Blue Jays System Update with Gil Kim

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Judging by the number of times he has been quoted in the media lately, Blue Jays Director of Player Development Gil Kim is a busy man.

Kim recently gave FBJ three quarters of an hour of his time to give an update about where he feels the system is at, the recent Army Ranger camp the team sent a dozen top prospects and several front office staff to, Vlad and Bo, new hires in the organization, and his thoughts on some potential breakout candidates this season.

 

When asked about the progress of the system (which was ranked 3rd overall  by Baseball America),  Kim feels positive about the data and teaching-based direction the organization is going:

 

We‘ve been pleased with our progress and we’re very encouraged by what we’re seeing both from a staff development standpoint and individual player development standpoint, and then then also as group. As as as an entire group working together I would say we feel like we’re placing competitive teams out there that respect the game, respect their teammates, play the game hard, compete and emphasize the fundamentals.

 

 

The key to player development, according to Kim, is staff development.  The Blue Jays place an emphasis on teaching and learning for players and staff alike:

We definitely emphasize learning. We definitely emphasize mental toughness, and we definitely emphasize getting better every day. And if we’re going to prioritize those areas with our players and have extremely high standards, and learning toughness and getting better every day with our players, then we also need to have those same extremely high standards for us as staff members too. So it only works if we’re all doing the same thing and pointing in the same direction together.

 

Much has been made in the last month of the Blue Jays participation in a set of training exercises at the highly-renowned Army Ranger camp at Fort Benning, GA.  A dozen top prospects and several front office executives were put through a series of mental and physical challenges designed to ehance their performance in stressful situations, and increase personal and collective bonds along the way.  Kim says the idea to use the Army Ranger experience came up last year:

