Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Jay Bruce and "Optimal Defensive Positioning"



"Optimal defensive positioning", well, that's what the Astros call it, everyone else knows it as "defensive shifting", is all the rage these days. And, one hitter who sees a ton of it is Jay Bruce.

The point of "optimal positioning" is to increase the conversion rate on balls-in-play. In theory, if you positioning your infielders where a hitter is more likely to hit the ball, then more plays will be converted into outs. In short, it's a way to reduce a hitter's "batting average on balls in play."

The league-wide increase in pitcher velocity is driving an increase in strikeouts. More strikeouts means fewer balls in play. So, that's one way to reduce offense, simply limit the opposition's ability to put the ball in play. The other way to attack offense is to improve your conversion rate on the remaining balls-in-play.

Increasing pitcher velocity and the increasing use of "optimal positioning" are two reasons why offense is in decline around Major League Baseball. The former reduces the number of balls-in-play, the latter improves the conversion rate on balls-in-play.

Of course, if a hitter manages to poke one the other way for a base hit to beat the shift, then the emotional reaction from fans will be swift. Fans are emotional. Fans are passionate. It's easier for fans to appreciate times when the shift doesn't work than those times when it does. Even so, on some hitters, it's an absolute no-brainer. Unfortunately, Jay Bruce is one such hitter.


Here's a look at Jay Bruce's spray charts, courtesy of BrooksBaseball, for the entire 2012 season, the entire 2013 season, and the first half of 2014, pay particular attention to the green dots:




Jay Bruce 2012






Jay Bruce 2013






Jay Bruce (1st Half) 2014 






When you see the data laid out like this, it's abundantly clear why teams are constantly shifting on Jay Bruce. And, it's abundantly clear why organizations can brush off fan reaction to a few singles poked the opposite way to beat the shift. Also, you can see why the idea that Jay Bruce can drop a few bunts down the third baseline to encourage teams to stop shifting against him is a complete non-starter.

In fact, judging by the "green dot phenomena" going on in those spray charts, you could argue that teams could be MORE extreme in their shifting on Jay Bruce. The 2014 chart only represents half of the season, but it's eye-popping. Based on that chart, it looks like Jay Bruce has ONLY HIT 6 GROUND BALLS to the left-side of the field so far in 2014.

Why would you position your infielders on the left side of the field if he never hits it over there???

This begs the obvious question: just how significant will the hit be on Jay Bruce's batting-average-on-balls-in-play and, thus, his overall batting line?

There definitely WILL be a hit on his batting average, it's just a question of how BIG. Regardless, the ground balls hit by Jay Bruce are now the low-hanging fruit for any organization willing to implement "optimal positioning", which begs another question: how detrimental will the league-wide use of "optimal positioning" be to Jay Bruce's career?

Over the last week, I started to get the feeling that the Reds were evolving; that this was becoming Todd Frazier's, Billy Hamilton's, and Devin Mesoraco's team; that Joey Votto and Jay Bruce were becoming complimentary, secondary players. Joey Votto is being undone by injury; maybe Jay Bruce is being undone by defensive positioning.

Baseball is a game of adjustments. It'll be interesting to see if front offices, in response to "optimal positioning", start to place greater and greater value on hitters who use the entire field. If so, that's necessarily a move away from hitters like Jay Bruce.



Wednesday, July 2, 2014

2014 Top Prospect List: #15 Seth Mejias-Brean, 3b

Courtesy: MILB.com

SETH MEJIAS-BREAN
DOB: 1/4/1992
HEIGHT: 6-2, WEIGHT: 216, B/T: R/R


In a system short on infield prospects, Seth Mejias-Brean is one of the best, though that may be a more telling comment on the system than the player. Mejias-Brean is more likely to be a complimentary player than an impact talent. Still, he brings a disciplined offensive approach, which is something sorely lacking in the system.



AMATEUR CAREER AND DRAFT HISTORY

Seth earned 10 varsity letters during his athletic career at Cienega High School, including 4 in baseball, 3 in basketball, and 3 in football, and was a member of the National Honors Society. Being a good student and a well-rounded athlete punched his ticket to the University of Arizona where he ultimately helped the Wildcats win the College World Series in 2012.


Courtesy: Unknown


In his three years of college ball, SMB hit:  

2010: .310/.363/.384/.747 with 1 HR and 40/17 K/BB in 203 ABs
2011: .313/.372/.379/.752 with 0 HR and 29/14 K/BB in 195 ABs
2012: .355/.401/.479/.880 with 1 HR and 23/22 K/BB in 265 ABs

Obviously, he never had a problem hitting for average. His sophomore season (2011) was plagued by a wrist injury, which caused a 3-for-36 stretch and hampered his power production. However, he bounced back in his junior season with across the board improvement, elevating his prospect profile.

The issue with Seth was a lack of power production, causing him to land in the 8th round of the 2012 draft, where the Reds selected him with the 262nd overall pick.


PROFESSIONAL CAREER

The Reds have kept Mejias-Brean on a deliberate, conservative development path, causing him to be older than the competition at many of his minor league stops, an important bit of context to keep in mind. After signing, he joined the rookie Pioneer League Billings Mustangs to finish out the 2012 season.

For the Mustangs, SMB hit a robust .313/.389/.536/.925 with 8 homers, 6 steals, and a 29/21 K/BB ratio over 179 ABs. Sure, he had the "age vs. level" advantage, but it was a strong performance level at the tail end of a long, draining collegiate baseball season.

To start out the 2013 season, SMB was sent to low-A Dayton. For the Dragons, he hit .305/.381/.453/.834 with 10 homers and an 83/55 K/BB ratio over 479 ABs and 127 games. His performance level earned him a late season promotion to high-A Bakersfield to finish up the season. For the Blaze, SMB hit .308/.308/.615/.923 with 1 homer and a 0/0 K/BB ratio over 13 ABs and 3 games.

SMB had a return engagement with high-A Bakersfield to start the 2014 season, hitting .300/.396/.476/.872 with 11 homers and a 49/44 K/BB ratio over 267 ABs and 69 games. Bakersfield is a very friendly hitting environment and SMB's power certainly got a boost from park effects. Still, the strikeout-to-walk ratio was stellar and he showed the ability to drive the ball. He earned a promotion to his current home, double-A Pensacola Blue Wahoos.

The promotion to double-A is frequently cited as the most challenging, so far SMB has hit .242/.419/.333/.752 with 1 homer and 3/9 K/BB ratio over 33 ABs.


The common theme for SMB: hitting .300 or better at every level with solid K/BB ratios.

The common concern on SMB: Whether there's enough power production to his game.



SWING MECHANICS 

Early in his professional career, the Reds changed SMB's swing, encouraging him to stand taller, more effectively bringing his legs into the swing. Incorporating his lower-half more effectively into the swing has improved his ability to drive the ball, rather than just spray it around the yard.

SMB is very spread out at the plate, using a wider than shoulder-width stance. To trigger his weight transfer, he uses two different strides. The first variation is a two piece stride, drawing his lead foot back, tapping it, and then striding forward to meet the pitch. The second variation involves minimal movement, mostly just lifting up the heel of his front foot and setting it right back down. The first variation is typically used early in the count, the second variation later in the count when he wants to shorten up.

In his pre-pitch stance, SMB holds his hands up close to his right ear and uses a small bat waggle. The higher hand position can add length to the swing, as the bat has to travel farther to reach the point of impact. However, SMB does an exceptional job of dropping his hands (from left photos to right photos) during the load to get into better hitting position.
































The effective loading of his hands makes it easier and quicker for him to get into the slot position (see photos below: dropping back elbow into back hip to shorten swing path and maximize rotational force), ensuring that he's short to the ball.



















The mantra in hitting is that the swing should be "short to" and "long through". SMB definitely lives up to the former part, which ensures a healthy contact rate. However, the long through deals with extension and power, areas where SMB's swing isn't as strong.

SMB's swing and approach are contact-oriented, which is evident when looking at the components of his swing that should be generating power. SMB's swing is inconsistent, it can be fundamentally sound or it can be undermined by flaws that creep in and undermine his ability to drive the ball with authority.

A few of the concerns I have over SMB's swing and his ability to generate power are as follows:

1) Occasionally hits off the back leg, as his weight doesn't fully transfer to the front side due to limited hip rotation and lower body drive, this likely occurs when he uses the no-stride variation of his swing,

2) Occasionally hits against a flexed, rather than firm, front leg, which causes the hips to slide forward, rather than rotate, undercutting the rotational force generated by the swing, probably a byproduct of an ineffective weight transfer, and

3) His swing can get stiff and top-hand heavy, giving the appearance that he's trying to muscle the ball with the upper body rather than letting the hip-rotation whip the bat through the hitting zone.


These swing flaws don't show up all the time and SMB can and does show the ability to drive the ball to all fields. He'll just need to strike the proper balance between being short for contact and long for power; knowing when to dial it down and when to let it rip.

Here's a look at SMB in action, courtesy of RedsMinorLeagues on YouTube:







Overall, SMB does a nice job controlling the strike zone and has a strong contact rate. However, his swing makes it difficult to project a power ceiling for him that's anything more than average. And, of course, not many prospects reach their max projection, instead landing somewhere short of it.

Still, SMB has flashed power to all fields and it wouldn't surprise me if he were to carry it into game action a little more consistently.


