New York Yankee Minor League Report – Trenton Thunder (Shaeffer Hall, Christian Garcia)

April 24, 2012

I made a trip out to Trenton this past Saturday for a rare 5:05 start to watch the Thunder play host to the Washington Nationals Double-A affiliate, Harrisburg Senators.

Some seasons have seen Thunder manager Tony Franklin blessed with tremendous pitching staffs with zero hitting, and other seasons have seen him write in a tremendous lineup while wondering if his pitchers can limit the opposition to single digits.

This year he has both hitting and pitching somewhere in the middle.

On the mound for the Thunder was left hander Shaeffer Hall.

As a 25th round draft pick out of Kansas, Hall appeared nothing more than a sturdy arm for the organization. But I saw him throw two years ago in Charleston and Tampa and saw a pitcher with pretty good control and command, with pitching smarts to know how to attack hitters.

This pitching intelligence is much needed as Hall doesn’t throw overly hard. He was usually 88-89 in 2010, but was pretty much 84-86 all day long on Saturday. However, he is in his second season of throwing a cutter (with slider tilt and movement), which he can get in on the hands of right handed hitters.

It was this pitch and his changeup which kept hitters off balance and grounding the ball towards the extremely organizational infield the Thunder put out that day.

Hall is a pitcher who relies on changing speeds and location. He needs an umpire to give him the calls on the corners, then can work from there to expand the zone and get batters to chase pitches. This requires him to constantly get ahead and stay ahead of the hitter, which is always a good thing. If Hall gets an umpire with a tight zone, he has to come over the plate more and his stuff likely will not translate to quality outings.

A perfect example is when Hall tried to come inside to Jeff Kobernus, the Senators second baseman. Kobernus just missed powering two balls out of spacious Waterfront Park, but each drive was held up by a stiff wind, which allowed both deep drives to fall harmlessly into the glove of the Thunder left fielder.

Hall is a nice kid but his style doesn’t appear to be what the Yankees hierarchy likes in their starting pitchers. With injuries and ineffectiveness to hard throwers like Michael Pineda, Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos and the 2011 released Andrew Brackman, maybe the Yankees should change their preferences to pitchers rather than throwers.

The Yankees also let Francisco Rondon throw the final inning, and he allowed a deep drive home run to center by Senators LF Chris Rahl (who had 3 RBI & was a double short of the cycle). Rondon was fluid with a fastball with some life, usually 89-91, and hit 93. He showed a pretty good slider (82-83), which he wasn’t able to control and a decent changeup, but which had a tendency to stay up.

Rondon has been in the organization since 2006 and has become less hittable as he has moved up, but also shown an increased inability to throw strikes. The way teams can always use hard throwing left handed relievers, Rondon has a chance to progress further but need to trust his stuff more.

Luke Murton has three hits on the day, but showed total pull tendencies, similar to what I saw in Charleston in 2010. His swing is mostly arms and upper body, barely using his lower half. I saw him reach for quite a few pitches during the day, out front but still put the good part of the bat on the ball indicating pretty good hand-eye coordination. He is a hard worker who is constantly working in the cage and oftentimes off a tee just minutes before a game, and has the personality and build of former Yankee Shelley Duncan.

Cody Johnson was a former first round pick for the Atlanta Braves in 2006 and came to the Yankees in a minor league trade. He had shown a tremendous ability in the past to swing and miss*, and this was attributed to a severe hitch which caused him to not get around on good fastballs. He also was susceptible on breaking stuff, especially when behind in the count. However, he has eliminated the hitch by keeping his hands really low, behind his back hip. They do come up slightly during his load, but not that much higher. This keeps Johnson’s path to the ball much quicker allowing him to wait longer on pitch recognition.

*Johnson’s strikeout rate has increased each season as a pro, going from 34% in 2008, to 35% in 2009, 39% in 2010 to 41% last year.

In one at bat, Johnson basically flicked his wrists the way Rod Carew used to for a nice line drive single to left center. In two other at bats, Johnson showed good power to left field (going with the pitch) putting balls to the warning track, one which likely would have been out for a booming homer if not for the strong wind blowing in.

He does hit the ball very hard when he makes contact, and with his new hand placement he has made better contact. I still believe better fastballs will eat him up inside (he was never tested inside during this game), but with his changes and improved contact rate (30% K rate thus far) while still hitting for power, he is someone to keep an eye on.