The initial idea was developed during spring training where as a group we realized that part of our responsibility is to provide an environment where where our players can develop as teammates and as leaders. As much as we ry to emphasize those areas in-season, we identified an opportunity in Fort Benning there for our players to have access to some of the best in the world when it comes to learning and toughness, and getting better every day.
Kim deflects much of the credit for the development and execution of the camp experience of Ben Freakley (head of mental performance), and Ben Cherington (VP – player development), but he hopes that the experience will be an important piece of a World Series puzzle:
……..if there’s anything that I can say about what happened there, it’s that the players led it, the players drove it, and it really it was for the players..……. there were several days where the players were able to interact with Army Rangers and learn from from the very best in terms of teammate/leadership decision making under stress.We believe that will really help them grow as people, and really help them establish a championship culture here.
  Winning or development?  For some MLB teams that can present something of a dilemma?  Is it best to let prospects seek their own level, sometimes to the detriment of an affiliate’s Won/Loss record?  Or is it better to let them learn to win together, sometimes at the expense of some players’ development?  While they probably hold their breath while doing so, hoping that a young player at the end of a long season doesn’t get injured in post-season play, Kim says the Blue Jays place an emphasis on winning at all levels:
Winning is an integral part of development, because at the end of the day our goal is to win world championships with the Blue Jays.  And when we think of development, we think of developing the types of leaders and people who will compete, who will be resilient, and who will approach every part of the day with intensity and desire to win………... And we believe that a winning mindset is an integral part to the development that we do. So we fully expect that the players here who have contributed to playoff runs and and post seasons and championships, and will be that much more prepared for when that happens in Toronto.
  The next subject up for discusssion was the process by which prospects get promoted from one level to the next.  Multiple sources around the Blue Jays system have noted that when Kim is in attendance at a game, someone is likely to be moving up.  As one staff member related, “When Gil comes to town with his notebook, he’s usually not leaving empty-handed.”  In reality, the promotion of players is the responsibility of a number of player development staff, according to Kim:
It’s a collaborative decision that involves a lot of different inputs where the central focus is what is the best decision for this player’s development at this time, and what it is not is one person making a decision….or a super impressive stat line that just makes the decision happen quickly. They’re (player promotions) are all thought out.
We factor in subjectively the coaching staff’s input as to who is he as a teammate, and leadership and ability to compete. We factor in the different departments, whether it’s player development or high performance, and their assessment of where he’s at in comparison to the league and the level, just where his technical skills and his tactical decisions are at. Also, his mental performance, his physical conditioning and his teammate leadership. It’s an assessment overall on where that player is at. Then you look at how he’s progressed with his individual development goals that every player has, and then we also obviously look at objectively where that player stands compared to the league, and if we think he can handle it.….
   And while individual players were not discussed in this portion of the conversation, reading between the lines gives one an idea of why some players moved up last season, while others didn’t:
I would say it’s really like a holistic assessment on the baseball side, the technical skills, the tactical decisions, the mental performance, and the physical state. Then you combine that with how he is as a teammate, and a leader, and a competitor, and then you combine that with objectively how that player compares and then you ultimately try to make the best decision for that guy’s development.
  Any conversation with Kim has to include time talking about Vladimir Guerrero Jr.  Since the whole world knows about his bat, we talked more about the strides he’s made on the other side of the ball.  While Guerrero may not remind anyone of Brooks Robinson just yet, he’s made a successful transition to 3rd Base when you consider that he was primarily an Outfielder before the Blue Jays moved him prior to his pro debut in 2016.  Playing 3rd requires a much different skill set than playing the OF:  the ball, of course, comes at you much faster, but from a different bat angle and with more pronounced spin.  The position places a premium on reactions, agility, footwork, transfer, and arm strength and accuracy.  The consensus in the industry is that the sure-handed Vladdy Jr makes plays on balls that he gets to, and the team has been focussed on increasing his range at the hot corner:
Vlad has put the work in over the last three years with (MiLB staff)Danny Solano, with Cesar Martin, Dennis Holmberg, John Schneider, Andy Fermin, and Donnie Murphy. He has put the time and effort into improving his defense, and we’ve seen steady progress over the past few years. Some of the things he does well, are he fields the ball well, he’s got soft hands, a plus arm, it’s accurate, and he has very good instincts – he reads the game, sees things very well, and some of the things that he’s still working on are his first step quickness and his technical footwork.…… for Vlad to be the Gold Glove third baseman that he wants to be. He’s come a long way and we’re excited and encouraged about his progress, but at the same time we realize that there is there is improvement and progress there that needs to be made as well.….we’re confident that he normally does, will accept challenges and we’re confident that he’ll continue to challenge himself and raise his standards to become the best third baseman that can be.
