Friday, February 20, 2015

2015 Top Prospect List: #7 Anthony DeSclafani, rhp


HEIGHT: 6-1 WEIGHT: 190 lbs
B/T: R/R

This offseason, the Reds decided to address the impending departure of three-fifths of their starting rotation after the 2015 season. They did so largely by trading away Mat Latos, whose value has fallen due to an injury plagued 2014 season and declining fastball velocity, to the Miami Marlins. Not as many pundits as I would have expected are making the connection between those two factors, but it seems highly likely that they are interrelated. Regardless, the central piece coming back to the Reds in the Latos deal was Anthony DeSclafani.

Right out of the chute, DeSclafani takes the title for worst name on the 40-man roster. A brutal blend of consonants and dissonance. Fortunately, others in his life must have struggled with it, because someone bestowed the nickname of "Disco" upon him.

The general pundit consensus is that the return for the Reds in the Mat Latos deal was rather light. Disco, as the key piece of that return, will have a chance to prove them wrong. There are certainly a number of things to really like about Anthony DeSclafani, even if he still needs to conquer a few lingering issues before he evolves into a viable MLB starting pitcher.  


Disco spent three years at the University of Florida, where he split time between the rotation and the bullpen. Overall, his collegiate career fell somewhat short of stellar:

Pitching Career
2009 (19-FR): 65.0 IP, 4.98 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 2.22 BB/9, 6.51 K/9, 2.94 K/BB, 21 G/11 GS
2010 (20-SO): 40.2 IP, 7.08 ERA, 1.67 WHIP, 1.77 BB/9, 6.42 K/9, 3.63 K/BB, 19 G/6 GS
2011 (21-JR): 43.2 IP, 4.33 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 1.24 BB/9, 8.04 K/9, 6.50 K/BB, 28 G/2 GS

The peripheral stats were more encouraging than the overall stats, but it wasn't an elite performance level by any means. It's also interesting to note, since the Reds have tabbed him an early favorite for a rotation spot, that he spent more time working out of the bullpen in college than the rotation. Still, his performance combined with his pitching tools was enough for the Blue Jays to draft him with the 199th overall pick in the 6th round of the 2011 draft.

Disco was eventually dealt to the Marlins in the Reyes/Buehrle/J.Johnson deal and then on over to the Reds in the Mat Latos trade. He has bounced around quite a bit in his young professional career, including stops at three different levels in 2014.


Disco split time between double-A, triple-A, and the majors in 2014. The initial assignment to double-A was a return engagement and he handled it well, showing a nice blend of walks and strikeouts that would be the defining positive characteristic of his season.

Double-A: 43.0 IP, 4.19 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 2.1 BB/9, 8.0 K/9, 3.80 K/BB, 8 G/8 GS
Triple-A: 59.1 IP, 3.49 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 3.2 BB/9, 8.9 K/9, 2.81 K/BB, 12 G/11 GS
MLB: 33.0 IP, 6.27 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 1.4 BB/9, 7.1 K/9, 5.20 K/BB, 13 G/5 GS

The walk and whiff rates are what stand out, but, in light of his largely two-pitch mix, it's worth wondering how well those rates will translate to the majors. It's possible that he gets away with leaning heavily on the fastball/slider combo when facing younger hitters, but that he'll struggle to maintain that level of success when facing big league hitters on a consistent basis.

To find out, I went back and watched all five of Disco's starts for the Marlins in 2014. I watched those starts cold, without any prior research, because I wanted a clean first impression.

Disco's first start was both his MLB debut and his best effort. He faced the Dodgers on May 14 and tossed 6.0 innings of 2 run ball, allowing 7 hits and posting a 7/1 K/BB ratio. His debut was noteworthy for two reasons: (1) it included his best velocity as a starting pitcher, and (2) with the exception of a single changeup, he relied on only two pitches (fastball/slider).

I don't know if his veins were coursing with adrenaline as a result of making his Major League debut, but his fastball was popping the mitt, averaging 94.4 mph. That level of velocity, when coupled with an above-average slider, was enough to confound the Dodgers. The one changeup that he threw was not a good one, getting hammered by Yasiel Puig for a double. Not only was that pitch outcome bad, but the arm action he used on the changeup looked materially different than the one he used on his fastball and slider. So, the deception was poor, which isn't a good sign going forward.

After his debut start, the results were decidedly poor and the fastball velocity a notch slower, sitting more 91/92/93 than 93/94/95. He gave up, respectively, 5, 4, 7, and finally 2 runs in an abbreviated 3.0 inning start that he had to depart after getting plunked by a comebacker. After those five starts, he returned later in the year to work out of the bullpen. So, what can we glean from those starts?

