And that’s key, because the third reason the minors are challenging to follow is that the statistics are both far less nuanced and far less revealing than they are for big leaguers. A major league starter with a 3.00 FIP in a reasonable sample is almost certainly a very good pitcher, whereas a Low-A starter with the same mark could be anything from a top prospect to a filler player.
As a result, it’s tough to really get a great read on minor league players without actually attending games frequently. I tried to for years. I took an interest in the minors in 2006 but didn’t have the means to view games regularly in person until six years later. My transition from thinking about the minors in a largely sabermetric fashion to employing more of a scouting-based outlook has underscored several lessons about what the numbers can and can’t tell us. One of those lessons is that projecting the future of minor leaguers, at least those in High-A and below, is all about adjustments.
On its face, that’s an obvious notion to agree with. If low-minors players had no adjustments to make, they’d be in the big leagues, right? So it stands to reason their futures hinge on their ability to improve from their level of performance. While it’s an easy enough sentiment to accept, there are other things that get in the way of its clarity.
Put any invested fan in front of a television displaying a major league game–a game featuring many of the planet’s thousand best baseball players–and that fan, who himself is far underqualified to be an actual talent evaluator, will make some salient critiques of these incredible, fully-formed players. Even successful major leaguers, then, have readily obvious flaws, and a fair portion of the baseball blogosphere is devoted to articles pointing out and/or dissecting these flaws about any number of solid players.
As a result, there’s this tendency to look at minor league players with problems and assume those problems will persist. Chris Carter‘s swing is too long, it’s always been too long, and everyone knows it’s too long, and yet there he is, not fixing it. If he can’t, why should we expect a minor leaguer with a long swing (and the attendant strikeout issues) to improve upon his clearly suboptimal mechanics? Professional players have been around so long and had so many coaches, you’d think that by the time they’re professionals, they’re relatively fully formed–their strengths are their strengths and their weaknesses are their weaknesses.
Further, when one follows the minor leagues from a largely statistical viewpoint, the numbers have something of a flattening effect. We expect a good Low-A player one year to be a good High-A player the next year and a good Double-A player the year after that (with the understanding that the jump to the latter level is more challenging and thus has a lower success rate). If the player does succeed in Double-A, then we expect him to proceed to Triple-A without incident.
Often, such a progression does indeed happen for a player, but it is too rarely considered what allows it to occur. From afar, it almost seems that improvement is just an effect of aging, as if an extra year of experience automatically results in a level’s worth of improvement.
That’s the shorthand we mentally create if we focus solely on the statistics. But behind the statistics are adjustments. For a vivid illustration of what I mean, let’s consider the tale of White Sox pitching prospect Jefferson Olacio.
I first came across Olacio’s name on the Kannapolis Intimidators Opening Day roster in 2012. Just his basic roster listing was extremely intriguing–he was listed at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, threw with his left hand, and was in a Low-A rotation three months after his 18th birthday. Who doesn’t like a giant teenage lefty who’s advanced enough for a full-season assignment?
I didn’t get to see Olacio that year–I didn’t get out to games until July, by which point he’d been demoted to the Rookie-level Appalachian League. However, he was reassigned to Kannapolis the next season, still just 19 years old, and I was determined to see this lefty behemoth, who now was listed at 270 pounds. So I made the hour-long drive down to his first home start in the second week of the season, excited to see a pitcher whom some had anecdotally compared to CC Sabathia.
Olacio didn’t even have to throw a warmup pitch before my excitement began to wane–just watching him jog out to the mound from the dugout concerned me. Olacio was every bit of 6-foot-7 and 270 pounds, but that’s where the comparison to Sabathia ended. While Sabathia has (or, I suppose I should say, had) the body of a slightly shorter Shaquille O’Neal, Olacio had the body of the guy at the local YMCA who has no idea how to play basketball, but is just taller and wider than everyone else, so he stands underneath the basket and gets his own rebounds until he scores.
Olacio was clearly a terrifically unathletic teenager, and watching him actually throw a baseball just made it worse.
I could (and often did) talk at length about just how bad Olacio’s delivery was. This video alone reveals several issues. First, his arm slot. Here we have a tall left-hander with the potential to get great downhill plane, and instead he’s just slinging the ball from a low ¾ slot.
Notice that his arm slot wanders, too, because he doesn’t repeat the motion. That’s a consequence of three things: his lack of athleticism, his size (tall pitchers tend to have more problems with maintaining mechanical consistency), and a second problem with his motion—the excessive moving parts. He has an arm stab, and why is his back moving like that? Finally, he doesn’t involve his lower half much at all, just jumping onto his front leg and lazily dragging his arm through release.