DEFENSE AND POSITIONAL VALUE 

Mejias-Brean is a good defensive player. Unfortunately, due to the presence of Tanner Rahier on the roster, SMB spent 79 games at first base for low-A Dayton in 2013. Does that say something about the prospect pecking order? Maybe. Do teams shift better prospects to accommodate lesser ones? Maybe.

Regardless, SMB's bat won't play at 1b, so time spent there is largely a waste unless he lands in a utility role. Unless and until that proves necessary, he'd ideally be getting as many reps as possible at 3b, which is where he needs to stick on the defensive spectrum in order to have appreciable value.

In the field, SMB moves well. His athleticism and agility combine to give him good range and footwork. The range allows him to reach a high percentage of balls hit his way, while the good footwork helps him get into proper position to convert those balls into outs. He has good fielding actions and smooth, forgiving hand movements.

SMB's arm is average, at best, but accurate and sufficient for third base.

Overall, SMB's defense at the hot corner should be above average and a value-driver for his prospect status.


FINAL THOUGHTS

Overall, SMB is a solid prospect. He lacks the type of plus carrying tools (speed, power, etc) and plus skills (elite on-base ability, elite hand-eye coordination, etc) that are typically needed to generate impact talent, but he has the type solid across the board skills that could make him a nice complimentary player.

SMB gives the Reds the type of professional hitter that is perpetually lacking in the system. The organization has done a very nice job drafting impact talent at the top of the draft, but haven't had as much success finding complimentary talent in the middle and later rounds. The Reds need more hitters who can grind ABs, making consistent contact and drawing walks in the process.

If SMB continues to improve on the offensive side (by either adding more power or improving his table-setting skills), then he could carve out a career as an MLB starting third baseman. However, he'll need to continue to develop and improve to get there. The best case for SMB would be to emerge in the mold of Bill Mueller/Joe Randa, but that would be his max projection. And, again, not many players reach their max projection.

Still, Seth Mejias-Brean is a solid second-tier prospect who could ultimately provide a solid return on investment for the Reds. And, if I was a betting man, then I'd frequently wager on those hitters who effectively control the zone, making consistent contact on strikes and taking pitches out of the zone for balls, which is a strong predictor of success. SMB does a nice job in that department.

For now, SMB checks in at #15 on the list.


Monday, June 16, 2014

2014 Reds Draft Class: Initial Impressions


Well, time for my initial impressions of the Reds draft, but first a few notes of interest regarding my shadow picks.

First, former Baseball America, and current MLB.com, writer Jim Callis released his annual 10-round shadow draft. He stepped into the shoes of the Colorado Rockies and drafted their first ten rounds. In the supplemental first round, he grabbed Forrest Wall, the player I wanted the Reds to grab at 19th overall. After that, he grabbed two players that I wanted the Reds to draft, as they were good upside plays in the later rounds. He grabbed prep OF Trenton Kemp in the 7th round and Stanford RHP A.J. Vanegas in the 9th round, so obviously he also thought they brought good value to the table.

Second, baseball writer (his book, "Saving the Pitcher" is quite good) and injury expert Will Carroll, who is contractually precluded from offering opinions on draft-eligible players until after the draft, tweeted this nugget when RHP Joe Gatto signed with the Angels:






I watched a lot of video on the pitching prospects in the top 100 who would reasonably be available at 19th overall and Joe Gatto is the one who really stood out to me, too. His pitching mechanics were my favorite in the draft class and when you add in his strong arsenal it was easy for me to slot Joe Gatto into the 29th overall pick on my shadow draft. There's certainly more to pitching than mechanics and stuff, and Gatto certainly needs to improve his command, but there's a lot to like with Gatto.

Overall, I'm pretty happy with my shadow draft, as I would have reeled in Forrest Wall (1.19), Joe Gatto (1.29), Carson Sands (2.58), Trenton Kemp (middle round), and A.J. Vanegas (middle round). I would have much preferred to land RHP Scott Blewett in round 2 instead of Carson Sands, but the Royals snatched him up two picks before we drafted in round 2. Forrest Wall, Joe Gatto, and Scott Blewett would have, in my view, been a real nice haul for my Shadow Draft Reds. Still, I managed to snatch up pretty good value in my shadow draft. I could very easily be wrong, but it seems like a few pundits also saw value where I was seeing it.

As for the Reds ACTUAL haul, here are my initial, off-the-cuff thoughts on some of their top picks:


rhp Nick Howard -- Two data points are a coincidence, three data points are a trend. This picks reveals that the Reds are now actively seeking out college relievers who they can convert into starting pitchers. They have done it previously with Tony Cingrani and Michael Lorenzen, but this time feels a bit different.

The Reds drafted Tony Cingrani in the 3rd round of the 2011 draft. They drafted Michael Lorenzen in the supplemental first round of the 2013 draft.

To me, picking Nick Howard 19th overall(!) feels like a reach. The earlier in the draft you select a player, the greater the opportunity cost of doing so. And, there's undoubtedly an additional measure of risk in drafting a player and immediately shifting his role. Howard has shown plus stuff pitching out of the bullpen, but how will that stuff play when he's pitching in the rotation every fifth day? It's difficult to know. It seems odd to me that they couldn't find a single player with the 19th overall pick whose value doesn't depend on an immediate change in roles.

It makes sense, in the later rounds, to draft college relievers who you think can be successfully converted into starting pitchers. There's value in that. You are spotting undervalued talent that others aren't seeing and grabbing it when the opportunity cost is lower; when you aren't passing up top-tier talent to acquire it.

Does it still make sense with the 19th overall pick? Or, is there a bit of hubris creeping into this pick? Is the organization starting to gain so much confidence in its ability to spot undervalued talent that it's now overvaluing it?

Based on the recent past, the organization has earned the benefit of the doubt here, as they have proven that they have a good eye for this type of conversion-talent, but this still has the feel of an overdraft to me.


3b Alex Blandino -- Oddly enough, I prefer the second player the Reds selected to the first.

Blandino played third base for the Stanford Cardinal. He is a good athlete and may have the ability to slide over to second base at the professional level. Such a move would immediately improve his value. That said, his calling card is going to be his hitting.

Blandino has loose, easy swing with very active and effective hands. He controls the strike zone well and makes consistent, hard contact. He has the potential for a plus hit tool, which could make him an impact player if he can pair it with good on-base ability and/or good power production.

Overall, the Blandino pick looks like a strong one for the Reds.


3b Taylor Sparks -- Taylor Sparks plays third base for UC Irvine and is still playing in the College World Series. He seems to bring better tools and greater athleticism to the table than Alex Blandino. At the same time, he seems to have less feel and fewer baseball skills than Blandino.

Sparks moves well in the field and has a strong arm. There's more risk in Sparks' game than Blandino's because (1) there's a lot of swing-and-miss in Sparks's hitting and (2) he doesn't control the strike zone very well.

Sparks could be an impact talent if he can increase his contact rate, if he can't then there's real flame-out risk.


rhp Wyatt Strahan -- Strahan was the Friday night starter for USC this year. He features a mid-90s fastball with good sink, a hard curveball that may be his out pitch, and a changeup with a bit of sink. He has clean, functional mechanics that could be more efficient. He stands pretty upright, uses a shorter stride, and has quick tempo. There is a wide spread of career outcomes for Strahan, with some speculating that he might end up in the bullpen. But, he's a solid college pitcher who could surprise if he makes some improvements in the professional ranks.


3b Gavin LaValley -- LaValley is a big guy. You don't hear this very often about a baseball player, but he played center on his high school football team. He tips the scales at 235 lbs and that's after losing 20-30 lbs prior to his senior season. On the plus side, LaValley has very, very good bat speed and tremendous raw power, which should be sufficient even if he's relegated to first base on the defensive spectrum. He's an intriguing bat-first prospect and looks like good value in round 4.


3b Montrell Marshall -- Currently, Marshall is notable largely for being Brandon Phillips' cousin, but he has the type of athleticism and makeup that could soon make him notable in his own right. On the downside, Marshall stands 6-5, leaving him with a lot of strike zone to cover and real risk in his contact rate. On the plus side, he has solid upside because of his raw tools.  



Final Thoughts

Overall, the Reds draft makes some sense. As per usual, they zig when I expect them to zag. And, again, as per usual, what they did makes some sense with the benefit of hindsight.

The Reds went college heavy in a draft that was stronger in prep prospects. However, that does make some sense, as the Reds really need certainty. They have had a number of prospects in their farm system regress, so they really did need some probability draft choices. Players likely to pan out. In addition, the farm system is a bit bare at the upper levels, so focusing on college players not only increases the probability, even at the expense of some upside, but also shortens the development curve. So, they can restock the upper levels of the minors a bit faster by bringing in college players.