Well, first and foremost, his fastball is vastly more interesting and effective when it sits 93/94/95 than when it sits 91/92/93. Unfortunately, the latter is more common than the former. Second, his changeup isn't ready for prime time. Third, there might have been a smattering of bad luck obscuring a true performance level, as his BABIP and Strand Rate were both worse than might have reasonably been expected. In short, he gave up more hits than normal and those hits were bunched in more damaging clusters than expected. So, he has that going for him. Finally, his control could become a real value-driver for DeSclafani, as he has the ability to limit the number of baserunners he allows via the free pass. 


As for pitching mechanics, Disco's are strong without any obvious red flags. His balance and tempo remain strong throughout. His leg kick comes up well past parallel at the apex and he stays over the rubber to effectively gather himself before driving to the plate.

The defining characteristic of his mechanics is his stride. After he unpacks his leg kick from the apex and strides forward, he actually straightens out his front leg, leaving him in an unusual position.

Courtesy: J Pat Carter/AP Photo
Courtesy: Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA Today Sports

While the stiff stride leg looks unusual, it serves to effectively lengthen his stride, which can increase the force generated by the kinetic chain and allow for easier and more complete clearing of the hips to transfer that force to the baseball. For Disco, straightening the front leg seems to serve the same purpose, namely maximizing the stride length, as Tim Lincecum's "step over the banana peel" move at the very end of his stride. 

In the photos above, his back leg is flexed, while his stride leg is straight. As he continues to drive to the plate, it reverses, as his back leg straightens, while the front leg flexes. In the photos below, you can see this happen, giving him a longer stride and the appearance of almost jumping off the mound toward the plate.

Courtesy: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Courtesy: Rob Foldy, Getty Images

I'm a big proponent of a lengthy stride, or at least a stride as long as a pitcher can comfortably utilize, as it has real kinetic chain benefits. However, one of the things I like most about the longer stride is that it allows for the possibility of a greater differential between hip rotation and shoulder rotation. A delayed shoulder rotation allows the pitcher to more effectively throw with his entire body, which reduces stress on the pitching arm. Disco has a good differential (photo below), even if it isn't quite all it could be. As a result, his kinetic chain is effective, but it isn't quite as efficient as it might be, potentially reducing the generation of force and/or increasing the effort required to generate that force.

Disco's differential: hips firing, delayed shoulder rotation. 

Overall, I like Disco's mechanics, which are strong, but for a pitcher whose stuff is straddling the line between starter and reliever, any added or lost force might make a substantial difference in career path.

As for his arm action, he throws from a high three-quarter arm slot, maintains good position relative to his shoulder, gets the arm up into proper throwing position at foot strike, uses good pronation, and has a solid deceleration phase. All of which should work to minimize his injury risk.

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

I like Disco from a pitching mechanics point of view. His fastball, at least when it averages 94.1 mph, is a legitimate weapon and his slider can be a plus-pitch, but his changeup remains a real work in progress.

If the velocity remains inconsistent on his fastball and the changeup remains little utilized and ineffective when it is, then it's difficult to see how Disco will find consistent success in the starting rotation. And, it's difficult to see how the Reds can win this trade if he's relegated to the bullpen.

The real problem is that while Disco's fastball and slider combo might be enough for him to consistently handle righthanded hitters, it's much harder to see how he can effectively neutralize lefties. His slider is a good pitch, but he doesn't throw it with enough power to utilize it as a back-foot slider to lefties. The slider averages 81.7 mph, which makes it difficult to generate enough depth and movement to break it down-and-in under the swings of lefties. During his starts, I saw him back-foot only one slider, an 83-mph pitch that struck Anthony Rizzo out swinging. But, by and large, it's a pitch that's likely to be more effective against righties, leaving him without an out-pitch to lefties.

The numbers bear this out, as Disco posted the following splits in 2014 (obviously, small sample size caveats apply):

vs R: .273/.301/.409/.710
vs L: .333/.362/.530/.893

The performance against righties certainly isn't great, but the performance against lefties is truly ugly. In light of his limited repertoire and struggles against lefties, a move to the bullpen might be inevitable. He might be able to stave off such a move if he can either significantly improve his changeup or increase his fastball velocity, but neither seems to be lurking on the immediate horizon. 

Clearly, Disco was aware of the problem, as he was experimenting with a curveball in the Arizona Fall League and early reports were promising. Granted, it was a small sample size against varying levels of hitters, but it's possible that the curveball will replace the changeup in his arsenal and give him a more effective offspeed pitch to use against lefties. Odd as it may sound, curveballs frequently have reverse platoon-splits, so he could deploy it against lefthanded hitters. So, maybe it's this new curveball that will ultimately unlock Disco's potential and make him a viable MLB starting pitcher. 


