Tuesday, March 29, 2016

On Aaron Sanchez, The Year After Effect, and Smarter Pitch Counts

Toronto Blue Jays say pitcher Aaron Sanchez will be in starting rotation.
Butch Dill/USA Today Sports 
   With the news that Aaron Sanchez landed a spot in the Blue Jays starting rotation has come a concern for his young arm, and the innings that he may have to pitch as a starter this year.

   Blue Jays bloggers and media types alike have trotted out rules-of-thumb like the Year After Effect (sometimes mistakenly termed the Verducci effect) to explain how the Blue Jays will determine how many innings Sanchez, whose season high to this point is just over 130, will throw this season. Others suggest that Sanchez will be skipped at various times this year, some say that he will spend time in the bullpen in order to protect his young arm, and a few have even gone as far as to say that he will be shut down, a la Stephen Strasburg, when he reaches his supposed innings limit.

  All of this speculation ignores a basic fact - measures such as the Year After Effect, innings limits, and even to some extent simple pitch counts are very outdated means of monitoring a young arm. Many significant new advances have taken place over the past decade.

   One thing is certain:  the risk of a torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament, which can usually only be corrected by Tommy John surgery (the Jays tried rehab and Platelet-Rich Therapy with Roberto Osuna in 2013, with limited results, before submitting to Tommy John), drops significantly after 25 years of age, meaning that Sanchez is still in his prime years of risk.  Whatever measure the Blue Jays use, they will be carefully protecting him for at least a few more seasons.

   President Mark Shapiro as quietly been going about constructing a model organization in terms of player training and development since taking over last fall.  He has established the Blue Jays own version of a Centre for High Performance, hiring experts in strength and conditioning, nutrition, physiotherapy, and sport psychology to staff it.  As the team negotiates with the City of Dunedin on a new spring training agreement, a new, state-of-the-art training facility is likely a crucial part of those talks.  High Performance Centres are nothing new in the world of sport, but they are somewhat revolutionary in the world of baseball, and this no doubt has been a dream of the forward-thinking Shapiro for some time, but was not something his budget-conscious previous employer was willing to fund.

 No doubt part of the mandate for this new facet of the organization is injury prevention - something which is still just starting to gain traction in baseball, whose approach to arm injuries up to this point has been mostly restorative.  And the approaches they will use go far beyond the Year After Effect.

  The YAE has gotten a bit of a bad rap, but it, at least, was an attempt to make a systematic study of why UCLs were tearing.  The underlying assumption of it, as well as regular pitch counts, is that all innings and all pitches are created equal - and they're not.  A three-up, three-down, 8 pitch inning is not the same as one that approaches 30 (the magic number for Blue Jays pitching prospects - their day is over if they reach that limit in any inning), and a pitch with no runners on in a scoreless game in the 2nd is not the same in terms of leverage as one thrown with runners in scoring position in the 6th.  Pitcher fatigue is the culprit when it comes to injuries - the point at which a pitcher's mechanics become shoddy because he's tiring.  The out of sync mechanics that happen when a pitcher becomes tired are usually the cause of injury.

 But there are far more effective means of determining when a pitcher is becoming tired.  Smart Pitch Counts take into account the type of pitch and situation its thrown in, and come up with a score to determine pitcher fatigue.  Rany Jazayerli of Baseball Prospectus introduced the concept of Pitcher Abuse Points almost 20 years ago, and has reviewed and revised the formula to determine when a pitcher might be fatigued to the point of risking severe injury.

 Motus, which describes itself as "The Global Leader in Biomechanics for Sports Injury Prevention and Performance Analysis" has developed a compression sleeve with a sensor inside of it which can track the motion of a pitcher's arm as he delivers a pitch.  Many teams, including the Blue Jays, have been using it for that past few seasons.  The data generated by the sensor can be tracked by an iPhone app, but it sounds like the device is still a work in progress.  It's more than likely that some MLB teams have invested in some deeper proprietary analysis with this device.

 One thing seems to be unanimous throughout the baseball community:  poor mechanics are often the cause of pitcher injury.  Add to that a growing understanding of how to properly train and develop a pitcher, and you have the growth of training companies like Driveline Baseball, which uses weighted ball training and super slow motion video analysis to both build velocity and protect the arm through increased strength. Driveline uses a four step method to train pitchers, including training blocks dedicated to building arm strength, improving range of motion and force development, and "reorganizing proprioception" (basically, building what some refer to as muscle memory).  They are on the cutting edge of pitching research, but they are still virtually pioneers in the baseball world at the moment.

