Cole Wilcox started to say “two-seamer” when bringing up the fastball he threw at the University of Georgia. The 21-year-old Tampa Bay Rays prospect then reversed course and called it a sinker, which it really wasn’t. Featuring mostly arm-side run, the high-velocity offering got only a modicum of depth. Given the grip, that kind of came with the territory. More on that in a moment.
Wilcox was selected in the third round of the 2020 draft by San Diego, who subsequently shipped the right-hander to the Rays as part of the Blake Snell deal. Seen as a potential first-rounder last summer — signability questions caused the sophomore-eligible draftee to drop — Wilcox spent time at the Padres alternate site prior to changing organizations in December. It was there that he restructured an arsenal that now comprises a two-seamer, a slider, a changeup, and a work-in-progress four-seamer.
Which brings us to the heater he’d featured in the SEC. Regardless of how one might define it, it’s now part of his past.
“It used to be a four-seam sinker,” explained Wilcox, who is beginning the current campaign with the Low-A Charleston River Dogs. “Really, the only thing good about it was that it was hard. That’s what I threw in college, but since I’ve been in pro ball, I’ve switched to a two-seam. It gets a lot more movement, a lot more depth.” Read the rest of this entry »
Myles Straw grew up a big Tampa Bay Rays fan and has been to hundreds of games at Tropicana Field. Much for that reason, he’s more than a little familiar with Brandon Guyer. Which isn’t to say that Straw emulates the recently-retired outfielder. Guyer reached base via HBP a bruise-worthy 85 times from 2014-2018, and he did so despite never getting as many as 400 plate appearances in a single season. The bulk of his plunkings came in a Rays uniform.
When I talked to Straw this past Wednesday, he had played in 120 big-league games, all with the Houston Astros. He had never been hit by a pitch.
“I didn’t know that,” Straw claimed when I brought up the subject. “I mean, I don’t really jump out of the way of pitches. I’ll turn, because I don’t want to get hit in the ribs. If it hits me in the back, it hits me in the back, and that’s OK; I’m willing to take my base. But I’m not going to go up there and try to get hit. You always have a chance to get hurt with how hard guys are throwing these days.”
That same night, Straw was 2 for 2 with a pair of singles — one of the RBI variety — when he stepped into the box against Seattle Mariners right-hander Keynan Middleton. The second pitch he saw was a heater, well inside. Straw turned, and… you can probably guess the rest. The pitch hit him square in the back. Read the rest of this entry »
Tejay Antone had a strong rookie season in 2020. Working as both a starter and out of the Cincinnati Reds bullpen, the 27-year-old right-hander logged a 2.80 ERA and fanned 45 batters in 35-and-a-third innings. He came into the current campaign with designs on being even better.
He’s done just that. As a matter of fact, he’s been downright scintillating. Armed with a new-and-improved attack plan, Antone has made seven relief appearances and allowed just four hits and one run in 13-and-two-thirds innings, with 20 punch outs. Power and adept sequencing have driven that success. Antone’s heater averages 97 mph, but it’s not the pitch he relies on the most. As a matter of fact, he considers it his third-best weapon.
Antone talked about his repertoire, and his Driveline-influenced approach, over the phone yesterday afternoon.
David Laurila: What do you know about pitching now that you didn’t just a few years ago?
Tejay Antone: “A lot. One thing I’ve noticed is that as the fastball gets harder, I’m starting to spin the ball more. That seems counterintuitive, because you would think that if you’re throwing harder, and your fastball is getting better, you’d want to throw it more. But for me… and I’ve seen some other guys with really good fastballs actually kind of pitching backwards. One is Aroldis Chapman. He’s obviously one of the hardest throwers in the league, and he’s spinning the ball a lot. That protects his fastball; it makes it that much better, because they still have to respect the velocity. We’ve lived in a fastball-driven society lately, but I think it’s starting to kind of flip. We’re seeing the percentage of off-speed pitches go up.”
Laurila: You’re throwing more off-speed this year [35.9% curveballs, 32.1% sliders, and 32.1% fastballs]. Has that been data-driven, or is it more intuitive? Read the rest of this entry »
Karl Kauffmann is flying under the radar. Drafted 77th overall by Colorado out of the University of Michigan in 2019, the 23-year-old right-hander is ranked an anything-but-eye-catching No. 23 on our Rockies Top Prospects list. Recent opportunities to impress have been scant. Thanks to the pandemic, Kauffmann’s last game-action came two summers ago when he helped lead the Wolverines to the finals of the College World Series.
