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Dear National Baseball Media

Dear National Baseball Media ~

With all due respect, Astros fans and bloggers would like for you to shut up about the Astros. Quit writing, quit opining and quit tweeting. In particular, please shut up about the Astros payroll and how it’s supposedly a slap in the face to The Integrity of the Game™.

Believe me when I tell you that Astros fans are well aware that the team lost 213 games over the last two seasons. We are painfully aware of that fact. We are also aware that the Astros will have the lowest payroll in, gasp, all of Major League Baseball. And you have done an admirable job hammering home ad naseum the fact that Alex Rodriguez will make more in 2013 than the entire Astros 25-man roster. Got it. At least I haven’t seen the hackneyed, tired and cliché “Houston, We’ve Got a Problem” headlines yet. (Seriously, it’s time to retire that one and come up with something a tad bit more original.)

For those of us in Houston, those of us who follow the team re-build closely, this year’s payroll is a non-issue. But for a few casual fans who don’t understand the whole concept of a major re-build, no one has really even been talking about it. Until now. Now that national baseball pundits have started claiming that the Astros payroll will somehow compromise  The Integrity of the Game™.

The most prominent naysayer was Peter Gammons who tweeted out that it is “Houston’s plan to have no payroll, lose, get the 1-2 pick 4 years in a row and still steal revenue-sharing $.” Buster Olney also piled on implying that the Astros were not even trying to win and comparing the team to Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose in how the team was damaging The Integrity of the Game™.

Anyone who believes that the Astros are planning to lose and not even trying to win has not met this man.

IMG_5994Bo Porter – February 2013
Photo by Jayne Hansen

Bo Porter, the new manager of the Astros, is an intense, driven man. He is a charismatic leader. He is a demanding task-master. He is an excellent teacher. In short, he is the perfect manager to inspire, motivate and get the absolute maximum effort from this team. Plain and simple, he will tolerate nothing less. I think this team will end up surprising a few people with their aggressive, hard-nosed style of play.

As to the payroll, are the Astros supposed to spend money just to spend money? That’s exactly how you end up paying Carlos Lee almost $19,000,000 to hit a grand total of nine home runs while blocking the ability to fairly evaluate whether or not Brett Wallace will be a part of the team going forward. At this point in the re-building process, it is more important to evaluate prospects than it is to sign free agents to long-term, high dollar contracts. The vast majority of Astros fans understand that and agree with General Manager Jeff Luhnow’s strategy of signing low-risk, high-reward one-year free agents. Until the team figures out what holes need to be filled from outside the organization in order to complement the talent coming up through the ranks, signing long-term (expensive) free agents could very well prove to be counter-productive, resulting in blocking prospects and tying up resources that would be better utilized in further building up the minor league system.

Let’s look at a few of the free agent signings from the winter and why I’m glad they didn’t sign with the Astros:

  • Houston could have signed Shane Victorino to $13,000,000 a year for three years or Michael Bourn to an average of $12,000,000 over four years (and that’s without even getting into the Josh Hamilton’s and B.J. Upton’s of the world). Instead they are signing Rick Ankiel to a modest, incentive-based one-year deal while they wait for George Springer and Domingo Santana to get more experience.
  • Houston could have signed 32-year old Jeff Keppinger to an average of $4,000,000 a year for three years or could have given 37-year old Marco Scutaro $20,000,000 over three years. Instead they signed Ronny Cedeno to a one-year contract while Marwin Gonzales and Jonathan Villar get more experience, and are giving 23-year old Matt Dominguez the chance to be an everyday third baseman for the team. Dominguez has already shown Gold Glove caliber defense and appears to be on the cusp of breaking out with the bat as well.
  • Houston could have signed Lance Berkman to DH for one year for $10,000,000. Or they could do what they’re doing – add Carlos Pena at less than a third of that to establish a veteran presence and give Brett Wallace the opportunity to share the first base/DH duties with Pena. If Wallace can establish himself as a DH, he will be able to stick with the team when top prospect Jon Singleton joins the team later in the season.
  • Houston could have signed 33-year old Jeremy Affeldt to $18,000,000 over three years. Instead they are signing 34-year old Erik Bedard to a fraction of that, hoping to catch lightening in a bottle while minor league lefties Dallas Keuchel, Brett Oberholtzer and Rudy Owens gain more experience.
  • There were a number of huge free-agent contracts for right-handed pitching this year. Jeff Luhnow instead opted to go the low-risk, high-reward direction with Brad Peacock, Alex White and Phil Humber while we wait for Jordan Lyles, Jarred Cosart, Paul Clemens, Jose Cisnero and others to get more experience.

