On this page, I'll share my thoughts, and any articles or information I think are of interest. Feel free to use the comments section to join in the discussion!
“just about gaining experience in professional ball, getting used to the daily grind, and dealing with teammates in a new situation.”
September 25, 2015
The Starting Line
The New York Mets limited Michael Conforto to short season action in his professional debut last summer, puzzling fans and pundits alike. Conforto was one of the best college hitters available and many evaluators pegged him as the most advanced bat in the draft. Critics suggested that the Mets were stalling his development, arguing that Conforto had little to learn at the level. Many felt that every game he played in Brooklyn was a wasted opportunity for at-bats in a more developmentally appropriate setting, and delayed his arrival in Queens.
The Mets didn’t see it that way. Speaking about Conforto, New York’s Director of Minor League Operations, Ian Levin said that his assignment in Brooklyn was “just about gaining experience in professional ball, getting used to the daily grind, and dealing with teammates in a new situation.” Levin was promoted to his current position over the past off-season, so he didn’t make the final call on Conforto’s assignment. Still, he didn’t feel that the assignment was tentative. “I don’t think (the level) that first year out matters so much,” he said, noting that ensuring regular playing time and adjusting to a new routine were more important factors in determining initial prospect placement.
From a development perspective, it’s hard to argue that the Mets harmed Conforto last year. He began the 2015 season in High-A and, two promotions later, debuted in New York barely a year after signing a professional contract. In 48 games, he’s hit .278/.354/.521 and has helped catalyze the Mets resurgent offense. Perhaps a more aggressive minor league assignment could have helped him reach the big leagues a few weeks sooner, but there were clearly no lasting detrimental effects from his initial assignment.
Still, many clubs would have pushed Conforto harder than New York chose to. It isn’t unusual for polished college draftees to debut in Low-A and some players, including Houston’s 2015 first-rounder Alex Bregman, reach High-A just a few months out of school. At a glance, it appears that the respective developmental paths prescribed for Bregman and Conforto speak to an overarching philosophical difference about how to develop freshly drafted players. It’s rarely such a black and white decision, however. Teams have specific plans for their players, and there are a variety of factors that affect where a player is sent for his initial assignment. Provided that the player has the right mentality, he should benefit from his first taste of professional ball regardless of where he lands.
For many teams, a challenging initial assignment is a vital part of the development plan for an advanced player. Miami’s Director of Player Development, Brian Chattin, believes that some players have skill sets that all but demand an assignment in full-season ball. He argues that it’s important to challenge players, not only with their first assignment, but all the way up the ladder: “if a player has clearly demonstrated, both by performance and development that a new challenge is warranted, you need to give it to them.”
For Chattin, challenging people with a promotion is a reward that can provide long-term benefits for player and club alike. He says that “there is inherent value in a player knowing his efforts, growth, and performance have been recognized.” From that perspective, a difficult assignment becomes a carrot to a player, a sign that they have performed well and that the organization is closely monitoring their progress. It’s a strategy that Miami has employed regularly in recent in years, even at the big league level: since 2013, the Marlins have brought Christian Yelich, Jose Fernandez, Marcell Ozunaand Jake Marisnick to the majors with limited experience in the high minors.
The Marlins aren’t alone. Milwaukee, among other teams, has also built a reputation for promoting young talent quickly. The club’s Director of Player Development, Reid Nichols, sees value in the strategy, even if players fail initially: “Some players need a big stage to perform. Some require a challenge that will show them some changes are needed.” In that sense, a difficult assignment presents a win-win for the development staff: either the player performs, or his struggles highlight an area where he can work to improve his game.
One of the more common developmental paths is the practice of sending top picks to short season ball for a week or two as they acclimate to their new organization. These cameos can fulfill several developmental objectives. Organizations with local short season affiliates, such as Seattle with Everett and the Mets with Brooklyn, keep their prized farmhands nearby so that executives can take a long look at their newest personnel before sending them out for their next assignment. Naturally, clubs with local Low-A affiliates will sometimes employ the same philosophy when pushing recently drafted personnel into full season leagues. Another reason stems from inactivity: most draftees don’t play much between the middle of May (when college teams finish their season) and their signing day. A trip to the complex leagues or to a short season affiliate helps rusty players round into game shape.
