The Cleveland Indians had two first-round picks in last month’s amateur draft. They used them to select University of San Francisco outfielder Bradley Zimmer 21st overall and prep lefthander Justus Sheffield 31st overall. The former is beginning his professional career with the Mahoning Valley Scrappers in the short-season New York-Penn League. The latter will begin his in the rookie-level Arizona League.
According to scouting director Brad Grant, the club narrowed its top pick to Zimmer and an unnamed second player approximately six hours before the start of the draft. Using the information at their disposal, they determined the brother of Royals pitching prospect Kyle Zimmer would likely be available when picked at 21.
“As we got closer to the draft we had an inclination – especially day of – he’d be there,” said Grant. “We weren’t sure, so we had a Plan B in place, but we thought there was a pretty good chance.”
I asked Grant what made the Indians believe Zimmer and their Plan B would still be on the board.
“There are a lot of sources who provide information on who is going to go where,” said Grant. “You talk to different sources in order to kind of put that together. We obviously talk with other clubs, and other people within the industry, to get a sense of who will go when. You usually get a pretty good feel from that and can normally narrow it down to one or two players for your first pick.”
Grant and his staff began following Zimmer more closely after his sophomore season, when he was playing for Team USA and in the Cape Cod League. Their interest in Sheffield was spurred by a matchup with his older brother, Jordan, who was drafted by the Red Sox last year but opted to attend Vanderbilt.
“Chuck Bartlett, our area scout in Tennessee, had me go to a game two years ago when both Justus and Jordan Sheffield pitched,” explained Grant. “Justus was a junior and Jordan a senior. Jordan started the game and then Justus came in and finished the last three innings. Chuck made it a point to have me stay and see Justus. He told me, ‘if you like Jordan you are really going to like his younger brother.’
“Zimmer and Sheffield were both fortunate in that they had older brothers go through the draft process in front of them,” added Grant. “Both were able to participate in their brothers’ respective in-house meetings and watch the draft process unfold during the spring. It was evident to our area scouts, Don Lyle with Zimmer and Chuck Bartlett with Sheffield, that both wanted to emulate the success, and secretly try to do even better than, their older siblings.”
Secrets are a big part of a scouting director’s M.O., so my attempts to get Grant to offer comps on the first-rounders went for naught. However, I was able to get a scout from outside the organization to share his opinion.
“Zimmer is comparable to a young Shawn Green,” said the scout. “He’s an athlete with an above-average tool set. I see a chance for a plus bat. He has size and strength, so the power should come. He has the potential to develop into an above-average everyday centerfielder.
“Sheffield has a chance to be similar to Gio Gonzalez. Good athlete with a solid three-pitch mix and strike-throwing ability. Fastball is up to 94 with life, and good feel for a slider and a change. Ability to consistently leverage the ball in bottom of zone. Could be a solid starter.”
In Grant’s previous four drafts, he used his top pick on a pair of preps, Clint Frazier and Francisco Lindor, and two collegians, Tyler Naquin and Drew Pomeranz. I asked him about the high school college dynamic, and how the Indians balance risk and reward.
“It plays into our decision-making, but we didn’t purposely go in with a plan of taking college, high school, college, high school,” said Grant. “That’s the way our first four picks went, but it wasn’t by design. I will say that when the talent is similar, you like to have the guy who is three years more mature and has been through some adversity. Sometimes that’s a separator. At the same time, you don’t want to pass up on a guy you have a chance to mold and develop. When a player is 17, 18 years old, you can develop him into what you envision. Ideally, we try to balance it out rather than lean too much one way or the other.”
Data plays a big role in the Indians’ draft. Scouting drives the process, but analytics allowed the team to take more risks this year while simultaneously reducing risk. Grant explained the seeming paradox this way:
“We’ve done past-draft studies which include the history of where we’ve missed – and the reasons we missed – on some of those high-upside guys. We’ve used that to try to reduce some of the risk by removing some of the players who might not have the attributes we’re looking for. We want to identify the attributes and target specific players. We’ve done a lot of research to try to find the indicators that will produce success. We use that to target players in the draft.”
