A Teachable Moment


Angels minor league catching coordinator Tom Gregorio works with Roberto Lopez during the 2009 fall instructional league.

 

‘Tis the season for fall instructional league, one of the most overlooked and least understood annual rituals of the baseball calendar.

Instructional league is often confused with the Arizona Fall League, but one has nothing to do with the other. The instructs end around the time the AFL starts. The instructs are held at a major league organization’s minor league training complex, while AFL is played in major league spring training stadia. And while the AFL usually has many of the top prospects in the upper levels of minor league baseball, instructional league rosters feature mostly players who were drafted or signed last June.

The AFL was created as a finishing school of sorts for top prospects, an opportunity to showcase them and accelerate their progress to a major league roster the next year. The instructs are more like extra homework for selected students.

Official stats are kept by the AFL, although how much they mean is debatable. The AFL is a part-time job as everyone plays a couple times a week, but few play every day. The dry desert air turns these games into high-scoring affairs — Coors Field with cactii. Some players try harder than others, and quietly everyone hopes they don’t get hurt. Although the original concept was to feature top prospects, in reality many organizations send players who project as setup relievers, utility infielders, or backup catchers. Each team has players from five teams, so to field a normal lineup a team needs “niche” players.

No official stats are kept or reported at the instructional league. The reason is the games are more like a glorified practice. Rules are loosely enforced. If a young pitcher falls behind in pitch count, his manager can simply call an end to the inning and the other team takes the field. It’s not uncommon to see ten-man lineups with two designated hitters. The DHs might take the field mid-game, with two position players becoming the DHs. Although the home team has won, the bottom of the 9th might be played anyway to get extra practice.

Yesterday I was at the Washington Nationals’ complex in Viera, Florida for their first instructional league game against the Atlanta Braves. Major league catcher Jesus Flores underwent shoulder surgery last fall and missed all of 2010. He was in the lineup yesterday but was scheduled to play only three innings. He homered in his first at-bat, but going into the bottom of the 3rd it appeared unlikely his slot in the lineup would bat in the inning. So the Nats simply sent him to the plate again with two outs, to get him an extra plate appearance.

This year, the Oakland A’s are fielding two teams in the Arizona instructional league, the first time I’ve seen an organization field two squads. That’s another reason not to put any value in statistics. What happens when they play each other? Certainly players can move back and forth between the two rosters.

Stats are kept internally, of course, but under the above circumstances you can understand why they wouldn’t be “official.” Another reason is more basic — no official scorer is present at these games. There’s no neutral party to keep score and report it to Major League Baseball Advanced Media, which now keeps official stats for MLB and the minors.

The emphasis is on instruction, as the name implies. For many of the players, this is their first opportunity for intense instruction in the ways of professional baseball. Most organizations have their own unique style of baseball. Angels manager Mike Scioscia has implemented a regimented developmental philosophy and process throughout the organization. It begins with instructional league.

I’ll be at the Angels’ camp for the October 11-15 games. October 11 is against “A’s #1″, October 12 is the Dodgers (the first time I’ll see them since they moved to Glendale from Vero Beach), and October 13 is the Giants. October 14 and 15 are home-and-away games against the Cubs in Mesa.

As always, I’ll bring back plenty of photos and video, not just of the games but also of instruction. Click here for the roster; it will be my first opportunity to see 2010 draft picks such as Kaleb Cowart, Chevy Clarke, Taylor Lindsey, Ryan Bolden and more.

But older players are there too, for one reason or another. Some are making up for lost time due to injury. Others are learning a new position, a new pitch, or trying to fix bad mechanics.

The experience is fascinating for a baseball fan, because a player’s day isn’t focused on winning the game that afternoon. It’s about teaching how to win. And it’s here on the minor league fields of an organization’s complex that the teaching begins.

For a fan, you can walk in for free and watch the training up close. Nearly every Angels player currently on the parent club roster spent at least one fall at instructional league. You can learn as they do.

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