Ryan O’Hearn is making it look easy. Forty-six games into his professional career, the 21-year-old Idaho Falls Chukar first baseman is crushing the Pioneer League. Swinging from the left side, O’Hearn is hitting .380/.455/.604 with nine home runs.
The Kansas City Royals drafted the Sam Houston State Bearkat in the eighth round, and he didn’t waste time showing he was ready for pro ball. O’Hearn homered in his first plate appearance and went 5 for 5 on the day. A little over a month later he was involved in a 16-inning game that featured a bench-clearing brawl.
He’s had more than a fighting chance against opposing pitchers. O’Hearn isn’t cocky, but he is confident.
“I finished my college year pretty good and got off to a good start in pro ball,” O’Hearn told me earlier this week. “My confidence has really built. You end up telling yourself, ‘I can do this, this is no big deal.’ Sometimes guys just click with their hitting, and I’ve been doing that lately, which is awesome.”
O’Hearn’s power potential is a big reason he was drafted. He left the yard eight times in his junior year, and he’s already surpassed that total in Idaho Falls. The 6-foot-3 slugger isn’t surprised. He describes his college ballpark as “what players call a graveyard – a big field where the ball doesn’t carry well because of heavy air.”
He found out he’d be playing in Idaho Falls during mini-camp. The area scout who signed him, Justin Lair, had told O’Hearn to expect an assignment to Burlington. Instead, he’s starting his career with his college roomate. Corey Toups – hitting .307/.449/.458 for the Chukars – was the Royals’ 15th round selection. The friends were in close contact during the draft.
“When I got picked, Corey texted me,” said O’Hearn. “He told me the scouting director, Lonnie Goldberg, had called him and said, ‘Hey, we may take you tomorrow; would you be interested [in signing for X amount?’ I said, ‘Yeah, dude, for sure.’ It’s exciting that we get to experience this together.”
Part of what they’re experiencing is culture shock. Both grew up in Texas, and the Pioneer League has teams in Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Utah. O’Hearn had never been this far north. He’s seeing plenty of scenery, which is both a blessing and a curse.
“It’s cool to see the mountains and the rivers,” said O’Hearn. “But the overnight bus rides are awful. From here to Grand Junction, Colorado, we leave at midnight and get there at 9 a.m. The travel is kind of rough, but you get used to it.”
No one really gets used to brawls, especially ones that halt play for 25 minutes. The benches emptied in the 10th inning of a game the Chukars (a chukar is a partridge, in case you were wondering) went on to win 9-8.
“One of their guys – I think his name was [Justin] Chigbogu – struck out,” recalled O’Hearn. “He was complaining he wasn’t getting any fastballs, then bumped our catcher [Pedro Gonzalez]. They yelled back and forth and the benches cleared. Our manager [Omar Ramirez] and Ogden’s manager [Jack McDowell] were right in the middle of it. Ogden’s manager threw a punch. It escalated pretty quickly and I’m just glad nobody got seriously injured.”
O’Hearn was in the middle of the melee, although his mindset was more dove than hawk.
“I was just trying to get guys off our manager,” O’Hearn explained. “I really didn’t have a problem with anybody on their team. I didn’t throw any punches or try to do any damage. But they’re your teammates and you have to have their backs – especially your manager. We had to make sure to help Omar out.”
Dave Trembley didn’t have Daniel Cabrera‘s back following a September 2007 brawl. Cabrera was a tempestuous right-hander with a reputation as a headhunter. Trembley – now the bench coach for the Houston Astros– was managing the Baltimore Orioles at the time. He told me about the incident, and its ramifications, earlier this weekend.
“We were playing the Red Sox at Camden Yards,” said Trembley “Daniel Cabrera [threw behind] Dustin Pedroia and there ended up being an on-the-field melee. The Red Sox got extremely upset. The umpires ended up ejecting Cabrera and Boston’s backup catcher [Kevin Cash].
“Josh Beckett was going to be pitching the next day. He’s old-school, and Cabrera popped Pedroia for no reason, so I knew one of our guys was going to get it. [Nick] Markakis, [Brian] Roberts… somebody was going to get it.”
Trembley didn’t want the immature actions of one of his pitchers endangering one of his best hitters. Hoping to avoid trouble, he made a proposal to Red Sox manager Terry Francona.
“I called Tito,” said Trembley. “I said, ‘If I tell you that I’m going to suspend Cabrera, will you tell me none of my guys are going to get thrown at?’ He said he’d get back to me. When he called back, he said, ‘Are you sure you’re going to suspend Cabrera?’ I said that I was. I’d talked to [general manager] Andy MacPhail and Cabrera was going to miss a start – we were going to take his money.
“Beckett pitched the next day and didn’t hit anybody. If I hadn’t called Tito, one of our guys would have gotten drilled, and deservedly so. Cabrera had a reputation and a problem with Boston and New York. Whenever they hit home runs against him, he’d hit somebody. To this day he’ll tell you he wasn’t throwing at Pedroia, but everybody on the team knew he did. An incident like that can get ugly.”
Pitchers don’t get many opportunities to throw a scuffed baseball. Umpires are constantly putting a new ball in play. When a pitcher does get one back that’s scuffed, it behooves him to know what to do with it.
It is common knowledge that a scuff helps create extra movement, but in which direction? If you want a pitch to move a certain way, where do you position the scuff when you grip the baseball? Do scuffs affect some pitches more than others? Not everybody has the same answer to these questions.