   That Sanchez was being considered for the bullpen was understandable, given his performance there, and the toll starting appeared to have taken on him last year.  As August Fagerstrom of Fangraphs has pointed out, Sanchez is a different pitcher this spring.  Not only has he started to transform his body (I'm impressed with the work he's done, but I am a bit of a cynic - it usually takes, about a year for a new training regimen to start showing significant results for elite athletes, not a three month off-season), but he's vastly improved his control - he's walked just 3 of the 78 hitters he's faced this spring.  Even with the presence of vet Gavin Floyd, Sanchez should have easily been in the mix for a starting job.  He's been one of the best pitchers in Florida this spring.  Perhaps the biggest factor has been improved command of his secondary pitches.  The club had to balance what was best for both the team this year and in the future, but this was absolutely the right move.  The Blue Jays have been accused in the past of babying their top young arms, but starting two years ago, they became very aggressive with their promotions.  There is always a fine line to be walked between challenging a young player and putting him a place where he's most likely to be successful, but Sanchez will never learn how to turn over a lineup from the back end of the bullpen.

   What does this all mean for Aaron Sanchez?  It's hard to say for certain, but the Blue Jays have likely been using technology to monitor his mechanics, in addition to the preventative work he did with his good buddy Marcus Stroman this off season.  As far as what the team's plan is for Sanchez, it's safe to say that the detail-oriented Shapiro has one in place.  It may involve skipping turns in the rotation, although it's hard to see him spend shuttling between the bullpen and the rotation this year - not with veteran swingman Jesse Chavez on the staff.  Manager John Gibbons did suggest to reporters that Sanchez will not spend the entire season as a starter, but did say that we wouldn't see a Strasburg-like shutdown of him, telling reporters “It’s not one of those things where he’s not going to pitch this year, like happened in another place a few years ago.”  If the plan is to move Sanchez to the bullpen, the stress that can be caused my warming up multiple times, and pitching in high leverage situations has to be considered.  Given the depth the Blue Jays have in the bullpen compared to a year ago (if everyone stays healthy), Sanchez may not need to make as much of a contribution as he did last year.
  Whatever the plan is for Sanchez, it will not be based just on pitch counts or innings.  GM Ross Atkins told the media that the new High-Performance division will play a large part in determining direction for Sanchez:
“It’s one thing for a general manager or a pitching coach to come up with a framework on how to monitor fatigue levels, It’s another thing for an expert in sports science to come up with a framework to measure that.”
   What will this new department use to determine when the risk of injury to Sanchez exceeds his value to the rotation?  Probably a combination of metrics - Smart Pitch counts, video analysis, and data from a Motus-like measuring device, as well as analytics involving pitch velocity and movement, as well as input from key personnel.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Dunedin and the Blue Jays: What Does the Future Hold?

“There are realities that may be charming about our current situation, but that charm is not going to bring wins, So we need to be in a situation where we modernize our facility and have the ability to ingrain a culture that’s player focused and player centered. They understand that. They’ve been very receptive, and we’re going to have to work hard and work together to get that done, but I’m optimistic that will happen.”   Mark Shapiro

   Nestled in a quiet section of Dunedin, a sleepy yet quaint Florida City of 36 000 on Florida's Gulf Coast, the Blue Jays spring training home of Florida Auto Exchange Stadium is indeed charming in many ways.  Spanish moss hangs languidly from trees along the streets surrounding the ballpark, which is just two blocks from Florida's intercoastal waterway, separating the mainland from the sandy tourist beaches of the barrier islands. FAES sits on the site of Grant Field, the Blue Jays original Florida home, dating back to their birth in 1977.
   Above all else, however, the stadium is outdated.

   With incoming Blue Jays President Mark Shapiro diligently going about building a state of the art organization when it comes to developing players in an integrated, scientific approach, FAES is no longer at that level, and with the Blue Jays agreement with Dunedin coming to an end in 2017, the clock is ticking.  Shapiro has expressed a preference for a "365-day home," which would provide:
“The tools that allow players to both be on the field more frequently and to allow them to recover more effectively, to train in bigger volumes. You don’t want them to be crowded."

 FAES has a number of strikes against it as an integrated spring training complex. For starters, the park is enclosed on all sides by a library to the south, and an elementary school to the east.  There's only room for the stadium and a practice field beside it.  A four field minor league complex is about a ten-minute drive away, while the trend for other teams is to house everything in one location, like the Phillies complex in Clearwater, about a half hour away:

