Sunday Notes: Whitley’s Cattle, Cubs Butler, Gausman’s Analogy, Prideful Yard Goat, more

Chase Whitley grew up playing good old country hardball in Alabama. More specifically, he played it in rural Alabama. The Tampa Bay Rays right-hander hails from Ranburne, which he affectionately described as “a small town with zero stoplights.” Fewer than 500 people call it home, so it’s no wonder he knows “literally every person there.”

In Hoosiers-like fashion, the close-knit community has captured sports glory.

“Growing up, my teams consisted of a bunch of close friends,” related Whitley. “There were 13 of us, and we played together from Little League and Dixie Youth all the way through high school. My junior year, we won the state championship.”

Whitley also played on some “really good” basketball teams, and he spent time on the gridiron as well. Kids in Ranburne are expected to participate in multiple sports because, well, it’s what you do in that neck of the woods. As for their athletic accomplishments, Whitley views them mostly as a byproduct of “buddies who hang out and play some pretty good ball.”

That’s when they’re not working. Growing up where they did, you earn your keep.

“My family had a poultry farm,” said Whitley. “We had two chicken houses, and cattle, and it was either work or play ball. Those were my two choices. There wasn’t anything else. My dad said, ‘You’re going to work.’ Farming and ball is the story of my life. Picking up eggs is how I learned to count.”

Farm life remains in his blood. Whitley’s father is now retired from the poultry business — he drives a school bus to keep busy — but livestock still occupies family land. Whitley and his wife already own 30 cows, and they plan to grow the herd down the road. His post-baseball plans — “this is about as small-town as you can get” — are to be a physical education teacher and raise beef cattle.

The reason he gave for wanting cattle is the epitome of bucolic charm.

“That’s who I am,” said Whitley. “I like land, and I like the thought of having cows all over that land.”

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Eddie Butler was a bust in Colorado. The once highly-regarded righty went 6-16 with a 6.50 ERA in parts of three tumultuous seasons. He wasn’t much better during his stints in the high minors, putting up subpar numbers in both 2015 and 2016.

Skeptical that he’d ever put it together, the team that drafted him 48th overall in 2012 bade Butler farewell. On the first day of February, the Rockies sent him to the Cubs for James Farris and an international bonus slot.

Butler is now showing signs of putting it all together. In four starts for Chicago’s Triple-A affiliate, the Iowa Cubs, the second-chance hurler has a 1.46 ERA over 24-and-two-thirds innings of work.

Going downhill has played a big role in his resurgence.

“Since I got here, (pitching coach) Chris Bosio has been getting me back to what was my norm,” Butler told me this spring. “We’re working on me staying better over the rubber and getting a stronger front side. That should correlate to getting out front and driving the ball downhill, which I struggled with the last two years.”

According to Butler, the Rockies wanted him to get more consistency with his four-seam fastball, so that he could go down and away for a strike whenever he needed to. The result was deleterious to his go-to offering.

“The last two years I was mainly four-seam, and that’s not where I need to be,” said Butler. “I’m a two-seam guy. They told me I couldn’t really command the glove side of the plate — everything I was throwing was arm side — and focusing my attention on that took away from what I’d been doing. My extension went away, and I struggled. It’s tough to be consistent, trying to do one thing when your body wants you to do another.”

According to Jaron Madison, the Cubs’ director player development, Butler’s body is doing all the right things. So are his deliveries.

“He’s done a really good job of getting back to his two-seamer and his more natural slot,” Madison told me earlier this week. “The life on his pitches has improved significantly, and the quality of the strikes has improved as well. He’s in a really good place, both mechanically and mentally.”

———

Finding out he’d been traded threw James Farris for a loop. He immediately comprehended that he was Chicago-bound, but processing the flip side took a little longer. Upon hearing the “T” word, his mind went blank.

“The Cubs told me who it was for, but I was caught off guard so much that I was kind of in shock,” Farris told me on Friday. “I didn’t even hear Eddie Butler’s name. They said it, but I didn’t hear it. After I heard the word trade, nothing else really registered.”

Farris relearned the specifics after arriving at Colorado’s spring training complex. Meanwhile, Rockies fans were hearing his name for the first time. The more curious among them learned that the 25-year-old right-hander was a ninth-round pick by the Cubs in 2014, and last year he logged 13 saves, a 2.59 ERA, and had a 10.1 K-rate between high-A and Double-A.

