Archive for Q&As

Players’ View: Are Today’s Analytically Inclined Players Tomorrow’s GMs?

Are today’s analytically inclined players the next generation of top-level front-office executives? According to several baseball insiders, there’s a chance that could happen. While some to whom I spoke expressed skepticism, it does make a certain amount of sense.

A common criticism of your stereotypical Ivy League GM has been, “He didn’t play the game at a high level.” Conversely, former players in decision-making positions have often been accused (sometimes for good reason) of being behind the times. They have on-field experience, but they aren’t critical thinkers who embrace analytics.

A former player who thinks much like an “Ivy League GM” would offer the best of both worlds. He would know what it’s like to go through the grind of a 162-game schedule, and he’d also place a high value on objective analysis while showing a willingness to think outside the box.

I asked a cross section of players, coaches, managers, and front-office executives if they think such a trend is forthcoming.

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Manny Acta, Seattle Mariners third-base coach: “Eventually it’s going to happen, but it will take a little while. The percentage of players that believe and think like the new generation of GMs is still very low. It’s a transition that even coaches are going through right now: how to explain to players what is valued today by front offices and to convince them that they are not being valued as much by the old traditional stats.”

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Players’ View: Who Can Handle the Ninth?

Andrew Miller is regarded by many in the game as a luxury few teams have the fortune to possess.
(Photo: Arturo Pardavila III)

 
Not just anyone can close a game. The ninth inning is different than the first eight innings. Along with quality “stuff,” a certain mentality is needed to walk out to the mound and get those last three outs with your team leading by three runs or less.

Or is it?

Managers are typically averse to using someone other than their designated closer in a save situation — they do so only when necessary — but should that really be the case? Could most teams not realistically expect their “second-best reliever” to get those final outs if their “best reliever” was used in a high-leverage situation earlier in the game, and it was prudent to not have him return for the ninth?

I recently asked that question (albeit not always in those exact words) to a cross section of relievers, pitching coaches, and managers. Here is what they had to say.

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Cody Allen, Cleveland Indians reliever: “I understand that teams want to keep guys in roles — for the most part, even us — although I feel we’re kind of ahead of the curve in terms of usage. There are times we put guys in different situations, because it might be a bigger point in the game.

“If you have guys who have been here for awhile, or if you bring somebody over who’s proven, like we did last year with Andrew [Miller]… that’s a luxury we have that a lot of teams don’t have. [Bryan] Shaw has been here long enough that Tito knows he can handle just about any spot — any part of the lineup, any inning, any circumstance.

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Manny Machado on Preparing for a Series

It’s quite possible that — as recently as last night, with the Orioles preparing to finish their series against the Brewers — that Manny Machado had no idea who’d be on the mound for the Twins this evening. That sort of knowledge, and the preparation that goes along with it, would have to wait until Baltimore was finished with Milwaukee. The young third baseman doesn’t like to look too far ahead. I learned that when I spoke to Machado earlier this season.

At the time of our conversation, the Orioles were in Boston to play the Red Sox. His club would be facing the White Sox next, and I was interested to know when Chicago — and, specifically, their pitchers — would begin entering Machado’s consciousness. Here’s what he had to say.

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Machado on preparing for a series: “I don’t really think ahead. I think it’s the same way for most of the guys in this clubhouse — you have to stay in the moment. Today we have to face Chris Sale, so why would we think about the White Sox coming up? We have to worry about one of the best pitchers in the game, and what we’re going to do against him. We just prepare for the guy we’re going to face tonight. We stay with our same routines in the cage, and on the field, as well.

“Every time you go into a series, you kind of want to know who the three or four starters are going to be, but that’s just right before the series starts. I don’t know who is pitching for Chicago yet. Once the series here is over, I’ll take a look to see who we’ve got coming. I’ll kind of prepare myself mentally and start creating my plan for that series.

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Chris Gimenez on Being a Non-Pitcher Who Pitches

Chris Gimenez is good with a quip, and he came up with a classic earlier this month. Following a game in which he homered twice, the 34-year-old journeyman told reporters, “Hopefully I’m one of the better hitting pitchers in the league.”

