think it will go down much more, but the trend will stay down from an offensive perspective.”

Michael Hill, Miami Marlins: “We evaluate trends, but I would say it’s more pitcher-driven than anything. It’s pitcher driven with power arms in rotations and power arms in bullpens. Who knows what that will mean long term?”

——

The second question — does the trend/cycle impact decisions-making? — also resulted in mixed views. GMs are typically coy when it comes to anything related to player-acquisition, but a few of them offered interesting perspectives.

Farhan Zaidi, Los Angeles Dodgers: “Just when you think you’ve identified a trend, it seems like things go the other way. It’s really just about building the most-balanced team. It’s not like we’re going to think to ourselves, ‘This team had success with guys who steal a lot of bases, so let’s go that way.’ We learn every season there’s more than one way to skin a cat. I don’t think we’re going to be overly dogmatic in our approach.”

Mike Rizzo, Washington Nationals: “I think you build a team depending on a lot of factors – talent level at the big-league level, talent level on the minor-league side, who’s coming up, the type of ballpark you play in, what the division looks like. All of those ingredients go into how you build a roster. We’re going to approach this season no different than any other.”

Neal Huntington, Pittsburgh Pirates: “Players in their mid 30s are players in their mid 30s. Very rarely do they suddenly get better, as happened with some in the 1990s and 2000s. Depth is important. You look at what Kansas City and Baltimore have done, having deep and talented rosters. They can rest players and not have a huge drop off. Youth and depth are absolutely crucial to roster building as we go forward.”

John Mozeliak, St. Louis Cardinals: “Your most knee-jerk reaction is to adjust to what you need now. You look at your offensive projections and how that’s going to translate into wins. But when you start thinking more long term, guys with a 1.000 OPS are rare. Our 2004 team had three – Edmonds, Pujols and Rolen – and those days seem so foreign. One thing you might start to see is a little bit more small ball and speed back in the game, teams trying to figure out a way to manufacture runs.”

Rick Hahn, Chicago White Sox: “You’re always having conversations about staying ahead of where offense, defense, and pitching are going. You want to be on the cutting edge, whether it’s acquiring undervalued players or players you can project to play a greater role based on their ability or the environment you’re going to drop them into. The conversations haven’t changed much, but the targets have altered in recent years. I think athleticism and the ability to contribute both offensively and defensively has become more important.”

Dave Dombrowski, Detroit Tigers: “You have to be cognizant of everything that’s taking place at a particular time. You analyze, and you have to decide how you’re going to use that information when building a club. Power is diminished, but how much more are you going to pay for somebody based on that lack of power? Where does that fit in with your philosophy of making contact? There’s just so much that goes into it.”

——

Look for more from this week’s GM meetings in my upcoming Sunday Notes column.


Sunday Notes: A Change Will Do You Good: Brewers, Yanks, Cards, Astros, DBacks

Clint Coulter is no longer a catcher. The 21-year-old Milwaukee Brewers prospect is currently playing right field in the Arizona Fall League, and it’s not a temporary assignment. According to farm director Reid Nichols, “The plan is for him to stay in the outfield.”

Based on this summer’s performance, his bat will play anywhere. Playing for the low-A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, the Camas, Washington native hit a husky .287/.410/.520, with 22 home runs. It was a breakout season for the 2012 first-round pick, but only on the offensive side of the ball. In 61 games behind the plate, Coulter was plagued by passed balls (17) and errors (10). He was in the lineup 64 times as a designated hitter.

One year ago, in his first full professional season, Coulter looked like a bust in the batter’s box. A sculpted 6-3. 225, he was solid in an Arizona-rookie-league cameo but failed to hit his weight in the Pioneer and Midwest leagues. His power numbers and walk-strikeout rate were sub par.

I asked Coulter about his 2013 struggles at the tail end of the current campaign – specifically, did the challenge of simultaneously developing as a hitter and as a catcher take its toll?

“Absolutely,” Coulter admitted. “And not only physically. You can have a great day at the plate, but also clank a few balls [behind the plate] and affect the game that way. Both mentally and physically, I’d never experienced that kind of rigor, day in day out. It was a lot, but it was a great experience. You learn the most from failure, so I’m glad it happened.”