It’s funny that, in looking at all the angst over payroll, it is the the Astros that are taking heat for ruining The Integrity of the Game™ by re-building the team efficiently, while the Yankees are given a free pass in the comparisons as if paying A-Rod $114,000,000 over the next five seasons is good for The Integrity of the Game™.

I truly believe that the Houston team will surprise a few people with their play this season. And while it looks to be another tough season for the team, it will be a valuable season in terms of evaluating and developing prospects. In any event, when all is said and done, the Astros and their fans will have the last laugh. With players like Jon Singleton, Delino DeShields, Carlos Correa, Domingo Santana, George Springer, Lance McCullers, Rio Ruiz, Mike Foltynewicz, Jarred Cosart, Nick Tropeano and Jonathan Villar on their way, Houston is poised to field a strong team of home-grown prospects for many years to come. And that, my friends, is very good for The Integrity of the Game™.

For more on the Astros farm system, visit me at What the Heck, Bobby? or follow me on twitter @whattheheck57.

Looking at the July 2012 Astros/Blue Jays Trade

Earlier this week, I looked at what the Astros and Blue Jays each netted as a result of the July 2012 10-player trade that sent Astros RHP Brandon Lyon, RHP David Carpenter and LHP J.A. Happ to the Blue Jays in exchange for major-leaguers RHP Francisco Cordero and OF Ben Francisco, and minor-leaguers RHP Asher Wojciechowski, C Carlos Perez, RHP Joe Musgrove, RHP Kevin Comer and LHP David Rollins. From that trade, only Happ remains with the Blue Jays, but not only are the five minor-leaguers still an integral part of the Astros farm system, four of the five appear on Jonathan Mayo’s recently released Astros Top 20 list on MLB.com.

RHP Asher Wojciechowski tops Mayo’s list at #15. He is also the most advanced player on the list, having excelled in his introduction to AA after the trade. In eight starts for AA Corpus Christi, Wojciechowski was 2-2 with a 2.06 ERA and a 1.008 WHIP. According to Mayo, Wojciechowski has a plus fastball and curveball, plus a changeup that is evolving into what may also be an above-average offering. He is projected to be a workhorse and Baseball America puts his ceiling as a #2 starter.

And while Wojciechowski looks to have a promising future, I wondered if he would ultimately prove to be the linchpin of the trade or if one of the other prospects might emerge as a key player in the trade. I discussed this with Mayo last week and got his thoughts on three of the four remaining prospects from the trade.

First we talked about RHP Joe Musgrove and RHP Kevin Comer, two intriguing high school arms drafted by the Blue Jays in the first round in 2011 who are just embarking on their careers. According to Mayo, “They both have tremendous potential and upside. I think that if it comes together for them, they have higher ceilings than Wojciechowski does.”

Comer, who Mayo ranks at #17 in the Astros Top 20 list, signed late in 2011 and did not pitch until 2012. He came to the Astros late in the season as the player to be named later and only pitched six innings for the Appy League Greeneville Astros, but had a respectable first season for Toronto’s rookie league Bluefield team, putting together a 3-3 record with a 3.95 ERA and a 1.177 WHIP. Still very raw, scouts like him for his solid mechanics and repeatable delivery and expect him to, at a minimum, have three average major league pitches.

Musgrove is ranked by Mayo at #19. In 2012, Musgrove was limited to 17 innings pitched due to a muscle strain in his shoulder, but had a solid debut in 2011 with a 4.01 ERA and a 0.987 WHIP in nine games (seven starts). Musgrove at 6’5″ 230# profiles to be a sturdy innings-eater. Add in an above-average fastball, and a curve and splitter that are projected to be at least major league average and you can see why scouts like him.

Mayo went on to talk about the risks and rewards of signing high school pitchers, “Loading up on high ceiling high school arms is the highest risk, but it’s also the highest reward more often than not. Obviously, there are a lot of exceptions, but a lot of the time the guys that end up being the top of the rotation types are those high ceiling high school guys. The nature of development dictates that those kind of young arms are the biggest wild card there is.”

C Carlos Perez is currently ranked by Mayo at #20, “I kept him in the 20 for a reason. There’s enough there to like. Sometimes with catchers, it can take a while. There’s a lot that you’re learning. So I tend to be a little more patient in waiting for catchers to develop. Not everybody’s Buster Posey.”

Mayo continued in his assessment of Perez, “He is at worst a back-up and a good one because not only does he have a good arm, but he also moves well behind the plate. There’s plenty of guys that catch and have strong arms and they can’t do anything else and what good does that do [if] it takes them too long to get rid of the ball and their footwork’s all messed up and things like that. He does all those things well so that will get him to the big leagues. How much he hits will really determine whether or not he’s an everyday guy or a decent back up.” Perez hit .275/.358/.447 in the Low A Midwest League before the trade and .318/.368/.409 in 26 games after the trade with High A Lancaster in the California League.

