Sunday Notes: Rays’ Motter, Carson Smith, Rangers, Brewers, Angels, more

Taylor Motter isn’t a household name. But he does have a way with words, and there’s a chance he’ll break camp as Tampa Bay’s 25th man. If that happens, the Rays roster will include a jack-of-all-trades dirt-dog whose phrasing is more Yogi Berra than Bull Durham.

Motter has played every position except catcher since being drafted out of Coastal Carolina University in 2011. He’s also swung the bat. Last season, in Triple-A, the former Chanticleer hit .292/.366/.471 with 42 doubles and 14 home runs. His running game was an asset, as he swiped 26 bases.

The self-described “blue collar grinder” will take a walk — he had 57 on the year — but he’s anything but passive.

“If I get something early and hard, I’m going to attack early and hard,” Motter told me. “I don’t like to get to two strikes. If I do, that’s my time to go to battle. It’s time to put on my worker’s cap and go to work.

“I like to get the head out and stay up the middle to the pull side. That’s pretty much where I like to live. I try not to fixate on going the other way. If I have to I will, but I’m getting after it if I can.”

Motter is wired — “I’m a high-energy guy, absolutely” — which can be detrimental when not channeled correctly. Being amped up only works when you can slow things down. He’s hyper aware of the balancing act.

“There’s a fine line between controlling it and not,” said Motter. “I don’t think it’s ever going to be a perfected science, but I know I’m on the right road to perfecting it. It’s mostly knowing what I can and can’t do — figuring out where my game fits in and where it doesn’t — and f I can get it done quicker than later, I’ll be in a good spot.”

Shortstop is Motter’s preferred position, but his glove plays anywhere (“I’ve caught bullpens, but they haven’t let me test it in a real game yet.”) Given his druthers, he’ll continue hopscotching across the diamond.

“I love to be in the moment and I love to be all over the place,” said Motter. “Being able to do everything, everywhere, is awesome. If somebody gets hurt, I’m next in line, because I can do everything. I want to be known as the workhorse, the guy who plays everywhere and runs balls out, dives for balls. I want to be known as the guy who comes off the field dirty.”

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Carson Smith has a strained flexor muscle in his right forearm and will begin the year on the disabled list. That’s not good news for the Red Sox, nor is it a huge surprise. His unorthodox delivery and heavy slider usage have labeled him an injury risk. Some have speculated that the Mariners dealt him this past off-season with that in mind.

I brought up those health fears when I spoke to the 26-year-old reliever earlier in the spring.

“I’ve heard that my whole life,” admitted Smith. “But throwing from a lower arm slot is something that’s come natural for me. I’ve found ways to manage it, whether it’s the weight room, the trainer’s room, or on the field. I try to not think about it. No pitcher wants to think about injuries.”

When healthy, he’s been stellar. Last season in Seattle, Smith fanned 92 and allowed just 49 hits in 70 innings. Augmenting his slider with a power sinker, he logged a 64.8% ground ball rate. The downward movement is god-given.

“I’ve never truly tried to make the ball move,” said Smith. “I know it’s about rotation, and pronation typically helps a sinkerballer, but I haven’t really read into it much. There’s nothing crazy about my grip. The sink just happens.”

Smith has gripped his slider the same way since he was 10 years old, and his arm angle has been “pretty consistent since 2010.” He used to throw from multiple slots, but “decided to stick with the lower one because the movement is more significant.”

When I asked if Seattle pitching coach Rick Waits had specific mechanics-based messages for him, he answered in the negative. According to Smith, Waits “kind of just let me do my own thing, because I am unique.”

He’s also on the shelf. Initial reports suggest the injury isn’t serious, but Smith’s long-term prognosis remains uncertain. Only time will tell if the risk label is fitting.

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The Rangers had a few low-K-rate pitchers on their staff last year. Depending on rotation decisions (and attrition), that could be the case again this season. According to manager Jeff Banister, it won’t be an issue if the pitchers pitch to their strengths and the defense is aligned accordingly.

“With the advent of shifts and how dynamic we’ve gotten with positioning, and also the ability to teach (pitchers) where and how to get their outs… it’s a mentality,” said Banister. “For some of them, it should be a badge of honor that they can do that. It’s part of the whole structure behind defensive positioning throughout baseball — when guys get contact, where is it made and can we position our guys more prudently to field more ground balls?

