January 2011

More Mike Marshall


1974 Cy Young Award winner Mike Marshall, who now resides near Tampa, researches the physics of pitching mechanics.

 

A year ago, I interviewed Dr. Mike Marshall, the 1974 National League Cy Young Award winner who later became a controversial advocate for a radical overhaul of pitching mechanics. You can learn more at his web site, DrMikeMarshall.com.

Since then, Dr. Marshall has contacted me from time to time for advice about video editing. He let me know yesterday that his first newly edited video is now available on YouTube. Click on the arrow below to watch the video.

 

 

I found particularly interesting how Mike put stripes or dots on a ball to make it easier for you to see in slow motion the rotation on a pitched ball.

Blue Jays Trade Mike Napoli to Rangers


For the second time in five days, Mike Napoli has been traded.

 

MLB.com reports that the Toronto Blue Jays have traded recently acquired Mike Napoli to the Texas Rangers for reliever Frank Francisco and cash.

I posted this blog on January 22 looking back at Napoli’s Angels minor league career.

Hank Conger’s New Gag Reel


Hank Conger’s high school video, “Hank for President.”

 

Back in his high school senior year, before he was drafted by the Angels in June 2006, Hank Conger made a government program class gag video that wound up on YouTube (see above). Once discovered, it rippled through Angels fan boards. In May 2007, I recorded an audio interview with Hank in which he explained the video’s origins.

Now Hank has a sequel of sorts on YouTube, as discovered by the Halos Heaven web site:


Hank’s new video, “Domingo Ayala: Catching with Hank Conger.”

 

The video was produced for the Domingo Baseball Academy, which appears to be a gag. (Click “About” on the menu bar.) It also has Mark Trumbo in a video. Conger and Trumbo, both from Orange County, have been pals since both joined the Angels’ organization.

Mike Napoli Memories


May 10, 2002 … Mike Napoli (center) poses with Tommy Murphy (left) and Justin Turner (right) when the three were playing for Cedar Rapids.

 

There was little reason to think Mike Napoli would have a major league career when the Angels selected him in the June 2000 draft. In its 2000 draft preview, Baseball America listed Napoli as the #22 prospect in Florida. Described as a catcher-first baseman, Napoli’s BA review stated:

Napoli is a dominant offensive player who can hit with power to all fields. He led his county in almost every department this spring, ranging from home runs to stolen bases. Scouts aren’t sold on his ability behind the plate and see him as a corner infielder. He’ll go as far as his bat will take him.

BA predicted that Napoli would be selected in the second to fifth rounds. He was chosen in the 17th.

Napoli was sent to Rookie-A Butte in the Pioneer League (the same league as today’s Angels affiliate, the Orem Owlz). He appeared in only ten games — three as a catcher, six as a first baseman, one as a pinch-hitter — before he was disabled for the season due to a lower back strain.

He spent the next three seasons primarily as a second-string catcher, and in 2003 was the backup to Jeff Mathis at Rancho Cucamonga when he underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder.

At that point, it seemed like Napoli was doomed to spend his remaining professional baseball days as a journeyman minor leaguer. Other than the occasional show of raw power, nothing was extraordinary about the skills he’d shown.

While he rehabbed during the off-season, Napoli dropped 20 pounds and set his mind to stepping up his game. Returning to Rancho Cucamonga for 2004, he quickly became one of the top hitters in the California League, and was named to the mid-season All-Star Game.


Mike Napoli signing autographs at the 2004 California League All-Star Game.

 

I interviewed Mike on June 5, 2004 to ask what he’d done to turn around his career. Click here to listen to the nine-minute interview. (Windows Media Player required.) He said his off-season workout involved five-days-a-week sessions at a Phoenix sports clinic, but he’d also learned how to keep his mechanics consistent.

Napoli finished 2004 with an AVG/OBP/SLG of .282/.393/.539. The next spring, he debuted in the Baseball America Top 30 Angels Prospects list at #29. BA Alan Matthews wrote, “Napoli has a polished, professional hitting approach and obvious power … The biggest question surrounding Napoli is whether he’ll be able to catch at higher levels.”

Mike moved up to Double-A Arkansas for 2005, posting an AVG/OBP/SLG of .237/.372/.508. As you might expect with such an unusual line, Napoli didn’t hit often, but when he did it was for power. He also took a lot of walks — 88 bases on balls, which led the Texas League. Napoli also lead the league in homers (31), RBI (99) and strikeouts (140).

In spring 2006, BA ranked Napoli as the Angels’ #11 prospect. Alan Matthews wrote, “Napoli’s lone plus tool is tremendous raw power … He’s not much of an athlete or runner, but he has improved behind the plate. His arm strength is average and he has smoothed out his footwork and exchange, allowing him to lead the Texas League by catching 47 percent of basestealers last year.”

Every year since 2001, I’ve written in November an annual FutureAngels.com Top 10 Prospects Report. As impressed as I was by how Mike had turned around his career, I just couldn’t find myself believing in it enough to rank him as a Top 10 prospect. I worried about his surgically repaired throwing shoulder, about the relatively low batting average and all those strikeouts. I figured major league pitching would eat him alive.

