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Sunday Notes: Pitching Profar and Choo, Reds’ Stephenson, more

Shin-Soo Choo and Jurickson Profar could have been pitchers. Both attracted the attention of scouts as hard-throwing amateurs. Choo starred for South Korea when they won the 2000 World Junior Championships and was named the tournament’s top pitcher. Profar excelled on the mound for Willemstad, Curacao when they won the 2004 Little League World Series and again when they lost in the finals the following year.

Each feels he could have gone on to pitch at the highest level. A big difference is that Profar didn’t want to pitch. Choo thought he was going to.

“I found out when I got to the States (in 2000) that I would be a hitter,” explained Choo, who originally signed with Seattle. “I thought I was coming here to be a pitcher. But I wasn’t the one making the decision. At first I was confused. Now I’m happy, because I get to play every day and not every five days.”

Making it to MLB as a position player was Profar’s goal from the start. Read the rest of this entry »

Dino Ebel on Positioning Angels in the Outfield

One of Dino Ebel’s responsibilities as Mike Scioscia’s bench coach is positioning the outfielders. It’s a data-driven task. Ebel — now in his 12th season with the Angels — relies heavily on information provided by the front office and scouting staff. When you see Kole Calhoun move in several steps or Mike Trout shifting into the opposite-field gap, you can be sure it was done with probability in mind.

Ebel explained what goes into positioning the Anaheim outfield prior to a recent game at Fenway Park.


Ebel on positioning the outfield: “We look at spray charts and who is pitching. We look at the last 150 at-bats to the last 1,000 at-bats, or whatever it is they give us. Our front office provides us with a lot of data and we put it all together. We have an in-house guy who does the dots.

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James McCann: A Tigers Catcher on his Craft

James McCann remains a work in progress, but he’s established himself as more than Detroit’s catcher of the future. The 26-year-old University of Arkansas product is entrenched as the Tigers’ primary backstop, having earned the lion’s share of playing time thanks to solid defense and strong leadership skills.

The one thing McCann hasn’t been providing is offense. The second-year player is slashing just .208/.259/.324, with five home runs. Those numbers have come over 53 games, as McCann missed three weeks in April with an ankle injury. Last season, he logged a .683 OPS in 114 games of big-league action.

McCann talked about his defensive game, including his game-calling and improved framing, earlier in the season.


McCann on processing information and reading hitters: “There’s a stat for everything. You can look up what guys are hitting on 1-1 counts against sliders, and probably even what they’re doing in long sleeves versus short sleeves. That’s how crazy it gets. The information available to us is endless.

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Player’s View: The Best Non-Knuckleballer Knuckleballs

There aren’t many knuckleball pitchers in baseball, but there are a lot of would-be knuckleball pitchers. Most everyone has tinkered with the butterfly. It’s common for players — particularly position players — to mix in knucklers when playing catch before games. A handful of them can really make it dance.

Who are the best among the wannabe Wakefields and Niekros? To answer the question most accurately that would require extensive polling throughout both leagues. I considered tackling the task, but ultimately decided that such an exercise was a bit too frivolous.

Querying a cross-section of players was far more practical. I talked to a dozen, most of whom have experience either throwing or catching the game’s most enigmatic and entertaining pitch. Along with asking who has the best they’ve seen, I had several of them to assess the quality of their own knuckleball.


Alex Avila, White Sox catcher: “It would have to be Danny Worth. He’s actually pitched in a game with it. We were with the Tigers, it was a blowout game, and he came in. He’s got a great arm — he’s an infielder — and he’d always throw a knuckleball warming up, just messing around. He threw a bunch of them, and it was dancing pretty good.”

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Sunday Notes: Rangers’ Barnette, Orioles’ Kim, Oswaldo Arcia, more

Tony Barnette has been a pleasant surprise in Texas. Signed in December after spending several seasons in Japan, the 32-year-old right-hander is performing well out of a Rangers bullpen that is statistically the worst in the American League. He’s been especially sharp as of late. Over his last eight appearances, Barnette has allowed just four hits and one unearned run in 13 innings.

Drafted by the Diamondbacks out of Arizona State in 2006, Barnette changed continents four years later after a 14-win season in Triple-A. The reason was simple.