There was less failure this year, but the Brewers clearly feel Coulter’s future will play out best at a position less burdensome on the bat. The former high school wrestling champion can certainly impact a baseball, and he did a better job of it this year by reining himself in.

“Before, I was so anxious to hit that I was swinging at pitches I couldn’t really do much with,” explained Coulter. “This year I was better at being patient and hitting the pitches I wanted to hit.” Milwaukee’s player development staff saw the improvement, but also saw a work in progress. After saying, “Clint has done a good job converting to the outfield,” Nichols added that Coulter’s AFL objectives include “working on pitch recognition and slowing down at the plate.“

One thing Coulter doesn’t need work on is an already-impressive appreciation for good quotes. His Twitter page includes the following from 19th century French novelist Gustave Flaubert: Read the rest of this entry »


Sunday Notes on Tuesday: Defense, Defense, Defense — Jackie Bradley Jr & more

Jackie Bradley, Jr. might win a Gold Glove tonight. He should. The Red Sox centerfielder is an American League finalist at his position along with Adam Eaton and Adam Jones. He easily outpaced both in Fielding Bible balloting, with only National Leaguer Juan Lagares ranking higher.

Then again, Bradley probably didn’t hit well enough to win a traditional Gold Glove. [Yes, the ghosts of Derek Jeter and Rafael Palmeiro continue to haunt.] The 24-year-old rookie put up a scary-bad .198/.265/.266 slash line in 423 plate appearances.

Read the rest of this entry »


Q&A: Mike Elias, Houston Astros Director of Amateur Scouting

Scheduling Note: This week’s Sunday Notes column will appear in its usual format on Tuesday. Today we have a long conversation with Mike Elias on the subject of amateur scouting. Enjoy!

——

Mike Elias joined the Houston Astros in January, 2012 and became their director of amateur scouting in August, 2012. The 31-year-old former Yale University lefthander is a perfect fit for the job. Not only does he possess analytic chops, he’s handy with a radar gun and recognizes raw talent when he sees it. Elias was weened in the St. Louis Cardinals organization as an area scout.

His drafts in Houston have been controversial. The first-overall selections of Mark Appel and Brady Aiken have resulted in a barrage of slings and arrows. Countless words have been written on each – for good reason – and the debating isn’t done.

Largely lost amid the hoopla are the other players picked and the philosophies that shaped their selections. Elias isn’t at liberty to discuss Aiken, but he has a lot to say about the way the Astros – under the direction of general manager Jeff Luhnow – go about their business. Read the rest of this entry »


Q&A: Chip Hale, Arizona Diamondbacks Manager

Chip Hale replaced Kirk Gibson as manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks earlier this month. What approach will he bring to a franchise coming off a 98-loss season? Based on a conversation with Hale, it will be one closely entwined with that of Arizona’s new leadership up top. Dave Stewart is now the general manager and DeJon Watson is the vice president of baseball operations. Tony LaRussa was named chief baseball officer this past summer.

Hale’s voice will be heard. The 49-year-old has strong opinions about how the game should be played. He also has a lot of experience. He was Bob Melvin‘s bench coach in Oakland the past two seasons and before that he was a third base coach for four years, two each with the Mets and Diamondbacks. From 2000-2006, he was a minor-league manager in the Arizona system. An infielder in his playing days, Hale spent parts of seven big-league seasons with the Twins and Dodgers after being drafted out the University of Arizona.

——

Hale on his early influences: “I played throughout the minor leagues with the Twins and made it to the big leagues with them. That culture was about hard work and playing nine innings. It kind of filtered down from Tom Kelly and the things he preached. You saw that all the way down through the minor league instructors. Read the rest of this entry »


Sunday Notes: Maddon, Cherington, Fixing the Reds, Trusting Buck, more

Joe Maddon sees a suppressed run-scoring environment across baseball and feels the way to bring back more offense is… well, he doesn’t really know. The Tampa Bay Rays manager – oops, make that former Tampa Bay Rays manager – had thoughts on the subject when we spoke in September. They were more musings than manifestos.

I asked Maddon if he sees an irreversible trend or simply a cyclical dip His answer suggested the former, with a nod in the direction of the bullpen.

“Offense hasn’t benefited at all from any of the new discoveries in the game,” said Maddon. “It’s only been injured by it. Along with the subtraction of PEDs, there’s informed data on pitching and defense, which has really slanted the field in favor of that area of the game. There are also accelerated bullpens. Look at Kansas City’s bullpen, Oakland’s bullpen, Baltimore’s bullpen. Specialization has really taken over.”