Gimenez is, of course, a catcher by trade — but the lines are getting blurred a bit. He’s started 24 games behind the dish for the Minnesota Twins this season, but he’s also taken the mound six times. That’s rarified air. Researching the subject requires interpretation — for instance, was Willie Smith an outfielder or a two-way player in 1963 and 1964? — but it could be reasonably argued that Gimenez is tied with Eddie Lake (1944) for the most pitching appearances in one season by a position player.

More certain is the fact that Gimenez is the first player both to catch and pitch in at least six games, in the same season, since the late 1800s. And his versatility doesn’t stop there. Gimenez has also appeared in five games at first base, and one each at third base and in left field.

Gimenez talked about his crappy fastball and about his hopes of one day following in the footsteps of Campy Campaneris, earlier this week.

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Gimenez on not thinking like a pitcher when he’s on the mound: “I think I’ve pretty much stuck to the catching side of the thinking. I feel like that’s the more beneficial side, because chances are — at least hopefully — I’m going to catch more games than I’m going to pitch the rest of the year. But it is good to have the two somewhat different mindsets.

“Being a catcher, you need to think along the same lines as a pitcher, so you’re essentially thinking like a pitcher back there. But when I’m on the mound, it’s completely different, because I want guys to hit it. Pitchers are usually pitching for no contact or weak contact, and I’m trying to throw it down the middle. They can try to hit it as far as they want. I know that hitting is extremely difficult. You can tell that from my career average.

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Players’ View: Are Mound Visits Really an Issue?

Mound visits have long been a part of the game. They happen for a variety of reasons, but with one constant: whether it’s the catcher or the pitching coach who jogs to the hill, the ensuing confab delays the action. And while the delay is typically short of duration — the home plate umpire does his best to ensure that — the idiom “straw that broke the camel’s back” exists for a reason. In the opinion of more and more people, enough is enough when it comes to repeated trips to the mound.

Pace of play is an increasingly important issue for MLB, and some — commissioner Rob Manfred among them — have suggested limiting, if not entirely eliminating, mound visits. Fans would certainly be on board with such a change, but what about the people who be directly affected?

With the help of colleague Eno Sarris, I asked a cross section of players — mostly pitchers and catchers — the following question: “Just how important are mound visits, and how much would limiting, or even doing away with them, impact the game?”

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Larry Andersen, Philadelphia Phillies broadcaster: “I don’t know if you can get rid of them. If you have a starting staff like the Phillies had five years ago, with Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and the like, then you don’t need the mound visits. Those guys were experienced veterans who knew how to slow the game down and make adjustments on the fly. But if you have a staff like we do now — a lot of these guys are young and don’t know how to slow things down. They need to be led a little bit. They need to be helped out. They need to be given a break.

“It’s hard to say that mound visits shouldn’t be allowed, but there are also times where… we had one recently where a pitching coach went out to the mound with two outs in the ninth inning when we brought up a pinch-hitter. It was a four-run game, and there was no one on. I mean, is that really necessary? There are coaches going out simply to give relievers more time. I don’t know where you draw the line, but I’d certainly like to see a line drawn.”

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Twins Prospect Zack Granite on His Success at Triple-A

Zack Granite is hitting the ball as hard as anyone in Triple-A. Not in terms of power — the 24-year-old Minnesota Twins prospect is a slasher, not a basher — but the line drives have been coming fast and furious. Granite leads the International League in batting average by a whopping 30 points. Jump-starting the Rochester Red Wings’ offense out of the lead-off spot, the left-handed-hitting outfielder is slashing .349/.404/.494.

When Eric Longenhagen profiled Granite in his Twins top-prospect list, he wrote that “his ability to play center field well, run, and put the bat on the ball, points toward a near-certain big-league role of some kind.” When (and if) that comes to fruition is yet to be determined, but the 2013 14th-round pick out of Seton Hall University is making a case for it to happen soon. Since June 2, Granite is 37 for 75, with nine doubles, three triples, a home run, and 11 walks.

Granite talked about his game — and tossed a few playful jabs in the direction of one of his teammates — when Rochester visited Pawtucket over the weekend.

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Granite on an adjustment that’s helped fuel his surge: “I’ve moved a little closer to the plate. I think that has kind of helped me see pitches better. A lot of pitches away that were strikes, I was taking. That’s my game — going the other way — so I was kind of getting away from my game. I also just feel really good at the plate right now, which is obviously helping a lot.

