Seven months ago I was perusing Amazon and daydreaming of improbable scenarios that might come back to haunt me. I was already the owner of a Canon Vixia HRF700 digital video recorder. The camera’s battery lasts a couple of hours and there is only around 30-60 minutes of recordable material in a given baseball game. I had never needed a spare battery but started running through Murphy’s Law scenarios in my mind. What if I forget to charge it? What if it gets damaged? What if it malfunctions? In an unprecedented move (for me), I did something I never normally have the foresight to do: plan for contingencies. Besides the battery was only $16. F*** it.
Last Friday, I was glad that I did. On Thursday night, I plugged in my Canon and went to bed with dreams of Ohtani sliders inducing ugly swings and misses. Ok, I made up the dream part, but the rest of this story is true. For whatever reason, my camera did not charge. After an ephemeral freak-out moment at the field, I remembered my spare battery. Worth every penny.
The B Squad scrimmage was slated to start at 10:00 AM. Chris Kusiolek (Twitter @calikusiolek) and I arrived early and claimed our seats behind home. This promised to be a mob scene, especially for normally docile B Squad standards. We were soon surrounded by a mix of Japanese media and domestic scouts. The high powered camera to person ratio was extremely high here. I’d estimate there were between 10 and 20 cameramen snapping rapid-fire action shots of Ohtani’s every move.
Let’s finish the background fluff and get to the good stuff. Were these videos cherry-picked? Of course. I don’t think that diminishes how good Ohtani’s stuff is and how excited we should be to see him pitch this year.
Fastball – 70
The fastball sat 92-94 and touched 96. My 70 grade is more based off his reported high 90s velocity. I suspect we are in the midst of a spring training ramping up phase. The fastball command was in the 55-60 range; It wasn’t elite but certainly better than average and maybe plus. He used it to both sides of the plate and expanded the zone on hitters with two strikes. Ohtani got some natural plane on the fastball due to his height, and he had the ability to run it armside out of the zone.
Slider – 70
Ohtani displayed advanced feel for his slider. He was able to use it to both sides of the plate. It’s worth noting, he was especially comfortable using it to the left side of the plate (batter perspective), whether back-dooring lefties or breaking it back inside on righties. Ranging from 80-85, it had extreme two-plane movement. Ohtani could use it in the zone early in counts or as a put away pitch below the zone with two strikes.
Splitter – 70
From all accounts the splitter is Ohtani’s go-to strikeout pitch. It was in the low 80s and dropped off the table. It enticed hitters into a couple of ugly swings and misses in this game. He used his slider more than the splitter in this outing which causes me to speculate whether he is “saving” his splitter for actual games in an attempt to limit opponent looks at it. Alternatively, have the Angels recommended a change to his pitch mix? I am unsure of the answer and am probably reading into it too much. It was only 2 2/3 innings in a spring training practice after all.
Curveball – 55
There were two or three curves thrown in the game. Ohtani was using it more as a change of pace offering within the zone. It had huge depth and a 12 to 6 shape. He would play with its velocity a bit and it ranged from 71-79. One was taken for a strike in the zone but left up, and I think a major league hitter would have taken advantage. Guys on this B squad were unable to make him pay for it. There was also a ball that slipped out of Ohtani’s hand a flew to the backstop. I believe that was his curve as well. Despite some inconsistency with it today it’s hard to overlook the massive movement on this pitch; I think it plays to above average.
Overall, it’s a nasty bevy of pitches. He didn’t even break out his changeup, which I have heard is 50-grade pitch. It’s not unreasonable to think Ohtani will have three 70-grade pitches, assuming the fastball reaches its previous velocity. With regards to his overall command projection, Ohtani has long levers, but his body control and athleticism are phenomenal. I think his athleticism will enable him to touch 60 grade command as a whole.
Speaking of athleticism, the most underratedly impressive thing I saw him do was leap into the air and almost knock down this comebacker, a ball he had no business in getting a glove on. I think he’s going to be an elite defensive pitcher.
Like with any pitcher, health is an omnipresent concern and with Ohtani’s reported UCL sprain, there is even more risk. If he stays healthy, I see a player who could step in this year and be a number three starter. And it would not surprise me at all to see him produce at a number two level.
