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“It’s the last chance you have to worry less about winning a game and more about development.”

What went wrong with Xander Bogaerts & Jackie Bradley?

Red Sox erred in thinking rookies were ready

By Peter Abraham

  | GLOBE STAFF   AUGUST 22, 2014 

Among the 10 players with at least 200 plate appearances with the Red Sox this season, Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. rank toward the bottom in several key batting statistics.

For a few days earlier this season, Xander Bogaerts decided to stop wearing batting gloves. The idea was that if he felt the wood of the bat directly against the palms of his hands, it would break him out of his slump.

That the coaches went along with the idea spoke to how desperate everybody had become.

The home remedy didn’t work. Really, nothing has for the 21-year-old Red Sox shortstop. He has been abysmal at the plate since early June, his batting average dropping steadily along with the team’s place in the standings.

“It feels like a boxing match to me,” Bogaerts said. “You get hit and you get hit. But if you don’t give up, you can still knock the guy out in the 12th round.”

The fight is over, at least for this season. The last-place Red Sox threw in the towel on Bogaerts’s fellow rookie Jackie Bradley Jr., sending him back to the minors Monday, and only stubbornness seems to have kept them from doing the same with Bogaerts, who has hit below .160 for nearly three months.

So much more was expected. The Red Sox retooled the roster that won the World Series, deciding that Bogaerts and the 24-year-old Bradley were ready for the majors after only short stints with Triple A Pawtucket.

The personable rookies made for good copy. Bogaerts was on the cover of the Globe’s season preview section, and a headline inside described him as “completely prepared.” There was similar praise for Bradley.

Bradley was hitting .216 with one home run and 111 strikeouts at the time of his demotion. Bogaerts is down to .224 after going hitless in Thursday’s 2-0 loss to the Angels. A player once celebrated for his advanced approach at the plate has struck out more than three times as often as he has walked.

In a wider context, the numbers are startling. There are 87 players in the American League with at least 375 plate appearances this season, and Bogaerts and Bradley rank in the bottom 12 in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.

Bradley’s .290 slugging percentage is the lowest in the league and the lowest for a Red Sox outfielder in the modern era of baseball.

“I’ve never struggled like this in my life,” said Bogaerts. “I’ve been told that everybody goes through this at some point, and I guess this is my turn.”

Bogaerts started slowly, then raised his batting average above .300 before opponents realized he would swing at breaking pitches off the plate. Bradley also started well before getting beat on a steady diet of fastballs that he either did not recognize or could not catch up to.

“I think people forget I am 21,’’ Bogaerts said. “I was playing good this year until I hit that bad stretch. I’m battling every day trying to get out of it.

“It’s not easy coming to the park every day. But once I get here, I try to enjoy myself. I’m trying to finish strong.”

Organizational misstep?

A shift in organizational philosophy may be to blame. Bogaerts had only 60 games and 256 plate appearances in Triple A before he was deemed ready for the majors. Bradley had 80 games and 374 plate appearances before becoming a full-time starter. Third baseman Will Middlebrooks also was rushed, playing 40 games at Pawtucket before he was called up in 2012.

“When you look at a player’s path to the big leagues, they’re telling you based on their performance and play if they’re ready for the next challenge,” manager John Farrell said.

 

 

Bench coach Torey Lovullo, who managed in Triple A for four seasons, believes there are lessons there that need learning.

“All the concepts you learn growing up as a player get thrown at you all at one time,” he said. “It’s the last chance you have to worry less about winning a game and more about development.”

Dustin Pedroia had 733 plate appearances over two seasons in Pawtucket and then was the AL Rookie of the Year in 2007. Kevin Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury, and other homegrown position players also had longer minor league apprenticeships.

“The pitchers in Double A had more velocity,” said Pedroia. “But everything was way out of the zone, noncompetitive.

“In Triple A, the pitchers are always in the zone and they have a game plan. You see veteran guys who know how to pitch. That’s when you learn more things about yourself as a hitter.”

General manager Ben Cherington said the Red Sox are evaluating why their judgment was off.

“We’ve probably moved some guys quicker due to circumstance,” he said. “Looking back on it, is there is something we could have done differently? Yeah, maybe.

“I don’t think we ever had a hard-and-fast rule. But it is fair to say we typically we want guys to get some experience at that level before they get to the big leagues. We had some players who performed at a visibly high level offensively and that may have pushed the timing on it.

“Maybe that made us more aggressive than we have been in the past.”

The Bradley conundrum

The Red Sox have not lost faith in their treasured prospect, Bogaerts.

“This is a hard game — a really, really hard game,” Lovullo said. “If we all thought that we could just snap our fingers and have Derek Jeter on our hands, we were sorely mistaken.

“We knew that there would be some growing pains. But we’re not running from Xander. He’s going to be an outstanding player.”

Bradley is in a more precarious position. Cherington and Farrell said the Red Sox still view him as a starting player, but their actions spoke loudly.

That the Red Sox demoted Bradley while keeping Bogaerts in the majors was telling. At the same time, the team was pursuing center fielder Rusney Castillo, a free agent from Cuba.

There were suggestions by Farrell that Bradley was not incorporating the changes suggested by the coaches quickly enough, and Cherington spoke of him developing a better pregame routine.

“I was told I wasn’t as vocal as they wanted me to be,” Bradley said. “They want me to do a better job of talking things through. That has never been me; I’m more quiet by nature. But if that’s what they want, I can do that.

“Nobody better be implying that I don’t work hard. That is definitely not the case. I’ve had struggles in the past and I’ve worked my way out of them. I’ll do it again and everything will be back to normal.”

