Joe Smith had a favorite team growing up. As is the case for most players, his allegiances changed when he began playing professional baseball. Smith was drafted by the Mets and has gone on to play for the Indians and now the Angels.
According to the side-arming reliever, the change in rooting interests goes beyond the company name on the paychecks being cashed. The logo on your laundry matters, but it’s not the only thing.
“You’re no longer an outsider looking in, so you become more a fan of the game,” said Smith.” You become a fan of people in the game. You get to know guys and find out who is a good person as well as a good player. Instead of being a Cubs fan, like I was when I was younger, now I’m more like, ‘What’s a cool ballpark to go to?’ and ‘Who am I excited to watch play in this series?’
Sometimes the players you’re excited to see play end up beating you. Smith has good career numbers – a 2.78 ERA over 515 relief outings – but like every pitcher, he knows what it feels like to be humbled. That doesn’t mean he can’t appreciate greatness.
“The first time I saw Barry Bonds play, he hit a home run off Tom Glavine,” said Smith, whose rookie season was Glavine’s last in New York. “I didn’t want Tommy to give up a homer, by any means, but at the same time, it was like, ‘That’s a pretty cool moment.’ You had a Hall of Famer going against one of the greatest hitters of all time.
“When something like that happens, you kind of take a step back and think, ‘Wow, I’m actually watching this from a major league dugout.’ It’s funny, but in a way you’re looking at it like a fan, even though you’re a part of it.”
Smith’s first team will always hold a place in his heart. He hasn’t played for the Mets since 2008, but in his own words, “They were the ones who said, ‘Here, come play pro ball with us.’ They were the first ones to give me the opportunity to chase the dream I’ve had since I was a little kid.”
At the age of 30, Smith is no longer a kid. He learned a long time ago that baseball is a business, and that not all partings are sweet sorrow. The affable Angel was lucky in that regard. There was no animosity when he departed Cleveland to sign with Anaheim in November 2013.
“In Cleveland, some left on bad terms and some left on good terms,” said Smith. “That’s the way it goes in life. I was fortunate enough to leave on very good terms. The organization treated me unbelievably. Not only am I fan of my friends in that clubhouse, but the people who work for the Indians as well.”
“To most players who know him, Smith is – colloquially speaking – good people. He’s far from the only one. Baseball has its share of jerks – every vocation does — but humility and appreciation are more prevalent than you might think. In Smith’s opinion, that’s especially true for players who spent many years in the minor leagues.
“The goal is to get to the big leagues as fast as you can, and when you see guys who really put their time in – guys like Matt Shoemaker – they’re the ones who really seem to cherish it,” said Smith. “They know how lucky they are and how great of a spot this is. It’s easy to take things for granted – I have to admit I’m guilty of it at times – but you really shouldn’t. It’s hard to get here and it’s hard to stay. You find yourself rooting for guys like that.”
Scouting and player development go hand-in-glove. Identifying and procuring talent from the amateur ranks is just the first step. Once signed, sealed and delivered, young players need to be nurtured. That process frequently includes mechanical adjustments, which necessitates a certain degree of malleability.
It would be a stretch to liken the initial stages of minor-league development to dog training and language learning. There are, nonetheless, parallels. The earlier you start, the easier it is to master new ways of thinking and doing.
In the opinion of some scouting and player-development personnel, players drafted out of high school are less likely to fall into the old-dogs-new-tricks category. Oakland assistant GM Dan Kantrovitz – recently the amateur scouting director in St. Louis – is among them.
“The older the player, the more repetition he’s gone through,” said Kantrovitz. “That’s whether it’s in his swing path or his arm circle, and those things get harder to fix the longer you’ve been doing it. With high school players, we’re more optimistic that they can make adjustments once we send them to our development guys. Maybe that 22-year-old college senior isn’t going to make those adjustments as easily, because he’s more of a finished product.”
Reid Nichols had a similar take. Milwaukee’s farm director has seen high-school draftees adapt with urgency as a result of adversity.
“They usually listen more,” said Nichols. “Part of the reason is because everyone is as good, or better, than they are. They struggle, and when you struggle you look for help. In a more general sense, you have those extra three years to mold them and help them.”
Houston GM Jeff Luhnow, who cut his teeth in scouting and player development, is on the same page with Kantrovitz and Nichols. Even so, he recognizes that not even top-notch coaching guarantees success for prospects climbing the minor-league ladder. Some reach their ceilings at a lower rung than others.
“The younger the players are, the more ability you have to impact how they develop,” said Luhnow. “That applies to Dominican and Venezuelan players as well as high school players. But the younger they are, the more variability there is in the outcome. They haven’t passed a couple of the hurdles that the college players have passed. They’re more-insecure wagers, if you will.”
What does this all mean for teams placing their bets on draft day? If they have full faith in their player-development machine, should they go the high-school route when in doubt? Should a few extra years of molding to their own liking be a deciding factor? Not necessarily.
“It’s always on a case-by-case individual basis,” said Kantrovitz. “ From a scout’s perspective, there’s more room — more time — for a high school player to make adjustments, but that’s just a rule of thumb. Every player is different, so you can’t assume one approach works better than the other. You have to draft the players you feel have the best futures.”
How promising is the future for the Kansas City Royals? The defending American League champions won 89 games – their pythagorean record as 84-78 – in 2014 and reached the post-season as a wild card team. Barely. They were down by four runs in the eighth inning, and by a single tally in the 12th, before rallying to oust Oakland and advance beyond the play-in stage.