The overarching goal of the Mat Latos trade was to swap a pitcher with one year of control for players under multiple years of control. Part and parcel of such a trade is trading experience for inexperience. Fortunately, DeSclafani still has time to develop, but the Reds seem ready to toss him right into the fire, as he's penciled into the rotation for 2015. However, he'll need to find a way to take his performance level up a notch in 2015 if he's going to find consistent success in the rotation. 

Disco has strong mechanics, but unless he has more and better stuff in his arsenal, it's difficult to see him emerging as an impact starting pitcher. His current arsenal would probably make him a viable reliever, but the Reds obviously have their sights set higher than that. 

There are a lot of things to like about DeSclafani, including clean mechanics, good command, and enough stuff to generate strikeouts at a good clip. Further, he's still young enough to take the needed step forward and he'll get that chance in 2015. For now, he clocks in at #7 on the list. 

2015 Top Prospect List: #5 Nick Howard, rhp

Courtesy: UVA

HEIGHT: 6-3 WEIGHT: 215 lbs
B/T: R/R

The Reds selected Nick Howard with the 19th overall draft pick in the 2014 draft, which continued the organization's recent strategy of trying to reap a competitive advantage by converting college relievers into professional starting pitchers. It seems safe to infer that the Reds believe they can spot undervalued talent in college relievers.

Tony Cingrani was the first significant attempt at this conversion, Michael Lorenzen followed shortly thereafter, Howard most recently. While these picks are all philosophically similar, one difference worth noting is the escalating opportunity cost. 

Cingrani was a 3rd round pick. Lorenzen was a Supplemental 1st round pick. Howard was a full blown 1st round pick. As the value of the draft pick increases, so does the opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is the "loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen." 

When the Reds selected Cingrani, they viewed him as the 114th best player in the country. Since 113 players were already off the draft board, they never had a shot at those players, which lowers the opportunity cost of selecting Cingrani. 

When the Reds selected Lorenzen, they viewed him as the 38th best player in the country. Only 37 players were off the board, so the available alternatives were of higher quality, increasing the opportunity cost of selecting Lorenzen. 

Finally, in selecting Nick Howard, the Reds viewed him as the 19th best player in the country, despite the availability of a number of other quality alternatives, giving Howard the highest opportunity cost of the troika.  

Given the real inherent risk to converting a college reliever to the starting rotation, driven by the simple fact that he's never proven that he can do what you asking, the lower the opportunity cost the better. The college reliever may have less wear-and-tear on his arm, but he has yet to prove that his mechanics and arm health can hold up under a heavier workload (see: Cingrani, Tony). As a result, rolling the dice in the 3rd round makes more sense than rolling those 1st round dice. 


Nick Howard spent three seasons at the University of Virginia. For the Cavaliers, Howard pitched out of the bullpen, pitched out of the rotation, and played first base, third base, and shortstop. Wearing that many hats obviously requires very good athleticism and creates a tremendous amount of value for the the program. 

Pitching Career
2012 (19-FR): 41.2 IP, 2.79 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 2.57 BB/9, 7.93 K/9, 3.08 K/BB, 19 G/0 GS
2013 (20-SO): 61.1 IP, 3.39 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 2.21 BB/9, 7.67 K/9, 3.47 K/BB, 13 G/12 GS
2014 (21-JR): 37.2 IP, 1.89 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 3.32 BB/9, 14.21 K/9, 4.29 K/BB, 31 G/0 GS

Hitting Career
2012 (19-FR): .346/.426/.404/.830 with 0 HRs and 13/8 K/BB ratio in 52 ABs
2013 (20-SO): .323/.341/.449/.790 with 3 HRs and 31/8 K/BB ratio in 198 ABs
2014 (21-JR): .261/.305/.333/.638 with 1 HR and 25/11 K/BB ratio in 153 ABs

For our purposes, his pitching performance is what's relevant. Howard worked exclusively out of the bullpen as a freshman and junior. He started 12 games and made 1 relief appearance as a sophomore. His performance ticked up notably in his junior season, which is what undoubtedly carried him up the draft board. 

He also pitched seven newsworthy innings at the College World Series, including four in a 15-inning battle with TCU. In his final season, he also broke the UVA single-season save record, previously held by former Reds farm hand Kevin Arico. 


Despite a long season at the collegiate level, Howard still had time to log some innings and get his feet wet in the professional ranks. The Reds sent him to low-A Dayton, where he pitched 33.2 innings for the Dragons. In those innings, he posted a 3.74 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 23/11 K/BB ratio, and a 1.15 GO/FO ratio. The Reds started off his professional career with 6 relief appearances followed by 5 starts to finish the season. 

It's a small sample size and examining his splits just makes it more so, but since Howard's ability to start is at issue, it's worth noting that he was better in relief than he was in the rotation. As a reliever, he posted a 2.70 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and a 9/3 K/BB ratio in 10.0 innings. As a starter, he posted a 4.18 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, and a 14/8 K/BB ratio in 23.2 innings. 