   The current stadium site has little room for expansion.  The Jays did revamp the practice field, but the school and the library aren't going anywhere (although a friend close to the situation said the Librarian would be glad if they tore the library down, and built a more up to date one somewhere else).  The minor league fields are similarly land-locked, and there's precious little available space to start from scratch and build something new.  Then, there's the stadium itself.  At just over a quarter century of age, you wouldn't think its time is up, but with a spate of new parks built with the renaissance of the minor leagues in the early 90s, FAES is now one of the older parks in the minors. It has little parking space, limited concessions, and I've been told that on busy dates, when all the appliances are turned on, circuits blow routinely.  There are no luxury suites, the washrooms are on the small side, and there are few other amenities. Compared to a fan-friendly park like Bright House Field (with its tiki bar in left field), FAES pales considerably
   The funding question also comes into play.  The Jays turned down money from the State when they backed away from joining the Astros in a new shared complex in Palm Beach Garden on the Atlantic Coast of Florida.  Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski has suggested that the city might be able to access the tax the state charges on hotel rooms (the "heads and beds" tax), which for Piniellas County is 12% - not an unsubstantial source of revenue on tourists - anyone trying to book a hotel in Clearwater Beach this month can vouch for that.  The State of Florida has offered money to construct other minor league complexes, and the City no doubt hopes to be in line for some funding, which would be said to be in the $15 million range.  
   The Blue Jays, for their part, have been relatively quiet on the subject.  Former President Paul Beeston made all the right noises about keeping the team in town, while quietly trying to work out a deal to move in with the Astros.  That source I mentioned earlier said that the city had offered to build a dormitory to house players at the minor league complex, but the team responded that they're not in the hotel business.  
   Shapiro oversaw the relocation of the Indians from nearby Winter Haven's Chain of Links Park in 2008 for Arizona.  Shaprio's comment at the time was revealing:
Gracious in goodbye, Indians General Manager Mark Shapiro said the club appreciated the convenience of Florida and Winter Haven's support through the years. But what the team needs neither Winter Haven nor any other city in Florida was willing to provide: a state-of-the-art complex where players train, improve and mend year-round.  What intimate Chain of Lakes, built for the Red Sox in 1966, offers in nostalgia and charm, it lacks in what Shapiro often describes as "first-division resources."
    After 15 years in Winter Haven, the Indians left Florida (where they had trained since World War II) for a new, $76 million state-of-the-art facility in Goodyear, which they share with the Reds. Unlike the current situation with Dunedin, it seems that relations between the two sides had seriously deteriorated.
   Could the Blue Jays similarly bolt for the desert?   It seems possible.  At the same time, there is more than a small amount of history between the team and Dunedin, the only spring training home the team has ever known.  Then there's the matter of distance:  Toronto to Tampa non-stop is just under three hours; Toronto to Phoenix is about five.  And the cost per return flight is about $400 more.  Certainly, this will not stop the most diehard and affluent of Blue Jays fans, but it will significantly limit access to their favourite team during March.  Shapiro took a bit of a beating this off-season from fans and some corners of the Toronto media, and while on the surface he seems oblivious to it, he has to know that such a move, while helping to give the team a competitive advantage, would hurt the Blue Jays brand at the same time.
   And then there is the economic impact, estimated to be at around $80 million for the Dunedin area, which more than justifies the $50 million price tag of a new facility to Mayor Ward Bujalski.

  For their part, the Blue Jays have said little aside from Shapiro's comments to reporters at the outset of spring training.  Rumoured that they may be looking at partnering with the Braves, who are looking to leave their home at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, Shapiro claimed:

“Right now we’re trying to get a deal done with Dunedin. If it gets to a point where we’re searching, that search will be wide. We’d cast a net everywhere there would be and we’d look at all alternatives, but as of right now I think our best chance to get a deal done here is to focus on getting a deal done, singularly, and not to be out there simultaneously looking for alternatives.”

   Complicating matters somewhat is that City Manager Rob DiSpirito, who headed talks with the Blue Jays on Dunedin's behalf, resigned in January after the City Commission unsuccessfully tried to fire him.
   Word came from Jeff Blair today that he expects the Jays to have a deal in place with Dunedin by the end of the season.  Both sides appear to agree that upgrading the stadium site to become the focal point of this training and rehabilitation center, but there does appear to be a willingness to modernize the minor league complex, and create a  "first-division resource."
   The political will appears to be there on the part of the City, and the Jays seem to be content to stay if facilities to their liking are built - the questions now become how much will each side be willing to pay, and where will the City come up with the funding?

Friday, March 18, 2016

Canadian Juniors Face Off with Blue Jays

    A fuzzy-cheeked group of young Canadian ballplayers received what was likely the thrill of their young lives when they faced off against a lineup comprised largely of Canadian Blue Jays prospects at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin this week.
   As might be expected, the Canadian Junior National Team was no match for the older and more experienced Jays, losing 10-0, and managing only one baserunner on the day.
   Still, it was an excellent experience for the youngsters, and it was great to see several Canadian-raised Jays prospects get a chance to shine in front of a crowd of just over 3000.

