Photo Credit: Dallas Baptist University Athletic Department
It strikes me that there’s a reasonable, maybe even natural question to ask about this “under the radar” series I’ve embarked on. As young potential stars are lighting up Scottsdale with their talent, as we’re all getting our happiness glands filled up with light-tower shots from Heliot Ramos and deep plays in the hole from Marco Luciano, as the near-term impact future continues to be displayed in real, honest-to-goodness Giants games, why in the world am I spending my time mucking around with guys who won’t even be on a practice field for several more weeks and will be far from center stage even once the minor league season begins?
I’m glad I asked!
Last weekend I spent four virtual days at this year’s SABR Analytics conference and friends, what’s left of my brain hurts! I listened to a phlethora of PhDs in all manner of applied sciences — aerodynamics, biomechanics, electrical engineering. There were multiple speakers who had been hired by NASA at some point in their professional career. There were discussions of Markov Chains and Kelly Criterion. There was all manner of talk of force plates, internal infrastructure, kinetic chains, modeling injury risks. There was a Doctor of Neuroscience presenting data on whether a batter’s swing/no-swing decisions could be improved by developing and improving specific neural activity in the brain (possibly!). It was, in other words, an extraordinary and, frankly, exhausting look at the tools that modern teams have at their disposal to identify exactly how players might improve their performance and precisely how each individual body might go about trying to incorporate those changes.
The entire weekend made me re-examine how I approach prospect watching. For decades, prospecting has been a “more art than science” activity with two huge error bands: 1) the “can’t miss” prospects who missed, and 2) the “org guys” who overachieved and ultimately became successful big leaguers. These two archetypes have bedeviled prospect analysis virtually from the time such a concept came into existence. Why did guys with all the tools to succeed fail? And why did guys who scouts overlooked succeed? Moneyball at its core was an investigation into those two questions and certainly the insights that statistical analysis had on the game at that time told important parts of the story. Minor leaguers who filled out a uniform well and produced gaudy stat lines everywhere they went — say an Andujar Cedeño, Baseball America’s #2 overall prospect in the game way back in 1991 — could be tripped up by a “swing at everything” approach. More modest athletes who controlled the zone — Matt Carpenter, David Freese, basically pick your Cardinal — seemed to repeat their performances at every level from college to The Show. So this was a hint!
But still, there were so many others who seemed to do everything well who fell along the way side. Why didn’t Todd Linden succeed, dammit? And there were plenty of guys who ran up impressive walk totals in the minors who still ultimately reached a level where their simple inability to impact a baseball ultimately revealed itself. Take a look at the minor league stats of onetime #6 overall prospect Jeremy Hermida sometime.
But what if, rather than just the vagueries of “bad approach” or “controlling the zone,” there were specific, actionable things that ponged up on a team’s computer monitor that spelled out exactly how and why some players succeeded higher or lower than their overall tools and skillsets suggested. What if you could just see, “well, look here at this cerebral cortex activity when the pitch is coming in? It’s all purple on my monitor and it should be more yellow! How can we fix that?” Maybe the difference between Todd Linden and Matt Carpenter is something that teams can now see, and not just in the results, but in the process. See and fix — the issue is how much force you’re generating in your ground contact and here’s a way to tweak that and improve.
The result would be a revolution in player development — a revolution that could potentially turn every prospect into the best, or better, version of themselves. And it’s exactly the revolution that is going on in the game right now ….and growing fast! Now, that doesn’t mean that everything is solved and simple now. As some of the team analysts that spoke at SABR noted, you can’t just recode a player — type in a new line of data and have them suddenly developed. These guys still have to take that data information and translate it into mechanics. It has to feel comfortable to them, repeatable, actionable. They have to, literally, embody the new information for it to help them. And that’s hard! These guys have been swinging and throwing for some 85% of their lives on earth and their muscles are pretty well set for swinging and throwing a certain way. So this isn’t easy. It’s not magic. But it is a potential new path. A path with a beautifully landscaped walkway and that spongy type of surface that makes your feet feel bouncy and happy when you walk on them.
Building that path is exactly what Kyle Haines and his staff are hard at work on as we speak. And if they’re successful, it will mean that we should see impacts coming from the system that go beyond Marco Luciano and Heliot Ramos. We should see surprise starters, successful platoon partners, eye-opening pitcher development. It’s the things we’re not expecting that will tell the tale of the development group.
According to a recent study from Baseball America based on a study of every farm system between 1998-2012, the average team has 35 future major leaguers in its system every year, with some teams pushing that envelope as high as 55-60 in their best years. Beyond that, MLB teams had an average of 11 three-year starters in their system every year (with some teams getting as high as 20) and even 3.5 future All Stars every year (the Royals 2011 farm system ended up producing an all time high 11 All Stars). Teams that are able to seize upon the scientific breakthroughs going on around us should be pushing up to the higher end of those numbers annually. Which means a successful Giants’ development system should be In Progress on some 40 major leaguers, maybe 15-20 future starting type contributors, and perhaps a half dozen or more All Stars on a more or less constant basis if they get to where it would appear they are trying to go.
