Monday, May 22, 2017

A Look at Chris Rowley

milb.com photo


        Blue Jays right handed pitching prospect Chris Rowley pitched 6 innings against the GCL Pirates on August 13th, 2013, allowing only 1 unearned run on 4 hits.  The following morning, his 23rd birthday, he was on a flight to New York, headed to West Point to fulfill his military commitment after graduating from the United States Military Academy six weeks before.  He would not pitch in a game for over two years while he served his country, which included a deployment to Eastern Europe. Despite huge odds, he's pitching himself in the picture at New Hampshire this season as a potential bullpem arm.

   Even though he was the ace of the Black Knights' staff in a very competitive Division One League, Rowley's looming five-year service deterred all 30 MLB teams from drafting him in 2013 (he likely would have been a mid-round pick otherwise).  The Blue Jays, who had been following him throughout his collegiate career, asked if he would be available to pitch in their minor league system that summer.  Rowley, who had six weeks' leave before his committment began, jumped at the chance, and reported to the team's minor league complex in Dunedin immediately after the draft.

  While the Blue Jays were well known for seeking out overlooked players at that time, Rowley was beyond a longshot, and the main reason for inviting him to pitch for their GCL team was to protect some of the higher-profile arms from having to pitch too many innings.  Were he any other prospect, Rowley's 1.10 ERA and 10.7K/9 would have earned him a mid-season promotion to Bluefield or even Vancouver.  Instead, he pitched every fifth day in Dunedin as his leave came to a end, waiting to fulfill his obligation.

  It's rare for a student-athlete from one of the USA's service acadamies to be granted a service deferrment, but in the fall of 2015, after serving two years, Rowley received one, and headed to Instructs to resume his pro career.  By the following spring, he had jumped two levels, and became a mainstay of the Dunedin Blue Jays' staff, appearing in 31 games, including 14 starts.  Promoted to New Hampshire this year, he's picked up where he left off, pitching out of the bullpen until an injury to Francisco Rios prompted Manager Gary Allenson to give him a start on Saturday against a very tough lineup in the Phillies' Reading affiliate.

  Rowley needed only 9 pitches to get through the first inning, and didn't give up a hit until the 3rd. Pounding the bottom of the strike zone with his downward-moving sinker, and using his slider and change effectively to keep hitters off balance, Rowley breezed through the 4th and 5th, surrendering only one hit, and needing only 19 pitches to retire six of seven.  After getting the first out on a grounder to 1st Baseman Ryan McBroom to lead off the 6th, SS Richie Ureña, who had made a dazzling leaping grab of a line drive to end the 1st inning, skipped a throw to McBroom to allow the batter to reach safely.  At 66 pitches, Rowley's night was over.

   For the outing, Rowley threw 5.1 innings, blanking Reading on 3 hits.  He walked one and fanned one.  Rowley threw 44 of his 66 pitches for strikes, and induced 12 ground ball outs.  He did not throw a great deal of first-pitch strikes, possibly because he wasn't afraid to use his secondaries early in the count.  Rowley attacks hitters, and with that movement on his sinker, he can be very difficult to square up - "The sink is natural, I couldn't throw it straight even if I tried," Rowley said after the game.  His change up is emerging as a solid secondary, with good movement, as is his slider, which has late break and good depth to it.  All three pitches come from a conistent arm slot, which makes picking them up difficult for hitters.  Rowley has a clean delivery with a slight pause in it, which can disrupt hitters' timing.  He is a good athlete who fields his positon well.

   Rowley will not blow the ball by hitters.  Topping out at 91-92, he relies on command and his secondaries to keep hitters off balance:
 My game is based on throwing three pitches, all at different speeds, all in the strike zone and all moving differently, and the idea is for them to look the same until they get to the plate.
  Still, he has managed to strike out almost a batter per inning at AA.  Rowley's 47% ground ball rate shows that he excels at keeping the ball down in the zone, and his 15.8% line drive rate is proof that while he pitches to contact, it's not often of the hard variey.  The knock against him may be that he doesn't miss a lot of bats, but the other side of that coin is that his sinker is very tough to square up, and his change and slider keep hitters off balance.

   Is there a spot for a finesse pitcher in a bullpen in these days of flame-throwing relievers?  One need look no further than Danny Barnes, who tops out at 92, for proof of that.  Granted, higher velocity gives a pitcher more margin for error, but there seems to be a growing place for relievers who can change speeds, create some deception, and throw strikes.  In an outing on May 10th at Hartford, Rowley allowed only one hit in three innings of relief work, walking none, and striking out 7, in a performance that surely put him on the radar. At 26, Rowley might be old to be considered a prospect, but he's reached AA in his second year of full-seaon ball, and while there may be a few arms ahead of him, he's clearly pitching himself into long or middle relief consideration.