   For the Junior Nats, the spotlight was on C Andrew Yerzy, widely expected to be the first Canadian high schooler taken in the June draft.  The 6'3"/210 Yerzy looks every bit the athletic, Matt Wieters-type of receiver.  He, like his teammates, was overmatched by major league offspeed pitches on the day, but his erratic pitching staff gave him ample opportunity to demonstrate his excellent pitch-blocking skills.  The Blue Jays showed Yerzy's arm little mercy, as leadoff hitter Dalton Pompey took off on the first pitch after leading the game off with a single.  Pompey had an excellent jump, as the Canadian Juniors' pitching staff had some trouble holding runners, and Yerzy rushed his throw, sailing it into centrefield as Pompey scampered for 3rd.  Yerzy did seem to have some concentration lapses with some passed balls, but in fairness to him, he was out there for a long time in the early innings.  Still, Yerzy demonstrates excellent athletcisicm, and the York Mills Collegiate student will be a far better player a year from now.
Andrew Yerzy

   RHP and fellow Torontonian Sam Turcotte actually struck out the side in the 8th, sandwiched around a walk, single, and line drive off the bat of D.J. Davis that the Canadian leftfielder made a gambling leap on and missed, allowing Davis to move all the way to 3rd.  Turcotte only topped 87 with his fastball,  but his size (6'5") gives his him great extension and late life on it, and it's easy to project more velo if he's drafted in June.  Turcotte was tutored in the art of the change up by former Jay Paul Quantrill, and he used it effectively.

Sam Turcotte

  On the Blue Jays side, a couple of players stood out.  RHP Tom Robson from Ladner BC, who missed much of 2015 recovering from Tommy John surgery, hit 96 with his fastball, and mowed through the Juniors' lineup, throwing 3 perfect innings, striking out 3, and needing about 25 pitches to do so.  There's every chance this is your breakout Blue Jays prospect this year.

Tom Robson
   Toronto's own Connor Panas doubled, homered, and walked, hitting a pair of balls hard, and showing a great approach at the plate.  The 9th round pick in last year's draft is making a strong case for opening the year in full season ball with Lansing.  
Connor Panas

   Yet another Torontonian, Mattingly Romanin, son of the Jays' front office employee Mal Romanin, made up for a baserunning gaffe - Romanin came into the game as a pinch runner, but was doubled off of first when he took off for 2nd on a flyball.  In his first AB a few innings later, Romanin crushed a one-hop double off of the centrefield wall.

Mattingly Romanin
   Finally, crafty lefty Shane Dawson showed the Juniors a mix of speed changes, location, and pitch sequencing that they've likely never seen before, striking out 5 of the 6 hitters he faced over the final two innings.
Shane Dawson

DJ Davis

   I had originally planned to head a few blocks east to the Jays minor league complex to catch the afternoon inter-squad games that would be played there, but changed my mind at the last moment, and decided to take this game in.  It was a great opportunity to see the young Canadian players on both sides in action.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Blue Jays/Phillies Top Prospects Duel in Florida

It was a warm (by Florida standards - hot for a guy from significantly north of there) March Tuesday afternoon when the Blue Jays and Phillies AA teams squared off for a pair of games on adjacent fields at the Phillies minor league complex.
   A galaxy of top prospects did battle:  for the Jays, Sean Reid-Foley, Rowdy Tellez, Anthony Alford, DJ Davis, Conner Greene, and Richard Urena were in action.  For the Phillies, Mark Appel, Roman Quinn, Nick Williams, and J.P Crawford were in the lineup.  For good measure, Ryan Howard took a few swings.
   For me, I was thrilled to see all of these players, and to meet in person my fellow blogger and Tweep +baseballbetsy and her husband @BaseballRoss.  The couple live in Dunedin, and follow Blue Jays and Phillies minor leaguers who play out of the local complexes avidly.
  It was grass roots baseball - no scoreboard, just a handful of fans, and no walk-up music.

  Reid-Foley showed some streamlined mechanics from last season.  As a result, he pounded the bottom half of the strike zone consistently, and matched up well against Howard, getting him to pop out.  Another player who stood out as well was UT David Harris, who has not stopped hitting since Australia, barreling up a couple of balls on the day.  Davis, whose reads in CF have been questioned,  made three fantastic plays:  a pair of diving grabs on sinking liners to save runs, and a reaching grab of a liner just shy of the warning track that would have meant extra bases.  Utilityman Jason Lebelbijian took over from Urena at SS halfway through the game, and ranged far into the hole behind 3rd, failing to nab the runner at 1st, but saving a run in the process, and then snaring a screaming bad-hop liner on the bounce before firing to Ryan McBroom at 1st for the out. Former Jay Jimmy Cordero (who went to the Phils in the Ben Revere deal) flashed what was likely triple digit velo, but had command issues, wild pitching Harris in to score after he had lined a double down the left field line.  
   On the other field, Greene pitched well, but gave up a towering Home Run to minor league veteran Jake Fox.  Not to be outdone, Tellez (whose size really has to be viewed close up to be appreciated) just missed clearing the 30-foot high batter's eye in straightaway center, settling for a double, before homering against Appel in his next AB.  
Baseball America video

I should also add that whoever was shooting video at the adjoining field was about 8 feet away from where I was standing.  