As a college player, Bradley helped lead South Carolina to back-to-back NCAA championships before quickly moving through the Red Sox system. He rejected the idea that he has somehow lost confidence.

“I’m tired of people asking me that question,” Bradley said. “Honestly, I can give a damn about what people think about my confidence. My confidence is unshook.

“I don’t know what anybody has said about my confidence but I’ll tell anybody straight up that my confidence had nothing to do with it. It was performance.”

Bradley then laughed.

“People say what did I learn? I have to play better — that’s what I learned.”

Hitting coach Greg Colbrunn has examined what he could have done better with both players. There are no ready answers.

“Looking back, with Jackie, we probably could have gotten to know him a little bit better during spring training and learned his swing,” he said. “With Bogie, that’s not it. We knew him from last year and everybody saw what he did. He had to get to know himself, what kind of hitter he is and how to make adjustments.”

Increased burden

The unraveling started in spring training, when the Red Sox believed their lineup was strong enough to overcome the slumps the rookies were sure to experience.

 

That cushion deflated early. Right fielder Shane Victorino started the season on the disabled list and played only 30 games before undergoing season-ending back surgery.

Pedroia has had a down season at the plate. The productive 2013 left-field platoon of Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes turned ordinary. New catcher A.J. Pierzynski was a disappointment. First baseman Mike Napoli dislocated his left ring finger on April 15, an injury that sapped his power.

Middlebrooks remained unable to replicate the production from his successful rookie season, in part because of injuries. That led the Red Sox to sign Stephen Drew to play shortstop and move Bogaerts to third base.

Drew never hit and was traded after two months. The lack of production from the veterans turned a harsher light on Bradley and Bogaerts.

“I don’t want to put the burden of the season on them because that’s not fair,” Cherington said. “But it’s fair to say we haven’t fully succeeded in getting those guys to be contributors at the big-league level. But I think they still will be at some point.

“I think what we don’t know and unfortunately we’ll never know is the answer to the question of if the entire team had been playing better as a group — if I had made better decisions how to complement the team and we had better performance from a larger swath of the group — would that have allowed the younger players more freedom and space to get into the season?”

As the Sox faltered, more of a burden was placed on the young players. Bogaerts and Bradley also faced the challenge of breaking in at a time when offense is down across the game.

Factor in the high expectations of a market like Boston and it was a toxic mix.

“Particularly for a position player, breaking into the big leagues is harder than it was 10 years ago,” Cherington said. “It’s harder to hit now. Teams have more information now to exploit any weakness you have.

“And not just in Boston, but certainly in Boston, there’s no such thing as hiding in the background for a few months. You’re a headline the first day you’re here. That’s difficult.”

Rookie Mookie Betts has replaced Bradley in center field and is being touted as the next young star. He has 45 games of Triple A experience.

“What’s the right way to break a player in?” said Lovullo. “That’s a good question.

“I can tell you this: We’re talking about it every day after everything that has happened.”

http://www.bostonglobe.com/sports/2014/08/22/red-sox-made-rookie-mistakes-with-bogaerts-bradley/UU8BvcvtLgZNHCaonEIdoO/story.html

 

"Over the course of a season, a player’s performance might have several peaks and troughs "

 

 

The Top Prospect Progress Poll

Which MLB prospects have changed the most minds (for better or worse) since being promoted? With samples this small, we can’t always trust the stats. So we polled the industry to get the experts’ takes.

by BEN LINDBERGH ON AUGUST 21, 2014

At last weekend’s Saber Seminar, Red Sox senior baseball analyst Tom Tippett displayed this cryptic image of an undisclosed player’s performance, as measured by an undisclosed metric, through the first 30 games of the 2013 season:

  

This snapshot tells us something about past events, but nothing about what will happen next. The crucial piece of information about any player whose performance has sunk or risen sharply is what the following section of squiggly line looks like. In many cases, of course, players eventually find their forecasted levels, as Tippett’s mystery man did over a full season (the blue line represents the level at which the Red Sox had projected him to perform):

 

People who work for teams, though, don’t have the luxury of assuming that every deviation is the result of random variation, even though that’s often the answer. Recognizing a real change quickly can be the difference between winning the division and settling for a wild card — or worse, between earning a wild card and heading home empty-handed. Being overly reactive can be just as dangerous, however. Tippett also displayed the following image, a moving average of the player’s 10 most recent games (the green line represents league average):

 

Over the course of a season, a player’s performance might have several peaks and troughs that could convince an overzealous observer to celebrate prematurely or sound a false alarm. And the risk of making the wrong call, or the reward of making the right one, is never higher than at the beginning of a player’s career, when we’re the least confident that we know what we’re seeing.

In late January, Baseball Prospectus lead prospect writer Jason Parksreleased his list of the top 101 prospects in baseball.1 Thirty-two of those 101 (complete list here) have played in the majors this season, and most of those major leaguers have lost their rookie eligibility. From this point forward, we can’t call them prospects. They’re just players — young, yes, and probably promising, but expected to produce in the present, not in the nebulous future where their productive years used to reside.

All these players did enough right to earn a big league audition, but their paths have since diverged. Some are off to strong starts. Others have faltered. If we created a graph like Tippett’s of each player’s performance, but made the x-axis the length of a career instead of a season, the trend line representing each of these 32 players’ showings in 2014 would barely be visible. Absent that context, it can be very easy to read too much into early returns. In a few cases, though, the small samples loom large, as exposure to elite competition reveals weaknesses that might have been hidden at lower levels.