   And since the average fan already knows so much about Jr’s prowess at the plate, Kim was asked to tell us something about the game’s top prospect that we may not know:
One of the things about Vlad that I could say is that I didn’t know how much he loved the game. I always just remember doing a tryout in the Dominican when Vlad was 14 or 15 (when Kim was a scout with Texas), and he wasn’t involved in the tryout. it was a couple towns over from his home, and it was a Sunday……he peeked his head over this brick wall. I kind of went over there and asked, “what are you doing, it’s a Sunday?” He was playing pick up softball on the next field over, and he’s with his cousin Gregory (now a Mets farmhand), and it was one of those first moments where I realized that he really loves to play this game.
   Bo Bichette’s season was a learning experience.  He bought into the organization’s philosophy of being aggressive in the count when circumstances warrant it, but as a result, he greatly expanded his strike zone, and word quickly spread around the Eastern League that he would chase.  After leading the minors in hitting the season before and flirting with .400, Bichette’s average fell to a career-low .237 in early May.  He learned to harness that enthusiasm at the plate, and slashed .326/.383/.505 in the second half, leading the EL in Doubles, and had a strong post-season as New Hampshire cruised to the league title.  For Bichette, it was his second championship in as many seasons.  Kim maintains that aggressiveness is a strength:
Two things I’m extremely confident in saying are that Bo has an off the charts level of intensity and desire to compete…… he has an innate ability to see the game and make adjustments. And those two attributes that Bo has we’ve seen since he was drafted, and and we’re confident will translate to him being a very good player. Bo has excellent bat speed, very good coordination, a solid swing and his aggressiveness helps him. So these are all qualities that that really work in his favor.
  The key to Bichette’s second half success was his ability to adjust:
 As you go up in levels you’ll get pitched to a little bit differently, there will be better competition, there are pitchers with better stuff, better command, and they’re smarter, and, oh by the way, Bo is one of the best hitters in all of minor league baseball. So now he’s going to get attacked a little bit differently, and Bo is somebody who’s going to figure things out. So whatever his thought process that he had throughout April and May….. it allowed him to to improve and get better.….. if that meant setting his sights in a different place, or if that meant swinging at pitches he could drive, what we did see was a definite adjustment and a strong second half of the year….. what we were most pleased about was the fact that he worked to develop that leadership of a team that won the championship, and that he fully committed to his defensive footwork and his throwing.
    Last off season, Kim began the process of changing the minor league instructional staff.  With New Hampshire Manager John Schneider and MiLB hitting coordinator Guillermo Martinez promoted to the MLB staff, and with several new positions to fill, some staff were shifted and new ones brought in for 2019 as the team transitions to a development team with strong backgrounds in teaching and technoloby.  One of the first moves was to give Dunedin Manager Casey Candaele a pair of new portfolios:  Manager of short-season Vancouver, and responsibility for composition of the team’s on field practice at spring training:
Casey Candaele’s making the transition to coordinator of practice design and skill development. And it’s a newly created role that really recognizes and respects the importance of the design and the structure of training environments, and of your development days, your game days, of your camps, and of your programs. And it also respects and recognizes the importance of skill development and how best to do that. So now we have worked on, and continue to improve our practice environments and designs and our skill development structures. And we really think that this is an area that will be very important for us as we try to best help players get better. So Casey will fit in that role. He has probably one of the best combinations of playing experience, coaching experience, knowledge of the game, combined with open mindedness, humility and creativity. And his interpersonal skills are very good, and we’re excited about him working with our coordinators in this role .….
  Kim speaks highly of the former big leaguer, and relayed an anecdote to show his dedication to continuing to learn and grow as an instructor:
…..one of the first things he did when he became a first time high school head baseball coach, he went out and bought the Ron Polk (legendary college coach) book that would help him design practice better….you know you are sitting there listening to that thinking, “OK, this guy with this much knowledge and experience, is taking that step to go out and buy a book, saying I know what it (how to design a practice) looks like.”
More from Kim on new roles and additions to the staff:
-on Hunter Mense, who joined the organization last year as the hitting coach at New Hampshire, and has taken over Martinez’ role:
…we were encouraged by Hunter making that jump from short season to AA with a prospect-laden group. And to see the development that Hunter had as a person and a coach over the 2018 season was very encouraging. We feel like Hunter is somebody who is passionate about practice, and about integrating data technology into development and bottom line, he’s just extremely passionate about hitting. So we’re excited that Guillermo and Hunter will continue to connect the major league and minor leagues together.
Former MLB Pitcher Doug Mathis joins the system after two years working with the Mariners, and will be the pitching coach at AAA Buffalo:
Doug is just such a strong learner…. he’s an ex big league pitcher and has pitched in different countries. He’s very relatable to players and he’s the type of pitching coach that uses all different types of resources to try to help pitchers get better.…he combines feel, and experience with people, and knowledge and use of Rapsodo and pitch data. Bottom line is he tries to help us get better so we’re very excited about him there.
