Shohei Today, Low-A Tomorrow: The Benefits of a Well-Balanced Baseball Diet

© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

If Oakland Coliseum is indeed “baseball’s last dive bar,” as has often been asserted, then it must have one hell of a booking manager. Let’s not forget, after all, that this dive bar has a stage. And yes, that stage may be a bit far from the audience, and sure, it is housed in a hulking cement behemoth that shares a BART station with the airport, and fine, it might be subject to the occasional rodent or plumbing issue. But it still draws the same big names as other, glitzier venues. The Coliseum’s dinginess might generate headlines, but lately I’ve been struck more by the unique backdrop it offers attendees for seeing the major’s biggest names.

When I used this metaphor to describe my experience at an August 9 Shohei Ohtani start at the Coliseum, a friend likened it to seeing Metallica play an unannounced show a few years ago at The Metro, a venue just a stone’s throw up Clark Street from Wrigley Field, with a capacity of 1,100. You may remember this early-August Ohtani outing: one of those Tungsten Arm games – unremarkable but for the home run he launched into the right field bleachers and the win he secured, allowing him to reach the Babe Ruth milestone of recording 10 wins and 10 home runs in a season, though Ohtani’s home run total for the season had long eclipsed Ruth’s. The vastness of the stands only emphasized how few people I was sharing my baseball viewing experience with.

The next day, I followed up that major league masterclass with a Low-A day game in the uncovered San Jose grandstand, watching a teenager struggle to throw strikes under the blazing sun. If Ohtani at the Coliseum is Metallica at the Metro, then this game, where I went to watch prospects from the San Francisco Giants organziation, was sitting in on a garage band rehearsal. Low-A is an altogether different brand of baseball, where tweaks are made every day – sometimes even mid-game – in the hopes of tapping into young players’ potential.

The teenager in question was Manuel Mercedes, an ultra-loose, athletic righty who was already in the upper-90s heading into this season. Watching Mercedes on the mound, it was clear that he had made noticeable adjustments to his delivery – starting on the extreme first base side of the rubber and adding a higher leg kick – with his fastball still consistently hitting 97 mph. But he wasn’t able to locate his slider, allowing opposing hitters to either hunt for hard contact on the heater or simply wait him out for a free pass. His delivery is still on the violent side, as was the case coming into the season, and his arm slot remains low enough to allow very little margin for error with his strike throwing, causing concern that he’ll be punished at the upper levels. Of course, Mercedes struggled to find the strike zone at all this season; in 80.2 innings at Low-A this year, the 19-year-old issued 62 walks against just 67 strikeouts. Before we can hypothesize about how his stuff will fare against more advanced hitters, he’ll first have to earn his spot on the bump against them.

More successful have been the adjustments made by outfielder Grant McCray, who spent most of his impressive 2022 in San Jose before closing out the season at High-A Eugene. I was able to see him in a handful of games this year — once at the very beginning of the season and then during a cluster of mid-August games shortly before his promotion. He still sets up very upright at the plate, but over the course of the season, he’s closed his stance quite a bit, which has allowed him to reign in his habit of letting his hips fly open. His lower half rotation is much more controlled now and well-synched with his upper half, exemplifying an overall tightening of the screws in his mechanics. He has also excelled defensively, demonstrating improvement in his routes to fly balls in the outfield and showing off his strong arm.

McCray’s potential has long been based on his obvious athleticism and multi-sport background, along with his baseball pedigree (his father Rodney famously ran through a fence during his own minor league career). Unfortunately, the 2020 shutdown and an injury-shortened ’21 campaign slowed his progress leading into this season. But 2022 has been a breakout year for McCray, who performed well-above league average during his time in San Jose, as well as in his short stint in Eugene. He finished the season with a combined 23 home runs and 43 stolen bags across the two levels, good for wRC+ around the 130 mark at both levels.

Not earning a promotion to High-A was Aeverson Arteaga, who entered the season with significantly more fanfare than McCray (he was one of my Picks to Click coming into the year). Arteaga had been a hard prospect to catch a glimpse of prior to his 2021 breakout on the complex, which saw a huge spike in his power. Still, we took a wait-and-see approach to assessing his power production due to the hitter-friendly elements of his complex-level ballpark and our concerns that his aggressive approach would be hard to maintain as he started to face more formidable pitching.

Indeed, in his year at Low-A, all three elements of his slash line took a tumble, though none more so than his slugging; the surprising power surge may have been an aberration after all. But the rest of his profile remains promising, in particular his defense, which is still twitchy and electrifying. If he can focus on developing a more mature approach, he’ll carve an upward path through the Giants’ system.

Mixed in with these Low-A live looks were several more visits to the Coliseum, offering peeks at recently-graduated prospects as they passed through town. Seeing young big leaguers like Spencer Strider and Julio Rodríguez excel at the highest level once again reminded me of the majors’ impossibly high barrier to entry, an impression undoubtedly influenced by the contrast between my recent looks. Seeing phenoms like Strider and Rodríguez helps you to understand how Low-A players are developing, but I was also struck by what it told me about the rookies who make up much of the A’s big league roster. Namely, that many of them might still be in the minors were they with different organizations.

Indeed, as I watched Arteaga, his defense-first profile reminded me of A’s infielder Nick Allen, who debuted in the majors earlier this year. Allen is so fun to watch defensively that I find myself rooting for him to put together anything resembling serviceable offense. He showed promise last year, tapping into occasional power when he represented the United States at the Olympic Games, as well as during his time at Triple-A, but his big league career has thus far been characterized by weak contact at the plate – hardly a surprise to those familiar with his minor league career.

Of course, one of the primary differences between Allen and Arteaga is organizations they belong to. It’s hard to imagine Arteaga advancing through the Giants system without first shoring up his offense in a more substantial way than Allen has. It’s even harder to imagine San Francisco allowing a player to stay in the big leagues while posting a 59 wRC+, as Allen has during his time in the majors, but the A’s release of Elvis Andrus has all but solidified Allen as their big league shortstop for the time being.

A more direct comparison can be seen in the respective clubs’ handling of their prized young catchers. Last year, during his age-24 season, Joey Bart was repeatedly shuttled up and down from the major league roster to Triple-A Sacramento, with the aim seemingly being to refine his swing decisions. In contrast, this is Shea Langeliers‘ age-24 season, and he has remained on the A’s roster since his mid-August call-up despite a strikeout rate over 42% and a walk rate under 3%.

Ultimately, the vacuums created by Oakland’s big league roster turnover have necessitated some premature promotions, and created a blurry line between Triple-A and big-league caliber play. Meanwhile, as an org, the Giants have displayed a willingness to invest in long-term mainstays at the big league level even as they have experimented with post-prospect players from other teams, allowing their minor league system to take a more patient approach to developing their prospects. That has meant that even during a 2022 season that saw the big league club dip and many of their top prospects put forth less than promising performances (Luis Matos, Heliot Ramos, and Patrick Bailey, just to name a few), they haven’t been forced to get overly aggressive about promoting guys like Arteaga, while simultaneously cultivating more unexpected talent like McCray.

Ping-ponging between major league and minor league action always illuminates the differences between the quality of play at each level. But the specific ways in which the A’s and Giants differ in their approach to player development and big-league roster construction make their differences stand in even starker contrast.

Tess is a contributor at FanGraphs. When she's not watching college or professional baseball, she works as a sports video editor, creating highlight reels for high school athletes. She can be found on Twitter at @tesstass.

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1 year ago

“organizations they below to” might require an edit.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jim