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  For more:    I wrote about Rowley's return to baseball here last year.

Friday, May 19, 2017

What to Expect From Anthony Alford

Clutchlings Photo

  It woud be quite understandable if Toronto Blue Jays OF prospect Anthony Alford was, to put it midlly, a prickly sort.
   He had a difficult upbringing (Mom and Dad have had legal problems involving drug trafficking), and he it would have been easy for the Mississippi two time top high school football and baseball player of the year to have a massive ego.
   But he doesn't.  And he's not prickly.  Just the opposite, in fact.

   The Blue Jays made Alford their 3rd round choice in 2012.  His draft stock had fallen because he had committed to Southern Miss to play Quarterback.  Toronto was content to allow Alford to chase his gridiron dream, and play an abbreviated baseball schedule sandwiched in between college football seasons.
    After some off field problems his freshman year, Alford transferred to Ole Miss, and switched to defense.  Still, he continued to wow scouts in his month-long forays into the Gulf Coast League, and the Blue Jays promoted him to Lansing in 2014, most likely so that senior execs could make the drive to Michigan and wave a bundle of cash at Alford to change his sporting mind.
    Alford returned to Ole Miss that fall (after sitting out a season due to NCAA transfer rules), and newly married, picked up his football career.  For several reasons, it lasted less than two months, as Alford had a change of heart, and decided to focus on baseball.
    In a relatively short time, he's made tremendous progress.  Sent to the Australian Winter League that fall for a crash course in pitch recognition (Alford had just over 100 plate appearances in his first shortened three pro seasons), he had a breakout season in 2015, and made many Top 100 prospects lists after just one campaign of full season ball.
   2016 was a sideways year for Alford at Dunedin, as injuries kept him out of the lineup for a good chunk of the first half, but he regained his form in the second.  Sent to the Arizona Fall League, a finishing school for top prospects in October, he more than held his own against elite competition.
   Promoted to New Hampshire this year, Alford did not miss a beat with the promotion from High A to AA - the biggest leap, development wise, in the minors.  Before missing a few days with an injury, Alford was hitting as high as .469/.544/.653.

   What should we expect from Alford?    Game-changing speed on both sides of the ball, as well as an advanced approach at the plate.  Alford works deep into counts, and uses the whole field.  While he draws more than his fair share of walks, there is a swing-and-miss element to his game, although he has cut down on the K's over the past season.   Alford used to have quite a bit of movement in his set up, but has quieted that down over the last year.  His power has just started to develop, and it's easy to see him hitting double-digit home runs in the Rogers Centre.  He has stong arms and wrists (his time in the weight room as a football player have left him with quite the physique), and generates plenty of bat speed.
  On the bases, he may not challenge for stolen base titles due to past injury concerns, but he is definitely a distraction for oppostion pitchers.  In the field, there is still some question as the the quality of reads he gets on balls, but he has excellent reactions to the ball, has an explosive first step, and gets to the ball quickly.  It's surprising that the former QB has an arm that's been described as fringy, and while he's not Amos Otis, he unloads strong and accurate throws to the infield.  He will not supplant incumbent CF Kevin Pillar just yet, but that day is fast approaching.

  Off the field, Alford is friendly and engaging, and he always seems to have huge smile.  He runs a mentoring program for troubled kids back home, and he finds the time to correspond with a humble prospect blogger on a regular basis.  When you write about these kids, it's always a kick to see one of them make the big time, even if it's only for a cup of coffee.  Anthony Alford may only be up for a brief period this time around, but he's destined to have a long and successful major league career.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Richard Ureña Starting to Heat Up

Clutchlings Photo

       After splitting time between two levels last year, Richard Ureña seemed to be only a step away from the Major Leagues.  Sent back to New Hampshire (where he spent August of last year) to begin this season, Ureña has struggled with the bat (more strikeouts than hits as of this writing), but with four straight two-hit games under his belt, he may finally have started to turn things around at the plate.

   A Top 5 Blue Jays prospect, Ureña (say Oo-rain-ya) is widely seen as the heir apparent to Troy Tulowitzki, although at 21, he could use some more seasoning time in the minors before he's ready to replace Tulo.  A strong series against the Pirates' Altoona affiliate brought his average above the Mendoza line, after dipping as low as .173 just a week ago.

