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Sunday Notes: Daulton Varsho Goes Pull-Side, Thinks Low and Hard

Daulton Varsho’s last two seasons were directionally different than his first two seasons.The left-handed-hitting outfielder put up a pedestrian 37.8% pull rate in 2020-2021, and in 2022-2023 that number climbed to a lofty 52.6%. Apprised of the marked jump by colleague Davy Andrews prior to my recent visit to Toronto Blue Jays camp, I asked Varsho if it was spurred by a purposeful change of approach. He claimed that it wasn’t.

“I think it’s just how teams are pitching me,” said Varsho, whose pull rate in the two-year span was the highest among qualified hitters. “You don’t want to force the ball to any certain field — it has to sort of naturally happen — and I’ve been getting pounded in. You also have to figure out the changeup away and righties throwing sliders in. You don’t really want to force those to left-center or left field, because they end up being fly outs.”

Davy had also informed me that Varsho’s pull-side results have been far better than his opposite-field results, which came as anything but news to the 27-year-old Marshfield, Wisconsin native. My mentioning it elicited a matter-of-fact response.

“That’s where success happens,” said Varsho. “It’s where my swing is the most successful, and where I can do the most damage.”

It’s no secret that catching pitches out front and driving them in the air goes a long way toward producing power numbers, and not only has Varsho gone yard 47 times over the past two campaigns, just one of the blasts was to the opposite field. My asking if he’s made a concerted effort to lift the ball led to the following exchange: Read the rest of this entry »

Zack Wheeler on Continuing To Evolve

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Zack Wheeler has arguably been the best pitcher in baseball over the past four seasons. Since joining the Philadelphia Phillies prior to the truncated 2020 campaign, the 33-year-old right-hander has made 101 starts and boasts a 3.06 ERA, a 2.90 FIP, and a 26.7% strikeout rate. Moreover, his 19.3 WAR over that span is tops among his contemporaries.

A thirst to continually get better has helped bring Wheeler to the pinnacle of his profession. Never entirely satisfied with the depth and quality of his arsenal, he’s always looking for a new edge, whether it’s an additional weapon or an upgrade to one already in his toolbox. Just last year he added a sweeper, and opposing hitters can expect to see yet another option when he takes the mound in 2024.

Wheeler discussed his growth as a pitcher, as well as his goals going forward, last week at the Phillies’ spring training complex in Clearwater.


David Laurila: How have you evolved as a pitcher over the years?

Zack Wheeler: “I’ve developed more pitches since I got drafted. Everything has gotten crisper. After my TJ [in 2015], I was able to gain some command, which I didn’t have before. So pairing the repertoire with command took me to that next level. Really, a lot of it has just been repetition and learning, and from there putting it all together.” Read the rest of this entry »

Jackson Holliday Talks Hitting

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

To understand why Baltimore Orioles shortstop Jackson Holliday is the no. 1 prospect on our Top 100 list, look no further than Eric Longenhagen and Tess Taruskin’s writeup of the 20-year-old phenom. They describe Holliday, the first overall pick in the 2022 draft, as “a sweet-swinging shortstop with above-average feel for contact and burgeoning power,” and close their evaluation by predicting that he “is very likely to become a 5-WAR shortstop who does everything well.” He has been spending time at second base this spring, because the O’s already have last year’s no. 1 overall prospect Gunnar Henderson at shortstop, but either way, stardom is seemingly in Holliday’s future.

That the promising youngster is the son of former big league slugger Matt Holliday is well known. It is also a primary factor in his advanced approach to hitting, as well as his overall understanding of his craft. Last season, which he began in Low-A and ended in Triple-A, the lefty-hitting Holliday produced a .323/.442/.499 slash line and 159 wRC+ across four levels of the minor leagues.

Holliday sat down to talk hitting over the weekend prior to a Grapefruit League game in Sarasota.


David Laurila: How do you approach hitting?

Jackson Holliday: “As far as guessing pitches… that’s not something I’m great at. But I really enjoy learning about swings — different guys’ swings — how they work, and little things that can help, like cues. My dad has been around baseball for so long, and is such a hitting guy, and I got that from him. But yeah, my approach is pretty simple. I try to stay in the middle of field, stay on my backside, and hit the heater.”