Some observations from the what I saw out of Howard. In shorter stints, he had the ability to get swings-and-misses on the fastball, but in longer stints that was less common. In his starts, he didn't always have the ability to put hitters away when he got ahead in the count, which frequently points to inconsistent or insufficient offspeed pitches, the former in Howard's case.


Overall, Howard uses a fundamentally sound set of mechanics without any glaring red flags. He has good athleticism which aids in repeating his delivery and maintaining consistent balance and tempo in the delivery. He also has good size, which should help him effectively work on a downward plane.

Howard stands tall on the mound with feet shoulder width apart. He uses a very small rocker-step towards first base to begin his motion, shifting his weight to the left foot so he can pivot his right foot down onto the rubber. The step is short, allowing him to maintain balance and rhythm, and aids in transitioning momentum up the delivery.

From there, he brings his lead leg up into the leg kick, which is one of the first components that gives his motion a somewhat stiff/rigid appearance. At the apex of his leg kick, Howard keeps the toe of his foot at a 90-degree angle to his shin (see below photos, interestingly he used a slightly higher leg kick for low-A Dayton than he did later in the Arizona Fall League), which isn't necessarily a negative, but it adds a touch of tension and rigidity to his motion:

Howard pitching in AFL in 2014.
Howard pitching for Dayton in 2014.

The other component of his motion that creates a more rigid, less fluid, look is his upright posture. His upper body, in particular stays fairly upright throughout the delivery, which causes his shoulder level to remain parallel to the ground throughout.

Typically, as a pitcher nears the apex of his leg kick he "sets the hip." This move involves the back knee and back hip moving forward, causing the front hip to lead the rest of the body in the drive to the plate. This movement, which generates forward lean in the delivery, creates leverage by setting a small uphill angle of the shoulders as the pitcher drives down the slope of the mound. Most pitchers, particularly power pitchers, don't maintain level shoulders throughout the delivery, instead they let the setting of the hips work to set the shoulder level. Not only does this create additional leverage, but it also increases the ability to throw on a downward plane.

Howard does "set" the hip, but he doesn't create the small uphill angle of the shoulders. So, to an extent, he is sacrificing a small degree of leverage and downward plane by maintaining a level shoulder-level throughout the delivery.

On the plus side, Howard has a clean arm action, both maintaining good position relative to the shoulder throughout and getting up into proper throwing position at foot strike. He throws from a high three-quarter arm slot with a quick arm that can generate plus velocity.

In addition, Howard has a strong glove-side action in the delivery, which gives him a firm point to work against as he throws the ball. He pulls the glove down enough to generate a measure of rotational force, but not so much that he pulls the rotation off-line and increases stress on the pitching elbow. His glove also finishes properly in the box between the midline-and-the-armpit from the belly button-to-the-waist. Ideally, a pitcher's throwing-side and glove-side should load the arm for throwing by mirroring and counterbalancing each other. Howard does that well.

The differential created by Howard between hip-rotation and shoulder-rotation (see below photo) is solid-average. Not great, not terrible. By not creating a larger differential, Howard is relying on a kinetic chain with sub-optimal efficiency to generate force. There would be performance and durability benefits to creating a greater differential and improving the efficiency of the chain.  

Howard at maximum differential.

While Howard does a solid job in generating the force, he is less successful at safely and effectively dissipating that force. The deceleration phase of the delivery is important for durability, as the arm has to be properly decelerated to reduce the risk of serious injury.

One of the key components of the deceleration phase is proper and timely pronation of the pitching arm after releasing the pitch. This rotation (think of the rotation of the arm resulting in the thumb pointing downward) of the arm is necessary because it prevents the elbow joint from consistently banging after the release of each and every pitch. Howard's pronation seems inconsistent at best, insufficient at worst, as he doesn't always fully and complete pronate the arm. Howard's pitching arm finishes low and doesn't involve any recoil, which is good, but the insufficient pronation could foreshadow serious elbow problems down the road. The pitching motion creates a tremendous amount of force, which is borne by the arm and must ultimately be taken off the arm through proper dissipation of that force.

Here's a slow-motion look at Nick Howard on the mound, courtesy of Chance Moore on YouTube:

One interesting thing to note is the final pitch in the above clip is his changeup, as evidenced by the circle-change grip that he employs.

Here's another look at Howard in the AFL, courtesy of The Prospect Pipeline on YouTube:

Overall, Howard has solid, functional mechanics. There a few things I'd like to see improved, including a bit more fluidity in his motion and a greater differential, but the largest concern and the closest thing to a real red flag is the insufficient deceleration phase.