Zoilo Almonte, the 22 year old switch hitting outfielder who impressed Joe Girardi in spring training, is on the disable list and did not play. I saw him last year and he appeared overmatched in the couple games I saw. But, a la Brett Gardner, Zoilo does have a track record of struggling at a level when first promoted, then improving considerably when he returns to start at that same level the following year. 

The Senators had a few guys impress who I had not seen before. The aforementioned Kobernus, a second baseman is very quick to the ball. He stands very quiet at the plate until he unleashes a very quick swing, going direct to the ball. His swing has some loft which provided nice backspin. As I said earlier, he would have had two long home runs if not for the wind.  He also showed pretty good speed down the line on a ground ball. At same body type (6-2, 210 or so), the position he plays, and the fact they attended the same school (Cal), Kobernus reminds me of Jeff Kent. He might not hit with the power Kent developed but Kobernus can hit the ball, which will be his ticket to the higher levels.

Destin Hood is a former second round pick for the Nationals, one of those highly athletic “toolsy” guys who never seem to work out because they really don’t become baseball players. They don’t develop the instincts and work ethic to improve and advance beyond just playing the game. Hood has changed for the better since I saw him last in 2010 in the Low-A Sally League. Hood showed great bat speed and foot speed, easily beating out a slow roller to third base, and easily scored from first on ground ball down the left field line.

In his second at bat, Hood got behind two strikes, but calmly stayed off a cutter low and in from Hall. While Hood eventually struck out a better version of that pitch, he was on the ball with a good swing. Hood is aggressive at the plate, but has shown an improved ability to attack better pitches and to stay away from off speed stuff out of the zone.

That is a good combination.

The right hander who closed the game out in the Senators 4-01 win was former Trenton Thunder pitcher Christian Garcia. The tall right hander was one of the Yankees top starting pitching prospects a few years ago, but injuries (two Tommy John surgeries) and a lack of desire to work hard hampered his career. He is back now as a reliever, and now healthy, continues to possess a tremendous repertoire including an easy fastball at 93-94, moving it easily around the zone. I remember a few years ago that Garcia had a tendency to sometimes overthrow his fastball (maybe why he was always injured?), but it was no longer the case – at least in this game. He also threw a solid hook and plus, plus major league quality change up.

The change up has always been Garcia’s out pitch, and he uses it extensively, playing is very nicely off his solid fastball keeping his arm speed the same on both pitches. Both his strikeouts this game came on change ups, making the Thunder hitters look foolish. According to a couple Senators players, Garcia has been tremendous all season, with his changeup getting swings and misses on most occasions. It is a pitch which doesn’t necessarily need to stay down to be effective, as it is almost impossible to recognize early. I asked about his desire and work ethic (not his strong suit in his Yankee career), and both said they have not seen any slacking on his work habits.

Garcia showed good bite and downward action on his curveball, a plus pitch which he appears now to throw in basically offering something else to the hitter. Garcia was very popular when he played in Trenton, and many of the locals were glad to see him back healthy and performing well.

If he stays healthy Garcia could move quickly towards a bullpen spot with the major league club.

Advertisements

If Mark Teixeira Doesn’t Change His HItting Approach, His Career As We Know It Could Be Over

April 14, 2012

After their 0-3 start to the 2012 season, the New York Yankees have now won four straight and are tied for first place in the AL East. These wins happened even without the expected quality pitching of ace CC Sabathia (he of the new five-year, $122 million extension), and without any production from middle of the order hitters Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira.

Robbie will come around soon as he adjusts his pull now/roll his wrists over approach, but it is Teixeira’s lack of production which should be very worrisome to Yankee fans. I will get it out quickly:

If Teixeira does not change his approach to hitting, his career is finished.

Oh, he will still be playing first base for the Yankees, but his usually offensive production will significantly decline. And that massive contract won’t be looking so good anymore. His playing time will be based upon his contract and defense, and less upon his ability to hit.

And this is not some random “small sample size” garbage either. Teixeira has been on the down slope since he signed with the Yankees, especially in the areas of batting average* (ooh, that terrible stat), and on base percentage* (the really good stat, right?).