I asked three people for their thoughts on the subject yesterday afternoon. Brian Bannister and Alan Nathan are in Boston for the fourth annual Sabermetrics, Scouting and the Science of Baseball seminar. Brent Strom is the pitching coach for the Houston Astros, who are in town playing the Red Sox.
Earlier in the day, Bannister and Nathan were part of a group that looked into scuff-effect through a scientific lens. Using TrackMan radar, the experiment measured the movement a pair of college pitchers got with each of their pitches. Which direction the ball moved relative to the positioning of the scuff was a focal point. Results should be available in the near future.
Nathan, an expert in the physics of baseball, said he is unaware of such a study being conducted previously. His expectations of the test results are based on theory, largely from what is known about cricket.
“In cricket, there is a single seam around the ball and the ball is thrown rotating about that seam,” Nathan told me. “The way the ball breaks is determined by how that seam is oriented. If the seam is on the right-hand side, the ball swerves to the right. If the seam is on the left-hand side, the ball swerves to the left. The character of the air flow changes, causing it to break in [a certain] direction.
“The seam configuration of a cricket ball is different than a baseball, but a cricket ball is rotating the same as a baseball and the movement is not determined by the rotation. It is determined entirely by the seam. It is well known among cricket players how the ball swerves – which direction it goes – relative to how that seam is oriented. That’s my perspective and why I think the ball should break in the direction of the scuff.”
Bannister, who pitched for the Mets and the Royals, thinks the opposite.
“The conventional baseball wisdom is that you put the scuff on the opposite side of the ball from how you want it to break,” said Bannister. “The theory is, like the dimples on a golf ball, when you spin a ball and the scuff is on the opposite side, the airflow is going to spin faster over that side of the ball – it will accentuate the spin on the ball. So if you’re throwing a curveball, a slider, or a cutter, you position the scuff on the third base side if you’re a right-handed pitcher, and that helps it break to the first-base side. For a changeup, you put the scuff on the first base side, and that helps it break to the third base side.
“You don’t really use a scuff for a fastball. If you’re going to cheat throwing a fastball, you’re probably going to put lube on a ball. That reduces the spin and helps it sink more. With a scuff, you’re going to position it on the opposite side of where you want it to break, and you’re typically going to throw a breaking ball or a changeup.”
Strom agrees with Bannister on how to position the scuff, but not on pitch-type. When I broached the subject, his initial response was to joke that a pitcher is “morally obligated to not cheat, so he’ll give the ball back to the umpire. He’s a moral person who doesn’t want to take unfair advantage of the poor hitters.” He then echoed Bannister and said, “Physics will tell you the scuff will make the ball go to the opposite side of the scuff.” Then he partially contradicted him, saying “The fastball and the split-finger are helped [by a scuff]. The curveball not so much. The slider possibly could.”
Strom proceeded to explain how scuffed baseballs can be used as a teaching tool. His three-plus decades of coaching experience include a recent stint as the minor-league pitching coordinator for the St. Louis Cardinals. His methods aren’t all strictly by the book.
“One thing you can do to help develop a sinker is practice with scuffed balls,” Strom told me.” Take one ball that has a massive scuff on it, a second ball that has a medium scuff, and a third ball with no scuff – a brand new ball. Throw 10 pitches with the massive scuff and the ball will automatically move. Throw the ball with the medium scuff and it will move not quite as much. The new ball will go dead straight.
“There’s a term called misattribution. You attribute something to something else. The ball with the massive scuff sinks, and over time your brain starts to feel you’ll get the same movement with the brand new baseball, using the same grip. Your body has a way of accommodating the goals that are required. If your goal is to make the ball move, and your eyes see the ball moving, time after time, pretty soon your body starts to recreate that movement without the scuff. Will be as big as it was with the scuff? No, but it will start to get that sinking action.”
You couldn’t have blamed Corey Brown if he had a sinking feeling when he came to the plate for the first time in a Red Sox uniform. Called up from Pawtucket eight days earlier, the left-handed hitter faced Aroldis Chapman this past Wednesday. He had a premonition it might happen. A few days earlier, he told Brock Holt and Daniel Nava that with his luck he’d probably face Chapman in his first at bat.
The former Washington National had 40 big-league at bats coming into the game – and another 800-plus in the minors – but he’d never faced a same-sided pitcher who reaches triple digits. Having not seen live action in over a week made the experience even more daunting.
Brown claimed not to have been daunted. That doesn’t mean he was comfortable digging into the box. Chapman had drilled Jackie Bradley, Jr. earlier in the inning.
“After he smoked Jackie with 100 mph, I was a little… let’s say nervous,” admitted Brown. “But I also had a feeling of, ‘What is there to lose here?’ I think a majority of people expect you to strike out against him. I didn’t have fear, but maybe there was a little bit of ‘Please don’t hit me.’”
Brown admits to having sneaked a peek at the radar reading after Chapman’s first pitch. It registered 101. A few pitches later he went down swinging on 102. Afterward, he took a bit of good-natured ribbing.
“My teammates kind of laughed and joked around a little bit,” said Brown. “Nothing too crazy, mostly just things like, ‘Hey, was that a comfortable at bat?’ A few guys from down in Pawtucket texted to say I needed to get my foot down earlier.”
Bradley, who took a Chapman fastball off his upper arm – he claimed it didn’t hurt – also received a little ribbing.
“After the game, David [Ortiz] was saying if Chapman was facing him, he’d have probably been amped up a little more and thrown 105,” explained Bradley. “He said he’d have been screaming as the pitch was coming. I told him I didn’t have time to scream.”
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