Howard works with a primarily three-pitch mix. He has a power fastball that he can run up to 99 mph as a reliever, but that sits 91-93 mph as a starting pitcher. When he's working as a reliever, he has the ability to get swings-and-misses with the fastball even in fastball counts. He also features a slider that has good depth, bite, and downward break. Whether intentionally or not, the slider can also resemble a slurve, with a slower, bigger break. So, he's either inconsistent with his slider or he can shape it different ways in different situations. Finally, Howard throws a changeup that pundits rate as an average or below average pitch, but from what I've seen it has very real potential. It shows flashes of being a beautiful pitch with good deception and late tumble. It may be an inconsistent, but there's real upside there and it wouldn't surprise me if it turned out to be his very best pitch.

Overall, Howard's repertoire has promise, but if the conversion to the rotation is going to work, then he'll need to find (1) more velocity or command on the fastball, (2) more consistency on the slider, (3) better command of the changeup, or (4) some combination of incremental improvement in more than one of those areas.


Nick Howard is the latest attempt by the Reds to convert a college reliever to the professional rotation. That's a gamble that makes more sense outside the first round, where the opportunity cost is lower and the increased risk from making the conversion is more manageable.

Overall, Howard has blend of positives and negatives that lands him at #5 on the list:

Positives: Solid mechanics, good size, solid velocity, a good slider, and the potential for a very good changeup.

Negatives: No real track record of being able to hold up under a starting pitcher's workload, a questionable deceleration phase that increases the risk of serious elbow injury, velocity that plays better out of the bullpen, and inconsistent offspeed offerings.

As the opportunity cost increases, I'm becoming less and less enamored with the strategy of drafting college relievers and converting them to the rotation. The first round should be a time for drafting prospects who, as much as possible, are ready to hit the ground running without the need for a major change in role or mechanics.

However, Nick Howard, like Cingrani and Lorenzen before him, will get the chance to develop as a starting pitcher. I would argue (1) that the success of this draft pick hinges on his conversion to the rotation and (2) that the success of this conversion hinges on his changeup, which I believe could end up being the best weapon in his arsenal. If the changeup continues to develop, then he could emerge as a solid starting pitcher. If not, then he'll likely be a high-leverage reliever. For now he slots in at #5 on the list.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

2015 Top Prospect List: #20 Aristides Aquino, of

HEIGHT: 6-4 WEIGHT: 190 lbs
B/T: R/R

Aristides Aquino is the latest young prospect signed out of Latin America to make some real noise in the Reds system. In that regard, he follows in the footsteps of Juan Duran, Yorman Rodriguez, Jonathan Reynoso, and others. 

Unfortunately, those who preceded him down that path have yet to have any real, sustained professional success. Unfortunately, those prospects are the toughest for me to rank, as they frequently make noise in the rookie leagues and their amateur careers are largely inaccessible to me. 

So, that leaves me with an annual dilemma. I don't want to leave them off the list entirely, but there just isn't enough for me to get a good feel for their abilities as prospects. What I have done in the past is what I will do here. Go the conservative route. I'll slot Aquino in at #20 on the list to acknowledge his existence and potential while waiting for a larger body of work before I draw any real conclusions or try to evaluate him. 

Aristides is very, very popular in the pundit community right now, but this list, for better or worse, is all about my impressions of prospects and he's just too obscure for me to form a proper impression. So, for now, just know that there is an intriguing prospect in the system named Aristides Aquino who spent 2011 and 2012 with the Dominican Summer League Reds, 2013 with the Arizona League Reds and Billings Mustangs, and 2014 with a breakout season for the Billings Mustangs. His breakout season consisted of a .292/.342/.577/.919 with 16 homers and a 66/15 K/BB ratio in 284 ABs. The K/BB ratio is disconcerting. The power is encouraging. 

Outside of that, let's just take a look at Aquino in action. Here's a look at a home run, courtesy of Manny Mota Jr. on YouTube:

And, here's a look at a triple, courtesy of GradingontheCurve on YouTube: 

Given his youth and distance from the majors, there is a tremendous amount of development risk to Aquino, which means that there are countless possible career outcomes. Boom? Bust? Something in between? Time will tell. For now he checks in at #20 on the list. 

2015 Top Prospect List: #6 Alex Blandino, ss


HEIGHT: 6-0 WEIGHT: 190 lbs
B/T: R/R

Heading into the 2014 draft, the Reds farm system was shallow and bottom heavy. There wasn't much help at the upper levels and the system was short on depth. In light of the state of the system, perhaps it's not surprising that the Reds used their first two pick on polished, upside collegians.

They reeled in Nick Howard with the 19th overall pick and Alex Blandino with the 29th overall pick. I'm sure the selections had more to do with those two being the best available on the Reds draft board, but they also happen to fit their need for a fast moving wave of talent to support the big league roster.


Blandino spent three years at Stanford University, hitting the ground running as a freshman and finishing strong in his junior year.