It’s hard to argue Maddon’s last point. Not only did teams hit just .251 this year – the lowest average in over 40 years — from the seventh inning on that number was .241. Teams also fanned an average of 7.7 times per game, the highest in history. Bullpens were a big part of that, with a whopping 41 qualifying relievers logging a K/9 of 10.0 or better.

*Attention fans of the Detroit Tigers: you might want to skip the next paragraph. Read the rest of this entry »


Scott Feldman on Scuffed Balls, Lopsided Balls, and Pitching Up

Scott Feldman knows a lot about pitching — the 31-year-old Houston Astros righthander just completed his tenth big-league season – which means he knows a lot about baseballs. When he gets a new one on the mound, Feldman immediately recognizes its specific shape and texture. Not every baseball feels exactly the same.

Feldman is likewise familiar with the fine line between success and failure. He’s never been a power pitcher, which means he needs to constantly look for an edge, be it physical or mental. He found several in the second half of the 2014 season, logging a 3.16 ERA over 13 starts.

Feldman addressed nuances of the horsehide sphere – and gave the lowdown on pitching high to Mike Trout – during a late-August visit to Fenway Park.

——

Feldman on scuffed balls: “In my opinion, not as many pitchers know how to use a scuffed ball as you might think. When I was a rookie, there were some older guys in the bullpen and I’m sure they all knew how to scuff the ball – how to use it properly – but now it’s probably kind of a lost art. I could get better at it if I hung out with Doug Brocail for a couple hours, but for the most part I get the basic gist. Read the rest of this entry »


Sunday Notes: Tazawa’s Role, Perkins’ Bullets, Butler, Buck, Baseball Americana

Junichi Tazawa is satisfied with his current role. Sort of. The 28-year-old set-up specialist would rather start or close, but he’s comforted by the knowledge that outs in the seventh and eighth innings can be every bit as valuable as outs in the ninth. And he gets a lot of them. Tazawa made 71 appearances for the Red Sox this season and logged a 2.86 ERA over 63 innings.

His job isn’t simple. Along with frequently facing high-leverage situations, he doesn’t have one designated inning. Tazawa pitched in the eighth inning 45 times this year, and 16 times in the seventh. He also made appearances in the sixth, the ninth, and in extra frames.

Further impacting Tazawa’s preparation has been his usage relative to the scoreboard. He entered 29 games with the Red Sox trailing. On 28 occasions he entered with a lead.

“My job doesn’t really depend on whether we’re winning or losing,” acknowledged Tazawa, through translator C.J. Matsumoto. “There is the possibility I will get into either situation, so I’m looking at the pitch count and trying to get my blood flow going. I need to be able to step right in there.”

One of the questions I asked Tazawa at season’s end was whether his ready-at-any-time role is more challenging mentally or physically. Read the rest of this entry »


Q&A: Jim Hickey, Tampa Bay Rays Pitching Coach

Tampa Bay Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey is looking forward to next year. He should be. Erstwhile “ace” – a term Hickey hates, BTW – David Price is no longer part of the equation, but an enviable array of pitchers are. Better still, all of next year’s projected starters are heading into their primes. The sextet of Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Jake Odorizzi and Drew Smyly will be between the ages of 25 and 27 on opening day.

The 2014 campaign offered a number of challenges. Moore’s season-ending elbow injury in April was the biggest blow, while Hellickson scuffled mightily after a mid-season return from an elbow injury of his own. Cobb missed six weeks with a strained oblique. Archer and Odorizzi had good years but suffered growing pains along the way. As for Smyly, he sparkled after coming over from Detroit in the trade-deadline deal for Price.

Hickey broke down the 2014 progress of his starting staff following the conclusion of the regular season.

——

Hickey on Odorizzi’s emergence: “I think the greatest example [of a Rays pitcher making adjustments] would be what happened with Odorizzi this year. He was fastball, curveball, slider, chanegeup, with not a very good changeup. He was very conventional. Then he started to experiment with the pitch Alex Cobb was throwing, which is kind of a hybrid changeup/split finger.