It should be noted that, for most players, short season ball is a developmental challenge. Every draftee was one of the best players on his college team and in his conference, and the range of talent in a professional league is much smaller than what he’s used to facing. It’s not unusual for college players, even top draft picks, to struggle in their first taste of the minors. For all but the most advanced players, teams prefer their players have success at rookie ball while they build their confidence, improve their fundamentals, and acclimate to the responsibilities inherent in professional ball.
More often though, a player’s first assignment is grounded in their development plan. It’s not unusual for players with similar backgrounds and skill sets to have different plans. Take Andrew Heaney and Brett Lilek. Drafted three years apart by the Marlins, the two players are fairly similar: both are tall, left-handed pitchers from elite college programs and each entered pro ball with the ability to regularly top 90 mph and throw three pitches for strikes. But while Heaney reached Low-A in his first minor-league season, making four starts and pitching well in the South Atlantic League playoffs, Lilek spent all of 2015 in rookie ball.
The discrepancy is explained more by circumstance than talent. The Marlins had an opportunity to let Heaney pitch in a pennant race and promoted him so that he could extend his season and pitch in the postseason. As an organization, the Marlins emphasize winning games in the minors and Chattin felt that the experience of playing in big games would be valuable for Heaney. Thanks in part to Heaney’s efforts, Greensboro reached the South Atlantic League’s championship series.
Lilek, by contrast, needed to build stamina after a layoff between the college season and his professional debut. It’s easier for teams to manage a pitcher’s workload in short season ball, where rosters are big and bullpens are deep, and so the Marlins sent their polished lefty to Batavia in the New York-Penn League. It took Lilek a few outings to rebuild his endurance and by that point, the Marlins were satisfied with their rotation in Low-A. Not wanting to disrupt anyone’s schedule, they opted to leave him in Batavia for the rest of the summer.
Many in player development believe that, with good makeup and the right mentality, players can build their skills at any level. For Nichols, players need to have the fortitude to handle failure and be able to embrace the possibility that they will struggle before they succeed: “makeup is as important as talent, in my opinion. Baseball will humble anyone. If you don’t love the game and the competition, you are not going to survive.” Similarly, Levin says that most players will respond well to a difficult assignment, and he values players who aren’t afraid of failure: “if you think a guy will mentally struggle (with a difficult assignment) he may not be a guy you want in your system anyway.”
None of the executives who commented for this story believe that the destination of a player’s first minor league assignment significantly alters their developmental course. While some commenters may chastise organizations for starting their players either too slowly or too quickly, many within the game believe that players don’t require a Goldilocks situation to learn and improve their game. Provided that parent clubs base their assignments in a coherent developmental goal, and that development plans adapt to player struggles and successes, the level at which players compete will take care of itself in due time.
"What is said about a player can have a huge impact on him, his family, and his place in the community — especially if it’s not true."
Silence Isn’t Golden
What you think about pro athletes is heavily influenced by what you read and hear about them — and oftentimes, those things aren’t true.
By Golden Tate
You don’t know me.
Sure, by watching the NFL and playing fantasy football, you are aware of me as No. 15 on the Detroit Lions. You saw me win a Super Bowl last season with the Seattle Seahawks. You comment on my on-field celebrations and my perceived brashness. You frame what you think of me based on that, and how I perform, and what’s said and written about me by newspapers and magazines and blogs and talking heads.
But you don’t know me, Golden Tate, the person. What I’m all about. You don’t know how much I care about my relationships with the fans and city in which I play.
And that’s what I want to talk about, because in a world of 24/7 media that varies wildly in terms of credibility, you shouldn’t always believe what you see or read. What is said about a player can have a huge impact on him, his family, and his place in the community — especially if it’s not true.
I loved playing in Seattle, and to this day, I have a lot of affection for the city and the vast majority of the fans that make up the Seahawks’ incredibly passionate fanbase. I also have a good relationship with many former teammates and the coaches and ownership there. Understandably, some fans turned on me last spring when I chose to leave in free agency after the team won its first-ever championship, after previously saying I would consider taking a “hometown discount” to remain. That scenario was definitely on the table, but at the end of the day, the offer from Detroit made a lot of sense for me and my family.
I am not unique in this respect. Each and every season, in all professional sports, players must carefully weigh their options. The choices we make as free agents can be life-altering, and many of us don’t get more than one opportunity like that.