In cases like these, when the plate appearance or innings pitched totals are too low for publicly available projections to have budged by much, it’s often illuminating to see how the industry perception of a player has changed. To find out which recent top prospects have helped or hurt their causes, I surveyed 15 scouts, pro scouting directors, statistical analysts, and other front-office executives whose value to their teams stems in part from their ability to spot changes in true talent before bigger samples make those shifts obvious to everyone. I sent them the list of the 32 preseason top prospects who’ve accrued some major league service time, and I asked them to tell me (via email) which five had changed their minds for the better and which five had changed their minds for the worse since spring training.

All the respondents started the season with different expectations for each of these players, so the point wasn’t to see which players they liked best or least, or even how they thought the players stacked up relative to each other. Nor was it to see which players have over- or underperformed their projections so far, which we could determine with statistics alone. The goal was to pinpoint the players who’ve done something to either raise long-term expectations or make informed observers more bearish about their futures.2 Not all the respondents had seen or studied every player closely enough to have an opinion on all 32, and not all sent me five names in each category, but as the ballots came back, some patterns emerged. Let’s take a spin through the most popular picks, covering both the good and the bad.

Trending Up

Marcus Stroman, RHP, Blue Jays: Stroman made his pro debut out of the bullpen after signing with Toronto following the 2012 draft, then transitioned to the rotation in Double- and Triple-A. Even so, some evaluators didn’t expect him to stick in a starting role. Scouts operate by building a mental database of players who’ve succeeded before, then looking for the same attributes in others. Stroman’s stuff earned him believers, but his 5-foot-9 frame made it difficult to come up with comps.

Following the same script he had in the minors, Stroman made his major league debut in relief in early May, but his big league bullpen career lasted only 10 days. After a brief return to the minors, he switched to a starting role with the Jays on May 31, becoming the first pitcher listed under 5-foot-10 to make a start in the majors since Fabio Castro made one (and only one) for the Phillies in 2007. The other sub-5-10 starters of the 21st century (Shane Komine, Michael Tejera, Arnie Munoz, and Daniel Garibay) were just as forgettable, so Stroman has already accomplished something special merely by making 14 starts.

Judging by his results so far, he’s going to make many more. While he’s been knocked out of a few starts early (including recording only two outs in his most recent start), he’s also shown the ability to go deep into games (including shutting down Detroit for nine innings earlier this month). He’s thrown strikes, gotten ground balls, and held his own against left-handed hitters, limiting opponents to an overall .226/.278/.316 line despite making more than half his starts in the Rogers Centre.

“[I] thought he was more likely to be an 8th inning set-up type or bottom of the rotation starter,” wrote one front-office type. “Thus far, he has proved capable of being a mid-rotation type.”

Said one scout who put Stroman on his list of positive surprises: “I was worried about the lack of an out pitch vs. LHHs, although I did think he’d be able to stick as a starter. The development of his cutter and fastball command have essentially molded him into a pitcher with three plus offerings.”

For now, at least, the talk about how Stroman is too short has subsided.

“I hope nobody mentions again how he should be a bullpen type just because of his frame,” another scout said.

Billy Hamilton, CF, Reds: Hamilton was the closest equivalent to Stroman among position-player prospects this spring. His elite speed was as flashy a skill as Stroman’s mid-90s fastball, but scouts’ enthusiasm was tempered by concerns about Hamilton’s strength and physique. He managed only a .308 on-base percentage and an .087 ISO for Triple-A Louisville last season, and the pessimist’s preseason narrative was that he’d lack the strength to punish pitchers when they pounded the zone.

Those fears seemed justified when Hamilton had a sub-.200 OBP on April 15, but he’s posted an above-league-average .281/.311/.408 line since then, and on the season he’s equaled his minor league single-year home run high (6) and set a new personal doubles record (24). That’s still not the sort of OBP teams look for from a leadoff man, but for a plus center fielder with elite legs, average offense is a springboard to stardom.

“[Hamilton’s] OBP is low and his CS are high, but he showed more contact and power than expected, and if he can be a 95 OPS+ guy (like he has been so far), his fielding and running will make him an above average player for a long time,” wrote one evaluator. “Call him a 3 to 4 win player if this is what he is. And that’s way better than I thought he would be. I honestly thought he wouldn’t hit and would turn into a defensive replacement/pinch runner.”

Admitted an NL scout: “I thought he was more of a smoke and mirrors prospect with blazing speed and limited hitting ability. After watching a good amount of his games this year, he has shown the ability to consistently square the ball up. … My expectations for him next year will be much higher.”

Gregory Polanco, RF, Pirates: Polanco found himself at the center of controversy, as the Pirates, appearing to put service time ahead of performance, delayed his promotion until June 10 despite their offensive struggles in right field and Polanco’s hot hitting for Triple-A Indianapolis. The 22-year-old’s .244/.311/.354 major league line after two-plus months isn’t quite what Pirates fans envisioned when they called for his promotion, but while Polanco’s power has been missing so far, he hasn’t looked overmatched. His swing, chase, and strikeout rates are well below league average, and the more pitches he sees, the more contact he makes.

“Polanco has shown better plate discipline than I expected for a young hitter,” said one respondent. “I think the power will continue to come and he’ll be a 20 HR/20 SB guy with a high OBP.”

Jake Odorizzi, RHP, Rays: Even in a lost season for Wil Myers, the Rays have gotten significant value from the James Shields trade thanks to Odorizzi’s performance, which one scout termed a “huge breakthrough.”