  Ureña has long been viewed as a glove-first player, but a breakout 15 Home Run season in 2015 turned some heads.  There have always been concerns about his ability to draw walks and hit from the right side of the plate, but he has fared well in both of those areas this season - his 8.7% walk rate is above his career average, and he actually is hitting southpaws better (relatively speaking - he has all of 25 ABs against them so far).  Ureña seems to be seeing more pitches per at bat this year, as his higher than usual 20.3% K rate, coupled with his increased walk rate seem to suggest.  The issue has been the type of contact he has been generating, with most of it being of the ground ball variey.  Ureña's 50% ground ball rate is above his career norms, and his 11.5% line drive contact is the lowest among qualifiers in the Eastern League.

   Ureña hits from both sides, but he has shown markedly different mechanics and approach with each.  From the left side (his natural one), he utlizes a leg kick, and has a long, looping swing that can leave him susceptible to off-speed pitches, and can result in weak contact.  From the right side, Ureña uses only a toe tap and a much more compact swing, which allows him to drive the ball to the opposite field.  His power is mostly from the left side, but his only long ball of the season has been from the right:

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      Ureña's patience appears to be paying off.  He was 8-18 in the series against Altoona, and while there were only a pair of extra base hits, much of the contact he made over the four games was of the hard variety. Ureña's main value lies in his defence. While he has the fast-twitch skills, footwork, release, and arm strength of an elite-level defender, the concern has always been the errors he makes on routine plays.  A rough televised spring training game notwithstanding, Ureña has cut down on the mental lapses, and has made only 3 errors to date after making 30 between High A and AA last year.  Ureña glides across the infield to gobble up groundballs, and unloads the ball quickly to first with a strong, accurate arm.

    This slow start should be viewed as more of a hiccup than a struggle against advanced pitching at a higher level.  Urena appears to have made some adjustments, and they have resulted in harder contact.  He profiles more as a bottom-third of the order bat, but he is working the count more (seeing 4.6 pitches per AB, about a half a pitch more than he saw last year), looking for his pitch.  That patient approach appears to be paying off.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A Look at T.J. Zeuch

milb.com photo

   RHP TJ Zeuch, the Blue Jays 1st pick (21st overall) in last June's draft has risen to High A already in just his second pro season.  Zeuch had something of an abbreviated 2016 season - he missed the first month of the college baseball season with a groin injury, his Pitt Panthers were eliminated from NCAA play in May, and he didn't make his pro debut until July.  Despite that interrupted schedule and a pitch count around 70, he pitched well for Vancouver in his first season, and he's put together a good body of work so far this season:

  What's more impressive is the amount of weak contact he's generated so far.  His 63% ground ball rate is second lowest in the Florida State League, and his 13.6% line drive rate is among the lowest as well.  Hitters are having a difficult time squaring him up.

  Skipped over Lansing for High A Dunedin this year,  Zeuch  may not have been at his sharpest command-wise in his most recent start on May 6th vs the Pirates' Bradenton affiliate, but he showed glimpses of that mid-rotation projection, and a solid Baseball America scouting report:

Zeuch's best pitch is his fastball, which sits at 92-94 and sometimes touches higher. Zeuch's extra large, 6-foot-7 frame allows him to generate solid extension towards home plate, making his pitches even more difficult for hitters to pick up out of his hand. His fastball also shows both sink and arm-side run, making it an effective ground ball-inducing pitch. His offspeed pitches, a slider and changeup, receive fringe-average grades from scouts, but he has solid command of his arsenal and repeats his delivery well. The development of his offspeed pitches will dictate his ultimate ceiling.

   Working off the 3rd base side of the rubber, the 6"7" Zeuch relies on his 12-6 curve, a pitch with good depth and bite, as his out pitch.  With his inability to get ahead of hitters in this start, though, it was not as much of a swing-and-miss offering as it usually is.  Zeuch needed only 11 pitches to get through a 1-2-3 first inning, but needed 20 in the 2nd and 22 in the 3rd, as Bradenton put up single runs in both innings.  His command returned in middle frames, needing only 37 pitches to get through the next three frames.  He threw 90 pitches on the night, 54 for strikes.  Zeuch recorded 9 ground ball outs, but generated only three swings and misses on the night.  All in all, it was a decent outing (6 IP, 6H, 2R/ER, 1BB, 1HBP, 3K), but it did seem like Zeuch was pitching from behind in the count for much of the night (he may have been a little squeezed), and his work paled slightly compared to his other outings this year (he had an incredible 16 groundouts over 6 innings earlier this season).  If a true measure of a pitcher is how he battles on a night when he doesn't have his command, Zeuch passed that test with flying colours.  He made good pitches when he needed to, and kept his team in the game.

