In 2008, the Minnesota Twins drafted Aaron Hicks 14th overall. Four years later they took Byron Buxton second overall. The latter is 20 years old and the top prospect in the game. The former is 24 years old and… what exactly? A placeholder? A late-bloomer? An enigma?
The correct answer is probably “all of the above,” which leads to another question. Actually, it leads to a pair of related questions: Will Hicks play well enough to be the Twins everyday centerfielder in 2014? If he does — first he’ll have to win the job over Alex Presley — how much value will he provide with his glove?
Hicks’ offensive struggles last year are obvious to the stat sheet and naked eye alike. Assessing his defense is more complicated. With the Twins playing half their games at Target Field, it is also a concern. I asked Terry Ryan about outfield defense during the Winter Meetings
“It’s imperative,” said the Twins’ general manager. “Number one, we’re in a pitcher’s park. We want a lot of range in center field. One thing it might affect is how you go about your draft. We’re looking for people who can go get a ball in the outfield. I think [Hicks] did a pretty good job doing that when he was up last year.”
“Centerfield and right field [at Target Field] are big,” agreed Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire. “They’re huge. You need to have some athletic people out there to run the ball down, and Hicks was very good.”
Defensive metrics don’t agree that Hicks was good. I asked Scott Spratt of Baseball Info Solutions why that might be.
“One reason Aaron Hicks may appear to be a better defensive center fielder than his Defensive Runs Saved (plus-2, 20th-best at the position) total indicates is that his negative value is all range-related,” said Spratt. “We have him as costing the Twins five runs due to Plus/Minus. On the other hand, Hicks saved the Twins two runs with his arm and five runs with Good Fielding Plays/Defensive Misplays, mostly due to his 13 unexpected fly ball or line drive outs and his two home run robberies. In other words, Hicks rarely made poor decisions or poor plays on the balls he could reach, which is the easier part of defensive play to visually evaluate.”
Positioning was likely a factor. According to multiple sources, Twins outfielders played deep more often than not. Lack of range in the corner positions makes that understandable, but one is left to wonder if their pitching staff would have a lower BABiP if the outfielders — particularly the speedy Hicks — played shallower.
According to Baseball Info Solutions, that may or may not be a good idea.
“Outfielders are rewarded more in DRS for deep outs and penalized more for deep non-outs because the run value on those plays is greater,” explained Spratt. “Balls that drop in front of outfielders tend to end up singles while balls over their heads tend to become doubles and triples. Differences in park dimensions can have an effect on players, but our research hasn’t uncovered any clear patterns. In a bigger parks, outfielders will sometimes position themselves deeper, which makes them more likely to convert deep balls into outs. However, that then makes shallow balls more likely to fall in as hits, and that tradeoff can balance out or skew either way depending on the positioning and skill set of a particular outfielder.”
In the case of the Twins, that particular centerfielder will be Hicks or Presley in the short term. Hicks has the higher upside, but again, we’re likely looking at a placeholder situation. Buxton is on the horizon, and according to MiLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo, he’ll arrive well-positioned to help save runs.
“While most people want to talk about what Buxton can do offensively, what with his bat, power and speed profile, it would be a mistake to forget about his defense,” said Mayo. “It makes him as complete a prospect as there is in the minors today. His plus speed allows him to cover a tremendous amount of ground in center and he has as strong an arm as any outfield prospect in baseball. The whole complete package thing refers to his defense just as much as his offense.”
I haven’t had a chance to ask Buxton how deep or shallow he likes to play. I did, however, have an opportunity to ask Hicks.
“I like to play in,” said Hicks. “I like to go back on balls. It depends on who is hitting — you’re usually a little deeper for the core guys than the 7-8-9 guys — but typically I like to play shallower than most [outfielders]. That allows you take away jam hits.”
I asked Hicks how much control he has over where he’s positioned, and the young outfielder adroitly sidestepped the question. A source was more forthcoming: “Gardy hates doubles. He‘d much rather have a lot of singles fall in front of his outfielders.”
Mike Pelfrey knows who Xander Bogaerts is. That’s not surprising given the Red Sox shortstop is baseball’s top prospect not named Byron Buxton. The Twins righthander faced Bogaerts on Friday afternoon and induced a hard-hit 5-4-3 double play. Afterwards he was asked if he knew who was in the box.
“I did,“ said Pelfrey. “It was the first time I ever faced him, but I’ve heard very good things about him and obviously watched the World Series. I know he’s a good player. I threw a pitch inside that he turned on and was lucky Trevor Plouffe made a good play at third. I saw good hands on an inside pitch, which is something I’ll put in my head for the next time. He made a good adjustment in that at bat, which is impressive for a young player.
“With games like this, we don’t go over scouting reports, but we know the guys in our league, Even though you’re mostly working on things, you’re conscious of who is hitting. I knew who he was.”
