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General Managers Meetings Notebook

The General Managers meetings provide a great opportunity to check in with executives from across the game. A pair of hour-long media sessions are held, with the majority of the GMs, and/or Presidents of Baseball Operations, making appearances at both. I spoke to a large number of them, with the goal of addressing a cross section of subjects.

Here are snapshots from six of those conversations, with more to come in the ensuing days.

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The Toronto Blue Jays are coming off a 67-95 season, but their fans have a lot of reasons to be excited. Some of those reasons have names. Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, and Nate Pearson are the sort of building-blocks that can one day deliver postseason glory. Heading into 2019, the Jays’ farm system ranked amongst the best in the game.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the cadre of young talent will meet its lofty expectations. And even if it does, contention in the AL East is likely a few years down the road. While 2020 should be a step in the right direction, it’s hard to envision Canada’s team leap-frogging New York, Tampa Bay, and Boston.

Tempered expectations are one thing, Rogers Centre attendance having fallen by an average of 7,063 fans per game in 2019 is another. Ross Atkins recognizes the conundrum.

“The hardest thing to do in this job is to be patient,” said the Blue Jays’ VP of Baseball Operations. “Our fans are extremely important to us, and it’s not as though [GMs] don’t feel the same things. It’s very tough on us, physically and emotionally, to not be winning.”

A Hall of Fame executive who helped lead Toronto to a pair of World Series titles is a role model for the 46-year-old former minor-league pitcher. Read the rest of this entry »


Dylan Bundy, Cory Gearrin, and Dereck Rodriguez on the Evolution of Their Changeups

Pitchers learn and develop different pitches, and they do so at varying stages of their lives. It might be a curveball in high school, a cutter in college, or a changeup in A-ball. Sometimes the addition or refinement is a natural progression — graduating from Pitching 101 to advanced course work — and often it’s a matter of necessity. In order to get hitters out as the quality of competition improves, a pitcher needs to optimize his repertoire.

In this installment of the series, we’ll hear from three pitchers — Dylan Bundy, Cory Gearrin, and Dereck Rodriguez — on how they learned and developed their changeups.

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Dylan Bundy, Baltimore Orioles

“I’d tried a circle change, and throwing with these two fingers [the middle and ring], but I never could do it. First of all, it doesn’t make sense to throw with those two fingers when you don’t throw any other pitches with them. You throw every pitch with the [middle and pointer], and your thumb, right? I kind of got around to, ‘Why try it?’

“I decided to spread my fingers over the two seams — this was in 2016 — and while I don’t know if you’d consider it a split, I call it a split. Some people only consider it a split if you full on choke it. For me it’s not a choke so much as a spread. When you bring your thumb up, really far up to the side of the ball, that way you get the action. If your thumb is underneath the ball, you get more straight drop, if that makes sense. You’re throwing against your thumb.

“I first threw a four-seam [changeup] — same grip, same spread — but then, two years ago… actually, no. Last year was the first time I started doing a two-seam grip instead of a four-seam grip. My thought process had been to try to make it look exactly like my heater, because I thought hitters could read spin, but I was told that hitters can’t make up their minds on spin that quick. I was told, ‘Don’t worry about that; don’t worry about the spin, worry about the action.’ That’s when I went to the two-seam split-change. Read the rest of this entry »


Sunday Notes: Michael Girsch Avoids Analytics’ Big Old Hole of Nothingness

We’ll learn more about what the 30 teams have in store for the offseason in the coming days. Not in any great detail (and some subterfuge is inevitable), but with varying degrees of forthcomingness, information will indeed be shared. The GM meetings begin tomorrow, in Scottsdale, with media sessions scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday.

Will your favorite team actively pursue a trade for Mookie Betts? Do they have their eyes trained, and checkbooks already open, on free agents such as Gerrit Cole and Anthony Rendon… or perhaps Andrew Cashner or Jordy Mercer? Answers to those kinds of questions are reliably vague at best, but inquiries of a different ilk often elicit thoughtful responses.

I got a head start on the executive-Q&A front during last month’s NLCS. Eschewing anything roster-related — not the right time and place — I asked St. Louis Cardinals Vice President/General Manager Michael Girsch if he and his front office cohorts had anything cooking behind the scenes. His answer reflected just how much the game continues to evolve.

“We’re kind of reorganizing our baseball development group a little bit,” said Girsch. “The amount of data keeps increasing exponentially. It’s gone from your basic back of a baseball card, 10 or 15 years ago, to TrackMan, to StatCast, and beyond. The infrastructure that worked at one point doesn’t work anymore. When I started, everything was in Excel, on my laptop. That became nonviable pretty quickly, and now we’re moving beyond the servers we have, to other issues.”

Is keeping up more a matter of adding staff, or streamlining the process already in place? Girsch’s response reflected the fact that bigger fish — relative to the here and now — still needed to be fried. Read the rest of this entry »


Jay Bruce Talks Hitting

Jay Bruce loves to hit, and he loves to talk hitting. He’s good at both. The veteran outfielder has a well-earned reputation for being thoughtful and engaging, and the numbers he’s put up over 12 big-league seasons speak for themselves. Bruce has 649 extra-base hits in 6,500 career plate appearances, including 312 home runs.

