Dick Egan has had a long and successful career. Currently a special assistant to the general manager in Detroit, the 78-year-old Egan has been in the game for over five decades. A few months ago he received a Legends in Scouting award.
His coaching and scouting acumen have exceeded his ability to retire big-league hitters. Pitching out of the bullpen for the Tigers, Angels and Dodgers from 1963-1967, Egan put up a 5.15 ERA.
The first of his 74 career appearances came on opening day, at Tiger Stadium. Egan recalls it being cold — “I think it was about 20 degrees when we arrived in Detroit” — but he got off to a hot start. The left-hander replaced Jim Bunning in the eighth inning and fanned the only batter he faced.
“They got me up, brought me in, and I struck out Nellie Fox with three straight sliders,” said Egan. “Bob Scheffing, our manager, told me he’s never seen Fox look that bad. Unfortunately, it didn’t carry over to the rest of my career.”
The following year, Egan threw a pitch that carried a long way.
“Jim Gentile was a big left-handed hitter and I always struck him out with sliders,” Egan told me. “One day I threw slider one, slider two, for ball one, ball two. I thought to myself, ‘He knows I’m going to throw all sliders, so I’ll throw a fastball to get back in the count.’ He hit that SOB up on the peak of the third deck at old Tiger Stadium. When it came down, Al Kaline caught t and threw it to Jerry Lumpe, our second baseman. Jerry brought it to the mound and said ‘Al wants you to keep this ball; it’s flat on one side.’ True story.”
It may not have been the hardest-hit ball he gave up.
“Mickey Mantle once hit a line drive right my leg, and by the time I got my head around, Dick McAuliffe, my shortstop, hadn’t even twitched,” explained Egan. “An instant later, Billy Bruton, my centerfielder, was going down on one knee to catch a one-hop skipper. That’s how hard that SOB was hit.
“When I got the ball back and stepped on the rubber, I started thinking about what would have happened if it would have hit me. My leg started shaking so bad I had to get off the mound and walk around. That’s a true story, too.”
“I don’t look at numbers,” said the Cubs outfielder. “I never have looked at numbers. In the outfield, you control what you can control. You pay attention to who’s hitting and who is on the mound. Those details alone will tell you where you need to be. I go off my instincts.”
Heyward told me he’s always been allowed to position himself in the outfield. There have been no “play this guy in this exact spot” instructions. The three-time Gold Glove winner enjoys the autonomy, as it fits his straightforward approach to covering ground.
“In left field or right field, if the ball is hit your way, it’s hit your way,” said Heyward. “In center field, if you’re shading one way and the ball is hit a little farther the other way, say to the right-center field gap, there’s not a lot you can do about that. You just get to the ball and get it in as quick as possible.”
Byron Buxton has the athleticism to get to balls with the best of them. What he lacks is the knowledge that comes with experience. Hunter was helping him expedite that process during his time in Twins’ camp.
I asked the burgeoning star about his learning priorities during my recent visit to Fort Myers.
“I’m working on footwork every day,” Buxton told me. “I’m seeing if I can get better jumps on balls. Along with trying to get better explosiveness off my first step, I’m trying to get better reads.”
Buxton acknowledged that Target Field’s expansive outfield is conducive to “playing back a few steps to cover the gaps a little better,” although he doesn’t see it as markedly different from other ballparks.
Regarding his directional range, he feels he’s better going to his right, which he likened to stealing bases (the crossover step being with his left foot). Coming in is easier than going back, as “you can tell where the ball is going to land, whereas when you’re running back, you put your head down for a split second and run to a spot.”
The youngster doesn’t have strong views on shift-like positioning. He’s never been asked to move over in extreme fashion. If he were, he doesn’t think it would be too much of a problem. To Buxton, “all that matters is getting down and helping our pitchers out.”
Outfield defense has been a priority for Dayton Moore ever since he took over as Royals GM in 2006. His first trade sent J.P Howell to Tampa Bay for fleet-footed outfielder Joey Gathright (and Fernando Cortez).
“Speed and defense are very important to us and we knew Joey was a young, talented player,” said Moore. “He was very athletic and raw, and we could give him time to develop, given the nature of where we were as a franchise. We’ve always coveted those types of talents, because our ballpark demands you have speed and athleticism.”
Gathright went on to hit .273.336/.311 in three role-player seasons with the Royals.
Kevin Kiermaier had 42 Defensive Runs Saved last year, the most of any player at any position. Thanks in large part to defensive excellence, the Tampa Bay centerfielder was worth 5.5 WAR despite hitting a ho-hum .263/.298/.420.
Kiermaier is aware that old-school pundits have questioned the validity of WAR, particularly in regard to his own value. He doesn’t know the formula, but he appreciates what it measures.
“I think it’s great that all-around players are valued in today’s game,” said Kiermaier. “Back in the day, you wanted the big donkeys who would hit home runs. Now, defensive is being valued more with some of the metrics that are out there. Taking away a run is just as valuable as driving in a run. Defense is my bread and butter, so it’s a beautiful thing for guys like me that there are numbers reflecting that.”
StatCast data is slowly but surely working its way into clubhouse conversations. Spin rate is among them, although most players — even those savvy to its relevance — only care what a pitch does. Scientific causation isn’t a concern.
I recently asked Red Sox outfielder Chris Young if a pitcher’s four-seam spin rate ever comes up in hitter’s meetings.