*It’s funny how many sabermetric guys discount batting average and how it is “meaningless.” But doesn’t batting average compose the largest portion of hitters’ on base percentage? Usually, when formerly productive hitters OBP declines, it is usually due to a lower batting average, rather than walk rates, which are pretty consistent for established major leaguers. But if players become LESS FEARED by the opposition, then pitchers will attack these hitters and his avearge and walks will both decline.

Teixeira’s decline actually began during the World Series title year of 2009, a title which Teixeira was a big part. His batting average has declined from .292 in 2009 to .256 in 2010 and .249 last season. Subsequently, his OBP have been .383 (2009), .365 (2010) and .343 last season. He hit over .300 with a .400 OBP the prior two years, so the decline did start in 2009. Teixeira’s walk average** is consistently around .090. His slugging percentage shave also dropped, with his last two seasons being the only years since his rookie campaign where Teixeira has not slugged over .500.

**This is calculated by subtracting batting average from OBP.

Currently, Tex is hitting a meager .179, with a Yuniesky Betancourt like .303 OBP and ONE RBI!

It is unbelievable that the Yankees No. 5 hitter, who hits behind Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson and Derek Jeter, has ZERO home runs, one RBI.  That one RBI, though, is the key to his future.

Everybody is saying “Don’t worry, he’ll be fine. At the end, the numbers will be the same.”

No they won’t. Not if Teixeira doesn’t change his approach.

Teixeira has always been an upper body hitter. He collapses his back side and opens his hips early, but rarely uses his legs to generate power, relying on his bat speed and upper body strength. The result is an off balance swing using only his arms. That upper body strength allows Tex to overpower balls, even if he tries to pull outside pitches. I have viewed dozens of Teixeira home runs over his career where he pulled a pitch on the outside corner into the seats.

That is not easy to do.

But now that Teixeira is 32 years old (didn’t think he was that old, did you?), his bat speed has slightly declined and those pitches his used to be able to “rip” over the fence are now harmless fly balls to the outfield. That is if he actually gets under the ball.

See, most times when a hitters tries to pull an outside pitch, whether the hitter is fooled by an off speed pitch or, like Teixeira, they try and pull everything, seven times out of ten the hitter will roll his wrists over and generate a harmless ground ball to the pull side. If they do get under it somewhat, the result usually is a harmless fly ball or popup.

It’s an easy out.

Also, when a hitter attempts to pull an outside pitch, the hitter’s arms fly away from the body, limiting the chance for the legs to come into play. Remember when you used to hear, “The hitter wants to extend his arms?” and “the pitcher is throwing inside so the hitter can’t extend his arms.” That is a misnomer.

A good hitter DOESN’T want to extend his arms away from the body, at least not until well after impact. Good hitters want to keep his elbows tight to the body, which helps allow them to use their legs to help generate power. The extension of arms actually comes after the ball is struck and the bat comes through the hitting zone, and is extended towards the pitcher, not by pulling off the ball.

For an analogy, think in terms of power while lifiting weights. If you are doing dumbbell or barbell curls, can you left more wight when your elbows are tight to your body or when they are extended away by 6-12 inches?

Perfect example of this is Robinson Cano, who keeps his elbows tight to his body. This is how Cano can hit lefties so well, especially pitches inside. Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols also keep their hands in tight to the body, and all three use the strength in their legs to complete the swing and generate power.

Over the years, however, Teixeira has gotten away with bad hitting mechanics and used his uncanny eye-hand coordination and immense strength to hit for average and power, including 111 home runs in three plus years as a Yankee.

But those days are likely over.

Teixeira has always been a pull hitter. When he collapses his back side like that, there is no other type of hitter to be. You can’t collapse your back side and hit the ball the other way with any authority. Try hitting off a batting tee the other way after you collapse your back leg. It’s virtually impossible.

Really good hitters use the entire field, but at the very minimum, on pitches out over the plate and on the outer third, they try and hit the ball through the middle. They wait a little longer on the pitch, and then drive the ball through the middle. The only time Teixeira did that this season, he generated a line drive RBI single to right center in Baltimore, his only RBI. Tex stayed balanced in his swing, waited and drove the ball the other way.

When Teixeira tries to pull outside pitches, especially as a left-handed hitter, he hits “outside the ball,” where his arms come away from the body and the ball is struck. The hands are not used properly, but go out and around. Good hitting mechanics require the hands to say “inside the ball,” where the hands lead the bat straight and down to (and through) the ball. Wait and be quick.

