When I talked to Brady Aiken in August, he claimed that he wasn’t concerned with his radar gun readings, nor was he worried about ”trying to please people with velocity.” He was just trying to get outs any way he could, “regardless of whether (he was) throwing 100 or throwing 80.”
Two years after the Indians drafted him in the first round — and two years post Tommy John surgery — Aiken spent his summer pumping low-octane gas. A heater that touched 96 in high school was now hovering in the high 80s, and only occasionally inching north of 90. Other numbers were a concern as well. The 21-year-old southpaw had a 4.77 ERA and walked 101 batters in 132 innings for low-A Lake County.
Aiken was amiable yet defensive when addressing his performance and his velocity. With the caveat that “everyone wants to throw hard,” he allowed that he’s not where he once was. And while he’s not sure what to expect going forward, he sees positives in what is hopefully a temporary backslide.
“I’ve had to learn to become more of a pitcher, because I can’t just blow balls by guys anymore,” said Aiken. “At this level, you’re also not facing high school or college guys — this is their job, and you have to be better at your job than they are at theirs. If you can command the ball well at 90-92 you should be able to find holes in bats, and be able to get outs.”
He owns up to his command issues. Insisting that his arm feels “normal,” Aiken informed me that he’d been working on some mechanical adjustments to “free up (his arm) a little bit, and make sure he wasn’t putting too much stress on it.”
For opposing hitters, Uncle Charlie is the youngster’s most stress-inducing pitch. A 12-to-6 he’s thrown since his high school days in San Diego, Aiken’s curveball is, according to Lake County pitching coach Jason Blanton, “plus, with tight rotation and late break; it profiles as a major league pitch.”
As for the southpaw’s stat line, Blanton went out of his way to accentuate the positives.
“Any kid who is in his first full season is going to go through his bumps and bruises, his ups and downs, his highs and lows,” said Blanton, who denied having any concern about Aiken’s velocity. “The beautiful thing is that he’s made all of his starts and continued to get better. I think he’s progressing fine.”
Carter Hawkins, Cleveland’s former farm director and now one of the club’s assistant general managers, likewise struck a positive note when asked about Aiken. At the same time, he suggested that 2018 will be an especially telling year for the one-time phenom.
“Brady would be the first to tell you he’s not where he wants to be yet, with the key word being ‘yet,’” Hawkins told me earlier this month. “He’s working extremely hard out in Arizona with our performance camp this off-season, and understands that this is the year to take a jump forward. Last year was his first healthy season in a while, and now that he’s past that he’s ready to get aggressive and be the type of athlete and pitcher we all know he can be.”
Oh, what could have been. Had Nomar Garciaparra not hit a slippery slope after turning 30, we’d likely be debating his Hall of Fame credentials right now. From 1997-2003, the Red Sox shortstop boasted a .325/.372/.567 slash line, captured a pair of batting titles and earned four All-Star nods. Not counting an injury-wrecked 2001 season that limited him to 21 games, “Nomah” averaged 6.4 WAR over that span.
Peak versus longevity is a compelling debate when assessing career value. Omar Vizquel had 14 seasons with 1.5 or more WAR, while Garciaparra — by far the better player in his prime — had just seven seasons with 1.5 or more WAR. Which of the two had the better career?
At 6-foot-nothing and 225 pounds, Keegan Akin isn’t built like your stereotypical pitching prospect. Nor does he possess plus velocity or an anything-special secondary offering. As for the 22-year-old southpaw’s command… let’s just say it’s nothing to write home about.
What he does have is a secret weapon. Baltimore’s pick in the second round of the 2016 draft has an invisible fastball. Despite the aforementioned limitations, Akin holds the single-season strikeout record at Western Michigan University and he fanned 111 batters in 100 innings this past season at high-A Frederick.
“I’m a fastball pitcher, but it’s not like it’s super-overpowering,” explained Akin, who typically sits 89-92 with his four-seamer. “I’m not throwing 100, but from what everybody tells me, what everybody jokes around about… they say it’s an ‘invisiball.’ Both hitters and guys I’ve played catch with have told me that.”
Akin isn’t entirely sure where his deception comes from — “I’ve never had to face myself” — but he suspects it has to do with “an easygoing arm action where you don’t expect the ball to get on you as quickly as it does.”
Getting the ball where he wants it is an issue that stretches back to his college days.
“My freshman year I had around 60 strikeouts, but I also had about 50 walks,” admitted Akin, who acknowledges being a late-bloomer. “I could throw fastballs, but I didn’t know where they were going. I didn’t have the sophomore year I wanted to, either. My secondary stuff was in the development process, so I was basically trying to throw pitches I wasn’t really good at throwing.”
He came into his own as a junior. In his final season as a Bronco, Akin fanned 133 and allowed just 72 hits and 30 walks in 109 innings. Scooped up by the Orioles, he proceeded to throw 29 quality frames for short-season Aberdeen, prompting Eric Longenhagen to rank him as Baltimore’s No. 4 prospect going into last year.
Akins wasn’t pleased with his 2017 performance. While his strikeout and hits-allowed numbers were good, his ERA and BB/9 were an identical — and less than ideal — 4.14.
“I’m not happy with my season,” Akin told me. “I had stints where I was good, but consistency is the key and I wasn’t consistent. I didn’t always know where the ball was going, and that’s not fun. I also got injured. I was out the last four-five weeks with an oblique injury on my front side, the glove side.”
