Sunday Notes: Conforto, Philly Kid Pitchers, Keepsakes, more

Michael Conforto got to the big leagues in a hurry; the 10th overall pick in last year’s draft is already wearing a New York Mets uniform. It fits comfortably. The 22-year-old Oregon State product is hitting a stylish .292/.375/.531, with five long balls, in 112 plate appearances.

Conforto flew through the system this summer, punishing pitchers at two levels before being promoted directly from Double-A. Hoopla accompanied his arrival and he wasted little time justifying the buzz. In his second game, the left-handed-hitting outfielder stroked four hits, including a pair of doubles. He did so with access to data never before at his disposal.

“When I came up, I wanted to use all of it,” Coforto told me on Wednesday. “I wanted to see the heat charts of pitchers, and the percentages of pitches they use in certain counts and with runners on base. Everything. I tried to digest all of the information, but it’s tough to put all of those things into your head and still hit.”

Veteran teammates cautioned the youngster to keep it simple, telling him “You didn’t have those things in the minor leagues and you still hit.” He heeded their advice, but not to the point of eschewing all available data.

“I’ve gotten to the point where I’m looking at video of the pitcher, to see his motion and his release point,” explained Conforto. “I look at the movement on his pitches. And I do look at his heat maps a little, but other than that I’m keeping it pretty simple.”

Conforto’s approach is to “hunt fastballs, especially in hitter’s counts,” although he’s learned that he has to “be ready for anything” at the big-league level. He admits that he’ll “look off-speed a little” in situations where he’s less likely to get challenged. For the most part, he tries “to see some pitches and hopefully get a fastball out over the plate, or maybe middle-in.”

Based on his month-plus of results, out over the plate is his preferred location. His heat map bears that out – he’s enjoyed far more success on pitches middle-away than he has on the inner half.

The advice he’s receiving goes beyond keeping it simple. Curtis Granderson tells Conforto what he saw from the pitcher in his own at bats. His message might be “You’ll want to stay on this guy a little longer, because he’s got good arm-side run on his ball,” or it could be “This guy’s got sink, so see him up a little bit.”

Daniel Murphy has talked to him about how he sets up in the box. Conforto “sometimes gets a little hunched over” and Murphy will tell him to “hit with a bigger chest.” Michael Cuddyer has given pointers on pinch-hitting, telling him to simply treat it as his first at bat of a game. “It’s a mindset,” said Conforto. “A lot of hitting is about your mindset.”

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Hitters aren’t the only ones who need to protect against over-analyzing when they reach the big leagues. Pitchers do as well. In-depth data is available on every opposing hitter, but not every iota is essential, especially at the onset. By delving into it too deeply before settling in, a fresh-off-the-farm pitcher runs the risk of overloading his circuits.

Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure is a strong believer in young pitchers breaking in as simply as possible.

“I don’t want them to think too much about that kind of stuff,” said McClure. “I just want them to pitch how they got here. There’s a lot of information, and it’s very usable if you know what you’re looking at, but a young kid can lose himself with it. The last thing you want a young kid to do is lose himself.”

Rookie right-handers Alec Asher and Jerad Eickhoff employed that approach in their initial outings.

“I didn’t really use much,” said Asher, who debuted for the Phillies, against San Diego, on Monday. “I didn’t want to overload myself in my first start, so I just went over simple scouting report stuff with my catcher. That was really it. There are a lot of emotions going on, so you want try to just go out and pitch your game.”

Asher allowed eight hits and four runs over five-and-two-third innings He walked one and struck out three.

Eickhoff – acquired along with Asher in July’s Cole Hamels trade – did much the same when he debuted on August 21.

“My first start was against Miami and I didn’t really look at much,” said Eikhoff. “I just kind of used my eyes and trusted the stuff that got me here. I did ask some of the veteran guys what they look at before a start. I wanted that happy balance of video and my own perspective.”

Eickhoff threw six scoreless innings. He allowed five hits, and had one walk and five strikeouts.