“Opposite field is my security blanket, but I’m getting better at pulling the ball. I worked on that a lot last year with my manager, Doug [Mientkiewicz]. I’d always been ‘stick to left, stick to left,’ and he helped me learn how to pull the ball — how to attack it the right way. That’s another repertoire, another factor, to my game now.”

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Shane Greene on His (Hard-to-Classify) Repertoire

Last year, Eno Sarris wrote that Shane Greene “features a cutter and a slider, but where one begins and the other ends is tough to decide.” Sarris concluded his article by opining that the Detroit Tigers right-hander “has four breaking balls.”

PITCHf/x shows something different. They don’t have the 28-year-old reliever throwing a cutter at all. What they have is a combination of sliders and curveballs, with a notable flip-flopping of usage. Per PITCHf/x, Greene threw 46.6% sliders and 7.9% curveballs last year. This season, the pitch-tracking algorithm has him at 13.3% sliders and 30.1% curveballs.

And then there’s his heater. Greene has been two-seam heavy since moving to the bullpen last year, but while PITCHf/x has him throwing just 1.8% four-seamers this season, the system indicates he threw 19.6% four-seams (versus 25.2% two-seams) in 2016.

Intrigued by these conundrums, I went directly to the source. Greene, who has a 1.71 ERA and a 10.2 strikeout rate per nine innings over 33 appearances, broke down his repertoire when the Tigers visited Fenway Park last weekend.

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Greene on his repertoire: “The pitch that’s 88 to 91 [mph] and is moving like a slider, I call it a cutter. I call it that because when I earned the pitch, I already had something I called a slider. It’s harder, so I try to use it more as a cutter — not so much as a swing-and-miss pitch, but to miss barrels with. And sometimes it gets big, and sometimes it stays smaller.

“The pitch that is 82 to 84-ish, sometimes 85, is what I call my slider. A lot of people think it’s a curveball, but that’s been my slider since I was in high school. Same pitch.

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Billy Eppler on Taking the Reins in Anaheim

Billy Eppler isn’t sure if he’s bringing philosophical change to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. That’s not something he’s especially concerned with. How things were done under Jerry Dipoto is largely immaterial. Eppler’s focus is on the future, which began when he took over as the team’s general manager in early October.

Eppler is a first-year GM, but he’s not without experience. A graduate of the University of Connecticut — his degree is in finance — he spent the last 11 years in the New York Yankees front office. Before that, the erstwhile collegiate hurler worked in scouting and player development for the Colorado Rockies.

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Eppler on his role with the Yankees: “The quick and easy answer would be to say I was one of (Brian Cashman’s) assistant firefighters. I helped out in a lot of different areas. Originally, Brian hired me to run the pro scouting department. From there, it manifested itself into more involvement with major league operations, roster management, contract negotiation and player procurement.

“I had some existing relationships with agents from my days in Colorado. I had a comfort level signing players and negotiating contracts. I continued to learn more about rules and the protocols as they relate to roster management.

“In New York, I stayed involved with the player development side and was one of the liaisons between our major league club and what was going on in the upper levels of our farm system. The job essentially morphed into a potpourri of everything.”

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Liam Hendriks on his Evolution to Blue Jays Bullpen Stud

Liam Hendriks bombed as a starter. Pitching almost exclusively in that role prior to this season, he went 3-15 with a 5.92 ERA. The ineffectiveness turned him into a nomad. The 26-year-old Australian was property of five organizations – including Toronto twice – from December 2013 to October 2014.

This year, he bolstered the Blue Jays bullpen. In 58 relief appearances, Hendriks fashioned a 2.92 ERA and a 2.14 FIP, and his strikeout (9.9 per nine innings) and walk rates (1.5) were exemplary. The righty was credited with a win in each of his five decisions.

Originally a Minnesota Twin, Hendriks was acquired by Toronto from Kansas City last Halloween-eve in exchange for Santiago Nessy. He talked about his successful transition when the Jays visited Fenway Park in September.

