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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 »

Daily Prospect Notes: 7/22/21

These are notes on prospects from Brendan Gawlowski. Read previous installments of the DPN here.

Across the country and around the world, it’s the Daily Prospect Notes.

Graham Ashcraft, RHP, Cincinnati Reds
Level & Affiliate: Double-A Chattanooga Age: 23 Org Rank: 22 FV: 40

A threat to walk everyone in the ballpark in college, Ashcraft seemed like a surefire reliever after the Reds drafted him in the sixth round of the 2019 draft. But a weird thing happened between then and now: He found a way to throw strikes, started going deeper in games, and did both while still missing bats. Read the rest of this entry »

Daily Prospect Notes: 7/16/21

These are notes on prospects from Brendan Gawlowski, who will be chipping in on Daily Prospect Notes once a week. Read previous installments of the DPN here.

Today, we have a few notes from a series between Tri-Cities and Everett, the High-A affiliates of the Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners, respectively.

Jordyn Adams, CF, Los Angeles Angels
Level & Affiliate: High-A Tri-Cities Age: 22 Org Rank: 2 FV: 50
Line: 2-5, two infield singles, 3 SO

Adams is having a bad season. After a lower-leg injury sidelined for more than a month, the 22-year-old has been ice cold since returning to the lineup. Now more than 100 PAs into his season, he’s hitting .174/.260/.261 with a 35% strikeout rate, good for a 49 wRC+.

At the plate, he looks lost. He’s struggling to identify breaking pitches out of the hand, taking strikes on balls that bend into the zone and flailing early on pitches spinning down and away from him. He also swung and missed at several low-90s fastballs in the zone. When he does make contact, everything’s on the ground, much of it hit weakly the other way. Mechanically, he’s inconsistent as well, alternately lunging at low breaking balls or pulling off the plate on swings against the heat.

He’s also raw in the field: Two nights ago, he fielded a short fly with runners on first and second and despite no intent from the lead runner to advance, Adams came up firing and launched the ball well over the third baseman’s head. His 80-grade speed is also playing down at the moment. At the plate, he’s not quick out of the box, and on one occasion he posted a 4.3 DTL on a grounder to short. There’s more speed in the tank than that, and it’s possible that the leg injury is still bugging him, but at present he’s not consistently impacting the game with his wheels. Read the rest of this entry »

Cleveland “No-Hit” Again, Continues Circling Drain

We have speed limits for a reason. Excessive speed is a factor in more than a quarter of automobile fatalities and is particularly deadly when combined with other dangerous behaviors behind the wheel. And yet, the idea that we can drive 5-10 mph over the limit without repercussion is so entrenched in our collective psyche — and so effectively decriminalized in most American cities — that most people hardly think twice about driving 35 in a 30. Behind this normalization lies an unexamined, exceptionalist belief: “This speed limit may be a good idea, but I have the ability to exceed it safely.”

There are a number of behaviors that fit into this category of exceptionalism: I’m the one who can get away with not flossing, I can spend hours on social media without consequence, I can stay cool into my 40s. Narcissism lies at the end of this road, but most of us don’t make it nearly that far. In doses, it’s entirely normal to think that general principles don’t apply to you personally. The contradiction at play is just part of the human experience, and it’s not always unhealthy: from this wellspring comes hope and ambition, among other traits and emotions.

As far as baseball is concerned, a no-hitter is perhaps the most wholesome embodiment of this form of individual exceptionalism. In the modern game, chasing a no-no is a retrograde “screw you,” not only to the opponent, but to the conventions of our time. “Take your third time through the order penalty and shove it,” and all that. Understandably, there was a bit of no-hitter fatigue swirling through the audience earlier this season. For me though, even with the increased frequency, the no-hitter remains a rebellion, and it’s as badass as ever. Read the rest of this entry »