Laurila: Are you basically hunting fastballs and adjusting from there?

Holliday: “Yeah. I sit fastball. I don’t sit offspeed unless there is a real outlier. That’s something I learned from my dad. He would sit heater and try to hit it to the middle of the field. If you’re in a good spot to hit a fastball to the middle of the field you can adjust to the offspeed pitch a lot better than you can sitting offspeed and trying to hit a heater.”

Laurila: How hard is it to be diligent with that? There are going to be times where your subconscious brain tells you, “He’s not going to throw a fastball here.” Read the rest of this entry »

Sunday Notes: Synced Up and Simplified, Mick Abel is Watching in a New Way

In terms of rankings and projection, Mick Abel is much the same pitcher he was 24 months ago. When the now-22-year-old right-hander was featured in February 2022 during our annual Prospect Week, he was No. 1 in the Philadelphia Phillies system and No. 20 on our Top 100. Fast forward to the present, and he is No. 2 in the Philadelphia Phillies system and No. 22 on our Top 100. As Eric Longenhagen explained in his recent writeup, “Abel didn’t have an especially good 2023… [but] still has most all of the ingredients needed to be an impact starter, he just isn’t totally baked yet.”

How has the 2019 first-rounder out of Beaverton, Oregon’s Jesuit High School matured the most since our conversation two years ago? I asked him that question at Philadelphia’s spring training facility in Clearwater, Florida on Friday.

“I’d say it’s the separation of over-the-rubber and over-the-plate mentality, knowing how to distinguish between the two,” replied Abel, who had a 27.5% strikeout rate but also a 13.5% walk rate in 108-and-two-third innings with Double-A Reading last year. “Whether it’s in the bullpen or on the game-mound, knowing when and how to make adjustments without getting too deep in my head about it.

“Staying more direct and knowing that if I get too long with my arm action in back I’m going to be a little later to the plate,“ Abel said when asked to elaborate on the actual mechanics. “I want to make sure that everything is on time going down the hill.” Read the rest of this entry »

Red Sox Prospect Kyle Teel on Developing as a Catcher

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Teel is well positioned as Boston’s catcher of the future. Drafted 14th overall by the Red Sox out of the University of Virginia last summer, the backstop, who turned 22 last week, enters his first full professional season as the fifth-ranked prospect in Boston’s farm system and no. 80 on our Top 100. According to our lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen, Teel “presents a well-rounded overall profile” that includes “a fabulous offensive résumé.”

His 2023 numbers were certainly exemplary. Teel slashed .407/.475/.655 with 13 home runs in his junior year at UVA, helping earn him first-team All-American accolades and rocketing him up draft boards. Upon reaching pro ball, his left-handed stroke produced a .363/.483/.495 slash line and a 173 wRC+ in 114 plate appearances across three minor league levels, his last stop being Double-A Portland.

Defense is, of course, a major responsibility for catchers. Last month, when Teel was at Fenway Park for Boston’s rookie development program, I spoke with him about his preparation and setup behind the plate, his throwing, and his offensive profile.


David Laurila: Catching is a science as well as an art. With that in mind, what role does data play in what you do defensively?

Kyle Teel: “I really like data when it comes to how pitchers’ stuff moves, and heat maps on what to throw to certain guys at certain times. That’s obviously beneficial, but there is also nothing like the feel of the game. You need to be using your eyes and seeing what you can take in, in the moment. But the data is definitely important. Before every game, I look at what pitchers like to throw, their tendencies in certain counts, and things like that. That’s both as a catcher and when I’m hitting.”

Laurila: Do you think like a catcher when you’re in the batter’s box?

Teel: “I kind of do. There are benefits to doing that, just knowing how pitchers work and what guys tend to throw in certain counts. Overall, I would say that having a good feel at the plate and calling pitches is very similar.”

Laurila: How do you balance data and instincts? Read the rest of this entry »

Eric Kubota Ruminates on Two-Plus Decades as the A’s Scouting Director

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Eric Kubota is the longest tenured scouting director in MLB, having been promoted to his current position by the Oakland Athletics in 2002. The University of California, Berkeley alum has been with the organization even longer than that; Kubota began working with the A’s in 1984 while still a student. He went on to join the baseball operations department in 1989, serving as assistant scouting director, Pacific Rim coordinator, and then supervisor of international scouting prior to taking the lead role in draft decisions.