Mike turned out to be “the one that got away” in my prospect lists. He made his major league debut in 2006, after just 21 games with Triple-A Salt Lake. The 2008 season was arguably his best, posting a line of .273/.374/.586 with 20 homers in 78 games. But his shoulder problems returned; he was placed on the disabled list for a month in July with “irritation” in his right shoulder, and returned to Rancho for five rehab games in early August. After the season, he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder.


Mike Napoli with the parent club in spring training 2008.

 

Although Jeff Mathis was always considered the organization’s top catching prospect and Napoli projected as a backup, Mike and Jeff eventually settled into a routine where they somewhat evenly split the Anaheim catching duties. Mathis never hit as expected, but justified his starting role with “plus” defense. That changed in 2010, as Jeff threw out only 20% of baserunners. Mike wasn’t much better, nailing 27% of runners. After Kendry Morales broke his ankle on May 29, Napoli played first base in 70 games, while Mathis assumed most of the catching duties. Bobby Wilson was called up to provide catching depth, suggesting that the Angels might be concerned Napoli couldn’t catch every day any more.

Hank Conger reported to Anaheim once the Triple-A season ended and impressed in limited duty, so going into the winter it seemed likely the Angels might try to move Mathis or Napoli. Mike seemed the more attractive option because of his power bat, so when the Angels traded Napoli and Juan Rivera on January 21 to Toronto for Vernon Wells, it cleared the logjam behind home plate. The Angels will open 2011 with Mathis the starting catcher, Wilson the backup, and Conger in the wings playing every day at Salt Lake.

The Blue Jays have their own catching logjam as Napoli joins veteran Jose Molina and prospect J.P. Arencibia. It would seem that Napoli provides some depth and insurance should Arencibia flop, otherwise he’ll spend most of his time at first base and as a designated hitter.

I’ll always remember Mike Napoli as the non-prospect who willed himself into a major league regular. When critics and cranks dismiss a minor leaguer as “not a prospect,” I’ll point to Mike Napoli as an example of what’s possible if you work hard enough.

2011 Begins


Mike Trout will face high expectations in 2011.

 

After a somewhat somnambulant winter, the Angels enter 2011 with more questions than answers.

The bullpen was strengthened by the signing of free agent lefty relievers Scott Downs and Hisanori Takahashi, but didn’t flush hundreds of millions of dollars into a “name” like Carl Crawford or Adrian Beltre.

In 2009, the Angels led the American League in batting average (.285), were fourth in total bases (2,482), second in runs scored (883) and third in stolen bases (148).

In 2010, the Angels were 12th in average (.248), 11th in total bases (2,142), ninth in runs scored (681), and seventh in stolen bases (104).

What went wrong?

Many fingers are needed to point the blame, but in summary it boils down to several players had disappointing years. Their failure to produce anticipated offense was one major factor in the Angels’ decline from 97-65 in 2009 to 80-82 in 2010.

Brandon Wood, Erick Aybar, Howie Kendrick and Jeff Mathis failed to produce as projected. Kendry Morales broke his left ankle on May 29 when he leapt onto home plate to celebrate a home run. Juan Rivera had a down year.

If they all rebound in 2011, no one will care about Carl Crawford or Adrian Beltre. But that’s a big “if.”

On the mound, Jered Weaver delivered a Cy Young Award-caliber season, and Ervin Santana pitched to expectations, but after that the pitching staff was somewhat disappointing. 2009 free-agent signee Joel Piniero missed about ten starts due to injury. Joe Saunders had a 4.62 ERA in 20 starts, then was shipped to Arizona in the Dan Haren deal. Haren had a 2.87 ERA in 14 starts. Scott Kazmir, now the lone lefty in the rotation, had a nightmare year with a 5.94 ERA.


Loek Van Mil was acquired from the Twins in the trade for Brian Fuentes. Van Mil is listed as 7’1″ tall.

 

The bullpen was another disappointment. Brian Fuentes had a 3.52 ERA in 39 relief appearances before he was sent to Minnesota in a September 1 trade for minor league pitcher Loek Van Mil. Fernando Rodney appeared in 72 games but had a 4.24 ERA. Scot Shields was 5.28 in 43 appearances, unable to recover effectively from a 2009 injury. The rest of the bullpen was a mix of young relievers — Kevin Jepsen, Jordan Walden, Michael Kohn, Trevor Bell, Bobby Cassevah and Rich Thompson — who offered future promise.

Nothing is certain in life, nor in the baseball universe. Splashy free-agent signees don’t guarantee anything.

They also siphon off a lot of money that could be invested into player development.

Years ago, Baseball America did a study where they concluded it cost about a million dollars to develop a major leaguer. I’m sure that number is much higher today, but it illustrates the impact on the budget when signing a player for a mega-buck contract. Using as an example Beltre’s six-year $96 million deal with the Texas Rangers, that’s $16 million a year that could have been invested in future talent.

