Monday, January 19, 2015

Minor League Notebook

   It's that time of year.  There is snow on the ground, and a bitter chill in the air.
But the days are starting to get just a little bit longer, and the warmth of the sun can sometimes be felt through the biting wind.  Baseball can't be far away.

  We have gathered a fair number of tidbits of information about the Blue Jays farm system that, so we thought we would resurrect the old Notebook and share them with you.

Lopes  is a major reason the Cavs are still in play-off contention, despite some up-and-down form in recent series.
Christian Lopes wielding a hot bat
Canberra Times photo

   Christian Lopes took a few weeks  to adjust to the veteran pitching in the Australian Baseball League, but he caught fire, as the above photo shows, and has been a mainstay in the Canberra lineup.
   Through January 9th, Lopes was hitting .371/.421/.581 for the Cavalry, mashing at a .450 clip over his last 10 games, and with fellow Jays farmhand C Jack Murphy, was the main reason Canberra was still in the playoff picture as the Australian Baseball League season winds down.
  Rainy weather invaded the Cavalry's homestand last weekend, and may have been responsible for ending Lopes' season.  Lopes was rounding third when he heard a pop in his left hamstring as he slipped on muddy ground on the baseline.  He was shut down for the remainder of the weekend (which was washed out by the rain, anyway), and according to our source in Australia, is done for the season, and has likely headed back to the U.S.
   Lopes has had a mostly nondescript minor league career.  Once a prominent prep prospect, Lopes' stock slipped to the 7th round in 2011, and he has put up pedestrian numbers in four minor league seasons.
   We've learned, via the Canberra Times, that Lopes is tri-lingual.  He has a Brazilian background, and his mother is from the Philippines, and he speaks English, Portuguese and Tagalog.
   According to Manager Michael Collins, Lopes' performance this year has been a result of increased patience at the plate.  He told the Times:
  "The big thing I've noticed is when he gets a good pitch to hit, he's not missing it at this point," he said.
"If you miss those good pitches to hit, or swing at bad pitches, you put yourself in a hole.
    "In the last couple of weeks, each time he's got a good pitch, he's put a good swing on it and had success."
   A hamstring injury can be a tricky thing.  It can take a few weeks or months to recover from, depending on the severity of the injury.  The Blue Jays likely wanted him shut down immediately after the injury, and he likely is rehabbing in Florida at the moment.  He may not be ready for the start of spring training, again depending on the extent of the strain.
   Lopes should start the season with AA New Hampshire, unless he misses time in the spring, which might see him return to Dunedin.  His success down under should set him up well at AA, where he will face the same type of pitchers he faced in Australia, although with higher FB velocities and better command of their secondary pitches.

  While the Blue Jays must be pleased with the relationship they've had with the ABL over the past several years, we can't help but wonder if they are still as content after the events of the past few weeks.  LB Dantzler has been out of the Canberra lineup for several weeks with back and hip issues, while Anthony Alford had to come out of the game yesterday after injuring his jaw while trying to make a diving catch in the outfield.  You can't necessarily blame the playing conditions for Alford's injury, but we've noticed that some of the fields in the league are not nearly of the same quality as those stateside.  We don't know about Dantzler, but those conditions may have played a factor in Lopes' injury.

   We thought we would include some action between Lopes and lefthander Matt Boyd.  We've been in touch with Boyd to see how he has been doing this offseason.  Here's our interview with him:

Clutchlings:  How much are you able to train in the off-season ?  Do you have to get a job?

Boyd:   I am able to train as much as I want to. I do have a job giving lessons and camps as well as some odd jobs here and there but you can always find time to get your work in, sometimes that means getting up a little earlier.

Clutchlings: What is the focus of your training? Cardio/strength/flexibility/agility, or some cross-training?

Boyd:   The focus of my training shifts throughout the off-season. Early on this year it was recovering from the surgery I had after the season.  It flared up during the last month of the year. It was a clean up…I had a big chip taken out of my elbow.  In the beginning it was just rehab, getting my body healthy and cardio.  So winter ball wasn't an option. After I was able to work out fully again my focus has been to just get stronger, especially in my lower body. The main focus for it all is to stay athletic and do all that you mentioned.  I feel better than I have in the last three seasons now...I am excited for this upcoming season.

Clutchlings:   What type of training do you do? Has your attitude toward nutrition changed since turning pro ?

Boyd:  You know it hasn't much. I was very fortunate to have a great strength and nutrition coach at OSU that helped me build good habits that carried into pro ball. But it is hard to always eat healthy when you are on the road. And as for training its a combination of agility/ cardio work and just in the gym with weights.