   Alford walked a pair of times, and beat out an infield single late in the game.  Righthander Will Browning had righthanded hitters making momentary bailing motions, but gave up some rockets to left-handed hitters in the 9th.
   It's the smallest of sample sizes, and because there was a need to expand the roster because two games were happening at once, so we shouldn't read anything into the Blue Jays prospects who played in this game. New Hampshire may not be on the plane ticket some of them receive when spring training ends.


Sean Reid-Foley

Tim Mayza
Richie Urena

Jimmy Cordero

    One final note:  Besty and Ross are very fond of the young Latin players, and make every effort to greet them and speak Spanish with them.  Most of these kids have a limited future in the game, and most sign for little in the way of a bonus.  Baseball is a possible way out of poverty for them, but it's a long shot.  Betsy told me how some of them found an old bike at the end of someone's driveway, obviously destined for the dump.  The seat had all worn away, and the bike was in rough shape, but the players fixed it up and took great pride in riding it.
  Betsy and Ross had to leave early, but I kept my spot along the backstop, on the 3rd base side of home. I was soon surrounded by a group of these young Dominicans.  I enjoyed their banter (which revolved around girls, and good-natured teasing) with my extremely limited Spanish.  I was alarmed, however, when a tin of chewing tobacco was passed among them.  MLB tried unsuccessfully to ban it, and now it seems to be up to individual cities to pass an edict against it, something I don't see happening in major cities in Florida anytime soon.  Apparently, the use of chewing tobacco with these players is fairly common.  It's possible that they've never heard of Tony Gwynn, but someone should tell them.  

Friday, March 11, 2016

Draft Update: Still Incredibly Early Edition

Will Benson
    The Blue Jays have the 23rd overall selection in the first round of this June's amatuer draft.
They also have the 57th pick (as a result of not coming to terms with Florida HS P Brady Singer), as well as their own at 66.

    Baseball America released their updated Top 100 draft prospects rankings yesterday, and while this list is notable only in its fluidity, it's interesting to see how the list changes and evolves from month to month.
     The Top 10 rankings really aren't of a lot of interest to Blue Jays fans, as those players will likely be off the board once it comes time for Toronto to pick, but it is interesting to watch how names rise and fall over the course of the spring.  The College baseball season is a couple of weeks old, and high school baseball has just started in the warmer states.  The scouting season has just begun.
     BA's top prospect so far is New Jersey HS LHP Jason Groome, who has been at or near the top of most lists.  Tennessee 3B Nick Senzel has rocketed up the rankings to the second spot on BA's list, mainly thanks to a breakout summer season in the Cape Cod League, and a sizzling start to the collegiate campaign.

    Under former GM Alex Anthopoulos, the Blue Jays coveted projection, particularly in the form of high school pitchers.  Even though much of their amateur scouting staff remains intact, it remains to be seen if there will be variance from that draft strategy with the new regime.  The Indians record when it came to first round picks under Shapiro has been dismal with the exception of Francisco Lindor, so it will be interesting to see if the new administration will allow the scouting department to operate as they have in the past.  One thing may change - Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins have shown an aversion to risk, so there may not be as much rolling of the dice on draft day.  You can't hold them to one draft, but the Indians and 21 other teams passed on Marcus Stroman in 2012.  It could be argued that they were willing to roll the dice with rehabbing Brady Aiken last year.  So, perhaps there's a good chance that the amateur scouting staff will go about their business as usual this spring.

   Last post, I looked at 3 players who were initially ranked in the 20s.  I'll update their progress, then profile a few other players who are ranked in that range.

RHP Cal Quantrill, Stanford
   The son of the former Blue Jay has yet to pitch this season, thanks to Tommy John surgery last spring, and won't take the mound in game action until late April or early May.  If he returns without missing a beat, he's likely to go in the top dozen or so picks; if he struggles, he may still be available. The bloodlines, advanced feel for pitching, and the projection make him an ideal pick if he's still on the board.

RHP Kyle Funkhouser, Louisville
   Selected 35th overall by the Dodgers last year, Funkhouser opted to return for his senior year.  So far, he's done little to reverse the slide that saw him fall out of the top half of the first round.  According to BA, his fastball was down to 88-91, his command was below average, and his offspeed pitches lacked consistency.
   He may well be available at 23, but unless there's a remarkable turnaround, it's hard to see Toronto selecting him.

