It’s no secret that strikeouts are at an all-time high. Nor is it a secret that not every strikeout is “just another out.” Balls in play can advance baserunners, and that’s especially important when the 90 feet being traversed is from third to home. What fan, or manager, doesn’t bemoan one of the team’s hitters going down by way of the K with a man on third and less than two out? It’s an opportunity wasted, one that often leads to a squander.
Save for the rare occasions when a batter reaches on a wild pitch or a passed ball, a strikeout is also a guaranteed out. Making contact — even weak contact — at least gives you a chance. While last year’s .292 BABIP was baseball’s lowest in nearly three decades, that’s still markedly better than than the infinitesimal odds of taking first base on a punch-out. Moreover, fielders make errors. In short, contact matters.
Given MLB’s ever-increasing strikeout rate, I asked six managers a simple, straightforward question: Is the ability to hit with two strikes an undervalued asset in today’s game?
Bud Black, Colorado Rockies
“It’s been undervalued in the history of the game. It’s probably lessened a little bit more [as] something that has been talked about. I think, more so than ever, because of the stuff today, it’s harder to hit with two strikes, especially the velocities that we’re talking about. The breaking pitches. The secondary pitches. The quality of those pitches. The swing-and-miss that’s happening now is a combination of maybe not shortening your swing, and maybe the stuff is that good to where it’s tough to make contact. Read the rest of this entry »
DL Hall isn’t No. 83 on our 2021 Top 100 Prospects list because of his command. Then again, he sort of is. With a better grasp of the strike zone than he’s shown, the 22-year-old left-hander would be ranked much higher. Since being drafted 21st overall by the Baltimore Orioles in 2017, Hall has walked just over five batters per nine innings.
But then there’s the power arsenal. These words, written by Eric Longenhagen, help explain why the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Hall has a chance to one day dominate hitters at the highest level:
“Ultra-competitive, athletic southpaws with this kind of stuff are very rare. Here’s the list of lefty big league starters who throw harder than Hall, who averaged 94.9 mph on his fastball in 2019: Jesús Luzardo, Blake Snell. That’s it.”
David Laurila: Lets start with something Eric Longenhagen wrote in your prospect profile. Is “ultra-competitive” a good way to describe you?
DL Hall: “I do think that I’m a super-competitive guy. Everybody that steps in the box, I try to own. I like winning, and I hate losing.”
Laurila: Do you hate losing to the extent that it actually bothers you?
Hall: “That’s a tough question. It definitely bothers me, but I’ve also learned how to learn from it, if that makes sense. I learn from losses now, versus dwelling on them.” Read the rest of this entry »
“Already a physical presence as a teenager, Veen has big power potential and a pretty left-handed swing to go with a plus arm that should serve him well in right field.”
Those words, written by Eric Longenhagen, lead Zac Veen’s profile in our recently-released 2021 Top 100 Prospects list. The 19-year-old outfielder came in at No. 70, which is especially impressive when you consider that he’s yet to play a game — Fall Instructional League notwithstanding — at the professional level. A Port Orange, Florida native, Veen was drafted ninth overall last year by the Colorado Rockies.
Another quote from Longenhagen’s writeup bears noting: “His in-the-box actions are quiet and smooth up until the moment he decides to unleash hell on the baseball.” In short, the 6-foot-5, 210-pound Veen profiles as a middle-of-the-order slugger if he approaches his full potential.
David Laurila: I’ll start with a question I’ve asked several hitters over the years: Do you see hitting as more of an art, or more of a science?
Zac Veen: “For me, it’s more of an art. I’m more of a feel hitter and don’t really get into a lot of the analytics. Guys who look at a lot of video… I’d say it’s more of a science to them, but I like to stay away from a lot of that stuff. It can be helpful, but for the most part I’m more of a feel, see how the ball comes off the bat kind of guy.”
Laurila: It’s pretty common for young hitters to go into a cage and use technology when working to fine-tune their swings. Have you done that at all?
Veen: “I’ve tried it, my junior year of high school, but that caused me to overthink things a little bit. I’d take a really good swing, then I’d look at the video and be like, ‘Oh, wow, I can do this differently,’ instead of just being happy with a line drive to centerfield. That’s not something I want to do. When I take a good swing, I want to just be happy with it, and not be too picky about anything.”
Laurila: Is the swing you have right now, at age 19, essentially the same swing you had a few years ago, or has it evolved? Read the rest of this entry »
As a rule, teams tend to be less aggressive, and take fewer chances, when behind in games. The logic is sound, but at the same time, is it really necessary? Is there not often something to gain by pushing the envelope and putting pressure on the opposing side, regardless of the score? I asked that question to Derek Shelton earlier this week.
“I think it’s game-situational,” the Pirates manager replied. “The question I would [throw] back to you — this is rhetorical, of course — is ‘What’s the variation in terms of number of runs when you start to take chances, or don’t take chances?’ If it’s three or less, you probably have a greater chance of being aggressive. If you get to the point where you’re at four-plus, you have to be very careful… because the risk-reward may not play out.”