The final piece of the puzzle is lefty David Rollins. Although Rollins isn’t ranked as a top prospect, he had an impressive season at Low A in his second professional season, putting up a 7-4 record with a 2.98 ERA and a 1.252 WHIP in 24 starts. Since Rollins wasn’t on Mayo’s radar, I contacted Rollins to find out a little more about him and this is what he told me, “My pitch repertoire consists of a fastball (2 and 4 seam), curveball, slider, and my favorite, the circle change. I’d say my changeup is my best pitch. I can command it well and it helps keep hitters off balance. I’ve been working a lot this off season on my curve ball. I stopped throwing it this past season because I lost confidence in it. I’m steadily gaining it back and ready to see it in a game situation. I have been doing a lot of long tossing and band work to get arm strength so I can gain velo. The movement on my fastball and off speed help me get ground outs and pop ups so I just need to learn to command them all to be successful.”

When asked about his strengths as a pitcher as well as what he needs to work on, Rollins stated, “I would have to say I keep the hitters off balance well. I now recognize if the hitter doesn’t hit something well, I’ll go to that pitch. Also I have been working on a pick-off move and it is now in my arsenal of things I have worked the kinks out of. The main thing I need to focus more on and to improve is the command of my pitches and I have been working hard this off season to do that so when I go into spring training I’ll already know the feel for all my pitches.”

It is doubtful that all five of these prospects will end up contributing to the Astros at the major league level some day simply because the odds are against even one prospect making his mark, much less five of them. But I like the talent and potential that GM Jeff Luhnow added to the farm system in this deal – a durable AA righty, two high ceiling high school draftees, a great defensive catcher with a promising bat and an up-and-coming lefty with a plan. Any one of these players could make the Blue Jays rue the day that they agreed to this trade.

Thanks to Jonathan Mayo for taking the time out to talk to me. Mayo’s Prospect Watch for 2013 can be found here. For more on the Astros minor league system, visit What the Heck, Bobby? or follow me on twitter @whattheheck57.

Astros 2012 Minor League Season By The Numbers

Just a few numbers of note from the Astros 2012 minor league season.

.536 – Slugging percentage for RF Domingo Santana (Hi-A Lancaster)

.464 – On-base percentage for SS Nolan Fontana (Lo-A Lexington)

65 – Number of walks drawn by SS Nolan Fontana in 49 games

.358 – Batting average for New York-Penn League batting champ C Tyler Heineman (SSA Tri-City)

161 – Number of hits by IF/OF Jimmy Paredes (AAA Oklahoma City)

39 – Number of doubles hit by OF Brandon Barnes before his major league call-up (AA-Corpus Christi & AAA-Oklahoma City)

10 – Number of triples hit by OF George Springer (Lancaster/Corpus Christi)

108 – RBI by 1B Erik Castro (Lancaster) and by 1B Zach Johnson (Lexington)

113 – Runs scored by 2B Delino DeShields (Lexington/Lancaster)

101 – Bases stolen by 2B Delino DeShields (Lexington/Lancaster)

88 – Walks taken by 1B Jon Singleton (Corpus Christi)

35 – Home runs hit by 1B Mike Hessman (Oklahoma City)

29 – Home runs hit by OF/DH Telvin Nash (Lancaster)

198 – Strikeouts by OF/DH Telvin Nash (Lancaster)

41 – Number of times 3B Matt Duffy (Lexington) was hit by pitches

2.75 – Team ERA from the Tri-City Short Season A staff

1.170 – Team WHIP from the Tri-City staff

14 – Wins by RHP Mike Foltynewicz (Lexington)

5 – Wins in 2011 by RHP Mike Foltynewicz

14 – Wins by RHP Bobby Doran (Lancaster/Corpus Christi)

1 – Wins in 2011 by RHP Bobby Doran

166 – Number of batters struck out by RHP Nick Tropeano (Lexington/Lancaster)

719 – Number of batters faced by RHP Ross Seaton (Corpus Christi/Oklahoma City) and by LHP Brett Oberholtzer (Corpus Christi/Oklahoma City)

0.627 – WHIP by LHP Kenny Long (Tri-City/Lancaster) in 29 relief appearances

15.3 – Strikeouts per nine innings by LHP Kenny Long (Tri-City/Lancaster)

6.56 – Strikeout-to-walk rate by RHP Aaron West (Tri-City)

0.957 – WHIP by RHP Aaron West (Tri-City) in 12 starts

0.960 – WHIP by West’s teammate LHP Brian Holmes (Tri-City) in 13 appearances/12 starts

0.2 – Home runs allowed per nine innings by RHP Jarred Cosart (Corpus Christi/Oklahoma City)