The flip side of that argument is that an established major leaguer is more of a “sure thing” than a prospect. The failure in the last decade of the Angels’ minor league system to produce a hitter that lived up to expectations underscores that reality.

So can the Angels rely someone in the mix of Wood, Aybar, Kendrick and Mathis to step it up?

If not, the focus will shift to the next generation of prospects. Peter Bourjos arrived in early August and showed off his plus-plus defense, but only hit .204 in 181 at-bats. Hank Conger and Mark Trumbo had token appearances, but will probably return to Salt Lake.

After them, everyone awaits the arrival of the savior, Mike Trout.

But fans need to temper their enthusiasm. Let’s not forget he’s only 19 and has only a half-year of experience at advanced Class-A. For every prospect, there comes a time where he experiences failure for the first time. Can he adjust? That’s the true test, because for every professional baseball player his career is a series of adjustments as opposing pitchers seek out flaws and weaknesses. So let’s give the kid some breathing room, okay?

I look forward to a full healthy season for Randal Grichuk. He injured both hands in 2010, but during his last month of play with Cedar Rapids after his return he hit .366/.385/.645. As with many Angels minor league batters, Randal didn’t take many walks, but in that month he showed an improved knowledge of the strike zone, which is a good first step.


Charitably listed as 5’8″, Alexi Amarista hit .400 in 70 plate appearances during his late-season audition with Triple-A Salt Lake.

 

Two middle infielders are on the prospect radar. Jean Segura may switch to shortstop or remain at second base. He reminds me of a cross between a young Alberto Callaspo and a young Erick Aybar, but neither of those has produced the stellar numbers hoped for earlier in their minor league years. Diminutive Alexi Amarista may be the “feel good” story of 2011. He’s likely to start the year at Salt Lake, and the PCL is always generous to hitters, but he too draws few walks and tends to chase bad pitches.

If Aybar and Kendrick have another disappointing year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Angels have Segura at shortstop with Triple-A Salt Lake by season’s end as half of a double-play tandem with Amarista at second base.

The pitching prospect depth shallowed significantly in the last year, due to the Alberto Callaspo and Dan Haren trades. The Angels sent Sean O’Sullivan and Will Smith to Kansas City for Callaspo. Joe Saunders, Tyler Skaggs, Pat Corbin and Rafael Rodriguez went to Arizona for Haren.

I’ll be watching closely the progress of three pitchers — Tyler Chatwood, Trevor Recking and Garrett Richards.

Chatwood was the Angels’ 2010 minor league pitcher of the year. With High-A Rancho Cucamonga, he had a 1.77 ERA in 14 starts (81.1 IP), averaged 7.7 strikeouts per 9 IP and had a SO:BB ratio of 1.91. Promoted mid-season to Double-A Arkansas, his ERA climbed to 3.82 (68.1 IP), his strikeout rate dropped to 4.7 per 9 IP, and had a SO:BB ratio of 1.3:1. At age 20, he would have been one of the youngest starters in the Texas League, where he should resume in 2011.

Reckling was the 2009 minor league pitcher of the year, but at age 21 couldn’t handle Triple-A Salt Lake (8.53 ERA in 69.2 IP) and at mid-season found himself back in Double-A with Arkansas (4.56 ERA in 79.0 IP). Trevor is pretty much the only significant left-handed starting pitcher prospect left in the system, so the Angels need him to mature past his growing pains.

Richards will be 23 on May 27, and will probably start the season with Double-A Arkansas. Between Low-A Cedar Rapids (19 starts) and High-A Rancho Cucamonga (7 starts), Richards averaged 9.4 strikeouts per 9 IP. He has a mid-90s fastball, slider, changeup and curve ball. The curve could be a “plus” pitch but he seems reluctant to use it.

It’s possible that the Travelers’ opening night roster could include Chatwood, Reckling and Richards in what might be the elite starting rotation in the Texas League. Of the three, I think Richards has a chance to move up the fastest due to his age and overall repertoire.


Will Smith pitching for Orem in the 2008 Pioneer League championship series.

 

Oh, one another pitcher I’ll be watching — from afar — is Will Smith. Traded to the Royals, I’ve always thought his ceiling is underestimated by many observers. Prior to the trade, he had a strange odyssey that saw him move up from Rancho to Salt Lake as an emergency after the Bees’ rotation was decimated by promotions. He’d been sent down to Arkansas when he was traded. He finished the regular season back in High-A with Wilmington in the Carolina League, where he had a 2.80 ERA in eight starts (54.2 IP). Always stingy with the base on balls, Will struck out 51 and walked four.

Those numbers are not a typo.

The Royals then assigned him to their Double-A team’s post-season roster. Smith started the Northwest Arkansas Naturals’ title game against Midland, pitching 6 2/3 shutout innings. I wasn’t surprised, because I saw him on the mound for Rookie-A Orem in the 2008 Pioneer League playoffs. In a pressure game, Will goes into a higher gear.

If Smith returns to Double-A for 2011, it’s likely he will face his former Angels teammates for the first time since the trade. In a year or two, it might happen again at the major league level.

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