While the Howard pick feels like a reach, I like the Blandino pick a lot. And, after the first round, they added a nice blend of probability and upside talent. The Reds have done a very nice job in the draft over the past decade and rarely miss on a first round pick. The organization has given us little reason to expect that to change with this draft class.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Final 2014 Reds Draft List




Here's the final list of the Reds' 2014 draft picks, courtesy of ESPN:

19. Cincinnati, Nick Howard, RHP, Virginia

29. Cincinnati, Alex Blandino, 3B, Stanford

58. Cincinnati, Taylor Sparks, 3B, UC Irvine

94. Cincinnati, Wyatt Strahan, RHP, Southern California

125. Cincinnati, Gavin LaValley, 3B, Carl Albert HS, Choctaw, Okla.

155. Cincinnati, Tejay Antone, RHP, Weatherford College

185. Cincinnati, Jose Lopez, RHP, Seton Hall

215. Cincinnati, Shane Mardirosian, 2B, Martin Luther King HS, Riverside, Calif.

245. Cincinnati, Brian O'Grady, 1B, Rutgers

275. Cincinnati, Brian Hunter, RHP, Hartford

305. Cincinnati, Seth Varner, LHP, Miami (Ohio)

335. Cincinnati, Mitch Trees, C, Sacred Heart Griffin HS, Springfield, Ill.

365. Cincinnati, Montrell Marshall, 3B, South Gwinnett HS, Snellville, Ga.

395. Cincinnati, Zachary Correll, RHP, Joseph Case HS, Swansea, Mass.

425. Cincinnati, Jacob Ehret, RHP, UCLA.

455. Cincinnati, Jimmy Pickens, RF, Michigan State

485. Cincinnati, Garrett Boulware, C, Clemson

515. Cincinnati, Jacob Moody, LHP, Memphis

545. Cincinnati, Roderick Bynum, CF, Monroe Catholic HS, Fairbanks, Alaska

575. Cincinnati, Isaac Anderson, RHP, Southern Idaho

605. Cincinnati, Conor Krauss, RHP, Seton Hall.

635. Cincinnati, Tyler Parmenter, RHP, Arizona.

665. Cincinnati, Robert Byckowski, 3B, Blyth Academy, Toronto.

695. Cincinnati, Ty Sterner, LHP, Rhode Island.

725. Cincinnati, Shane Crouse, RHP, Lake Sumter CC.

755. Cincinnati, Paul Kronenfeld, 1B, Catawba.

785. Cincinnati, Brennan Bernardino, LHP, CS Dominguez Hills.

815. Cincinnati, Jake Paulson, RHP, Oakland.

845. Cincinnati, Dustin Cook, RHP, San Jacinto College North.

875. Cincinnati, Michael Sullivan, LHP, Gloucester County College.

905. Cincinnati, Josciel Veras, SS, Cumberland.

935. Cincinnati, Joshua Palacios, CF, San Jacinto College North.

965. Cincinnati, Dalton Viner, RHP, San Jacinto College North.

995. Cincinnati, Jose Lopez, C, King HS, Tampa, Fla.

1025. Cincinnati, Keenan Kish, RHP, Florida.

1055. Cincinnati, Brandon Vicens, CF, American Heritage School, Miami Lakes, Fla.

1085. Cincinnati, Logan Browning, LHP, Lakeland (Fla.) Christian School.

1115. Cincinnati, Walker Whitworth, 2B, Ada (OKla.) HS.

1145. Cincinnati, Bo Tucker, LHP, Rome (Ga.) HS.

1175. Cincinnati, Seth Roadcap, C, Capital HS, Elkview, W.Va.

1205. Cincinnati, Michael Mediavilla, LHP, Mater Academy Charter School, Hialeah, Fla.




Thursday, June 5, 2014

"With the 19th and 29th picks In the 2014 draft, the Reds *should* draft...."


....2b Forrest Wall and rhp Joe Gatto. 


Well, in actuality, my draft board hierarchy goes something like this:

First two picks
Michael Conforto, of
Forrest Wall, 2b
Tyler Beede, rhp
Joe Gatto, rhp
Scott Blewett, rhp

2nd Round and Later
Matt Chapman, 3b
Jack Flaherty, rhp
Carson Sands, lhp
Trenton Kemp, of
Jace Fry, lhp
A.J. Vanegas, rhp


There's about a 1% chance that Conforto slips to 19th, still if that happens I want him in Cincinnati, so I've listed him here. Similar story on Beede, I like what he brings to the table, but he's unlikely to slip to the Reds at 19. Even if Beede is available, the draft is so deep in pitching that I'd rather see the Reds grab Forrest Wall.

Second baseman Forrest Wall is the right choice at the 19th pick. He has 65/70 speed and a 60 hit tool on the 20-80 scouting scale. The Reds need everything, but adding in another pure hitter to go along with Jesse Winker and another burner to go with Billy Hamilton might be ideal. If he develops as expected, and his shoulder regains sufficient strength, then he could be the future replacement for Brandon Phillips at second and the ideal second spot hitter between Hamilton and Joey Votto.

I've learned not to gamble on questionable hit tools in the first round, so here I'm gambling on a plus hit tool. A hitter who patterns his swing mechanics on Robbie Cano, has been compared by an AL scout to Chase Utley, and trained under the tutelage of Dante Bichette.

If I was a hitting coach, then I'd never teach anyone the swing mechanics that Wall uses, but they obviously work for both Cano and Wall, who declares himself a "rhythmic hitter". There is a great deal of movement to his swing, but he makes consistently hard contact and has a real ability to get the barrel of the bat on the ball. Further, there's some power projection to his game, which hasn't shown up very often in games, but he shows the power in batting practice.

There's real risk in Wall's shoulder problem, but it's risk that can be managed if the bat develops as expected. Develop the bat, figure out the shoulder as we go.



As for the 29th pick, I'm definitely hoping for RHP Joe Gatto. His mechanics, physical stature, arsenal of pitches, and projection remaining to his game make him the choice for me. After watching a lot of video of pitchers in this draft class, Gatto's stuff was among the most electric. His heavy, moving fastball and sharp, biting curve have the potential to be true plus offerings and establish a very high performance level for Gatto. It'll all come down to control and command for Gatto, which is no small concern, but there is a great deal to like.


If things break right, then I'm hoping that the Reds can grab two of Conforto, Wall, Beede, Gatto, and Blewett with their 19th and 29th picks. That would be a nice outcome.

Realistically, I'm hoping the Reds can grab Forrest Wall at 19 and Joe Gatto at 29. If Wall is off the board at 19, then I'd be content with Gatto and prep RHP Scott Blewett. Those are two high upside righthanded prep pitchers who would immediately add depth and upside to the system.

In round 2, I'd give real consideration to Cal State Fullerton 3b Matt Chapman and any of the pitchers listed above still remaining on the board.

Anyway, that's about all the news that's fit to print. So, it's almost draft time, go Reds go!

2014 MLB Draft, Players of Interest: Joe Gatto and Jack Flaherty



Joe Gatto
St. Augustine Prep High School, NJ
HT: 6-5 WT: 215
Position: RHP
B/T: R/R


I looked at a lot of the pitchers in the top 100 prospects likely to be available when the Reds picks roll around and Gatto seemed like the most electric.

His fastball is heavy, getting on hitters quickly from a largely over-the-top type arm slot, with velocity (90-93 mph and touching 95), downward plane, deception, and very good movement (sinking and tailing). Fastball effectiveness is a function of velocity, movement, downward plane, and command; Gatto already ticks three of those boxes. In addition to the heavy fastball, Gatto really spins a 12-to-6 curveball with good bite and depth. The curveball is inconsistent and needs to be better located, but it definitely flashes plus potential.  

In addition to very good stuff, Gatto also has impressive mechanics and a clean arm action. He does a nice job of incorporating his lower half into the delivery through a high leg kick, an aggressive stride, strong hip rotation, and delayed shoulder rotation. His arm action is also clean, maintaining good position relative to the shoulder and getting good extension out in front on release.

Here's a look at Gatto in action, courtesy of Big League Futures on YouTube:






Overall, Gatto is an exciting pitching prospect, one who flashes a dominating fastball that doesn't depend solely on velocity for its effectiveness. And, of course, he's likely to add velocity as he continues to fill out his frame.

The big question on Gatto is the command and whether he'll be able to locate his pitches where he wants. As of now, his command/control is a bit rough, but if he continues to develop the command, then he could be a top of the rotation arm. He's become one of my favorite arms in the draft class.




Jack Flaherty
Harvard Westlake High School, CA
HT: 6-3 WT: 190
Position: RHP
B/T: R/R


Jack Flaherty is a two-way player with a commitment to the University of North Carolina. He pitches, he plays third base. As of now, scouts prefer him as a starting pitcher.

He features a four-pitch mix, including a fastball that sits 88-92, a changeup with plus potential, a 78-80 mph slider with swing-and-miss potential, and a "get me over" curveball. He has a good feel for pitching and for each of his pitches. His command and control are above average for his age and experience level.

Flaherty is a name with a lot of buzz surrounding it heading into the draft, as a number of teams believe he has a good deal of projection to his game and a high likelihood of reaching it. It remains to be seen whether teams are willing to burn a first round pick on him, but a lot of teams are hoping he slips into round two.

As for pitching mechanics, Flaherty's are clean and functional. He throws the fastball from a three-quarter arm slot, but that arm slot occasionally gets higher when he throws his breaking pitches. That inconsistency will need to be ironed to avoid tipping off more advanced hitters. His arm action is clean, but he does throw with a bit of effort.

He incorporates his lower body into the delivery, but there is room for improved efficiency. And, his stride foot lands in a slightly closed off position, which results in him throwing slightly across his body and falling off to the first base side.

Overall, Flaherty has a solid foundation on which to develop a pitcher. His repertoire is solid with room for real improvement and his mechanics are clean and functional. It's not surprising that a lot of teams want a crack at drafting and developing him.

Here's Flaherty on the bump, courtesy of MaxPreps High School Sports on YouTube:






Flaherty has to be on the Reds short list, if not with their first pick, then with their second pick. There's a lot of projection to his game and seems like a reasonable chance that he attains some of it.