27 – Saves by RHP Jason Stoffel (Corpus Christi)

0.983 – WHIP by RHP Jason Stoffel (Corpus Christi) in 56 appearances

1 – Complete game no-hitter by RHP Chris Devenski (Lexington)

41 – Number of Houston draft picks

31 – Number of draft picks signed

19 – Number out of the top 20 of draft picks signed

6 – Number of prior year first round draft picks obtained by Houston in trades

+1022 – The swing in cumulative run differential for all teams from 2011 (-761) to 2012 (+261)

102 – The increase in cumulative wins from 2011 to 2012 (from .408 to .527 win percentage)

+264 – The swing in run differential for the Corpus Christi AA team from 2011 (-156) to 2012 (+108)

31 – The increase in wins for the Corpus Christi team from 2011 to 2012 (from .357 to .579 win percentage)

.671 – Win percentage for the Tri-City team

4 – Houston’s rank in cumulative win percentage among 30 minor league systems in 2012

30 – Houston’s rank in cumulative win percentage among 30 minor league systems in 2011

8 – Number of Astros minor league affiliates

0 – Number of Astros minor league affiliates with .500 or better records in 2011

6 – Number of Astros minor league affiliates with .500 or better records in 2012

3 – Number of Astros minor league affiliates advancing to the playoffs (Corpus Christi, Lancaster, Tri-City)

2 – Number of Astros minor league affiliates advancing to the finals (Lancaster, Tri-City)

1 – Number of Astros minor league affiliates winning a League Championship Series (Lancaster)

1 – Number of very, very happy Astros minor league bloggers

For more on the Astros farm system, visit me at What the Heck, Bobby? or follow me on twitter @whattheheck57. For a breakdown on 2011/2012 results for the Astros minor league affiliates, go here.

A Profile of Astros LHP Brett Oberholtzer

Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow was recently asked about potential September call-ups. One name that surfaced as a possibility was LHP Brett Oberholtzer who is currently pitching for the Oklahoma City Redhawks AAA franchise. So who exactly is Brett Oberholtzer?

An eighth round draft pick by Atlanta in 2008, Brett came to Houston as part of the Michael Bourn trade in July 2011. Splitting his time between Corpus Christi and Oklahoma City this season, Oberholtzer has an overall 10-10 record with a 4.52 ERA, a 1.374 WHIP and a 3.28 SO/BB ratio. That sounds like a solid, if rather uninspiring, pitching resume until you look at Oberholtzer a little more closely. Despite pitching a career high 159 and a third innings so far this season, he appears to be getting stronger, hitting his stride with the Redhawks team. Over his last four outings, he may be 1-3, but that comes with a 2.22 ERA and a 1.165 WHIP, and 25 strikeouts to six walks.

I interviewed Brett back in July and asked him about his pitch repertoire which includes a four-seam fastball, curveball, changeup and cutter. His fastball velocity has been up around 90-93 this season which is up from earlier reports of a 87-92 offering.  Jonathan Mayo cites his “outstanding command and control” and his ability to mix pitches well. In discussing Oberholtzer, Baseball America speaks of his “durable, innings-eater frame,” his pitching savvy and his self-awareness as he recognizes his strengths and weaknesses.

When I spoke with Keith Bodie, Oberholtzer’s former manager at Corpus Christi back in June, he described Brett as a tremendous athlete with all of the equipment to succeed, but noted that he needed to develop the mental side of pitching and to avoid falling into a rut of throwing rather than pitching. And that is precisely what his pitching coach in Oklahoma City, the inimitable Burt Hooten, has been working on with Brett. As a student of pitching, Hooten says, “He’s learning discipline, particularly on all of his pitches. He’s learning direction, mainly on his fastball. Learning rhythm, tempo, focus. Doing a good job. Heading in the right direction with all those things. He’s been a good student thus far.”

One thing that doesn’t show up in pitching lines or win-loss percentages, though, is what some call intangibles. To me, those intangibles are what set Brett Oberholtzer apart. In talking with him, I was struck by his focus, determination and maturity as a 23-year old. Yes, he has solid abilities, but it is his work ethic, mental toughness, exemplary attitude and overarching desire that I believe will bring him ultimate success. I hope to see him in Houston in September.

For more on the Astros farm system, please visit What the Heck, Bobby? or follow me on twitter @whattheheck57.