When you have a pitcher of this size, his career often comes down to his ability to repeat his delivery. That relies largely on two factors: the repeatability (efficiency and smoothness) of the motion itself and the athleticism and coordination of the pitcher. Olacio clearly flunked both tests, and there didn’t seem to me to be any reasons to expect that to change. It wasn’t like he was suddenly going to get more athletic, and the White Sox didn’t seem to be rushing to make any changes to his motion. Maybe he’d make some minor improvements at some point, but this was who he was. And at 270 pounds, it wasn’t like he had room to fill out his body any more, so he didn’t get the “projectable” tag that’s often used to wave away deficiencies in a young player.
One might be tempted to overlook the delivery problems if Olacio had intriguing stuff, but he didn’t. He usually worked at 88-92 mph with some running life, and that merely average fastball was easily his best pitch last year. His low-80s slider and change-up often came in with no bite at all; every third pitch or so would be somewhere in the neighborhood of fringe-average, but that was about it. And again, with that body, he didn’t exactly project to add any velocity.
I saw Olacio four more times during the 2013 season, and none showed significant changes from that first-viewing-awful delivery, passable fastball and poor off speed pitches. And so, I concluded that 19-year-old Jefferson Olacio had virtually no chance of pitching in the major leagues.
I didn’t make such condemnations of anyone else in the Kannapolis rotation, which wasn’t exactly comprised of household names (Euclides Leyer, Kyle Hansen, Francellis Montas, Brandon Brennan, Tony Bucciferro, Jake Cose, Braulio Ortiz, Mike Recchia, Myles Jaye, and Adam Lopez were the team’s other starters that season). Forget adjustments: Olacio seemed broken beyond repair.
Last year, I often thought about what, if anything, could be done to fix this giant left-hander, in a perfect world. I came up with a few things. First, put him in the bullpen. That would allow him to optimize his velocity—I assumed that was something like 90-92 with an occasional 93 and 94—and use his fastball more than he could as a starter. It also would allow him to work exclusively out of the stretch and give him just one timing pattern to repeat instead of two. Second, raise his arm slot to more of a standard three-quarters angle, maximizing his plane while still giving some running action to his fastball.
Third, get him to incorporate his lower half, giving him better extension and also taking stress off his arm; this might also help his velocity. Fourth, simplify the motion—get rid of all the extraneous back movement and maybe reduce the leg kick, as well—the latter making more sense if you take the windup away from him. Finally, with his arm slot higher, it might make sense to replace the ineffective slider with a curveball.
I figured the first of these changes—the move to the bullpen—would happen sooner rather than later, and indeed, the White Sox moved Olacio to relief work over the offseason, though they did promote him to High-A Winston-Salem for his age-20 season. As for the rest of the ideal adjustments, I doubted many of them would ever happen, and even if they did, I wasn’t sure they’d have much effect.
I happened to be in attendance for Olacio’s first High-A appearance this year, though, and this was his first inning of work in 2014:
As quickly as I had gone from excitement to disinterest upon first laying eyes on the southpaw in 2013, the reverse occurred this year. The most obvious reason for this was that Olacio’s stuff took a massive step forward. After failing to touch even 93 mph in any of the outings I witnessed in 2013, suddenly he was bringing the ball in with mid-90s velocity, and he hadn’t lost any of the movement on his heater, either. His previously anemic slider was now flashing plus with hard two-plane bite, and his change-up was a bowling ball in the mid-80s. He even added a 77-78 mph curveball, though it’s not more than a show pitch at this stage.
But stuff is an effect; the lesson here is figuring out what allowed Olacio to make such a profound jump. To be sure, pitching in short stints helped out his velocity, but the rest of his improvements have to do with adjustments on his part, many of which are the exact ones I recommended. The videos above show that Olacio now employs a three-quarter arm slot, his lower half is much more involved, and the extraneous movement is reduced. It’s still not a great delivery, but Olacio’s mechanical profile has gone from bottom-of-the-barrel to merely below-average.
Perhaps the most striking alteration Olacio made, though, is to his body. He no longer has a rec-league basketball build, as he looks to have lost 25 pounds or so, making him much more reasonably sized for his height. He’s still not a small guy, and he didn’t magically become an athletic marvel with the weight loss, but he’s also not disastrous in this regard. He still is going to have delivery repetition issues, but he’s gone from a mechanical disaster with poor stuff to a guy with electric stuff and mechanical inconsistency.