“It started in spring training with those two playing catch and kind of critiquing it. Coming into the season, it wasn’t a huge weapon for [Odorizzi] and he didn’t pitch particularly well for probably the first eight outings or so. Then, all of a sudden, he began to make some transformations. If you want to say he added that pitch, I guess you could say he added that pitch. It really started to come together for him.

“He also started tweaking his slider into a cutter when he wanted to, versus just a slider. So, we’re talking about two pretty big adjustments for a first-year guy who struggled at the beginning. At that point, most guys are just trying to keep their heads above water. He was experimenting and tnkering with new pitches.” Read the rest of this entry »


ALCS Game Two and Sunday Notes on Saturday Night

There were 46,912 fans at Oriole Park at Camden Yards today/tonight. Between print, radio and TV, there were just over 800 credentialed media. As for the 31 players who performed on the field, they put on another good show. This game wasn’t as wild and wacky as the one that ended just before one o’clock this morning, but it was still a doozy – a doozy that last 4 hours and 17 minutes. The Royals scored twice in the ninth inning on a double by Alcides Escobar and a single by Lorenzo Cain to win 6-4.

As usual, I won’t write much here about what you just saw on TV. What I will do is supply some color in the form of post-game quotes and fold this over into my weekly Sunday Notes column.

——

Mike Moustakas on homering for the third consecutive game and executing a sacrifice bunt in the ninth inning: “That’s how we’re playing the game right now. Any way we’re going to score runs, we’re going to score. If that means sac bunting or hit-and-running – anything to generate runs – we’re fine with it. But I’m seeing the ball good right now. I’m getting good pitches to hit and I’m not missing them.”

Lorenzo Cain on making a spectacular diving catch in right-center field: “Zone in and make the play. I don’t think about messing up. I’m not a guy who is scared or fearful about making a mistake. I’m willing to lay out and do whatever it takes to make a play. I’m going to continue to play that way. I’ve played that way my entire life.”

Ned Yost on the Royals benefiting from some soft hits: “That’s good hitting, yeah. I’ll take bloop hits all day long. They get bloop hits, too. They’re a little bit aggravating.”

Buck Showalter on decision-making and being down two games to none: “I could go over about a hundred decisions Ned and I have to make, and the players, more importantly, have to make. It can be kind of maddening if you let it, but you trust your instincts and know your guys. You’ve got to win four games. You’ve got to keep from losing more than three. That’s obviously oversimplifying it.”

——

A lot has been written about Buck Showalter in recent weeks, and deservedly so. The quotable manager has achieved cult status in Baltimore, and if he leads the Orioles to the promised land – a more daunting task than it was 24 hours ago – Earl Weaver might eventually have company in Camden Yards statue land.

Less has been written about Ned Yost – at least in regard to positive print – so let’s spill some cyberspace ink on the much-maligned Royals skipper. After all, his holy-crap-they-might-win-it-all team is currently in the driver’s seat against Showalter’s squad in the ALCS.

Let’s start with some words from outfielder Lorenzo Cain, who has been setting the world on fire since I spoke with him at the outset of the series.

“I would say he was kind of conservative to start the season,” Cain told me. “Toward the end here he’s been a lot more aggressive, changing pitchers and making moves. He changed the lineup – one, two, three – and that’s definitely an aggressive move. You have to take risks in this game to be successful and that’s what he’s doing.

“Buck Showalter is a really good manager, but we have a really good manager as well. Managing and making moves is definitely going to come into play in this series, but as players we understand we have to get it done on the field. A manager can make moves, but at the end of the day, we have to go out there and perform.”

So far, Cain has held up his end of the bargain. He’s 6 for 8 with a pair of walks, and his defense in center field has been immaculate. Read the rest of this entry »


ALCS Game One: The Royals Power Up

The story lines have been the same all week. The Orioles hit home runs and the Royals steal bases. Both teams have deep, lock-down bullpens. One manager is sly as a fox and the other is a tactical error waiting to happen. That pretty much covers it.

Actually, one other notable theme crept in: According to FanGraphs odds, the Royals came in with a 63 percent chance of winning the ALCS. Meanwhile, the betting line in Las Vegas favored the Orioles. Baltimore reliever Darren O’Day had a great take on the contradiction.

“My wife told me something about our odds to win the World Series,” O’Day said prior to the game. “But the four teams who had the best odds [coming into the playoffs] are now at home, so I don’t know that the odds mean much.”