2014 Draft, Players of Interest: Carson Sands and Scott Blewett



Carson Sands
North Florida Christian High School, FLA
HT: 6-3 WT: 205
Position: LHP
B/T: L/L


Carson Sands stands 6-3 and uses good mechanics with a clean arm action.

His fastball sits 90-92 and he commands it well to both sides of the strike zone. His changeup is solid average and has good movement. His curveball is inconsistent, but has improved over the last year and shows flashes of being an above average pitch.

Scouts feel like Sands might be maxed out, leaving him with minimal projection to his game. He has a good feel for all three pitches and can throw them all for strikes. If the draft doesn't fall to his liking, then he has committed to Florida State and could go the college route.

Here's a look at Sands in action, courtesy of Baseball Factory on YouTube:







Overall, Sands has clean and efficient mechanics and throws with minimal effort. His elbow maintains good position relative to the shoulder. He gets respectable differential between his hip rotation and shoulder rotation. though he could benefit from a delayed shoulder rotation and better incorporation of the lower half. He maintains good balance, due to good body control and tempo, throughout his delivery. Overall, his mechanics and lower effort level should reduce his injury risk.

Sands has a good feel for pitching and gets good marks for his makeup. He might be more "high floor" than "high ceiling", but if he refines his offspeed offerings or finds another gear on the fastball, then he could emerge as more than a mid/back of the rotation option.

Still, a southpaw with clean, efficient mechanics and good feel for three average-to-above average pitches has legitimate value.




Scott Blewett
Baker High School, N.Y.
HT: 6-6 WT: 235
Position: RHP
B/T: R/R


Scott Blewett is a cold weather pitching prospect who has a good deal of helium heading into the draft as more and more scouts get a look at him. He's one of the youngest pitchers in the draft class, which matters less for pitchers than for position players, as pitcher development is less linear, but it still bears mentioning.

Blewett is a tall, lanky, loose-limbed righthanded power pitcher. His height allows him to throw on a steep downward plane and release the ball closer to the hitter than shorter pitchers, which helps his 91-94 mph fastball play up. He also features a nice, tight breaking curveball that flashes plus and doesn't have the big waterballoon type hump to it, but remains inconsistent. And, like most high school pitchers, he has a show-me changeup for his third pitch that he hasn't used much and needs a good deal of work.

Blewett is a former hockey player who has good athleticism and coordination for a pitcher his size. That coordination gives him a bit more polish than one might expect from a prospect of his size and experience. 

Here's a look at Blewett in action, courtesy of Big League Futures on YouTube:





Blewett's size and stuff are intriguing, but the first thing I'd do upon drafting him is to extend the length of his stride. As of now, he's using a short stride that sees him almost walking towards homeplate on his follow-through, which doesn't maximizing the value of his height. The short stride prevents him from maximizing the generation of force from his lower half, as he's less aggressive driving to the plate and limited in his ability to get a full and complete rotation of the hips. So, I'd try to refine his lower half to increase his efficiency and allow him to generate the force with less effort.

That said, his overall mechanics are smooth and his arm action is clean. As a cold weather pitcher, he hasn't thrown a ton of innings, so he's probably a bit raw with a bit less wear and tear on his arm. There is a lot to currently like with Blewett and he has a great deal of projection to his game. As he continues to physically mature, he could add more and/or easier velocity to his fastball.

If things break right, Blewett could be an impact MLB pitcher. Blewett is high on my list. 


2014 Draft, Players of Note: Michael Conforto and Tyler Beede

Here are two players that I like, but who are likely to be off the board by the time the Reds draft, so we'll just take a quick spin.


Michael Conforto
Oregon State University
HT: 6-2 WT: 217
Position: OF
B/T: L/R

Conforto is one the best college bats in the draft class. He has a good hit tool, plus power, and a good disciplined approach. His offensive profile is one of power and patience, qualities were are both very much in vogue in Major League Baseball these days. Conforto has been rumored to go as high as the Cubs with the fourth overall pick.

On the season, Conforto rocked a ~.518 OBP and ~.578 SLG for the Beavers. Here's a look at him in action, courtesy rkyosh007 on YouTube:





Conforto uses a big uppercut swing with good balance that probably won't result in high batting averages, but should produce lots of walks and lots of home runs. As pitching velocity increases and strikeouts continue to dominate the major league game, good hitting is becoming more and more valuable. Good pitching is more abundant; good hitting is more scarce.

In college, Conforto faced a type of defensive shift that I've never seen before. When OSU was facing UC Irvine, the defense shifted the 3rd baseman to the outfield when Conforto hit, resulting in 3 infielders and 4 outfielders. Not sure if that is a compliment to his extra base hit ability or a knock on his ability to hit hard line drives to all fields. Regardless, it's interesting.

Conforto would be a great option for the Reds at 19, but is very, very unlikely to slide that far.



Tyler Beede
Vanderbilt University
HT: 6-4 WT: 215
Position: SP
B/T: R/R

I wanted the Reds to draft Tyler Beede coming out of high school, but the Blue Jays selected him before the Reds could even get a shot at him. In some ways, he's better than he was back then, having added velocity to the fastball and tighten his breaking ball. In other ways, he's not. The shaky command/control remains a real problem for Beede. He occasionally dominates the opposition by locating his plus arsenal exactly where he wants it; at other times he can't consistently find the strike zone. If he can't find functional command/control at one of the top pitching programs in college baseball, then is it likely that you'll find it in the professional ranks? Add in rumored concerns over possible wear-and-tear in his pitching shoulder and it's difficult to know exactly what to expect from Beede.

There is still a lot ot like with Beede. His stuff is top notch with all three pitches (fastball, changeup, curveball) all plus or with plus potential. His mechanics are clean, though not as efficient as they could be, lacking good differential between hip rotation and shoulder rotation. A better incorporation of the lower body into the motion would reduce stress on the arm and lead to possible improvements in velocity and command.

Still, if he's on the board, then I'd still like the Reds to grab him, but there are a few mystifying issues at work here.

Here's a look at Beede in action, courtesy of Big League Futures on YouTube:





2014 Draft, Player of Interest: Forrest Wall, 2b/OF

Forrest Wall
Orangewood Christian High School
Position: 2b/of
B/T: L/R
HT: 6-1 WT: 180
DOB: 11/20/1995


Some view Forrest Wall as having the best hit tool in the entire draft. The question mark on Wall is the health of his shoulder. If that question didn't exist, Wall would likely be rated much higher by pundits.

Wall patterns his hitting after Robinson Cano and it shows in his swing mechanics. Wall uses a lot of movement in his setup and swing, describing himself as a "rhythm hitter". He uses a double pump with his hands during his load, which is what Cano does, and has incorporated that as a timing mechanism.

Here's a look at Wall in action, courtesy of Baseball Instinct on YouTube:






Wall is a baseball rat who has drawn comparisons to Chase Utley and who hits daily at a hitting facility founded by Dante Bichette. Wall has spent a lot of time hitting with Bichette and his son, who helped mold his swing and approach at the plate. Wall is very comfortable using the entire field and has shown very good pitch recognition skills. He loves to swing the bat, but he has shown the ability to take disciplined ABs and work the count to gain count-leverage.

To date, Wall's power hasn't fully translated to games, but he does show the ability in batting practice to drive the ball out of the ballpark and he did out-homer MLB slugger Jose Bautista in a charity home run derby (for whatever that's worth). So, there is some power projection left to his game.

Wall's true prospect value is an ongoing debate due to the injuries he has suffered. Wall suffered a separated left (non-throwing) shoulder in March 2014, but that was minor, especially compared to the torn labrum injury he suffered in 2011 to his right (throwing) shoulder. Wall's arm strength still hasn't returned to its pre-injury strength, which is why he's been limited to second base.

Wall is a very good athlete with plus-plus speed, so if his arm strength were to return he would still be playing shortstop and might be able to stick there in the professional ranks.

In the MLB draft second baseman are rarely drafted highly and frequently not at all. Not surprisingly, (1) amateur teams typically slot their best athletes at shortstop and (2) MLB teams focus on drafting shortstops who can shift over to second base if they can't handle shortstop as they climb the ladder. So, few second basemen get drafted.

Wall is an exception and that is a credit to his plus hit tool and diverse skill set. If the shoulder returns to full strength, then Wall could be the steal of the draft. Even if it doesn't, just so long as the arm strength is sufficient to hold down second base, centerfield, or leftfield, the bat and speed could make him an impact type talent.

Wall is a pure hitter with very good speed, profiling him as a top of the lineup tablesetter who could drop down to the middle of the lineup if his power develops.

It's difficult to find pure hitters. I learned long ago that it's not wise to gamble on questionable hit tools in the first round. The opposite probably applies here, as despite his shoulder issue it would be a very reasonable gamble for the Reds to wager on Wall's plus hit tool.


2014 Draft, Player of Interest: Jace Fry, lhp


Jace Fry, LHP
Oregon State University
DOB: 7/9/1993
HT: 6-1 WT: 195
B/T: L/L



Jace Fry is a polished southpaw who had good success in one of the top conferences in the collegiate game.
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Fry works with a fastball, curveball, and changeup mix. His fastball sits 89-91 with good tail and sink. Fry can shape the curveball in different ways to give the hitters different looks. And, his changeup often has good sink.