Help Is On The Way – The Tri-City ValleyCats

This morning my friend @AstrosCounty  tweeted this little fact:

Astros CountyAstros County@AstrosCounty

At 35-70, the Astros have the exact same record as 2011. Run Differential, 2012: -126; 2011: -121

Which is, of course, depressing as heck, but which got me to looking at the Astros minor league system. In 2011, the cumulative run differential for all Astros minor league affiliates was -761. Yes, a negative 761. It is not hard to understand why the cumulative win percentage of those eight minor league affiliates was 30th of the 30 organizations. In 2012, the cumulative run differential thus far is +126. That is an 887 run swing between last year and this. Just let that sink in for a moment. It is also not hard to understand why the cumulative win percentage this year has been at the top or hovering near the top of the 30 organizations.

Then one stat popped off the Baseball-Reference page and my reaction was, quite literally, Yowzah!!! The run differential for the Tri-City short season A team was +100 as of Wednesday morning. The Tri-City pitching staff has allowed 133 runs while the team has scored 233 runs. I knew the team was good. How good? They have a .714 win percentage, the best in the New York-Penn League and lead their division by 10 games. When a team is that dominant, it has to be a team effort with contributions from all. But there are still a few player performances that go above and beyond.

RHP Aaron West – West already has a league leading five wins (5-0) in seven starts with the second lowest ERA in the league (0.97) and the lowest WHIP (0.703). In 37 innings pitched, he has struck out 34 and walked only four.

Three other Tri-City pitchers already have four wins each: LHP Brian Holmes (4-1, 2.55 ERA, 0.934 WHIP), RHP Brady Rodgers (4-2, 2.52 ERA, 1.195 WHIP) and Vincent Velasquez (4-1, 2.97 ERA, 1.156 WHIP). Holmes also has the distinction of taking a perfect game into the 7th inning last week. He ultimately allowed one single and no walks in the 7-inning complete game shutout.

RHP Blake Ford – Ford leads the New York-Penn League in saves with 11. He has a 1.89 ERA and a 1.057 WHIP in 17 appearances.

Ford has very good company in the bullpen with RHP Travis Ballew (1.17 ERA, 0.913 WHIP) and RHP Jamaine Cotton (1.47 ERA, 1.091 WHIP) standing out in particular.

CF Andrew Aplin – Aplin is practically a one-man wrecking crew. He leads the league in average and OPS with a batting line of .370/.470/.570/1.040. Additionally, he leads the league in stolen bases and is tied for first in runs scored with teammate 1B Jesse Wierzbicki.

SS Austin Elkins (.338/.397/.486) follows Aplin closely in many categories, C Tyler Heineman is hitting .337/.434/.410, and newly signed OF Preston Tucker is hitting .324/.405/.432 through his 10 games.

So as I contemplate yet another loss by the Astros, I can take solace in knowing that my minor league Astros will one day be my major league Astros. Help is on the way. Yowzah!!!

For more on the Astros farm system, visit What The Heck, Bobby? or follow me on twitter @whattheheck57.

The Astros Top 20 Prospects In Transition

[Note: Post was revised to reflect that Jonathan Mayo will be updating his prospect list prior to the end of the 2012 season.]

A look at Jonathan Mayo’s current Top 20 Prospect list for the Astros is very revealing. When the season first started, there were two names on the list that came into the Astros organization via spring trades made by new GM Jeff Luhnow — LHP Kevin Chapman at #14 and RHP Kyle Weiland at #15. As of today, there are a total of seven names on the list that were added under Luhnow’s watch. And that doesn’t include the 2012 draft picks.

The other five players that Luhnow has added into the Top 20 are 3B Matt Dominquez at #4, RHP Joe Musgrove at #7, RHP Asher Wojciechowski at #11, LHP Rob Rasmussen at #13 and C Carlos Perez at #15. These inclusions have pushed Chapman and Weiland down to 19th and 20th, and pushed five other players off the list completely.

When Mayo revises his Top 20 prospects prior to the end of the 2012 season, look for some of the 2012 draft picks to make the list. It is almost certain that SS Carlos Correa, RHP Lance McCullers, and 3B Rio Ruiz will all make the list. And don’t count out the likes of SS Nolan Fontana, OF Andrew Aplin, OF Brett Phillips, OF Preston Tucker or even darkhorse candidates like RHP Aaron West and 2B Austin Elkins and others.

Is Jeff Luhnow poised, then, to completely dominate the Top 20 prospects? No, he is not. The top three since the beginning of the season, 1B Jon Singleton, RHP Jarred Cosart and OF George Springer, remain the top three. All three are having good seasons and all three will remain at or toward the top of the revised list barring any unforeseen circumstances. RHP Mike Foltynewicz at #6, 2B Delino DeShields, Jr. at #10 and RF Domingo Santana at #12 have had great seasons as they are coming of age and should remain on the list. SS Jonathan Villar, the current #5, recently broke his hand but should remain after a reasonably good season at AA Corpus Christi for the still raw 21-year old. Others from the pre-Luhnow regime that may make a push to get on the list include RHP Jason Stoffel, RHP Vincent Velasquez and RHP Adrian Houser while others try to prove they still belong.