Odds were that tonight’s game wouldn’t go as scripted – it seems they rarely do in the postseason – and to say it didn’t would be stating the obvious. Any script it may have followed was implausible. This was an unpredictable baseball game, which lends credence to O’Day’s words.

Another thing the Baltimore sidewinder said about the series stands out, and it ended up being irony in its highest form.

“Juxtaposed are the speed and the power,” said O’Day. “It will be exciting to see how we control the running game and how they keep our guys in the park. Two different styles.”

The Royals adapted their opponent’s style and won – the final was 8-6 in 10 innings – not because of their running game, but because the Orioles couldn’t keep them in the park. That didn’t fit the supposed story line, but it was less surprising than one might think. The Kansas City lineup is by no means power-packed, but Camden Yards isn’t Kauffman Stadium. It’s a veritable launching pad.

“People say they’re not a home-run-hitting team, but that’s because they play in a huge ballpark,” said Orioles first baseman Steve Pearce. “We probably wouldn’t be a huge home-run-hitting team if we played there either. They’re fast, but they can also play a little bit. They can hit.”

Hit they did. In the top of the third, Alcides Escobar homered. Later in the inning, Alex Gordon cleared the bases with a double. In the 10th, Gordon took O’Day out of the yard to give the Royals the lead. Three batters later, Mike Moustakas went deep as well.

“This is a park that’s a lot more conducive to hitting home runs than our ballpark is,” Kansas City manager Ned Yost said after the game. “If you put our club in this ballpark, we’d hit a lot more home runs than we ended up hitting. It showed tonight.”

Buck Showalter was also asked about Kansas City’s power surge, and likewise offered little sign of surprise. He did show some matter-of-fact disappointment regarding the outcome, as well as appreciation for great theater.

“They’ve been hitting home runs lately,” said the Orioles skipper. “It is what it is. It was a good ballgame, except the Orioles didn’t win. It was entertaining.”


Q&A: Dan Kantrovitz, St. Louis Cardinals Scouting Director

Dan Kantrovitz is one of the reasons the St. Louis Cardinals are good. More so, he’s one of the reasons they promise to remain good. The 36-year-old former Ivy League shortstop has been the club’s Director of Scouting since January 2012. Under his watch, the Cardinals have drafted Michael Wacha, Marco Gonzales and a number of soon-to-reach-St. Louis prospects.

Kantrovitz’s background is atypical of most scouting directors. Prior to his first stint with the Cardinals [2004-2008], he earned an undergraduate degree from Brown and a master’s degree in statistics from Harvard. He was in charge of international scouting for the Oakland A’s from 2009-2011.

——

Kantrovitz on economizing through the draft: “We view the draft as a mechanism to save money. That may seem counter intuitive – it’s a spending environment – but its arguably the best bang for your buck in any area of procurement. The more you spend on the draft, assuming it’s a disciplined approach, the more our club might be able to save down the road in the free-agent market.

“Fortunately, our ownership has been very supportive and allowed us to spend up to the five-percent overage in each year of the current CBA since the 2012 draft. It’s not a new idea, but if we play our cards right and draft a future mid or top of the rotation guy, for example, that would save our club quite a bit of money on the free-agent market. That’s money that our GM can allocate to another area, or a more abundant, cheaper, position. Likewise, hitting on one of those “low-ceiling, high-floor” college players on day 2 or 3 and having him turn into a super-utility type has plenty of surplus value as well.

“Just trying to find athletes, or up-the-middle guys… I’m asked that a lot but we don’t really look at it that way. It might be limiting for us if we stick to a rigid strategy that is not data-driven. What we’re trying to do with our draft is optimize it. We want to figure out how it’s going to save us the most money down the road and be the most productive for us. The profile of a player that is going to save us money down the road is based on quite a bit of analysis…and it is rarely obvious. It is also a lot easier said than done, because you still have to execute it and hit on certain players. I should add that our strategy being based on saving money in the future doesn’t mean we shy away from the high-upside guys. After all, if they pan out, they would save us the most money of all.”