“They wanted me,” said Barnette. “The Diamondbacks didn’t protect me and I wasn’t taken in the Rule 5, so I was looking at going back to the minors. I was at the stage of my life where you think you’re on the cusp of the big leagues and all of a sudden the powers that be say, ‘No you’re not.’ It was basically, ‘You’re welcome to stay, but if you want a change of scenery, good luck on your travels.’ Japan made the offer, and I decided to pack up and take my chances.” Read the rest of this entry »

Matt Bush on Velocity, Spin, and Missing Bats

Six weeks ago, August Fagerstrom wrote about how Matt Bush’s fastball approximates Aroldis Chapman’s in terms of velocity and spin rate. Not much has changed. The Texas Rangers reclamation project — Bush was in prison and hadn’t pitched for four years — is still throwing heat. This past weekend the 30-year-old right-hander sat 98-99 in a scoreless inning at Fenway Park.

Much has been made of the former first-overall pick’s fall from grace and the Rangers’ willingness to give him another chance. (The attention is warranted: Bush’s substance-abuse and legal issues are serious matters.) Far less attention has been paid to the arsenal and mindset he brings to the mound. With that in mind, I sat down with Bush to talk pitching on the Fourth of July.


Bush on why he’s having success: “I think it’s my arm action. My fastball has a lot of life to it. I’m also doing a good job of locating; I’m hitting my spots down in the zone. A lot of times it looks like the ball is going to be down and out of the zone, but it has extra life to it, which keeps it there in the zone. Other than that, I have an understanding that it’s not easy to hit a pitch that’s thrown as hard as I throw. I’m going out there with confidence.

“My spin rate is 2,500-something. Someone had mentioned it to me, so I looked into it and was pretty surprised to find out that it’s one of the highest in the game. That’s an indicator of why my fastball is tough to square up. I’m not afraid to go right after hitters, because with that spin, the ball has life. It’s not straight. You also don’t have very much time to pull the trigger. Read the rest of this entry »

Tim Lincecum on His Hip, Curveball, and a Comeback

Tim Lincecum used to be freakishly good. He no longer is. Hampered by hip woes, the 32-year-old right-hander went from winning Cy Young awards and tossing no-hitters to the precipice of pitching oblivion. His velocity down and his ERA up, he succumbed to surgery last September.

He’s on the comeback trail, but not with the team he helped win three World Series. The former Giant signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in May, and debuted with his new club in mid-June. His performances have been underwhelming. In four starts, the once-overpowering righty has allowed 29 hits in 18 innings. His fastball is averaging a pedestrian 89 mph.

The extent to which Lincecum can return to his old form remains to be seen. His surgically-repaired hip appears to be holding up, and his damaged psyche is healing as well. He’ll likely never be an elite power pitcher again — or a power pitcher at all — but he feels he can be a productive starter. Only time will tell.

Lincecum talked about his early development as a pitcher, and his career going forward, prior to a recent game at Fenway Park.


Lincecum on pitching: “When you’re younger, you don’t have a plan. You either trust your stuff or you don’t, or you just throw it and hope. I always trusted my stuff. My fastball didn’t always play, but my curveball made my fastball better. That’s what I could execute. Some guys have an idea of how they can pitch — what pitches they should throw in what counts — but guys like me just end up throwing the ball and trusting it. There’s an aspect of that even at this level. You have a plan, but you’re basically throwing the baseball. It all depends on how well you can execute.

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Sunday Notes: Ambidextrous Cowgill, Lawrie’s Knuckler, Aussie Oriole, more

Collin Cowgill might be the most ambidextrous person in MLB. Currently playing for Cleveland’s Triple-A affiliate, the Columbus Clippers, Cowgill explained his handedness as follows:

“I throw left-handed, hit right-handed, dribble a basketball right-handed, shoot a basketball left-handed. If I was going to dunk, I would dunk right-handed. I shoot darts left-handed. I golf right-handed. I bowl left-handed. I write and eat right-handed. I shoot pool left-handed. I kick right-footed. If I was going to punch you, I’d punch you right-handed.

The 30-year-old outfielder has done all of this naturally, for as long as he can remember. The first time he was handed a ball, he threw it left-handed. The first time he stepped in a batter’s box, it was right-handed. He tried switch-hitting at one point, but realized he was better from the right side and stuck with that.