Going deep with runners on is arguably the best way to erase multi-run deficits, but that’s not a reward Shelton has seen much of since taking the helm in Pittsburgh prior to last season. The Pirates hit just 22 home runs with men on base in 2020. Only the Texas Rangers, with 20, hit fewer. And there weren’t a ton of solos, either. All told, Willie Stargell’s old team out-homered only the Arizona Diamondbacks and the St. Louis Cardinals.
Of course, not every good team has a lineup full of bashers. Your father’s Cardinals are a prime example. In the 1980s, St. Louis had multiple championship-caliber clubs that were largely bereft of power. They made their hay by motoring around the base paths. I brought up how it might be interesting to look back at how often they ran when trailing by multiple runs.
Shelton retorted with unassailable logic. Read the rest of this entry »
Forrest Whitley has slid precipitously in the rankings. A helium-filled No. 4 in 2019, the 23-year-old right-hander fell to No. 15 on last year’s FanGraphs Top 100 Prospects list, and has now slid out of the top 100 altogether. When Eric Longenhagen released our 2021 list on Wednesday, Whitley — “as enigmatic as any pitcher in the minors” — was on the outside looking in, coming in at an after-the-fact No. 106 as a 50 FV prospect.
He’s hell-bent on proving any, and all, doubters wrong. Following an offseason where he worked diligently to fine-tune both his physique and his repertoire, Whitley is in camp with the Houston Astros looking to show that the earlier hype wasn’t misplaced. A first-round pick in the 2016 draft, he’s now aiming to emerge as a front-line starter at baseball’s highest level.
David Laurila: Let’s start with your height and weight. Where are you at right now?
Forrest Whitley: “I’m 6-foot-6 and 205 pounds.
Laurila: That’s low for you, right?
Whitley: “Compared to where I was the last couple years, it would be considered low. But I’ve experimented a lot, in many different ways. This is where I feel the most comfortable.”
Laurila: By “most comfortable,” I assume you’re referring primarily to being able to repeat your mechanics.
Whitley: “Yes. I feel like I have a lot more stability and body control, which plays a premium at my size. It’s definitely been a grind to get consistent mechanics down, and I think a lot of that had to do with strengthening all parts of my body, because there’s a lot more surface area to me than most guys. Hammering down all those areas was pretty much my main focus this offseason — getting everything as stable as possible. From the many bullpens I threw before I came here [to spring training] it seems to be paying off.” Read the rest of this entry »
Braden Shewmake’s name will rank highly when Eric Longenhagen’s 2021 Atlanta Braves Top Prospects list comes out in the not-too-distant future. A well-rounded profile is a big reason why. The 23-year-old Texas A&M product plays a premium position, and his left-handed stroke not only produced a plethora of line drives in the SEC, it did much the same in his first forays against professional pitching. Drafted 21st overall in 2019, Shewmake went on to slash .300/.371/.425, reaching Double-A by season’s end. As Longhagen wrote in last year’s writeup, Shewmake “was outstanding at the plate, with an excellent approach and sneaky power to go along with very positive public and private defensive metrics at shortstop.”
David Laurila: Let’s start with your position. Are the plans for you to stay at shortstop?
Braden Shewmake: “As far as I know. I haven’t been taking groundballs at any position other than shortstop, and I like to think I could play there. Of course, anything to get to the big leagues, right?”
Laurila: What are you doing toward that end? At 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, you’re built more like a third baseman than your typical shortstop.
Shewmake: “I’m trying to get quicker and faster, but I feel I can already move really well. I was kind of skeptical at first about out how much weight I wanted to put on — like you said, I’m 205 now — and what that would do to my speed and quickness. But this offseason we did kind of a baseline test, kind of a before and after, and I’ve actually gotten faster and quicker. I’m also stronger. I feel really good with where I’m at right now.”
Laurila: Did you get many comps from scouts prior to coming to pro ball? Read the rest of this entry »
Aaron Sabato went in the first round last summer because of his bat. As Eric Longenhagen wrote when putting together our Minnesota Twins Top Prospects list, “teams were about as sure of Sabato’s hitting ability as they were of any player’s in the 2020 draft.” An accomplished slugger at the University of North Carolina, the 21-year-old first baseman is a masher with an admirable offensive ceiling.
Defense is the question mark. At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Sabato is built for power and not speed, with some pundits already projecting him as a DH. The Rye, New York native’s take on that opinion might be best-expressed as, “Not so fast.” Sabato sees himself as a more-than-capable fielder who can help his team on both sides of the ball. As for what he can do with a bat in his hands, let’s just say that he agrees with the scouting community. Sabato isn’t cocky, but he certainly doesn’t lack confidence.
David Laurila: You were a middle infielder in high school, and now there are people projecting you as a designated hitter. What are your thoughts on that?
