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Dodgers Advance as a Classic Series Ends With a Whimper

A pizza stain on the new Armani. A chocolate chip cookie, fresh out of the oven, adorned with nine chips and one cat droplet. The middle five wishes of Elliot Richards. Game 5 of the 2021 NLDS.

The Dodgers won 2-1 in as tense and dramatic a contest as we’ve seen all year, one that ended with an inexplicable call from first base umpire Gabe Morales on Wilmer Flores’ check swing. For Los Angeles, it’s a fifth trip to the NLCS in six seasons, a triumph only made sweeter by the circumstances. In vanquishing their rivals, the Dodgers get the last laugh in a brilliantly played season series. Tonight’s game is vindication for Dave Roberts and his lineup choices, redemption for Cody Bellinger, and another line on Hall of Famer Max Scherzer’s remarkable resume. Fans of all stripes were treated to an exquisite contest in nearly every respect.

But like most neutrals, that last pitch is stuck in my craw. With two outs, Kris Bryant on first, and Flores at the plate, Scherzer fired a 1-2 slider. Flores started his swing but appeared to check it well in advance of the imaginary and arbitrary breaking point at which a take (usually!) becomes a swinging strike:

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Freddie Freeman Gets His Moment, Pushes Atlanta Into NLCS

There isn’t much missing from Freddie Freeman’s sterling career. He’s won an MVP, hit for the cycle, racked up 42 WAR, captured a pair of Silver Sluggers, and has already made five All-Star teams. That’s not quite enough for Cooperstown on its own, but he’s probably only a few more star caliber seasons away from a pretty good Hall of Fame case, and given that he’s only 32, he’s got time to pad his resume. With apologies to a criminally under-photographed snowmobile ride with Chipper Jones, the only thing missing from Freeman’s career has been an iconic moment.

No longer. In the eighth inning of a 4-4 tie in Tuesday’s NLDS Game 4, Freeman stepped to the plate against Josh Hader. Hader, of course, is the sport’s best relief pitcher and an absolute terror against lefties. He hadn’t given up a homer to a lefty all year, hadn’t surrendered a run since July, and hadn’t given the two previous hitters much of a chance to hit his nasty fastball/slider combo. On his first pitch to Freeman though, his bender caught too much plate and one chance was all that Freeman needed:

Milwaukee mustered a leadoff single in the ninth, but never got any closer to tying the game. Freeman’s late dinger ultimately clinched the series, and ensured the Braves wouldn’t rue a day that could have been defined by risky gambles and opportunities missed. Read the rest of this entry »

Red Sox Rout Rays Behind Houck, Hernández and Martinez

This could have been Tampa Bay’s night. In an alternate, presumably domed and cat-walked universe, starter Shane Baz shakes off a tough start, and builds on his escape from a first-inning jam. The Rays, invigorated by their five-run rally off of Chris Sale in the bottom of the first, pour it on against Boston’s beleaguered bullpen.

It didn’t go that way. Jordan Luplow’s go-ahead grand slam off of Sale was just about the last highlight of the night for Tampa, as Boston outscored the division-winners 13-1 the rest of the way. Boston’s offensive explosion pulled the Red Sox back from the brink of a 2-0 series deficit, and ensured that ace Nathan Eovaldi gets to start in front of the Fenway faithful with a chance to take the lead in the ALDS. And while Boston’s offense did the heavy lifting, the key to the game may have come all the way back in the second inning, when Alex Cora pulled Sale in favor of Tanner Houck.

For my money, Houck is the most compelling player in the series. He pitched brilliantly down the stretch, notching a 2.52 FIP over 69 innings split between the bullpen and the rotation, and capped his season off with five perfect innings in a start last weekend against Washington. For the year, he struck out more than 30% of hitters while also generating more grounders than flies. Beyond the numbers, he’s just a real bastard to face. His low slot and deadly, sweeping slider draw inevitable comparisons to Sale, and he has one of the most devastating sinkers in the game. Read the rest of this entry »

The Past, Present, and Future of International Scouting

“I was at dinner with our scout in Japan and he made a comment that even truck drivers throw 95 over here,” said Oakland’s Assistant General Manager Dan Feinstein. “That caught my attention. I said, ‘If that’s true, maybe we should be trying out some of these truck drivers.'”

Feinstein soon decided to run an experiment. Oakland advertised an open tryout for pitchers and invited players with a college pedigree to send video to the A’s scouting department. From there, the team invited 60 of them to throw in front of scouts. One of them, right-hander Shohei Tomioka, bumped 95 on the gun, which impressed Oakland enough to offer him a contract then and there. “We call it the truck driver tryout,” Feinstein said with a chuckle.