There’s more to his story. Farris was a 15th-round pick by the Astros out of the University of Arizona in 2013, but despite being offered “a good amount of money” he opted to not sign. Loyalty and school pride were the primary reasons. Feeling he owed something to (since retired) head coach Andy Lopez — “a guy I look up to in the baseball world” — Farris returned for his senior season. The decision reaped benefits. Along with upping his draft stock, he earned a degree in Economics and Industry, Regional Development, Sustainability, and Environmental Studies.

Farris has made six appearances for the Double-A Hartford Yard Goats so far this season. He’s allowed two runs in seven innings, and has one save.

———

In an interview that ran here on Thursday, Caleb Joseph discussed the maturation process for young catchers and pitchers. He brought up a few of his Orioles teammates, including Kevin Gausman. On the same day I spoke to Joseph, I asked the 26-year-old right-hander about his own developmental advancements.

“I think it’s just like any job,” opined Gausman. “The more time you spend in it, the more you’re going to learn about yourself. Time and experience are only going to help. The first article you write is probably going to be worse than the last one you write. It’s kind of like that.”

(Now there’s an analogy a sportswriter can wrap his head around.)

Gausman went on to say that going through tough times can be a great teaching tool, although you often don’t realize it until later. At the same time, he can’t look back and point to any one game and say, ‘This was when I figured it out.’

There are games that matter. Gausman considers confidence “a huge factor,” and last September he threw eight scoreless innings at Fenway Park in a pennant race. Gausman feels he grew a lot that day. In his mind, that effort — a 1-0 win that brought Baltimore within a game of first place — was “a stepping stone” in his burgeoning career.

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Andrew Knapp emerged as one of the top prospects in the Phillies system in 2015. Splitting that season between high-A and Double-A, the switch-hitting catcher slashed .301/.384/.472. There were questions about his defense, but his path to the big-leagues nevertheless looked short.

That turned out to be the case — Knapp is now Philadelphia’s backup backstop — but there are still kinks to be worked out. And not just behind the dish. Facing Triple-A pitching for the first time last summer, the Cal-Berkeley product saw his bat go backwards. He put up a pedestrian .720 OPS.

When I asked him about it this spring, the 25-year-old Knapp defended his 2016 performance, saying that while there “were some tough parts,” he feels he finished strong. He added that defense was his primary focus.

“I tried to get my eggs in order in that basket, and I did, ” claimed Knapp. “I made great strides with my defense. Then I went to the Dominican Republic to play winter ball and caught more down there. I feel really good behind the plate right now.”

Pressed to elaborate on last year’s offensive doldrums, Knapp told me the issue was “probably approach-based as much as anything. Once you struggle a little bit, you try to get yourself out of it instead of focusing on one at bat at a time. You try to go 5 for 5 in your first at bat. That’s not exactly a good way to go about it.”

———

APRIL TIDBITS

This past Thursday, Joey Votto made his 1,256th career appearance at first base for the Cincinnati Reds, the most in franchise history at that position. Ted Kluszewski played 1,255 games from 1947-1957.

As of Friday, Travis Shaw had the highest percentage (81.3%) of extra-base hits of any player in either league. The Brewers third baseman had three singles, seven doubles, a triple, and five home runs.

Going into yesterday’s games, Milwaukee’s Eric Thames led MLB in extra-base hits (14), home runs (8), total bases (52), slugging (.897) and runs scored (20).

Noah Syndergaard has 30 strikeouts and hasn’t walked anyone. Marco Estrada has 20 strikeouts and hasn’t walked anyone. Matt Strahm has six walks and hasn’t struck out anyone.

With two on Wednesday, Bryce Harper has now homered seven times against Julio Teheran. According to Elias, only two other players to debut in the last 60 years had as many home runs off one pitcher before their 25th birthday: Orlando Cepeda had nine off Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette, and Willie McCovey had seven off Don Drysdale.

Padres pitchers have given up 29 home runs, the most of any team. Orioles pitchers have given up 11 home runs, the fewest of any team.

———

Over the past several months I’ve asked a handful of high-ranking front office members about personnel decisions. More specifically, I’ve asked how they assess the relative value of acquiring a specific style of player, versus simply upgrading at a position. Bobby Evans, the general manager of the San Francisco Giants, is among those I’ve queried.