“Odorizzi could always pitch and he always had a deep arsenal, but the knock on him was always the lack of that put-away pitch,” another scout wrote. “Now we’re looking at a dude who strikes out hitters left and right with an upper 80s, low 90s fastball. The key for him has been the development of that changeup, and I think he’s done a better job of learning how to use it as the year has progressed. He really pitches well with the fastball and uses that cut-slider and lollipop curve to disrupt timing while putting away hitters with a sneaky fastball or change.”

Odorizzi’s refined changeup is really a new pitch, a splitter he learned from Alex Cobb. He’s using it more often than he used to throw the change, and while it’s not the weapon Cobb’s splitter is, it’s a far more effective pitch than Odorizzi’s old off-speed offering.

One rival scouting director, who noted that many of the 32 preseason top prospects still have MLB “sample sizes that are simply too small to fairly evaluate,” wrote that “Odorizzi is the only player on the list that has really surpassed what we would have expected in a rookie campaign … his K-rate is far better than we could have predicted.”

“He was going to be a pitchability guy, but he is now hinting at more than that,” said a third scout. “From back-end to number 3, or perhaps even better.”

Arismendy Alcantara, CF, Cubs: Alcantara became the first of the Cubs’ cresting wave of young position players to graduate from the minors, debuting at second base on July 9 and shifting to center when Javier Baez arrived. Although he hasn’t hit yet, Alcantara’s experience at four defensive positions (second, short, third, and center) will help keep him on the field as Chicago shoehorns its higher-ceiling sluggers into the lineup.

“I think he’ll hit enough to play every day, and he’s going to have enough versatility to play in multiple positions,” one scout said. “He might even play well at multiple positions. I saw him at second base in Iowa, but the limited looks I’ve seen on TV in center field look solid. There’s some sneaky pop in there that has a chance to play in the majors. … He will need to tighten the approach, though. He swung at everything when I saw him in AAA this year.”

Although he’s had contact issues, Alcantara has swung less often and chased no more often than the typical major leaguer, so he’s not nearly in the swing rate stratosphere of Javier Baez, the power prospect who recently displaced him at second.

Chris Owings, SS, Diamondbacks: Before hitting the DL with a shoulder injury at the end of June, Owings hadn’t done anything flashy in his first full season, but he’d been above average with the bat and at least average on defense, propelling him past Didi Gregorius and Nick Ahmed (both of whom are slightly older than Owings) on Arizona’s shortstop depth chart.

“Looks like an everyday MLB SS,” a scouting director said simply.

Another scout offered more glowing praise: “Above average everyday regular as a SS,” he said. “Those are precious and rare. I liked him, but it looks like he’ll be a tick better than expected.”

George Springer, RF, Astros: Through his first 15 games, Springer hit .180/.254/.213 with a 34 percent strikeout rate, prompting some to wonder whether he’d been called up too soon. Springer’s strikeout rate has dropped only slightly since then, but he’s paired the K’s with patience and power, posting the third-highest ISO of any hitter with at least 200 plate appearances since May 2 (behind only Edwin Encarnacion and Houston teammate Chris Carter).

“Springer is going to swing and miss, but I have been impressed by the way he has made adjustments to pitchers later in games,” wrote one assistant GM. “He’s hit for a ton of power in a very short time and it looks like he was wise to turn down that contract extension.”

Added a front-office type: “There is some uncertainty with guys who swing and miss and strikeout a lot at the minor league level and how that translates to the big leagues. Many of those guys who swing and miss in the minors, nosedive in the big league and become 4-A players. But for Springer, the power plays.”

Also receiving multiple up votes: Yordano Ventura (Royals), Aaron Sanchez (Blue Jays)

Conspicuously scarce: Javier Baez, 2B, Cubs. Despite posting a batting line and plate discipline stats unlike any other major leaguer’s, Baez didn’t show up on anyone’s list. No one was expecting him to have a typical profile, and so no one has been surprised by his early results. “If he hits 50 HR’s and has a 30+% K% in a season, it wouldn’t surprise me at all,” one scout said. “I think he’s the most fun hitter to watch in possibly all of baseball.”

Trending Down

Jackie Bradley Jr., CF, Red Sox: Yeah, you knew this was coming. Bradley recorded a .216/.288/.290 slash line in close to 400 plate appearances and just got sent back to Triple-A, so there was no way he wouldn’t appear here. In almost 500 combined plate appearances in the majors across two seasons, Bradley has shown little of the patience and power that made him a highly rated prospect, and at 24, he doesn’t have a leash as long as scuffling 21-year-old teammate Xander Bogaerts.

“He’s swinging at 29% of pitches out of the strike zone this year at the major league level,” one analyst said. “That is a drastic increase from what he was doing at AAA. One would expect that chase percentage should rise when moving from AAA to the majors, but his increase is much larger than normal and chase percentage stabilizes fairly quickly.”

“I still want to believe the bat is better than this, and I do because of his instincts and approach, but this has been very disappointing,” a scouting director said.

A scout summed up Bradley’s future: “The swing plane isn’t conducive to hitting with power, and he hasn’t wowed with any sort of impactful baserunning ability. He’d better be REALLY good in center field.”

Bradley has been excellent defensively, ranking second among center fielders (behind Juan Lagares) in both DRS and UZR, but his prospect status was partly tied to his bat. If the Sox don’t straighten out that aspect of his game, they’ll have to settle for the second coming of Endy Chavez.

Erik Johnson, RHP, White Sox: It took five starts for Johnson to lose his spot on the major league roster, and 20 more in the minors for him to be placed on the Triple-A disabled list last week with what the White Sox called “shoulder fatigue.” Injury is one possible explanation for why Johnson’s fastball has dropped two ticks and his peripherals have gone the wrong way. (He’s walked 69 in 129.1 innings, with only 81 strikeouts.) Even if Johnson’s shoulder isn’t the root cause of his catastrophic season, he could use a mercy stint on the DL.