In Terry Ryan’s eyes, the team on top is the team to beat.
I asked the Twins GM how the Royals rate. More specifically, is a regression to the mean possible, and would his A.L. Central rivals be regarded as highly had they not vanquished the A’s and gone on a playoff roll?
“Well, the fact is, they won that playoff game and got on that roll,” responded Ryan. “There are a lot of people who will tell you they’ve got a lot of upside with the players they have, because they’re all young. They’re not even in their 30s, for the most part. Heck, they’re on the upswing because of where these guys are in their career. Some of them aren’t even arbitration-eligible.
“Then you start talking about Brandon Finnegan. What’s he going to look like when they give him an opportunity? There are a lot of things you can talk about, but the fact is, they’ve got a pretty good roster. Their defense, their bullpen, their rotation, and a lot of things they do, are very impressive.”
During his winter meetings’ press conference, Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg told reporters, “We’d have to be wowed to give up a guy like Cole Hamels, which would be a wow that would help us.” A few minutes later, he said, “I’m just waiting to see… whether Ruben gets wowed or not.” Moments later it was, “Cole Hamels… there is an asking price and there would have to be a wow factor to it.”
That’s a lot of wows, and to this point GM Ruben Amaro apparently hasn’t been wowed. If I’m a Phillies fan, I’m fine with that. Amaro should hold out as long as he can for an attractive offer, and if that means waiting until the trade deadline, so be it. What difference does it make if a prospect package comes now or at the end of August? The last thing the Philadelphia fan base wants is to utter a “Wow” because Amaro sold low.
Bronson Arroyo has a laudable work ethic. Addressing his regimen as he returns from Tommy John surgery, the D-Backs’ rehabbing righty said the following to a small group of Boston reporters last month:
“It’s a daily grind, but to be honest with you, it’s the way I’ve lived my whole life. The young kids – the minor-league kids – are in there rehabbing and they’re like, ‘Aaagh, another day of rehab.’ I’m like, ‘This is what I do. I spend four hours at the ballpark on off days when you guys are at the house.’ I enjoy it, so it’s not a big deal.”
Arroyo is still going strong – assuming his recovery continues on course – for just that reason. Soon to celebrate his 38th birthday, he’s delayed his decline phase by staying in tip-top shape. Arroyo tossed 200-plus innings in his age-36 season and logged at least 199 innings from 2005-2013,
Two years ago, as he was finishing up his MLB career, I interviewed Andruw Jones. For reasons I can’t explain, the transcript slipped through the cracks and has never seen the light of day. It will soon – I promise – as Jones deserves his due.
The native of Curacao had plenty of days in the sun patrolling center field for the Atlanta Braves (and other teams). He won 10 consecutive Gold Gloves and accumulated Defensive Runs Saved by the bushel load. Jones displayed a rifle arm and ran down gap shots like a gazelle.
Jones went back on balls with the best of them. Because he often positioned himself in short center field, he also saved countless singles. In his mind, he wasn’t perilously close to the second base bag – he was where his knowledge of hitters told him to be.
“A lot of people said I played shallow,” Jones told me. “I was not playing shallow. Maybe I was shallower than a lot of other outfielders, but I was playing who was hitting. Power hitters, I played deeper. I would play where I knew I could go to the fence in how many seconds, in how many feet.”
He could also take balls over the fence. Jones hit 434 home runs, including 51 in 2005. Five years earlier, at the still-tender age of 23, Jones began to come into his own as a hitter. He credits former hitting coach Merv Rettenmund for his offensive growth.
“He came to Atlanta in 2000 and told me, ‘Hey, go to the plate with the same approach you take in center field,” explained Jones. “He opened my eyes to being more relaxed and just letting things happen, instead of trying to make them happen. I started using my instincts, just like I did in the outfield when I exploded toward where a ball was a hit.”
Fans weren’t the only ones who took joy in Jones’ explosions. That became clear when I asked the once-brilliant defender if he enjoyed anything more than catching a baseball.
“I don’t think so,” answered Jones. “I’ve always loved to go get ’em. I like when I put my head down and run to that spot, and the ball is right there. I love to hit a homer, but playing center field and running down a ball in the gap and catching it – that’s always been the funnest thing.”
On this date in 1942, Rogers Hornsby was elected to the Hall of Fame. Appearing on the ballot for the fifth time, he received 78% of votes. If my math is correct, that means 22% left him off their ballots.
Hornsby hit .358/.434/.577 from 1915-1937, won seven batting titles, two triple crowns, and two MVP awards. He finished his career with a 175 OPS+ and is 12th all-time in WAR.
In 1938, Hornsby received only 17.6% of the vote. Johnny Evers, who hit .270/.356/.334 over 18 seasons, got 34.7% of the vote that year. In a word, Yikes.
What’s important is that Hornsby got in. There are exceptions, but almost every eligible player who belongs is eventually enshrined. Yes, there are more than 10 deserving players on the current ballot, and I agree with the proposed increase to 12. That said, I’m not overly concerned. Players like Tim Raines and Alan Trammell will likely need to rely on the veteran’s committee, but they’ll get their due in time. History is on their side.
RANDOM STATS AND FACTS
Over the past five seasons, Felix Hernandez and Ervin Santana each allowed 976 hits. Hernandez gave up 260 extra-base hits, including 81 home runs. Santana surrendered 347 extra-base hits, including 134 home runs.
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.