His first draft is his most famous — perhaps you’ve heard of Moneyball — but it is by no means Kubota’s only memorable draft, nor his most impactful. Moreover, he has seen a lot change over his time in the industry. That comes with the territory when your scouting experience runs over three decades deep.


David Laurila: Looking back, something that stands out from the interview we did in 2009 was you saying, “The more you know about scouting, the more you know about the draft, and the more you know about prospects, the more you find out that there is more to learn.” All these years later, is there still more to learn?

Eric Kubota: “There is, and I feel even stronger about that now. The more I’ve gone through this, the more I realize how hard it is to try to predict the future on these kids, and the more I realize the need for as much information we can get to make informed decisions.” Read the rest of this entry »

Sunday Notes: Top Red Sox Prospect Roman Anthony Adjusted To Power Up

Roman Anthony arguably has the highest upside in the Boston Red Sox system. Three months shy of his 20th birthday, the left-handed-hitting outfielder is No. 14 on our recently-released Top 100, and in the words of Eric Longenhagen, he “has the offensive foundation (plate discipline and contact) to be a top five prospect if he can more readily get to his power in games.”

Getting to more of his in-game power was an organizationally-driven goal throughout a first full professional season that saw the 2022 second-rounder begin in Low-A Salem and finish in Double-A Portland. Progress was made. Of the 14 home runs Anthony swatted over 491 plate appearances, all but one came from mid-June onward. Learning to lift was the key and, according to the youngster that came not from an overhaul of his mechanics, but rather from subtle adjustments.

“At the beginning of the year, I was pulling it on the ground a little more than I would like to,” acknowledged Anthony, who was 200-plus plate appearances into the season when he went yard for a second time. “But I worked with my hitting coaches and eventually it clicked. It was really just minor tweaks. It’s not as though I was redoing my swing, or anything like that. I still have pretty much the same swing I’ve always had.”

According to Red Sox farm director Brian Abraham, Anthony’s adjustments were crafted primarily in a batting cage with simple, yet creative, drill work. Read the rest of this entry »

Reds Prospect Rhett Lowder Is a Chameleon on the Mound

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Rhett Lowder has yet to pitch in a professional game, but already he ranks not only as the top pitching prospect in the Reds system, but also as the no. 44 player on our Top 100 list. Remarkably, that’s not all that surprising. Selected seventh overall by the Reds out of Wake Forest University, the 21-year-old right-hander will make his pro debut on the heels of a spectacular junior campaign that saw him go 15-0 with a 1.87 ERA and a school record 142 strikeouts. The Atlantic Coast Conference’s Player of the Year for the second straight season — he’d gone 11-3 with a 3.08 ERA in 2022 — Lowder seems a lock to pitch in the middle of a big league rotation. Moreover, his arrival in Cincinnati should come in the not-too-distant future.

In terms of style, the native North Carolinian might best be described as a technician with multiple above-average offerings. Lowder’s repertoire comprises two- and four-seam fastballs, a slider, and a changeup, and he augments that arsenal with plus command and a feel for his craft that belies his level of experience. Mixing and matching is one of his strong suits, giving him an opportunity to navigate lineups deep into games.


David Laurila: Let’s start with one of my favorite ice breakers: Do you view pitching as more of an art, or more of a science?

Rhett Lowder: “A little bit of both. In the offseason you can probably get into more of the science side of it, breaking yourself down. But during the season it’s more of an art; there are a bunch of different ways to to get the job done. Plus, everybody is unique. There is no cookie-cutter way to get outs.”

Laurila: Some of what I’ve read about you suggests craftsman, but are you actually more of a power guy?

Lowder: “I think it just really depends on the game. One of my stronger suits is that I can adjust based on the opponent, and on some days you have more overpowering stuff than you do on others. I can kind of be like a chameleon and change based on the environment and the game I’m in. I’m not necessarily the same exact guy every single time I go out there.