“The stuff has been down across the board and, as of my last look, he’d turned himself into almost solely a fastball/slider machine with decreased velo, and the command is way down,” one scout reported. “The athleticism was really poor for me on my last look and caused red flags. There just isn’t much margin for error right now. Definitely more of a power look last year with four usable pitches.”

Concluded another scout: “It’s alarming, and he hasn’t looked like a major leaguer.”

Michael Choice, OF, Rangers: Billy Beane’s strategy of trading top prospects for veteran talent hasn’t come back to bite him here: Former Oakland outfielder Choice is one of the few current Rangers who hasn’t suffered an injury, but Texas might have been better off if he had. Playing all three outfield spots with an occasional start at DH, Choice hit .177/.247/.318 until his demotion in early July, giving him the sixth-lowest wRC+ of any hitter with at least 200 plate appearances this season. His bat hasn’t really rebounded in Round Rock.

“There’s still a chance to be a solid everyday guy, because the tools are still there,” one scout said. “It’s fantastic bat speed and raw power, but there’s a little more doubt for me. It doesn’t appear that he’s handled failure very well, as the approach has sort of deteriorated and he’s fallen into some bad habits with his swing. I wouldn’t give up on him yet, but the arrow is most definitely down. He looks like he needs the offseason and a reset button.”

Another evaluator was more blunt: “He is almost 25, has been poor in the PCL, hasn’t done a thing in the big leagues,” he said. “Can’t hit, can’t field. Is he anything more than a platoon up and down guy going forward?”

Oscar Taveras, RF, Cardinals: Taveras made it onto roughly a third of the downgrade lists — a lower percentage than Bradley, Choice, or Johnson, but a higher percentage than anyone after that. However, he was the last player included on multiple lists, and no one was moved to include a comment about him, which suggests that the concerns weren’t very serious. Still, the slash line is unsightly. Taveras has had to deal with a sporadic schedule of starts, but his ground ball/popup–heavy performance at the plate (combined with shaky defense) hasn’t made a convincing case for more playing time. A flurry of hits immediately after the trade deadline generated some excitement, but he’s since sunk back into a slump.

Also receiving multiple down votes: Christian Bethancourt (Braves), Eddie Butler (Rockies), Garin Cecchini (Red Sox), Jon Singleton (Astros)

Conspicuously scarce: Xander Bogaerts (Red Sox) and Taijuan Walker (Mariners). Bogaerts, the consensus spring favorite for AL Rookie of the Year in the wake of his preternaturally polished appearance during Boston’s 2013 playoff run, has been a replacement-level player for the Red Sox this season, but only two respondents — one of whom noted that he “still has loads of talent” — included him on their lists of downgrade guys. Bogaerts’s youth excuses his struggles, so few evaluators have soured on his future as a result of his rookie year.

Walker also appeared on only two lists, which is somewhat more surprising, given that he was expected to start the year in Seattle but didn’t make his season debut for the Mariners until late June. Walker appears to have recovered from the shoulder inflammation that sidelined him early on, which is one reason for optimism, but he’s back in the minors. Either the evaluators I contacted don’t think the 22-year-old’s disappointing season has any implications for his future, or they weren’t high on him from the start.

Mixed Feelings

If you found yourself disagreeing with one or more of the above judgments, you’re not necessarily wrong. In a few cases, the team employees I contacted disagreed with each other so strongly about what we’ve learned from a particular player’s season that one rated the player a disappointment while another deemed him a pleasant surprise. Player evaluation is hard! The following three players received at least one up vote and one down vote.

Nick Castellanos, 3B, Tigers

Pro: “I might have been a bit lower than most on Castellanos coming into the spring. … I didn’t see any standout, impact-type tools, and he might prove me wrong. He shows a veteran calmness at the plate and is a line drive-hitting machine. A guy like Castellanos, who has good raw power and athleticism, could maintain a high BABIP given his propensity to hit line drives at the rate he does.”

Con: “His glove has been beyond atrocious at 3B and it will negate most of his value. I think it’s better to try to move him to LF. … I can’t see him becoming an above average regular at 3B, simply because of his fielding. If he moves, his outlook might change again to positive, but right now, nope. And again, it has nothing to do with his bat.”

Andrew Heaney, LHP, Marlins

Pro: “I think he has raised the floor for me. He really commands his stuff in and out of the zone. The breaking ball still isn’t better than average for me, but it’s got more depth than last year.”

Con: “Heaney has softer stuff and he has to be perfect in order to be successful. I just didn’t see enough weapons and he doesn’t yet have the command or pitchability to make a difference at the highest level.”

James Paxton, LHP, Mariners

Pro: “I saw him bad in AAA last year. The velocity was all over the place and he was battling his delivery the entire game. Didn’t show any curveball command and was even toying with a cutter at that point. He’s been a different dude ever since he stepped on to a big-league diamond. Obviously tall lefties who touch the upper 90s don’t grow on trees. I think he’s figured it out and made the strides necessary to become a legitimately solid big-league starter.”

Con: “At first glance, there’s a ton to like. Big lefty, clean arm, deceptive, big velocity. But he doesn’t strike hitters out and gives up a lot of hits. And he’ll be 26 years old in November. He has an unsustainably low career BABIP against him in his small sample in the big leagues as well.”

Also appearing on both lists: Kevin Gausman (Orioles), Rougned Odor (Rangers), Aaron Sanchez (Blue Jays) 

http://grantland.com/features/2014-mlb-top-prospect-progress-industry-poll-marcus-stroman/

 

‘I just want to play the game.’ 