Tomioka’s story was only possible because of a brilliant combination of scouting and technology, with a dash of luck mixed in. His signing is also an indication that the international talent market is laden with players just waiting to be discovered. See, Tomioka wasn’t simply a truck driver with a live arm. He was an experienced pitcher, a graduate of one of Tokyo’s top baseball programs — he was just never seen at the right time by the right people. By the time Oakland discovered him, he was loitering in a small local league. “There’s a lot of independent ball over there,” Feinstein says, “and he had been pitching in one of these kind of obscure leagues. He was free to try out and was throwing 95 so we signed him.”

For anyone lamenting the rise of big tech in baseball or the demise of the scout, Tomioka is living proof that, for good and for ill, an element of the unpredictable remains in the game. His signing demonstrates the value of having a robust international department, while also highlighting how fertile the international market is today, and how teams that invest abroad now stand to reap a competitive advantage in the years to come. To get a better sense of how that might develop, let’s take a deeper dive into how teams scout internationally today. Read the rest of this entry »

Daily Prospect Notes: 8/26/21

These are notes on prospects from Brendan Gawlowski. Read previous installments of the Daily Prospect Notes here.

Orelvis Martinez, SS, Toronto Blue Jays
Level & Affiliate: High-A Vancouver Age: 19 Org Rank: 3 FV: 50

After he torched A-ball, the Blue Jays promoted Martinez to High-A Vancouver for the last six weeks of the season. He’s found the waters much choppier out west, batting just .158/.198/.329 in his first 82 plate appearances, and while he’s hitting for some power (five dingers) and boasts an above-average strikeout rate, pitchers are luring him out of the zone in most directions. Breaking balls are harder and sharper at this level, and he’s chasing them in the dirt; he’s also being a little too aggressive on fastballs in on his hands. He’s consistently out front on anything slow, as his coiled leg kick and timing mechanism leave him off balance against anything that isn’t a fastball. Sometimes he makes contact, sometimes he doesn’t, but it’s hard to impact the ball when you’re lunging.

Defensively, Martinez looks rough at shortstop. He clanged a few balls in my looks, and on a turf surface, too. He’s quick once he gets going, but his initial step is a bit slow, and given his size, I’d guess he’ll grow off of shortstop in time anyway.

Despite the struggles, there’s a lot to be excited about here. Martinez is very young for the level, and growing pains are to be expected at this stage in his journey. His bat-to-ball skills are well ahead of most of his teammates, which is encouraging, and the physical tools are potentially special. His hands are extremely explosive, and when he hits a ball well, it stays hit. There’s a little bit too much hit tool volatility for him to be a sure-thing type of prospect, but I’m nonetheless bullish. Even if he hasn’t found his defensive home yet, I suspect that when he returns to the Northwest for a second spin at High-A, he’ll do plenty of damage at the plate.

Sam Bachman, SP, Los Angeles Angels
Level & Affiliate: High-A Tri-Cities Age: 21 Org Rank: 6 FV: 45

Bachman wasn’t quite as high-octane as when Kevin Goldstein saw him this spring, but there’s clearly a lot to like about the Angels’ most recent first-round pick. In my viewing, he sat 94–95 mph with a tailing fastball. His slider was excellent — a modern hard one with relatively short break but in the upper-80s with late movement, capable of missing bats in and outside of the zone. He also has a fading changeup in a similar velo band, and it’s a pitch that he can also throw for strikes.

The long-term question is whether Bachman will start. The Angels are taking it easy with him for now, letting him face the lineup once and then getting him out of the game. That usage makes it difficult to evaluate how his stuff plays over the course of an outing. While he found the zone more often as a college junior this season, Bachman doesn’t have a long history of throwing strikes, and his delivery is a bit jerkier than your average starter’s. Between that and a low slot that gives his fastball more sink and run than the carry that’s in vogue these days, there’s a decent chance the Angels decide everything plays better in relief.

Sebastian Espino, SS/3B, Toronto Blue Jays
Level & Affiliate: High-A Vancouver Age: 21 Org Rank: NR

Espino has all the makings of a divisive prospect. Let’s start with the good. He’s 21, strong and lanky with room for growth, plays on the left side of the infield, and is already hitting for power. He’s hitting for everything, come to think of it, slashing .300/.359/.521 in 58 High-A games.

The bad news is that he has no approach to speak of. He’s very aggressive and doesn’t have much feel for the zone. He’s not helpless against offspeed — he made an adjustment on an inside changeup and lined it over the fence in a game last week — but spin gets him off balance, and his swing looks ugly when it does. Both that swing and his contact rates are notable for the wrong reasons.