Hand dominance at the dish is another area in which he’s different. Read the rest of this entry »

Orioles Bench Coach John Russell on Not Following the Ball

“Keep your eye on the ball” is one of baseball’s oldest adages. According to John Russell, it doesn’t apply to managers and coaches. The Baltimore Orioles bench coach and his professional brethren have responsibilities that go beyond watching the flight of the cowhide sphere.

Russell, who skippered the Pittsburgh Pirates prior to joining Buck Showalter’s staff in 2011, expounded on the subject during a mid-June visit to Fenway Park.


Russell on watching the game: “I think different managers do different things, but you run little checklists in your mind. First, there’s a lot of preparation involved before the game begins. Once it does, you obviously keep an eye on your pitcher. But one of the biggest things — we talk to young managers about this when they first start out — is that you don’t want to be caught following the baseball. When the ball is hit, you don’t want to just lock in on it. If you do, you’re going to miss a lot.

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Jason Coats: Stitches and a Ball for a White Sox Rookie

Jason Coats has had an unremarkable career thus far. In eight games with the White Sox, the rookie outfielder has one hit in 15 at-bats. He’s basically a spare part. An unheralded former 29th-round pick, he’s ridden the pine since getting his lone base knock a week ago today.

Of course, everything in life is relative. What qualifies as unremarkable to some could be unforgettable to another. Coats has had a pair of those moments in his short time with Chicago. The more recent of them came at Fenway Park.

Hitless in his first 12 big-league at-bats, Coats stepped up to the plate against Boston southpaw Eduardo Rodriguez and smoked a pitch to deep right field. Soaring beyond the reach of Mookie Betts, the ball one-hopped the short fence into the bleachers, not far from the visiting bullpen.

As the ball was caroming, Coats was motoring.

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An Astros Prospect Overcomes Adversity Times Three

Ben Smith has a 21.21 ERA in three appearances for the Tri-City Valley Cats. All told, the 23-year-old southpaw has allowed 19 base-runners and 15 runs in 4.2 innings for Houston’s short-season affiliate.

There’s a lot more to his story than numbers.

Smith will be watching this week’s College World Series with interest. The school out of which he was drafted in 2014, Coastal Carolina, is a surprise participant in the championship round. Several of the Chanticleers are former teammates, and he expects to be “sneaking into the locker room a couple of times” each night to follow their fairy-tale quest for a title.

The fact that the lanky left-hander is playing baseball is a real-life success story of its own.

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Sunday Notes: Yonder, Yankees, Dodgers, Pitch Selection, more

Yonder Alonso hasn’t been dealt a generous hand. Drafted seventh overall by the Reds in 2008 out of the University of Miami, the Cuban-born first baseman was shipped to San Diego three years later. The trade took him from one of baseball’s most hitter-friendly venues to one of its least friendly.

Last winter, the Padres sent Alonso to the A’s, who play in an equally unforgiving yard. You have to feel for him. Injuries have influenced his production as well — he’s no stranger to the disabled list — but one can’t help but wonder what his numbers might look like had he spent the last four-plus seasons in a cozier abode.

His splits aren’t extreme, but they’re emblematic. He’s hit .257 with a .697 OPS in home games and .283 with a .739 OPS on the road. Power has been at a premium, as he has just 33 home runs in 2,051 big-league plate appearances.

Alonso has never felt a need to alter his attack plan — “Generally, the way I swing pretty much works in any field” — but he’s aware that where he’s played has impacted his career. Read the rest of this entry »

Sunday Notes: Bundy’s Senses, Devenski’s Change, Nuno, Oliva, more

Dylan Bundy felt like he was throwing with someone else’s arm. The Orioles right-hander didn’t word it that way, but that’s how it sounded when I spoke to him earlier this week. It’s not unlike an out-of-body experience when the radar gun is at odds with your senses, in both directions.

Bundy had Tommy John surgery in 2013, and the road back wasn’t always smooth. Along with arduous rehab, there were sensory blips.

“I felt out of whack when I started throwing again,” said Bundy.” Something just felt off. It was like my arm was perfectly fine, but I was trying to throw the ball 70 mph and it was coming out 55. It was a weird feeling.