2012 FR: .294/.337/.523/.860 with 8 homers and a 31/12 K/BB ratio in 170 PAs
2013 SO: .268/.323/.453/.776 with 7 homers and a 33/17 K/BB ratio in 202 PAs
2014 JR: .310/.379/.531/.910 with 12 homers and a 33/30 K/BB ratio in 265 PAs

Perhaps the most encouraging part of his offensive performance was the continued improvements in plate approach, as his K/BB rate improved each year from 2.58 to 1.94 to a stellar 1.10.

Some of the accolades he received over his career were Baseball America All-America Second Team (2014), All Pac-12 (2014), Pac 12 All-Defensive Team (2014), and Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-America (2012).

Blandino was almost exclusively (with 2 games at 2b as a freshman and some DH work being the exceptions) a third baseman during his three years at Stanford. Despite his time at the hot corner, many draft pundits believe Blandino can move up the defensive spectrum to second base or even shortstop. Obviously, that would significantly improve his positional value and make him a more viable prospect if his bat should falter.


After being drafted, the Reds sent Blandino to the rookie Pioneer League to play with the Billings Mustangs. For the Mustangs, Blandino did what you would expect from a top tier collegiate prospect, ripping to the tune .309/.412/.527/.939 with a 18/16 K/BB ratio (13.7 K% and 12.2 BB%) and 4 homers in 110 ABs. The high point was probably the July 6th game, wherein he went 3-5 with a double, homer, two walks, two runs, and two RBIs.

Courtesy: Hannah Potes, Billings Gazette

In his time there, Blandino controlled the zone, hit for average, and drove the ball well. It was a complete performance, earning him a quick step up the ladder to low-A Dayton.

For the Dragons, Blandino slowed a bit. He hit a more pedestrian .261/.329/.440/.769 with a more disturbing 42/13 K/BB ratio (27.6 K% and 8.6 BB%) and 4 homers in 134 ABs. It was less than to be expected from a polished college player, but it was the tail end of a long season and fatigue could certainly have set in.

On the plus side, Blandino showed a polished approach and utilized the entire field effectively, as evidenced by his 2014 heat map. While he isn't afraid to use the whole field, most of his power is pull power, as 7 of his 8 home runs went to leftfield with the remaining 1 going out to rightfield.


So, Blandino's professional debut was something of a mixed bag, not really any inferences that can be safely drawn from his season. Still, based on his amateur and professional career, it's safe to say that Blandino understands the strikezone and does a nice job of controlling it. His pitch recognition is good, but it will be tested as he climbs the ladder to face faster fastballs and nastier breaking balls, which will shorten his decision-making time and increase the difficulty of pitch identification.

As solid as his approach may be, he'll still need to be able to consistently get the barrel of the bat on the pitches he decides to go after, which brings us to the swing mechanics.


Stanford University has a negative reputation in the scouting world for the manner in which they instruct their hitters. "The Stanford Swing" is not intended to be a compliment, as scouts have long felt that their coaches place too much emphasis on contact and shooting the ball the other way, instead of driving the ball with power. Scouts have often thought that hitters from Stanford would have to have their swings torn down and reconstructed into something that would play more effectively at the professional level. Obviously, that type of change increases the development risk.

That notion may be a bit outdated, as things started to change at Stanford, especially when former big leaguer Ryan Garko returned to his alma mater to coach. Garko, who only stayed a year or so, may have had some influence on the hitters, including Alex Blandino. Heading into the draft, scouts didn't seem to have any concerns about Blandino's "Stanford Swing".

Here's a look at that swing, courtesy of MinorLeagueBaseball on YouTube:

It's hard to quibble with anything in that swing. Good process yielding good results. One thing in particular that I like about the above swing is the swing path, which is relatively flat. His flatter path effectively extends the length of the impact zone, increasing the area where his swing can meet up with the plane of the pitch. Despite using a flatter swing path, which should generate line drives at a very good clip, he didn't struggle to elevate the ball or drive it out of the park, which bodes well for power production.

At the plate, Blandino stands slightly wider than shoulder width with his hands next to his right ear in his pre-pitch stance. As the pitch is delivered, he strides forward and utilizes a small movement to load the hands, drawing his hands back and down until they sit in front of his back shoulder. This loading of the hands gives him a shorter path to the point of impact and effectively syncs the arms to the rotation of the core with the back shoulder delivering the bat to the ball. Blandino also does a nice job of firming up the front side, giving him an anchor around which the rotational force can travel. He also maintains good balance throughout the swing.

From what I've seen of Blandino, his stride is inconsistent. Once in a while, as in the homerun clip above, he uses a high leg kick, other times he uses a high leg kick with a toe tap, and other times he uses a short, low stride. I haven't noticed any particular pattern (i.e. shorten up with two strikes, longer in hitter's counts, etc), so he may just be trying to find a stride that's comfortable.