“When you’re not a stuff guy, execution has to be at its greatest. That’s where guys like Nick Martinez and Chi Chi (Gonzalez)… they’ve got to have great intent. Their conviction and execution have to line up together, and their execution rate has to be greater, because their margin of error isn’t great. Their idea should be, ‘I want this guy to put the ball in play, this is how I’m going to get him to put it in play, and this is where he’s going to hit it.’”

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Craig Counsell is paying close attention to the shifting game. The Milwaukee manager is analytically-inclined, and he’s aware that trends attract corrective adjustments.

“We’ll shift when the information tells us to shift,” Counsell said earlier this week. “What’s interesting is the cat-and-mouse games teams in the same division play with each other in spring training. We shifted on (Joey) Votto and (Jay) Bruce and they both tried to bunt. That’s what you want to do in spring training — you want to show the other team, ‘Hey, we’ll bunt.’ It’s going to become a game of chicken eventually, the shifting game and the bunting.”

He hasn’t devised an offensive counter strategy of his own. In his view, the Brewers lineup doesn’t include many shift candidates. But a lot of opposing players do, which portends a dilemma.

“Teams are going to start trying to expose (the shift),” said Counsell. “We’ll have to be ready for anything.”

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Don’t expect Jason Heyward to react to being shifted by hitting ground balls the other way. When I talked to the Cubs outfielder earlier this spring, he suggested that’s easier said than done.

“As a hitter, you can’t go up there and say, ‘I’m going to line up to hit it left’ or ‘I’m going to line up to hit it right,’ said Heyward. “If you do, you’re going to turn yourself away from the natural progression of your swing, and how you want to impact the baseball in terms of driving it.”

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In 2012, when he was with the White Sox, I interviewed Hector Santiago about his screwball. The southpaw had learned the pitch four years earlier, from former Brewers hurler Angel Miranda.

Santiago, who is heading into his third season with the Angels, still has a screwball in his repertoire. It’s not a primary pitch, but he did throw “four or five” in his most-recent spring training start. After the game, I asked why he doesn’t unleash it on a more regular basis.

“I have six pitches and it’s hard to throw six pitches 20 times each in a game,” explained Santiago. “I’m not going to go out there and go heater, screwball, heater, screwball, heater, screwball. I don’t think anybody is going to do that with a slider, either. You let them know who is in charge of the heater and then you mix in everything else. Or you pitch backwards. You get your breaking balls in earlier and then power them late.

“I’m not a guy who is going to try to beat guys with breaking balls. I want to put my presence out there. I’m going to pound you in, I’m going to throw heaters away, and mix in other junk to get you out.”

Santiago’s “junk” includes a changeup with arm-side fade. The pitch is sometimes confused with his screwball, but it shouldn’t be.

“My screwball is 100 percent different from my changeup,” said Santiago. “It’s slower in velocity and has way more action to it. It’s late, hard action down and away. My changeup is more of a strike pitch.”

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Following his most recent spring training start, Scott Kazmir mentioned “working on that pitcher-catcher relationship where we’re thinking right with each other and having a good tempo.” Kazmir, who signed with the Dodgers as a free agent over the winter, was working with Yasmani Grandal.

Pitch selection wasn’t the focal point.

“It wasn’t a sequencing thing,” said Kazmir. “It was more tempo. At times I want the sign as soon as I look up. Sometimes, like with guys in scoring position, I maybe want to take a little bit of time to visualize that pitch before I throw it. Things that make me work; things that make me click. It’s good to have that spring training time to figure out each other.”

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Former players are a common sight in spring training. Some, like Bobby Knoop, have been in the game longer than most of us have been alive. The 77-year-old, in camp with the Angels, signed his first professional contract 60 years ago this summer. A slick-fielding infielder, he went on play nine big-league seasons.

Knoop made his MLB debut with the Angels in 1964.

“It was in Washington DC at what was then called the presidential opener,” recalled Knoop. “Lyndon Johnson was the president and Claude Osteen was the pitcher (for the Senators). I got my first hit in that game. I hit it about eight feet, down the third base line.”

Records show that Knoop’s first hit, a bunt single off Washington’s Bennie Daniels, actually came in his second game. He did drop down a sacrifice bunt to score a runner from third in the opener.

Knoop was in uniform in the Angels clubhouse when I spoke with him. He told me he’s not there as an instructor, but rather as “more of an observer.” After a pause, he smilingly added, “and an opinion giver.”

When I asked if the players in camp appreciate that he had a big-league career of his own, he again paused before answering.