That means contributions coming from well beyond the top 10, even beyond the top 30.
Which, after the longest setup in the history of writing, brings me to Jimmy Glowenke. What I’m really trying to do in this series is think about where some of these contributions might be coming from and identify the types of players that the Giants might be able to help make those little biomechanical or neuromechanical tweaks that can turn minor leaguers into major leaguers.
Do I believe Jimmy Glowenke can be one of those guys? I absolutely do! To be sure, there are reasons to be skeptical of a player with Glowenke’s profile. He doesn’t have standout physical tools — he’s not fast or powerful, the athleticism doesn’t leap out at you, and his arm is likely not going to stick on the left-side of the infield, particularly after undergoing surgery on his elbow last year.
The lack of tools and the fact that he signed an underslot deal as the Giants third second-round pick last year, makes it easy to dismiss him as a signability guy — selected more because of the $597,000 he was willing to sign for (thus helping make the math work to get third-rounder Kyle Harrison into the fold) than due to anything he did on the field of play.
But that would be a real disservice to Glowenke, who does one thing the Giants absolutely value — he hits. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year talking about Logan Wyatt as a fascinating test case for the Giants’ development group. But I should also have been talking about Glowenke in something of the same terms. Here’s Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen talking about Glowenke in his recently published Giants 2021 ranking:
I have a newfound appreciation for Glowenke’s ball/strike recognition and bat control after seeing him against pro pitching during 2020 instructs. … Glowenke’s eye for the zone is so good that I’d be unsurprised to learn if he were sired by a Trackman unit or Defense Department satellite. This guy doesn’t chase, and he can put the bat on the ball all over the zone, fastballs and breaking balls both. His combination of pitch recognition and bat control is very rare.
If I didn’t attach Glowenke’s name to that writeup, would it strike you as a player the Giants would be very interested in? Personally, I’m imagining a large Pavlovian bell in the Giants’ front office that starts ringing anytime the words “combination of pitch recognition and bat control” are written on any scouting report. He absolutely does the two things that the Giants most prize in hitters: make informed swing decisions and make contact. That’s a combination that will get you noticed in this organization — get you noticed to the tune of 3 years and $18 million in the case of Tommy La Stella, a one-time 8th round pick himself.
Over three years at Dallas Baptist, Glowenke struck out very little (11%) and walked about as often as he struck out. He also hit .340 if you’re into that kind of thing (I am!).
It’s worth noting here that Dallas Baptist University has long had a reputation for being on the advanced edge of baseball technology — they were one of the very first schools to install a Trackman system at their field (way back in the stone ages of 2015!). As left-handed pitcher Jordan Martinson told the Ringer, at DBU “you kind of learn analytically who you are … [and] ways you can utilize what you already have.”
So, now we’re talking about a player who brings a skill the Giants are keenly interested in who also has a history of working to develop his game using advanced technology to assist him. This is getting really interesting to me! And unlike Wyatt, Glowenke isn’t a player you look at and think: the Giants should be able to help him hit the ball harder. He already does hit the ball hard! Sadly, the data that would give us insight into that — his exit velocities and barrel rates, etc — are kept hidden away from public view. But the Giants, no doubt, saw them before they selected Glowenke with the 68th pick. Whether through the lens of advanced data or traditional scouting reports, Glowenke has always left observers (like Longenhagen, above) convicted over his ability to hit.
The questions come from the other parts of his game. Had I strung that Longenhagen quote out a bit further, I would have come to this line:
As it happens, “a poor man’s Wilmer Flores” is the lazy comp I’ve used on Glowenke a few times already. Possibly the Giants will find that extra ounce of power using their force plates to get Glowenke into the double-digit home run area. But even if they can’t, that hitter description isn’t too far removed from a Giants-era Donovan Solano (with extra walks!). Would a “Jimmy Barrels” be an interesting enough player to work his way into a major league role? I think we’ve seen how valuable that profile can really be over the last couple of seasons.
Of course, the fact that I mentioned “Giants-era Donovan Solano” suggests one way that path could go wrong. Young Marlins-era Solano was a defensive-minded shortstop whose glove was his calling card. His career from there to here is a lesson in the ways that knowledge can be a compensation for the ravages of age. But it’s also a story in how time gets the better of everyone’s athleticism. If Jimmy Glowenke is being described as “heavy-footed” at age 21, one could imagine that he’s playing with a razor thin margin of athleticism for the major league game.
But that’s why the Giants employ a “High Performance Chef,” “Coordinator of Minor League Nutrition,” and a “Coordinator of Strength and Conditioning” on their development staff. They are dedicated to creating a laboratory that can make athletes the best version of themselves. With Jimmy Glowenke they are working with a player who brings the skills they prize above all others and a history of working with data-driven technology. Not to mention a guy who’s pretty good at explaining the mechanics of the game to youngsters himself.
I’m not going to be too surprised if the result of that confluence is a player who provides some level of major league value in the next few years. Maybe someday he’ll be performing one of these interviews before a major league playoff game? Here’s hoping!
I’ll be back on Friday to talk about how the prospects are doing in camp.