The Ohtani storyline will be a fun follow not only for Angels fans but for MLB fans across the country.
3/1/18 – White Sox at Reds – Goodyear Stadium
Three fifths of what might be the White Sox future rotation threw in this game. Reynaldo Lopez, the most established of the group, was the starter. Last season Washington used him as both a starter and reliever, which begs the question, what will his long-term role look like? This was my first look at Lopez, and he only went two innings, but I think his stuff is too good to not make it work as a starter. He was dirty. The fastball, which ranged from 95-97 with run was paired with a plus curve. None of this is new, but seeing it in person from behind home was elucidating. Command has been his bugaboo. The White Sox should give him every opportunity to fail as a starter before moving him to the pen. I think he settles in as a third or fourth starter who looks great at times and is bafflingly bad at others.
Next up was Dane Dunning, who has the look of a high floor, low ceiling back-end starter. He sported three-pitch mix, which included a fastball, slider, and changeup. The fastball wasn’t overpowering but sat 90-92 and touched 93 with some wiggle armside. Dunning commanded the pitch well, primarily in the lower third of the zone. A ground ball rate over 50% last year seems to substantiate this observation. The changeup flashed above average, and I think the slider is already there. One above average cambio to Billy Hamilton stuck out in my mind. His arsenal should allow him to attack hitters to both sides of the plate. It’s worth noting that Dunning had more success versus righties than lefties last year (.589 vs .727 ops). From what I saw in this game, it’s possible his changeup has taken a step forward, a trend worth monitoring. In theory, that would allow for better success versus lefties.
The final pitcher in the trio was Alec Hansen, a long-limbed 6’7″ right-hander. A high 3/4 slot appears to limit Hansen’s extension but also create significant downhill plane. Hansen hides the ball well behind his frame and accelerates with an athletic burst immediately after foot strike, making it difficult for hitters to pick up the ball out of his hand. It’s an athletic delivery but there is also some effort to it. His fastball sat low 90s and touched 94. Its velocity peaked in an at bat against Joey Votto. Hansen struck out Votto swinging with an elevated fastball. It was a well-sequenced and well-commanded series of pitches: slider in (b), change away (k-l), slider in (k-l), fastball up (k-sw). Obviously, striking out Joey Votto is no small feat. I was encouraged by Hansen’s control of his changeup, a pitch that has historically lagged behind his other offerings. It was evident not only in the Votto AB but throughout the outing.
2/28/18 – Rockies vs Diamondbacks (shared facility) – Salt River Field
Back in December the Diamondbacks signed Japanese closer Yoshihisa Hirano to a low-risk two-year deal for $6 million. His signing coupled with the deal for former Rays closer Brad Boxberger caused many to speculate how this affects their bullpen and whether it signaled a possible move for Archie Bradley into the starting rotation. Hirano’s first look stateside was last Wednesday. The results were not great; He finished with a final line of 1 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, and the L. His splitter was his best pitch, registering in the low 80s and dropping off the table with mostly vertical movement. He struck out Tom Murphy swinging with it. His fastball and slider were around average and he displayed command of them within the zone. He repeats his delivery, which should allow for plus command. Upon first glance, I saw a guy who did not look like a closer but a serviceable bullpen piece. Don’t expect Archie Bradley to be moving out of the pen anytime soon. At least not on account of the Diamondback’s offseason moves.
2/25/18 – Royals at Athletics (Hohokam Stadium)
AJ Puk was the big attraction here. He went two innings and showed why he has ace potential. His fastball sat comfortably 93-94, and the 88 mph slider looked untouchable. Seeing Puk for the first time was a treat. The body looks easily capable of starter’s workload. There is natural plus extension in his 6’7″ frame. His long arms result in a release point that is fairly high, in turn creating significant downhill plane on his offerings. Whether or not he can reach his OFP hinges on his changeup, a pitch that was thrown twice in Sunday’s outing. One fluttered out of the zone armside. The other looked league average. If Puk can refine his changeup command, he can be a number two starter.