But he may not be under the radar much longer. Kauffmann has big plans for the forthcoming season, and they include a new pitch. With Corbin Burnes in mind, the Bloomfield Hills, Michigan native spent the winter months working on a cutter. Kauffman discussed its development, as well as the rest of his repertoire and what he’s learned from Chris Fetter, prior to the start of minor-league spring training.
David Laurila: Your prospect profile at FanGraphs describes you as “a one-seam sinker/changeup righty with a pretty firm, inconsistent mid-80s slider.” How accurate is that?
Karl Kauffmann: “I think it paints part of the picture. There’s more to the story, stuff-wise — what I was trying to accomplish at Michigan, and how the stuff plays into that. I left high school a four-seam, 12-6, big-breaker, hard-fastball type of pitcher. I didn’t pitch much my freshman year, then went out to the Cape Cod League. That was in 2017. The coach there — I was with Scott Pickler for two years, with [Yarmouth-Dennis] — told me I’d never pitch if I didn’t learn a sinker/slider. That summer, I basically taught myself, working with some of the coaches, how to throw that one-seam. It was a way to get easy groundballs, and I picked it up pretty quickly.”
Laurila: Chris Fetter was your pitching coach at Michigan. What was his role in you making that change? Read the rest of this entry »
Tim Mead announced earlier this month that he’ll be stepping down as President of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in mid-May. Who will replace Mead in that prestigious position is unknown, and to my knowledge no names have been bandied about beyond Cooperstown itself. That being the case — and with the caveat that some are less practical than others, for a variety of reasons — let’s consider a few potential candidates.
John Thorn was the first person that came to mind when this subject was presented to me recently. Currently the Official Historian for Major League Baseball, Thorn checks all of the boxes, with one possible exception. At age 73, he doesn’t profile as a long-term fit in that role. (The soon-to-be-departing Mead — formerly the Vice President of Communications for the Los Angeles Angels — is 62, while his predecessor, Jeff Idelson, is now 56.)
Josh Rawitch. who serves as Senior Vice President, Content & Communications for the Arizona Diamondbacks, strikes me as an intriguing possibility. A 1998 graduate of Indiana University, Rawitch has held multiple positions in baseball and is also an adjunct professor at Arizona State’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Unlike Thorn, he would profile as a long-term fit.
SABR CEO Scott Bush would likewise qualify as a long-term option. Formerly the Senior Vice President for Business Development with the Goldklang Group, as well as an Assistant General Manager for the St. Paul Saints, the 38-year-old Bush has a business background other candidates may lack. Read the rest of this entry »
Ross Stripling was featured here at FanGraphs last week, with the article focusing on Clayton Kershaw. Stripling shared how his former Los Angeles Dodgers teammate influenced his own career, as well as some of the things that make Kershaw elite. The Hall-of-Fame-bound southpaw’s innate ability to manipulate a baseball was part of that conversation, which took place prior to the start of the season.
Not included in that earlier piece was what Stripling — now a member of the Toronto Blue Jays — told me about how he manipulates one of his own pitches. The 31-year-old right-hander’s signature offering is a classic 12-6 curveball, which is among baseball’s best when he’s on top of his game. Here, in Q&A format, is that part of our multi-subject exchange.
David Laurila: You have a pretty good curveball yourself. How would you describe it?
Ross Stripling: “It’s a spiked curveball, and I don’t waver on the grip. I’ve never actually learned if it’s considered a knuckle curve or not, but I put my knuckle on the ball. Most people will put just their fingertip on the ball and call that a spiked curveball. I curl my finger, and put my whole top knuckle on the baseball. I also grip it as hard as I can. From there, I just rip it. Read the rest of this entry »
Toronto Blue Jays General Manager Ross Atkins was the featured guest on episode 918 of FanGraphs Audio, which aired Friday. Here is a transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
David Laurila: Ross, thanks for coming on FanGraphs Audio.
Ross Atkins: “Thank you for having me on. It’s good to be here with you.”
Laurila: We haven’t seen each other for a few years, but in this crazy pandemic world, I guess that’s maybe not much of a surprise.
Atkins: “I’m surprised we haven’t been on a Zoom call together. It is an interesting existence that we have, seemingly with some light at the end of the tunnel.”
Laurila: I should start by congratulating you for signing a five-year contract extension, which you did last week.
Atkins: “Thank you very much. You know what, it’s nice to reflect on the people that I’ve learned from, and grown from, and have heard from recently — the congratulatory remarks. It’s really exciting for me to think about how fortunate I have been, and I am, to be working with the people I’m with, from Charlie Montoyo and Joe Sheehan and Tony Lacava and Mike Murov. There are so many people that I could list, including some that aren’t here with Toronto anymore.”
