Sunday Notes: Pitching Profar and Choo, Reds’ Stephenson, more

Shin-Soo Choo and Jurickson Profar could have been pitchers. Both attracted the attention of scouts as hard-throwing amateurs. Choo starred for South Korea when they won the 2000 World Junior Championships and was named the tournament’s top pitcher. Profar excelled on the mound for Willemstad, Curacao when they won the 2004 Little League World Series and again when they lost in the finals the following year.

Each feels he could have gone on to pitch at the highest level. A big difference is that Profar didn’t want to pitch. Choo thought he was going to.

“I found out when I got to the States (in 2000) that I would be a hitter,” explained Choo, who originally signed with Seattle. “I thought I was coming here to be a pitcher. But I wasn’t the one making the decision. At first I was confused. Now I’m happy, because I get to play every day and not every five days.”

Making it to MLB as a position player was Profar’s goal from the start.

“I feel I could have gone far (as a pitcher),” said Profar, who stopped pitching at age 15. “Every team talked to me about pitching — I hit 93 (mph) — but I always wanted to hit and play every day. My team put me out there to pitch because I was good, but I didn’t really like it.”

Choo threw even harder in part because he was a few years older when he last took the mound. Like Profar — “fastball, changeup, curveball, slider” — Choo also featured a four-pitch repertoire.

“I threw a four-seam fastball and had some natural movement,” said Choo. “My slider was my second-best pitch and I also had a curveball and a changeup. I was left-handed and could throw 95-96, so I think I maybe could have made it (to the big leagues) even faster as a pitcher. I probably would have had an elbow problem, though.”

That’s a safe guess. Choo ended up having Tommy John surgery in 2007. As for his Texas Rangers teammate, Profar had shoulder surgery a year ago.

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Texas manager Jeff Banister weighed in a pair of his struggling starters right before the All-Star break. One of them, Nick Martinez, had just been chased in the fifth inning. The other, Chi Chi Gonzalez, had recently failed to get out of the first inning. Both were jettisoned to Triple-A on the heels of Banister’s comments.

“We’re continuing to reevaluate that situation,” Banister said of Martinez. “Nick, (pitching coach) Doug Brocail and (bullpen coach) Brad Holman have been deep down in the basement, the laboratory of pitching. We’re giving him an opportunity to kind of reset the trap and work on some things he needs to work on.”

“This is a young pitcher who got to a pitch count with two outs,” Banister said of Gonzalez. “He’d gotten to my throw-up point on young starters in one inning. That’s based on what I perceive as the danger zone of quantity of pitches. The stress level at that point had gotten to where he was done.”

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Robert Stephenson is scheduled to take the mound today for Triple-A Louisville. A lot of Cincinnati Reds fans would prefer he was doing so at Great American Ballpark instead. It’s understandable. Stephenson is the team’s top pitching prospect, and right now baseball in the Queen City is all about the future.

Stephenson has already had his cup of coffee. The 23-year-old former first-round pick started two games for the big-league club in April, and he pitched well enough to be credited with a win in both. He’s not a finished product — his command needs refinement — but with the rebuilding Reds on pace to lose 100 games for just the second time in franchise history, an extended audition seems prudent.

Stephenson’s fastball reaches the mid-90s, and the righty feels the pitch “has come a long way” thanks to “smoother mechanics that are easier to repeat.” Reds bullpen coach Ted Power has seen the improvement first hand.

“One of the things Robert has battled, and is getting better at, is creating angle on his pitches,” said Power, who was the pitching coach in Louisville when we spoke. “He was collapsing too low to the ground. Now he’s staying a little taller as he leaves the rubber. That helps him create angle on his curveball and his split-finger, as well as his fastball.”

Power feels effort level has been part of the problem. Wanting to get something extra on his pitches, the youngster has been susceptible to “muscling up instead of staying nice and loose in his body, from his lower half all the way up to his fingers.”

Stephenson admitted as much, saying it’s when he gets “too amped up and tries to throw hard” that he has trouble finding the strike zone.

Despite his self-awareness and the mechanical strides, walks remain an issue. Stephenson has allowed just 70 hits in 88 minor-league innings this year, but he’s issued 46 free passes. Even so, it makes sense to let Stephenson continue his development in Cincinnati. With next season in mind, an extended audition seems in order.

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On June 1, I wrote about how D.J. LeMahieu has exceeded expectations and become an offensive force in Colorado. His numbers have improved since then. The Rockies second baseman is currently slashing .334/.396/.492.

Blake Doyle has played a key role in LeMahieu’s surge. The Colorado hitting coach helped him simplify both his mechanics and his approach. Calming down a leg kick and narrowing the plate were focus points.

After getting his thoughts on LeMahieu, I asked Doyle about his overall hitting philosophy. He explained it as follows:

“There are three things — balance, rhythm, and timing. When guys get to this level, they can swing a bat. When things go wrong, 95% of the time something got worse from the waist down. It’s never in the swing. A guy’s swing is his swing. Being balanced, having rhythm, starting on time and being on time, are the keys to hitting.”

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Jonathan Schoop’s 3.7% walk rate is among the lowest in either league. His 20.3% strikeout rate isn’t particularly good either. Plate discipline isn’t his forte. The Baltimore second baseman ranks seventh from the bottom in O-swing% with a hacktastic 41.0%.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that Schoop is a star-in-the-making. Still just 24 years old, the native of Curacao is slashing .299/.333/.509, and 15 of his 39 extra-base hits have left the yard. Defensively, he grades out as above-average.