Fry doesn't have stuff that will blow you away, but his pitching IQ and good control makes his average arsenal play up. He earned Pac 12 Pitcher of the Year honors with his performance in 2014.

In addition, Fry has solid mechanics. His elbow maintains good position relative to his elbow, he gets respectable differential between his hip rotation and shoulder rotation, takes a good stride length, and finishes in a balanced position.

Here's a look at Fry in action, courtesy of Kendall Rogers on YouTube:






All that said, there is a big red flag (at least for me) with Jace Fry. Fry has already undergone one Tommy John surgery. He had the surgery back in 2012 and came back with no ill effects, but in light of studies that have found that (1) a pitcher who had one TJ surgery will need another within 7 years and (2) that practically no amateur pitchers who have undergone TJ surgery have gone on to pitch as a starting pitcher at the MLB level and the risk with these TJ survivors is just too high.

So, for me, the opportunity cost that comes with selecting these guys is just too high in the early rounds. So, I wouldn't consider either Jeff Hoffman or Erik Fedde in the first round, but many teams are. Tommy John surgery is a traumatic injury and a clear indication that there are mechanical issues, workload issues, or both that need to be addressed and managed. There is a point in the draft where I would be comfortable starting to draft these guys, but it definitely wouldn't be in the first two rounds and likely not until the fourth round.

When the fourth round rolls around, I would probably be comfortable selecting a TJ guy, but prior to that I'd rather go with pitchers who don't have the telltale zipper on their elbow.

Fry is an interesting pitcher and he's the type you draft in hopes of improvement in velocity or breaking ball upon joining the professional ranks that takes him from "interesting" to "impact."

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

2014 Draft, Player of Interest: Trenton Kemp, OF


Trenton Kemp, OF
Buchanan High School
DOB: 9/30/1995
HT: 6-2 WT: 190
B/T: R/R



In addition to professional hitters, another area where the Reds farm system is thin is pure athleticism. Buchanan High School outfielder Trenton Kemp provides that in spades.

Kemp attends Buchanan High School in Clovis, California. He lost a year and half of development time as he stopped playing baseball to focus on football. He spent that time working out to improve his speed, vertical leap, strength, and explosiveness to increase his chances of being offered a college football scholarship.

In that effort, he attended the U.S. Army National Football Combine where he posted the highest vertical, 37.5 inches, of all 537 participants. He ran the 40-yard dash in an unofficial 4.48 seconds, which was good for 97th percentile at the event. And, he flashed agility and quickness in posting a shuttle-run time that landed him in the 94th percentile at the event.

Not only can he run really fast and jump really high, but he's tremendously strong. At the event, he benched 185 pounds 23 times, which was the most of any player weighing less than 205.

Ultimately, he decided to return to baseball where his new freakish athleticism gives him very good upside. After returning to baseball and settling back into a hitting routine, the feel for the game started to return. He showed enough early in his junior season to receive a baseball scholarship offer to Fresno State. He committed to his hometown school and there's where he'll end up unless the MLB draft alters his plans.

It goes without saying that Kemp is a workout warrior (one with only 6% body fat who doesn't eat fast food or drink soda) who will never have trouble staying in tip top physical shape. That speaks to his dedication and commitment to improvement. It's very clear that he has very good physical strength, but the question is how effectively he can translate that strength and athleticism into baseball production.

Here's a look at how Kemp attempts to do just that, courtesy of Big League Futures on YouTube:







And, a slow-motion look at his swing mechanics:








Kemp uses a shoulder-width stance and takes a low stride forward to transfer his weight. He maintains good balance throughout the swing and gets good extension despite a relatively compact swing. One possible area of concern is that he loads his hands so deep that he risks falling into an arm-bar position with his left arm. The arm-bar would add length to his swing and make it difficult to handle and turn on pitches on the inner half. In addition, Kemp's swing path is somewhat flat, oriented more towards line drives than fly balls, which could impede his efforts to carry his power into games.

Kemp's compact swing makes him an intriguing prospect when paired with his power potential. Even if the power doesn't develop, his speed could be a real weapon if paired with a good hit tool. His athleticism gives him a lot of potential avenues to value.

On defense, Kemp has the speed to stick in center and while his arm strength hasn't been the greatest, he has adopted a long-toss program to strengthen it. His skill set should allow him to hold down a premier defensive position, which only serves to increase his value.

Ultimately, Kemp is highly athletic and relatively raw. That gives him a wider spread of career outcomes than most, as his ceiling is higher and his floor lower. The lost development time due to the football flirtation will put him behind the development curve, but he has the tools needed to catch up in a hurry. What he needs most is more ABs and to see more and more pitches.

Kemp is a boom or bust type prospect, but one who is intriguing outside of the first couple of rounds of the draft where the opportunity cost is lower and a gamble on pure athleticism and an underwhelming present hit-tool is more palatable.

The Reds could use more athleticism and electricity in the system and Kemp would bring an intriguing package of tools and a high ceiling to the system. 

2014 Draft, Player of Interest: Matt Chapman, 3b

Matt Chapman, 3b
Cal State Fullerton
HT: 6-2 WT: 215
DOB: 4/28/1993 (21)
B/T: R/R

The Reds have needs in every area of the farm system, but one asset they never seem to have enough of is professional hitters. As of late, the MLB team seem to give away far too many ABs. They never seem to have enough hitters who can grind ABs to gain count-leverage, rather than just flail away at whatever a pitcher flings up there.

Perhaps more than any attribute, a disciplined approach has to be drafted, rather than developed. Minor league hitters can make incremental improvements in approach, but, by and large, a hitter's approach is unchangeable.

That said, placing a slighter greater emphasis on drafting hitters who utilize a disciplined approach might be a wise move for the organization.

All of that leads us to Cal State Fullerton third baseman Matt Chapman. Chapman isn't in the top tier of draft-eligible prospects, Baseball America rates him as the 64th best draft prospect, but he offers up a nice blend of tools and skills.

Here is how he performed in his three years at Fullerton:

2012: .286/.340/.370 with 2 homers and a 29/12 K/BB ratio in 189 ABs
2013: .285/.415/.457 with 5 homers and a 29/34 K/BB ratio in 186 ABs
2014: .312/.412/.498 with 6 homers and a 26/27 K/BB ratio in 205 ABs

Chapman has been improving each season and is now showing a solid, though inconsistent, hit tool and the ability to control the strike zone. Chapman walks as much, if not more, than he whiffs, which speaks to strong plate discipline, pitch recognition, and contact ability. In addition, his power has been trending upwards. Overall, he provided a solid baseline of performance in his collegiate career, but he needs to continue to refine his hit tool to make hard contact more consistently.

Chapman's best tool is undoubtedly his arm, as, despite not pitching during his collegiate career, he has cranked his fastball up to 98 mph. Obviously, that arm strength will increase the number of plays he can convert into outs at the hot corner, but it might also make pitching a fallback option if he doesn't develop as a position player. It certainly worked for the A's and Sean Doolittle, so it might be a way to mitigate development risk.

In addition to his arm strength, Chapman is a good overall defender. First, he is technically sound, as evidenced by the first few groundballs he takes at the hot corner in the below video (~ 0:20 mark). He is setting up to field the ball with his right foot in front and his left foot slightly behind, which opens up his body for the throw to second base. If you compare that technique to the technique he uses on groundballs (i.e. around the 5:05 mark) when he is throwing to home or first, then you can see that his feet get more square when he's coming home or to first. He obviously understands the nuances of the position and is willing to put in the work to master them.

Here's the video clip, which is great, courtesy of Moore Sports Media on YouTube:







In addition to his good technique, you can also see that Chapman moves well. He has good agility and footwork, which enables him to get his body into proper position to field the ball, which he does with soft hands and smooth fielding actions.

At the plate, Chapman uses a slightly wider than shoulder-width stance and a short stride to transfer his weight. His pre-pitch approach is quiet with a small bat waggle. As for the swing itself, he checks a lot of the boxes you want to see. He gets the back elbow in close to the back hip, fires the hips, and firms up the front side. So, there's a nice foundation there.

His swing does seem a bit stiff and at times feels top-hand heavy. That gives his swing a bit of "push" to it and occasionally looks like he's trying to muscle the ball with his upper body rather than let the core provide the power to whip the bat through the zone. And, the heavier use of the top hand also helps explain his more line-drive oriented swing. Finally, his bat speed seems more solid/average than plus. So, there is some risk to his hitting and his hit tool.

Here's a better look at Chapman at the plate in game action, courtesy of CollegeBaseballBlog on YouTube:







Overall, Chapman is an intriguing prospect who provides a nice blend of tools and skills, takes disciplined ABs, and provides plus defense at the hot corner. Further, scouts describe him as hard nosed with a blue-collar mentality, so he's likely to get the most out of his abilities.