Laurila: When I interviewed you two years ago, we talked a lot about process and infrastructure. Today I want to talk more about players, but before we do that, let’s touch on the life of a big-league GM. What does your typical day look like? Read the rest of this entry »
Cesar Valdez’s name has graced this column a handful of times over the past year, most recently a month ago when I asked him about his powerful paralyzing perfect pachydermous percussion pitch. (No, the Baltimore Orioles reliever doesn’t actually call it that, but given that Bugs Bunny changeups make up the lion’s share of his deliveries, he arguably should). Since the start of last season, Valdez has thrown the mesmerizing offering an eye-popping 83.1% of the time.
The Red Sox have faced the 36-year-old slow-baller on three occasions so far in April, so I asked Boston hitting coach Tim Hyers what kind of advice he gives his charges when Valdez is on the bump.
“First, it is totally different in the batter’s box than it is watching video,” responded Hyers. “I can tell you that.The first time we faced him, the hitters were like, This is not your typical changeup.’ It’s almost like a unique curveball, because it gets to home plate and just dives. And at times it can dive both ways; it can break in, or break out. The guys have probably talked about him more than anybody else so far this season.
“It’s kind of an illusion,” continued Hyers. “You have to wait one tick longer in the contact point to get your swing off. It’s been helpful for us to face him [multiple times in a short time period], but it’s definitely very unique and challenging for hitters to face a guy like that.” Read the rest of this entry »
Nick Yorke was among the more intriguing — some might say confounding — picks in the 2020 amateur draft. Selected 17th overall by Boston out of a San Jose high school, the right-handed-hitting infielder wasn’t expected to go in the first round. Moreover, MLB Pipeline didn’t even rank him as a Top-100 draft prospect. Eyebrows were raised throughout the industry when Yorke’s name was announced on Day One.
Red Sox scouts obviously liked what they saw from the sweet-swinging California prepster. They’re convinced that he’s going to hit, and what they saw this spring only enhanced that belief. Yorke not only impressed during simulated games, he stroked a single off of Atlanta Braves southpaw A.J. Minter in his Grapefruit League debut. As Red Sox right-hander Garrett Richards said after watching him in action, “It made me stop in my tracks a little bit, because I had no idea that this kid was that young.”
Yorke, who celebrated his 19th birthday earlier this month, talked hitting — including his offseason sessions with Seattle Mariners outfielder Mitch Haniger — midway through spring training.
David Laurila: How would you describe yourself as a hitter?
Nick Yorke: “I see myself as a grinder in the batter’s box. I take every at-bat very seriously. I hate striking out. I hate being beat. And I love hitting. There’s just something about it. You’re having a bad day, so it’s ‘OK, let’s hop in the cage and have some fun.’ I find hitting fun. To think you could change the game with one swing of the bat is exciting to me.”
Laurila: Something I’ve asked a lot of guys over the years is whether they look at hitting as more of an art, or as more of a science. How do you see it?
Yorke: “Ooh, that’s a good question. I see it as more of an art. I think everyone works on their craft, everyone has different feel in the batter’s box, they’re trying to accomplish different things. I mean, I’m not going to go up there and have the same approach as a 6-foot-5, power-hitting lefty first baseman. Everyone has their own thoughts when they’re in the box, so yeah, I would say it’s an art.”
Laurila: A number of hitters have told me “art,” then gone on to talk scientifically about how they approach things… Read the rest of this entry »
Corbin Burnes was still flying below the radar when he was featured here at FanGraphs in June 2017. He’d come into the season ranked No. 18 on our Milwaukee Brewers Top Prospect list, and Baseball America was even less bullish, slotting him 24th on their own. When I talked to him for the article, the 2016 fourth-round pick out of St. Mary’s College had yet to throw a pitch above the A-ball level.
He’s not under the radar anymore. Burnes broke out in last year’s pandemic-shortened season, and two weeks into the current campaign he’s the hottest pitcher on the planet. Over his first three starts, the 26-year-old right-hander has allowed four hits and one run in 18-and-a-third innings. Moreover, he has 30 strikeouts and has yet to issue a free pass. In a nutshell, hitters have been helpless against his five-pitch mix.
Burnes has much the same mindset as four years ago. He told me at the time that he considered himself a power pitcher, and that his M.O. was missing bats. Each time he took the mound, it was with the belief that he was better than the person standing in the batter’s box. He was out there to dominate.
Which isn’t to say that nothing has changed. Burnes had a four-seamer with natural cut when we first spoke, and now he’s sans the four, and in possession of baseball’s best cutter.
I asked Brewers pitching coach Chris Hook about the righty’s meteoric rise. Read the rest of this entry »