Outside of Jose Altuve (and maybe Rougned Odor) is there a second baseman under the age of 30 you’d rather have with ceiling in mind?

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Earlier this season, Brad Ausmus was asked about a base-running mistake that cost his team a run. The Detroit skipper responded by saying, “This game isn’t played by robots. It’s played by humans, and humans make mistakes.”

Going into the break, the not-built-for-speed Tigers ranked 27th with a -9.3 Base Running Runs Above Average. They’ve been successful on 38 of 53 stolen base attempts.

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Ian Kinsler is Detroit’s best baserunner. He’s also their best all-around player. Since coming to Motown in 2014, the 34-year-old second baseman has accumulated more WAR (12.4) than any Tiger.

A lot of eyebrows were raised when Dave Dombrowski acquired Kinsler from Texas in exchange for power-hitting Prince Fielder. The deal is turning out to be steal for Detroit. Fielder has -0.4 WAR as a Ranger, and Kinsler has out-homered him 45-34.

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MINOR LEAGUE NOTES

P.J. Conlon continues to deal. The unheralded, Northern Ireland-born New York Mets prospect is now 11-1, 1.94 on the season. He’s allowed 111 baserunners in 111-and-a-third innings. Pitching for low-A Columbia when he was featured in this space six weeks ago, the southpaw has a 2.18 ERA in five starts since being promoted to high-A St. Lucie.

In his last eight starts for Triple-A Lehigh Valley, Phillies prospect Jake Thompson has allowed 38 hits and four earned runs over 56-and-a-third innings. Drafted by Detroit out of high school in 2012, the 22-year-old right-hander was subsequently swapped to Texas for Joakim Soria, then flipped to Philadelphia in the Cole Hamels deal. On the season, Thompson is 8-5 with a 2.42 ERA.

Mickey Moniak, drafted first overall by the Phillies last month, is beginning his professional career in the Gulf Coast League. Over his first 14 professional games, the 18-year-old outfielder has 17 hits, including a home run, in 55 at bats.

Nick Senzel, drafted second overall by the Reds, spent 10 games with rookie-level Billings and is now playing for low-A Dayton. The 21-year-old third baseman out of the University of Tennessee is 15 for 51 since joining the Dragons.

Per MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis, teams spent $267,249,310 on draft bonuses this year, breaking last year’s record $248,831,830 payout.

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Stephen Strasburg running his record to 13-0 on Friday night has me thinking about this year’s National League Cy Young award race. Suppose Strasburg finishes 23-0 with the same 2.51 ERA and 2.93 FIP that he has now? And what if Clayton Kershaw, currently 11-2, finishes 19-4 with the same 1.79 ERA and 1.70 FIP?

In 1990, Bob Welch won the American League Cy Young award after going 27-6 with a 2.95 ERA. He beat out Roger Clemens, who went 21-6, 1.93 with significantly more strikeouts. We’ve come a long way since then. But just how far?

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J..R Richard was the starting pitcher for the National League in the 1980 All-Star game. It was the last time he took the mound. The Houston Astros right-hander was 10-4, 1.90 on the season when his life took a tragic turn.

“He was a very gifted pitcher,” said former teammate Joe Sambito. “The year he went down was probably going to be his best year. As a young guy, he really had no idea where his fastball was going. Just as he was starting to put everything together, he had the stroke.”

Sambito was spot on in regard to Richard’s command issues. The 6-foot-8 hurler led the National League in walks three times from 1976-1979. He also led in strikeouts in two of those seasons, and twice he fanned over 300 batters. He threw hard.

“I remember us getting him on the gun at 99,” said Sambito. “We never got him at 100, though. We had both J.R. and Nolan Ryan in 1980 and they both hit 99. We kind of wondered if something was wrong with the gun.”

It turns out there was something terribly wrong with Richard’s health. The stroke didn’t prove fatal, but it did end his career way too soon.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

The Houston Chronicle’s Jake Kaplan talked to pitchers about how to attack Jose Altuve.

At Sports Illustrated, Tom Verducci wrote about how the Cubs are suddenly shifting less.

Writing for Bleacher Report, Danny Knobler explained why we shouldn’t feel sorry for Dontrelle Willis.

The SABR Defensive Index accounts for 25 percent of the Rawlings Gold Glove Award selection process. Here are the rankings for the first half of the season.

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Per Jamie Ramsey of the Cincinnati Reds media relations department, there have been 840 replay reviews this season (as of Friday). The average time of the reviews has been 1:42.

Among non-knuckleball pitchers with at least 60 innings this season, Bartolo Colon has thrown the highest percentage of fastballs (87.9). Masahiro Tanaka has thrown the lowest percentage of fastballs (30.9).

Boston’s Sandy Leon has 29 hits in last 65 big-league at bats. He has 16 hits in his last 65 minor-league at bats.

Hall of Fame first baseman Jimmie Foxx hit .325/.428/.600 with 534 home runs. In 1945, his final big-league season, Foxx pitched in nine games and had a 1.59 ERA.

On this date in 1954, the Brooklyn Dodgers fielded the first majority-black lineup in MLB history. Sandy Amoros, Roy Campanella, Jim Gilliam, Don Newcombe and Jackie Robinson all started that day.





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.

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Twitchy

I’d for sure take another young 2B over Schoop. Devon Travis, who combines plus fielding with a great bat (113 wRC+ since June 1, 161 wRC+ since June 15). Missed time cause of an injury, was rushed up in May because of Tulo’s injury, but since he’s been back he’s been equally or arguably more productive than Schoop. And he was great last year too before he was injured.