Disclaimer: I am not a scout, but I’m more than willing to play one on tv. I do talk to many people around minor league baseball about a variety of things, mostly player development. The following are the observations of a pair of eyes that have been around for a long time.
I journeyed to the Michigan state capitol of Lansing to watch the Midwest League’s Lugnuts take on the Cubs’ South Bend affiliate for three games earlier this week. Before I get to my notes, a rant of sorts, if you will.
Many on social media have been clamouring for the promotion of Blue Jays prospects, the progeny of a Hall of Famer most noticeably. Cavan Biggio is drawing some prospect love as well (understandably so), and it’s now stretching all the way down to Low A and Jordan Groshans, who admittedly is well on his way to becoming one of the top two or three prospects in the system once Vlad has graduated for good (which is a lock first time ’round, folks). While more and more people are forking out the $40 for an milb.tv subscription and actually watching the players they tweet about on occasion, many who are tweeting etc about promotions are doing so solely on the basis of that player’s stats.
Which only tells part of the story.
All of the players in the lower levels of the Blue Jays system have a developmental plan prepared for each season. Jays MiLB Manager Dennis Holmberg, a veteran of almost a half century in the game, referred to this in an interview last fall:
Over the last 3 years, the organization has been going through an internal process of trying to collaborate with proper language, and having players work on specific goals – every player should have 1-3 goals…we try to encourage players to master their goals….it can be anything from making a backhand play or a better swing path, or it could be a nutritional goal or a weight room goal. ….something that they need to lock into, something that they and the organization agree they need to work on in their 1st and even 2nd and 3rd years of pro ball.
Players don’t tend to advance until such time as they meet those goals, whether they be in mid-season or at the end of the year (if at all). Stats are loud, but often they’re just noise, and the organization filters out what’s really important in the development process.
Before you Shatkins me, I agree that the process by which MLB keeps talented young players in the minors long past the time when they should be playing for our favourite teams needs an overhaul. But when it comes to other players and other situations, it’s not the CEO and GM who have the ultimate, final say. It’s very much a group consensus process, and if you don’t think so, look – any minor league staffer, whether they’re a Manager, Coach, Roving Instructor, or Player Development official, or video coordinator, would not work for any organization that routinely ignored their recommendations for player promotions.
It just doesn’t work that way.
Player promotion is a deliberate, usually methodical process. Maybe the dates players get promoted (often mid-season) seem arbitrary, but each level of the minors has its features, and the minor league staff is acutely aware of it. Minor league baseball is like a series of sieves, each of which filter players out as you go up the ladder. Players with tools but little, if nothing else, rarely progress to full season ball. Guys with tools, and a bit of an idea of how to prepare for and play the game can be found throughout High A and Low A. But tools are not enough. The phrase I hear over and over again from players and staff is that guys at AA have tools, but they also have a plan. For hitters, maybe it’s an ability to recognize a pitch and location that they can hit, and they rarely stray from that plan. For pitchers, it’s an ability to sequence and command their pitches – velo is rarely enough. So once you reach the highest levels of the minors, you have players with highly developed physical and mental/emotional skills. Teams can walk a fine line between challenging players and having their development stymied by playing at a level they’re too good for. The stats are the tip of the iceberg; player devo staff see what’s below the surface.
To get back to the consensus notion before I step off this soapbox, I’ll finish with some thoughts on the whole process of promotion from Blue Jays Director of Player Development Gil 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.….
Thanks for watching my Ted Talk on minor league player development and promotion….
And speaking of having a plan, last year’s first round choice has such a solid one at the plate that he never deviates from that it’s really hard to believe that he was playing high school ball in Texas a year ago. He will not expand his strike zone, even when behind in the count, and is more than willing to take what MWL Pitchers give him. He’ll take a walk, or go oppo if the situation demands it. He’ll work the count if need be while he waits for his pitch, but Groshans will also be aggressive early in the count if he gets something he can drive. Groshans uses the whole field – MLB Farm hasn’t provided updated heat maps for this year yet, but I suspect last year’s would be similar to 2019’s:
Groshans is second in the MWL in batting average, and trails only teammate Alejandro (El Capitan) Kirk in OBP, collected 6 hits in the South Bend series, and is hitting .395 over his last 10 games. His 3rd inning HR over the LF wall in the series finale had an exit velocity of 103 mph.
So, move him up to Dunedin, right?
Not so fast. Drafted as a SS, and projected by scouts to eventually move to 3rd, the Blue Jays aren’t ready to move him over just yet. In the field, he displays good arm strength, decent reactions, but in the second game of the series, he had several tough plays that he was unable to make. Transfer was one of the problems – Groshans was able to get to a couple of slow rollers, but couldn’t get the ball to his throwing hand in time to make an on-time throw to 1st, and word is that the coaching staff feel that his footwork still needs work. On one play over the course of the weekend, he moved well to field a ball to his left, but rather than stopping, planting, and moving to his right, he let his momentum carry him to the left, and he did a 360 before firing to 1st. He got the runner in time, but that move tends to result in an errant throw unless the player gets things just right. It was a play that he likely made dozens of times as a high schooler, but one that he won’t be able to get away with as he moves up the system.
So, if you want to know why Groshans is still in Lansing even though he’s dominating Midwest League pitching, there’s your reason. He’s a bat-first player at the moment, and the Blue Jays want more of a well-rounded player. Bad habits that are formed at the lower levels only get magnified and exposed at the higher ones.
But not to worry – it’s hard to see Groshans in Lansing past the end of June. He looks like a major leaguer at the plate.