Eric Longenhagen has written previously about how binary hit tool evaluations can make a non-prospect out of otherwise athletic players (Anderson Tejeda, for instance). Espino is flirting with danger here, particularly because his 8% walk rate is more the product of a low contact rate than patience or plate discipline. And yet, you can’t write him off, because he’s hitting .300 with power as a 21-year-old at High-A. For what it’s worth, a scout I spoke with raved about him and questioned how in the world the Mets lost this kind of player in the Rule 5 draft.

If we’re to continue a sort of shadow comparison with Tejeda, it’s worth mentioning that Espino’s numbers are superior at this stage in their respective development. Even so, he has a lot of work to do in refining his approach. While I don’t think he’s a high probability big league starter, he’s an interesting one to follow, and a guy who will certainly appear on our next Blue Jays list.

Jordyn Adams, CF, Los Angeles Angels
Level & Affiliate: High-A Tri-Cities Age: 22 Org Rank: 3 FV: 50

After a dreadful start, Adams has played better over the last six weeks, hitting .260 with 16 steals, and if you squint, you can make the case that he’s hitting for as much power as his cavernous and windy home park — they’re not the Tri-City Dust Devils for nothing — will allow. His swing decisions have improved a bit since my first viewing, and in my last look, he had a nice approach in an at-bat that ended with a hard-hit opposite field single. If you’re feeling particularly charitable, you might notice that he has a 93 wRC+ since July 16th, which isn’t good but is a step in the right direction.

The overall picture isn’t particularly rosy, though. Even if you lop off the first month of the year, Adams has struck out in more than a third of his plate appearances. He’s doing better with fastballs in the zone but is still easily enticed to swing at breaking stuff outside of it. And if we’re playing the arbitrary endpoints game, it’s only fair to point out that he has a 79 wRC+ since July 20th. I’ve spoken with four scouts about him this summer, and none are excited about his offensive potential.

Bets on athleticism are tricky. Sometimes the two-sport star who joins the travel circuit late in the game looks like a natural in pro ball; others are late bloomers. But there are also plenty of guys who just never figure out how to hit. There’s still time for Adams to wind up in bucket two: He’s only 21, he hasn’t played a ton of baseball, and both last year’s layoff and a calf injury probably dampened his production in 2021. He’s also obviously an incredibly gifted athlete, and that alone gives him a long developmental runway. At the end of the day, though, he has to hit, and he hasn’t shown he can yet.

CJ Van Eyk, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays
Level & Affiliate: High-A Vancouver Age: 22 Org Rank: 8 FV: 40+

Depending on when you catch him, Van Eyk can look like a future rotation piece or a guy who won’t get out of Double-A. I saw the latter version back in July, when he had trouble keeping the fastball out of the righties batter’s box and was knocked out in the third inning. He looked much better in my second viewing in Hillsboro last week. He touched 97, comfortably sat 92–95, dominated the lineup with a plus 12–6 curve, and missed bats with a sweeping slider. His control drifted on him in the fourth, but he made an adjustment and looked as sharp as ever the following inning.

A little more mechanical consistency could go a long way here, because Van Eyk clearly has the arm strength and stuff to start. His control has faltered from inning to inning dating back to his time at Florida State, though, and it’s fair to wonder if there’s a fix here. Right now he’s a low probability starter with higher upside than normal given the first part of this sentence.

Daily Prospect Notes: 8/20/21

These are notes on prospects from Brendan Gawlowski. Read previous installments of the Daily Prospect Notes here.

Sem Robberse, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays
Level & Affiliate: High-A Vancouver Age: 19 Org Rank: 29 FV: 35+
Line: 3.2 IP, 5 R, 5 H, 6 SO, 4 BB

The most fun prospects are the ones heading in the right direction, with plenty to do between here and the big leagues. That describes Robberse, who was signed out of the Netherlands during the 2018 international signing period. At the time, it was a bet on athleticism: Robberse is a very agile and fluid athlete but his fastball peaked in the mid-80s as an amateur.

Fast forward a few years, and the Dutchman is now hitting the mid-90s and sitting 91-94 mph. As you’d expect based on the athleticism, he has a clean delivery, and he’s also shown impressive pitchability for a 19-year-old. For those who really like to dive deep, Robberse has made starts in Low-A Southeast, which has Trackman data from some of his outings. You can grind through that here, but the TLDR is that he has above average spin for his velo band and misses bats with both breaking pitches. It’s also worth mentioning that his pedestrian-looking walk rate was actually one of the top marks in his league, where the robots are handing out free passes by the dozen.

