I tweeted a link earlier this week to an article in the Providence Journal with quotes for various big league executives about how the gap between Triple-A and the big leagues is widening. The thrust of the article is that the step from dominating Triple-A as a top hitting prospect to performing well in a big league debut is even steeper now than in the past. Gregory Polanco, Javier Baez, Jon Singleton, Michael Choice, Kolten Wong, Jackie Bradley, Jr, Will Middlebrooks, Xander Bogaerts and the late Oscar Taveras were all examples from just this past year that fit the description. While these struggles can be blamed on plate discipline or mechanical breakdowns, they nearly all fall under the larger umbrella of mental toughness.
While I hadn’t heard about a MLB to Triple-A gap widening before, the underlying issue behind it keeps coming up in my Evaluating the Prospects series, with my recent Reds list a prime example. In the report for #1 prospect RHP Robert Stephenson I said, “This year was a struggle for Stephenson as he hadn’t really failed before…” in the comment for #3 prospect LF Jesse Winker I mentioned, “Winker has never really failed before,” and for #7 prospect CF Phillip Ervin I summed up his disappointing 2014 campaign, “Ervin got into some bad habits at the plate early in 2014, getting too pull-conscious and was forced to deal with the first failure of his career.”
It’s a theme that came up earlier in the series and with some top pitchers. In the Diamondbacks list, their #1 prospect RHP Archie Bradley had what some called a lost 2014 season because he “had never been hurt and basically hadn’t failed in his baseball career,” and while I didn’t use this phrasing in the Astros list, an executive with the team said former #1 overall pick RHP Mark Appel was embarrassed at some level about his struggles in 2014, the first failure of his career. It also comes up in backwards-looking reviews of established big leaguers. When talking to a Reds’ executive for their list, he mentioned that Jay Bruce experienced his first failure in the big leagues, which is quite rare, and that it defined his career in some ways.
I’m sure you can imagine the ways in which mental toughness is important to player development; specifically for hitters, failure is a huge part of the game and many top prospects haven’t experienced it in any form when they enter pro ball. Beyond that, the humility, openness to coaching and improved work ethic that comes from working out of a funk are things that players refer back to for their entire career, on and off the field. The timing and duration of these struggles often dictate whether the problem can become a teachable moment.
Every exec I’ve asked so far has agreed that if they could push a button to make a power pitching prospect throw in the upper-80’s just long enough that he wouldn’t fall apart mentally, learn to pitch without his best stuff, and then regain his velocity, that they all would do it. The art of development is learning how much a player can handle, sometimes walking him into a tough spot but helping to guide him out of the abyss while being careful to let him do it on his own.
Kiley McDaniel has worked as an executive and scout, most recently for the Atlanta Braves, also for the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. He's written for ESPN, Fox Sports and Baseball Prospectus. Follow him on twitter.
“Every exec I’ve asked so far has agreed that if they could push a button to make a power pitching prospect throw in the upper-80?s just long enough that he wouldn’t fall apart mentally, learn to pitch without his best stuff, and then regain his velocity, that they all would do it.”
Worked for Madison Bumgarner for sure.