“I think what makes pitchers successful is the mental component – the ability to process information and to compete with conviction.”
by David Laurila - September 25, 2015
Chris Young, of the Kansas City Royals, is known for both his Princeton pedigree and his height. The 6-foot-10 right-hander is also known for getting outs up in the zone, with a slow fastball. Young’s four-seamer averages 86.4 mph, and he has the highest FB% (58.2) and the lowest BABiP (.217) among pitchers who have thrown at least 100 innings. The velocity and fly balls are in line with his career norms; his probability defying BABiP is even more striking than the .248 he’s registered during parts of 11 seasons.
Thanks in large part to his frame, Young has a deceptive delivery. He also has a high spin rate on his lukewarm heater. It’s not elite, but it ranks among the top 20% of hurlers and contributes to his above-the-belt success. The 35-year-old has appeared in 32 games this year — half of them starts — and has a 10-6 record to go with a 3.29 ERA and a 4.71 FIP.
Young on spin rate: “I haven’t heard about my spin rate being high – nobody has said a word to me about that – but I do understand how it works. Spin rate creates the rise, the life on the ball. For me, the intent is there, but I wasn’t aware of the result. Maybe that quantifies my deception, or whatever it is that you want to call it.
“Early in my career, I had a chance to talk to Curt Schilling. I looked up to him because he was a four-seam fastball guy. He told me that the one thing he wants to feel on his fastball is the backspin off of his fingers. He wants to feel that action, that whip, that finish. That’s the same thing I’m trying to do on my fastball. I don’t throw as hard as Schilling — or as hard as a lot of guys — but it’s the same mentality of wanting to get through the ball to rotate it, to really backspin it. I want to create life on the ball. That said, it’s not something where I can consciously say, ‘I want to make this ball spin more than another pitch.’”
On learning he could work effectively up in the zone: “It’s the way I’ve pitched my whole life. When I was 14, 15 years old and getting into high school, I was the same way. I’d change eye levels. I’d work down in the zone and pitch up in the zone. Back then, it happened more by accident than intent, but it was effective. Over time, I recognized how to do it intentionally, and how it played in terms of hitters’ swings.
“I remember having a Double-A pitching coach saying to me, ‘You won’t be ready for the big leagues until you learn to pitch down in the zone.’ It almost had the opposite effect. When I moved up to Triple-A, I had better results, because all those pitches that were foul balls at the lower levels became pop ups. They became outs. I realized, ‘This is an effective pitch.’”
On conviction and changing eye levels:“It’s not like I try to throw every pitch up in the zone. You have to work down in the zone, and you don’t want to throw down in the zone without life. I’m trying to throw every pitch with 100-percent conviction. If I do that – whether it’s down or up – I feel that it results in better action. It’s the conviction behind a pitch that leads to a more-favorable result.
“Sometimes you can read a hitter – you can read their swings or how they take a pitch – and see if they’re trying to get you down, or trying to get you up. I’ll try to adjust accordingly. It’s equally important for me to be able work down as it is for me to work up.
“High and low play off of each other. If a hitter is laying off a pitch that’s up, it probably makes him more susceptible to swing at a pitch down. For the same reason, he’s not swinging at a breaking ball in the dirt because he’s trying to make you get the ball up – he wants to see a ball higher in the zone. Pitches up and down are correlated, certainly. I try to establish both.”
On data and preparation: “Every series, I have a PDF sent to me from the Royals scouting department with the data I want from them. Then I look at video and match it up with heat maps. I determine my game plan from there.
“The stuff I look at is maybe a little more in depth than your basic scouting report. It helps me determine what type of hitter someone is and what his game plan is. I match up the statistics with what I’m seeing on video. More often than not it matches up, but there are times my eyes get deceived a little bit and I need to check out the data more closely. The sample size matters, too. The bigger it is, the better idea you have of what he likes and what his approach is.
“When I look at heat maps, it’s against right-handed pitchers and whether he’s more of a high-ball hitter or more of a low-ball hitter. That’s the main thing with heat maps, but I also look at whether he covers away or in better. In certain situations, that gives me a visualization of, ‘OK, this is where I want to throw the ball.’”
On velocity and the non-quantifiable: “Pitching is so much more than velocity. It’s about deception, it’s about movement, it’s about location. Then there are the intangibles. There is the mental toughness, the conviction, the poise, the thought process, the intent, the ability to read swings. All of that goes into making a pitcher successful. You can look around baseball and find so many guys throwing 98 mph – guys all over the minor leagues who aren’t ready for the big leagues, many who will never play in the big leagues. That shows how important the other aspects are.