Dustin Fowler returned to action for the first time since rupturing his patellar tendon last June. The savage injury occurred when he slammed into an unpadded wall while chasing down a foul ball. Fowler moved well in the outfield and on the bases, including a 4.17 home to first on a ground ball. While this isn’t Fowler’s max speed, it makes sense he would be ramping things up slowly in spring training, particularly after such a gruesome injury. If I had not previously known he was injured, nothing in this game would have stood out to me with regards to his mobility.
Royals RHP Andres Machado displayed plus momentum and an incredibly fast arm, touching 98 in the process. His 2015 season was wiped out due to TJ. He spent 2016, his age 23 season, in the Pioneer League where he was old for the level. That all changed in 2017 when the Royals pushed him aggressively. After 21 appearances in high A Wilmington, he received multiple promotions en route to his major league debut. The team liked him enough to add him to the 40-man roster last September. Expect Macado to be a contributor in the Royals pen this season.
Results-wise it wasn’t a good performance for Royals prospect Josh Staumont, but I can see why he has been a mainstay on Royals prospects lists the last few years. Frankly, it defies logic how he’s able to generate high 90s velocity with such an easy delivery. I am going to resort everyone’s favorite cliche’, he looks like he’s playing catch out there. This appearance did little to allay concerns over his mounting history of command issues. In 2016 he walked 7.6/9IP in 123 1/3 innings, and in 2017 he walked 7.00/9IP in 124 2/3 innings. These are not small sample sizes. In this outing, he was unable to locate his curveball with any consistency, although it flashed plus. Considering the ease of his delivery, I can see why the Royals would want to continue to develop him as a starter. 2018 may be a lost year for the Royals so it would behoove them to give Staumont another chance to figure things out.
2/26/18 – Mariners at Cubs (Sloan Field)
Unfortunately, the news du jour on Monday was King Felix getting hit in the forarm/elbow area with a comebacker. Luckily, It’s been reported the injury is not serious. Before leaving the game, Felix was 88-89 with his fastball and barely scrapped 90. His velo has been decreasing consistently over the years, and he averaged 91 last year according to Brooks Baseball. I would expect something similar from Felix this year. At this stage in his career he is a mid-rotation starter in my opinion. He is still a wizard with breaking pitches, but the unthreatening nature of his fastball curbs his ceiling.
Mariners 2017 1st round pick Evan White had two at bats in the game. As a prospect junkie, this was of immense interest to me. It’s hard to draw conclusions from two ABs, but I will say he did not look over-matched at all and appeared to have good strikezone awareness. White has been lauded as a plus-plus defender and some scouts are even advocating for a move to center field. This is an interesting guy to keep an eye on.
This spring has been a busy one. My first day of live baseball was 1/26. Since then, I have seen 11 D1 college programs and attended 17 baseball events, including scrimmages, games and showcases. This isn’t meant to be braggadocious. It’s intended to underscore the fact I have seen a fair amount of D1 players YTD, and there have been a number of excellent hitters among them. These “kids” are possible top 5 round MLB draft picks: Jimmy Herron, Johnny Aiello, Carlos Cortes. They are very good players, but none of them were on par with Duke’s Griffin Conine.
For lack of a better idiom, he’s “A dude off the bus” as coined by the Up and In Podcast. You might be asking yourself, what the h*** does that even mean? It’s a guy who catches your attention almost immediately due to his physique. Conine’s massive pecs bulge out of his shirt. He simply LOOKS LIKE an athlete and passes the eye test. He’s an incredibly strong kid and has clearly put in serious work in the weight room. Conine hits the ball with authority, much harder than any of his D1 contemporaries I have seen.
Although his strength is impressive, it is not Conine’s defining characteristic as a baseball player. Scouts and teams alike should be wondering how he was able to slug .546 last year in one of the best D1 conferences, while maintaining a strikeout rate of 16.72%. It’s also worth noting, he walked in 15.24% of his plate appearances, otherwise expressed as a 41 to 45 BB:K ratio. I try to avoid scouting the stat line, but these numbers say a lot. Considering his power output, he rarely strikes out, makes pitchers come into the zone and punishes them when they do. The stats are sexy, but the (multi-) million dollar question is, “How will this production translate to pro ball?” In an attempt to answer it, let’s examine his hitting mechanics by comparing them to active major league players.