Robberse’s outing on Wednesday was a tale of two parts, which is not uncommon for pitchers his age. In the first three innings, he was the best version of himself: he got ahead consistently, moved his fastball to both sides of the plate, back-doored his two-plane slider, elevated for whiffs, and lured hitters out of the zone with his curve. The wheels came off in the fourth, though, as three frustrating errors and a series of hits seemed to put the teenager off of his game. By the end of his outing, he’d lost velocity, he was consistently missing armside with the fastball, and he had to be removed before the end of the frame.

Ultimately, there’s plenty to like here. He’s progressed through the Jays system at a blistering pace and, in bursts, he flashes a lot of starter traits. We’ll see if more consistency, and perhaps a bit more arm strength, comes with age.

Ky Bush, LHP, Los Angeles Angels
Level & Affiliate: High-A Tri-City Age: 21 Org Rank: NR
Line: 2 IP, 1 R, 3 H, 4 SO, 1 BB

Bush is a downhill-throwing southpaw with a three-quarters arm slot. He bounced between schools throughout his college career and wasn’t on anyone’s radar as an early rounder until a spectacular junior season at Saint Mary’s propelled him to the second round. His fastball is 92-95 with sink and tail, and in my viewing, he was prone to leaving the pitch up and to the arm side. His primary weapon is a slider, a hard 2-7 breaker at 82-85 that he likes to bury in the dirt. It’s a good pitch, though he sometimes pulls it and misses uncompetitively. He also has a fading change in the same velo band.

Bush was part of LA’s pitcher-only draft class, and to the extent that the Angels went that direction to augment the big league club quickly, it makes sense for the org to put a few of those hurlers on an accelerated relief track. With a somewhat funky look — he hides the ball well and at 6-foot-6 presents an awkward angle for lefties — tendency to work out of the zone, and below average command, Bush is a logical candidate for that path.

Jeremy Arocho, INF, Los Angeles Angels
Level & Affiliate: High-A Tri-City Age: 22 Org Rank: NR
Line: 3-4

Want a deep cut? Look no further than Arocho, a 22-year-old who was drafted in the 27th round by the Dodgers in 2017 and released less than two years later. He landed with the Angels just in time for a virus of modest renown to ruin his 2020 season, and he didn’t get his first taste of full-season ball until this past May.

He’s made up for lost time. Between two levels, Arocho is hitting .310 with a .421 OBP and 27 steals in 31 tries (it should be 28, but the less said about umpiring here, the better). Speed is the standout tool — he’s a plus runner — but the more you watch him, the more you appreciate the quality of his at-bats. He has a short swing, quick hands, and is efficient to the ball, so when a pitcher tries to get ahead with a fastball over the plate, he’ll punish it early in counts. He has a good feel for the strike zone — he has 48 walks and only 52 strikeouts in 309 plate appearances this year — and has shown he can make adjustments in the middle of at-bats. Last night, he lunged at a curve early in the AB, but worked his way back into the count, got another curve over the plate, made an adjustment, kept his weight back, and smacked it into right field.

Despite these strengths, Arocho’s profile is a tricky one. He has 20 power at present and while he’s playing some short right now, he doesn’t profile as an everyday defender at the six. The speed, approach, and defensive versatility give him a chance to make it all work, likely in a utility role if he makes it to the Show. I’ll be rooting for him: The league needs more hit-and-run type of players.

Hayden Juenger, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays
Level & Affiliate: High-A Vancouver Age: 21 Org Rank: NR
Line: 2 IP, 3 SO, 0 H, 0 BB

Toronto’s sixth-round pick, Juenger is a three-pitch reliever. He works with a low-three quarters arm slot and it seemed like righties in particular were having trouble picking up the ball. In my look earlier this week, he consistently hit 94 mph throughout his two innings of work, and was particularly effective attacking the gloveside corner against righties. Not surprisingly given the slot, his slider is a predominantly horizontal sweeper, and the pitch is murder when he starts it on the plate and runs it away from right-handed hitters with a little late tilt. While he throws strikes, he’s prone to missing badly, and will need to button up that issue as he climbs Toronto’s ladder.

Daily Prospect Notes: 8/18/21

These are notes on prospects from Brendan Gawlowski. Read previous installments of the Daily Prospect Notes here.

Luis Frías, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks
Level & Affiliate: Triple-A Reno Age: 23 Org Rank: 12 FV: 45
Recent News: Promoted to Triple-A Reno

Tall, thick around the middle, and with a few elements in his delivery that bear a passing resemblance to Jose Valverde’s, a body comp to Papa Grande is only natural here. Like his fellow countryman, Frías uses a split and comfortably reaches the mid-90s with his heater. The stuff comparisons end there though, as the 23-year-old has a deeper arsenal, one that suggests a future in the rotation remains a possibility. Read the rest of this entry »

Daily Prospect Notes: 8/9/2021

These are notes on prospects from Brendan Gawlowski. Read previous installments of the Daily Prospect Notes here.