The Reds have a lot of needs down on the farm, but Chapman would bolster the position player ranks and potentially provide a much needed homegrown "professional hitter". There is some risk in his hit tool, but it's probably manageable given that he's not coming off the board in the first round. Ultimately, his power production will probably determine whether he develops into a true impact hitter, but his diversified skill set could make him a valuable player even without much power. He's worth a look.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

2014 MLB Draft Order


First Round
1. Houston Astros
2. Miami Marlins
3. Chicago White Sox
4. Chicago Cubs
5. Minnesota Twins
6. Seattle Mariners
7. Philadelphia Phillies
8. Colorado Rockies
9. Toronto Blue Jays
10. New York Mets
11. Toronto Blue Jays
12. Milwaukee Brewers
13. San Diego Padres
14. San Franicsco Giants
15. Los Angeles Angels
16. Arizona Diamondbacks
17. Kansas City Royals
18. Washington Nationals
19. Cincinnati Reds
20. Tampa Bay Rays
21. Cleveland Indians
22. Los Angeles Dodgers
23. Detroit Tigers
24. Pittsburgh Pirates
25. Oakland Athletics
26. Boston Red Sox
27. St. Louis Cardinals

28. Kansas City Royals
29. Cincinnati Reds (compensation for Shin Soo Choo)
30. Texas Rangers
31. Cleveland Indians
32. Atlanta Braves
33. Boston Red Sox
34. St.Louis Cardinals

Supplemental First Round
35. Colorado Rockies
36. Florida Marlins
37. Houston Astros (from the Orioles)
38. Cleveland Indians
39. Pittsburgh Pirates (via trade with Miami Marlins)
40. Kansas City Royals
41. Milwaukee Brewers

Second Round
42. Houston Astros
43. Miami Marlins
44. Chicago White Sox
45. Chicago Cubs
46. Minnesota Twins
47. Philadelphia Phillies
48. Colorado Rockies
49. Toronto Blue Jays
50. Milwaukee Brewers
51. San Diego Padres
52. San Francisco Giants
53. Los Angeles Angels
54. Arizona Diamondbacks
55. New York Yankees
56. Kansas City Royals
57. Washington Nationals
58. Cincinnati Reds
59. Texas Rangers
60. Tampa Bay Rays
61. Cleveland Indians
62. Los Angeles Dodgers
63. Detroit Tigers
64. Pittsburgh Pirates
65. Oakland Athletics
66. Atlanta Braves
67. Boston Red Sox
68. St.Louis Cardinals

Supplemental Second Round
69. Arizona Diamondbacks
70. Arizona Diamondbacks
71. St.Louis Cardinals
72. Tampa Bay Rays
73. Pittsburgh Pirates
74. Seattle Mariners


Third Round
75. Houston Astros
76. Miami Marlins
77. Chicago White Sox
78. Chicago Cubs
79. Minnesota Twins
80. Seattle Mariners
81. Philadelphia Phillies
82. Colorado Rockies
83. Toronto Blue Jays
84. New York Mets
85. Milwaukee Brewers
86. San Diego Padres
87. San Francisco Giants
88. Los Angeles Angels
89. Arizona Diamondbacks
90. Baltimore Orioles
91. New York Yankees
92. Kansas City Royals
93. Washington Nationals
94. Cincinnati Reds
95. Texas Rangers
96. Tampa Bay Rays
97. Cleveland Indians
98. Los Angeles Dodgers
99. Detroit Tigers
100. Pittsburgh Pirates
101. Oakland Athletics
102. Atlanta Braves
103. Boston Red Sox
104. St.Louis Cardinals

Supplemental Third Round
105. Miami Marlins

Rounds 4-30
Houston Astros
Miami Marlins
Chicago White Sox
Chicago Cubs
Minnesota Twins
Seattle Mariners
Philadelphia Phillies
Colorado Rockies
Toronto Blue Jays
New York Mets
Milwaukee Brewers
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
Los Angeles Angels
Arizona Diamondbacks
Baltimore Orioles
New York Yankees
Kansas City Royals
Washington Nationals
Cincinnati Reds
Texas Rangers
Tampa Bay Rays
Cleveland Indians
Los Angeles Dodgers
Detroit Tigers
Pittsburgh Pirates
Oakland Athletics
Atlanta Braves
Boston Red Sox
St. Louis Cardinals

Monday, June 2, 2014

Prospect of Note: Jake Lamb, 3b, Arizona Diamondbacks

Jake Lamb
HT: 6-3, WT: 220 lb
B/T: L/R
DOB: 10/9/1990


Jake Lamb is a third base prospect in the Arizona Diamondback organization and one who is probably deserving of more respect. And, he'll likely be getting more this time next year if he simply manages to maintain some semblance of his current pace.


Collegiate Career

Lamb attended the University of Washington where he played three seasons before being drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks as a junior in the 6th round of the 2012 draft.


2010: .347/.413/.475 with 4 HRs and a 18/5/36 BB/HBP/K ratio in 202 ABs
2011: .311/.371/.434 with 3 HRs and a 13/9/32 BB/HBP/K ratio in 212 ABs
2012: .321/.429/.442 with 3 HRs and a 30/8/26 BB/HBP/K ratio in 190 ABs


Photo courtesy of Joshua Bessex

Overall, it was a solid baseline of performance, but one lacking in any areas of standout production. MLB teams frequently want to see a carrying tool, something that can really drive a player's value all the way to the majors. Something rare, something scarce. Lamb was more of a well-rounded, jack of all trades type. Case in point, Lamb never managed to earn All Pac 12 Honors, but did wrangle Honorable Mention in all three of his collegiate seasons.

While the lack of a carrying tool may preclude being drafted in the first few rounds, it doesn't completely condemn a prospect's chances. It just means that he probably has a bit more work to do to get there, as he'll need improvement in an area or two to be Major League worthy. However, the well-rounded skills that already serve as his foundation could boost him into an impact player if he makes a key improvement or two. The Diamondbacks immediately got to work trying to make that improvement happen.


Professional Career

Lamb struggled to tap into his power potential when he was at the UW, but the Diamondbacks started working to refine his swing and unlock his power. After never cracking the .500 slugging percentage barrier in college with metal bats, Lamb immediately slugged .539 in 2012 with Pioneer League Missoula and again in 2013 with a .548 mark in a season spent largely with Visalia in high-A ball.

Lamb flashed more power with wood bats in the professional ranks than he did with metal in the collegiate game. And, he continues to demonstrate the ability to hit for average and control the strike zone.

2012: .329/.390/.539/.930 with 51/24 K/BB ratio in 315 PAs in rookie Pioneer League
2013: .302/.421/.548/.969 with 75/50 K/BB ratio in 304 PAs in (substantially) high-A
2014: .305/.385/.533/.918 with 48/21 K/BB ratio in 226 PAs in double-A


His minor league performance is establishing him as a complete hitter who could be above average in any or all three parts of the slash line. Further, add in above-average defense at the hot corner and Lamb could be the type of player who provides positive value on both sides of the ball.


Swing Mechanics

While the Diamondbacks made refinements to Lamb's swing, it's unclear exactly what they did. However, Lamb has taken a clear step forward offensively and I wonder if they adjusted the way he loaded his hands. His pre-pitch hand position is very high and it's not difficult to envision that position impacting the way he subsequently loaded his hands. If he was loading his hands too high and/or too far back, then he was adding length to his swing by increasing the distance his hands had to travel to get the bat to the point of contact. Further, such a problem could have sapped his power production by making it easier to tie him up on inside pitches and more difficult for him to pull the ball with power.

You can see the high hand position in the following Spring Training photo:





Given that he frequently starts from such a high hand position, proper loading of the hands becomes even more important because it establishes the starting point for his hands in the swing. His stellar minor league performance to date means that his hand load is working, though more advanced pitchers, featuring better velocity and command, might still prove problematic on the inner half of the plate. That bears watching but hasn't materialized yet.

Furthermore, after he loads his hands, Lamb takes a  very short, direct hand path to the point of contact, which serves to tighten up his swing and keep his body compact to maximize the rotational force generated by the firing of the hips in the swing.

Here's a look at his direct path to the pitch:







Lamb effectively utilizes "bat lag" in his swing, which is a positive component of the swing that involves the barrel of the bat lagging behind the hands. The longer the hitter can maintain that lag, the more power will be generated by the swing. When the bat emerges from the lag position, the barrel comes around and into the point of contact.

Lamb maintains a small "lag angle" (the angle between the right forearm and the bat) in his swing. Lamb's smaller "lag angle" gives his swing a steeper angle of attack, caused by his higher hand position and a more straight-line (rather than rounded) hand arc path. Due to his higher hand position, Lamb's hands move down towards the ground fairly severely in a straight-line-like direction before somewhat abruptly moving forward in a straight-line-like direction to meet the pitch. This less rounded hand arc path, and the smaller lag angle it creates, helps him generate good power by delaying the release of the barrel in the swing. It remains to be seen if the higher initial hand position and the subsequent steeper angle of attack will be problematic, but early returns are certainly good.

Lamb maintains a nice, compact upper-body position until he reaches a strong point of contact position, as seen below:








Lamb does a nice job of firming up his front side, which allows the force he generates to rotate around his body and be transferred through the bat to the ball. Overall, his position at the point of contact is strong and balanced and should allow him to sustain his new found ability to drive the ball, though his bat speed still seems something short of plus.

Here's a look at him in action, courtesy of minorleaguebaseball on YouTube:







Given that Lamb has solid swing mechanics and a disciplined approach, his success at the plate will now be be determined by pitch recognition and hand-eye coordination. He needs to identify pitches early and consistently get the barrel of the bat on the pitch. If he can do that, then his swing mechanics will typically take care of the rest.  

In the field, Lamb has smooth movements, soft fielding actions, and a strong arm. He should be an asset at an important defensive position, giving him a solid boost to his overall value, as defense rarely slumps.


Final Thoughts

Based on his well-rounded game, swing mechanics, and the production he is putting up, Lamb seems like a prospect who deserves more hype than he's getting. However, he is bumping up against two common concerns in the prospect evaluation game: "draft position" and "age vs. level."

