Sunday Notes: Keynan Middleton is Impressing in Anaheim

Keynan Middleton has been drawing rave reviews since being called up by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in early May. The 23-year-old righty reliever has reached triple digits with his fastball, and his slider has given hitters fits. There have been a few hiccups along the way — rookies aren’t infallible — but shining moments are becoming commonplace. Just this past week, Middleton twice punched out Aaron Judge with 100-mph heaters.

Not surprisingly his confidence level is high. That much was evident when I spoke to him prior to Friday’s game, in Boston.

“I get asked by friends and family who my least favorite player to throw to is,” Middleton told me. “I really don’t care. It could be David Ortiz, it could be Babe Ruth. Whoever is in the box, I’m going to go out there and give you my best stuff, and if you win, you win. I’ll tip my cap to you.”

No cap-tipping was needed that night, but there was a number-retiring ceremony before the game. I asked Middleton if it was meaningful to be at Fenway Park — it was his first time there — especially with David Ortiz being honored.

“Oh yeah,” responded Middleton. “I mean, one of my best friends that I’ve grown up with in the Angels organization, Eduardo Paredes, just got called up today for the first time. I made my debut a month and a half ago, and I was sitting there telling him, ‘Every second that you can, take it all in. During BP, during the ceremony to retire Papi’s number, everything. Take it all in, because you’ll never forget this.”

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Dewayne Staats has been doing play-by-play for the Tampa Bay Rays since 1998, but his broadcasting career stretches back much farther. After getting his start doing Triple-A games for the Oklahoma City 89ers while still a student at Southern Illinois University, he made the best of a golden opportunity in 1976. Staats shared the story when the Rays were at Fenway Park earlier this season.

“I grew up in St. Louis, but I was fascinated by listening to the Houston Colt 45s, and then the Astros,” Staats told me. “As fate would have it, my first opportunity was doing an Astros game at Wrigley Field. It was kind of an audition, fill-in thing. Gene Elston was there, and Bob Prince was on their crew for that one year. I was 23, or 24, years old at the time.

“The guy I had worked for in (Triple-A) Oklahoma City, the first year, Dick King, was an old-line baseball operator. He told me two things. No. 1: Preparation is 90% of this job. No. 2: If you ever get a chance to show people what you can do at the major league level, you’d better not screw it up, because you may never get another chance.

“I was in the pink poodle, which was the old press room at Wrigley Field, doing my notes, when Bob Prince walks up. He said — I’ll have to clean this up for the kids at home — (mimics gruff voice) ‘don’t worry kid, we’ll screw it up together.’

“I thought, ‘how great was that?’ I had Elston and Prince — two guys who were eventually going into the broadcaster’s Hall of Fame — supportive of a young guy like me getting an opportunity. I joined the Astros crew full time the next year.”

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In an interview that ran here 10 days ago, Phillies hitting coach Matt Stairs mentioned an adjustment Aaron Altherr made this spring. It’s certainly paid dividends. The 26-year-old outfielder has an .860 OPS, and a team-leading 12 home runs.

I asked Altherr to describe the adjustment.

“Stairs and I got together during spring training,” Altherr told me. “He lowered my hands — I have the bat resting on my shoulder — and going from there, I’m shorter and quicker to the ball, and able to recognize pitches better. From the shoulder, I can basically bring it back, and forward, in one motion. There’s not much movement going on with the hands.”

Asked if anything else has contributed to his breakout season, Altherr told me confidence has been a factor. Now that he has more big-league games under his belt, he’s “more relaxed, and comfortable.”

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Yonder Alonso has 17 home runs already this season, thanks largely to the incorporation of a fly-ball approach. I recently asked Kansas City Royals coach Pedro Grifol about the Oakland first baseman’s power surge.

“I scouted Yonder Alonso,” Grifol told me. “He’s from my area — from Miami — and I’ve known him for a long time. Yonder has always been capable of doing what he’s doing now. It was in there, it was just a matter of, ‘OK, let’s find something that’s going to allow me to be able to do a little more damage.’ And he did. He’s got a little bit of a leg kick now. He’s made some adjustments to get more loft, and he’s hitting some balls out of the park.”

Grifol explained that Alonso spent the offseason working with an instructor named Mike Tosar, who helped him tap into his power by creating more launch angle. As Grifol put it, “This is who Yonder is now.”

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Scooter Gennett has done more than have a monster game and put up solid offensive numbers. He’s also become a jack-of-all-trades defensively.

In his first season with the Cincinnati Reds, Gennett has played 28 games at second base (18 starts), seven games at third base (five starts), seven games in left field (four starts), and five games in right field (three starts). Prior to this season, he’d been utilized exclusively as a second baseman, with the exception of one inning as a right fielder.