If you have played the game for any length of time, you’ve probably played with a guy like the Mexican backstop – a guy who looks as unathletic as he does unlikely, but all he does is hit, and has a high baseball IQ to go with that.
The difference between Kirk and that guy you played with is that Kirk is about 1000 times better.
Signed in 2017, Kirk did not make his pro debut until last year due to a car accident and a broken hand, and he gained a lot of attention with a 1.001 OPS in the Appy League. He currently leads the Midwest League in OBP.
Generously listed at 5’9″/220, Kirk impressed the organization by coming to spring training having lost 20 pounds. There is still some distance to go in regard to his conditioning and athleticism (Kirk takes short, choppy strides when he runs, and while he’s not the slowest guy on the diamond, you wouldn’t want him anchoring your relay team), but Kirk has continued to shine on both sides of the ball in his full season debut this year.
Behind the plate, he sets a good, steady target, and appears to have the strength and dexterity to eventually be a good pitch framer. Despite his size, he’s fairly agile, and is a good blocker of pitches. With would-be base stealers in this series, Kirk had his difficulties with throws to second, but in fairness, a couple of them involved runners who had huge jumps, and he may have rushed this throw. I’ve yet to see Kirk’s pop times, but they’re probably at least average. Like Groshans, his bat is ahead of his glove at this point, but it’s not a huge gap.
Using a slightly open stance, Kirk picks up spin and location easily, and has walked (14-4) more times than he’s struck out so far this season. Kirk has picked up English fairly quickly; roving Catching Instructor Ken Huckaby was in town to work with the Lansing backstops, and had one of the system’s staff helping him translate for Kirk. At one point, after explaining something in fairly technical terms to Kirk, Huck turned to the staffer to let him translate for Kirk. “I get it. I understand,” Kirk stopped him before he could start.
Catchers have among the longest gestation processes in the game. A receiver needs to have caught between 300-400 minor league games before he’s learned the many and varied nuances of the position, from the actual physical skills to building trust and a rapport with his Pitching staff to have confidence in the signs that he puts down. And his upward progress depends, at least in part, on the development of the players ahead of him. There’s no point in moving him up only to have him sit in favour of the guy ahead of him. Kirk is in something of a unique position in Lansing, sharing the Catching duties with Hagen Danner and Ryan Gold. The latter splits his time between Catching and spelling Jake Brodt at 1B, while Kirk and Danner share duties behind the plate. The ideal situation for the latter pair would be for both to be playing more often, and with Riley Adams off to a hot start at Dunedin, if his defence has shown the improvement the organization has hoped for, he’ll move up to New Hampshire at mid-season, and Kirk will have a seat next to Groshans on the flight to Dunedin.
The Blue Jays were thrilled to pick up Murray, who in many ways is an analyst’s dream.
He doesn’t throw hard, sitting 88-90, but his spin rates are elite – in the 2400s on his four-seamer, over 2700 on his curve. Combined with the angle at which he releases his pitches, Murray can be very hard for hitters on both sides of the plate to pick up, and he can be hard to track given that spin. The Blue Jays are likely actively looking for more pitchers with that combination while they prepare for the upcoming June draft.
Murray alternates between a two and a four seamer, working early in the count with the two, but throwing in fours regularly to keep hitters honest. His curve, by his own admission, is tightening up, and his change is benefiting from added work during his side sessions, where pitching repertoires get built.
Murray doesn’t overpower hitters; he relies on keeping them off balance, and often turns to the four seamer up when he’s ahead in the count. Because it doesn’t fall as much as a hitter’s eyes expect it to, it can be a hard pitch to track. He fanned 10 in 6.2 innings in his start this week, missing bats and barrels with regularity. Those 10 Ks and 98 pitches were the highest in his young pro career to date.
Murray is inducing more weak contact this season than in his innings-limited debut season with Vancouver, recording groundouts at a 44% clip, and missing bats at an impressive 14.3% rate. When his secondaries are working, he disrupts batters’ timing and while he pitches mostly to contact, he seldom gets squared up. When they’re not, it’s easier to sit on his fastball, and Murray sees more barrels.
Having seen all of his starts so far this year, this last one in person, Murray looks like a mid to back end of the rotation big league starter. He also doesn’t profile as a guy who will rise quickly, although he too should see Dunedin by the second half.
I didn’t see Josh Winckowski pitch on this trip, but a guy with a 66% GB rate is one worth keeping a close eye on.
Otto Lopez is one of my favourite players in this system; he can play multiple positions, has a knack for getting on base, and just plays the game with intelligence. And it helps for a writer from North of the border to know that Lopez, who spent his formative years in Montreal, considers himself a Quebecois, Canadian, and Dominican.
Lopez got off to a very hot start, but he has cooled off (.256 over his last 10) of late. South Bend Pitchers really seemed to be concentrating on giving him fastballs on the inner half, pitches he both had trouble laying off of, and ones he couldn’t turn on. Maybe this was an aberration, or maybe Lopez needs to develop stronger, quicker hands to get around on the up and in stuff. Or learn to lay off those pitches.
Reggie Pruitt is repeating Lansing, but if he continues to make good contact (.413 over his past 10), maybe a swap is in order: Dunedin OF Cal Stevenson, who skipped two levels after dominating the Appy League last year, might benefit from the tonic for hitters that is Cooley Law Stadium, where the ball carries well, and there is vast outfield territory that’s hard for Outfielders to cover. Stevenson has scuffled this year, and a trip to Lansing might be just the confidence booster he needs. To get back to Pruitt, he’s seeing more pitches this year (7th in the MWL), and getting on base more often, where his speed is an effective weapon.