“We don’t really talk about that,” Young told me. “Maybe we talk about it, but we word it differently. We’re not into the scouting reports talking about a guy’s spin rate; we’re in there saying, ‘Hey, his ball has good ride to it,’ or ‘Hey, his velo plays up.’ That’s the lingo we use when we talk about something like that.”
He knows how he wants to approach a pitcher whose fastball plays up. Some things are easier said than done.
“If a guy’s ball kind of rides on you, you have to think about staying more on top of it,” said Young. “There are pitchers where you feel like you see it — it’s as big as a beachball — and you go after it and pop it up. You’re trying to be on top of the ball, but your barrel still ends up underneath the ball.”
The other Chris Young — a righty with the Royals — has flummoxed him for that very reason. He’s hitless in 16 at bats against his namesake’s BABiP-defying, pop-up inducing, proclivity.
“There are a lot of things that go into why,” said Young. “He’s 6-10 and deceptive. He’s able to pitch at the top of the strike zone and hit his spots. Chris Young is a good pitcher. He’s popped me up my whole life.”
James Shields throws a lot of changeups. In 10 big-league seasons, he has utilized the pitch 25.9% of the time. With my recent Brian Bannister interview in mind, I asked the Padres right-hander about his signature offering.
“I guess you could call it a half-circle changeup,” said Shields. “It’s a two-seam, and the way my grip is, it’s more about movement. It’s about 7-8 mph (slower than his fastball), but the speed differential doesn’t really come into play with mine. If you have movement on your changeup, I don’t think speed differential matters. If you don’t have movement, speed differential does matter.”
Shields mentioned spin rate when I asked how his grip influences how the ball moves. He couldn’t elaborate. If he knows — he said he doesn’t — he wasn’t telling.
“All I know is that guys are swinging and missing,” said Shields. “So I guess I have a good changeup.”
Derek Norris has caught plenty of changeups, including Shields’. How often he calls for the pitch is influenced by scouting reports, but there is nuance beyond the raw numbers. Not every pitcher throws the same changeup, and not every hitter hits one changeup the same as another.
“Say a guy is hitting .300 off a changeup in the Mark Buehrle range — it’s a little slower changeup,” explained Norris. “You might be more apt to throw him something different if you have a similar style of pitcher on the mound, as opposed to an Andrew Cashner, whose changeup is a little more firm.”
Norris is a fan of the pitch — “They call it the equalizer” — and he considers maintaining arm speed a crucial factor. When it comes to changeup-fastball speed differential, he’s of the opinion that it should be “minus 6-7 mph and beyond.”
When I countered that Zack Greinke’s changeup — one of the best in the game — is only 3-4 mph slower, the veteran catcher had an interesting response.
“Guys like Greinke and Felix (Hernandez)… I don’t really look at theirs as changeups, even though they may be looked upon as changeups,” said Norris. “They act more as a sinker or a split. Changeups typically have a little bit of a fade, and with them it’s almost like a power sinker. They’re utilized the same way, they just have a different effect.”
Cody Anderson has a pretty good changeup, but it’s not the pitch that is opening eyes in Indians camp. According to Cleveland pitching coach Mickey Callaway, the 25-year-old righty is throwing 95-97 mph with ease. His fastball has been, in a word, “Wham!”
In 15 starts last year — his first in the big leagues — Anderson averaged 92.1 with his heater. In his case, the spring training cliche “Best shape of his life” is dead on. Anderson improved his strength and flexibility over the offseason to the point where he reported to Goodyear and promptly won the club’s fitness test for pitchers.
Callaway is seeing more than added velo from the young hurler.
“When you’re trying to spin the ball, arm speed has a lot to do with it,” said Callaway. “He’s definitely spinning the ball better. He’s always had the great changeup, and the thing we’ve been focusing on has been developing the cutter and the curveball. But what stands out now is he’s throwing 96 with command. That’s pretty good.”
Anderson is currently competing with Josh Tomlin for the fifth-starter slot in the Cleveland rotation. He still has options, so there’s a possibility he’ll begin the year in Triple-A. If he does, it’s only a matter of time before he joins what projects to be one of the best rotations in the American League.
“He’s everything a team wants in a starter,” crowed Callaway. “He’s going to a good starter for us over the long run.”
Steve Clevenger changed uniforms this past winter. After two-and-a-half seasons with the Orioles, the 29-year-old catcher is now in camp with the Mariners. On Friday, I asked him if the teams utilize data differently.
“Definitely,” responded Clevenger. “It was more old-school in Baltimore, with Buck (Showalter) over there, and Dave Wallace as the pitching coach. Over here, Scott (Servais) played 14 years, but later in the game (1988-2001). He’s kind of old school, but at the same time, he’s bring new-school over here, with a new philosophy.”
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Yimi Garcia of the Dodgers had the lowest walk rate (1.59) last year among rookie pitchers who threw at least 50 innings. His 10.8 strikeout rate was third highest.
Noah Syndergaard of the Mets had the lowest walk rate (1.86) among rookie pitchers who threw at least 100 innings. His 9.96 strikeout rate was the highest.
Jake Arrieta held left-handed hitters to a .158 batting average, the lowest among qualified pitchers.
In the past 20 seasons, BABiP has ranged from .289 (in 2002) to .299 (in 2007).
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.