Scott Harris talks about the minor leagues
What does the GM have to say about the lost 2020 season?
Photo Credit: Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle
Last week, Giants GM Scott Harris spoke with the San Francisco Chronicle’s John Shea for the Chronicle’s “Giants Splash” podcast. The two spoke on a wide array of topics, but among the subjects covered were the new minor league structure and how the lost 2020 season will impact the Giants’ prospects — two subjects that are basically There R Giants catnip, so you can imagine my reaction to the interview. Basically, something like this:
or maybe this…
whew! Better shut down that rabbit hole or this post is going to be just an endless series of cat gifs! They’re a helluva drug! Anyhoo! Where was I? Oh yes, Scott Harris!
At one point in the interview, Shea asked Harris how minor league realignment, and specifically the recent news that AA and A levels are likely to get a delayed start to the year, would impact assignments for the Giants’ top prospects. While Harris noted that the situation is still fluid and that the Giants hope to get full seasons in for all of their full-season levels, he agreed that “the changes in the minor league structure will have a significant effect on our minor league players’ paths to the big leagues.”
In the comments that followed, Harris focused on three key aspects of the situation and his thoughts are worth considering in depth, so let’s go through them in order:
First, an under-reported impact is the elimination of short season teams which will force us to be more intentional about the way we promote players in the lower level. Short season, and specifically our Salem-Keizer team, often served as a transition level from rookie ball to full-season ball. But it looks like we will have to be more intentional about teaching those transitional skills and behaviors in rookie ball to prepare our players for a more significant jump from rookie ball to San Jose.
I’ll just note here, parenthetically, that Harris and I clearly hang out in different areas of the baseball universe if the loss of short season ball is under-reported in his eyes. We’ve been talking about it as a pretty danged big deal hereabouts for most of the year! No small part of that is the loss of some 30 or more opportunities to play in pro ball for kids (and their coaches). But beyond that are the issues that Harris is hinting at here. For the Giants, short-season ball was a transition level, either from rookie ball to full season or from college to full season. And that transition will now be absent.
So, exactly what kind of transitions are we talking about here? There’s no doubt that there is an elevated level of competition between the rookie complexes and short-season ball, which tends to be heavily composed of college level players. We can see indications of that in the speed bump that a player like Jairo Pomares saw upon promotion between the levels. After more or less having his way with complex pitching, hitting .368 with a .943 OPS and striking out just 26 times in 167 PA in the AZL, Pomares got a good “what fer” from NWL pitchers. In two weeks of play against short-season pitching, Pomares struck out 17 times in just 62 PA (a rise in K% from 15% to 27% in a short sample), walked just once and hit just .207. Even as advanced a prospect as Marco Luciano didn’t exactly come to the advanced level wielding a big stick (.212 in 9 games with no HRs). The step up is noticeable, even if it’s smaller than some others.
But the other issue that I think Harris is alluding to here is the more subtle skill of learning how to take care of the body to be, as he later said, “healthy and productive over the long season.” The AZL schedule rotates in an off-day for teams every fifth day, and teams in the rookie leagues typically have large rosters, allowing them to rotate starting lineups, giving players even more off-days and rest times. Looking at Luciano’s game log from 2019, even he was playing three days with a rest, two days with a rest. Keeping the young bodies fresh has traditionally been a routine part of rookie league life.
For college players, the typical schedule has a three-game series against a single opponent on the weekends, and a one-off game during the week (usually Tuesday). So there, too, players have some level of protection against the pounding of a daily schedule.
On top of that, the travel requirements in the AZL are extremely minimal. From the Giants’ Scottsdale location, they can bus their teams to most of the other complexes in the league in a matter of minutes — 20 or 30 minutes can be a long ride in the AZL. Obviously, that’s a major shock for players when they reach higher leagues that include bus rides of 8, 10, 14 hours, as many do.