RHP Forrest Whitley, Texas HS
   The 6'7" Whitley has hit 97 with his fastball, and oozes projection.  He also broke his left thumb last fall.  Keith Law of ESPN suggests the Tigers would pick him 9th overall.  He still remains in the 20s, but that velo may bump him up the list once March turns into April.

And now for a couple of players who are currently ranked in the 20s....

OF/1B Will Benson, Georgia HS
   The 6'5" Duke commit draws comparisons to fellow Georgian Jason Heyward.  Here are a couple of scouting notes:

Moves well in the outfield, strong arm.  
Agile around the bag at first.
Hands low at the plate, feet slightly wider than shoulder length. 
Slight leg kick.
Gets bat through the zone with excellent bat speed.
Pull side approach, ambushes balls on the inner half, not as fluid on the outer half and on offspeed where he feels for the ball a bit.
Approach will need to be refined on outer half. 

   Here's a glimpse of some of that bat speed:

RHP Reggie Lawson, California HS
   Lawson was deemed a scout's favourite last summer, with a fastball that touched 95, and nice, easy, and loose arm action.
   Law had a look at Lawson in action last weekend, and noted that while the velo is still there, his delivery seems to have taken a step backward.  His fastball was barreled up a few times because he offered little deception, and had trouble keeping the pitch down.  His curve flashed as a potentially plus pitch.
   Lawson is athletic and projectable, but Law was concerned that his delivery had regressed from just under a year ago.  Law thinks the mechanics could be easily fixed once he's in pro ball.
   Lawson seems to be a project at this point, which could keep him in the 20s.

   There is every chance that the Blue Jays will not take any of these players, of course, but it still helps to provide some interest.  Stanford and Louisville games can both be found online, making following the college players a little easier.  The players I've identified so far seem to me to be the type the Blue Jays like to follow, and I'll keep tabs on them in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Blue Jays "Catcher of the Future": Blessing or Curse?

Max Pentecost MLB Prospect Portal Photo
     In their second year of existence in 1978, the Blue Jays selected Texas high school Catcher Brian Milner in the 7th round of the June draft.  A week after the draft, like many top picks, Milner was brought to Toronto to work out and see the city.  The fledgling Jays were so thin at the position that they decided to put Milner behind the plate for a couple of games (which may have been part of his signing deal in those pre-service time concern days).  He went 4-9 in the two games, hitting a triple and driving a pair of runs before heading west to Medicine Hat for rookie ball.  The future seemed very bright for the first Catcher in MLB history to be brought directly to the big leagues after the draft.
    Brian Milner was the first Blue Jay to acquire the "Catcher of the Future" label.
    Four years later, Milner's career was over, sidelined by injury and inconsistency.  Milner did not advance beyond AA. He remains the youngest player in club history, and the first "Catcher of the Future," who did not pan out.
   He would not be the last.

     Josh Phelps.  Curtis Thigpen.   Ryan Bundy.  J.P. Arencibia.  A.J. Jimenez.  Danny Jansen.  Max Pentecost......  

     The list of Catchers the Blue Jays have drafted since 1994 is quite staggering.  86 in all have been taken, but their sum total of major league experience in a Toronto uniform is just over 400 games, most of them by Arencibia.
    Is that "Catcher of the Future" label a blessing or a curse?  Why has it been so hard for Toronto to develop a home-grown player at this position?  Some of the answers lie in the very nature of the position, and the perils of drafting high school catchers.

Defence First
   Modern-day analytics have taught us more and more about the value of a premium catcher.  In the past, we may have thought mostly about a Catcher's ability to control the opposition running game as his chief defensive responsibility.  Now, we've learned that the Pitcher is at least equally as responsible for that, and that a Catcher's true value lies in his ability to frame pitches, block pitches in the dirt, and handle a pitching staff.  It has evolved into primarily a defence-first position;  you have to look no further than the 5 year/$85 million contract the Blue Jays gave Russell Martin prior to 2015.  Martin is no slouch with the bat, but make no mistake:  the work he did in leading the Pirates to their first post-season appearance in 20 years had everything to do with his skills behind the plate.
   So when a minor league player does show promise with the bat, the tendency has been to move him from the position, likely so as to not harm his production.  Bryce Harper caught all throughout high school and junior college before being drafted as an OF.  Wil Myers was behind the plate for a couple of minor league seasons, before being moved to the OF in order to get his bat to the major leagues faster.  Joey Votto and Jayson Werth were drafted as Catchers, but were moved off the position.  The Blue Jays own Josh Donaldson was drafted as a Catcher by the Cubs.  2014 1st rounders Kyle Schwarber and Alex Jackson didn't last much beyond a full season behind the plate.
   Of course, the opposite can happen as well.  Martin was drafted as a 3rd Baseman by the Dodgers, who converted him to Catching a year after his pro debut.
   The Blue Jays, for their part, have moved few players off the position once they've drafted them. Pentecost won't be Catching at the start of this season, but that owes more to his injury history than anything else.  The plan, for now, is to move him back once his surgically repaired shoulder allows him to.

