Francisco Lindor got one step closer to Cleveland when the Indians dealt Asdrubal Cabrera at the trading deadline. The 20-year-old shortstop was already making great strides. Ten days earlier, the Puerto Rican-born Lindor moved from Double-A Akron to Triple-A Columbus. Drafted 8th overall in 2011 out of a Florida high school, he’s rated the sixth-best prospect in the game by Baseball America.
I first interviewed Lindor two years ago when he was playing in the low-A Midwest League. When I caught up to him last week, I started by asking what has changed, developmentally, since that time.
“When it comes do defense, I’m just trying to avoid a lot of extra movements,” answered Lindor. “You can’t be trying to look too fancy. You want to go straight to the point. Make sure you catch the ball in the middle, set your feet, make a good throw. I’m just trying to make all the routine plays.
“With hitting, it’s the same thing. Try to avoid extra movement. Don’t have extra movement with your bat or with your legs. Go straight to the point and make sure you’re nice and easy. Hit the ball hard.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Not only did he come across as the same humble guy, he largely echoed his words from two years ago.Was it a matter of walking the walk instead of just talking the talk?
“Not really,” replied Lindor. “I was doing it then, but I couldn’t do it consistently. That’s the difference between today and two years ago. The organization is really good at telling me things and helping me develop, so I knew what I had to do. It’s the same as when I was growing up and my dad would tell me what I had to do. I listened, I just couldn’t do it consistently, every day. I’m still trying to do it day in and day out, but I do it a lot more often than I used to.”
Derek Jeter has been doing it for a long time. The Yankees captain had just intimated to me the day before that any adjustments he makes are within the framework of the same approach. I related that to the young shortstop.
“He’s right, and he’s one of the best that’s ever played this game,” said Lindor. “It’s always the same thing. You make adjustments, of course – you make adjustments on every pitch – but you’re still doing the same thing every game. You’re completely repeating yourself to be the same player every day.”
I asked him if it’s mostly a matter of maintaining focus.
“Always,” said Lindor. “Always it is. Focus is one of the biggest parts of being consistent. If you’re focusing on every single pitch, you’ll make the plays. And if you do that well for a week, don’t lay back. Keep doing it every single day. The game is the same, but sometimes it speeds up a little bit more, which is why you have to avoid the extra action movements.”
Lindor does his best to avoid the hype. There has been plenty of it, as well as speculation as to when he’ll take over as the Indians shortstop. The buzz only increased when Cabrera was dealt, but for Lindor it’s been falling on deaf ears.
“It doesn’t matter what number I am on the prospect list,” said Lindor. “[The trade] doesn’t really matter, either. If I do my thing – work hard, help the team win and prepare myself like I do every day – I’ll be there eventually. God willing. Whenever the Indians feel I’m ready for it, I’ll be there.”
Dellin Betances is 6-foot-8, soft-spoken, and throws a baseball 100 mph. Eight years after being drafted by the Yankees out of a Brooklyn high school, he’s finally coming into his own. The 26-year-old righthander is 4-0, 1.44, with a 13.4 K/9, in 51 appearances out of Joe Girardi‘s bullpen.
There is no disputing his raw stuff. Not only has Betances been reaching triple digits with his heater, his hook has been turning heads. Earlier this season I was in the visiting clubhouse at Fenway Park while players from another team watched him pitch on TV. “Look at that [bleeping] curveball” one exclaimed loudly. Another called over a teammate and said, “Check out the curveball this guy is throwing.”
Prior to this season, Betances wasn’t throwing enough strikes. In a pair of big-league cameos he had issued eight walks in seven-and-two-thirds innings. His BB/9 over 641 minor-league innings was 4.9, including an alarming 6.8 between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre in 2012. This year his BB/9 is 2.6.
Betances attributes his new-found success to a more consistent delivery, which he said is the result of last year’s move to the bullpen. Four years ago, that isn’t what he expected to happen. When I talked to him in 2010, Bettances was dominating the Florida State league as a starter, with a 1.77 ERA and the lowest walk rate of his career. At the conclusion of the season he was rated the No. 3 prospect in the Yankees system.
I recently reminded Betances that he told me four years ago he “definitely saw [himself] as a starter down the road.”
“Four years is a long time,” Betances replied “At that time, I was able to command the strike zone and everything was going well. But then I had a rough couple of years where I couldn’t command my pitches. I don’t know that I can give a reason for that.”
I asked Betances if health was ever an issue. He said it wasn’t. He then proceeded to give a well-thought-out reason for his struggles in 2011 and 2012.
“It was more mental for me,” admitted Betances. “I was trying to get up to the major leagues and put too much pressure on myself. As a result, I didn’t pitch well. Ever since they moved me to the bullpen, my mechanics have come together a lot better. I feel like I’m a different pitcher.
“A lot of it was maturing and telling myself to not worry about the outside stuff. I think that took pressure off and allowed me to just go out there and pitch. Putting pressure on yourself doesn’t help.”