From that perspective, you can see exactly how Salem-Keizer used to function as a “transition level.” In the old NWL setup, the Volcanoes were an easy drive of less than an hour to the two teams closest to them, but they also had trips of 6 and 7 hours in the league (to Vancouver, Spokane, and Boise). While it’s easy to dismiss the impact of travel and rest on a professional athlete’s ability to compete (especially for those of us who aren’t actually living through those bus trips), these are skills that need to be taught to young professional athletes.
A productive player is one who is on the field and feeling relatively good. As Harris suggests, the Giants (as with all teams) will need to find ways to prepare players for the huge transition from the AZL to the Cal league between 15 minute bus trips and 6 hour ones, between rest days every third or fourth day and playing six or seven times a week. Perhaps that will come with the implementation of a more rigorous physical regimen before games, although the intense mid-summer heat in Arizona can be a factor there as well.
I think the second major impact is that we sort of flipped our A ball teams. San Jose will now be the low A team and Eugene will be our High A team…We’re really excited to move to Eugene. I have experience personally with Eugene because while I was with the Cubs, that was one of our affiliates. They have excellent facilities and an excellent ownership group which I became familiar with …. I think that’s a great addition for us and it will minimize the travel that we have to subject our minor league players to.
Not too much needs to be said here because I’ve noted before the Emeralds connection to Nike and the University of Oregon. The stadium itself is as good as you’ll find in the minors and the connection to a truly world-class athletic training facility is unique. But I did think it was notable that Harris emphasized his personal connection to the franchise and its owners. This connection likely played a key role in the Giants acquiring this plum new affiliate. I had speculated before the announcement that the Giants might jump over to Boise because the Hawks’ ownership group also owned Augusta, and I knew the Giants enjoyed their relationship with that group. But with their GM enjoying a similar comfort level with Eugene, combined with its Best-in-Class facilities, the switch to Eugene really comes into focus as something of an obvious choice.
I think the third major impact is … losing an entire season for our minor league players in 2020 was potentially damaging to their careers. It means that our minor league players lost developmental reps in 2020. They lost experience facing adversity and making adjustments. They lost an opportunity to grow with their teammates and learn how to keep their bodies healthy and productive over the long season. I think this is an underrated challenge for their development and I think we need to make adjustments as a player development group to make sure these challenges don’t impede their paths to the big leagues.
Some things that we’ve been talking about [are] being more intentional about our work in spring training and in an alternate site if that ultimately comes to pass to make sure that not only are we teaching skills to the young players, but we’re creating competitive environments where they can test those skills in the absence of minor league games.
So, we’ve been talking internally about where to place some of our players as you talked about with Luciano and some of our other younger, higher upside players. I think if the opportunity presents itself, we may start with conservative placements but be totally open-minded to promoting them quickly because I don’t think we can underestimate the impact of going an entire year without playing in real competitive games against players from other organizations.
And here we really get to the crux of the unknown — what did the loss of 2020 mean for players’ long-term development. As Britt Ghiroli discussed with me on a recent podcast, there are a lot of theories on this but nobody really knows what the loss of 2020 will ultimately mean to players. Whether it will be harder on pitchers or hitters, whether players’ progress to the majors will be retarded, whether work at Alternate Sites will help players speed through levels faster than normal — all of this causality is unknown. There is some notion in development that a connection exists between a player’s age and the level of challenge faced that can make a difference in the brain’s ability to absorb and map the nano-second reactions necessary to play this ridiculous game. So, does it make a long-term difference if a player faces a specific challenge for the first time at 21 rather than at 20? The answers to all of these questions lie in the Land of the Wild Guess.
As for the notion of creating competitive practice environments that can help to overcome the loss of games, count me as a skeptic. The Giants’ staff certainly did laudable, creative work trying to do just this last year in the Alternate Site (an extraordinary accomplishment under the most difficult circumstances for Kyle Haines and his staff). What we heard at the end of the year was that, ultimately, it just wasn’t the same experience. Batting against a small clutch of one’s own teammates day after day, “games” that include coaches playing positions and “defined game situations”, showing up every day at a field with no fans — all of these little things add up. The brain knows when it’s really in a competitive environment and when it’s not, and it’s awfully hard to trick the big organ into thinking that a dress rehearsal is really Showtime! Managing adrenaline is an important skill for professional athletes to learn, too, after all. File it under: “Competitive Environments — they’re better than nothing!”