The Braves are batting .500 with the Uptons

Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014

By Mark Bradley - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

For those keeping score at home, the Braves are batting .500 on Uptons. No, that’s not 1.000, which is what they hoped when they added B.J. Upton and brother Justin in the same offseason, but it’s not .000, either. And Justin Upton, whose massive April pointed the way toward a division title in 2013, is proving again that, in months that begin with an “A,” he’s an absolute ace.

Yes, Upton dropped the fly ball that undid the Braves in Pittsburgh on Wednesday — he’s not much of an outfielder, alas — but flash back six days. The Braves had lost three of four to the Dodgers and 12 of 15 overall. They had fallen six games behind Washington in the National League East and to fourth in the wild-card chase. At 7:35 p.m. Friday, the 61-60 Braves were due to face the team with baseball’s best record. By midnight Sunday, this season could have been all but done.

Justin Upton led off the bottom of the second Friday by driving a Jason Hammel fastball over the wall in left. It wasn’t much of a pitch — down the middle at 91 mph — but these Braves had spent 4 1/2 months mostly missing fat pitches. Upton didn’t miss.

The Oakland A’s would lead for only half an inning the entire weekend. Another Upton homer put the Braves ahead to stay Sunday night. It came off an 0-2 cutter down and in, the kind intended to make a batter chase. Upton chased it and found it and drove it 423 feet, and he did it off Jon Lester, among the best in the business.

“I thought it was a good pitch when I threw it,” Lester told reporters. “I went back and looked at it, (and it was a) good pitch. Sometimes you’ve got to tip your hat.”

The point being: When J-Up is locked in, he can hit anything off anybody. He’s hot now. He began play Wednesday having gone 14-for-40 (.350) with five homers and 16 RBIs over the past 12 games. He hit a first-inning home run off Washington’s Stephen Strasburg — a 94-mph fastball on the outer half — to touch off the resuscitating 10-game homestand; he hoisted a tying homer two nights later off Gio Gonzalez. He drove in five runs in Pittsburgh on Tuesday.

This is why the Braves traded for Upton. He’s among the few players capable of carrying a team for an extended period. He’s not always this hot — last year he had 20 homers and 35 RBIs in the two “A” months, seven and 35 in the other four — but there’s always the possibility he’ll get that way.

There aren’t 10 more talented players in the sport, which made the Braves’ trade for Upton rather mysterious. At issue wasn’t why they wanted such a gifted player but why Arizona no longer did. Upton was the first player drafted in 2005. He signed an extension for $51 million over six seasons in 2010. He finished fourth in the 2011 National League MVP voting. All that, and the Diamondbacks were giving up on him at 25? What made his employer so desperate — he blocked a previous trade to Seattle — to dump him?

I’ve asked a half-dozen baseball men, and the most telling answer came from someone who once worked for the D-backs. “Management there wants it done a certain way. They want their guys to be Luis Gonzalez, who was very active in the community. They wanted Justin to be the face of the franchise — they had that ‘Uptown’ sign in the outfield — but that’s not Justin. He would say, ‘I just want to play the game.’ “

It’s hard to imagine anyone wouldn’t like the guy. He’s unceasingly pleasant. He’s low-key, which apparently the D-backs didn’t appreciate — they seemed bent on constructing a roster of firebrands in the mold of manager Kirk Gibson — but plays well in Fredi Gonzalez’s clubhouse. And there’s this: Since the Upton trade, Arizona is 20 games under .500; the Braves are 36 games above.

It would be incorrect to say Upton has fully delivered on his immense promise. He hasn’t made an All-Star team as a Brave. His 2013 season in full — he batted .263 with 27 homers and 70 RBIs — was disappointing. Sometimes, though, it’s not as much what you do as when.

Upton’s April set the tone for last season. His August is changing the course of this one. If somebody will just rename the month after September “Achtober,” the Braves will be set.

http://www.myajc.com/news/sports/the-braves-are-batting-500-with-the-uptons/ng6GD/?icmp=ajc_internallink_invitationbox_apr2013_ajcstub1#2c535e7e.3585979.735466

 

“ they get here very fast, and even faster their holes are exploited.”

 The struggles of top prospects in MLB

August 21, 2014 by Peter Gammons

 

Baseball America’s Pre-season Top Ten Position Player Prospects and 2014 Numbers

BA’s Preseason Top 10 Position Players, 2014

 

AVG

OBP

SLUG

HR

RBI

1. Xander Bogaerts, BOS. 21

.225

.294

.336

8

30

2. Oscar Taveras, STL. 22

.224

.263

.298

2

14

3. Javier Baez, CHC. 21

.231

.265

.492

5

9

4. Gregory Polanco, PIT. 22

.244

.311

.354

6

30

5. George Springer, HOU. 24

.231

.336

.468

20

51

6. Nick Castellanos, DET. 22

.259

.306

.414

10

50

7. Travis d’Arnaud, NYM. 25

.224

.292

.390

11

31

8. Billy Hamilton, CIN. 23

.269

.300

.390

6

43

9. Jackie Bradley Jr., BOS. 24

.216

.288

.290

1

30

10. Kolten Wong, STL. 23

.243

.285

.387

9

33

Created by BaseballAnalytics.org on 8/21/2014

The Red Sox are in last place, and there is open questioning of the second youngest player in the league, Xander Bogaerts. Before the season, he was the second highest-rated position player prospect on Baseball America’s prospect list. The highest, Minnesota’sByron Buxton, has suffered two serious injuries and reached double-A, so Bogaerts was the highest rated major league rookie player.