Chris Capuano’s approach will be a little different than usual when he makes his Grapefruit League debut. Recently signed by the Red Sox, the southpaw has never pitched for an American League team.
“Normally it changes in your last start or two of spring training,” said Capuano. “That’s when you actually start to break down the hitters. Before that, first and foremost you make sure you’re executing pitches. For the most part, you’re looking at the hitter and trying to read the hitter, and pitching to righties and lefties the way you pitch to righties and lefties.”
That doesn’t mean Capuano eschews knowledge. Relying more on guile than pure stuff, the Duke University-educated 35-year-old utilizes every edge he can.
“If I have information that might help me get the hitter out, I’m going to use it,” said Capuano. “Maybe what I should say is the pre-game hours that go into preparing aren’t quite as intense during spring training as they are in the regular season. At this point, it’s mostly about executing pitches. I still need to learn the hitters, though. I’ve been looking at video every day and will probably do more preparation for my spring training starts than usual.”
No one does more preparation than scouting directors. The June amateur draft is crucial to a team’s success, which means nary a rock is left unturned before decisions are made. Mistakes still happen. If you need evidence that scouting is an inexact science, scan listings of recent first rounds. It’s safe to say two dozen teams would draft Mike Trout if they could have a do-over. Every scouting director has skeletons in his closet.
Prior to becoming Senior Vice President, Player Development and Amateur Scouting for the Chicago Cubs, Jason McLeod led the draft in Boston and San Diego. McLeod has more hits than misses — especially from his time with the Red Sox — but like his scouting brethren, he’s far from perfect. A player he never actually had a chance to take is ample proof.
“When I was in San Diego, Javier Baez went right in front of us,” McLeod told me recently. “He went ninth and we took Corey Spangenberg tenth. The Cubs beat a lot of teams on Javy. They certainly beat the Padres. I have to admit we weren’t set up to take him with our pick. Thankfully, the Cubs were smart and I don’t have to wear that one too bad.”
As Padres fans know all too well, Spangenberg has thus far fallen short of expectations. Count McLeod among the surprised.
“After we signed Corey he went up to Eugene and just went bananas,” said McLeod. “Pat Murphy was our manager there. He had been the head coach at Arizona State — he and Dustin Pedroia are like father and son — and Murph was like ‘This guy is Pedroia, just from the left side and with more speed.’ Looking at what Corey did in the Northwest League, we were friggin’ digging ourselves. Then he went to Fort Wayne and has kind of been grinding along the last few years.”
I asked McLeod what he missed in Baez.
“We had some questions on his aggressiveness,” said McLeod. “Everyone saw the bat speed and the power. He was a little flashy and had the big swing. What we probably underestimated a little bit was how much Javy loves to play the game, and how much he loves to compete. In the end, we simply missed on him. We wouldn’t have taken Javy had he fallen to our pick. Thankfully the Cubs did.”
Tommy Layne has had a fairly nondescript career. The 29-year-old reliever is 2-2, 2.84 over 40 big league appearances. Primarily a lefty specialist, he has worked just 25-and-a-third innings.
Two of those innings are noteworthy. Both came in 2012 with the San Diego Padres. The first was Layne’s big league debut, the second his first win. The southpaw remembers them well.
“My first game was against Atlanta [on August 14] and my first batter was Brian McCann,” said Layne. “I froze him with a slider. Dan Uggla took a slider as well. Tyler Pastornicky swung through a slider. All three strikeouts were on sliders thrown from my lower arm slot.
Against the Dodgers [on September 4], the first guy I faced was Adrian Gonzalez. I threw an over-the-top slider in the dirt that he swung through. Matt Kemp swung through a fastball. Then I froze Hanley Ramirez on a slider.”
Two games, six batters, six strikeouts. The Atlanta performance came in mop-up duty. The outing against the Dodgers came in the 10th inning of a 3-3 game.
I asked Layne — currently in camp with the Red Sox — if the games define his career.
“They really don‘t,” answered Layne. “If you think about it, you’re really only as good as the last time you threw the ball. That doesn’t mean my debut wasn’t awesome. It’s something I’ll carry with me until the day I die. My first win was the same kind of thing. They were good innings, but in no way, shape or form do they define me as a pitcher.”
What does define Layne is deception. Add creative game calling, and — at least on two special occasions — you have a recipe for success..
“The strikeouts had a lot to do with my catchers calling pitches that were outside the box of how I usually think of getting guys out,” explained Layne. “I throw from two different arm slots. Some pitches I throw from a lower arm slot and usually just to lefties. They had me throwing them to righties.
“Over the top, my repertoire is fastball, curveball, cutter and changeup. I also throw a fastball and a slider from about a foot lower than my normal arm slot. It’s kind of sidearm and kind of herky jerky. I’ve heard from hitters that it sort of comes out of nowhere. What I’m basically doing is shaping a pitch a little differently and creating some extra deception.”
Print This Post