So what exactly is my point, you may ask? When Jonathan Mayo puts pen to paper (or more accurately, keyboard to computer) in compiling his revised list of the Astros Top 20 Prospects, he will include a cross-section of prospects from earlier draft classes that are coming of age, such as Foltynewicz and DeShields. He will include prospects obtained in trades prior to this season, such as Singleton and Cosart. He will include 1st round draft picks, such as Springer and Correa. He will include lower round 2012 picks, such as McCullers and Ruiz. He will include players obtained in trades this season, such as Dominguez and Wojciechowski.

What he won’t include for the first time in a long time are any fringy prospects toward the bottom of the list. For the first time in a while, Mayo will have to really work to identify the 20 best prospects in the Astros system, and he won’t have to include any borderline names to round it off. The Astros Top 20 list will be a list that would instill pride in any organization. The infusion of talent into the system by Jeff Luhnow has complemented the talent he inherited, and has sewn the seeds of real depth in the Astros farm system. And that, my friends, has been a long time coming.

For more on the Astros farm system, visit What The Heck, Bobby? or follow me on twitter @whattheheck57.

Astros OF Prospect Austin Wates on the Art of Baseball

I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Corpus Christi Hooks OF Austin Wates recently. Even if you’re not an Astros minor league fan, the name may ring a bell because this catch was featured prominently on Sports Center back in May.

There are two things you need to know about Austin Wates. First of all, he is extremely intelligent (a psychology/sociology major and self-described nerd who can solve a Rubik’s Cube in short order)  and, secondly, he can flat out hit.  His entire minor league career, he has hovered right around .300 or slightly over, never a prolonged slump, hitting almost as well against lefties as righties, the soul of consistency. He is a prototypical lead-off hitter who can get on base and then make things happen. But I’m not going to dwell on his stats (which speak for themselves).

What I wanted to know from Austin was if his intelligence ever got in the way. Every baseball fan knows or has known some player who simply thought too much and got himself into trouble because of it. So I asked Austin about just that.

Austin told me, “I was actually talking about this with our hitting coach Joel Chimelis. I’m a different person when I get on the baseball field. Not to say that I play stupid or I’m foolish on the field but I just kind of play. I don’t think to a crazy extent. That’s what actually gets a lot of people in trouble. When you think and you think and you overthink, then you start second guessing and that’s when you get into trouble. As an athlete you have to be able to trust the work and preparation you’ve done beforehand because you can always fall back on that but if I’m second guessing myself or thinking or overthinking, then you’re probably not going to succeed at this level. My main thing has always been trust yourself and you’ve just got to play … Even a smart business man will tell you he can trust his gut on something. When worse comes to worse, sometimes you have to take a gamble and just do it. And that’s kind of how it is everyday for me.”

I also asked him about his twitter persona (and other things that you can see in this interview) because I found it odd that he would become very animated when he talked about his love for Formula 1 racing, music, his dogs and other things, but not when he talked about baseball.

According to Austin, “I try to stay as even-keeled as possible. It’s funny that you’d say that because people [say] you seem emotionless out there. I’ve never been an emotional person per se. It’s not to say that I don’t love baseball, but I know how my body works and when I get really excited I tense up and I don’t play relaxed so I’ve learned that about myself over the years, especially with baseball. It’s a sport where you really need the little muscles to function well. I’ve learned if I drink a five hour energy or something like that before a game, I’m way too wired to play at my level. One of the things I’ve tried to focus on is just being even-keeled. When I’m having a good game I’m the same player in the dugout and on the field as I am when I’m having a bad game. I learned that the hard way in college.”

There is something simple, elegant and almost zen-like in his approach. And it works for him. I talked to Coach Chimelis about Austin. He talked about mechanics and things he was working with Austin on improving, all the regular things that a coach is going to say about one of his players, but then his tone shifted. “Ever since I’ve known him at Tri-City [Short Season A affiliate of the Astros] two or three years ago, his mechanics were bad but he always found a way to hit the ball hard. He’s just one of those guys that gets it done. It’s amazing. It’s a gift. I just sit back and like … wow.”

A calm, quiet, relaxed approach seems to work for Austin Wates whether it’s hitting or making an amazing catch. Baseball when played properly isn’t just a sport, it’s an art, and  Austin Wates appears to be a very gifted artist.