“Even when I got all the way up to 92, when I was rehabbing in the minors, I would have games where my arm felt perfectly fine, my body felt fine, mechanically I was fine, but it felt like the ball was coming out 85 mph and it was really coming out 91-92. That was even weirder. I wondered if the feeling was ever going to go away.” Read the rest of this entry »

Brian Duensing Ponders Opt Outs and Home

Brian Duensing’s baseball future is tenuous. The 33-year-old southpaw is currently an Oriole, but his time in Baltimore could be short. Signed off the scrap heap a few weeks ago, he’s failed to impress in five outings. He could easily be the odd man out the next time a roster move is made.

Duensing was cast aside by his long-time team over the winter. A member of the Minnesota organization since being drafted out of the University of Nebraska in 2005, Duensing hit the open market when the Twins “opted to go in another direction.” It didn’t come as a shock. He’s never been overpowering, and last year he was more underwhelming than ever. His ERA was 4.25 and his 4.4 strikeout rate was a career low.

Free agency didn’t go as he’d hoped. Quality offers weren’t forthcoming, and opt-out clauses have subsequently become a meaningful part of his life. There’s a chance he will remain an Oriole, but he could just as easily be elsewhere in the not-too-distant future. He might be wearing a new uniform in a new city. He might be at his home in Omaha, with his wife at his side and three toddlers in tow.


Duensing on first-time free agency and his future: “This was the first time I was a free agent. I was somewhat excited to see what would happen, but it didn’t really pan out like I’d hoped. I ended up signing with Kansas City, a non-roster minor-league deal, and then didn’t make the team out of spring training. I began the season in Omaha. That’s where I’m from, so I was able to live at home with the wife and the kids.

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Dillon Gee on Going from Met to Royals Reliever

Dillon Gee isn’t a Met anymore. Nor is he a starter (at least not as his primary role). The 30-year-old right-hander is working out of the bullpen in his first season with the Royals. No longer needed in New York, he inked a free-agent deal with Kansas City over the winter.

Gee was a solid, albeit unremarkable, starter for the Mets from 2011 to -14. Then the deGroms, Harveys and Syndergaards burst onto the scene (the ageless Bartolo, too). That made it time to move on, and Gee is now a long reliever making spot starts for a new team. He’s adapting well. In 12 appearances for the defending World Series champs, he has a 3.98 ERA and a career-best 8.2 K/9.

Gee talked about his transition earlier in the season.


Gee on transitioning to the Royals and a relief role: “I’m probably a better pitcher now than I was in my earlier years. This is just the role I have now. I kind of got phased out in New York. They obviously had some young studs coming up, and I lost my spot there. I had a few opportunities to remain a starter with other teams, but I chose to come here and contribute out of the bullpen for a winning team.

Read the rest of this entry »

Sunday Notes: Meisner’s 0-10, Sport Psychology, Cedeno Greatness, more

Casey Meisner is having a fairly decent season. The 21-year-old Oakland A’s prospect has allowed three or fewer earned runs in nine of his 12 starts. That’s even more impressive when you consider that he’s pitching in the hitter-friendly California League.

His W-L record is 0-10.

Fortunately for his sanity, the righty understands that wins and losses are largely out of a pitcher’s control.

“It’s obviously really bad to be (0-10), but I can’t do anything about that,” said Meisner, who has been taking the mound for the Stockton Ports. “I’ve deserved a few of the losses, but we’ve scored more than two runs in only two of my starts. As a team, we’re not having a very good season.”

Meisner projects to have a good career. A third-round pick by the Mets in 2013, he came to Oakland two years later in exchange for Tyler Clippard. Six-foot-seven with a fastball-changeup-curveball mix, he went 13-5 with a 2.45 ERA last season between two levels.

The Cypress, Texas product is satisfied with the quality of his pitches — “Everything is good on that end” — but he’s not pleased with his 4.9 walk rate. He attributes the free passes to two things, only one of which he can control. Read the rest of this entry »

Huston Street on (Imperfect) Stats

Huston Street isn’t an expert on analytics. Nor does he claim to be. But he’s by no means a neophyte. The veteran closer is more knowledgeable about advanced stats than the average player. He also has some strong opinions.

