August 7, 2012
Prospects Will Break Your Heart
The Lowest Levels of the Game
With a planned trip to watch complex league action scrapped due to an upper-respiratory infection and an intense case of adult tonsillitis that my doctor deemed too contagious for commercial airline travel, I was forced to spend more time watching New York-Penn League baseball, which is a step above the complex league and not 2000 miles away. It’s a good league with legit talent, but when you prefer watching teenaged Dominicans in the presence of sparse congregations, sitting in stadiums watching adults [by most accounts] loses some of its luster. I don’t want to come off as an ageist or a developmentalist (admit it, you like this term); rather, I just have a particular preference, and when you geek up to engage in that preference, settling for something else is unfulfilling, regardless of the surface fulfillment. I love scouting the New York-Penn League, but I already put a ring on the finger of my complex league sweetheart, and I’m monogamous despite having a wandering eye.
Last weekend, while walking to my neighborhood coffee place to overpay for some cold, caffeinated swill, my eyes caught a pack of youths dressed in matching apparel entering the local subway stop. My casual curiosity overcame my iced-coffee objective, and before I realized it, I was standing on the platform next to the top three players on the Dragons, a pre-teen Little League team that had a game that afternoon. The uniforms were fashion-forward, with charcoal tops and white pants with a darker charcoal stripe down the seam. The ball caps featured a large, white letter D in a confident font on a dark gray base; the cap shared the same charcoal gray as the pant stripe, but sun exposure had faded the color, leaving an aesthetically pleasing hue that resembled pewter. I assumed the boys were in the 10-12 age bracket based on their physical appearance and topics of discussion on the subway platform, which lacked the sophistication of a young teenager.
Under the label of social interest and curiosity, rather than straight-up creepiness, I followed the youth team [The Dragons] four train stops deeper into Brooklyn, where a few blocks from the stop lived a park, and on that park was baseball diamond, and on the diamond the Dragons and their shades of charcoal were scheduled to play some team in Target red uniforms without a team name on the garment. I might not be able to fly to Arizona to study the projection of my choosing, but tha>t shouldn’t stop me from continuing my objective of scouting the lowest levels of baseball. With 45 minutes until first pitch, I quickly made my way back to my apartment, gathered my notebook and Pentel gel pen, a stopwatch, a beach hat, a bottle of water, and the iced coffee I neglected to purchase in the first place, and found myself back at the field with time to spare. I positioned myself in the back right corner of the back row of bleachers on the first base side of the field. Judging by the proximity to the Dragons’ dugout, I concluded that the adults who were sharing the hot, metal planks with me were affiliated with the children on the team, and to keep the social climate stable, I introduced myself and offered up the honesty that I wasn’t a pedophile. My delivery could have been smoother. As it turns out, telling strange people you aren’t a pedophile makes strange people suspicious that you are in fact a pedophile. I’m going to start telling strange women that I’m not Ryan Gosling and see if that has the same effect.
With my lack of pedophilic interest firmly established, I gathered my tools and started taking notes. I decided to focus on a few players on the Dragons roster, mostly because the talent was limited (as was my time), and the fewer notes I took the fewer suspicious looks I received from the gallery of fans in my immediate vicinity. A 40-year-old female, who I assume was a parent of one of the boys on the team, took my picture with her phone. “Just in case,” she said without any comedic intentions. I smiled and told her that I watch kids play baseball for a living, which didn’t calm her nerves or improve my standing in the bleacher community. Without names on the back of the jersey or a convenient roster sheet available in the press box to match the numbers to the name, I simply identified the boys by their number, and I tried to pay attention to the parents who were casual with the first names of the prospects when offering support and good cheer. The Dragons were the visiting team, and first up was a tall drink of water with the number eight on his back. The cheering section puts hands to hands and shouted for “James” to find success. Here we go.
"James" didn’t live up to the hype. Standing a robust 5’5’’, with broad shoulders sitting atop a lean, muscular frame, the leadoff hitter/center fielder was said to be the best player on the team, a multi-sport athlete that is often the first pick in any ad hoc recreational draft. At the plate, “James” was easily tied up by fringe velocity, showing a defined arm-bar, which prevented him from getting around on offerings on the inner half. He was also noisy in his setup, and never found any rhythm or consistency in his approach. In a fastball-heavy sequence, “James” seemed to be anticipating more secondary offerings, as each fastball seem to confuse the table-setter. After several poor swings, “James” was sent back to the bench on strikes, his body language reflecting his failure. His cheering section roared with support. I wasn’t impressed.