The added versatility enhances Gennett’s value as the trade deadline approaches.

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The Atlanta Braves took Vanderbilt right-hander Kyle Wright with the fifth-overall pick of this year’s amateur draft. I asked Brian Barnes, the team’s director of amateur scouting, when he knew Wright would be their selection.

“I knew we probably had a pretty good shot when (MacKenzie) Gore went third,” Bridges told me. “We thought maybe (Hunter) Greene would be going three. I knew the Padres really liked Gore, based on how they scouted him as heavily as we did. As things started to fall, and (Hunter) Greene went two, you kind of get excited that either (Brendan) McKay or Wright would get there. I figured Tampa Bay wouldn’t pass on (McKay), so when Gore went three, we were going to be good to go.”

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A few weeks ago, I asked Riley Pint about changes to his throwing program since he was drafted fourth overall by the Colorado Rockies last year. Based on his response, the most-notable difference can be measured in feet.

“I’m pretty much just not overdoing it with the long toss,” Pint told me. “I used to be a big long-tosser. I don’t go out as far as I usually do, or stay out as long as I usually do. Especially in a full season, you can’t… you have to save your bullets, you know.”

Were his long-toss distances as extreme as Trevor Bauer’s famously are?

“I wasn’t quite that far,” answered Pint. “But I was up there, for sure.”

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The stars were aligned when Daniel Nava returned to Fenway Park, as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, on June 12. It was on that date six years ago that Nava debuted with the Red Sox and hit a grand slam — against the Phillies, at Fenway Park — on the first pitch he saw in a big-league uniform. Not only that, this year’s amateur draft was getting underway that very night, 10 years after Nava was bypassed by all 30 teams.

I asked Nava if the draft was on his mind as he suited up for what turned into a three-hit night against his old team.

“I obviously have a little different view of it than most people,” Nava told me. “It’s the start of a great opportunity for a lot of guys, but it’s not something I can look back at and have great memories of, because I was never drafted. “

Nava admits that it “enters his head” when the draft rolls around each year, but he doesn’t dwell on it. Because of what he’s gone on to accomplish, the route he took — a year of independent ball followed by a make-good, minor-league contract — doesn’t matter.

When his rags-to-riches ascent culminated with the call-up, and the storybook home run, many were unaware of the path he’d taken. That includes people within the game.

“It was talked about,” recalled Nava. “Not every day, but you meet somebody new and they ask, ‘When did you get drafted?’ and then it’s ‘You didn’t get drafted?’ and blah, blah, blah, story, story, story. It kind of would trickle out. I’m pretty sure it came up later that night.”

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The Parker Bridwell who takes the mound for the Angels this afternoon knows more about pitching than the Parker Bridwell who was drafted in 2010. A lot more. The 25-year-old right-hander knew precious little about the craft when the Orioles made him a ninth-round pick.

Bridwell primarily played shortstop and the outfield growing up, and his two years of travel ball were spent as a position player. He did take the mound as a prep — “we didn’t have have a very serious high school baseball program” — but in his estimation, he only pitched about 60 innings.

When I asked the Hereford, Texas product when he began to transition from a thrower to a pitcher, he told me it wasn’t until he entered pro ball.

“I didn’t know anything about pitching,” admitted Bridwell. “It was like a new sport to me. I knew how to pick up a baseball. I knew the rules. You get three outs, you get nine innings. I knew all the basic stuff that everyone knows, but outside of that, I just tried to be an athlete. I watched somebody on TV and tried to make myself look like that. I tried to look as good as possible.”

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JUNE NEWS AND NOTES

Houston’s George Springer hit his eighth leadoff home run of the season earlier this week. Alfonso Soriano holds the record for leadoff home runs in a season with 13. He set the mark in 2003 as a member of the New York Yankees.

Baltimore’s Jonathan Schoop leads American League second basemen in home runs (14) and slugging percentage (.540).

On Friday, the Orioles matched the 1924 Phillies by allowing five-or-more runs for a record 20th consecutive game. They allowed just three runs yesterday.

San Diego Padres pitchers lead the majors with a 50.2 ground ball percentage. Detroit Tigers pitchers trail all teams with a 39.6 ground ball percentage.

Colorado Rockies pitchers have the lowest fly ball percentage (30.3) in the majors. Detroit Tigers pitchers have the highest fly ball percentage (39.3) in the majors.

Kensuke Kondo — dominating the NPB with a .407/.567/.560 slash line — is out of the Nippon Ham Fighters’ lineup with a thigh injury.

Colorado Rockies infield prospect Ryan McMahon is slashing .430/.455/.720, in 101 plate appearances, since being promoted to Triple-A Albuquerque.