On how Oakland prepared him for his current job: “First, just working in their front office and being around guys like Billy [Beane], David [Forst] and Farhan [Zaidi] on a daily basis, was an incredible environment to learn from. They’re some of the best people I’ve been around, plus they already knew the international market when I was hired, so I was able to absorb quite a bit and hit the ground running. In terms of working on the international side, I think that is the best training any scout can get. You write-up a ton of reports and you have to make a judgment on players without stats, third-party information or really any prior information on a player.  Its pure, unadulaterated scouting that humbles you very quickly, because you are wrong a lot.” Read the rest of this entry »


Sunday Notes: Adam Jones, Kinsler’s Glove, Price’s Cutter, Britton’s Sinker, more

What is the best way to attack Adam Jones? The answer would seemingly be to avoid the strike zone. The Orioles outfielder walked just 19 times in 682 plate appearances – that’s a 2.8 walk-rate, folks – and his 56.5 Swing% was the highest in the American League. His 42.1 O-Swing% was topped only by Salvador Perez.

Unfortunately for the opposition, while Jones chases pitchers’ pitches, he also chases pitchers by getting hits on some of those pitches. His 63.0 O-Contact% isn’t particularly high, but that says more about his proclivity to sometimes chase pitches in a different area code. If it’s close enough to the zone, he has a knack for getting knocks.

In the words of David Price, “I don’t think there’s a pitch Adam Jones doesn’t think he can hit, and he might be right.” An American League pitching coach offered a similar perspective, saying “Adam Jones will swing at a ball that bounces in the dirt and he’ll also swing at a ball that’s neck high. The difference between him and other guys who do that is he’s like Vladimir Guerrero – he can hit those pitches. One time this year he lined a ball back through the middle on a pitch that was six feet high. It was ridiculous.” Read the rest of this entry »


Orioles-Tigers Game 2: Another Step Toward Respect

The numbers – at least some of them – suggested the Tigers would win Game 2. Justin Verlander was on the mound with a record of 7-0 and a 2.84 ERA in eight starts at Camden Yards. His record in seven ALDS starts was 4-0 with a 1.79 ERA. Baltimore starter Wei-Yin Chen had a 4.91 ERA in two career starts against Detroit and had never pitched in the postseason.

There was also perception. While not without flaws, the Tigers are a superstar-laden club capable of turning it on at any time. The Orioles – you know the refrain by now – aren’t as good as their record and destined to fall to earth.

Of course, this is baseball. Verlander out-pitched Chen, but the story often goes well beyond the starting pitchers. And while Detroit’s all-too-predictable bullpen implosion is going to get the most ink, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that a resilient team was once again resilient. This game wasn’t only about the Tigers losing.

I wrote it last night and it bears repeating: The Orioles are good. This is not a statement based on a two-game sample, nor is it bandwagon jumping. I predicted a postseason berth for Buck Showalter’s team in March and they certainly held up their end of the bargain. The team no one seems to respect is now 98-66.

According to writers covering the ALDS, Orioles fans aren’t off base in complaining their team doesn’t get the credit they deserve. Everyone I queried was in accord with that belief. Lack of star power, particularly in the starting rotation, was a common theme. Also mentioned was market. Baltimore isn’t Boston or New York.

As for projections and how the Orioles got to this point – one win from the ALCS – allow me to say something atypical of a FanGraphs article: Read the rest of this entry »


Orioles-Tigers: Notes from Game One

At some point people are going to come around to the fact that the Baltimore Orioles are good. They finished the regular season 96-66 and I’m sorry, you don’t do that with smoke and mirrors.

Tonight, the Orioles smoked the Tigers 12-3 in Game One of the ALDS. They did so with power, an 8-run eighth, and four innings of exemplary bullpen usage. There’s no point in recapping what you watched on TV, but here are a few perspectives from post-game interviews, as well as relevant comments from Wednesday’s media session.

——

Victor Martinez struck out once every 15.26 plate appearances this year, the best mark in the league. He fanned just 42 times, making him the first player to hit at least 30 home runs with 45-or-fewer strikeouts since Barry Bonds turned the trick in 2004. V-Mart’s .409 OBP led the American League and was second to Andrew McCutchen‘s .410 overall.

Finding a way to contain Martinez – and Miguel Cabrera – is a priority for the Orioles. Martinez struck out twice tonight – something he did just three times during the regular season – but he also went deep, as did Cabrera.

In the opinion of an American League pitching coach I spoke to earlier this week, there is no one way to get them out. Read the rest of this entry »