The Cincinnati Reds got one of the best hitters in the 2012 draft when they took Jesse Winker 49th overall out of an Orlando, Florida high school. In just over 1,000 professional plate appearances, the left-handed-hitting outfielder is hitting .300/.407/.492. The 20-year-old was promoted to Double-A Pensacola earlier this month.
Coming into the season, Baseball America rated Winker as having the best strike zone discipline in the Cincinnati system. They also tabbed him the best power hitter. Lauding him as “a pure hitter,” the esteemed publication went on to say “he’s toned down what was once a picturesque one-handed high finish to a more conventional two-handed finish.” According to the sweet-swinging Winker, that isn’t really the case.
“I haven’t changed my hitting stroke,” Winker told me earlier this week. “I’ve swung the same way since I was a little kid, finishing high with my right hand. My left hand naturally comes off the bat. Maybe both hands stay on the bat once in awhile, but that’s kind of like how a quarterback will sometimes throw an unorthodox pass. Sometimes you just can’t explain what happens with a swing.”
Not being familiar with Winker’s hitting mechanics, I asked if he has a leg kick or any other timing mechanism.
“Everyone has their own way of timing a pitch,” answered Winker. “I’ve lifted my front leg since since I was a little kid – just three or four years old – and my mom and dad were pitching to me. It’s not as high as Jose Bautista, or anything like that, but I do lift it off the ground.”
Being a fan of the game, Winker is knowledgeable about great hitters like Bautista. He watches some more closely than others.
“I like to watch guys I consider similar to myself and try to learn from them,” said the Olympia High School product. “I watch their approaches. You can turn on SportsCenter and see someone hit a home run, and say, ‘That was a helluva swing,’ but taking a left-on-left curveball the opposite way for a single is a great at bat too. So is working an at bat and drawing a walk.”
Given his skill set and the organization he plays for, Joey Votto comps are inevitable. He acknowledges the similarities, while nodding his head in the direction of another Cincinnati slugger.
“First and foremost, I don’t really like being compared to anyone,” said Winker. “But I can see it. He’s a very good hitter and a very patient hitter. I’m not impatient, but I like to attack pitches too. Personally, I think I’m kind of a combination of Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. I like to go up there and take swings, and if I have guys on base, I like to drive them in.”
Asked about his ability to drive the ball, Winker gave an explanation straight out of Student of Hitting 101.
“I feel I have power to all fields,” said Winker. “I just have to beat the ball. What I’ve always called it is ‘Beating the ball to the X.’ You can hit any pitch if you beat it to that spot. Whether it’s a fastball, curveball or changeup, you’ll hit it with your maximum power potential if you have a good swing plane and beat it to that X.”
Winker’s hitting philosophy is more nuanced than X marks the spot.
“I have an approach going up there, and an idea of how they’re going to pitch to me in every at bat,” said Winker. “There are scouting reports, plus I have a pretty good memory. I also take notes on guys who pitch well against me, to have an idea of how they’re getting me out. But at the end of the day, you also have to stay relaxed and keep it as simple as possible. There’s the famous Bull Durham quote: ‘You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.’”
Don’t expect to hear Jay Bell complain if Winker comes to Great American Ballpark and does his best Joey Votto impression. The Cincinnati bench coach likes RBIs, but he’s anything but averse to plate disciple and a high OBP. That was clear when I talked hitting with him at Fenway Park earlier this season.
“One of the things I stressed as a hitting coach [last year in Pittsburgh] is being patient and getting balls in your area of strength,” said Bell. “If you split the strike zone up into four particular quadrants – up and away, up and in, down and in, down and away… of course, belt high is good for all of us. But with those four quadrants, you should be specifically in the area you like to hit in. Don’t expand out of that zone until you have two strikes. A lot of times, hitters get to the point where they want to cover the whole strike zone too early. One thing I believe is that a hitter shouldn’t be afraid to hit with two strikes. Stay in your area until you have to expand.”
The two players I was most interested in were Joey Votto and Billy Hamilton. Bell’s thoughts on the latter will be addressed in an interview coming later this week. Here is what he said about Votto:
“One thing Joey does an extremely great job of is staying in his zone. He stays in the area he’s most powerful in and doesn’t expand until he has to. When you look at the Tony Gwynns and Wade Boggs of the world – the guys I grew up watching – you appreciate how well they went about their jobs. They were very particular about the area they attacked.”