Aaron Sabato: “Guys read the height and weight, then they’re, ‘Oh, he played shortstop a couple years ago and now he’s on a corner at first base; he must be trending toward DH.’ I don’t see it that way at all. My feet move really well, my hands are really good. If you watch me — my actions and the way my body moves — you’ll know that I’m not a DH. Obviously, I’m not going back to the middle of the infield, but whether it’s third or first — I know it’ll most likely be first — I can play a corner. I think I proved to the coaches, and the staff, down in instructs that they didn’t draft a DH. They drafted a guy who could field, maybe an at elite level.”
Laurila: How big were you in high school?
Sabato: “My weight wasn’t as high — I was probably 215 — but I was chubbier. I grew an inch or two in college, and I also thinned out.”
Laurila: How were you playing shortstop as a “chubbier” kid? Were you at a small school? Read the rest of this entry »
Grayson Rodriguez is a top-100 prospect thanks to a four-pitch mix that includes an explosive high-spin heater. As electric as that mid-90s offering is, it’s not the most eye-catching item in his arsenal. The Orioles’ top pitching prospect throws a changeup with screwball characteristics. While not technically a screwball — Juan Marichal and Mike Norris come to mind — the movement profile is anything but run-of-the-mill for a right-handed change. At age 21 with a bright future ahead of him, Rodriguez is armed with a unique pitch.
David Laurila: You’ve developed a good changeup. What makes it effective?
Grayson Rodriguez: “The way I like to attack with my fastball sets up my changeup well, how it moves and what it looks like out of my hand. As I’ve learned how to throw it with TrackMan and Edgertronic cameras, I’ve figured out a way to get the ball to spin exactly how I want it to. Those things have really helped me, because my changeup is different from a lot of other guys’. It’s almost like a screwball. Hitters don’t see it as much as they do a normal changeup.”
Laurila: How do you get the screwball action?
Rodriguez: “At my release point, my wrist is pronating a lot more than normal. If you break down my hand movement and wrist position — break everything down in slow motion — it’s really turning over. It’s kind of an aggressive, violent turn-over. You don’t see that very often. My ball, on an axis, is spinning at about 3 o’clock to 3:30. If you were to picture that on a clock, it’s almost like a left-handed slider, or a left-handed curveball.” Read the rest of this entry »
Jonathan Schoop slashed .169/.217/.273 last year in counts that included two strikes, and over his career that line is an equally-squeamish .162/.208/.276. The Detroit Tigers infielder — recently re-signed to a one-year deal worth a reported $4.5M — isn’t alone in scuffling when a possible punch-out looms. Across the two leagues, batters slashed .167/.248/.275 in those situations in 2020
Schoop typically doesn’t get into two-strike counts by taking pitcher’s pitches and patiently waiting for mistakes. Restraint has never been his forte. Since debuting with the Baltimore Orioles in September 2013, Schoop’s walk rate is a lowly 3.8%, while his Swing% and O-Swing% both rank toward the top of our Plate Discipline leaderboard. And while toning down that level of aggression is a goal, it’s not as though a Tiger can simply change his stripes. Schoop isn’t about to morph into Joey Votto — not at age 29 — which means a different two-strike approach might be in order.
I asked Schoop about that during a Zoom call earlier this week.
“I’ve got to do better with two strikes,” admitted Schoop, whose 22% K-rate last year was a shade under his career mark of 22.9%. “I need to put the ball more in play and see what happens. I’m going to change that. I’m going to be better at everything. The things I need to be better in, I’m going to be better in. The things I’m good in, I’m trying to be a tick better on them, too.”
Following up, I asked Schoop if he’s considered shortening his swing with two strikes, maybe even choking up on the bat. While that might mean giving up some power, it would likely help him boost his contact rate. Read the rest of this entry »
Josh Staumont has intriguing StatCast numbers. The 27-year-old Royals right-hander ranks in the 99th percentile for fastball velocity, and his curveball is 91st percentile in spin rate. That combination helped produce a 2.45 ERA and 37 strikeouts over 25.2 relief innings last year. A former second-second pick whose command issues have dogged his development path, Staumont allowed just 20 hits but walked 16 batters.
There’s another metric on Staumont’s Statcast page that jumps out just as much as his velocity and spin. When the Azusa Pacific University product didn’t miss bats, the results tended to be loud. Somewhat remarkably, given that he had a solid season overall, Staumont was 2nd percentile in hard-hit rate — not second best, but rather second worst among his contemporaries.
Staumont addressed that conundrum, as well as his high-profile arsenal and his love-hate relationship with pitching analytics, over the phone last week.
David Laurila: Looking at your Statcast numbers, I see elite velocity and a lot of spin. What do those things mean to you?
Josh Staumont: “Looking at the metrics of baseball… it’s kind of a fickle theme. You see all these numbers, and some of them are leaning toward more consistency. Others are a little atypical. Personally, I see it more as an effort-based system. That kind of goes hand-in-hand with how baseball is progressing. I believe the floor is getting raised a little when it comes to the talent threshold, with all the access to data, the access to training, and things like that. Analytically, I think the focus on numbers has allowed for progression based off of numbers. Read the rest of this entry »