When the hands go out and around, the hitter is susceptible to “rolling over” his wrists, lessening the time the hitter has the bat head in the hitting zone. As I mentioned earlier, the result is usually a ground ball to the pull side.

And when teams shift on a hitter, the results can be disastrous. The game is different now. Everything is on video and computers, with every team using spray charts and extensive advanced scouting. If you pitch certain hitters a certain way, that hitter will almost always hit the ball in the same spot***.

***I remember a time when I was managing in a college level and above men’s league in North Jersey. I used to go “scout” other teams when we didn’t have a game. There was a right-handed hitter on one team who I noticed always hit rockets into the right center gap when he swung at up and away fastballs. Nothing but line drives to right center. Know what we did? We gave him what he liked. We threw him fastballs up and away, the pitch he looked for and liked. But we also pinched our center and right fielder into the right center gap, and caught all those line drives he hit there. Oh, we would throw him “waste” pitches to change things up, but when we wanted to retire him, we did. He said to me after one game, “Man, I never seem to get any breaks against you guys.” No being lucky, but playing smart baseball. Point is that hitters are creatures of habit, who usually do with certain pitches what they always do.

Hitters need to adapt to how teams play them. Mark Teixeira needs to adapt to how the Tampa Bay Rays and other teams play him. Tex needs to begin to hit the ball the other way, by waiting a little longer on the outside pitch and begin to drive it the other way. That means eliminating the backside collapse, and hitting balls the other way. After a while of that, teams will have to move out of their shifts, which open up the entire field for Tex.

Tex will continue to be pitched outside, and if he doesn’t change his approach, he will continue to hit ground balls and some lines drives into the teeth of the defense. His averages will then continue to decline.

It is tough for major league hitters to adjust, especially if they are as established as Teixeira, but in his case is imperative that it gets done. It is obvious Tex doesn’t put much time into hitting sessions with Kevin Long, as Tex would have already eliminated the back side collapse, begun keep his hands inside the ball and using his legs more.

Recently, I used a drill for a left-handed high school hitter who had the same problem Teixeira has. He hands moved away from his body and he hit around the ball. I can’t even tell you how many times he grounded out to second base. We set up an L-screen about 15 -20 feet away and I quick flipped balls underhand to him on the inside half of the plate. But I had him hit the ball right back at me or the other way. No pulling of any pitches. This forced the hitter to bring his hands and elbows inside closer to his body in order to try and hit the ball the other way. It begins to help you get quicker to the ball on inside pitches.

After some time with this drill, the next game saw the kid line a shot right at the first baseman, then triple over the left fielders head in his next at bat. Both at bats prior his drill work would have likely ended up with a weak pop up and a weak ground ball to the second baseman.

This (and other drills) would work for Teixeira, too, but only if he wishes to change his approach.  

There have been many hitters who have been successful without using good hitting mechanics. I can’t even believe all the major league hitters who fail to use their lower half when hitting. Lance Berkman had a HOF caliber career, but never used his lower half until he came to the Yankees in 2010. George Brett was very successful using another formerly popular hitting method. It is a testament to these players overwhelming ability to hit at that level doing what they did.

I know Teixeira has had a pretty darn good career thus far, with 314 home runs and 1,108 RBI. But if he doesn’t begin to change, he will not be adding to these totals like he has in the past. Batting average, OBP, slugging percentage, home runs and RBI will all decline. Do you realize that Tex only had 26 doubles last year, the lowest of his career?

If he doesn’t work to change things, Tex will still get his big hits, and will likely hit 20 homers solely based upon his strength. He will do this when pitchers make mistakes with their location and get the ball over the middle of the plate. But when they stay outside, Tex will continue to watch his BABIP erode.

I predicted demise for another New York corner infielder two years ago, when I wrote this piece about David Wright and how he shied away from inside pitches after getting hit in the head by a Matt Cain fastball. I said that if Wright was forever shying away, then his career would be over as pitchers would bust him in early then get him out away. But Wright improved his ability to stay in the box and once again he became fearless at the plate.

I just hope for Yankee fans that Teixeira can adjust his approach like Wright did and stay productive long term.