Asher and Eikhoff both expressed satisfaction with their game plans, and each pointed to execution as the key determiner of their results. Asher admitted to being a little amped up early in the game, which hurt his fastball command and made his slider “a little shaky.” Eikhoff was least satisfied with his curveball, which he attributed to “getting used to the smaller seams here; the seams and how the ball is rubbed up a little differently.”

The 25-year-old Eikhoff has since made two more starts – he’ll be on the mound again today — and he’s done “pretty much the same thing” preparation-wise. Rather than looking at video, he’s watched the games leading up to his outings and “gone off of that.” His game plan has remained the same.

Earlier this week, I asked Asher if he expects to prepare any differently for his second start, which came yesterday in Boston. He told me he wasn’t sure, adding that he was probably going to “take it simple and see where it takes me.”

The 23-year-old ended up riding a bumpy road to a 9-2 loss, allowing seven runs in the fourth inning. Afterward, he said he did prepare more than he did in his first start – he looked at video and went over the scouting reports. Once again, Asher used the word execution when explaining his performance. Regardless of how you prepare for a gane, you ultimately have to make pitches.

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I Tweeted the following this past Monday, and given the number of favorites it elicited, I’ll share it here as well:

A Yankees player walked into clubhouse today & exclaimed to no one in particular, “Blue Jays playing today? Is it 6-0 yet?”

The player – who shall remained unnamed – uttered the words with a wry smile. Even so, he and his teammates know they have a fight on their hands. The Blue Jays and their high-octane offense have been on a serious run.

The teams play each other seven more times, including a four-game set in the Bronx next weekend.

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For most players, their first big-league hit and first big-league home run are keepers. Each ball is retrieved and put away for safekeeping, a memento to be cherished.

The base hit is typically an easy retrieval, as the ball almost always remains on the field of play – someone picks it up and rolls it into the dugout. The latter is trickier, as the ball usually ends up in the cheap seats, in the hands of a fan. Most give it up willingly, but for a price. Demands differ.

Chase Headley’s first home run came at old Yankee Stadium as a member of the San Diego Padres. Headley recalls that the fan “wasn’t very demanding. He wanted a signed ball or something; that was it.”

Greg Bird hit his first home run last month, at new Yankee Stadium. “The people were great,” said the Yankees rookie. “It was a dad and two kids – they were Yankees fans – and they didn’t ask me for anything. I ended up signing a bat for them, anyway.”

“Michael Conforto’s first home run was on the road, in Miami. “They negotiated with the fan who caught it, and I signed a bat for him,” explained the Mets rookie. “I was completely OK with that. I’d have done whatever to get that ball.”

The fan who caught Travis Shaw’s first home run, at Fenway Park, got two baseballs. Neither was from the Red Sox rookie. “I told them I’d give the guy whatever he wanted, but he didn’t want anything from me,” said Shaw. “I think they gave the guy a Dustin Pedroia-signed ball and a David Ortiz-signed ball.”

Headley and Shaw both received bogus baseballs before receiving the real ones. In each case, teammates handed over a ball with misspelling and/or the wrong date written on it. Neither was fooled, or at least wouldn’t admit to it. No one attempted to dupe Bird or Conforto.

Conforto gave the balls from his first hit and his first home run to his grandfather. “He’s always been my biggest fan,” explained Conforto. “He’s in Redmond, Washington, and really appreciates that I give him stuff from my achievements; it makes him feel a lot closer to me.”

When Bird met the family who returned his home run ball, the youngest member of the clan – perhaps dreaming of his own future first – uttered words that should resonate with all who play the game:

“Dad, I’d want my first home run ball.”

——

The unintentional-yet-effective backup slider was featured in this column two weeks ago. Since that time, I’ve spoken to other pitchers about the offering that no one has mastered, and few even try to master. Kansas City’s Luke Hochevar and Philadelphia’s Aaron Harang were among those sharing their thoughts.

“My slider would back up at times,” said Hochevar, who stopped throwing the pitch when he moved to the bullpen. “That usually happens because you don’t get on top of the baseball, or you try to induce it too much. But do you know what? Sometimes it’s the best pitch in baseball.”

