So, so close now. Fingers crossed this is our final weekend without minor league games that we can actually watch and attend and see counted on Baseball Reference! The excruciating wait is nearly done! But it’s not done yet, so let’s fill the time with some sweet, sweet There R Giants content!
And, of course, we can’t let the pitchers have all the fun! So today, we’ll continue preparing for the season with a companion piece to Wednesday’s post — the 5 questions about the Giants hitting prospects that will command our attention for the next five months. Remember, we’re thinking Big Picture here, so all 5 of these questions are not going to be: “When Does Heliot Ramos Get Called Up?” even though I understand that that is really the question commanding our attention most at this point.
1. Hot Starts or Cold?
We started the pitchers’ version of this by wondering how the missing 2020 season will impact their stamina and workloads. The hitters’ side of that question is: how long will it take players to get back in the swing of things? Last summer, the Giants chose to prioritize bringing hitting prospects to the Alt Site because, in their view, pitchers had a somewhat easier task of continuing their development on their own. Pitchers, after all, are the progenitor of their own development, this line of thinking goes. Their form, their mechanics, their arms drive the action and they can continue developing that driver even without the feedback mechanism provided by an opponent. Hitters, on the other hand, have to get reps against the greatest arms alive on the planet….and it’s pretty hard to come by those guys on a street corner. Sean Hjelle literally threw to sandlot kids. But sandlot kids aren’t helping Patrick Bailey refine the swing mechanics needed to barrel …. well, let me grab a random Pitching Ninja gif:
Yeah, the local American Legion pitcher isn’t giving Alex Canario any help at learning how to attack that ridiculousness.
And while, it’s true, some of these players had Alt Site work and many had Instrux, and now all have had a couple weeks of spring games, when the alarm bell rings for Opening Day, we’ll all eagerly lean forward in chairs to learn just how rusty some of those swings got over the last 20 months. I asked Melissa Lockard this question when she last appeared on the podcast, and her thought was that it could well take hitters a while to ramp up, especially given a shorter than normal spring camp.
So, though we all want to inject 5 for 5 nights and home run highlights directly into our veins the minute the season starts….
ah yeah, that’s the good stuff, Alex, right into the veins….sorry, what was I saying? Oh yes! Don’t be surprised — or discouraged! — if things start out a little slower than we’d all like. It’s all part of the Fabulous World of 2020 Fallout!
2. How Fast/Aggressive Will Promotions Be?
This leads us directly to the question we all really want answered: when do we start to see promotions (looking at you, Heliot)! The Giants front office has been very consistent in their messaging about assignments — cognizant of the challenge of getting back into the swing of things after a lost season, they’re going to be conservative in their original assignments. Farhan Zaidi and Scott Harris got well out in front of this to tamp down any building hew and cries for Marco Luciano to report directly to Sacramento. The challenge facing these rusty bats is large and daunting and the org needs to think about how best to put their players in position to succeed.
Ok. We got it! No advanced/aggressive/loonytunes assignments out of the gate. Ah but there was a mitigating clause! They’ll be “open minded” about aggressive assignments. So that’s hopeful! Ten days mucking around in A ball and it’s “Sacramento, here I come!” amiright?
Ah, but this is where Question #1 comes into play. On the Marty Lurie show on KNBR this weekend, Kerry Crowley asked Farm Director Kyle Haines if the club still wanted to see 250-300 PA from Heliot Ramos before promoting him. Haines, in response, was careful to draw an important distinction: 250-300 PA was about the right amount of time to be able to make an informed evaluation of readiness, but that evaluation might not lead to promotion. It’s just as possible that an informed evaluation will lead to the determination that a player isn’t ready for a promotion (not you Heliot, you’re good!).
This leads me back to my old chestnut: you can’t promote your way into development, you have to develop your way into promotion. The Giants can be as open minded as a philosophy major and it isn’t going to lead anywhere if the players aren’t proving it out on the field. We aren’t going to get quick promotions if we don’t get quick starts, and there are factors that will make quick starts difficult.
The shiny side of that coin, however, is that we’ll have cause to be seriously impressed by those who do get off their marks fast.
If it feels like 1 and 2 were just a long-winded way of counseling patience, young prospect lover, well, they probably were. Everything in its appointed time.
3. Will BB/K Improvements Continue Throughout System?
One reason why it was so painful to have the 2020 minor league season torn from our gluttonous grasp was that 2019 was an unending series of triumphs on the farm. And, for the most part, it wasn’t just superficial triumphs, there were solid substrata improvements going on everywhere we looked! Specifically, the Giants preached controlling the strike zone, and they stretched out their hands across the system and lo! strike zones were controlled!