While it is the player himself who exhibits the improvement, the role of the organization in assisting players in recognizing and implementing adjustments cannot go understated. This is certainly true in the case of Olacio. Obviously, the decision to move the left-hander to the bullpen came from the higher-ups, not Olacio himself. In fact, while the White Sox aren’t always held in the highest regard when it comes to their handling of minor leaguers, their deft touch with Olacio has been terrific. By spending most of his age-18 and 19 seasons as a full-season starting pitcher, the extremely raw hurler amassed almost 100 extra innings of experience compared to many similar players, valuable reps for a player who clearly needed them. By the time the bullpen move was imminent, Olacio still had pocketed the extra development relative to his peers.
The organization also is responsible for implementing many of the mechanical changes that assisted Olacio’s improvement this year. “[Raising Olacio’s arm slot] was something that in spring training, we all talked about,” says Winston-Salem pitching coach J.R. Perdew. “Part of it was that we think he got tired last year, and he started to drop his arm slot lower and lower. His conditioning program has improved him, getting his arm up higher and being able to drive down. He’s a big strong kid; we don’t want to see him just pitch with sink, we want to see him at 94. When you have a guy that’s 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7, you don’t want him [throwing from a low slot]. The organization sees him as a power left-hander, and that’s what he has a chance to be.”
There are two particularly illuminating aspects of Perdew’s comments. First, not only did the organization change Olacio’s mechanics, it also was largely responsible for the improvements in his conditioning. Second, Perdew highlights how interconnected all of the adjustments are in crediting the conditioning improvements with facilitating the mechanical ones. However, it’s undeniably true that the successful implementation of organizationally dictated changes depends on the player, and Perdew was quick to credit Olacio for maturing and committing to getting in shape.
All of this has taken Jefferson Olacio from a 4.54 ERA, 4.18 FIP starting pitcher in Low-A in 2013 to…a 5.24 ERA, 4.41 FIP relief pitcher in High-A in 2014. He improved his skills in several profound ways and revamped his entire identity as a pitcher, but it didn’t suddenly shoot Olacio to the big leagues; it just made him able to hang in at the next level without being demoted.
In fact, statistically, Olacio’s output this season appears to be that of a mediocre Low-A starting pitcher who shifted to the (easier) relief role in High-A and didn’t make any improvements. Both his walk and strikeout rates have increased by about two percent from 2013 to 2014, while his groundball rate has declined about two percent. That seems to reflect a pitcher spinning in place, not one who has gone from an extreme longshot project to an interesting prospect (interesting as relief pitchers go, anyway).
Not every tale of a player maintaining his statistical production at a higher level contains adjustments of Olacio’s magnitude, but it happens more than one might think. Last year, I wrote an article on Rangers slugger Joey Gallo, outlining four areas that he could improve on: his swing length, barrel accuracy, two-strike approach, and plate discipline. I concluded with the following:
“If Gallo is able to go 4-for-4 on those adjustments-–he cuts out the absurdly overstated load, improves his barrel accuracy, and develops a better two-strike approach and a discerning batting eye-–he could win multiple home run titles and be a perennial All-Star (especially when you consider the home park he’s headed toward). With meaningful improvements in some of those areas, he could have a Branyan/Cust/Carlos Pena career as a wandering slugger who alternates torrid production with stretches of silence. There is, however, the risk that Gallo is unable to make any significant inroads to eradicating these problems and simply becomes another Cody Johnson or Kyle Russell.
Like many obsevers, I figured Gallo might fix a couple of the issues over the course of his career and fall into the Russell Branyan category overall. Instead, he went out and basically fixed everything in the offseason, and now he’s possibly the best power prospect in baseball.
Examples like these and others underscore not just the importance of adjustments, but the omnipresence of them. Players who exhibit stark downward trends in their statistics after promotions are rarely suddenly falling apart; they often simply are failing to improve as much as others.
The lesson to take from this is that, when we look at a 19-year-old kid with issues, even significant ones, we can’t write him off based on the assumption that those issues will persist forever. Sometimes, players can fix even the most pervasive issues over the course of a few weeks.
That doesn’t mean we should assume that all issues are going to vanish for players, as there are countless examples of promising prospects who were derailed by any number of problems they just couldn’t vanquish. What it does mean is that we need to stop equating the present and the future for low-minors players, who often improve their skills far more than we might typically think.