Beware of Minor League Stats, and Some Thoughts About Jon Harris

First, a disclaimer:  I love Vladimir Guerrero Jr like he’s one of my own sons.  In fact, if it were up to me, my wife and I would have another son and call him Vladito (it’s not).

Before I had seen him play a game, the reports I’d read about him led me to label him the Blue Jays top prospect, well before most anointed him with that title.

And while I think he’ll be a generational bat, and will one day join his dad in the first Father-Son Hall of Fame pairing, his line from last night shows why you shouldn’t necessarily rely on minor league stats when evaluating a player.  They are usually a good predictor of success, but they need context.

Last night, Guerrero was 3-3, with 6 RBIs, and Twitter was full of his stat line this morning, suggesting a perfect night at the plate.  Truth be told, I didn’t think it was one of his best games.

Guerrero’s first AB was a ball hit to the warning track for an out, but it was more than deep enough to score speedy Jonathan Davis from 3rd.  Kudos to Guerrero for lofting the ball to score a run, but he hardly scorched it – earlier in that plate appearance, he sent a 114 mph rocket foul down the left field line, leaving me to worry about Fisher Cats Manager John Schneider in the 3rd Base coaching box.  Because it was a sacrifice fly, Guerrero was not charged with an AB.

In his second trip to the plate, Vladdy popped a Texas Leaguer just behind 2B.  Because the Trenton OF was playing him deep, the SS had to make a twisting catch with his back to home.  Davis, on 3rd yet again, alertly tagged and scored on a ball hit maybe 150 ft.  No AB charged to Guerrero.

Guerrero’s third At Bat was a groundball to Trenton 3rd Baseman Gosuke Katoh, who was having a bit of a rough night.  It was a fairly hard hit ball, but Katoh should’ve had it – an MLB 3rd Baseman certainly would have.  Because he didn’t make contact with it, Katoh wasn’t charged with an error, giving Guerrero a hit.

Guerrero’s fourth plate appearance was an intentional walk – no problem there,

Vladdy’s next two ABs were legit – a HR off the batter’s eye against Jose Mesa Jr, who does have a good track record, but has been hit hard so far this season.  In the 9th, he doubled down the LF line.

So, for the night, he was 3-3, and drove in 6 runs.  Impressive totals, and his first multi-hit game in AA, but in 6 plate appearances, the hardest ball he hit on the night may have been that foul down the 3rd base line.  He was fortunate to have Davis on 3rd twice, and a 3rd Baseman who did a matador routine on a ground ball.  But in the boxscore, it’s 3-3.

Of course, maybe these things even out over the course of a season.  And this is in no way a criticism of Guerrero, and you can just as easily hit the ball hard all four times up in a game and go 0-4.  It does show that minor league stats taken out of context can be misleading.  You have to be good to be lucky, and sometimes it’s the other way around, like it was to some extent for Guerrero last night.  He still did have two no-doubt hits, but change the circumstances of the game, and he’s 2-5, or even 2-6.

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One observation about both Guerrero and Bo Bichette:  both hunt the fastball early in the count, and they showed a little bit of vulnerability on offspeed pitches in fastball counts.

Of course, this is kind of like saying the Mona Lisa is great, but it’s too bad she didn’t smile a bit more.

Guerrero and Bichette have such excellent pitch recognition and strike zone judgement that they tend to get the benefit of the doubt from minor league umpires when they take a borderline pitch.  And unlike average hitters, they rarely expand their strike zones, even when behind in the count.  It’s early in the AA season, but both look to be in complete control at the plate.

 

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Jon Harris has come in for more than his fair share of criticism for his performance last year.  After a decent 2016, the 2015 first rounder gave up a lot of contact last year, with Eastern League hitters batting .287 against him.

Harris does not have one overwhelming pitch.  He relies on a combination of sequencing and command in order to get hitters out.  If one of those two components is off, he tends to get hit.  If they’re working together, his secondary pitches become much more effective.

Harris got into trouble in last night’s start by falling behind the first three hitters he faced, and ended up in a bases loaded/no out jam in the bottom of the 1st.  Harris regrouped, and limited the damage by giving up a sac fly, then got a swinging K and a groundout to escape the inning.

Harris’ command sharpened in the 2nd inning, when he retired the side in order.  He got into trouble again the 3rd, giving up back-to-back singles to start the inning, but he kept the ball down, and used ground balls to get out of the inning unscathed.

Harris then set down Trenton in order in the 4th and 5th before reaching his pitch limit.

