Game 63, Twins at Mariners: Development is Not Linear

marc w · June 15, 2022 at 12:40 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Marco Gonzales vs. Sonny Gray, 1:10pm

It’s a matinee for get-away day today in Seattle, as Marco Gonzales takes the hill against a team he’s struggled against. Sonny Gray makes his first start since coming off the IL with a pectoral strain.

I want to get back to something I mentioned yesterday, brought up by this great BP article on Jarred Kelenic’s struggles, particularly with breaking balls. In that piece, Jarrett Seidler mentions that concerns about swing and miss were pretty consistently waived off as Kelenic continued his ascension through the M’s system, and that his overall ability perhaps papered over the issue as opposed to actually solving it. The point he’s making concerns evaluation: how should scouts/evaluators/prospect nerds handle a concern like that? What should it mean to a prospect’s ranking or floor/ceiling? These are all great questions, but they’re not my concern.

What I’m interested in is what happens to a prospect as he’s moving up the ranks, or in some cases, after he faces his first sustained bout with failure? How does a team *teach* things like pitch recognition, or mechanics, or any of the tools in a baseball player’s tool kit for improving and attacking opposing pitchers. Seidler points out all that we don’t know – especially in the public sphere. We don’t have pitch-level data for the low minors (mostly). We don’t get to hear from PD staff what they’re trying to change in a hitters’ swing and why, or how it’s going. This means it’s essentially impossible to disentangle a whole bunch of confounding variables. Did a hitter’s K rate improve because he had more reps, because he changed his set-up, because he focused only on fastballs, and pitchers in his league obliged, some combination of these, or none of the above?

What I think complicates the Kelenic story in particular is just how many tweaks he’s made. I can’t count how many articles you can find about him making adjustments, both to his swing and his attitude. He talked to M’s coaches, to Mark McGwire, his old youth-baseball swing coach, and probably plenty more. He seems exceedingly coachable, always willing to try something to improve. But something’s not quite clicking, or at least, it hasn’t just yet.

So again: is this a case where evaluators knew something, and all the world’s hitting coaches and all the willingness to learn in the world can’t help address it? I just doubt that, given everything we know about how new coaching methods and training have transformed careers. All of that to me points to development as a potential issue, and at least in Kelenic’s case, I wonder if it’s a bit more systemic than we’d hope.

I am absolutely not comparing Kelenic and Evan White, whose own career has been crushed by injuries as much as his struggles at the plate. But White had more swing-and-miss in his game at the AA level, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he dealt with whispers about it from scouts. But it’s just as true that they popped up, or become more apparent anyway, after a swing change in high-A that enabled him to improve his power. It worked. But often times there are reactions for actions like this, and White’s swing was exposed badly in MLB in 2020. So, the M’s presumably made further adjustments, and White cut his K rate significantly early in 2021. The problem was that those adjustments sapped that power: his exit velo cratered, wiping away the advantage of the contact improvement.

Let’s be clear: White had a different problem. White struggled with fastballs, and in-zone fastballs, while Kelenic’s problems have been more with breaking/offspeed stuff. But the point is, the reactions – the adjustments – have hurt as much as they’ve helped. By pitch values, Kelenic slumped further in 2022 compared to 2021 (in a minuscule sample, I know, but it continues in AAA), all while *not* improving on fastballs. His exit velos dropped a bit, too. White kind of collapsed across the board. To me, this speaks to developmental issues and how hitters are coached, perhaps even what kind of cues they’re given to get into position. I don’t know that, and am not qualified to speak to how to improve it or even how to know that it’s the issue. But we’re seeing this…pretty often? Luis Torrens has slumped badly from last year’s pace. Shed Long took a solid half-season opener and hasn’t been back to that level since (though statcast expected stats always saw that cup of coffee as a mirage).

I worry about this because there are plenty of players who’ve had that “swing and miss” flag in their file, and who became superstars regardless. George Springer is perhaps the best example, as he was a college-trained hitter with K rates far in excess of anything we saw from Kelenic/White/Julio Rodriguez/etc. He was older for the level and K’d way more than Kelenic. Yordan Alvarez did too, and at the same rate as White in AA. Obviously, we don’t have data at the level we’d need to say that those K rates were a categorically different problem than the one Kelenic faced, but we don’t really need to. The point is: Alvarez and Springer got better, and Kelenic, to date, has not. None of this means he’s a bust or doomed or that he should’ve been docked in prospect rankings back in 2020. It just means the M’s PD hasn’t fixed this issue. I really hope they do soon.

1: Frazier, 2B
2: France, 1B
3: Rodriguez, CF
4: Suarez, 3B
5: Winker, (DH)
6: Moore, SS
7: Torrens, C
8: Trammell, RF
9: Haggerty, LF
SP: Gonzales

JP Crawford was a late scratch last night with “flu like symptoms” and isn’t in the line-up today, which… sounds like Covid. But it is *not*, in fact, Covid. Ryan Divish reports he’s in the clubhouse today, and thinks he had food poisoning instead, which led him to vomit three times before the first pitch last night, necessitating Dylan Moore replace him. That’s good news – not the food poisoning and barfing, of course – as it means we could see him very soon.


One Response to “Game 63, Twins at Mariners: Development is Not Linear”

  1. Stevemotivateir on June 15th, 2022 1:32 pm

    I have no idea what to think about the numerous adjustments & changes Kelenic has tried, other than that he’s probably tried too many. He’s probably strong enough muscle out pitches with a contact-first approach, so maybe slowing the game down a bit would be helpful.

    But my concern is less with what Kelenic, White, and other players may or may not become and more with what Seattle does to address the immediate needs. Americh and DeHart have dodged the blame till this point, and I don’t know how much of this is on them, but investing in established stars could go a long way to establishing sustainable success as we were promised.

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