I asked the big righthander if he worked with sports psychologists along the way. He said he had.
“I’ve gotten a lot of help from Chad [Bohling] and from Chris Passarella, our mental conditioning coaches. They helped me a lot, but at the end of the day it was about believing in myself, and believing in my stuff, that I can go out there and pitch. I think the move to the bullpen helped me do that, and it definitely helped my velocity.”
The Tampa Bay Rays expect Casey Gillaspie to hit for power. That’s a given any time you draft a 6-foot-4, 240-lb first baseman in the first round. The 21-year-old switch hitter knows it, although he’s doing his best not to get too homer happy. His first week of pro ball – with the short-season Hudson Valley Renegades – explains why.
Gillaspie’s first professional hit left the yard, as did his fourth, which came on June 21. At the end of the day he was 4 for 33 with 15 strikeouts. Was he maybe trying too hard to prove himself in his first week of pro ball? A little over a month later, I caught up with him and asked just that.
“I might have been, but don’t think there was pressure coming from anywhere besides myself,” Gillaspie told me. “But I got out of any do-too-much-mentality about a week into the season and started to just try to make solid contact. Right now I don’t feel any pressure, trying to produce more hoime runs or anything like that. I’m just trying to have good at bats.”
Coincidentally, his older brother, White Sox third baseman Conor Gillapie, recently suggested that same approach – not worrying about home runs – has been a key to his breakthrough season. Conor is hitting .312 with an .813 OPS, while Casey has recovered from his early swoon and is now hitting a solid .277/.360.452. The younger brother has six home runs in 188 at bats. According to Hudson Valley manager Tim Parenton, he also knows what he’s doing.
“He has a plan and is smart enough to keep with that plan,” said Parenton. “He was with some good hitting guys at Wichita State. Casey works in the cage every day on that plan. Maybe in the back of his head [hitting home runs] creeps in, but that’s the case with all young guys in professional baseball. They think, ‘If I’m hitting home runs, I’m going to move up.’ Over the past three or four weeks you can see it coming together for him, where he’s starting to hit the ball all over the field.”
Gillaspie is strong enough to propel baseballs with his natural swing. He led the Cape Cod League in home runs last summer with eight. He then hit 14 in his junior season with the Shockers. According to the young slugger, his power is similar in both batter’s boxes, and from line to line.
“I think I can hit the ball out of any part of the park from either side of the plate,” said Gillaspie. “I’m probably going to have more power to my pull side, but I don’t think there’s a distinct area where I hit the ball better.
“I’m a natural righthanded hitter, but I’ve been doing this so long it feels natural from both sides. There are maybe slight differences left and right – I think any switch hitter will tell you they aren’t exactly the same from both sides – but mechanically I’m pretty similar.”
There are two notable differences between the Gillaspie Brothers. The biggest is power, as Conor’s comfort zone is doubles in the gaps, while Casey – regardless of how he goes about it – will be counted on to hit balls great distances. They also don’t share the same personality or hobby.
“He’s a different hitter than I am,” opined Casey. “For one thing, he’s a little smaller of a guy than I am. To be honest, we don’t talk hitting, or baseball in general, very much at all. We’re brothers who enjoy talking to each other about things other than baseball.”
“His thing is storm chasing – that’s his hobby and he enjoys it – but I never got into that. He’s more conservative, while I’m more outgoing. But at the end of the day, we go about our business the same way when it comes to baseball.”
Zach Putnam had no problem acclimating to baseball’s ethnic and cultural diversity when he signed his first professional contract in 2008. The now-27-year-old righthander grew up in Ann Arbor and stayed home to play his college ball at the University of Michigan.
Putnam – currently pitching for the White Sox, for whom he is 3-2, 2.29 with three saves in 34 appearances — is appreciative of his background.
“Ann Arbor is sort of the melting pot of Michigan as far culture goes,” Putnam told me last month in Boston. “In pro ball, I’m playing with guys from all over the place. Here we’ve got guys from Cuba, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Colombia. There are obviously a lot of guys from the south and from the west. When it comes to blending in with all of that… it’s something I’ve been around my whole life – people from different countries and cultures, and all walks of life. Pro ball is sort of an extension of what I grew up with.”
Unlike many of his teammates, Putnam’s greatest cultural-diversity challenge has been dealing with people who didn’t grow up in culturally-diverse environments. He encountered a lot of that coming up through the minors, but he didn’t view it as a negative. The Ann Arbor native embraced it as a positive.
“No matter where you play in the minor leagues, you’re going to come across some cities you probably wouldn’t have otherwise heard of,” explained Putnam. “I have a great appreciation for what I got to experience. At the end of the day, it’s cool to be able to play baseball all over the country. It’s even cooler to see places you ordinarily wouldn’t have come across, and meet people you wouldn’t have met. This game provides you an opportunity to do some awesome things.”
Not surprisingly, Putnam embraced the World Cup.
