Financially, being on the Angels roster is a plus for Taylor Featherston. The major league minimum is $507,500 and he’d be making a fraction of that down on the farm. Developmentally, it’s a different story. Being in Anaheim is a minus for the 25-year-old infielder.
Featherston is languishing on the end of Mike Scioscia’s bench. He has just 31 plate appearances on the season. That’s what happens when you can’t be sent to the minors without first passing through waivers and being offered back to your old club. A fifth round pick by the Rockies in 2011, the former TCU Horned Frog was claimed by the Cubs in last December’s Rule 5 draft and subsequently swapped to the Angels for cash considerations.
“For 30 minutes I thought I was going to be a Cub,” said Featherston, who had 53 extra-base hits last year for Colorado’s Double-A afilliate. “My phone was blowing up. I was working out, and my trainer was yelling at me to put it down and focus on my lift. I had hundreds of texts and calls saying, ‘Congratulations, Chicago.’ The next thing I know, the script was flipped and I was in LA. It’s been a fun ride.”
It’s also been an exercise in frustration. Featherston has but a lone base knock in 27 at bats. It’s easy to picture him removing splinters from his backside when Scioscia calls his name. To his credit, he’s taking a glass-is-half-full approach.
“Your whole life, you play every day, and now I’m not,” said Featherston. “In a way it’s a blessing in disguise. I get to go through the big leagues for a full year – hopefully I stay up the full year – and kind of learn the ins and outs. You obviously learn by playing, but it’s not as though I’m going backwards. I don’t think that’s possible being around guys like Mike Trout, Don Baylor, and Mike Scioscia.”
Scioscia is also making the best of an imperfect situation. At some point, Featherston will land on the disabled list – a nudge, nudge, wink, wink inevitability for most Rule 5ers — temporarily freeing up a roster spot for a more-experienced player. While he’s here, the Angels skipper will continue to use him prudently.
“It’s obviously not ideal for the development of a player who should be getting everyday at bats in Triple-A,” admitted Scioscia. “Taylor has a role here, but it’s a limited role. The offensive side is probably the toughest piece of the puzzle. He’s proved he can go out there and catch the ball at three positions, but it’s tough to get a couple of at bats a week and stay sharp.”
Featherston’s sole hit was “a clean single through the hole into right field” against Oakland’s Jesse Chavez. It came in his tenth plate appearance, a full four weeks into the season. “I had a lot of time sitting there, hitting zero,” said Featherston. “It was nice to get it out of the way.”
A teammate who collects hits in abundance had a little fun with Featherston’s first.
“Trout kind of deked me a little bit,” said Featherston. “They threw in the ball, and he faked throwing it into the stands. So, I’ve got the ball. Everyone has been super nice to me, really welcoming. It’s a challenge to not play very much, but I’m definitely happy to be here.”
Eddy Rodriguez was on the first day of his honeymoon when the Yankees called. The 29-year-old journeyman said yes to their proposition, with a caveat: He needed to make sure it was OK with his wife. With spousal approval, he’s now the backup catcher for the Scranton Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, New York’s Triple-A affiliate.
He had thought his playing days were over. Released last May by the Rays organization, Rodriguez was hired by the Red Sox and spent the rest of the summer coaching in the Gulf Coast League. He enjoyed the experience – Boston’s GCL team won the championship – but he wasn’t planning to return.
“I had an opportunity to come back and coach with the Red Sox again,” Rodriguez told me.” I decided I was going to take a year off instead. I got here from Cuba when I was turning nine years old, and I’ve been playing baseball ever since. I played at the University of Miami, then in pro ball for nine years, so I’ve been on the run every single summer ever since I can remember. I wanted to do things I couldn’t do before, like enjoy Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, and spend time with my family.”
That changed when the Yankees gave him a chance to play another season. The respite could wait, because “There are few franchises in baseball that have their history and aura. When the pinstripes come calling, it’s hard to say no.”