Forward to Oscar Taveras in St. Louis, who is reaching base 26.3% of the time, and Pittsburgh’s Gregory Polanco, who recently went 1-for-27. George Springer has hit 20 homers in Houston but had growing pains, as has Nick Castellanos in Detroit, and Jackie Bradley in Boston fell so hard he landed in Pawtucket.

Jose Abreu, who is 27 and defected from the major leagues in Cuba, is the only rookie in all of baseball with more than 10 HR and 60 RBI. Brock Holt has the second highest OPS of any qualified rookie in either league. Neal Huntington in Pittsburgh knows that Polanco has all the makings of a future star, but because of injuries, Polanco had to be rushed to Pittsburgh after 64 games in triple-A, a far cry from the 204 AAA games Andrew McCutchen was allowed to experience before he took his place in center field. When Polanco was in the minors, the Pirates were often charged with holding Polanco back because of service time, when, in fact, they wanted him to be better prepared for the major leagues.

Bogaerts has 60 games of triple-A experience. Taveras 108. George Springer 75. Travis d’Arnaud 101. Jackie Bradley 83.

“Ideally, no matter how many tools a kid has, he should be broken in at the bottom third of a batting order,” says one manager. “We see shows in BP, we hear stories, and people want to throw them into the middle of the order before they’re ready.”

“The gap between triple-A and the majors may be wider than it’s ever been,” says Boston manager John Farrell, whose experience includes being the Indians farm director. “There’s so much hype on some of these young players, being exposed to major league pitching at such young ages can be discouraging.” Coaches on two different teams added that not immediately fulfilling the buildup can sometimes be embarrassing because of the expectations players, fans, teams, media and the individuals themselves put on 21 and 22 year old players. “It’s also more difficult for kids who are on teams that have high team expectations,” says one club official. “It’s a lot different breaking in on a team that is in a small market and is not in contention. If you’re trying to make the jump to a team like the Red Sox or Yankees, the scrutiny from opposing teams as well as the media can be very stifling.”

Yes, Mike TroutAlbert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera were instant impact hitters, who came up over three decades. Hey, Mike Schmidt’s rookie year was at the age of 23, and he batted .196, and that was 41 years ago. “I think the rule of thumb is that it takes at least three years for a young player to become a legitimate major league hitter,” says Kansas City’s Dayton Moore, who has watched some very talented young position players struggle with their hitting development.”

“There is so much hype on a lot of these talented young players that teams feel they have to blow guys through fast,” says one club official. “They hear, ‘this guy can play in the big leagues right now.’ It’s tempting, but they get here very fast, and even faster their holes are exploited.”

Travis d’Arnaud is a good example. He tried living up to expectations, daily tinkered with his swing and had to go back to the minors to get back to what he was…and get back to the big leagues at the age of 25.

Talking to more than a dozen managers, coaches and general managers, the overwhelming feeling is that it is a lot harder to adjust to hitting on the major league level than any recent period in memory. One oft-cited reason is the incredible scouting preparation. One GM says that where a decade ago teams relied on written advance reports and a little video, now young players are given no time to go unnoticed because of the enormous volume of coordinated video and preparation.  “No one is a surprise longer than a three game series,” says one GM. Back in the 1990s, Bobby Cox would meet with his advance scout teams and ask for two pieces of information on opposing hitters: where to positionAndruw Jones, and how to attack the other team’s hottest hitter. Going into the 1993 NLCS, the Phillies’ hottest hitter was Mickey Morandini. Now besides advance scouts, clubs employ teams of video coordinators and employees to break down every opposing hitter.

Then there are all the shifts a Bogaerts or Taveras has never faced. Or the bullpens; face the Royals, and you get on time around against Kelvin HerreraWade Davis and Greg Holland throwing 100, 98 and 99, respectively. “What you get is two at-bats against a starter who is probably better than anyone you’ve faced in the minors,” says one hitting coach. “Then you get one or two looks at some reliever throwing 96 to 100. Six or eight years ago, it seemed like each team had maybe one guy who threw 95. Now teams have three to five guys throwing 96 to 100. One look gas.”

Some even cite the smaller, thinner bats of today’s games. “It’s all about batspeed and showtime,” says one pro scouting director. “That leads to a ton of swing and misses. It goes back to the showcase circuits, which is carnival baseball, where it’s all about batting practice, not winning baseball games and execution.”

Several managers and general managers say we get too far ahead of ourselves on prospects, their tools and their futures. Look at who is leading the American League Central and go back two years to when the Royals traded Wil Myers to the Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis, a trade that was universally killed by analytics and rotisserie players.

When the Red Sox declined to trade Jon Lester for Myers, this was Dayton Moore’s best deal. The Royals had invested a lot of money in talented youngsters like Eric Hosmer andSalvador Perez, but in 2013 they needed to start winning. They had one winning season in 18, hadn’t made the post-season since five years before Wil Myers was born, they had the All-star Game, most of their sponsorship deals were up, so were many luxury suite deals. And here they are, with Shields a legitimate number one starter and Davis one of the five best relievers in the game. Myers is coming off a wrist injury and is only 23 years old, but he still has 18 homers and a 1.2 WAR. Moore still maintains Myers will be a star level player, but that most young players today take three or four years to become accomplished major league hitters. The Royals are on their way to their second straight winning season and possibly their first post-season since the Reagan Administration. And these two seasons may have convinced the Glass Family to continue to pour capital into the scouting department and save the jobs of a lot of very competent people.

The people who do the top prospects lists—John Manuel, Jim Callis, Jonathan Mayo, Keith Law, et al—do terrific jobs at this. We love looking at the new, new things, and projecting what might be five years down the line.