“If I knew how to throw a backup slider, I’d do it every single time,” said Harang. “Guys don’t hit it. You can’t try to throw one though; it just happens. If someone came up with a way to teach a backup slider, we’d all want to learn it.”

——

Larry Andersen estimates that 90% of the pitches he threw in the later years of his career were sliders. He had a good one, as hitters of the late 1980s and early 1990s can attest. The reliever infamously traded for Jeff Bagwell was one of the best set-up men in the National League (and briefly in Boston).

On the rarest of occasions, the pitcher-turned-Phillies-broadcaster would throw a split-change. It was a pitch he would “mess around with, but almost never use in a game.” Andersen guesses he threw it as few as 10 times in his 17 seasons. One was in the tenth inning of a playoff game. Pitching for the Phillies, Andersen struck out Atlanta’s Ron Gant to close out Game 5 of the 1993 NLCS.

Why did he go with a “mess around pitch” in a crucial spot?

“If you’d have seen the sliders I was throwing, you’d understand,” Andersen told me prior to providing color for yesterday’s broadcast. “I hung one to Otis Nixon that he hit as well as he could and it went for an out to the warning track. I struck out Jeff Blauser, but the last two strikes were on high backup sliders. My arm was hanging, but I was also trying to throw it too hard. I always say,’ Don’t make it break, let it break,’ and I was trying to make it break. Then Gant came up and fouled off two hanging sliders, almost exactly what Blauser had swung through.

Darren Daulton was catching and he gave me the sign for my split-change. It should have been a dead giveaway, because I think my jaw hit the ground. I stepped off the mound and thought, ‘He’s probably got a point, because if I throw another one of those hanging sliders, this game is probably going to be tied.’ So I threw the split and Gant took it for the third strike. Even to this day, Ronnie (Gant) will say, ‘I can’t believe you did that.’ Hardly anybody had ever seen it.”

Spike Owen didn’t like what he saw when Andersen took the pitch out of his back pocket while pitching for the Astros in 1989.

“We were playing Montreal and I threw one to Spike Owen, who’d been a teammate of mine in Seattle,” said Andersen. “We were down something like 9-1, and I was basically getting in some work, so I threw Spike a split. He had the umpire check the ball. There had been allegations of (Astros pitchers) scuffing the ball, and that’s probably why he did it. We ended up in a brawl.

“When he said ‘check the ball,’ I decided I was going to throw a four-seamer inside. I wasn’t throwing at his head – I don’t believe in that — but I wanted to show him that it was bogus to have the umpire check the ball when they’re blowing us out.

“The pitch ended up going right at his head, and he charged the mound. We were rolling around on the ground and he’s saying, ‘You’re trying to end my career,’ blah, blah, blah. I’m telling him I wasn’t trying to throw at his head. Basically, we were on the ground talking, because there was no one else in the rumble. Danny Darwin had broken Hubie Brooks‘ wrist earlier, and he’d hit Nelson Santovenia. When Spike charged the mound, the whole Expos team went after Darwin. Afterward, Darwin was telling me, ‘You’re the one who got my butt kicked.’”

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

On Thursday, Bryce Harper scored four runs and walked in all four of his plate appearances. According to STATS Inc., the only other players to score four runs in a game without an official at bat are Larry Doby (1951), Joe Morgan (1973) and Rickey Henderson (1989).

In August, Boston’s Joe Kelly became the second pitcher in American League history to win at least six games, without a loss, in a calendar month where his team was in last place every day of that month. The other was Cleveland’s Sam McDowell, in June 1969.

The 1942 St. Louis Cardinals won a franchise record 106 games. This year’s team could match that mark by winning 19 of its 27 remaining games.

The Milwaukee Brewers have won 75 of their last 100 home games against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

On this date in 1948, Emil Verban of the Chicago Cubs hit the only home run of his career in his 2,592nd plate appearance. He retired with 3,109 plate appearances, 793 hits, 108 walks and 74 strikeouts.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Bpdelia

Loved this.