Harris does not overpower hitters.  He pitches to contact, and needs to stay ahead of hitters in order to get them out.  When he’s locating and pitching in favourable counts, he’s a much better Pitcher.

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Two seasons ago, the Blue Jays employed a veteran minor league Catcher in Ryan Lavarnway in order to work with their young Pitchers, Conner Greene in particular. Lavarnway had known Greene since he was a youngster, and played with his older brother.

This year, Toronto is using journeyman minor league backstop Patrick Cantwell in tandem with Max Pentecost.  Cantwell, a 2012 3rd round pick of Texas, has bounced around the minors, reaching AAA in 2015.  With Pentecost unable to catch every day, and with young Pitchers like Sean Reid-Foley on the roster (Pentecost caught his first start), Cantwell fills an important role for the Fisher Cats, serving in a Crash Davis-like role.  When Harris got into that first inning jam, a visit from Cantwell seem to help re-focus him and helped him turn the frame around.

 

 

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Top Blue Jays Prospect Story Lines for 2018 – Beyond the Obvious Ones

DJ Davis
DJ Davis – Clutchlings Photo

If you’ve visited this site hoping to find out if Vladimir Guerrero Jr will continue to be one of the top prospects in baseball, or if Bo Bichette will continue to hit everything in sight, or if Nate Pearson will continue to dominate with a fastball in the upper 90s, let me save you some time – the answer is yes.

Those are not exactly compelling storylines.  While there are no guarantees, all three are on track to become front-line Major Leaguers.

But there are several in the Blue Jays system that will be worth following this year:

1.  Will Justin Maese return to health this year?

Maese climbed the prospect charts in only his second pro season in 2016.  Shoulder issues lead to a six week shutdown in June/July, and an end to his season in early August.

When healthy, Maese pounds the bottom of the strike zone with a sinker that has a good downward plane, which hitters find difficult to square up.  Last year, his shoulder problems kept him from getting the extension necessary to keep his pitches down, and his flyball rate jumped from around 20 to 25%, with a corresponding drop in his ground ball rate.  Maese in 2016 was an incredibly efficient Pitcher, averaging 13 pitches per inning.  In 2017, his pitch count and BB% jumped significantly as he struggled to find the strike zone.  A healthy Maese attacked hitters, but last year he pitched from behind more often than not, or so it seemed.

Pitching from a 3/4 delivery, Maese sits 91-95 with his sinker, which is complemented by a slider which he learned a new grip for at 2015 Instructs, and a changeup.  Both of his offspeed pitches flash above average potential.

After 2016, Maese was being talked about as a potential back of the rotation arm.  He didn’t exactly fall off the radar last year, but his stock dropped considerably.

2.  Will Riley Adams continue to develop?

The 2017 3rd rounder was Vancouver’s MVP as he led the C’s back to the league championship.

Thought of as more of an offensive Catcher with a plus arm, Adams made tremendous strides defensively last year, but scouts wondered if he might eventually have to move off the position.  His hands and receiving skills were rated below average, and two months of pro ball demonstrated that he has some work to do in regard to pitch framing.

One thing is for certain from viewing Adams a number of times last year:  his bat is of the potential big league variety.  Adams worked the count well, and while he didn’t tap into his power (3 HRs for the summer), he shows raw power that should show up as he moves through the system.  His K rate was on the high side, but fatigue may have helped to slow his bat down.

Likely destined for Lansing this year, Black-Belt Adams is part of an impressive haul of athletic players the Blue Jays netted last June.  If he can continue to develop his blocking and game-calling skills, Adams could add to the depth of Catching prospects the Blue Jays have accumulated.

3.  Can Jon Harris bounce back?

The 2015 1st round pick had a solid 2016, and was rewarded with a challenging assignment to AA to start 2017.

He caught entirely too much of the plate on many occasions, and hitters made him pay accordingly.

Harris sits 90-94 with his fastball, and while his secondaries are decent, like his fastball, nothing really stands out as a go-to pitch.  A FIP almost a full run lower than his ERA last year suggests that some BABIP issues were in play for him, but Harris gave up a lot of contact, with only 45% of it being of the groundball variety.

Harris was not drafted with promises of front-of-the-rotation potential; just the same, he showed the right mix of pitchability and athleticism to suggest a mid-rotation future.  He has the frame to add some more strength, and his height creates a good downward plane on his pitches.  He did not fall off the prospect radar entirely this past season, but his performance has him down the depth chart of minor league starters.