A first-round pick by the Reds in 2005, Bruce debuted three years later as a 21-year-old and went on to spend eight-plus season in a Cincinnati uniform. The native of Beaumont, Texas has since bounced around, hopscotching from the Mets to the Indians, back to the Mets, from there to the Mariners, and last summer to the Phillies. At age 32, he’ll head into 2020 in the final year of his current contract.

Bruce sat down to talk hitting when the Phillies visited Fenway Park in mid-September.

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

Jay Bruce: “As I’ve gotten older and more experienced, a lot has happened in the game in terms of information and hitting philosophy. Numbers have started being attached to thoughts, or assumptions. I definitely pay attention to that. But I wouldn’t say I’m of the launch-angle revolution, or whatever you care to call it. I’ve always hit the ball in the air. I have a problem with hitting the ball on the ground.

“If your fly balls are your misses, that can cause some BABIP issues — there are issues that could potentially zap parts of your game. But if you have power, and are hitting the ball in the air, you’re giving yourself more opportunities to produce a positive outcome. That should be obvious.

“The thing I probably do the most is pull the ball in the air, and that’s one of the, if not the most, successful ways to hit a ball. So for me… I think the outside philosophy of hitting has changed a little bit. When I came up, you were taught to use the other side of the field. Stay up the middle. Even hit the ball on the ground sometimes.” Read the rest of this entry »


Jace Fry, Mitch Keller, and Josh Taylor on How They Developed Their Sliders

Pitchers learn and develop different pitches, and they do so at varying stages of their lives. It might be a curveball in high school, a cutter in college, or a changeup in A-ball. Sometimes the addition or refinement is a natural progression — graduating from Pitching 101 to advanced course work — and often it’s a matter of necessity. In order to get hitters out as the quality of competition improves, a pitcher needs to optimize his repertoire.

In this installment of the series, we’ll hear from three pitchers —Jace Fry, Mitch Keller, and Josh Taylor — on how they learned and developed their sliders.

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Jace Fry, Chicago White Sox

“I started throwing a slider when I was about 14, but it was a different grip, and a different kind of pitch. It was more of a big, sweeping slider. After my second Tommy John surgery, I stopped throwing that one and started throwing the slider I have now. J.R. Perdew taught it to me. This would have been in 2016. I gained a little more velocity, and get sharper action.

“Going back to the beginning, I started throwing a curveball when I was 10, and that one I’ve been throwing my whole career. The slider was added once I got into high school. Growing up, there were a lot of good coaches in my area [Beaverton, Oregon]. My pitching coach was Jim Coffman, who is an area scout for Oakland. I went to him for four or five years, and he’s the one who taught me how to spin the ball correctly, and how to be on time. Read the rest of this entry »


Sunday Notes: Cutter Heavy, Josh Osich Doesn’t Bury His Head in the Sand

Josh Osich doesn’t bury his head in the sand when a change is in order. Compared to most hurlers, the 31-year-old southpaw has been chameleon-like in terms of his pitch usage. He’s switched teams, as well. Originally in the Giants organization, Osich spent 2019 with the White Sox, and just this past week he was claimed off waivers by the Red Sox.

Intrigued by what I saw in his pitch-type column, I asked the former Oregon State Beaver for the reasons behind all the ebbs and flows of his offerings.

“If the scouting report is the same every year, they know what you’re going to be throwing,” Osich said this summer. “It’s always nice to change things up, so that they don’t know what’s coming. In 2016, I was sinker-heavy. The year before that, I was fastball-changeup-cutter; it was more of a mix. In 2018, there were probably a few more changeups. This year I’ve been cutter-heavy.”

Very cutter-heavy. Roughly two out of every three pitches Osich threw in 2019 were classified as cutters. Might that not be contradictory to his “they don’t know what’s coming” comment? Read the rest of this entry »


Chaim Bloom Aims for Collaboration and Sustainable Competitiveness in Boston

In an interview that ran here last week, Red Sox Senior Vice President/Assistant General Manager Zack Scott suggested that Dave Dombrowski’s successor will be heavily invested in analytics. That turned out to be an understatement. On Monday, Chaim Bloom — an integral cog in Tampa Bay’s cutting-edge front office since 2005 — was formally introduced as Boston’s Chief Baseball Officer.

If you paid heed to the press conference, you’re aware that “collaborative” was the buzzword of the day. Bloom, principal owner John Henry, chairman Tom Werner, and president/CEO Sam Kennedy used the term (and variants thereof) as frequently and purposefully as “Trick or Treat” is heard on Halloween.

Dombrowski didn’t depart Fenway Park in a gorilla costume, as Theo Epstein famously did in 2005, but the reason he’s being replaced isn’t cloaked in mystery. However much the ownership group cares to dance around it, Dombrowski didn’t fully embrace the collaborative process that was deemed necessary to move the team forward, certainly not to the extent they expect Bloom to do so.