   Zeuch's mechanics are clean, despite the moving parts that result from his size - he learned them from his Dad, who pitched in the Royals organization, and made sure his son took care of his arm as a youth pitcher. His fastball sits in the 92-93 range, his curve 82-84. He works quickly on the mound, stepping off the rubber only to regroup the odd time when he falls behind a hitter.  His height allows him to get a good downward plane on his two-seamer, which in turn enables him to pound the bottom of the strike zone (he has yet to give up a Home Run this season).  A solid infield defence will always be a huge part of Zeuch's success with the groundball contact he generates. He may have a few nights where his curve is breaking sharply and he fans a batter per inning, but for the most part he relies on pitching to contact.   Zeuch should progress one level at a time, meaning that his arrival in the big leagues should come in 2019 or 2020.  Zeuch is still learning to pitch and how to hone his routine between starts, but it's easy to see him as a #3 starter one day.

 
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   Bradenton is a newcomer to Milb.com's video channel, but they put together a good broadcast.  The high overhead home plate shot did not offer as good a view of the movement of pitches, or the work behind the plate of the Catcher, but it did give a very good look at pitchers' mechanics.  A viewer in Southern Ontario during a wet and cold weekend was envious of the shirtsleeve crowds at the Pirates' spring training home.

 

Monday, May 8, 2017

Danny Jansen: Blue Jays Catcher of the Future

Dunedin Blue Jays photo

      Dunedin Blue Jays Catcher Danny Jansen hit a pair of Home Runs in the same inning on Sunday, and announced his arrival as the Blue Jays Catcher of the Future.

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  The two long balls were part of a 4-5, 11 total bases day at the plate for the Appleton, WI native, who leads the Florida State League in hitting with a .394 average, and is in the top five in most offensive categories.  More impressively, he puts the ball in play,  (8.8% K rate this year), and his 25% line drive rate shows evidence of hard contact.  It's a small sample size, but a viewer of Dunedin's three game series against the Pirates' Bradenton affiliate this weekend saw a lot of hard-hit balls off of Jansen's bat.  His power is mostly to left, but Jansen uses the whole field.

   This breakout season has been a long time coming for the 2013 16th rounder, who was viewed by many as a steal in the Alex Anthopoulos/Blake Parker look-for-prospects-in-non-traditional-places era.  Jansen had a decent season at the plate at short-season Bluefield in 2014 (.282/.390/.484 in 38 games), but his career thus far has been marked by an inability to stay healthy.  He has missed major chunks of time in every pro season (2014 - knee injury, 2015- broken Catching hand, 2016 hamate bone removal), but his performance last fall in the Arizona Fall League (where he held his own against advanced competition) and so far this year indicates that he's making up for lost development time in a hurry.

  And lest you think Jansen is a bat-first player, it's his skills behind the plate that have won him accolades at every stop in his career.  The 6'3"/225 Jansen presents a big target for pitchers, but he covers the lower half of the strike zone extremely well, which is important for hurlers who rely on the two-seamer that he has caught like Sean Reid-Foley, Conner Greene, and TJ Zeuch.  Jansen is a superior blocker of balls in the dirt, and he has long been an excellent framer of pitches.   His ability to work with pitchers and his leadership skills have also been lauded for some time now.  Jansen has a strong, accurate arm - his infielders have to be on their toes when a runner attempts to steal, because Jansen's throw will arrive in a hurry and on the spot.

   His breakout year with the bat can be partially explained by finally being healthy and getting consistent reps, and by new sport glasses that he donned last fall:
I started wearing them after the season last year into the fall. They are fantastic I was never good at putting eye drops in my eyes and I tried contacts but they weren't for me, so I stuck with the glasses.
  Jansen admits that the new eyewear has helped him on both sides of the ball this year.  "They have helped big time," he said.  "I can see spin much better, helping me behind the plate as well."

   Jansen has never found himself near most Blue Jays Top 10 prospects during his career, which is mostly attributable to his truncated service time.  And entering this season, he was only the third-ranked Blue Jays Catching prospect, behind the recently-acquired Reese McGuire, and 2014 1st rounder Max Pentecost, who has had injury problems of his own - Pentecost just resumed Catching duties last week, donning his mask for the first time in almost three years, sharing time behind the plate with Jansen (Jansen's big day at the plate came while he was DHing).  Jansen has shown a better bat this year than McGuire, and is far ahead of Pentecost in terms of his defensive development.  In a way, he combines the best of both - Pentecost's skills at the plate, and McGuire's behind it.