“You can do both simultaneously,” Evans told me. “They go together. You might have a guy who would clearly fit the chemistry of your team, but he’s a third baseman and you don’t need a third baseman. If it’s a power guy who strikes out a lot, and you need power, you can deal with the strikeouts, but defensively he has no position. Those are the type of factors you’re always measuring. But you can’t limit it to just one thing.

“If the guy doesn’t fit the dynamic of your clubhouse… I actually think that’s pretty rare in the game. There are a lot of interchangeable parts. For the most part you don’t look for people to be one certain way. You expect to have a dynamic clubhouse, but if for some reason you find a guy who just wouldn’t fit that dynamic, but he fits so well in other ways, that makes it a much harder decision. Sometimes you have to try things to get better.”

———

Josh Whetzel, who does fine work as the play-by-play voice of the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings, told me a great story recently. I’ll share it here.

“After years as a very successful minor league manager, Joe Altobelli got his first big-league job managing the San Francisco Giants, in 1977. Coincidentally, his first game was in Los Angeles, where his former Montreal Royals teammate Tommy Lasorda was the new manager of the Dodgers.
 
“It was opening day, and Frank Sinatra was there to sing the National Anthem. Lasorda waved out Joe to meet Sinatra before the Anthem, and the three Italians were chatting away near home plate when Sinatra said ‘We better break this up before someone gives us a subpoena.’

“While they were out there, Joe asked Sinatra if he would like to sing the Anthem before the Giants’ home opener at Candlestick the following week, and Sinatra said yes. Sure enough, Sinatra came up to San Francisco and sang the Anthem.
 
“Years later, Joe came into our office in Rochester (where he was then working as Whetzel’s color analyst). He’d been signing autographs at a card show, and a fan came up to him with a photo of Joe and Sinatra from that day in San Francisco. Joe wanted to make some copies of it. It’s a picture of Joe in his Giants uniform, smiling and talking with Sinatra in the clubhouse.

“Joe hadn’t noticed that, perfectly framed in between the two of them in the background of the photo, is one of Joe’s coaches….completely nude…fully frontal…getting ready to take a shower after the game.

“It took our best photoshop skills to make that Altobelli-Sinatra picture family-friendly.”

———

LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

Anthony Gose, whom the Tigers are converting from the outfield to the mound, struck out the side in his pitching debut. Evan Woodberry has the story at MLive.

At The Detroit Free Press, George Sipple wrote about how the grand opening of Harwell Field at Wayne State University ensures that future generations will be able to listen to the soothing voice of Ernie Harwell.

Jacob Pomrenke looked at the unlikely origins of the Ford Frick award at The National Pastime Museum.

The latest installment of John Dewan’s Stat of the Week delves into the current state of defensive shifts.

Graham Womack has talked to several almost-Hall of Famers for The Sporting News. His latest conversation is with Luis Tiant.

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

From 1968-1974, Nolan Ryan went 91-85, with a 2.99 ERA, and fanned 9.72 batters per nine innings. Over that same period, Dave McNally went 133-75, with a 3.00 ERA, and fanned 4.74 batters per nine innings.

Since joining the Pirates last August, Ivan Nova has four complete games and has walked three batters.

Jered Weaver has a better career ERA+ (114) than Orel Hershiser and Nolan Ryan (112 each).

Earlier this month, Ben Revere became the 1,000th player in Angels history.

The only player to hit for the cycle so far this year is San Diego’s Wil Myers. It was the second cycle in Padres history (Matt Kemp in 2015) and the 313th in MLB history.

Brad Ausmus is the 14th manager in Detroit Tigers history to have also played for the team. The others are Del Baker, Ty Cobb, Mickey Cochrane, Bucky Harris, Billy Hitchcock, Fred Hutchinson, Hughie Jennings, Bobby Lowe, Billy Martin, George Moriarty, Bob Swift, Dick Tracewski, and Alan Trammell.

On this date in 1999, Cardinals third baseman Fernando Tatis hit two grand slams in the same inning against the Dodgers’ Chan Ho Park.

The roster of the 1928 pennant-winning St. Louis Cardinals included Ray Blade, Spud Davis, Taylor Douthit, Fred Frankhouse, Andy High, Wattie Holm, Carlisle Littlejohn, Rabbit Maranville, Flint Rhem, and Specs Toporcer.





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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I love Sunday notes. Keep up the good work, and thanks.