This was an arduous process. Step one: open the Fangraphs 2017 Leaderboard. Step two: search for open-faced swing for given player on YouTube. Step three: compare swing to Conine’s swing. Step four: repeat 100 times. That’s right, folks. I looked at a hundred major league swings and compared each of them to Griffin Conine’s swing. Two players’ swings stood out as having similar characteristics: Jay Bruce and Corey Seager.
As a companion piece, I highly recommend reading Ryan Parker’s (Twitter: @RA_Parker) Baseball Prospectus article, RP BP Article, in which he explains hitting mechanics and breaks swings into components. Parker defines and elaborates on each phase, which I will touch on below.
Jay Bruce had the most similar base stance to Griffin Conine. Both start with their hands hands high, back elbow parallel to the ground, and legs fairly wide apart. Both bend their back knee, although Conine’s bend is more pronounced. Another difference is Bruce’s front foot is bent back slightly facing home.
At the gather phase hitters rock back for momentum before coming forward to attack the ball. Both guys shift their weight to their back leg and start to lower their hands. Conine’s shift is very slight. He barely moves back at all. Interestingly, Bruce raises his elbow as he dips his hands. I think this adds length to his swing but also results in an uppercut path that generates significant power. Bruce also has a larger leg kick than Conine, whose lower body is quieter and more controlled.
After the gather, hitters move their weight forward as their hands move into a ready position. There seem to be more similarities between Corey Seager and Griffin Conine after the gather phase. Conine’s lower body movements closely mirror Seager. They are very subtle. Both rock back slightly to their back foot before they come forward in a controlled manner. Conine starts his hands high and Seager starts his hands low, but they both slowly shift their elbows to a point where they are level with their shoulders. Bruce, on the other, hand maintains a high elbow even as he begins the approach.
Slot, Then Foot Strike:
As noted in Ryan Parker’s article, “the slot” is characterized by the back elbow being more or less level with the back shoulder. Slotting refers to a hitter’s hands. It’s the moment before a hitter’s hands begin to move forward toward the mound and into the hitting zone. By the slot position, Conine is very similar to Seager. Both are approaching foot strike and their hands are similarly positioned. The only real difference is the right/bottom arm. Seager’s is parallel to the ground and Conine’s is “angled up”. This would result in more of an uppercut for Conine, which may be the only remaining similarity I can see to Jay Bruce.
In Parker’s article, he also mentions the importance of the slot’s timing and relative to foot strike. Conine slots well before his foot strike. His center of mass stays back. This enables him to utilize his full body as he brings the bat forward through the hitting zone. It may explain how he is able to generate big power out of a relatively “quiet swing”. His power looks to be generated by upper body strength more than his lower body, which is especially quiet.
Barrel Enters Zone:
Not sure what to say here. These look like carbon copies, no?
I have a couple of observations here. First, Corey Seager rolls over his front foot after contact. I am not sure what purpose this serves, but I noticed Carlos Gonzalez does the same thing. Second, Seager’s lower body looks to be more involved than Conine’s.
In summation, I see a swing that incorporates aspects of Jay Bruce and Corey Seager. Conine’s stance and high hands through the slot position result in an uppercut swing that should generate power. The way he keeps his weight back through hand slot also suggests he’ll be able to hit for power. At the same time, the ease of his lower body movements result in a smooth, repeatable swing. I believe his upper body strength coupled with the fluidity of his lower body will allow him to hit for power while maintaining consistent contact. This is a unique swing with a controlled violence that reminds me of few other players.
The photos/video of Jay Bruce and Corey Seager were trimmed from YouTube videos. The Bruce video was courtesy of Walt Hilsenbeck. You can find him on Twitter @HilsFilms. His YouTube account has an immense amount of baseball content too. Check it out here! Walt Hilsenbeck YouTube. The Seager video was from rkyosh007. Please check out his YouTube account too. rkyosh007 YouTube