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September 13, 2011

Future Shock

Five Notes From the Midwest League Playoffs

by Kevin Goldstein

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Barring some sort of unforeseen road trip, I attended my final minor league game of the year on Saturday, heading out to Kane County for game one of the Midwest League divisional finals between the Cougars (Royals) and the Quad Cities River Bandits (Cardinals). Five random thoughts:

1) I was excited to see that right-hander Trevor Rosenthal was pitching the game as I saw him early in the year and walked away impressed. The biggest surprise was to see the lineups before the game with a 4.11 ERA next to his name. He ran out of gas late in the year but still finished with peripherals much stronger than that ERA indicates, including 133 strikeouts against just 39 walks in 120 1/3 innings. Much like last year, when I saw Shelby Miller's best start of the year in the playoffs, I saw Rosenthal's as well as he fired his first nine-inning complete game of his career—a complete game four-hitter in which he faced just three over the minimum.

A 21st-round pick in 2009 who entered the year barely on anyone's radar, he's now among the best pitchers in the system. On Saturday, he pounded the strike zone with a 91-96 mph fastball that has a bit of wiggle too it, generated 14 ground ball outs, and was in control of every at-bat by consistently getting ahead in the count. With a smooth delivery, above-average velocity and command, as well as a breaking ball and changeup that both show flashes, there's a No. 3 ceiling here in a guy that few people are talking about.

2) Attendance at minor league games is a weird thing. Saturday's game officially drew 785 bodies, which actually seems high from an eyeball look, and that's for a team that is among the biggest success stories at the level, drawing more than 400,000 paying customers this year and more than 6,000 per game. While people like myself and the kind of people who are reading this go to minor league contests to see prospects, we are the extreme minority. Minor league baseball is a planned event for most, depending far more on group outings—school groups and families looking to go see baseball at a reasonable price—than any kind of walk-up traffic, as nobody knew this game would even exist until the night before. The result is a weird combination of one of the most important games of the season combined with an instructional league atmosphere that is hard to get past.

3) Luckily, it was a good crowd, at least for someone like me. The first person I found was a friend in the industry who was there with neither a notebook nor radar gun. As it turns out, he had just landed in his home area from a trip and instead of going home, he decided to stop and see this game, despite the fact that he had no specific assignment. That's serious dedication. Also in attendance was Royals GM Dayton Moore, getting a final look at his youngest full-season team. Selfishly, that gave me the opportunity to talk to him for a bit, and as important as it is to watch the players, looking around to see who else is around home plate can be just as important.

4) The one player I was most interested in seeing was Edwin Carl, but as a reliever, I had no guarantees until he was called into the game during the seventh inning. To say Carl came out of nowhere is to put it bluntly. I'm not too proud to admit that I had never heard of Carl coming into the year, but as he went undrafted in 2010 before signing with the Royals, I think I'm excused. Then the questions starting coming via email and Twitter, and after looking at the numbers for Idaho Falls in the Pioneer League, it was clear why: 33 innings, 17 hits, three walks, and 71 strikeouts. Go back and read that again, I'll still be here. Put another way, opponents facing Carl went 17-for-117 (.145) against him with 71 strikeouts. There are bad-hitting pitchers with better numbers, but at the same time, Carl is 23, went undrafted out of college, and is pitching in Rookie-ball, so unless he's the scouting find of the century, there's something beyond stuff that is allowing him to dominate in this way.

After seeing Carl strike out four of the nine hitters he faced on Saturday, let me make this clear: it's a trick, but it's a nifty one, at least. At six-foot and 210 pounds, Carl isn't the prettiest guy on the mound, and his fastball runs in the sleepy 88-90 mph range, but it's nearly impossible to pick up. He faces hitters not facing third base, perfectly perpendicular to the rubber, but rather is another 20 degrees or so turned away from the hitter, enough to see the first number on the back of his uniform. He drops his pitching arm behind his body once he begins his delivery, and it stays there until just before the moment of release, giving hitters nothing to track and leaving them flinching, at times, against below-average velocity. It's not just deception, it's ultra-deception—the kind I haven't seen since the days of Connor Robertson, who also put up crazy numbers in the low minors before it all caught up to him. Deceptive deliveries are gravy in the big leagues, but at this level, they can be the main course, and while I'm rooting for Carl, that trick will likely be figured out by the time he reaches Double-A.

5) Let me make it clear: I love Oscar Taveras. Now, that's easy to do when a guy hits .386/.444/.584, but unlike Carl, those numbers are no mirage. His swing has the rare combination of violence and control, and while the box score says 1-for-4 with an RBI single, he was much better than that. Minor league teams send a report up the chain after each game with details on who did what and how, and often they don't even use hits as a statistic, favoring instead hard hit balls. While that's a judgment call to be sure, Taveras was 3-for-4 in that regard on Saturday, hitting one on the screws (but right at the left-fielder) in his first at-bat and then missing a home run to right by about 15-20 feet in the sixth. This left me wondering about new metrics, specifically those generated by the still-in-progress HITf/x system. If we can quantify the definition of hard hit balls, I'm convinced that statistics generated around them would be far more predictive that anything BABIP tells us. 

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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