When a prospect is drafted in a middle round or late, then he constantly has to disprove that initial label. Highly drafted prospects get the benefit of the doubt, later drafted prospects just get the doubt. However, if Lamb continues to hit like he has, then he's going to start climbing prospect lists.

Further, Lamb is undoubtedly meeting skepticism about his age against the level of competition. As a polished college hitter, he should be effective in handling the lower levels of the minors. However, it's something of a "damned if you do, damned if you don't situation", as if you hit well then it's simply expected, but if you don't hit well then it's a negative mark. 

Overall, Lamb seems like an impressive prospect who should be getting better marks than he has to date.

Positives:
1. Lamb has multiple value-drivers (hitting, smart baserunning, and above-average defense)
2. Lamb's hitting profile is that of a disciplined-hitter
3. Lamb's power production is emerging, which is the carrying-tool that he lacked coming out of college

Concerns:
1. Higher hand-position, possible susceptibility to good velocity on the inner half
2. Bat speed seems more solid/average than plus
3. Strikeout rate, while respectable, is still worth watching as he climbs the ladder


In short, it seems like there are multiple avenues that will lead Lamb to a productive MLB career, even though there are still some wrong turns that need to be avoided on his development path. If he continues on his current offensive pace for the rest of 2014, then he'll undoubtedly be taking a significant jump up the rankings on those prospect lists. 


Friday, May 2, 2014

Why the Reds are a 90-win Team


Prior to the season, I pegged the Reds as an 89-91 win team, so it seems like a good time to get my thoughts down on that subject, otherwise I won't receive the proper (and likely deserved) mocking at the end of the season. Besides, with all the negativity swirling around the team's early season performance, it seems worthwhile to point out that this team could be about as productive last year, even if the shape of that production ultimately differs.


To start, let's look at how the Reds finished in 2013 and see whether we can expect improvement or decline.

The Reds finished up the 2013 season with a 90-72 win/loss record. However, their Bill James Pythagorean record, based on their 698 Runs Scored and 589 Runs Allowed, was 95-67. The Reds arguably should have been 5 wins better than they were. So, if people think the Reds are worse and will regress in 2014, do we regress them from a 90-win benchmark or a 95-win benchmark? I would argue something closer to the latter, so even a 3-5 win regression would keep us around the 90 win mark.


As for changes, there have been only a few notable ones in the makeup of the Reds for 2014.


1. The departure of Shin Soo Choo and the promotion of Billy Hamilton.


This is the big one. This is where all the hand-wringing comes into play, but it essentially comes down to a question of the extent to which Billy Hamilton can offset the lost hitting production of Shin Soo Choo with baserunning and defense.

Perhaps Dusty's biggest mistake (and least talked about) of the 2013 season was keeping Choo in centerfield after Ludwick's injury. That decision screwed us in 2013, but helps us in 2014. In 2013, Choo was the worst regular defensive centerfielder in baseball, which cost the Reds in run prevention and prevented us from maximizing the production of Choo, as he gave away some of his offensive production on the defensive side. However, in 2014, it's actually a blessing because it's easier to offset the loss of Choo/CF production simply by replacing Choo with a top flight defensive CF.

So, Dusty's inefficient deployment of the outfield in 2013 makes for an easy improvement for Price to reap in 2014. If Dusty had utilized Choo properly on defense, then we would have been a better team in 2013, but Choo would be harder to replace in 2014.

In 2013, according to FanGraphs, Shin Soo Choo was 16.9 runs below average on defense. For comparison, Carlos Gomez was the best at 24.4 and AJ Pollock was second best at 17.4, followed by Colby Rasmus (11.2), Leonys Martin (10.3), and Denard Span (10.2). Is it unreasonable to think that a player of Billy Hamilton's speed can put up comparable defensive numbers to someone like Colby Rasmus or Denard Span? Or, even AJ Pollock?

For the record, with full "small sample size" disclosure, Billy Hamilton in 2014 has a UZR mark of 2.1 runs above average and an extrapolated UZR/150 mark of 17.8 runs above average.

If Billy Hamilton can be 15 runs above average on defense, then Billy Hamilton will have prevented ~32 more runs in centerfield than Choo (+15 + -16.9 = 31.9). That's 32 fewer runs he needs to produce on the offensive side in order to offset the loss of the great Choo.

In addition, Shin Soo Choo provided minimal value/production with his baserunning. Accordingly to FanGraphs, Choo's 2013 Base Running (includes advancing on balls-in-play and SB/CS) mark was -0.6, meaning he was 0.6 runs below average with his legs. In 2013, the league leader was Jacoby Ellsbury at 11.4 runs above average, followed thereafter by Eric Young (9.9), Elvis Andrus (9.9), and Mike Trout (8.1).

And, so far in 2014, Billy Hamilton has a Base Running mark of 1.2 runs above average. Given Hamilton's historic speed, it doesn't seem a reach to think he's a better baserunner than Ellsbury, EY, Elvis, and Trout. So, when he's on-base, he'll advance and steal at a better rate than they do. Of course, he has to get on-base to do so, as you can't steal first. Even so, given his current pace (1.2 Runs Above Average over 6 months), he should be 7.2 Runs Above Average with his legs. And, if his offense improves over it's putrid level in the early part of the season, it could/should be even higher.

So, with his legs, Hamilton would/should provide 8+ more runs than Choo.

Roughly speaking, Hamilton could provide 40+ more runs with his defense and baserunning than Choo. Translated into wins, using the 10 runs = 1 win estimate, Billy could provide 4 wins more than Choo on the defense and baserunning side of the game. But, how much is Hamilton likely to give away to Choo with his hitting?

Well, in 2013, Choo posted a FanGraphs Batting mark of 40.9 runs above average. So, based on this back of a cocktail napkin calculation, Billy Hamilton could be just about as valuable in 2014 as Shin Soo Choo was in 2013 IF he can simply be a league average hitter. The shape of the production would look different (Choo: 40.9 Batting + -0.6 Baserunning + -15.5 Defense = 24.8 Total Runs Above Average///Hamilton: 0.0 Batting + 7.2 Baserunning + 15 Defense = 22.2 Total Runs Above Average), but it all looks the same in the team's Run Differential.

Of course, Hamilton's early season struggles make it seem like league average hitting is a stretch. So far in 2014, Hamilton has a -5.6 Batting mark, which extrapolated out over 6 months would be a -33.6. Obviously, that would be a problem, almost a 3.5 Win downgrade, but what if by season's end Hamilton is at something more like -15 runs? That would make him only 1.5 Wins worse than Choo, a very manageable shortfall and one that comes at significant cost savings.

The larger point is that Hamilton's other attributes should make the downgrade in centerfield from 2013 to 2014 far less painful than expected...if he can hit at least enough to justify being a full-time regular. I have faith, but the early results at the plate are not promising.


2. Swapping Bryan Price in for Dusty Baker at the helm.

While the shape of the team's aggregate production will undoubtedly look different, with a greater emphasis on run prevention than run creation, it should be relatively comparable to, though likely a bit less than, what the team posted in 2013. Given the likely lower level of both Runs Scored and Runs Allowed, the games will be tighter, making incremental gains from reaping small competitive advantages more important. Fortunately, the Reds now have a manager who is willing and able to seek out those competitive advantages.

Price has already shown that he is willing to embrace unorthodox measures to incrementally improve the team's run differential. For example, he's moved Joey Votto up into the second spot in the batting order. We quibble all day over what impact lineup construction has on run production, but what can't be disputed is that getting Joey more PAs over the course of a season is a very good idea. Each spot in the batting order gets ~15-20 more Plate Appearances over the course of the season than the one right after it.

Given that Votto has gotten on-base ~43% of the time over the last two seasons, 20 more PA would mean he's on-base 8-9 more times in 2014 just by moving up one spot in the lineup. Votto will generate more runs scored and RBI in those additional plate appearances. Incremental improvement.

The other big change being implemented by Bryan Price is in defensive shifts. Matt Adams is personally responsible for souring Reds Nation on the idea of defensive shifts, but they are all the rage around the league and for good reason. "Optimal positioning" can turn a higher percentage of balls-in-play into outs. Of course, defensive positioning, including the classic over-shift, is only as good as the data on which it is based, but valid data on hitter tendencies can provide a better idea of where to position your fielders to increase the chances of an out. It's also only as good as the command of the pitchers on your staff, as locating pitches is also part of directing a ball-in-play towards your fielders. Fortunately, the Reds pitching staff is pretty damn good. And, until "optimal positioning" no longer converts a higher percentage of balls-in-play into outs, teams who refuse to do so will be at a competitive disadvantage to those that do.

Dusty never shifted, Bryan Price does. If done properly, it should improve the Reds' BABIP allowed and, correspondingly, their run-prevention ability. Another incremental improvement.

Finally, Price paid lip service to the idea of changing the usage pattern for Aroldis, extracting maximum value from him by using him in high leverage situations and for longer stints. Obviously, the injury to Aroldis has prevented that, but it may happen when he returns. Another possible incremental improvement.


3. Devin Mesoraco for Ryan Hanigan

I didn't know what to think of this change, as Hanigan was a high OBP guy with plus pitch-framing skills, both of which are real, albeit subtle, value-drivers. And, Devin was an unknown quantity heading into the season. He's still an unknown quantity, but at least he got off to a robust start. Given the way Devin is swinging the bat, he seems likely to make this switch neutral at worst, a net positive at best.