Votto is a poster child for plate discipline. He’s also a whipping boy for Reds fans who would like him to expand his zone and magically up his RBI totals. Would Bell like to see him adapt his style to become more like Tony Perez and less like Joe Morgan?
“Joey is an extraordinary hitter,” said Bell. “He does some things not many can do. The biggest stats for me are runs scored and RBIs, and one of the things he does an extremely good job of is get on base. Joey looks for mistakes and makes sure he hits them when they come. And if a pitcher decides to not throw him strikes, we have guys behind him. Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips and Todd Frazier are pretty accomplished. It helps create situations to score multiple runs in an inning when you can work counts and get on. If you have an opportunity to increase run production by taking a walk… that’s not a bad thing.”
Pitching coaches are armchair psychologists. Every bit as important as their mechanical know-how is an ability to understand what makes a pitcher tick. In order to do the job effectively, they have to recognize which buttons to push for each make and model.
Ray Burris, the pitching coach for the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs – Philadelphia’s Triple-A affiliate – is a good armchair psychologist. At the age of 63, with 15 seasons as a big-league hurler on his resume, he knows what goes on between a pitcher’s ears. He also recognizes that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to success on the mound. In his eyes, it doesn’t matter if a pitcher is introverted or extroverted, as long as he possesses two key attributes.
“Pitching is a mindset of understanding and desire,” Burris told me earlier this season. “It’s really no different than the mindset you need to be a catcher or a first baseman. Whatever position you’re built for, it’s understanding your craft and the love to go out there and perform. What you need is a love for pitching and getting guys out. That love can be developed. That love can grow. That love can also die.”
Many fans associate demonstrativeness with passion. Players who show little outward emotion are often said not to care, while players who punch dugout walls are praised for their intensity. Burris doesn’t see it that way.
“What is coming in after an inning and throwing your glove going to do?” said Burris. “Is it going to help you throw a better strike? I don’t think so. You don’t need to throw your glove or take your fist and ram it through the concrete to show you care. The cameras and social media might view it that way, but it doesn’t mean anything to me. Being on the mound shows you care.”
Burris cares for his pitchers equally, but he interacts with them differently. Before he makes a mound visit, he always reaches for his psychologist’s hat.
“As a pitching coach, you need to know who is wired intense and who is wired relaxed,” said Burris. “You’re going to have a different approach with each. All pitchers aren’t created equal from the neck up. All players aren’t created equal from the neck up. All human beings aren’t created equal from the neck up. There are different breeds in this game.”
Jemile Weeks isn’t atypical between the white lines. The 27-year-old infielder has the tools to have 226 big-league games under his belt. He also has the desire to get back to The Show. The former Athletic – and brother of Brewers infielder Rickie Weeks – is hitting .282/.405/.401 for the Norfolk Tides, Baltimore’s Triple-A affiliate.
Off the field, he is more Bohemian than the average athlete. A native of Orlando who attended the University of Miami, Weeks is a writer and a musician.
“It’s not something I’ve really put out there for the world to know, but I like to do poetry and music,” said Weeks. “Things like that interest me. One of my good friends, Adrian Cardenas, who I played with in the Oakland A’s organization, is a writer. So is Brian Barton. There are a couple of guys I’m connected with who write and form their ideas on paper.
“When you put thoughts on paper they become real,” continued Weeks. “That’s whether it’s creating a business idea or putting down plots and ideas. I put heart-felt things on paper so they can be read and be made real. A lot of my writing is life-based.”
Weeks considers music an even bigger part of his life.
“It all started in church, beating to gospel music, but I could probably play any type of music you put in front of me,” said Weeks. “It’s something I just naturally know how to do. I play by ear. I don’t really know how to read notes, but I feel the music. I’ve dabbled with the organ and piano, but the drums are what I play best.”
Does he see a relationship between hitting and playing the drums?
“You need to be disciplined with both,” said Weeks. “Rhythm and timing are big when you’re dealing with musical instruments, especially the drums. Maybe there’s a correlation. I do know that music comes naturally to me.”
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