Making it to the big leagues wasn’t a factor in his decision. He’s already been there. Rodriguez was called up by the Padres in 2012 and got into two games. He stroked one hit, and it was a doozy.
“My teammates hype it up a little bit, and it was definitely an unbelievable experience,” said Rodriguez. “A guy like me hitting a home run in my first at bat, against a guy like Johnny Cueto – I don’t think a story like that needs any extra fluff on it. You don’t plan it that way.”
Much of Rodriguez’s life reads like a storybook. Had he stayed in Cuba, he probably wouldn’t have played baseball at a high level. His family “lived out in the country where it’s farms, and the nearest city team was close to two hours away.” Escaping the island nearly cost him his life, as Sports Illustrated chronicled two years ago. Drafted by the Reds out of college, he was released a few years later and played two seasons of indie ball before San Diego signed him and he made it, ever so briefly, to the big leagues.
Rodriguez isn’t getting much playing time this season. He’s appeared in just 15 games and is hitting .156. He’s technically not a player-coach, but mentoring is clearly a de facto role. It’s only a matter of time until it becomes his full-time role.
“Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve heard, ‘Hey, when you’re done, teams are going to want you in their organization,’” said Rodriguez. “Maybe that’s because I’m a catcher and bilingual. I don’t know. But people have told me they can envision me doing anything from the front office to coaching. We’ll see where it goes, but I’d love to get back on the field when I’m finally done playing.”
With his wife’s permission, of course.
Anthony Bass used to emulate The Freak. Pitching at Wayne State University, the right-hander from suburban Detroit “coiled and threw the ball to the plate with a lot of torque.” His erstwhile delivery had its seed planted in 2007.
“I saw Tim Lincecum pitch when I was playing summer ball on the west coast,” said Bass, who was drafted by the Padres and now plays for the Rangers. “I saw this little guy throwing extremely hard and was like, ‘Man, if he can do it, I can do it.’ I started pitching like him and my velocity starting going up and up.”
Not only did Bass see his velocity climb from 92 to 96, hitters told him the coiling made it harder for them to pick up the ball. There was, however, a downside.
“My command wasn’t very good,” explained Bass. “Throwing that way worked in college, but once I got to the pro ranks I had to make some adjustments, because better hitters weren’t swinging at all of my pitches. Simpler is often times better when it comes to pitching, and when I got to instructs in 2008, (the Padres) started quieting my delivery.
“It wasn’t easy. In the back of my head, it was ‘Will I still be able to get guys out if I’m not as funky?’ I was skeptical in that regard, but I knew they were looking down the road. Whether I could get rookie-league guys out wasn’t very important.”
Bass believes becoming less freakish was for the better – “I can throw the ball where I want to now” – but he’s never completely abandoned his old motion. “It used to be pretty drastic,” said Bass. “Now it’s kind of a quiet coil.”
It’s not the only adjustment he’s made. The Rangers’ self-described “utility pitcher” has recently added to his repertoire.
“I’ve incorporated a split,” explained Bass. “My buddy who pitches for the Angels, Matt Shoemaker, throws one and I picked his brain about how he throws his and the thought process behind it. I’m not throwing it very often, but it’s been a pretty good pitch for me this year.”
A week ago, the Angels faced Toronto’s R.A. Dickey. Two days later they went up against Boston’s Steven Wright. Both are knuckleballers and each throws his signature pitch 75 mph on average. That’s a firm butterfly. By comparison, Tim Wakefield floated his a shade under 66.
Dickey threw a complete game against the Angels, allowing single runs in the first and seventh, and a pair in the ninth. Wright gave up two runs in the opening frame, then kept Anaheim off the scoreboard until exiting with two out in the seventh.
I asked a couple of Angels hitters how the knuckleballers compare, and whether having just faced Dickey made it easier to acclimate to Wright’s offerings.
“It definitely helped us, because we’re not used to knuckleballers,” Mike Trout told me. “They’re pretty similar. I’ve seen some pitches from R.A. that moved a little more, but Wright threw me some nasty ones too. Their knuckleballs are about the same speed, around 77. Wright’s fastball is harder. He threw one 86.”