Demands of the Position
   Sitting in an unnatural position for a couple of hours a day.  Dealing with foul tips.  Getting crossed up with the pitcher, who throws a fastball when you called for an off-speed pitch, leaving you exposed.  Trying to throw runners out without necessarily having time to plant properly, putting added stress on the shoulder.
   These are just some of the hazards Catchers face.
   Then there's what happened to Jansen.

  Pentecost's injury history is already well known, although he seems to finally be on the road to recovery. Jimenez had his career derailed by Tommy John surgery and other injury issues. And Jansen has had a difficult time staying healthy in his brief career - a knee injury sidelined him for half a (short) season in 2014. The development of all three have been affected, to varying degrees, by the demanding nature of the position.  Missed development time can be hard to make up.  

 Developing a Catcher Takes Time
 There are so many facets of the position to learn.  It's not unusual to see young arms or bats accelerate through a minor league system, but you rarely see a Catcher do so - especially one drafted out of high school.  Of all the positions on a baseball diamond, it's the position in most need of reps.  Estimates vary, but on average it takes several hundred minor league games for a Catcher to fully polish all of his receiving skills, as well as learn how to work with pitchers,  coaxing outs from them on days when they might not have their best stuff.
  At the moment, Jansen may be the most promising of the above trio.  Jimenez has yet to prove that he can hit at anything beyond a marginal major league level, and Pentecost's defence, which hardly drew rave reviews in college, has no doubt suffered as a result of his lost playing time.  But given the Jays one step at a time development approach, the earliest we might see Jansen (if he stays healthy) is 2018, or even 2019 - if at all.
  Developing a Catcher takes time, but because it's a long process, it increases the chance of injury.  Which sets back development.

Drafting a High School Catcher is Risky
   High School Catchers drafted since 2005 have produced a total of about 23 Wins Above Replacement, over half of that by Derek Norris and Yonder Alonso.  That's just not a great track record.
  Here are the leaders over the past decade-plus amongst high school Catchers:

NumNameYear DraftedCareer fWARRound Drafted
1Brian McCann200229.92
2Jarrod Saltalamacchia20038.01
3A.J Pierzynski199424.63
4Derek Norris20073.84
5Travis d'Arnaud2007-0.21
6Devin Mesoraco20071.91
SBNation Chart

  The high water mark for high school catchers was Joe Mauer, drafted by the Twins in 2001.  Mauer was the exception to the rule - a strong defensive backstop who at one time could win batting titles.  Time took its toll on Mauer, however, and he hasn't been behind the plate since 2013.  He's also a shell of his former self at the plate.  
  24 High School Catchers have been taken in the 1st round since Mauer in 2001, and Mesoraco leads them in WAR.  With all due respect, he's a decent MLB player, but it's hard to justify him as a 1st round pick.  D'Arnaud will in all likelihood pass him before long, but his six-year minor league apprenticeship (which had its share of injuries) reinforces the notion that developing a Catcher, especially one drafted out of High School, can take a long time.
   Take the case of Reese McGuire, drafted by the Pirates.  Drafted in the 1st round (14th overall) by Pittsburgh in 2013, he was labeled "A Natural" behind the plate, and was a Top 100 prospect in the eyes of Baseball America in 2013 (#81), and 2014 (#97).  He's nowhere to be found on that list this year, and wasn't even ranked a Top 20 Catcher by BA.  McGuire is still lauded for his defensive skills, but the concerns about his bat have grown every year.  He's still expected to be in the majors by 2017, but it's interesting how relatively quickly the shine came off of his top prospect label.
   A marked sign of the lack of depth of Catching prospects is that Penetcost, who has all of 109 Plate Appearances since being drafted in 2014 (and hasn't played a game in almost 20 months) has been named in the bottom half of a number of Top 20 Catching prospect lists.
   BA did a study about how many drafted players wind up in the Major Leagues. and found that about 17% of all players drafted between 1987 and 2008 for at least one game:

1987-2008 Drafts (22)
1st supp27326613952.34215.82.6

   For Catchers drafted out of high school, that total would likely be even lower.  

