Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Clutchlings Notebook: Happy New Year Edition

MiLB.com photo

The days are getting longer (about a minute- split between sunrise and sunset- per day), and while in some ways these are truly the doldrums of the baseball off season, spring training, and all the promise of a new season, is not far off.
   Here are some of the developments that have taken place in the Blue Jays farm system over the past several weeks:

Boomer Collins Cricket Update
   Almost a month ago, I wrote about the former Jays farmhand who was trying to make a go of things in T20 Cricket, a fast-paced and condensed version of the sport, after being released by Toronto after three years in their organization.
   Collins is training under internationally renowned cricket coach Julien Fountain.  The two first met about a year ago, and Collins' committed full-time to the sport after being released in November. Collins received a crash course in cricket fundamentals in his home state of Texas before travelling to India in early December, in the hopes of catching on with a pro T20 side there.
   Collins, as one might expect, had a little trouble adjusting to hitting balls that bounced or were aimed at his head, but all in all, he had a positive experience.  He was ranked as a "silver" prospect (mid-tier) in a recent draft of prospects by the Pakistani Super League, but wasn't selected.
   He headed home for Christmas, which was part of the plan all along, and is hoping to catch on with a local team to further his cricket education.  He's also had at least one invitation from an English side to join them.  Whatever the case, Fountain has invested some of his own money in training Collins as part of a project to lure other former baseball players to the sport, called SwitchHit20.  Both Fountain and Collins are in this for the long run - the latter is hoping for a breakthrough, while the former has staked his reputation on this project.
   T20 is wildly popular outside of North America.  Players can make a considerable sum of money playing the game - seasons last only several weeks, but are held at different times in different countries, and players can hop from one country to another.
  Collins enjoyed the experience, despite the culture shock of moving from a Dallas suburb to the busy city of Bangalore:  "The most difficult part (of the experience) was getting across the street." He enjoyed the chance to train every day, and feels he just needs playing time to refine his skills and understanding of the game.
   Fountain posted a video to YouTube of Collins' progress while he was in India:

Gabe Noyalis
   He faces long odds to make it much past A ball, and his signing underscores the lack of pitching depth in the organization after all of Alex Anthopoulos' wheeling and dealing dating back to November 2014, but you have to have a heart of granite not to be pulling for the Jays most recent free agent signing.
   The native of Williamsport, PA, pitched for Bucknell as a freshman, and despite appearing only 7 games that year, was slated to be their closer the following season before an ankle injury cost him all of his sophomore year.
Williamsport Sun Gazette Photo
  Noyalis transferred to Misericordia, a Division III powerhouse near Wilkes-Barre PA the following year, but walked away from the game after only one season with the Cougars. Soon after, he began hitting the weight room regularly, and fell in love with lifting.  Then, he told me in a Twitter conversation this week, his old high school team needed someone to throw batting practice to them before a state playoff game last June, and "I hit 91 a few times," despite not having picked up a ball in a couple of years.  Intrigued, he threw a few more times after that, and was up to 93-94, which led to a tryout with the Phillies, but no contract offer. Noyalis threw himself into his comeback full after that, throwing every day.  His velo was up to 97, and the Braves decided to give him a look. 
  At this point, Noyalis realized how much he missed the game, and gave his 7th grade basketball coach a call to update him on things.  His coach just happened to be Blue Jays pro scout Matt Anderson:
He was a scout for the Marlins at the time and had a World Series ring with them and I remember all of us were entranced by it. But yeah I've known Matt since then, he followed my high school and college career but once he moved to Texas and I stopped playing I wasn't in contact with him until this year when I told him how things were going.

   Anderson invited Noyalis to come and throw for him in early December.  The grey, wet late fall/early winter Central Pennsylvania weather, coupled with a lack of a partner to catch him meant that he was limited to throwing sand-filled balls against a wall in his gym's basement.   Nonetheless, Noyalis flew down to Anderson's baseball camp in Texas, and threw between 95-98, and was offered a contract.

   Noyalis will be in Dunedin when training camp opens, and while it's not likely that he breaks camp with a full season team, if his velocity and command hold up, he could see time in Lansing before season's end.  After not having pitched for three and a half years, he will likely need some time to regain feel for his secondary pitches.

   Noyalis' story is somewhat reminiscent of Steve Delabar, who was out of baseball for two years after elbow problems, and after implementing an arm-strengthening program for a high school team he was helping to coach while working as a supply teacher, found his own velocity had improved.  After a successful tryout with the Mariners, Delabar made his MLB debut in 2011, and was dealt to Toronto in 2012, and while he has scuffled the last two years, Delabar represented the Jays at the 2013 All Star game.