“I’m not certain that ‘appreciate’ is the correct word,” answered Knoop. “Most of them don’t know me. Their grandfathers might know me. They don’t relate to when I played. That’s not discouraging. I don’t mean it in that sense. Some of them will ask questions. Mostly they’ll ask, ‘What was it like?’”

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

Ted Berg of USA Today wrote about Matt Bush’s two-inning pitching appearance for the Texas Rangers on Wednesday. It wasn’t just any two-inning pitching appearance. Bush — drafted first overall as a shortstop in 2004 — spent time in prison following his third DUI conviction.

Ben Badler of Baseball America wrote about the scouting process, focusing on international signings and Yankees pitching prospect Luis Severino.

Tracy Ringolsby, writing for MLB.com, chronicled Mike Paul’s pitching career in the Mexican League. Paul, who pitched for the Indians, Rangers and Cubs from 1968-1974, went on to be known as “the Whitey Ford of Mexico.”

Jon Meoli of the Baltimore Sun wrote about how Dylan Bundy enjoys painting — not corners of the plate, but rather horses, landscapes and mountain scenes.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Right-handed batters hit 17 home runs off Chris Tillman last season, the most allowed by a right-handed pitcher. Left-handed batters hit 8 home runs off Mark Buehrle, the most allowed by a left-handed pitcher.

Darin Ruf hit .371/.447/.660 in 114 plate appearances versus left-handed pitchers. He hit .158/.208/.275 in 183 plate appearances versus right-handed pitchers.

Denny McLain averaged 23 wins and 290 innings per season for the Detroit Tigers from 1966-1969. He threw his last pitch in 1972 at age 28.

Ozzie Smith hit 28 home runs in 10,778 plate appearances. Deadball-era shortstop Rabbit Maranville hit 28 home runs in 11,254 plate appearances.

Walter Johnson pitched 369-and-two-third innings without giving up a home run in 1916. As a hitter, he homered once in 142 at bats.





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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dl80member
6 years ago

I wish Matt Bush weren’t getting yet another chance. He was a real piece of crap earlier in his life, and while that may be different now, his quotes read mostly like “I really want to play baseball so I’ll do and say what I need to.”

This isn’t Josh Hamilton. This is a brawling frat boy drunk who ran over a man’s head (he only survived because of his helmet) AFTER crashing him off his motorcycle.

I’ll be actively rooting against him and the Rangers.

jamesx122
6 years ago
Reply to  dl80

Alright then bro, you do you.

I don’t claim to know if Matt Bush has genuinely changed his life or if he’s just saying this to get one last shot at the bigs. But he did his time in prison unlike guys like Greg Hardy for example.

http://www.foxsports.com/mlb/story/matt-bush-victim-anthony-tufano-speaks-out-about-recovery-from-motorcycle-accident-050514

But if the victim can try and forgive Bush (an amazing feat on Mr. Tufano’s part) then I can’t figure out why you’d want him to fail in life.

dl80member
6 years ago
Reply to  jamesx122

Honestly, it’s because I’ve seen lots of jock frat boys just like him and I see nothing that really expresses true contrition here. I see lots of “I was young and dumb” (he might have been dumb but he wasn’t young) and similar statements.

It’s disappointing that he’d be allowed back into baseball. I think he ought to be bagging groceries and thinking about how he’s lucky he didn’t kill a man.

jcutigermember
6 years ago
Reply to  dl80
dl80member
6 years ago
Reply to  jcutiger

I only read the article linked here. Here’s one of his quotes: “But the past is also the past and the mistakes were made when I was younger.”

That’s just BS, frankly.

He was 18 for the fight in 2004. That’s an adult, but I think we can charitably chalk it up to being a teenaged entitled athlete that doesn’t know any better.

He was 23 when he attacked a high schooler with a golf club.

He was 26 for the DUI where he almost killed a man. He also had 2 other DUI that day.

While that all technically counts as “younger” than he is now, the last 2 were not some dumb teenager. I have no sympathy for him and hope he fails.

jamesx122
6 years ago
Reply to  dl80

Geez dude, Bush admitted he was alcholic and fully agreed that he deserved his prison time as well as all the restrictions placed on him. But apparently you only want to focus on another set of quotes since it agrees your preconceived notion of Bush.

The point of the prison system is to punish people for their crimes (he did get punished) and then for the guy to be able to become a productive member of society once again, why would you hope he fails in that task? You sound like a dude with his own issues.