Twins outfield prospect Zack Granite, who was featured here on Thursday, went into last night’s game with two-or-more hits in 16 of his last 21 games.

On Thursday, Minnesota catcher Chris Gimenez took the mound for the sixth time this year. On the season, he’s worked five innings and been charged with four earned runs. In 1944, Red Sox infielder Eddie Lake made six pitching appearances and allowed nine earned runs in 19-and-a-third innings.

Also on Thursday, Milwaukee’s Corey Knebel set a big-league record by striking out at least one batter in each of his first 38 appearances this season. Aroldis Chapman, then a member of the Cincinnati Reds, began the 2014 season with 37 straight.

Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel have combined to pitch 62-and-two-thirds innings, with 109 strikeouts, five walks, and 26 hits allowed.

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When Clayton Kershaw earned a save in last year’s NLDS, you learned that it was his first since 2006, and that his catcher at the time was Kenley Jansen. According to Florida-based Red Sox employee Brian Mullen, Jansen also caught Kershaw’s last-ever Gulf Coast League appearance. It came in a one-game playoff, with the Dodgers beating the Tigers to advance to the GCL finals.

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Tanner Nishioka has a heady future once his baseball days are over. The 22-year-old infielder — Boston’s pick in the ninth round of this year’s draft — graduated from Pomona (CA) College, where he majored in neuroscience. Medical school looms in his future, but for now, his focus is on a game.

“To be honest, this is surreal,” Nishioka told me when I asked what what it’s like to have signed a professional contract. “I’m just really happy for this opportunity, because otherwise I’d be studying for the MCAT right now. I’m playing baseball, and as long as this organization wants me, I’m going to keep playing baseball. This is my dream right now.”

I asked the Honolulu native about the relationship between baseball and his course of study.

“They’re interrelated in terms of reaction times, and pitch recognition — stuff like that — but I don’t think about that when I play baseball,” answered Nishioka. “I guess if I was looking at the neuroscience aspect of it, I’d think about it a little more, but when you’re playing baseball, you’re playing baseball.”

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

Anthony Gose isn’t granting interviews, but he is touching 100 mph as he attempts to convert from an outfielder to a pitcher. Lynn Henning has the story at The Detroit News.

At MLB.com, Adam McCalvy wrote about how Milwaukee’s Travis Shaw has somehow been retaining his focus — and putting up big numbers — while his infant daughter undergoes multiple open-heart surgeries.

Joe Hummel of The St. Louis Post Dispatch took a look at the career of Joe “Singing Cowboy” West, who recently umpired his 5,000th game.

Over at The National Pastime Museum, Rob Neyer wrote about how Derek Jeter came to be a Yankee in the 1992 draft.

After 30 years of Triple-A baseball, Colorado Springs is 15 months away from from becoming a short-season affiliate. Brent Briggeman has the story at The Gazette.

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Bunny Brief, whose short MLB career spanned parts of four seasons, played his last game 100 years ago yesterday. Brief banged out 342 home runs in the minors, but just five as a big-leaguer.

Rabbit Maranville appeared in two World Series, 14 years apart. In 1914, he had four hits in 13 at bats playing for the Boston Braves. In 1928, he had four hits in 13 at bats playing for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Johnny Hopp, whose MLB career spanned 1939-1952, played in five World Series — three with the Cardinals, and two with the Yankees. His brother, Harry “Hippity” Hopp, spent five seasons in the NFL, mostly with the Detroit Lions.

Shawn Hare spent parts of the 1991 and 1992 seasons with the Detroit Tigers, and had four hits in 45 at bats. His .089 batting average is the second lowest ever for a Tigers position player with at least 50 plate appearances. Charlie Gelbert went 4 for 47 for Detroit in 1937.

The 1949 Chicago White Sox had 65 triples and 43 home runs.

In 1945, Snuffy Stirnweiss of the New York Yankees led the American League in runs scored, hits, triples, batting average, total bases, slugging, OPS, and stolen bases. He finished third in AL MVP balloting, right behind Detroit Tigers infielder Eddie Mayo, who didn’t finish in the top 10 in any of those categories. Mayo’s teammate, Hal Newhouser went 25-9, 1.81 and was voted MVP.

On this date in 1989, New York Mets fielders didn’t record a single assist in a 5-1 win over the Philadelphia Phillies. Sid Fernandez and Rick Aguilera combined for 13 strikeouts, with the other outs coming in the air, or on ground balls to the first baseman.

A reminder that the national SABR Convention gets under way later this week in New York City.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: Keynan Middleton is Impressing in Anaheim by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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I just have to chuckle at the fact that Atlanta is still selling the whole “we felt there was a chance Wright could fall to us” narrative. As if they hadn’t already worked out an over slot number with Wright before hand to guarantee other teams would pass on him.