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Hendriks on the reasons behind his breakthrough: “I did a few things differently last offseason than I had in the past. For one, I went down to the Dominican and played there for two months. I joke around that maybe my velocity kicked up because all I ate was Dominican chicken. But no, I had a blast. Probably the main thing was doing a lot of Pilates with my wife. It’s a lot more core, a lot more stability; it’s a little bit of that explosive stuff that helps keep you strong.

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Paul Janish on (Not) Hitting

Paul Janish is your classic good-glove, no-hit infielder. In parts of seven seasons with the Reds, Braves, and currently the Baltimore Orioles, the 32-year-old defensive whiz has slashed .215/.282/.289. Outside of 2010, when he had a .723 OPS and hit five of his seven career home runs, in 200 at bats, Janish has been a non-entity at the dish.

Like most glove-men of his ilk, Janish hit well enough in the minors to reach the big leagues. His bat hasn’t translated to the highest level, but success is often a byproduct of extended opportunities, of which he’s received a paucity. It’s a chicken-and-egg dynamic: you need to hit to stay in the lineup, but you need to stay in the lineup to hit.

That isn’t to say Janish would be a productive hitter if given a chance to play every day. He might not even be a league-average hitter. Janish realizes that. Even so, he can’t help but wonder if he maybe could have been more than he is: a vacuum cleaner bouncing between Triple-A and a big-league bench, essentially because he’s failed to flourish in 1.234 sporatic MLB plate appearances.

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Janish on getting labeled: “It’s been tough for me. From an early stage in my career, I was labeled as somebody who could play very well defensively, and if I could do X amount offensively, I could play in the big leagues. I kind of took that mindset, and it probably hurt me. I was a victim of circumstances in that respect. Read the rest of this entry »


Pete Mackanin on Managing

Pete Mackanin had the “interim” tag removed yesterday from his job title. The rebuilding Phillies extended the 64-year-old skipper’s contract through next season, with a club option for 2017. Mackanin has been at the helm since Ryne Sandberg unexpectedly stepped down in late June. The team has gone 30-46 under his leadership.

This is Mackanin’s first full-time managerial job at the big-league level. Prior to Philadelphia, he served in an interim capacity in Pittsburgh (2005) and Cincinnati (2007). He previously interviewed for openings in Houston, Boston and Chicago (Cubs), only to be bypassed.

Earlier this month, Mackanin sat down to share some of his thoughts on running a ball club. Our conversation was by no means comprehensive – we only touched on a few of his philosophies – but it does offer a snapshot of Mackanin’s mindset.

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Mackanin on playing the kids: “When I make out a lineup here, I don’t necessarily make out a lineup that I feel gives us the best chance to win. I have to play players we want to get a look at. It’s part of the job right now. With the team we have, we need to find out about players – we have to see what some of these guys are capable of. For instance, Darnell Sweeney joined us recently and I knew nothing about him. If I’m playing for a division title, I probably wouldn’t have put him in the lineup, but under these circumstances, he’s playing. And he’s made a good impression.”

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FanGraphs Q&A and Sunday Notes: The Best Quotes of 2014

In 2014, I had the pleasure of interviewing hundreds of people within baseball. Many of their words were shared via the FanGraphs Q&A series. Others came courtesy of the Sunday Notes column, which debuted in February. Here is a selection of the best quotes from this year’s conversations.

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“Later on, when they went to the QuesTec system, the strike zone became more of a north-and-south than an east-and-west. I had to learn how to pitch inside more, which wasn’t an easy thing to do.” – Tom Glavine, Hall of Fame pitcher, January 2014

“In my first at bat, I hit a home run and thought to myself, ‘I’m going to hit 30 home runs in this league.’ I ended up hitting five.” – Clint Frazier, Cleveland Indians prospect, January 2014

“As a pitcher, you’re supposed to feel at home on the mound. You’re supposed to feel comfortable and strong. I didn’t feel that way.” – Jesse Biddle, Philadelphia Phillies prospect, January 2014

“My mind was free, because I was only concentrating on one thing, which was getting hitters out. I was in the big leagues, so I was able to relax and do my job.” – Matt Harvey, New York Mets, February 2014

“Twenty-four hours to vent and rage, break things. I punched my door and put a crack in it. I broke a few boat oars out back of the house. I was mad, because I felt I was being stolen from.” – Luke Scott, former big-league outfielder, February 2014