Phil Kish Pitches on Down Under
   One of the more enjoyable things about being a minor league blogger is that you can get fairly good and consistent access to the players.  Before he was dealt, Matt Boyd was a frequent correspondent and friend of this blog.  Anthony Alford has always responded to questions, as well.
   Phil Kish is proving to be just as accessible and insightful.  Labelled undersized (at 5"10") and undrafted in 2013 after graduating from Southern University (where he obtained a finance and accounting degree), righthander  Kish had a decent first two pro seasons pitching in relief, but he struggled this year, reaching as far as High A Dunedin.
   As the 2015 season was drawing to a close, Kish had heard rumours that he might be part of the Blue Jays contingent of prospects making their way to Canberra to play in the Australian Baseball League this winter, but he didn't hear anything definite, so he was preparing to resume his internship with Ernst and Young as he worked toward an accounting designation. When he did finally get the word that he was going, Kish was, in his words, "ecstatic":
This past season I had mixed results of struggle and positive and getting this opportunity to come down here to improve my craft was a blessing. Usually after a bad year this was the last opportunity I was expecting. The Blue Jays giving me this opportunity is awesome and I can't be more appreciative. To make the most out of this experience I have to just pitch and learn my mechanics. Pitching is all about making adjustments. I am beyond excited to be representing the Blue Jays and I hope that I can compete at this level and improve my game so I can pitch in Toronto in the near future.
 In his first few outings, Kish admits that he didn't pitch as well as he would've liked, but the hits he gave up were of the groundball variety, which he says, "I'm perfectly okay with since I'm keeping the ball in the park."
   When he's on, Kish pounds the bottom of the strike zone.  I made this gif of a nasty slider he threw to an Aussie League hitter, and it got considerable attention on Twitter:

  When asked how he was adjusting to the ABL a few weeks ago, Kish responded:
You pitch how you know how to pitch if that makes sense. My game is keep the ball down and get ahead of hitters. All it is for me is to execute each pitch with authority. I'm always going to give up more hits than innings because I'm a sinker ball pitcher. Ground ball needs to be a double play for the next hitter. Real adjustments is throwing more change ups ahead and behind in the count.
   Being far from home during the winter was an adjustment in itself for Kish, as was living in a foreign country, with different currency and driving rules.  I have long maintained this is a great arrangement for Blue Jays prospects - even though Canberra is much farther away from home than Toronto is for most of them, the experience of living in a country that's similar, but different from their own gives prospects a taste of what living in Canada might be like.  At Thanksgiving the Canberra players and staff had a turkey dinner down the 3rd Base line, and when I checked in with him in mid-December as Christmas approached, he admitted, "I'm not sure if I am a fan of the Australian Christmas. I need actual cold weather to make it feel like Christmas."   He did acknowledge, however,  that his arm felt great, and he was pleased was how he was pitching.  And the results are backing that up - he had a run of four scoreless outings around Christmas, before giving up a run against Perth, but came back the next day to pitch 2 1/3 scoreless innings.
  At 26, the clock is ticking very loudly on Kish's time in the Blue Jays organization.  Just the same, the fact that they kept him after releasing some of his fellow relievers like Griffin Murphy and Arik Sikula suggests that the club still believes in the sinkerballer.

Jordan Romano Update
   I also have a soft spot for Canadian prospects.  The game has grown so much at the grassroots level in this country, thanks mainly to the efforts of Baseball Canada and National Team coach Greg Hamilton.  
independentsportsnews.com photo
   Romano is from the Toronto suburb of Markham, about a 40-minute drive away from the CN Tower.  He pitched collegiately at Oral Roberts, and the Blue Jays took the hometown boy in the 10th round of 2014. The former Ontario Blue Jay had an excellent pro debut, striking out 33 in 26 innings for Bluefield.
  As spring training opened last year, Romano had a shot at earning a spot on Lansing's roster, but a torn UCL ended his season before it began, and he underwent Tommy John surgery at the end of March.  
   I've talked to him numerous times since the surgery, and he has been consistently upbeat with every check-in.  He began rehabbing the arm just a few weeks after the operation, but throwing would have to wait until the five month mark.  
   By July, he was really sounding positive.  He rehabbed his shoulder 3-4 hours per day, 4 times per week, as well as working on conditioning 6 times weekly.  This is key for Tommy John patients - the return of velocity is often attributed to the surgery, but it's the focused attention on mechanics, nutrition, and conditioning that allows pitchers to return to their pre-op form.
   By late August, Romano was finally throwing again, and by late September he was throwing 80 pitches from a distance of 45 feet three times per week, at 80% effort (although he admits he let loose with the odd throw, and it felt great).  Just this past week, he said he'll finally be throwing off of a mound by the weekend.
   If all goes well, he should be throwing breaking balls and facing live hitters by spring training, with a return to competition sometime after the end of March.  The most likely scenario would be to keep him in the warm weather at the Dunedin complex for at least the month of April, in order to see how his arm responds at extended spring training.  
    Like Kish and Noyalis, Romano has to be considered a long shot to reach the majors.  Still, for those of us who follow the minors as closely as they do MLB, they represent the heart and soul of MiLB.  None had much in the way of negotiating leverage when it came to signing their first contract; Kish and Noyalis likely received no bonus, and college senior Romano accepted a $25 000 bonus, which was almost $140 000 below slot.  Despite working for wages that are lower than a fast food worker's, even though they're among the top at their trade in North America, the dedication these players have never fails to impress.  The one thing all three have in common is their love of the game.

*********************************************************************************   If you write about Minor League Baseball yourself, and/or enjoying reading about it, I would encourage you to join the Minor League Baseball Bloggers group on Facebook.  There is a surprising amount of quality MiLB content out there by people from all walks of life.  

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