  So, is that label one that blesses Blue Jays Catching prospects, or dooms them to an uncertain future?
   The label does ignore several facts, such as:
-the sheer volume of Catchers needed to fill out minor league rosters means that many will be called, few will be chosen.  
-developing a Catcher takes a long time - injuries, position switches, and other factors can interrupt or delay a prospect's development.  The gestation period for a Major League Catcher is likely longer than any other position.

 Should we view Jimenez, who is at this point likely a backup player at best, like another "Catcher of the Future," Robinzon Diaz (who was re-signed by the Jays this week?) as a failed COF?  
   No, because maybe it wasn't fair to put that label on him in the first place, just as it was with many other young Catchers.  Granted, he did put up some decent numbers in the lower minors, but when the competition became tougher at AA/AAA, he did not experience the same success at the plate. and the injuries caused by the wear and tear of catching didn't help, either.  Perhaps the media is in such a rush to anoint future saviours that they put labels on players before it's really fair or accurate to do so.  
  We should also consider that during the J.P. Ricciardi era, the emphasis for high draft picks was signability, not necessarily projection,  The Anthopoulos regime showed a fondness for athletic high school pitchers.  Drafting and waiting for a high school catcher was not necessarily a top priority.

  The Blue Jays, for the most part, have been an effective developer of players, but the Catching position is a different story.  The best player they have developed and drafted at the position was arguably Pat Borders  Maybe Pentecost of Jansen will change that, but they both have had - and will still have - obstacles to overcome.  In addition to trying to stay healthy, it will not be a surprise if Pentecost's offence forces him off of the position.  Jansen shows promise - he's already shown good pitch-framing and blocking skills, and the organization thought enough of him to have him handle the rehab start of Marcus Stroman last August, but on top of his own health concerns is that he hasn't proven that he can hit enough to advance to the majors.  

 And so the search for the Catcher of the Future continues.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Conner Greene Offers a Glimpse of the Future

Rocket Sports photo
Righthander Conner Greene made his spring training MLB debut on Saturday, striking out 3 of the 4 batters he faced in a one-inning relief stint against the Phillies.

  If there has been a constant in terms of player development and drafting during the reign for former GM Alex Anthopoulos, it has been that of the tall, lean, and athletic high school pitcher.  Greene, Aaron Sanchez, Noah Syndergaard, Daniel Norris, and Jon Harris are just a few of that type of pitcher acquired during the Anthopoulos era.  Certainly, they were able to step outside of that box to sign a Roberto Osuna and draft a Marcus Stroman, because the organization values projection above all else.
  When push has come to shove, however, the tall pitcher (who can change a batter's view of a pitch, possibly forcing him to lose the ability to track it thanks to its downward plane), who is lean (to better withstand the rigours of pitching 175-200 innings), and athletic (in order to consistently repeat his delivery and field his position) is what the Blue Jays coveted.
   Greene fits that profile to a T.  The Californian was drafted in the 7th round of 2013, and didn't make his full-season debut until last year - and what a debut it was, as Greene pitched well at 3 levels.  Hitting his innings limit meant that he wasn't sent to the Arizona Fall League for some extra reps against elite competition.
   In his inning of work, Greene did not face any legit MLB bats, but he worked well down in the zone, hitting 98 with his fastball at one point.  He went up against Nick Williams, the Phillies' 4th-ranked prospect, as well as journeymen Emmanuel Burriss and J.P. Arencibia, and non-prospect Ryan Jackson.  Greene walked Arencibia, and showed that his changeup may still need some refining, as the former Jay tomahawked one into the left field stands.   That was the only loud contact Greene gave up though, which is more in keeping with his projection as a ground ball machine. Striking out the side was a bit out of character - even though Greene struggles with his command from time to time, he's often only a pitch away from getting an inning-ending double play ball.

  I know that I can be rough on Blue Jays TV analyst Buck Martinez, who often appears to be spouting off whatever research his producers gave him, but he offered some good insights into Greene during the broadcast.  Martinez mentioned how Greene played all nine positions on his high school team, and described his athleticism as he watched Greene kick a soccer ball around before the game with Jose Bautista.  As a former Catcher, Buck can probably identify a good pitching prospect as well as anyone, and it was obvious that he sees one in Greene.

  How about some GIFs of Greene's performance?
His strikeout of Williams:

 A.J. Jimenez frames a strike beautifully against Arencibia:

The change that Arencibia was early on:

   Greene finished his season at New Hampshire, and with the veteran starting rotation that has been assembled at Buffalo, it's likely he returns to New England to begin this season. His development last year was no doubt accelerated by the trading spree Anthopoulos went on last July, but he still may have finished up at AA given his success in High A.
    That mid-rotation starter ceiling is looking more and more likely, although Greene still has a few things to work on, namely command of his secondaries like that change.  Against more discerning MLB hitters, that change he left out over the plate against Arencibia might have been hit to Kissimmee.