September 2011

The Rays sure know how to grow pitchers

At least one person had to be thinking that watching Matt Moore strikeout 11 Yankees over five innings last week.

Matt Moore was just starting to get going when he pitched for the Bowling Green Hot Rods in 2009.

Granted, the Yankees had just clinched the AL East, but still. Considering Moore had already had a phenomenal Minor League season that saw him strike out 200 for the second year in a row, he didn’t really have to do anything else to establish himself as arguably the best pitching prospect in the game. Yet there he was, in Yankee Stadium, helping the Rays continue their improbable Wild Card chase and giving Rays (and other) fans food for thought about what Tampa might do with their rotation in 2012.

The issue, of course, is how there’s currently no room in said rotation. The possibility of a Garza-like trade of James Shields has been mentioned and Moore’s readiness can at the very least allow the Rays to contemplate a move such as that.

But that’s not what this post is about. This is more about the scouting and player development work the Rays have done to get them to this point. The case of Moore shines a light on that even more. After all, David Price as the No. 1 overall pick is supposed to succeed (though we all know not every top pick has done so). Jeff Niemann was also a first-round pick (No. 4), so there is some level of expectation there as well. Rookie of the Year candidate Jeremy Hellickson was a fourth-round selection, though he got half a mil (read: above-slot) to sign.  Wade Davis went in the third round of the 2004 Draft and it’s a testament to the patience of the player development department in Tampa on how he was allowed to come along at the pace that worked for him (ditto for Niemann, by the way).

Shields, somewhat ironically since Moore could be the guy replacing him, is a fantastic example of great scouting and very good development. Shields was a 16th-round pick back in 2000 and spent close to five seasons in the Minors before establishing himself (he missed the 2002 season).  The irony comes from the fact that Moore is the next best example of simple, good scouting.

Coming out of high school in New Mexico in the 2007 Draft, Moore was a known guy, but it wasn’t widespread and not one of those prep arms people are buzzing about going in the first couple of rounds of the Draft. One team I spoke with said their area guy didn’t even have Moore on his list that June. Another former area scout liked Moore a little, but couldn’t get the higher-ups out to New Mexico to see him.

Moore was, according to this scout’s take, rough around the edges. He was throwing around 91 mph, occasionally a touch more, with below-average command. He had a hard slider, but it was sweeping. And he had no changeup at all. The arm worked well, but he wasn’t one of these, tall, thin a projectable types so there was the chance that he’d be what he was then. He was very low profile, a kid from a very small town east of Albuquerque.  Moore wasn’t really on the radar at all until about April of his Draft year and scouts in the area didn’t know what to make of him.

Obviously, Rays scout Jack Powell did and he helped convince the Rays to take a shot on Moore in the eighth round of the 2007 Draft. And this wasn’t a signability drop kind of thing, a guy who needed first-round money to sign and slid as a result. The Rays got Moore for $115,000 and that’s looking like one of the biggest Draft bargains in recent memory.

In the end, this area scout had the best final assessment of what happened that year:

“Bottom line: Jack Powell can frickin scout, man.”

And the Rays future is brighter because of it.

Saver-ing the moment

September is always a great time of year, not just to see top prospects (congrats to Jarrod Parker, by the way, for getting the call) but also to see stories of guys who have persevered to get there. Not everyone can make a bee-line to the big leagues and it’s hard not to like stories of Minor League vets who stuck with it (I’m talking to you Val Pascucci) and guys who were willing to do and try anything to get there (I’m speaking from an on-the-field, strictly legal standpoint).

This brings me to the subject of this post: The Phillies’ Joe Savery. Once upon a time, Savery was a two-way star out of Rice University. A good college hitter, most saw him as a left-handed pitcher as a pro and that’s exactly what the Phillies drafted him as in the first round of the 2007 Draft. I first interacted with him when he was a Draft prospect and I did a story on he and Sean Doolittle as the top two-way players in the class. Here’s the Draft Report I did on him (notice how I only had a breakdown on him as a pitcher).

Savery had been working his way back from shoulder surgery that season and the Phillies felt he was advanced enough to

Savery (left) with fellow journal writers Ricky Romero and Andrew McCutchen

go to the Arizona Fall League that autumn. I was impressed with Savery and asked him to write a journal for us during his time in Arizona. Here’s his last entry. I highly recommend you go back and read them. The guy’s pretty smart. Check out the picture on the right. That comes courtesy of Lisa Winston (Read her stuff at Queen of Diamonds) from a dinner at Don and Charlie’s with the 2007 AFL journal writers.

He threw well in the Fall League and seemed like the type of college lefty, now healthy, who’d move fast. It didn’t exactly work out that way. While he did move up the ladder — he was in Triple-A by 2009 — his stuff never came all the way back following that shoulder surgery.  Savery was a smart pitcher and did things like add a cutter, but after a 2010 season that saw him go 1-12 with a 4.66 ERA and spend time both starting and relieving, he realized he wasn’t going to cut it. At least that’s what he told me in this story during instructs in 2010.