4.  Will Maverik Buffo be able to repeat his GCL success at a higher level?

Buffo’s story was one of the best in the Blue Jays system last year.

Elbow issues scared most teams off, but the Blue Jays took a flyer on him in the 34th round, and kept him close to their medical facilities in the GCL, where hitters stood absolutely no chance against him, as he gave up only 2 earned runs in 34 innings.

Buffo suffered a UCL tear in his Sophomore year at BYU, but he avoided Tommy John with Platelet-Rich-Plasma therapy.  His Junior numbers were not great, which probably convinced most teams he was headed for surgery, but Buffo says he’s 100% recovered.

Buffo attacks hitters with a fastball that sits 92-95, and throws a sharp breaking ball that has tight shape and horizontal break.  GCL hitters were overmatched by him, but it will be interesting to see how he fares against hitters at higher levels – he should reach Lansing perhaps to begin the season, or when the weather warms up.

 

5.  Was DJ Davis’ second half for real?

The 2012 1st rounder had long lost his top prospect status after repeating both Low A and High A, but a swing adjustment that lead to a .283/.357/.369 (featuring an OPS of .830 in August) brings some hope for this athletic Outfielder.

Pitch recognition and a long swing have held Davis back.  His speed has always prophesied top of the order potential, but he seemed to be more comfortable hitting at the bottom of the lineup last year.  After begin caught stealing more times than he was successful in 2014, Davis has quietly improved his base running skills, swiping 32 in 43 attempts.

Davis still certainly has miles to go before he ever regains his former prospect lustre, but the Blue Jays have to be encouraged with the progress he displayed in the 2nd half.  Described as toolsy-but-raw when he was drafted, Davis at least gave a glimpse of tapping into some of that potential in July and August last year.

6.  Can Ryan Noda come anywhere close to repeating his Appy numbers?

Noda was a candidate to go in the top 3 rounds of the draft last June, but a mediocre college season dropped him to the 15th round.  Sent to the Appy League because Kacy Clemens had 1B locked up at Vancouver, Noda laid waste to league pitching for the summer.

The Appy MVP, Noda led the league in average, OBP, and Slugging, and drew 25 more walks than the runner-up.  He has hitting above .400 as last as August 7th.

In the Appy, Noda could be patient, and wait for Pitchers to make mistakes.  At the higher levels, there is some concern that passivity could be taken advantage of.

Noda has the skills to play the OF, but there was little need for him with Bluefield with the presence of ballhawks like Chavez Young and McGregory Contreras. Likely ticketed for Lansing this year, he should split time between 1B/DH/OF.  It was fun to watch him post video game-like numbers last year, but he will be hard pressed to repeat that in Low A.

 

 

 

Blue Jays 2017 MiLB Reviews: Jon Harris

Jon-Harris-2016
Baseball America photo

2017 was a learning year for RHP Jon Harris.

The 2015 1st round pick had put himself firmly on the prospect radar after a solid 2016 split between Lansing and Dunedin.  The Blue Jays rewarded him with a challenging assignment to AA New Hampshire to begin 2017, and his season stats reflected the struggles he had.

Eastern League hitters batted .292 against Harris, and he was among the league leaders in hits and runs allowed.  By his own admission, Harris was in the middle of the strike zone too much, and hitters made him pay the price.  He also apparently had some mechanical issues – as he raised his hands over his head during his windup, hitters were able to get a good glimpse of his change up grip, and pounded that pitch accordingly.  Harris made an adjustment to hide the pitch better, and his 2nd half results were better.

Harris doesn’t blow hitters away, and relies on pounding the bottom half of the strike zone with his two seamer, complementing it with his change, curve, and slider.  For much of the season, he was getting the two seamer up in the zone.  But there were some good take-aways from his 2017 season:  a 9.9% whiff rate, and only an 18.4% line drive rate.  He didn’t generate the amount of ground ball contact that one would expect, but he still garnered it at about a 45% clip.

Where does Harris go from here?  Does he repeat AA, or do the Blue Jays move him to Buffalo, putting him a rung away from the big leagues?  You certainly could make a case for sending him back to New Hampshire for at least a half season, but his second half results probably are sufficiently encouraging for the club to send him to AAA, where he’ll be a back of the rotation starter.  He will never be a frontline starter, but there’s plenty to like about Harris:  a solid four pitch mix that can turn a lineup over, a good downward plane on his fastball, and a frame that looks like it with a bit more on it could eat up innings.