Demetre Kokoris comes to the team from the college ranks, and has worked with the famed Driveline program, which seems to be producing MLB staff on a weekly basis now:
I think Demetre has a very engaging presence, a ton of energy, and experience integrating advanced data and information and pitching development, so we’re excited to have him at Extended and in Vancouver.
Like Kokoris, Cory Popham, who will serve as an assistant pitching coach with the DSL Blue Jays,  has a collegiate and Driveline background:
Corey is just a very intelligent thinker, and he’s an absolute pitching nerd.….whether it’s emphasizing the kinetic chain and optimum movement patterns in a delivery, or using some of this new information with pitch data and advanced analytics to help drive development. Corey is someone who dives into everything and and definitely has a bright bright future ahead of him.
Logan Bone comes from the college ranks as well, and will be Lansing’s hitting coach this season:
Logan is a learner, he’s a thinker, he reads a ton.…as a college coach he he integrated mental performance with baseball development to a different level than most baseball organizations are used to. We’re interested to see how Logan can help us as we continue to collaborate amongst our player development and high performance departments…He’s a very bright guy and a leader.
Jake McGuigan joined the organization as a video coach with Dunedin last year, and will take on more of a dual role with the Florida State League club this year:
Jake will assume the traditional role of the position coach, while at the same time placing an emphasis on translating data and technology to players. Jake played baseball at Harvard, and is an extremely bright guy and he has an ability to connect with people. He’s very humble, and he has playing experience.
Evan Short comes from UC-Santa Barbara, and has a background in analytics:
He was the director of analytics there, and we’re looking forward to him helping us as we construct our systems and processes as related to integrating data and technology…. he kind of had a hybrid role of UCSB where you he was constructing processes and systems at the same time as helping individual players and helping coaches, and we’re looking forward to him doing a little bit of both here too.
And Ryan Monsalves is the organization’s new player development video coordinator:
….very simply his role is about maximizing our use of video in player development. So traditionally it’s looking at swings and game footage, but we realized that video feedback is one of the most useful tools in our practice design and in our skill development and we’re looking forward to him implementing new ways to impact this.
Kim feels that it’s important to develop a staff that’s diverse in a number of ways, with an ability to connect with the players:
As we continue to construct the best group of staff possible to help these players maximize their potential, a key part of that is diversifying the staff. So that’s not just ethnically and culturally, but that’s where experiences and skill sets matter. There will always be a need and a premium on establishing trust, connecting with people, and and building relationships. There will always be. We can’t emphasize that enough. There will always be a need and a premium placed on that. Nothing will ever replace the need for timing and feel and connecting with people.
What we have recognized as well, is that in order to help players get better, and in order to provide the best resources possible, those resources can come through experience, can come through playing careers, through coaching careers, but they can also come through a non-traditional path as well. So we’re just trying to provide our players with every resource possible. So, both those guys have a Driveline background, but more than anything they have a thirst for learning, an open mind, and an ability to grasp these data and technological concepts.
   Kim provided an update on P Justin Maese, who missed all of  2018 after undergoing shoulder surgery last March.  Projected as a mid-rotation starter, his shoulder issues cropped up in 2017, and limited his effectiveness for much of the season.  On the cusp of the Blue Jays Top 10 prospects prior to his surgery, Maese is making progress, but it seems likely he’ll stay close to home in Extended once spring training camp breaks:
Justin’s progressing well, he actually before the end of (last) season or in the was cleared to begin throwing, and now he’s ramping up his throwing progression right now………I’m sure his progress will dictate the timeline. We’re just kind of taking it day by day at this point.
    Finally, based on what he saw over the last few weeks of 2018, Instructs, and off season reports, Kim was asked to name a potential 2019 breakout candidate.  With little hesitation, he recommended OF Cal Stevenson, a 10th round sleeper last June who got a lot of attention for a debut season where he got on base almost 50% of the time:
If you ask (his 2018 Manager at Bluefield) Dennis Holmberg, Cal is one of the favorite players he’s managed in his career, and rightfully so because Cal is such a good natured, strong character, humble human being – he’s a quality person first and foremost and that’s the most important thing that stands out about Cal. And then I think secondarily he has tremendous instincts, reads the ball well off the bat, controls the strike zone, and he’s a very heady and aggressive base runner. And he’s just a solid solid all around player who makes people around him better.
But Stevenson wasn’t the only player Kim singled out.  The second year pro hit .413 in 22 games in his stateside debut with the GCL Jays, and posted a respectable .762 OPS after a promotion to Bluefield:
Gabby Moreno’s another good pick – he’s an athletic, quick-twitch Catcher you who can hurt you on both sides of the ball. He’s got a quick swing, and makes a lot of contact, and he’s a solid defensive catcher.
Most minor league training camps open around March 5th, with games taking place a week later.
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