“When I brawled, I blacked out. I don’t really remember much outside of watching the videos. I do remember telling Dean Palmer, ‘They’re about to start hitting our guys and we’ll need to go out there.’ ” – Doug Brocail, former Detroit Tigers pitcher, February 2014

“When I stood on the mound while on Adderall, everything faded away except for the catcher’s mitt. No crowd noise, no distractions. It was almost like being in the Matrix. Although you were sped up, everything slowed down.” – Player X, March 2014 Read the rest of this entry »


Q&A: Scooter Gennett on Ceramics, Lefties and Riding Scooters

Scooter Gennett of the Milwaukee Brewers is among those players participating in an innovative cancer charity drive that ends Thursday night and benefits LUNGevity, “the largest national lung cancer-focused nonprofit.” An online auction, coordinated by Major League Baseball media and public relations offices, is awarding scores of unusual prizes to winning bidders. Pitching lessons with CC Sabathia or Dwight Gooden, for example. Rather than a game-used jersey or an autographed baseball, Gennett is donating his time and his noteworthy skills with ceramics, giving a pottery lesson to the winner of his auction.

MLB took this initiative in part to celebrate the life of Monica Barlow, who died earlier this year at age 36 because of lung cancer. Like a majority of people who get lung cancer, Barlow did not smoke. Gennett has gotten involved in part because his father is a cancer survivor. He discussed all of that and more in a phone conversation with FanGraphs during baseball’s winter meetings. In addition to the charity work, he also discussed how he’s preparing for the upcoming season, and further explained how Ryan Joseph Gennett became — sometimes — “Scooter.”

David Brown: Were you into Play-Doh as a kid?

Scooter Gennett: Yeah, when I was younger, I liked those kind of toys where you’d make something. I wasn’t the type of kid to play with action figures. I guess I was a Play-Doh type of kid. But once I turned 8 years old, until high-school age, there really wasn’t much for me other than playing baseball. So I didn’t take many art classes, certainly ceramics, until high school. It was all baseball.

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Dave Wallace on Analytics and the Minor Leagues

Dave Wallace played several minor league seasons in the Indians organization as a catcher before beginning his coaching career as a staff assistant in Cleveland from 2009-10. He has moved his way through the Indians organization quickly, managing the short-season Mahoning Valley Scrappers in 2011, the Class-A Lake County Captains in 2012 and the High-A Carolina Mudcats in 2013 before joining the Double-A Akron RubberDucks this year.

It’s no secret that, as a small-market ballclub, Cleveland has one of the most sabermetrically-inclined front offices in baseball alongside organizations like Oakland, Tampa Bay and Houston. After reading Alex Kaufman’s great piece on the Indians DiamondView system, I wanted to know how much of that trickled down to the minor leagues and what Wallace’s stance was with regards to analytics. Wallace mentioned he is a regular reader of FanGraphs and that one of his favorite things to do is comb through our glossary and learn about new stats. We talked about advanced numbers, their prevalence and role in the minor leagues and how he uses them as a manager:

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Q&A: Corey Kluber’s Repertoire, A Brief History

Cleveland right-hander Corey Kluber entered the 2013 season as a 27-year-old with fewer than 70 major-league innings. He’s departing it, however, having established himself as one of the club’s — and perhaps the league’s — most effective starters, having recorded strikeout and walk rates of 23.3% and 5.2%, respectively, and a 74 xFIP- that’s fifth among pitchers with 100-plus innings.

Nor does Kluber’s success appear to be founded upon deception alone. His two-seam fastball sits at 93-95 mph. He has command of a cutter, which he throws around 90 mph, to either side of the plate. His slider has excellent two-plane break.

In summary, Kluber’s career arc is an unusual one: he’s in what’s typically a player’s peak-age season, entered that season with little in the way of major-league experience, is having great success in the majors presently, and appears to have the armspeed/command capable of sustaining that success.

While the understated right-hander isn’t inclined to meditate at length on the significance of his achievement (“That’s external to what I’m trying to focus on,” he says), he did consent — while rehabbing from a sprained middle finger — to provide briefly for the present author a biography of sorts for each of his four pitches, which appears below.