A little over a year ago, Street shared his negative view of FIP in one of my Sunday Notes columns. This past spring, I approached him at the Angels’ spring-training facility, in Tempe, to get his thoughts on shift strategy. I ended up getting a lot more than that. A simple question segued into what might be best described as a stream-of-consciousness look at the state of analytics, in classic Street style.


Street on defensive shifts: “I’m a big believer in match-ups when it comes to shifts. When they’re done really well, they’re based on the individual match-up and not on a general approach to shifting. Half the league throws 96 and the other half throws 93. Then there’s me, who throws 90.

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PJ Conlon: A Mets Pitching Prospect Evokes Jamie Moyer

PJ Conlon doesn’t fit the profile of a New York Mets starter. The defending National League champions have a rotation populated by deGroms, Harveys and Syndergaards. Conlon, meanwhile, isn’t a power arm. The 22-year-old pitching prospect is your prototypical finesse lefty who relies more on guile than gas.

Twenty-seven games into his professional career, Conlon resembles a half-his-age Jamie Moyer. He looks hittable, but squaring him up is often an exercise in futility. Since being drafted in the 13th round last year out of the University of San Diego, Conlon has allowed a grand total of nine earned runs in 84 innings. On Saturday, he took the hill for the Low-A Columbia Fireflies and breezed through 10 innings on just 97 pitches. He flirted with a no-hitter and held Hagerstown to a lone tally.

Soon after that start, Conlon was named to the South Atlantic League’s mid-season All-Star team. He leads the circuit in both wins and ERA, and ranks second in WHIP.

Conlon was featured in this past Sunday’s Notes column, with his Irish heritage being the main focus (he was born in Belfast). Today we hear from the southpaw on his pitching prowess.


Conlon on pitching: “I’d describe myself as a shorter lefty who doesn’t have great velocity. I’m about 6-foot and will top out at 91 on a good day. I’m usually between 87-90, but I can run the ball and do different things with it. I don’t really throw anything straight.

Read the rest of this entry »

Jon Gray on Staying in Sync and Throwing High Heat at Coors

Jon Gray had one of his best starts of the season on Sunday. The Colorado Rockies right-hander fanned 12 while limiting the Padres to two runs over seven innings. It was his third straight solid outing following a a nine-run dud against the Cardinals on May 19.

A few days after his St. Louis shelling, the 24-year-old University of Oklahoma product threw a pre-game bullpen session at Fenway Park. On his way back to the clubhouse, he stopped in the outfield grass and conferred with his pitching coach, occasionally mimicking his pitching motion.

After the confab concluded, I approached him to ask what they’d been working on. I had other questions in mind as well. I’d interviewed Gray a few months after he was taken third overall in the 2013 draft, and a lot of development had occurred since that time. A follow-up was in order.


Gray on his development and needing to stay in sync: “There’s a lot more to this game than it might seem. You’re constantly making adjustments in order to compete. I’ve done a lot of things with my delivery, as well as mentally. You have to make adjustments a lot faster at this level. If I know something isn’t right in my delivery, I have to change it as soon as possible, otherwise it’s going to get bad. Same thing mentally. I have to really keep tabs on myself, with each pitch, each approach.

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Sunday Notes: Jays’ Harris, Irish Conlon, Quirky Records, Otero, more

Jon Harris had a rocky outing a week ago. After allowing just one run over his previous 32 innings — an unearned run, to boot — the Blue Jays pitching prospect was kicked around for eight runs in a loss to South Bend. The reason for his poor performance was as much mental as it was physical.

“I was in a funk,” explained Harris, whom Toronto selected 29th-overall last year out of Missouri State. “I couldn’t really get comfortable — I couldn’t get a rhythm — and I let the game speed up on me a little. I was in my head a lot, worrying about what I was doing wrong instead of just focusing on making my pitches. South Bend is a good hitting team and if you make a mistake they’re going to jump all over it. And they did.”

Harris didn’t allow the implosion to linger. In his next start for the low-A Lansing Lugnuts, the 22-year-old righty allowed just one run over five innings against Dayton. His prior-game hiccup in the rearview, he took the mound with his chin held high. Read the rest of this entry »