Anatomy of a Relief Pitcher – Astros RHP Jason Stoffel

After Jason Stoffel was included in a trade from the Giants to the Astros in July 2011 for Jeff Keppinger, Keith Bodie who is now managing the Corpus Christi Hooks, made a phone call. He called Ross Grimsley, pitching coach for San Francisco’s AA team in order to find out what the Astros were getting. According to Bodie, Grimsley told him, “This guy can be so much better than what he was here with us.” You see, Stoffel wasn’t truly bad with his 3.98 ERA and 1.579 WHIP in 32 appearances for Richmond, but those numbers weren’t about to excite anyone either.

Stoffel got to Corpus Christi and he put up somewhat worse numbers. In 18 appearances, he had a 5.63 ERA and a 1.688 WHIP. But I realize how volatile relief pitcher’s numbers can be and didn’t read too much into that.  Stoffel got an invitation to participate in the Arizona Fall League which is something usually reserved for some of a system’s more elite prospects so I’m thinking that there has to be more to this guy than meets the eye. Well, that didn’t go all that well either. He ended up with a 6.87 ERA, a 2.182 WHIP and as many walks as he had strikeouts. Not his finest hour. So, I’ll admit it. I kind of forgot about him and he just wasn’t on my radar at all.

Then the new season started. Stoffel was with the Corpus Christi AA team again. But this time the results were different. Through April, he had a 1.93 ERA and a 0.549 WHIP. He kept it up through the end of May with a 1.54 ERA and a 0.900 WHIP. And now through June 24th, he has a 1.72 ERA, a 0.926 WHIP and 11 saves. Oh, and he’s an All-Star in the Texas League. This from a guy with a career 4.72 ERA and 1.445 WHIP prior to the 2012 season. How does that happen? It wasn’t an incremental improvement. It was as though a lightbulb went off somewhere.

I sat down and talked to Stoffel and his manager Keith Bodie earlier this month. Keith Bodie talked to me a great deal about his philosophy of player development and I learned much from him. Bodie preaches pitching to contact. Many of his pitchers fight that and pitch away from contact to get swing and misses. “This is the biggest battle I’ve had with these guys is you try to convince them to throw the ball in the middle of the plate. Throw the ball down the middle and you’re going to find out two things when you do that. One, you can’t throw it down the middle as much as you think you can and then it becomes a very good pitch. And when you throw the ball over the strike zone, they don’t hit it as well as you think they’re going to. And that’s what [they] have to learn.” He went on to say, “You have to share the baseball with your teammates.” In other words, pitch to contact and trust the players behind you.

What did Jason have to say about the change? “It’s been a mindset change for me. I kind of got away from trying to strike everyone out which I’ve been trying to do for the last few years and trusting my stuff and throwing it in the zone instead of maybe wasting a couple of pitches trying to get a strike out, and then I’m 3-2 on guys and walking people and just getting myself in trouble. I think that’s been a huge part of it.” Sounds like maybe Keith Bodie got through to at least one of his players.

Ross Grimsley had a bit more to say about Stoffel when he first came into the Astros system, “He’s got the ability. He’s got a lot more on his arm. He’s probably a 95-96 guy with an outstanding slider.” According to Bodie, “That’s what we’ve seen here. He’s coming in to his own. He’s got a lot more confidence and he’s pitching great and to me, he’s a big leaguer.” And Jason Stoffel is now officially on my radar.

To read more about the Astros farm system, visit my blog What The Heck, Bobby? or follow me on twitter @whattheheck57.

Astros 1B Prospect Jon Singleton is One Cool Cat

I know, I know … “one cool cat” has to be the lamest descriptor ever, but I couldn’t help myself. From the moment I met Jon (as he prefers to be called) last weekend in Corpus Christi where he plays with the AA Hooks team, the phrase kept popping into my brain unbidden. From the Long Beach area, Singleton has a California mellow vibe about him. Don’t get me wrong. He works as hard as anyone else on the team, but you can tell he’s having fun with it.

And why wouldn’t he be having fun? Going into the 2012 season, he was rated the number one prospect in the Astros organization by most, including Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com. At the ripe old age of 20, he is ranked first in runs scored, fourth in walks, and fifth in slugging, OPS and RBIs in the extremely tough Texas league. And that’s after he’s been through a bit of a slump in the month of June.

Hooks Manager Keith Bodie had this to say about Singleton, “He has a chance to be a very special player. I’ve been around a long time. I’ve seen a lot of great hitters. For me, he’s one of the best young hitters that I’ve ever come across. Bat speed, discipline at the plate, tremendous first baseman, quality person, totally committed to baseball … the sky’s the limit for him. Across the board, he’s a special player.”

Hitting Coach Joel Chimelis added this, “For him to be a 20 year old and hit fourth in the lineup at AA, that’s not an easy task. People forget that. He’s improved so much [since the start of the season]. He may not see it or feel it but I see it. It’s amazing. [He] is a very hard worker, very good aptitude, wants to learn, very eager to learn.”