And Harris himself seemingly acknowledges the same with his discussion of where to assign players when we finally do get back to minor league ball. When I wrote my way too early roster previews last month, my basic assumption was that they’d be pretty conservative with the younger players. That’s why I had Luciano, Toribio, Canario et al heading to San Jose to start their seasons rather than hoping that the Alternate Site experience would be enough to help ease them through a giant leap to High A.
It looks like this is the way the organization is leaning. Start guys conservatively, because not having taken really competitive at bats in literally 22 months is a big fricking deal! Perhaps the bigger question that will hang over the year, then, is: how aggressive can they/will they be in promoting players? After all promotions are an effect, they’re not a cause. You can’t promote a player into development and they all develop at their own pace as they adjust to heightened challenges.
What we’ve seen historically is that first wave of promotions tend to come about two months into the season, somewhere in early June of a normal year. However, in 2019, the Giants had a few examples of more rapid transitions. Sean Hjelle was somewhat surprisingly assigned initially to the Sally league, which seemed low for a player who had been named the SEC Pitcher of the Year his Junior year. And sure enough, Hjelle’s stay in Augusta didn’t last terribly long, as he moved up to High A about five weeks into the season. Jake Wong, another college pitcher taken one round behind Hjelle, followed a similar route, starting in Augusta and then moving with Hjelle to San Jose in mid-May. Is that the kind of “open-minded approach to promotions” we should be anticipating? Will we see a series of promotions for players who start out strong somewhere in that month to six weeks range?
The Giants showed even a quicker trigger in 2019 in one case. Alexander Canario had already played a season in the AZL and was targeted for a promotion to NWL out of extended spring training. But he was bothered by a nagging shoulder soreness near the end of extended, and the team made a conservative assignment, having him repeat the rookie level to make up for some missed time. Canario, of course, wanted no part of that and he laid waste to AZL pitching, crushing seven home runs in eight games and slugging 1.000 over 46 PA before the Giants cried “Uncle.” So maybe there’s a chance that a “white lightning” sort of start will trigger a quick hook.
That said, the Giants are surely, at this point, an organization steeped in analytics enough to distrust small samples. And that will be the agonizing tussle for them — how quick is too quick? When do you make the call? When is a small sample “signal” and when is it “noise?”
There’s no obvious answer to this “chicken and egg” kind of question. But if they’d like to seek out a voice of experience, there’s one close at hand. Brandon Crawford signed late after being drafted and played just five games in his pro debut. The next year he was pushed up to High A (as is typical for high round college draftees) and he exploded there, posting an incredible .371/.445/.600 line over 25 games. And just like that he was moved up to AA…where he pretty much just got his lunch money taken away every day. He hit just .241 the rest of the year, posted an OBP below .300, more or less stopped hitting for power, and struck out 100 times in 423 PA. The next year he returned and it was more of the same. Ultimately, Crawford’s development as an offensive player took place almost entirely at the big league level, and it was a tough slog for him to become the player he turned himself into. Did that rapid promotion hurt him? Did it help him by upping the challenge level? Did it retard his path? Did it ultimately not matter at all? They’re all rhetorical questions, of course, but I’d love to hear what Brandon thinks about them.
Meanwhile, any mention of Brandon Crawford in AA obligates me to show you this delightful footage:
I suspect that next year we’ll add several more case studies to the issues surrounding rapid promotions. When it’s all said and done, this will probably be the biggest storyline of the 2021 minor league campaign. The old saying goes that “a player will tell you what level they belong in.” This year front offices will be straining to hear the message like never before.