Couching his comments with, “I wouldn’t contrast the two,” Henry said from the dais that ownership was “extremely desirous of bringing in someone who would augment and add, as opposed to bringing in someone who might have been an autocrat.” Read the rest of this entry »


Sunday Notes: Red Sox Prospect Thad Ward Has a Chris Sale Slider

Thad Ward didn’t make our Red Sox Top Prospect List prior to this season. Baseball America wasn’t bullish on the 22-year-old right-hander, either. Their rankings went 30-deep, and Ward didn’t make the cut.

Next year will be a different story. Ward was a revelation in his first full professional season, fanning 157 batters, and allowing just 89 hits, in 126-and-a-third innings. Those numbers came between low-A Greenville and high-A Salem, where his cumulative ERA was a sparkling 2.14.

His slider is his best pitch.

“It’s a Chris Sale slider,” is how Red Sox pitching guru Brian Bannister described it to me in late September. “It’s a sweeping slider, with a similar shape to Jhoulys Chacin’s or Corey Kluber’s. It has that extra horizontal component to it.”

That’s long been the case, although Ward’s understanding of the how-and-why is recent. When he reported to spring training this year, the 2018 fifth-round pick out of the University of Central Florida got a crash course in Pitching Analytics 101. Read the rest of this entry »


Mark Trumbo Talks Hitting

Mark Trumbo has always had pluses and minuses as a hitter. He’s consistently hit for power, but at the same time he’s displayed sub-par on-base skills. A free-swinging approach has been the major culprit. The 33-year-old slugger has walked just 299 times in 4,419 big-league plate appearances, largely because of a 50.6% Swing% and a 37.1% 0-Swing%. When he does make contact, he hits bombs. Trumbo has 218 home runs, and that includes a 47-home-run season.

He’s long recognized his limitations. Moreover, he’s owned up to them. An interview that ran here in April 2016 was titled “Mark Trumbo on Home Runs and (Not) Drawing Walks“. How to change for the better has been the issue, and truth be told, Trumbo’s reached a point in his career where that probably can’t happen. Not because he’s incapable of adopting a more disciplined approach — that would actually be a priority now — but rather because his playing days may be coming to an end. Trumbo played in just 12 games with the Orioles this year due to a knee injury, and even if he does return to full health, he’s somewhat of a square peg in a round hole. Today’s game is anything but kind to one-dimensional boppers.

Trumbo talked about the art and science of his craft, including his recent role as a mentor and the likelihood of one day becoming a hitting coach, on the last weekend of the 2019 season.

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David Laurila: You’re a veteran player on a young team. Do you see yourself as a mentor?

Mark Trumbo: “I enjoy talking hitting. As far as being a mentor, just by age alone there’s probably an element of that. But hitting is the thing I’ve done the longest in life, and it’s what I’m surrounded by the most, so I find myself naturally segueing into conversations that delve into all aspects of it — be it the mental, or physical, component. Adjustments have always been particularly interesting to me. That’s whether they come over the winter, or in-game. Regardless of when that is, there are a lot of things that can allow you get to another level.”

Laurila: Adjustments obviously vary in size and scope.

Trumbo: “Yes. The bigger changes usually happen over the winter. People are making fairly drastic swing changes, or their entire approach becomes different from what it was before. The day-to-day adjustments usually relate more to timing, rhythm, and pitch selection. As someone who has taken quite a few at-bats, I can usually offer insight into those topics.

“That said, I’m very much interested in the mechanics of a swing. I’ve always looked at guys who are getting it done at a highly-consistent level, and tried to see if I can steal some of their moves, so to speak. I’ve tried to figure out what is allowing them to be as productive as they are, in hopes that I can incorporate some of those things into my own game.” Read the rest of this entry »


A Conversation with Red Sox Analytics Department Overseer Zack Scott

Zack Scott is currently one of four people running Boston’s baseball operations department. Along with Raquel Ferreira, Brian O’Halloran, and Eddie Romero Jr, the 16-year member of the team’s front office is keeping a chair warm while the search for Dave Dombrowski’s replacement continues. His core responsibilities remain largely the same. Scott’s title is Senior Vice President/Assistant General Manager, and per the Red Sox media guide, he “oversees the club’s Baseball Analytics and Baseball Systems departments.”

What is the current state of Boston’s analytics department, and how much has it changed since the University of Vermont graduate (B.S. in Mathematics) joined the organization in 2004? I addressed those questions with Scott following the completion of the Red Sox season.

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David Laurila: How much has the Red Sox analytics department grown over the years?

Zack Scott: “There’s been a lot of growth, not just with us, but in the industry. As you know, there’s been an explosion of data. Throwing out round-number estimates, when I started there were around 10,000 data points, and now it’s more like 10 billion data points. And a lot of that has been the last five years. So the need to grow is apparent; there’s only so much you can do with a short staff.”

Laurila: How many people are currently in the department?

Scott: “We added five new employees last offseason. Overall, our R&D team is 15 people. It’s around half analysts, half software developers/technology-implementation.”

Laurila: There’s a perception that the Red Sox went from one of the top analytics teams in baseball to one that is below the top tier. Is that accurate? Read the rest of this entry »