But prospects are just that, futures in a game played in the present, and sometimes there is no shortcut from the future to the present. Check back in 2016, and we’ll have a pretty good idea who Bogaerts, Taveras, Baez and Polanco really are in the real baseball universe.

http://www.gammonsdaily.com/peter-gammons-the-struggles-of-top-prospects-in-mlb/

 

“To use highly-technical baseball terms, that sucks”

Jackie Bradley of the Red Sox: what happens now?

By John Sickels on Aug 21 2014, 9:00a 1 

In case someone isn't paying attention, the Boston Red Sox demoted rookie center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. to Triple-A Pawtucket this week, replacing him with Mookie Betts.

From the mailbag:

"Jackie Bradley. WTF? What happens now? Is there any chance he can recover from this complete debacle?"---Clint, Portland, Oregon.

Well, it has certainly been a disappointing season for Bradley, but I don't know if I'd go so far as to say "complete debacle." For me, that phrase implies a player who has no value at all, and while Bradley has struggled offensively, he does have value due to his defense. In fWAR terms, his glove has been good enough to keep his WAR value positive at 1.5 this year, despite the statistical headwind created by his poor hitting.

Of course the hitting can't be ignored, either by the Red Sox or by fantasy owners who expected the rookie to provide at least some offensive value. Most fantasy contexts don't value defense, so yeah, if you were counting on Bradley to be a key part of your lineup, I suppose Clint is right and it really is a debacle. 0-for-35 slumps will do that.

So is there any hope at all?

Let's start with what was expected pre-season. This is the comment I wrote for my book:

With Jacoby Ellsbury moving on to New York, Jackie Bradley looks likely to take over center field in Fenway Park for 2014. He’ll do a fine job defensively, given his impressive instincts and strong throwing arm. On offense, he’ll show some power and take a walk, but there’s concern about his ability to handle inside pitches, issues that major league pitchers exposed when he was promoted too quickly last spring. I wouldn’t expect him to win batting titles, but once he settles in, I expect Bradley will produce offensive numbers in the majors similar to what he did in Double-A and Triple-A: hit .250-.270 with enough pop and OBP to be above-average as an offensive producer even with a non-stellar average. Combine that with the defense and you have a player who should have a long career as a regular. Grade B+.

The good defense part came true, but major league pitchers have taken apart his swing and Bradley hasn't been able to put it back together. He hit .216/.288/.290 in 387 plate appearances this year, hitting just one home run. Taking this year's struggles and the 37 games he played in the major leagues in 2013, Bradley is hitting .210/.287/.300 in 494 plate appearances over 149 major league games, hitting 24 doubles, two triples, four homers, with 41 walks and 142 strikeouts.

To use highly-technical baseball terms, that sucks.

Looking at his entire career context, here are some random observations and thoughts:

***Bradley has a solid track record in the minor leagues, hitting .296/.402/.468 over 829 at-bats. This included a .275/.374/.469 line last year in Triple-A, which factored out to a wRC+ of 137 and a wOBA+ of 119. While his batting average at Pawtucket wasn't wonderful, his power and patience made him a highly-productive offensive player last year considering the context.

***The Red Sox responded to this, as they should have, by giving him a full chance at the job this year and not pulling the plug immediately even when he struggled. He got a fair chance.

***Although Bradley's overall track record as a hitter is strong, he does have a past history of long slumps and up-down performances. His 2011 season for South Carolina, for example, was much weaker than anticipated following stellar freshman and sophomore campaigns, although they retained enough faith in him to still see him as a first-round talent. The point is that he's been through something like this before and eventually pulled out of it.

***Batting average is never going to be Bradley's strength; even an optimistic projection from his track record makes him out as a guy who produces due to OBP and moderate power. If Bradley had hit for more isolated power or drawn more walks, he could very well have kept his job even with the weak batting average. Of course, he didn't do those things and we can't pretend that he did.

***One frequent comp for Bradley pre-season was Mike Cameron. Interestingly, Cameron himself had a horrible go early in his big league career, hitting just .210/.285/.336 with 37 walks and 101 strikeouts in 443 plate appearances at age 25 for a wRC+ of 64. That is very similar to what Bradley has done so far. Cameron improved a great deal from that point and became the .250ish hitter with power, speed, and defense that Bradley could still become. 

***However, that's just one example. You can find a lot more guys who stink early and stay that way. It does indicate however that Bradley's early struggles are not automatically fatal to his chances.

***He needs at-bats to resolve his swing mechanics and get his confidence back,so the trip to Pawtucket seems wise. If I were the Sox, I would bring him back up to the majors at the completion of the minor league season, give him some additional playing time in September, then assess where we are. Perhaps they could send him to winter ball in Latin America for additional reps, if he's amenable.

***Given the entirety of his track record, his physical profile, and the impressive glove, it is too soon to give up on Bradley, but he can't be guaranteed a job for 2015, either. My take is that Bradley is not as bad as he looked this year and will eventually pull out of this, emerging as the expected player with a mediocre batting average but productive secondary skills and terrific defense.

However, it could take a while for that to happen, and a Red Sox team looking to win in 2015 may not feel that they can be patient. Depending on what happens with other outfield options, he may fit best as a fourth outfielder next year, if he fits on the Boston roster at all. It would be unfortunate to give up on him while his value is low, but ultimately a trade and a fresh start may be in everyone's best interest if he can't unlock the bat soon.

http://www.minorleagueball.com/2014/8/21/6047003/jackie-bradley-what-happens-now-boston-red-sox

 

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