Savery got some opportunities to DH in 2010 and it got him thinking. So he went to instructs to work on his hitting. He was, after all, a pretty good hitter back in the day. In 2011, he went down to the Florida State League to hit every day. Back at first base, DHing some and even playing some left field, Savery broke out of the gate like he had never stopped hitting, with a .450 average after April. That dropped to .235 in May and .175 in 10 June games. He went up to Double-A Reading in mid-June and got 35 more at-bats there (he hit .200).

As is often the case with my job, I can’t always track what every player is doing every day. I knew, obviously, that Savery was giving hitting a try and that he was on fire in the season’s first month. Then I sort of lost track. Evidently, shortly after he moved up to Double-A, he was throwing out of the pen, making his first appearance for Reading on Jun 27. After allowing just one run and striking out 14 in nine innings (lefties hit just .125 against him), he was back up in Triple-A pitching out of Lehigh Valley’s bullpen.

Yes, he got to swing the bat a few times, going 2-for-5. But he was now pitching too well as a lefty reliever to worry about hitting. Savery posted a 1.80 ERA with four relief wins and two saves in 18 appearances. He struck out 26 over 25 innings, not too bad for a guy who was a complete finesse guy last time he pitched in Triple-A. He held left-handed hitters to a .192 batting average against and then had three scoreless playoff appearances.

To cap all of this off, there he was on Tuesday afternoon, pitching against the Washington Nationals in Philadelphia. He faced two batters, allowing a single to Chris Marrero and a sacrifice bunt to Brian Bixler. Sure, you could argue that he faced duos like that all the time in Triple-A, but not in front of 44,000 people for a team headed to the MLB playoffs.

Hopefully, I’ll get the chance to catch up with Savery soon and find out what happened. Did he have some kind of Jim “The Rookie’ Morris return of velocity to his arm in his time away? Did he realize that he wouldn’t make it as a hitter and decided to give relieving another shot and it paid off?

Whatever the reason, it’s got to be one of my favorite September callup stories of the year.

 

Billy Hamilton: Man of Steal

I wrote about another cool Minor League statistical feat a few days ago, Matt Moore’s second straight 200-strikeout season. That one hadn’t been accomplished since 1982-83, when Sid Fernandez did it.

The last time someone stole 100 bases in a Minor League season wasn’t that far back — it was in 2001, when Chris Morris did it (he swiped a Midwest League record 111 bags). It’s still impressive, though, that Billy Hamilton (No. 3 on the Reds Top 10 prospects list) hit the century mark on Saturday. He’s now got 103 stolen bases on the year and has been caught just 20 times. He also leads the Midwest League in runs scored. And keep in mind this comes in the 140-game Minor League season, not over 162.

Having Delino DeShields as a manager this year clearly helped. DeShields stole 463 bases over the course of his big-league career. His career high in the Minors, though, was just 59. This brings up an interesting point. Take a look at the list of the previous 100-steal guys in the Minor Leagues:

Chris Morris (2001), 111
Esix Snead (2000), 109
Marcus Lawton (1985), 111
Donell Nixon (1984), 102
Vince Coleman (1984) 101
Vince Coleman (1983), 145
Donell Nixon (1983), 144
Lenny Dykstra (1983), 105
Otis Nixon (1982), 107
Jeff Stone (1981), 123
Alan Wiggins (1980), 120
Albert Hall (1980), 100

Aside from how much fun the early ’80s must’ve been in terms of base-stealing, this list is a bit of a mixed bag, isn’t it? The two most recent guys to get 100 steals, Morris and Snead, have 13 combined Major League at-bats. All of them are by Snead. Morris was out of baseball at age 25, never having gotten above Double-A ball. Snead stole over 500 bases in his Minor League career and some might put that in the Crash Davis “dubious honor” category. Marcus Lawton (Matt’s brother), had 14 big league at-bats and stole 379 bases in the Minors.

Donell Nixon, who did it twice, is Otis’ brother. Donell managed 396 ABs in the big leagues over parts of four seasons. Big bro, who topped 100 in the Minors the one time, played 17 seasons and swiped 620 career Major League bags. He, Coleman and Dykstra had the most successful careers on this list. The others I haven’t mentioned — Stone, Wiggins, Hall — had big-league time, but only Wiggins was an every-day player in that trio.

What does all of this mean? Nothing just yet. Hamilton is just turning 21 this week and this was his first taste of full-season ball. It was encouraging to see him start to hit better as the season wore on after starting off the year struggling. Minor League history is littered with speed guys who never make it because they don’t hit enough. I don’t think Hamilton is one of those guys, but here’s hoping he’s more Otis and Donell when all is said and done.

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