In addition to a flatter swing path, Blandino gets good extension out and through the pitch. Rotation and extension are key components of power generation. He also, as seen in the video above, has the ability to pull his hands in to handle the inside corner pitch. Overall, he's a fundamentally sound hitter with a solid set of swing mechanics.

Finally, Blandino seems very comfortable dropping down a bunt, which he seems to be able to do equally well for a sacrifice or a hit. It's more evidence that he is a fundamentally sound, high-percentage player. Blandino is a player with a high baseball IQ and good instincts for the game.

On his hitting, the question for me is whether he has enough pure bat speed, enough explosiveness to his game. Granted it was the end of a long season for Blandino, and fatigue may have played a part, but his bat speed was more solid/average than above average/plus. The swing is sound, but does he have the underlying physicality to utilize it to greatest effect? At times, it feels like Blandino reaches a bit too much for the pitch, which breaks the connection of the arms and body, leaving those swings without the power generated by the body's rotation. Setting aside the rotational power generated by the swing, the bigger question may be whether he has enough hand/wrist speed, enough fast-twitch muscle, to handle high-end velocity and consistently drive the ball with authority.


The higher up the defensive spectrum a player can play, the lower the bar is set on offensive production. So, it likely matters a great deal whether Blandino can handle shortstop, as the Reds seem to believe, second base, as many draft pundits believed, or is relegated to the hot corner, where his college coaches believed he best fit. The more positional value he has, the less production his bat will have to generate. So, the Reds are wise to make Blandino play his way off of shortstop before moving him down the spectrum.

In the field, Blandino is fundamentally sound, which holds true for all aspects of his game. Baseball America tabbed him as the best defensive third baseman in the Pac-12 a time or two in their college season preview edition. He has good agility and soft fielding actions.

Here's a look at Blandino at the hot corner for Stanford, courtesy of Stanford Athletics on YouTube:

So much of defense is predicated on the defender's first step, which is based on the initial read off the bat. In the above clip, Blandino gets a great read off the bat and has a very quick first step. In addition, he shows good agility and strong body control, allowing him to pop up immediately to get the throw off. The power behind the throw isn't great, but the quick release gets the ball there in time to record the out.

Overall, it's a very strong play and the combination of the way he moves and his leaner body type certainly makes reasonable the idea that he might be able to shift to the middle of the infield. Still, Blandino isn't a burner and it's an open question whether he'll have the range to handle shortstop. He has the tools and abilities needed to make the plays on the balls he can reach, but it remains to be seen how many balls he will be able to reach at the shortstop position. His success, or lack thereof, at shortstop will likely depend on his positioning and anticipation much more than true speed and range.

Even if his combination of arm strength and range ultimately proves insufficient at shortstop, it might well play at second base. Not to mention, if the bat develops, then he might end up being a very viable third baseman after all. There are a number of possible defensive outcomes to Alex Blandino's development.


Overall, Blandino is a good prospect with diversified skills. He does a lot of things well. Does that make him a "jack of all trades, master of none?" Does he have a carrying tool? Is there enough electricity to his game? Does he have a truly plus attribute that will drive his value? Or, is he more of a high floor, rather than high ceiling, type prospect?

Blandino's value will need to be cobbled together from his various attributes, rather than driven by a single plus-attribute. Ultimately, his career path seems likely to be determined by the quality of his pure hit tool and his final defensive position.

In the final analysis, I like Blandino. On the downside, there are real questions about his upside and whether he has true impact ability. On the upside, he is very fundamentally sound with a high baseball IQ and very good instincts for the game. At the plate, I like the combination of pitch recognition, rotation, extension, and flatter swing plane. I'd be very comfortable betting on a prospect with that mix of attributes. He seemed like good value for the Reds at 29th overall and it wouldn't surprise me at all if his hit tool develops to the point that it carries him to a good career as an MLB starting infielder.

For now, Alex Blandino lands at #6 on the list.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Tony Cingrani "Problem" and Shoulder Impingements

Tony Cingrani has been a personal favorite (I've rated him as high as 2nd on my Reds prospect rankings) since the day he was drafted. He is such a favorite that I advocated signing him to a long-term extension, pegging him as the right player to lock-up in order to take advantage of annual player salary inflation. All of which made Cingrani's 2014 season rather disconcerting for me.

It's no secret that shoulder injuries are much scarier for pitchers than elbow injuries. Repairing elbow injuries is almost routine these days, shoulder injuries less so. Perhaps that's not surprising because the shoulder is simply a more complicated joint than the elbow (So complicated that it's worth pointing out again that I'm not a medical professional, so this is just a layman's overview). In actuality, there are four different joints that make up the shoulder complex: glenohumeral, scapulothoracic, acromioclavicular, and sternoclavicular. Pitching is an unnatural motion, it's a motion that can create a problem in the interplay between those fours joints, resulting in a shoulder impingement.