The most notable example of this phenomenon was Heliot Ramos’ performance in San Jose. Coming into the year with a career 6.5% walk rate and four times as many strikeouts as walks, Ramos got some BB/K religion and showed a newfound discretion at the plate. He bumped his walk rate up significantly at both San Jose and Richmond, finishing with a 9.5% rate. And while his 32 walks to 85 Ks (in San Jose) isn’t exactly Joe Panik-esque, it certainly showed an improvement over the 35 to 136 line he’d had the year before in Augusta. I felt then and I still feel (even with all of Marco’s achievements) that Ramos’ improvement was the signature accomplishment of the year.
But it wasn’t the only one, oh no! And it wasn’t just the elite guys showing solid improvement on their approach. Diego Rincones more than doubled the puny 3.6% walk rate he’d had in 2018. In his return from thyroid surgery, Sandro Fabian posted a career best 7.5% walk rate — he’d walked just 10 times in 504 PA in 2017! Bryce Johnson didn’t necessarily improve — his game had always featured strong on base skills — but it’s not surprising that he was rewarded for his skills with a midseason promotion to Double-A, nor that he’s sitting in the Alternate Site in Sacramento right this moment! Ricardo Genovés boosted his walk rate and cut his strikeouts. Victor Bericoto did walk his way off the island, parlaying a 19% walk rate into a late season promotion out of the DSL.
And yes, the stars got in on the act, too, for the most part. Luciano walked more than 15% of the time while leaving a tangled mass of AZL pitchers in a smoking pit of destruction and despair. The home runs were thrilling, but I’d imagine Giants brass was equally thrilled by the swing decisions.
The stat line told a convincing picture of an organization full of young men who were most definitely buying what the Giants are selling. And now, as we approach a new year, the obvious question remains: will they do it again? There are some obvious candidates to watch this year. Joey Bart walked 21 times and struck out 71 in 2019, numbers that, no doubt, contributed to the front office’s correct insistence last summer that he still had work to do. Those numbers presaged a much worse BB/K ratio with the Giants in his debut. They’ll want to see some positive trend lines there in 2021. Alex Canario walked 18 times in Salem-Keizer and struck out 71 times. Sure, he did it with a bum shoulder, but there’s still room for improvement there. Jairo Pomares posted just a 6% walk rate in rookie league against low level competition. He didn’t strike out much, but the approach was perhaps exposed in his brief promotion to Salem-Keizer, where he struck out 17 times in just 58 PA while walking only once. Hunter Bishop walked a ton, but he struck out even more. For Bishop an improved BB/K might mean bringing both lines down a bit and getting more balls in play.
4. And Will Underlying Data Adhere to Organizational Philosophy As Well?
This one is trickier because the minors don’t provide much of the advanced data we’ve quickly come to rely on for major league players. The Athletic’s Grant Brisbee provided a fascinating glimpse into the Giants’ organizational philosophy this week by pouring over the early season numbers: the team is first in NL in pitches per PA, first in contact percentage, third (in a good way) in chasing balls out of the strike zone, and second in the NL in Barrel rate. Brisbee didn’t mention it but I believe they also just swing less than 27 of the other 29 teams. All of that fits exactly with what the front office has been preaching consistently for the last two years. Never swing unless you can do damage, or more poetically, homer or die trying.
It’s easy enough to follow the BB/K rates in the minor leagues, and they certainly tell us something. Following some of these other numbers is much more difficult, but they could tell us much more. Will the organizational philosophy filter down throughout the minor league levels in mass? Will we see a concentration on avoiding swings and an increase in hard contact? I noted recently that my friend Phil Goyette has devised a formula for estimating minor league Barrel% primarily by looking at Isolated Slugging, home runs per fly ball (HR/FB%), and fly ball rate (FB%), and those are probably three good places to concentrate our attention (as well as just watching the games of course and trying to use the eyes). Chase rate and pitches per plate appearance are harder to come by in the minors, but I’ll be keeping a lookout for them where I can.
But overall we’re going to want to follow how much the organization (en masse) is putting balls in the air rather than the ground — Will Wilson and Jacob Gonzalez are two good guys to pay attention to here. Will players who improve their BB/K and their FB% also see an increase in Isolated Slugging? Or, for players like Canario, whose ISO is already sky high, can he maintain that impressive slugging against more advanced pitching by improving his process and plan at the plate.
This is, I’ll grant, a particularly wonky Big Picture question, but we know that the Giants development people are going to be looking at underlying hit data like this when making determinations for promotions and playing time. Of course, they’re also looking at stuff like how much ground force players can produce in their swing and ….ha ha! we’re not getting anywhere near the really juicy stuff like that! So, we’ll have to settle for some wonky numbers — because like birders hunting the elusive Purple Gallinule (very highly ranked on my wife’s and my Life List!), peering into these thickets of esoteric numbers may provide our best chance of glimpsing the true development taking place.