Justin Steele, LHP, Chicago Cubs
Level & Affiliate: Triple-A Iowa Age: 26 Org Rank: 37 FV: 40

After a strong debut out of Chicago’s bullpen this spring, Steele has spent the last month in Triple-A getting stretched out in preparation to join the Cubs rotation. The southpaw dazzled in his 11 big league outings, striking out 37% of the hitters he faced while also generating a 70% groundball rate. Evaluators are split on whether he’s a reliever long-term, and with the Cubs going nowhere fast, this summer provides the team with the perfect opportunity to assess his chops as a starter.

Over his last two outings, he’s registered 13 strikeouts against just two walks in 10 innings of work. It’s a good sign that both his low-to-mid-90s fastball and slider didn’t lose much gas in the transition to the rotation. Watching him, I’m impressed with his ability to locate the slider against opposite handed hitters: he’s good at both back-dooring the pitch for a strike and can also spin one to a hitter’s back foot in search of a whiff. That utility takes a little pressure off the change, which he’s just now working back into his repertoire after not using it at all in the bigs. While the safe bet is that he’s still a reliever long-term, there are enough ingredients here to make this rotation experiment more than a blind shot in the dark. Read the rest of this entry »

Corollary Damage: Kumar Rocker, the MLB Draft, and a Better Way Forward

On Sunday, the Mets announced that they would not offer a contract to Vanderbilt ace Kumar Rocker. New York had selected the right-hander with the 10th overall pick in the draft just a few weeks earlier, but backed out of a deal upon seeing his medicals. Rocker’s camp was understandably upset. Scott Boras released a statement on his client’s behalf, declaring that Rocker is healthy, ready to pitch, and set to embark on his professional career. It’s a gut-wrenching situation, particularly since no other team is allowed to sign Rocker. He plans to enter the 2022 draft, but for now, he’s in purgatory.

However disappointed Rocker and Mets fans justifiably are, there’s a larger, structural issue at play here, one that overshadows Rocker’s medicals, or even the Mets’ approach to handling them. Steve Cohen violated Rule No. 1 (never Tweet, Steve) but New York isn’t dangling Rocker’s big league dreams for sport: They picked Rocker in good faith and must have really disliked what they saw in his file, particularly since they didn’t have the foresight to take an overslot guy late in the draft as backup. After signing all of their other selections, the Mets wound up leaving more than $1 million in bonus pool money on the table. Nobody wins here.

Like Barret Loux and Brady Aiken before him, Rocker deserves better than to get the rug yanked out from under him like this. I’m sure he has many gripes with how this all played out, but his biggest shouldn’t be with the Mets, but rather with the draft itself. Read the rest of this entry »

Fire Up the Machine: How Teams Are Teaching Hitting in a Pitcher’s World

We often hear about how pitchers are overmatching hitters these days, and with good reason. In the last 10 years, teams have discovered how to develop velocity at scale. After generations of going by feel and repetition, pitchers now lean on sophisticated tools and technology to burnish their arsenals and optimize their spin profile. Catchers have chipped in too, turning subtle positional and glovework adjustments into an avalanche of additional strikes on balls near the edges of the plate.

Hitters, meanwhile, spent the decade trying to play catch up. Strikeouts have climbed 5% in the past 10 years. Alongside, the league batting average has plummeted from .251 down into the .230s over that span. An industry-wide emphasis on steeper swing planes did fuel a surge in home runs, but even these gains are somewhat superficial, buoyed as they are by the juiced ball. Even with the recent crackdown on sticky substances, pitchers remain dominant.

Nobody ever stays ahead for too long in baseball though, and if you turn toward the farm, there are signs of life on the offensive side of the game. They’re not necessarily reflected in the numbers — most minor league circuits have more strikeouts and fewer dingers than the majors — but league stats bely real differences in how teams and hitters are preparing for battle against a modern pitcher’s arsenal. These gains are not spread equally across the league. Rather, the clubs that have most successfully invested time and resources into combatting high-spin fastballs at the top of the zone and a steady diet of breaking balls everywhere else have pulled ahead from the pack.

It starts in practice. The days of a coach lobbing BP from 40 feet away two hours before a game aren’t gone exactly, but progressive teams are increasingly finding better ways to develop hitters than a traditional batting practice session. The pitching machine, long out of favor among hitters at all levels of baseball, has become a vital part of a modern training regimen. Read the rest of this entry »