“There are some things I fall back on more times than not when I get into trouble, but going into most games, it really just depends on the [opponent]. I try to overlay my strengths over the other team’s weaknesses and kind of see where that leads me. I try to be able to adapt as quickly as possible.”

Laurila: Do you consider yourself a pitching nerd? Read the rest of this entry »

Blake Butera Is Understandably Bullish on the Rays’ Prospect Pipeline

Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Rays farm system has been consistently robust over the past half dozen seasons, and while it is no longer ranked first or second, it remains top notch. Currently populated with the likes of Junior Caminero, Carson Williams, Curtis Mead, and Xavier Isaac, it contains a number of high-ceiling players projected to contribute at the big league level, some as soon as this year. That is especially the case for some of the position players, especially Caminero, who debuted in the big leagues last September and is one of baseball’s best prospects.

Blake Butera is as well versed on Tampa Bay’s pipeline as anyone. Promoted to Senior Director Player Development at the conclusion of the 2023 campaign, he has worked in the system as a minor league coach, manager, and field coordinator since 2017. In each of his prior positions, he’s had a hands-on role with the development of the players he now oversees.


David Laurila: I asked you about Junior Caminero when we spoke in December 2022. Outside of gaining more experience, what has changed with him since that time?

Blake Butera: “Honestly, not much. If I had to pick one thing, I would say it’s his defense. He’s made a concerted effort to get better at third base, and also shortstop, which gives him the opportunity to play shortstop if needed. Which it could be. He’s still learning the third base position. He hasn’t played a ton there; he played more shortstop when he was younger, and then we put him at third base predominantly last year. He’s really focused on his defense — first-step quickness, reading the hops at third, getting used to the different angles.

“Offensively, it’s more so just being a little bit more patient at the plate and going to get pitches that he can drive versus trying to hit everything. To be honest, he can hit everything, which is why he’s been swinging at a lot of different pitches.” Read the rest of this entry »

Cubs VP of Scouting Dan Kantrovitz on the Draft and His Evolving Role

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The Chicago Cubs boast one of the top farms systems in the game, and Dan Kantrovitz is a key reason why. The club’s VP of Scouting for each of the last four drafts, Kantrovitz has overseen the selections of first rounders such as Matt Shaw, Cade Horton, and Jordan Wicks. Thanks in part to shrewd drafting, the Cubs’ prospect pipeline is robust on both the pitcher and position player sides.

A St. Louis native, Kantrovitz attended and played baseball at Brown University, where he recorded 208 hits in his four years as the starting shortstop. After he graduated with a degree in Organizational Behavior and Management in 2001, his hometown Cardinals selected him in the 25th round of the MLB draft. Assigned to the Johnson City Cardinals of the Appalachian League, he went 1-for-3 in his first and only professional game; a shoulder injury from his senior year of college flared up again and ended his playing career.

Kantrovitz joined the Cardinals front office in 2004, and a few years later, he went to Harvard for a two-year master’s program in statistics, hoping to develop the skills to keep pace with the growing analytics movement in baseball. He got a job in the Oakland A’s front office upon graduating from Harvard. St. Louis hired him back to be its amateur scouting director in 2012, before he returned to Oakland three years later and worked for five seasons as the the team’s assistant GM. Wanting to get back into a draft-specific role, he took his current position with the Cubs in late 2019. Baseball has changed over his two decades working in front offices, and his understanding of the game and his approach to scouting has evolved with it.


David Laurila: A number of mock drafts are published prior to the draft itself. Do scouting directors pay attention to them?

Dan Kantrovitz: “I think it would be disingenuous for any scouting director, or front office, to say that they don’t pay attention to mock drafts by respected third-party publications — especially as you get closer to the draft. Now, do we rely on our internal data to make draft decisions? Yes, of course. Do we also want to have an idea of what might happen before and after us? Also a yes. Sometimes mock drafts can be a solid indicator of what the rest of the industry might be thinking. If nothing else, they are certainly fun.”

Laurila: Our own mock draft from last year had you taking Nolan Schanuel, a college first baseman whom the Angels took a few picks before you selected middle infielder Matt Shaw 13th overall. Generally speaking, what are your thoughts on drafting first basemen in early rounds? Read the rest of this entry »