   The trick for Jansen, of course, is to stay healthy and in the lineup for a prolonged period of time.  He is repeating Dunedin this year after suiting up for only 54 games last year, and 46 (with Lansing) the year before.  With the glove-first McGuire encsonsed above him in New Hampshire despite a .216/.311/.373 line so far, and Pentecost putting up numbers almost comparable to Jansen's so far (.344/.368/.622) but unable to assume full-time Catching duties, the Blue Jays are likely going to be content with keeping Jansen healthy and have his bat in the Dunedin order on a daily basis.  Sharing time behind the plate with Pentecost should do a great deal to help keep him on the field.

   McGuire may never hit enough to be more than an MLB back up, and the possibility of Pentecost moving off the position still has to be considered high.  Jansen has the skills and the build to handle a major league pitching staff, and this year he has finally shown that while he still has yet to prove that he could be a middle-of-the-order bat, he has started to demonstrate that he can handle a bat just the same.  With Russell Martin's contract with two years to run beyond this campaign, there's every chance we see Jansen in a Blue Jays uniform at some point in 2019 or the following year.

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Education of Sean Reid-Foley

Clutchlings Photo

     2015 was a coming out party for Toronto Blue Jays RHP Sean Reid-Foley.  Sent to Lansing to begin full-season play in only his second pro season, the 2014 2nd rounder fanned 90 Midwest League hitters in 63 innings, earning a promotion to Dunedin in the second half.
    Last year, he was sent back to Lansing to work on commanding his fastball, and after another half season in Michigan he was on his way to Dunedin once again, having seemed to have conquered his control issues.
   The knock against Reid-Foley, possessor of a mid 90s fastball and wipeout slider, was that he would lose his mechanics mid-game, driving up his pitch count because he was unable to make the necessary adjustments.  Equipped with a new, simplified delivery, Reid-Foley missed a lot of bats in 2016, but more importantly was working deeper into games, and those comparisons to Jonathan Papelbon seemed to go away.

   Sent to AA to begin this season, Reid-Foley has had his struggles against the more advanced hitters of the Eastern League, and has gone beyond the 3rd inning only once in his first five starts.  The Blue Jays have been protective of his young arm (at 21, Reid-Foley is one the youngest players in the league), but his most recent start on April 29th against Binghamton was a microcosm of his season to date.  Some mechanical issues, command problems, bad luck, and some plain old bad pitches have been behind his rough initiation to AA.
   Reid-Foley was a victim of some misfortune in the 1st.  After fanning the leadoff hitter with a swinging K, he was ahead 1-2 on the 2nd hitter, who then slapped a ball that was slicing away from SS Richard Urena into shallow Leftfield for a hit.   Three pitches later, the next hitter lined a pitch that LF Harold Ramirez took a circuitous route on, and it bounced off the warning track and over the wall for a double.  A sacrifice fly to RF Jonathan Davis brought in Binghamton's first run, but Reid-Foley retired the final batter of the inning on a pop up to Urena.
   In the second inning, Reid-Foley gave up some soft and medium contact and found himself facing leadoff hitter Champ Stuart for the second time with runners on 1st and 2nd and two outs.  Reid-Foley threw a pair of strikes to Stuart, but then threw four consecutive balls to load the bases.  He regained his composure to induce what might have been an inning-ending groundball to the next batter, but 2B Tim Lopes booted the ball, allowing a run to score.  After retiring the side on a grounder to Urena, Reid-Foley was already at 42 pitches on the night through only two innings.
   In the third, he fell behind the leadoff hitter 3-1, and then gave up a longer Home Run to LF on a pitch that caught altogether too much of the strike zone.  Reid-Foley walked the next hitter on 4 pitches, and had considerable trouble repeating his delivery through much of the inning - sometimes, he would appear to briefly pause mid-delivery, others he had obvious difficulty coming up with the right arm angle. He gave up three more hits in the inning, as three runs crossed the plate.  A swinging K on his 29th pitch of the inning brought an end to both the frame and Reid-Foley's evening after only three innings and 71 pitches.

   Cause for concern?  Not really.  Reid-Foley's numbers on the season would likely look a little better (5.65 ERA, .311 BAA, 2.04 WHIP) if he was given a bit of a longer leash, which will probably start to happen this month.  At A ball, Reid-Foley could always rely on his four seamer up in the zone to put hitters away; AA hitters, if this start was any indication, are less inclined of offer at it.  If there is a positive on the night, it's that his slider appeared to be working quite well, but its effectiveness was diminished by his inability to command both sides of the plate with his fastball.  Some better quality pitches, more consistent mechanics, and some better defence behind him will help Reid-Foley iron out his issues as the season progresses.  It certainly isn't time to dust off those Papelbon comps and consider a move to the bullpen;  Reid-Foley still profiles as a #2 or #3 starter, but as this spring has shown, he's still young and has a lot to learn.