Chimelis went on to tell me about the things he’s been working on with Singleton. According to Chimelis, Singleton doesn’t realize how strong he is and tends to do too much with his body to generate power. He needs to simplify his swing to become more consistent and effort free. And Chimelis is working with the left-handed hitting Singleton to improve his skills against lefty pitchers, “Once he has the confidence that he can stay in there a little bit longer on the lefties, I think he’s gonna be fine because he has a pretty good strike zone awareness.”

I asked Singleton about his experience getting drafted out of high school. His advice for the new draftees? “It’s definitely a learning experience. It’s three or four years of your life that you really want to enjoy and have fun so just take your time. You shouldn’t be in any rush.”

Take your time. Enjoy yourself. Be cool. Jon Singleton obviously heeds his own advice.

For more on the Astros minor league system, visit What the Heck, Bobby? or follow me on twitter @whattheheck57.

What Is Next for Astros RHP Mike Foltynewicz?

Last season, 19-year old RHP Mike Foltynewicz pitched for the LoA Lexington Legends in the South Atlantic League. His record was 5-11 in 26 starts with a respectable, if unspectacular, ERA of 4.97 and WHIP of 1.493. This season, the 20-year old Foltynewicz is a Sally League All-Star with a 7-1 record, a 2.14 ERA and a 1.178 WHIP in 12 starts for Lexington. Batters are hitting only .218 against him (RHB .208/LHB .231).

A little background on “Folty” as he is often called ~ Folty was a first round pick by the Astros in 2010 out of high school in Minooka, Illinois, and was ranked by Jonathan Mayo as the number 5 prospect in the Astros system before the season started. When I talked to Folty in late April, his fastball was hitting 93-94 regularly, sometimes touching 96; he had a 4-seam circle change up that was “coming along real nice;” and a curveball that was night and day from the prior season.

When the season first started, I anticipated that Folty would repeat at LoA Lexington and spend the vast majority, if not all, of the season in that venue. But as I have seen him simply dominate the competition so far this season, I started to wonder whether an earlier promotion might be in the offing for him. He still needs to pitch deeper into games with more regularity and I’d like to see his walk rate tick down, but aside from that, I’m hard-pressed to see anything of significance that he has left to prove at the LoA level in terms of results.

However, what would normally be a fairly straightforward decision for the Astros brass gets a bit complicated because the next level would be HiA Lancaster in the California League. I only half jokingly refer to Lancaster as the place where pitcher’s dreams go to die. Desert winds of 40 mph routinely blow out to right field as demonstrated by Dirk Hayhurst of Bullpen Gospels fame in this video. Unless a pitcher has impeccable command and/or is an extreme groundball pitcher, pitching at Lancaster is not for the faint of heart.

Hence the question becomes, can Folty handle the Lancaster effect without it hurting his development or is he advanced enough to skip HiA altogether and be promoted to AA Corpus Christi in the very tough Texas League? He does have good command and he does have a tendency toward groundball outs (although I certainly wouldn’t classify him as an extreme groundball pitcher) so he might not be fazed by Lancaster. The Texas League, on the other hand, is a very talented league and a direct promotion there would not be easy by any means. Those are the questions. I don’t have the answers.

But in the meantime, I thought that I would go to the source and find out what Foltynewicz thinks he has accomplished so far this season and what he feels he still needs to improve upon to merit a promotion. This is what he told me via email earlier this week.

Season Accomplishments: “I can bear down and get out of jams, and get out of an inning to help my team get a W. Another thing is that I have been throwing my change up a lot more for strikes and an out pitch. I’m also [learning] how to basically attack hitters and read swings from batters, but there is always room to learn and improve and get better. I think I have come a long ways since I got drafted, with help from [Pitching Coach] Dave Borkowski and a lot of others.”

What He Still Needs to Improve Upon: “I need to improve on getting into the later innings, to save the bullpen and work my butt off to get out of the game with my team winning. Also I think I need to be striking more people out and walking less people. But I’ve been working on my fastball command every bullpen, and also trying to make my curveball sharper. But hard work will pay off. And it’s all coming together for me.”

Oh, and about that 93-94 fastball he was throwing in April? He’s getting a little more juice on it. “I don’t really know my velos that well. But some guys have been saying I sit 93-94 and hit 96-98 early innings and sometimes hit 96-97 in the late innings. The catcher from Hickory said I hit 99 that game on their gun, but I don’t know if that is accurate or not. But I’ve been feeling well lately and hope to continue my success.”

There you have it. Mike Foltynewicz is a very good young pitcher. He has the talent. He has the work ethic. He has a plan. He is executing that plan. The Astros brass may need to start figuring out what’s next for Folty because he’ll be ready sooner rather than later.

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