“Velocity is the most quantifiable thing, but now we’re reaching some other forms – some other measurements – that are allowing people to evaluate differently. But in the end, I think the biggest thing is between the ears, and that’s something you can’t quantify.”
On the mental component: “There’s obviously physical talent involved, but I think what makes pitchers successful is the mental component – the ability to process information and to compete with conviction. Knowing you can get a hitter out is a belief. It’s a feeling – a confidence you have – whether you’re throwing 80 mph or 100 mph. If you lose that, hitters will sense it and jump on it. It’s like a dog sensing fear.
“It exists and it’s tangible. It’s what separates average from good, and good from great. Show me a pitcher with brains, heart and balls, and I’ll show you a winner. That’s the hardest thing to quantify, and it’s probably the most important.”
Rays' Souza owns up to rookie struggles
- · Marc Topkin, Times Staff Writer Wednesday, September 23, 2015
BOSTON — The towering homer and three other hits Steven Souza Jr. logged in Wednesday's 6-2 win over the Red Sox won't do much to improve his feelings about a tough first season with the Rays he refers to as "a trial."
Brought in with much hype to replace Wil Myers and at the cost of two promising prospects (infielder Trea Turner, pitcher Joe Ross), Souza has struggled much of the year, hitting .222 with 16 homers and 38 RBIs in the 102 games he has played while serving two stints on the disabled list.
Souza, to his credit, puts the blame on himself.
"The pressure of coming over here and stuff, I tried to fend it off as much as I could, but I really didn't do a good job of handling it," he said. "It's like a dog stuck in a pound. I was always under the radar, and all of a sudden you let it out and I'm all over the radar, and you kind of don't know how to respond. I didn't do a good job of responding and being accountable to that stuff."
That manifested in many ways, taking Souza, 26, away from what worked for him during a stellar 2014 Triple-A season that capped his climb back since a personal and religious redemption that followed a tumultuous start to his pro career.
Most glaring was how he routinely tried to do too much.
"I was taking a load I didn't need to take," Souza said, "trying to carry the team and hit a homer every single pitch. That's just not realistic."
As telling was what he did when he was sitting on the couch.
Souza had rarely paid attention to baseball when he wasn't at the field, but now he was coming home and flipping around the TV to look in on how other players were performing and, to a more troubling extreme, how he measured up. His wife, Mikaela, asked what he was doing.
"I think I just got wrapped up in everything, in baseball, in what everybody else was doing," Souza said. "I got put in a pretty esteemed category of players out of the gate, and when everything was going good, it was fun to compare. And then as soon as a scuffle hit, comparing wasn't as fun anymore. … Comparing became disheartening."
"It was like I was not performing up to that part, and I needed to do more. And it would just kind of add on," Souza said.
"I needed to find outlets and they were the wrong ones. … Instead of going home and spending time with my family and spending time with the Lord — those are the things I did most often in the past … but I didn't make it a priority to do that — I was consumed by what other people were doing, like he's hitting this, or he's struggling, too, okay, good."
Souza is confident he has learned from the experience and will be better for it, as well as being more comfortable with more time around the Rays, who improved to 74-78 with the win. The 4-for-5 game, after extensive pregame work, snapped an 0-for-10, and the homer was his first since July 4.
"There have been some times where I know I can do the type of things that make me bad and there are some things that I need to stick to that will make me click," he said.
"And through it all, remembering who I am and why I'm playing the game."
WHEN ONE PITCH IS ALL YOU NEED
0Last Wednesday night, there was a moment when Carlos Gonzalez probably thought he might be able to come up big. Down two runs with two out in the bottom of the ninth, Charlie Blackmon had managed to single off of Dodgers’ closer Kenley Jansen just before CarGo stepped to the plate, and with a man on, one swing of the bat could’ve tied the game.
Then reality set in. The count went quickly to 0-2, and in that situation, Gonzalez was likely going to strike out. That isn’t an indictment of CarGo, just a statement of fact: Jansen strikes out 42.5 percent of all the batters he faces, and that figure rises to almost 67 percent after he’s ahead in the count 0-2. After managing to take a close pitch and foul another off, Gonzalez got a rare Jansen slider he couldn't handle. (You can watch it here in .gif form.)