In subsequent at-bats, “James” and his long, fluid movements and athletic pedigree continued to fall short of the advertising, as he failed to make solid contact throughout the game and made several errors in the field. His mind seemed elsewhere, and the utility of his raw tools seemed to abandon him. Definite red flags on the makeup, which gives me pause when looking at his projection. The swing just wasn’t very good, the approach was very immature, and the overall intensity was very poor. You have to love the size, the speed in the outfield was very good and the arm was strong, but the fundamentals were well-below-average and the makeup concerns don’t add much hope to the equation. He’s a prospect, but the space between the present and future is extreme.
Next up was number 20, a Puerto Rican kid with limited size but unlimited hustle; the 4’11’’ 95 lb. second baseman ran to the plate when it was his turn to hit and he sprinted into position on the field when it was his turn to field. He was clearly a fan favorite—but more of a metaphor than an actual man, as his name was never mentioned—as his approach to the game was applauded with fervor. A catalytic player, number 20 was hit in the back in his first at-bat, and eventually found himself standing on third base after a few casual actions by the opposing pitcher. The coach of the Reds protested the aggressive base running to the field ump, making a case that these kids are 11 years old and you shouldn’t be allowed to run Hamiltonian around the bases when the pitcher is trying to get set. The coach of the Dragons countered this argument by not paying attention to the argument; instead, a cell phone conversation and cigarette behind the dugout was the priority.
In four plate appearances, number 20 was hit twice and walked once, reaching base the fourth time on a poorly played ball by the third baseman that I assume was ruled a hit instead of an error. His swing was solid, with a quick trigger and good barrel control, but the sample size was small. The approach was mature, and he didn’t attempt to make contact with balls that were out of the zone or on a trajectory to his back. On base, he showed a good first step and good field awareness, swiping six bases and scoring two runs. In the field, he made one fielding play on a dribbler passed the mound, showing good instincts, a solid glove, and a strong arm. The kid was a gamer, but he didn’t get a lot of opportunities to game. I was told after the game that number 20 was only 10 years old, a precocious grinder at the keystone in the mold of Rangers prospect Rougned Odor. I don’t like the body/strength, and I don’t see much projection on the physical front, but I like the fundamentals and I like the makeup, so there’s a chance to play high school ball. My favorite thing about number 20: He showed up the field with a uniform that was already wearing some infield dirt. This was either a product of a substandard living condition or a manifestation of his baseball heart permanently tattooed on his uniform.
The final kid I took notes on was an enigma. His name was “Cody” and he wore number four on his back. “Cody” was tall, standing close to 5’3’’ and his body was strong and muscular, with an approximate weight of 110 lbs. “Cody” was 12-years-old, but he carried himself like a 15-year-old, walking with the cockiness of a high school freshman returning to the halls of the junior high he just conquered. “Cody” was hit-or-miss with his game, driving the ball better than any player on the field, while also showing swing-and-miss qualities that were equally brilliant. In four plate appearances, “Cody” hit one ball off the fence, one ball down the third base line, and twice returned to the bench on strikes after swinging over a few sub-60 mph fastballs.
Mechanically speaking, I liked the swing; he had a deep load, but his body was quiet and he exploded into the ball with fluidity and grace. His hips worked very well, and he was able to create torque and subsequent power. His hands were okay; he didn’t have great bat control and he wasn’t able to maneuver the barrel in the zone. His approach wasn’t pretty, as “Cody” was a swinger and pitch location be damned. During every at-bat, “Cody’s” mother would yell his name [Cody] at full throat, I assume to remind herself that his name was “Cody.” She was a classic piece of work complete with a Thermos that housed liquor, a lap full of scratch-off tickets, an outfit that showed off way more breast than people were comfortable with seeing, and chain-ripping Marlboro Lights like the nicotine in the cigarette could shift the lottery odds in her favor. “Cody” was the one facing the long odds.
In the field, “Cody” didn’t pay attention. He started the game as the shortstop, which made sense given his athleticism, but he soon found himself in right field, where his mind was lost to the wonderment of nothing. “Cody” looked into the void while balls were hit his direction, his mother screaming his name while scratching her tickets. The coach lost interest around the first pitch, and by the fourth inning, the majority of all participants had checked out of the scene. I continued to watch “Cody”; a promising hitter at the plate, but a disappointing all-around effort soured his promise. I judged “Cody” because I judged his mother, not for her vices but because she was basically topless and screaming at her son without actually looking up at her son, who at the time, was probably staring into the sun.
The game ended when both teams stopped caring, and I packed up my stuff and headed for the train. I didn’t fill the emptiness in my heart where complex league action normally resides, but I did have a cool adventure. As I walked to the train, I spoke with one of the parents who put the game into perfect context. He said, “You know, this is just terrible baseball. You can’t pretend that it’s remotely entertaining or well-played. But it’s baseball, and you have to start somewhere. You have to love the process. One of these days, one of these players might play in the majors and it all started here.” Well said.
Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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