“This is the second one that’s taken place since I’ve been in pro ball,” said Putnam. “One thing I’ve noticed is that guys who generally don’t care one bit about soccer are interested in it. It’s hard not to pay attention, because it’s the World Cup. Given the diversity of our clubhouse, we’ve had a nice friendly rivalry. Brazil played Colombia, so we had Andre Rienzo and Jose Quintana facing off, and guys kind of rallying around each of them. Having guys from different countries who are playing has been fun. I asked Andre if he knows any of the guys on the Brazil team, and he said he actually does. That’s awesome.”
Putnam grew up with a heated rivalry of his own: Michigan-Ohio State. His colors run deep, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t respect the enemy.
“I spent parts of two seasons in Columbus, in Triple-A with the Indians,” said Putnam. “As far as minor league cities go, it was actually my favorite place to play. Going in, I never thought I’d be able to say that, not being a born-and-raised Ann Arbor-ite, and true blue Michigan fan and alum. But people in Columbus were very gracious to me. I only had a couple of… I guess you could call them friendly encounters. Maybe it would be a store owner seeing my ID and razzing me for being from Ann Arbor. As far as teammates, I played with Jensen Lewis and he’s a diehard Ohio State fan. He’s from Cincinnati and grew up with the Buckeyes. He and I still go back and forth a little. It’s fun to have rivalries like that in the clubhouse.”
Putnam passed up an opportunity to sign with the Tigers after they drafted him out of Ann Arbor Pioneer High School. It was a difficult decision, but it was too hard to pass up a Michigan education. The righthander doesn’t have any regrets.
“Growing up, I was a regular at Tigers games, even going back to old Tiger Stadium,” said Putnam. “I always thought it would be awesome to take the field there and wear the Old English D, but I feel blessed. There haven’t been a ton of guys from my area – or Michigan in general – who have had the opportunity to play in the big leagues. It’s one of those things where you wake up every day and kind of have to pinch yourself. This is my first time playing at Fenway Park, and it’s almost surreal walking onto the field. I’ve always had an interest in the Red Sox, and this ballpark, so this is unbelievable.”
As hard as it might be for some people to believe, Putnam thinks highly of the city 40 miles east of Ann Arbor.
“From my experience, the people who live in Detroit are thick as thieves,” Putnam told me. “They love the city. And there’s a lot to love about the city. There are obviously some things that maybe aren’t as stellar compared to other cities, but I have very fond memories of being in Detroit. Red Wings games. Lions games. Tigers games. Just going down there and hanging out. Detroit kind of has a culture of its own.”
FROM THE CUTTING ROOM FLOOR
Material from interviews sometimes goes unused. Other times it sits around for months before seeing the light of day. Here are snippets from conversations I had earlier this season.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia on Tom Koehler: “Koehler reminds me of John Lackey a little bit, just with his aggressiveness. He’s not going to back down, regardless of what the count is. He’s going to attack hitters. Good fastball, curveball he can throw for a strike at any point or bounce if he wants to. His slider isn’t as good as Lackey’s.”
Jake McGee on playing catch with his father: “We’d go by the high school and he’d sit on a bucket and catch me. By the end of my senior year I was throwing hard enough that he was starting to struggle a little bit. He had catcher’s gear and a catcher’s mitt, just in case. I would only throw fastballs. I couldn’t throw him curveballs. He’d whiff on those.”
Matt Joyce on stats: “There are a million stats out there. One of the biggest, most-relevant ones is WAR. A lot of people are really looking at that owadays. But as a player, you really just try to play the game. I can’t control where the ball goes. I’m focusing more on the approach than things like trying to lead the lead in average or hit home runs.”
FACTS AND OPINIONS
On this date in 1994, the Montreal Expos ran their record to 74-39 with a win over the Pirates. It was their final victory of the season. Two days later, both leagues shut down due to a players’ strike. Largely forgotten is that teams with losing records could conceivably have met in the World Series. At the time of the work stoppage, the Rangers led the AL West with a record of 52-62. The Dodgers, with a record of 58-56, led the NL West by 3.5 games. The 2005 Padres, who went 82-80, have worst record of any team to advance to the postseason. Contrast that with the 1993 Giants, who won 102 games and fell short of a playoff berth.
Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, the talented radio voice of the Lansing Lugnuts, recently came up with a good nickname for one of the top prospects in the Blue Jays system: Mitch “Double-a-Day” Nay. Playing in the low-A Midwest League, the right-handed-hitting Nay has doubles in six of his last seven games, and 31 on the season.
This year’s Saber Seminar – a charity event for the Jimmy Fund, a branch of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute – will once again be held on the campus of Boston University. It happens later this week, on August 16-17, and promises to be the best ever. The list of presenters is both extensive and impressive, and includes Ben Cheringtion, Jeff Luhnow, John Farrell and Brian Bannister. As always, FanGraphs will be well-represented.
Looking even further ahead, next year’s SABR convention – the 45th annual – will be held from June 24-28 in downtown Chicago. For a look back at the recently-completed convention in Houston, click here.
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