If Devin can keep swinging a hot bat, he'll provide a much needed boost to Run Scoring and help offset the loss of Choo. Still, if the bat slips, then Hanigan's subtle attributes could really be missed.


4. Miscellaneous

Outside of those three changes, the rest seem negligible/minimally important to the team's likely Run Differential.

The departure of Bronson Arroyo doesn't seem like much of a loss to me, especially if we can get something approximating full seasons out of Cingrani and Leake. Bronson was durable as hell, but his performance level can be matched, and probably improved upon, by in-house options.

The addition of Skip Schumaker doesn't move the needle and probably won't move the Run Differential mark, but he's a solid addition when healthy.

The new coaching staff, hitting coach, etc doesn't seem likely to make a real impact.

And, it's not unreasonable to think Todd Frazier could take a step forward in 2014 or that Ryan Ludwick will prove an upgrade in leftfield over the 2013 aggregate LF production of .250/.313/.374. So, those are possible areas for improvement, though I wouldn't necessarily bet on it.


Final Thoughts

Overall, this is a team that will be focused more on preventing runs, rather than scoring them. Not surprisingly, the Reds are third in MLB with a Defense mark of 17.0 runs above average and tied for 2nd in Runs Allowed with 82. That will result in a lot of frustration over the offense and a lot of close games. It will put a lot of stress on the pitching staff, fortunately we have a strong defense and an elite closer, both of which should improve our run prevention and make us competitive in close games. And, we have a weapon in Billy Hamilton who should make us a real threat in close games.

Obviously, the injuries to Aroldis and Latos have been real drags on the early season performance. While the emergence of Simon has offset the loss of Latos in the rotation, that burden has been shifted to the bullpen where injuries to Broxton, Marshall, and Aroldis have made us thin out there. Hopefully, the return to health of Latos and Aroldis gives us better depth and production up-and-down the pitching staff.


I'm sure I'm wildly off the mark here, but I still think it's reasonable, when all is said and done, for this team to land in the 89-91 win range.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

2014 Top Prospect List: #3 Jesse Winker, of

JESSE WINKER
Courtesy: MILB.com

DOB: 8/17/1993
HEIGHT: 6-2 WEIGHT: 210 B/T: L/L


The Reds selected Jesse Winker in the supplemental first round of the 2012 draft. It's already looking like a very shrewd selection. Winker was drafted out of Olympia High School in Florida, the same school that produced notable players/prospects like Brad Miller, Walker Wieckel, and Mason Williams.

Despite his youthful age and limited professional experience, Winker already exhibits an advanced approach and good feel for hitting. The Reds have had tremendous success in drafting and developing homegrown talent over the last decade. They have developed position players and pitchers of all types and profiles, but one area where they have come up a bit short is in impact bats. Jesse Winker is the best bet in the system to develop into a pure, complete hitter.


2013 SEASON

Winker spent the entire 2013 season with low-A Dayton. For the Dragons, he posted a rock solid slash line of .281/.379/.463/.841 over 112 games and 417 ABs. He also posted an impressive 75/63 K/BB ratio, showing an impressive ability to control the strike zone, and flashed developing power, 18 doubles and 16 homeruns. For his professional career, Winker has almost as many walks (103 BBs) as strikeouts (125 Ks), which portends very well for continued success as he can work deep into counts to draw walks but has the hit tool and 2-strike approach needed to limit the strikeouts. Further, Winker's homerun spray chart reveals that he hit 4 to left field, 2 to center field, and pulled 10 to right field, so he does a nice job using the entire field.

Thus far, the Reds are keeping Winker on a deliberate and linear development path, with one stop per season and a one level advancement from season 1 to season 2. It seems like the appropriate development plan for Winker, a polished high school hitter who has yet to find a level he can't handle.

If the Reds hold true to form, Winker will start and finish the season at high-A Bakersfield. But, if Winker hits well against the more advanced competition, then he could jump on a faster development track.


SWING MECHANICS

In last year's write up, I talked at length about the unusual arm-bar he uses in loading the hands and the corresponding hand manipulations he is forced to use to overcome it. I also wrote that "a mechanical issue isn't a flaw until it demonstrably impacts a player's performance level." Winker's arm-bar hasn't yet proven to be a flaw because he continues to produce. So far, so good.

Even so, it's an issue worth mentioning again. At times, it seems like Winker has diminished the arm-bar action in his swing, but it's definitely still there. And, as with last year, I feel like comparing Winker to John Olerud, who owned a highly effective and yet very simple swing, at similar points in their respective swings effectively illustrates the point.



Courtesy: Unknown



On the left, you can see John Olerud in action. His lead arm has more bend to it and his lead shoulder and hip have yet to open up. On the right, you can see Jesse Winker in action for the Dayton Dragons last season. Once again, Winker's swing places him in an atypical position, as his lead arm is barred and his back elbow is already tucked in close to the body. The position of his arms actually gives the appearance that he's going to come completely over the top in his swing. In addition, Winker's front hip is opening up earlier than Olerud's. But, to date, Winker's swing has yet to fail him, so this remains an issue merely worth watching, rather than a swing flaw. He obviously incorporates whatever in-swing hand adjustments necessary to make his arm-bar load functional.

Despite the deeper loading of the hands, as created by the arm-bar, Winker still manages to use a short, compact swing. His hand path to the point of impact is direct and efficient, which reduces the length of his swing and reduces the chances that he'll be tied up on hard, inside pitches, a typical concern with arm-bar swings.

Winker starts with a slightly wider than shoulder-width stance and a small bat waggle in his pre-pitch stance. He uses a high leg kick to transfer his weight forward to meet the pitch, which can occasionally throw off his timing when he gets fooled by offspeed pitches and has to slow his swing to try to make contact. As his stride foot touches down, he begins to draw his hands back to load up, triggering the aforementioned arm-bar issue, and starts to fire his hips. His hand path to the ball is short, which makes him quick to the ball. He brings his back elbow into his back hip, syncing his upper body to the power of the hip rotation. His hip rotation drives his weight up onto the toes of his back foot and he effectively firms up the front-side, allowing the force generated by the rotation of the hips to rotate around an anchored point.

In the below photo, you can see the very strong position that he gets into at the point of impact:






Winker gets good extension through the point of impact and uses good hand-eye coordination to consistently get the barrel of the bat on the ball. His swing seems short to the point of impact, but longer out-and-through the ball, which should give the valuable mix of contact ability and power production. I would like to see him hold off releasing the bat just a hair longer in the swing, maintaining a smaller angle between bat and left forearm for a longer period of time, to avoid any early casting of the bat head and maximizing the rotational power of the swing. IF he can delay the release of the bat head a hair longer, it may help him unlock his power potential going forward by generating a bit more leverage. Still, his good size should enable him to add more muscle/strength to his frame and it already allows him to generate good leverage in his swing.


Here's a look at Winker in action, courtesy of RedsMinorLeagues on YouTube:







Overall, there is a great deal to like with Jesse Winker. He has the pitch recognition skills and disciplined approach needed to control the strike zone and generate high walk rates. He has the hand-eye coordination and strong wrists needed to make consistent, hard contact. And, there's untapped power in his swing that could take his hitting to a whole new level. He also already has a mature approach, utilizing the entire field.

Currently, Winker is the best pure hitting prospect in the Reds system and the upside is both undeniable and tantalizing. If he continues on his current development path and adds a touch more power, then his offensive ceiling will be sky high. And, his current batting average and on-base skills give him a fairly highly floor.


DEFENSE AND RUNNING

On the defensive side of the game, Winker is likely to be relegated to left field or first base. Though, Joey Votto obviously presents something of a roadblock to playing time at first (understatement alert!), so left field is the likely home for Winker.

Winker should be just fine in left field. While he doesn't run that well, preventing him from covering a tremendous amount of ground, and his athleticism isn't great, he does do a nice job converting those plays he can reach into outs. His arm strength is average, at best, but it will play just fine in left field.

Ultimately, Winker's lack of athleticism will likely preclude him from ever being a plus defensive player, but he could be a solid, non-liability in left field. He'll need more innings under his belt to improve his reads off the bat and improve his comfort level out there. He's a prospect who takes pride in his defense and wants to be a well-rounded player, which bodes well for his development in this area.

Winker will always be a bat-first prospect, but he should have enough ability in left field to avoid having his defense act as a drag on his overall value.


FINAL THOUGHTS

When you are evaluating Jesse Winker, you are evaluating his hit tool. He's a bat-first prospect who will go as far as his hitting will take him. He doesn't have the speed or defense that drives the value of other prospects, so there is much greater emphasis on his hitting. That said, despite my lingering reservations about how he does what he does, I feel like there could be a significant breakthrough on the horizon for Winker.

Winker has already shown the ability to hit for average and control the strike zone, but there could/should be more power on the horizon. Power is frequently the last attribute to develop and there should be a power spike coming in the near future for the 20-year old Winker. When the power arrives, the Reds could have a very complete hitter on their hands, one who excels in all three components of the slash line and has a very high offensive ceiling.

Winker is an exciting prospect and one with a great deal of projection remaining in his offensive game. If he can tap into it, then he could be the best, most well-rounded hitter the Reds have developed since Joey Votto. My gut feeling is that Winker, if his development breaks right, could be a very special hitter for the Reds. I'm definitely bullish on his future, so for now Winker lands at #3 on the list.