5. What New Pop Up Prospect Will Emerge from the International Program?
In the Depth Charts wrap up, one of the major trends I noted was the influx of prospect talent coming out of the Giants international program. This didn’t exactly take a PhD in Thinkology to come up with — players signed in recent J2 classes are providing much of the excitement around Giants prospect world these days.
But it’s worth paying special attention to just how big of a leap some of these players have taken to land center stage in Giants’ fans consciousness lately. In each of the past three seasons, a Giants hitter has gone from unranked to top ranked prospect based entirely on their debut in the Dominican Summer League. In the spring of 2017, Alexander Canario was a relatively unknown, unheralded, low-dollar ($60,000) signing. The following winter, he was Baseball America’s #13 prospect in the system and his writeup in the Prospect Handbook kicked off with this stunner:
Canario has yet to play a game in the U.S., but a pretty convincing case can be made that other than Heliot Ramos, he has the highest ceiling in the Giants' farm system.
The following year, the slightly more heralded Luis Toribio ($300,000) went from unranked to Top 10 prospect after posting a .902 OPS in the DSL. And, in 2019, of course, Luis Matos simply went off on the DSL, suggesting that his $750,000 signing bonus could prove to be a stunning bargain.
It’s not exactly the first box score fans check, but the DSL Giants have really delivered the goods lately. In a slight twist, this year we’ll see many of those debuts take place in Arizona, as the top signees of the last two J2 classes will leap over the foreign rookie league. Could Anthony Rodriguez play the Luis Matos role in 2021? He’s the same sort of high six-figure signing with good offensive scouting reports player. Because we’ve never seen him play yet, he hasn’t forced his way into the front of our mind, but a few weeks of games could quickly change that. Same is true of the supremely talented Aeverson Arteaga or Diego Velasquez… or lower $$ signings who we aren’t talking about at all. Will 2021 provide us another Canario type breakout? A Toribio type? Joe Salermo’s shop has us primed to expect one — or more than one — to come on an annual basis. We’re still a month or so away from rookie leagues opening up, but it’s worth remembering that the players who steal our hearts this season might not take the field next week at all.
With the longest offseason in history nearly a thing of the past, we should be all jelly beans and unicorns at this point when considering the season to come, but I still have a nightmare scenario buzzing around my brain that I can’t let go. So, sadly, I have to end this on “Double-Secret Probation Question #6,” and this one applies to both hitters and pitchers:
Will Labor Strife Once Again Inhibit Development?
Picture this: after a crucial missed year of development, Heliot Ramos lays siege to the minor leagues in 2021, continuing his spring tirade and posting huge numbers that put him in the running for Minor League Player of the Year. A strong OF contingent in San Francisco allows the Giants to keep him developing on the farm throughout the season, however, until sometime in late August or early September, when they bow to the obvious and bring Ramos up for his long-awaited debut. And then, following an exciting and titillating 20 games or so…. an offseason lockout that lingers into spring and summer causes Heliot to lose valuable game reps for the second time in three years.
It’s a bucket of cold water to end this hopeful preview post, and even now it’s hard to believe the two negotiating parties will really choose to walk headlong over such a disastrous cliff together. But there’s no doubting that this nightmare scenario will hang over the coming season, and it provides a particularly bitter twist for near-major-league ready prospects. Coming off an entire lost year of development, players like Ramos, Sean Hjelle, or Tristan Beck face the prospect of being added to a 40-man roster for the first time….just weeks before yet another form of forced unemployment might stall their progress. It’s a bitterly unfair prospect that will only impact players on the 40-man. Minor leaguers who are not part of the 40-man, not being part of the MLB Players Association, won’t be affected in the event of a lockout or strike, as a major league work stoppage won’t stop a minor league season.
Those of us old enough to remember previous work stoppages probably remember that minor league ball continued unabated. Indeed, former Giant Bob Brenly, to some degree, owes his career to the strike of 1981. Manager Frank Robinson and other members of the Giants front office spent most of the strike in Phoenix watching the Giants Triple-A players perform. And it was during this time that Robby was convinced that 27-year old Brenly, a six-year minor league veteran at that point, could help the big league club. He made his long awaited big league debut when the strike was over.
But for players like Ramos and Hjelle, their dream of making the majors could end up being disastrously timed if a major portion of 2022 is sacrificed to labor woes. Zaidi and Harris can’t worry about what ifs in making their roster decisions, but I’d imagine these worries are lurking in the back of their minds, ready to jump out and provide a good scare when the time is right.
Do your work in good earnest, negotiating parties. The game is counting on you!
And with that little bit of a wet willy, I bid you all a fine spring weekend…our long wait is nearing its end. Starting next week, we’ll have posts full of this…