We often get used to dominant relievers being consistently great. For the elite guys, the end of the game is almost automatic most days, and the warm and fuzzy feeling you get as a fan knowing you have proven options at the end of a game is a special one. However, sometimes we need to take a step back and measure the ridiculousness of the stats some of these great relievers are producing.
And so we have Jansen. We know he’s great. He’s been great for a few years now; with his almost sole use of a hard cutter, it’s easy and fun to compare him to a version of Mariano Rivera. With that lofty comparison made, it might not be surprising that he’s putting together a very unique, special season.
Consider this fact: Jansen went the first month and a half of his season without walking a batter. He was injured for April, but after he debuted in mid-May, he didn’t issue a walk until June 28th. During that time, he struck out 26 batters in 15.2 innings. That’s a mind-boggling mix of dominance and control, and it’s formed the basis of what Jansen has become in 2015.
Jansen is the current season leader of a very useful statistic: strikeout rate minus walk rate (K-BB%). K-BB% is a quick way of getting a good look at a pitcher’s overall performance, as it's the stat that comes closest to roughly estimating a pitcher's ERA. It’s obviously not perfect -- one fairly simple statistic is always going to have trouble encapsulating the many factors that go into a pitcher’s overall performance -- but it works quite well in a back of the napkin situation.
Even if K-BB% isn’t perfect, a pitcher is doing a lot of things right if they find themselves toward the top of the K-BB% leaderboard, as they’re striking a lot of batters out while issuing very few walks. Last year we had Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, Sean Doolittle, and Brad Boxberger as the leaders in K-BB% as relievers, and we know they are some of the very best late-inning pitchers in baseball. We still have a few of those names this year, but with one big change. Take a look at the top 10 for greatest K-BB% in 2015 among qualified relievers:
You could say Jansen has joined the club, but that’s an understatement: he’s leading the pack by a wide margin. The thing that makes Jansen special is that he’s been able to limit his walks so effectively this season. To strike a ton of batters out, you usually need to throw hard. When you throw hard, you have a more difficult time controlling where the ball goes. Very few pitchers are able to hold these two opposing forces in balance; Kenley Jansen seems to now be one of them.
To further illustrate the excellence of Jansen’s season, let’s take a look at the 10 best seasons for K-BB% since 1990 (relievers only):
Not too much of a surprise -- we only have pitchers from recent seasons. The nature of the strikeout has changed drastically in the past decade, which is what makes comparing this era to other eras difficult. Still, we have some incredible company here: there's Craig Kimbrel's outstanding and unhittable 2012 (which may be at the top of this leaderboard for some time), a couple of Chapman seasons, and Eric Gagne's famous 2003 Cy Young campaign. Billy Wagner and Brad Lidge are the only two older pitchers who can really hold their own in the face of the incredible strikeout rates of the past few years, so we should give them a little extra credit where it's due.
By far the most remarkable element of Jansen's season is the way he's gone about putting up these numbers. Here's the rate at which he's thrown his cutter every year since coming into the league in 2011: 73.3 percent (2011), 89, 85.9, 83.5, 85.1. He has a small percentage of pitches that were classified as four seam fastballs (usually between 5-10 percent), but they could very well be misclassifications, meaning his rate of cutters could be slightly higher. Jansen strikes out over 40 percent of the batters he faces with basically one pitch. His slider is good (as we saw above with the CarGo strikeout), but he only uses it about 10 percent of the time. This is almost all about the cutter.
Does the fact that he has such dominance with one pitch make Jansen's cutter among the best pitches in the game? Perhaps. By run values among relievers, there are many fastballs considered better than Jansen's, but they're thrown by guys who normally have at least a few more pitches. The only other reliever who relies on one pitch as much as Jansen does is Zach Britton (who throws a sinker), but he hasn't posted anywhere near the unbelievable strikeout rates that the Dodger's right-hander has this season.
In Jansen, we have a rarity: a preternaturally dominant closer who relies almost entirely on one pitch. In 2015, he's taken a leap forward, cutting his walk rate while increasing his strikeouts, vaulting him into rare territory among the best strikeout/command relief seasons in the past two decades. For the Dodgers, the steadiness of their closer has been a welcome trend in a season filled with a few bullpen problems. For Jansen, he'll keep doing what he always has -- cutter, cutter, cutter. Just like Mariano Rivera, everyone knows what he's going to throw, and they still can't hit it.