The good news is that a shoulder impingement is not a traumatic injury. It's not a blown out tendon or ligament, it's not a torn rotator cuff or labrum. The bad news is that isn't always the easiest ailment to identify and resolve. The worse news is that, if unresolved, it could lead to one of the aforementioned serious injuries.

Over the years I've come around to the idea that most of these traumatic arm injuries are actually more like "symptoms" than "diseases." While you may be able to effectively treat the symptoms, that's not the same thing as curing the underlying disease. Put another way, traumatic arm injuries are frequently the "downstream effects" of an "upstream cause."

The "upstream cause" might be flawed mechanics, overwork, poor physical conditioning, or any number of other factors. Here's something worth considering, what's the value in treating the downstream effect if you don't also remedy the upstream cause? We have the ability to patch up pitchers faster and more effectively, but are we curing the disease? Or, are we just sending pitchers back out to the mound until the upstream cause once again sends carnage floating down the river?

Why do I bring all of this up? Because Tony Cingrani's shoulder impingement might ultimately be an upstream cause, which, if left unresolved, leads to a serious downstream injury.

Tony Cingrani is a unique pitcher, one who leans heavily on his fastball for success. The effectiveness of that pitch is due to some combination of velocity, deception, and movement, all of which are tied directly to his pitching mechanics.

In the best case scenario, which is still a reasonable possibility, Cingrani's shoulder impingement can be resolved without changing his mechanics. That may, in fact, be, by far, the most common resolution, but it's tough to say just how common because those impingements are resolved so quickly and quietly that we never really know they existed. Hopefully, that's what happens with Cingrani, as that would allow him to continue to build on his success, rather than trying to recreate it with a different arm action. It's hard enough to invent the wheel the first time, recreating it may be impossible.

If the impingement can't be resolved easily, then the Reds may be left to choose between effectiveness and health. That's a helluva choice. Two equally bad options.

If Cingrani needs to change his mechanics to eliminate the impingement, then he may lose all effectiveness. On the other hand, if he keeps his mechanics to maintain effectiveness, then he may lose all durability.

The fact that Cingrani missed the majority of the 2014 season is one reason to think that the impingement might not be easily resolved. Unfortunately, there may also be something identifiable in his mechanics that points to continuing problems.

Here's one part of Cingrani's mechanics that I've always loved, the differential between the hip and shoulder rotation:

Tony Cingrani demonstrating impressive differential between hip rotation and shoulder rotation.

That differential really allows the kinetic chain to work, as the force generated by the body is transferred to the ball in a way that minimizes the stress on his arm. His mechanics are built on a very efficient kinetic chain and have a real fluidity. That's a real and substantial positive to his mechanics.

The problem with Cingrani's mechanics, which, in light of the above, I've been willing to downplay and deemphasize, is that his arm is later than normal in the delivery. Typically, you want the pitching arm up in throwing position at foot-strike. As you can see below, when his stride foot touches, his pitching arm is down, parallel to the ground. It's late.

Late arm, increases whip and deception, but at what cost?
Late arm, parallel to ground.

The combination of the differential and the late arm might actually be what makes his fastball so effective. It creates a real looseness and whipiness in his arm action, a crack-the-whip type motion. Furthermore, the late arm action serves to increase the deception, as the above photos show he hides the ball behind his pitching shoulder. So, the combination of these two components of his delivery might be central to his success, creating both a whip-like arm-action and real deception.

While the late arm action may be a significant key to his performance, there is a possible downside to that lateness. The arm dragging behind the body when it first starts to accelerate can lead to an "internal impingement" (just one type of impingement). The late cocking and early acceleration of the arm can create problematic contact between the rotator cuff muscles and the postsuperior lip of the labrum. This repetitive contact between the structures can lead to partial rotator cuff tears, fraying or tears of the labrum, or cystic changes in the humeral head.

Pitchers with internal impingements generally suffer pain while throwing and often have stiffness or trouble getting loose. These pitchers often suffer decreased velocity and command.

The Reds were fairly tight lipped about Cingrani's injury, but, in many respects, it sounds like he could have been dealing with an internal impingement. If so, is the "cure" to get the arm up into proper position earlier? If so, will that reduce the effectiveness of his most important pitch, the fastball?

In light of the Reds efforts to rebuild while contending, the team needs Cingrani more than ever. The departures of Alfredo Simon and Mat Latos and the likely impending departure of Johnny Cueto mean that they need young, cost-controlled options for the rotation this year and into the future.

Next season will provide a very important data point on the question of whether Cingrani can dependably hold down a rotation spot. The shoulder impingement has me worried (maybe far more than it should) about the answer to that question. Fortunately, the early reports about his health are good and the Reds have named him a front runner for a rotation spot, so we should have our answer one way or the other.