“They’re fairly similar,” echoed Matt Joyce. “Their (knuckleball) velocity was similar and they’ll both change speeds. The thing with knuckleballers is, every time they throw a pitch you never know what it’s going to do. But honestly, facing Dickey a couple days before Wright probably helped us. We hit some balls on the screws early in the game.”
Wright watched video of Anaheim’s game against Dickey. He wanted to see how their hitters approached him. Not that it really mattered.
“I throw knuckleballs, man,” Wright told me. “I looked at video to see if anything caught my eye, but ultimately I just try to throw quality pitches and hope they hit the ball where our guys can track it down. That’s all I can really do.”
Michael Roth, who was featured in last week’s column, isn’t a fan of the term “pitching to contact.” As a matter of fact, the 25-year-old lefty calls it “the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” He likes striking hitters out, he simply doesn’t do a whole lot of it. Pitching for Cleveland’s Triple-A affiliate, Roth has a 5.6 K/9 to go with a 5-1 record and a 3.24 ERA.
“People probably label me as a guy who pitches to contact, because I don’t strike a lot of guys out,” Roth told me. “But I don’t not strike a lot of guys out because I pitch to contact. I’m not throwing a pitch thinking, ‘You can just hit this.’ I’m throwing it for them to not hit it, they just usually hit a fly ball or a ground ball.”
On the subject of strikeouts, Rangers’ righty Nick Martinez – featured this past Thursday – is striking out 5.08 batters per nine innings. Last year he fanned 4.94. Going by his recent history, that’s not an issue. Stretching back to last season, Martinez has allowed two or fewer earned runs in 14 of his last 16 starts. He allowed three earned runs in each of the other two outings.
A number of position players are exceeding expectations this year. Here is a subjective list of notables, one at each position. Obviously, your opinion of what qualifies as exceeding expectations may differ from mine. (stats through Friday)
1B: Mitch Moreland: .300/.358/.518
2B: Dee Gordon: .374/.403/.444
SS: Jose Iglesias: .333/.390/.426
3B: Jung Ho Kang: .302/.375/.453
C: Stephen Vogt: .324/.419/.606
OF: Chris Colabello: .379/.432/.598
OF: Anthony Gose: .327/.365/.456
OF: Cameron Maybin: .260/.355/.423
DH: Jimmy Paredes: .331/.359/.541
Jon Lester set a record of futility earlier this week. The Cubs southpaw is now hitless in 59 at bats, the longest drought to begin a career. The player he dubiously removed from the record books would serve as a good role model going forward. Joey Hamilton, a pitcher for the Padres in the 1990s, went 0 for his first 57. From that point forward, he went 43 for 282, a respectable (for a pitcher) .152.
Fred Gladding, who pitched out of the bullpen for the Tigers and Astros from 1961-1973, went 1 for 63 in his career. His lone base hit came in 1969 against the Mets’ Ron Taylor amid an 11-run inning that featured two grand slams. Gladding fanned to lead off the ninth and singled later in the frame.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
On this date in 1975, Cliff Johnson of the Astros singled as a pinch hitter. Later in the same inning, he homered. According to Retrosheet, Johnson’s official position for the second at bat was “null.”
Last year, teams across both leagues hit .252/.326/.419. So far this year (through Friday), teams are hitting .264/.340/.452. BABiP has inched up from .295 to .299.
Indians pitchers have allowed the highest BABiP this year (.321). Royals pitchers have allowed the lowest (.266). Tigers batters have the highest BABiP (.328). Reds and Red Sox batters are tied for the lowest (.268).
Yankees pitchers have thrown the highest percentage of sliders (27.7) of any team. Mariners pitchers have thrown the lowest percentage (8.5).
ESPN’s Christina Kahrl will be a guest speaker at the Baseball and the Media Committee meeting (all attendees are welcome) at this summer’s national SABR convention in Chicago.
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.