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.