   Boyd, who was married a few weeks ago, had a better April than Daniel Norris and Kendall Graveman, posting a 4-0 0.29 record with Dunedin.  Florida State League hitters were overmatched against the lefthander, who fanned 37 in his first 31 innings.   Boyd was promoted to AA in May, but hurt his foot in his first start for New Hampshire, and he had trouble getting his mechanics back. Sent back to Dunedin, he pitched well and earned another shot at AA, but was sent back to the D-Jays to help with their playoff push in August.  Obviously, the bone chip must have been affecting him in his August return, as he did not pitch as effectively in the Florida State League playoffs.
   A 6th round pick out of Oregon State in 2013, Boyd pitched out of the bullpen until his senior year of college, when he led the Beavers to the College World Series semi-final.  Boyd has pitched almost exclusively as a starter since joining the Toronto organization.  His FB sits between 90-92, and touches 94 on occasion.  He does not have one outstanding pitch in his arsenal, but commands all four of his pitches well.  We have wondered if Boyd might not be converted to relief, but he lacks that power fastball, so the club appears to be content to let him continue as a starter.  Boyd profiles as a back of the rotation starter, but we're encouraged that he feels healthy, and are eager to see how he fares this year.
   Boyd should get a chance to try things again at AA this year.  We have to admit that he's one of our favourite prospects.  He responds quickly to questions we've asked, and he seems like a level headed young man.  We hope he earns a promotion to Buffalo this season, so that we can watch him pitch in person.

 Just before Christmas, the Blue Jays announced the coaching staffs for their minor league affiliate.
The Buffalo staff will remain intact.  Gary Allenson returns for a second season, along with hitting coach Richie Hebner, and pitching coach Randy St. Claire. Bobby Meacham returns for a second season at the helm with New Hampshire, and will be joined by Canada's own Stubby Clapp, who served as hitting coach for a pair of seasons with Dunedin, and Bob Stanley, who was the bullpen coach with the big club in 2014.  
  Omar Malave, the 2014 FSL Manager of the Year, returns to pilot the Dunedin Jays, and will be joined by hitting coach John Tamargo Jr, who managed Lansing for the past three seasons, and another Canadian, pitching coach Vince Horsman, who moves up from Lansing as well.  Former Blue Jays C Ken Huckaby moves from hitting coach to manager at Lansing, with pitching coach Jeff Ware moving up from Vancouver to join him, along with Kenny Graham, who managed the GCL Jays last year, and is tutoring Jays prospects in the Australian Baseball League at the moment.
   John Schneider will return for a second season as Vancouver's manager, and will be joined by holdover hitting coach Dave Pano, and Jim Czajkowski, who was at New Hampshire last year.
  Dennis Holmberg will be back to manage Bluefield again this year, while Jose Mateo takes over the complex league team.
   On the administration side, Dane Johnson moves from minor league pitching co-ordinator to bullpen coach in Toronto, with Sal Fasano moving from roving catching instructor to assume Johnson's duties.  Darold Knowles, who was Dunedin's pitching coach, takes over the role of rehab pitching coach (working with Clinton Hollon and Jeff Hoffman, among others), and Rick Langford becomes senior pitching advisor.
   We also learned last week that Clayton McCullough, who led the Vancouver Canadians to back to back titles before being promoted to Co-ordinator of Minor League Instruction for the system last year, has left to become the Dodgers new Minor League Field Co-ordinator.


   Numerous sources are reporting that a 20-second pitch clock will be implemented at AA and AAA in 2015, but not the majors just yet, thanks very much.
    There can be little doubt that the pace of play in MLB has slowed considerably:


   Where does this slowdown come from?    From numerous sources.   With today's hitters taught to be discerning at the plate, pitchers are throwing more pitches:

     Which leads to more pitching changes per game:

    If the average pitching change, from the moment the manager calls time to stroll out and remove him, to the time the incoming relief pitcher throws his first pitch to a batter, takes ten minutes, times two teams, that's a game that is a minimum of 20 minutes longer than it was less than 20 years ago.
  Factor that with the increasing number of pitches thrown in a game, and you have one that's about a half an hour longer, on average, than it was prior to 1990.
   We do like the idea of a pitch clock.  It forces batters, pitchers, and catchers to work faster.  We don't expect every pitcher to work as quickly as Mark Buehrle, who takes an MLB-low 17.3 seconds, on average, to deliver a pitch, does, nor do we expect every hitter to be a human rain delay, like David Ortiz, who has three of the top 10 slowest home run trots of all time. 
   The Arizona Fall League implemented several measures to speed up game times, including a pitch clock of 20 seconds.  Realizing that was only one part of the problem, other time-saving measures were introduced:

• Hitters had to keep one foot in the batter's box throughout each at-bat, except in the case of a foul ball, wild pitch, inside pitch that made a hitter sprawl out of the box, passed ball or a handful of other minor disruptions.
• On intentional walks, the catcher showed four fingers and the hitter immediately jogged to first base.
• Teams allowed a total of three mound conferences per game. 
• A maximum 2:05 break was in effect between innings; hitters were required to be in the box by the 1:45 mark.
• A 2:30 break applied during pitching changes. Like the 2:05 stoppage between innings, that's the same guideline used in MLB regular-season games.  Umpires tried harder to enforce it in Arizona.

   The results of the experiment were mixed.  Teams would often find a way around the rules: did a visit to the mound by a catcher to go over signals with the pitcher count as a conference?  Just the same, baseball was encouraged by the outcome of the games to implement the pitch clock in the minors this season, meaning that it likely is on its way to MLB in the future.


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