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Stryker Trahan: Building a D-Backs Backstop

When scouting, the first instinct is to comp. You fight the urge, knowing every player is an individual, but the desire to quantify the unknown inevitably creeps into your thoughts. Who has a similar body type? A similar swing? Approach? Range and athleticism? Background? Instinctively, you formulate a first impression by answering one question: Who does he remind me of?

Then there are prospects like Stryker Trahan. The attributes packed into his dense 5-foot-10 frame are anything but ordinary:

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Snapshots from the 1980s: Wade Boggs

As noted in the introduction to last Friday’s conversation with Chris Chambliss, three years ago I did a series of short interviews that were never published and will appear in this space over the coming weeks. They focus on baseball during the decades of the 1980s, and today’s subject is Wade Boggs, who played for the Red Sox, Yankees and Devil Rays from 1982-1999.

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Boggs, on OBP in the ‘80s: “That was my game. It was how I thrived, but at the point in time that I played, I was criticized for doing something that is now fashionable – Moneyball, or whatever you want to call it. Today, everybody is looking for a guy who can get on base 250 times a year, and at the time I was doing it I was getting 200 hits and 100 walks. Then I would go to arbitration and be criticized for doing something that [front offices] now love.

Billy Beane, the guy in Oakland, is the one who really put it on the map and it’s been fashionable for close to 10 years by now. Like I said, it wasn’t that way when I played, especially earlier in my career. I led off, so I always felt that it was my job to get on base and set the table for Jim Rice, Tony Armas, Dwight Evans, and all the big guys coming up to drive me in. That was a part of the game that I excelled at, but quite frankly, it was a part of the game that I was criticized for.”

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Q&A: A.J. Pierzynski

A.J. Pierzynski is, in his own words, “not what people think.” But that only applies to off the field. The ChiSox catcher readily acknowledges being Public Enemy No. 1 between the white lines, an irascible gamer who cares far less about making friends than he does about winning. The 14-year, big-league veteran doesn’t mind that perception, just so as long as fans realize that he’s not a villain in street clothes. He may share traits with Ozzie Guillen — and get along with Barry Bonds — but he also stops to smell the roses. Behind the mask, big, bad A.J. Pierzynski is just a regular guy who likes to have fun.

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David Laurila: Who is A.J. Pierzynski?

AJ Pierzynski: I’m not what people think I am, for one thing. A lot of people think I’m a rough-and-tough and mean person. I’m just a normal guy who likes to have fun and is lucky enough to play baseball for a living.

DL: Where does that perception come from?

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Q&A: Darwin Barney

Darwin Barney is a throwback middle infielder, and to the surprise of many, a Rookie-of-the-Year candidate. The 25-year-old Oregon State product came into spring training battling for a backup position, but instead established himself as the Cubs everyday second baseman. His skill set is more Glenn Beckert [fans under the age of 40 may need to look him up] than Starlin Castro, but there is nothing wrong with being scrappy when you’re hitting .297 and playing quality defense. In Barney’s opinion, there is also nothing wrong with following instructions from Carlos Zambrano. As for the infield surface of Wrigley Field…well, the youngster is a fan of historic ballparks.

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David Laurila: This year’s Baseball America Prospect Handbook says of you: “He isn’t flashy, but he’s the best defensive infielder in the organization, including the majors.” Do you agree with that?

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Q&A: Chris Sale on the Draft

One year ago tomorrow, Chris Sale nervously awaited word on where he would begin his professional career. The Florida Gulf Coast left-hander didn’t have to wait long to find out, as the White Sox called his name with the 13th overall pick of the amateur draft. A mere two months later he became the first player in his draft class to reach the big leagues, debuting on August 6 and going on to log four saves and a 1.93 ERA in 21 appearances. The 22-year-old native of Lakeland, Florida sat down to talk about the whirlwind experience of Draft Day, and the process that surrounds it.

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David Laurila: You were drafted out of high school, by the Rockies in 2007, but didn’t sign. Why?

Chris Sale: I had a lot more to learn. Both physically and mentally, I just wasn’t mature enough to go out on my own and start living my own life. I really liked the school that I was going to, and felt that it was a better opportunity than starting my professional career. It was a big decision. I talked it over with my family, and my coaches, and everyone came to the same decision, which was that three or four years of college would be better than starting right then and there.

DL: How different was the scouting process the second time around?

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