Akin worked on his mechanics in instructional league, and then in the Arizona Fall League. He also worked on his secondaries, as he recognizes that one can’t survive on an invisible fastball alone.
“My slider is my second-best pitch, and it was hit-or-miss throughout this season — more miss than hit — but it got better in instructs,” informed Akin. “My changeup is my third pitch, and it’s a work in progress. Actually, I guess all of my pitches are a work in progress. I’m far from perfect.”
I broached the subject of trends — primarily the importance of staying ahead of them — with several executives at this year’s general managers’ meetings. Rick Hahn was among them.
“Trying to get ahead of the next thing is the key for many organizations,” opined the White Sox GM. “We have a lot of smart people back in Chicago who are trying to keep us ahead of the curve on stuff like that. Of course, I’m not going to share too much about what we’re thinking along those lines.”
I followed up by asking the affable Hahn — his last line had come with a grin — if being in rebuild-mode impacts the decision-making process.
“I think it does,” responded Hahn. “You can experiment a little more. It allows you to play with different fits from a personnel standpoint, with different player types or with different approaches. The performance at the big league level in the short term is not the end-all and be-all.”
Lowered expectations giving more leeway to experiment isn’t Ron Gardenhire’s way. The old-school skipper doesn’t intend to get creative with his young, rebuilding Tigers team. Gardenhire will head into his first Motown season with a simple, straightforward approach.
“When you’re managing a baseball team you’ve got to come to the ballpark every day expecting to win,” opined Gardenhire. “We’re going to try to teach these guys to play the game with respect and figure out ways to beat people. I want that attitude.”
Gardenhire has the gravitas to demand that attitude — he’s a former Manager of the Year with over 2,000 games under his belt — but wins will nevertheless be in short supply. Management having shed the bulk of its ready-for-prime-time talent, his current club faces a long, uphill climb to contention. Gardenhire understands that, but at the same time, losses still stick in his craw.
“Sure, we’re going to be young, but I went through this thing with the Twins,” said the former Minnesota manager. “About every three years we made moves and lost some guys. It’s about winning baseball games. Development is part of it, but every organization has to develop. We want winning baseball players.”
The Rays stand to lose a lot of power this offseason. Evan Longoria (20 home runs) is already gone, having been traded to the Giants, while Logan Morrison (38) and Lucas Duda (28 counting his time as a Met) are poised to depart as free agents. Unless they’re replaced with players who provide similar pop, Tampa Bay can’t realistically expect to match this year’s franchise record 228 dingers.
Kevin Cash hinted at the likelihood when I asked him about the role of speed in today’s game during the winter meetings.
“I think that speed is a big part of the game and that power is kind of whatever everybody’s paying for,” said the Rays’ skipper. “We had a pretty powerful lineup this past year. That’s tough to repeat. Power comes with inconsistencies. Speed doesn’t really go away.”
The Red Sox announced on Friday that they are extending their Player Development Contract with Triple-A Pawtucket through the 2020 season. That’s hardly a surprise. The PawSox, who play in McCoy Stadium — Triple-A’s oldest ballpark was built in 1942 — have been a Boston affiliate since 1973.
Only the Omaha Storm Chasers have a longer partnership with a big-league club. They’ve been affiliated with the Kansas City Royals since 1969.
This year’s SABR Analytics Conference will include a player development panel. The moderator will be Mike Ferrin, and the scheduled panelists are David Bell (Giants), Chris Getz (White Sox), and Andy McKay (Mariners).
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
WINTER BALL NOTES
Randy Arozarena, a 22-year-old outfielder with Mayos de Navojoa, leads the Mexican Pacific Winter League with 14 home runs (in 260 at bats). Arozarena had a .783 OPS this year between high-A and Double-A in the St. Louis Cardinals system.
Tyler Alexander, a 26-year-old left-hander with Charros de Jalisco, leads the Mexican Pacific Winter League in strikeouts (66 in 71 innings) and has a 3.28 ERA in 12 starts. Alexander went 8-6, 2.07 this year with Fargo-Moorhead in the independent American Association.
Michael Brosseau, a 23-year-old infielder with the Perth Heat, leads the Australian Baseball League (ABL) with a .427 batting average (41 for 96). The former Oakland University (MI) Golden Grizzly slashed .321.399/.453 this year between low-A and high-A in the Tampa Bay system.
Speaking of Down Under, Lars Anderson recently hooked on with the ABL’s Sydney Blue Sox after a stint with the club-level Henley and Grange Rams. FanGraphs readers will remember the former big-leaguer — and aspiring author — from the Lars Anderson Discovers Japan series that ran here earlier this year.
If you enjoyed those pieces, here is some good news: Lars Anderson Discovers Australia will debut in the coming days.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
At Hall of Stats, Adam Darowski gave us lists of the best players to never appear on a Hall of Fame ballot, and the best who appeared without receiving a single vote.
ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, thoughtful as always, gave us a look inside a Hall of Fame voter’s toughest ballot decision.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
In 1923, New York Giants southpaw Jack Bentley threw 183 innings and went 13-8. He helped his own cause, slashing .427/.446/.573 in 94 plate appearances.
Sandy Koufax’s birth name was Sanford Braun. When he was nine years old, his mother, by then divorced to Jack Braun, married Irving Koufax.
In the 1892 and 1893 seasons, St. Louis Browns infielder Jack Crooks played in 256 games, drew 257 walks, and recorded 201 hits. His slash line was .225/.404/.300. Crooks reportedly spent the last two-plus months of his life in an insane asylum.
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.