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June 3, 2013

Pebble Hunting

A Riddle in a Minor-League Baseball Game

by Sam Miller

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This is a riddle. See if you can solve it.

***

Michael Clair, the immensely talented writer of such hits as “The time Steve McCatty showed everything but his dong,” had an idea to do a California League travelogue. We told him that the California League is, mostly, gross. So that idea was put on the shelf, and Michael and I decided to just go to a game, instead. Driving over the hills between Hollywood and Lancaster Saturday, we saw the start of a forest fire to the west. By the time we got to the park, the sky was so grey we initially thought we might get rained out, until we realized the grey was limited to one massive smoke cloud directly above us in an otherwise blue sky. As Southern California burned,

we watched the Astros’ High-A affiliate in Lancaster host the Diamondbacks’ High-A affiliate from Visalia.

***

I’ve noted before how bizarre I find it that baseball fans fetishize elite runners when, if you want to watch incredibly fast runners, you could just turn on a track and field event (which nobody does). Also, though, I love to watch fast baseballers run fast, and I don’t care if it makes sense. Without a lot of sexy prospect talent on either roster, the primary allure of this game

was seeing Delino DeShields, Jr., run fast.

While Billy Hamilton was setting all-time records last year, DeShields more quietly stole 101 bases between Single- and High-A, and Jason Parks put an 8 on his run tool before this season. I was surprised by his build; he’s thick, listed at 5’ 9” and 205 pounds, four inches shorter and 35 pounds heavier than his dad’s listed dimensions. His size made me even more curious to see him get to full speed.

When I saw Hamilton play in San Jose last year, he was very obliging: three infield singles, two attempted stolen bases. DeShields, alas, was not nearly so generous. He singled to center in his first at-bat and jogged very casually to first. After moving to second on a walk, he tagged up on a fly to right but, again, was extremely casual in a leisurely trot to third. This was a trend for the rest of the game: circumstances didn’t require extreme hustle, and DeShields opted to take the lowest-energy vehicle to his destination. After a lineout in the fourth inning, he walked back to the dugout so slowly you might have thought he was trying to find a lost contact lens in the grass. In the eighth inning, he was on first base when the no. 2 hitter, Joe Sclafani, hit a long home run to right-center. For a second we got to see DeShields in a blur rounding second, but once the ball was over the wall he slowed to something between a David Ortizian home run trot and the David Ortiz statue that will be put up outside Fenway Park in 15 or 20 years; he literally walked the last 25 or so feet to home plate. Michael and I concluded that DeShields hates to run, that it is actually the worst part of his job. When the suspense of a play is over, he’s like any other worker at the end of a long day at work, plopping down into extreme leisure. Running is for suckers.

***

We bought tickets at the window. I asked if there was anything left in sections 101, 102, or 103, hoping to land at least near enough the scouts to peak at their guns. The seats we got in 101 turned out to be surrounded by scouts, eight of them; they had to move their bags to accommodate us.

Directly in front of us was a scout for the Diamondbacks who was logging the type and location of every pitch on a laptop. It was sort of an extremely rough substitute for PITCHf/x, and the Diamondbacks (I was told by the scouts) were one of just a few teams (along with the Dodgers and maybe the Blue Jays) that now do this for every minor league team even on the road. I wondered whether the data was for analysis, for some large-scale research project by the analytics department, but it seems to mainly be for the players themselves. The pitchers get a report on their starts sent straight to their iPads. The team also has video cameras at multiple angles so hitters can see their swings.

If this is considered useful information, then it seems natural that all 30 teams would eventually just invest in PITCHf/x cameras at minor-league parks and share the information. But the scouts didn’t think that was likely anytime soon.

At one point Michael and I, talking about Steve McCatty’s everything-but-the-dong pictures, reminisced about other ballplayers doing non-ballplayer things, like when Bob Geren was on the Family Feud. A scout gave me a tip: “You should go deeper into the archives. 1980, Family Feud, the Phillies and the Royals.” Oh, man. Oh, man oh man.

***

If not DeShields, the best part of the night was the National Anthem, performed by a 16-member choir from Total Deliverance Worship Center, a large church in the Antelope Valley. It was the tautest Anthem I’ve ever heard, with harmonies and fortissimos and sudden direction shifts and mostly just crisp, super crisp. The scouts around us, who see an anthem every night for six months, were buzzing about it before they were half done—“hold it, hold it—yes!” one said, and the scout who had timed the thing (scouts time the thing, apparently) was impressed by the 1:19 completion.

So this is when Michael suggests the most obvious and brilliant thing: On nights when a choir is in attendance, have them sing the players’ walk-up music. Keep the same songs—the hip hop, the nu metal, the banda—but give it the gospel treatment. Lancaster’s no. 3 hitter, for instance, was Andrew Aplin, and his song was Macklemore’s "Thrift Shop." Sure, that klezmer horn loop is a fun walk-up jam, but imagine if Aplin walked up to the same song performed a capella by a 16-voice choir. It’s crazy that we’ve been playing organized baseball for a century and a half and still discovering how wrong we’ve been doing it.

***

Somehow, even though the various parks span hundreds of miles of Southern California desert, every ballpark in the Cal League Southern Division shares one feature: It’s always windy, and the wind is always blowing out. Except, oddly, for Saturday, when there was a gentle wind blowing east, from the mountains toward us behind home plate. The result was that, around the second inning, ash from the fire started drifting onto us. By the fifth, it was impossible to ignore, and by the eighth I started coughing as ash covered our pants.

And yet, despite the pitcher-friendly wind, the game was out of hand by the fifth inning, and non-prospect starting pitcher Robert Coe was replaced by Diogenes Rosario, who went the rest of the way. A game I like to play at minor league games is “Guess The Prospect Status.” I don’t recognize but a name or two, usually, and without any context (you’re lucky to get the player’s RBIs listed along with his average on the scoreboard; there was no scoreboard at all listing which pitcher was in the game, or anything about him, or his velocity) it’s hard to spot the guy with sleeper upside, or differentiate the 26-year-old with big numbers from the 20-year-old second-round pick who is an actual prospect.

I was picking up good vibes from Rosario, a wiry right-hander who seemed to have good arm-side movement and who seemed to be very good at busting right-handers inside with fastball and who seemed to have good control and whose 11 outs were all on the ground or by strikeout. He made a couple sparkling plays on dribblers, and even before the scouts around me started praising his agility, I had jotted down a mental note that he looked athletic, a good sign for pitchers at this level. My completely speculative profile of Rosario: probably signed for cheap, spent a couple years in the Dominican Summer League, but since coming stateside had been a bit of a fast mover and, if not yet in consideration for any Top 10 lists, might have shown up on a Top 30 list by now. The actual profile of Rosario, I learned when I returned to a computer: 24 years old, repeating his third full year in High-A, lousy strikeout-to-walk ratios that are only getting worse, and no real potential for utility.

There was one moment with Rosario. With Aplin batting in the eighth, Rosario threw his first pitch behind Aplin’s head. It looked for all the world like a purpose pitch, except there was no reason to think he’d be throwing at Aplin in the eighth inning of a blowout. Even Aplin, after diving across the plate to avoid the pitch, seemed flustered but confused. He glanced at the pitcher, but seemed to be deep in thought trying to figure out whether there was any reason Rosario would be throwing at him; if so, then a response might be warranted, but if not then he would just get back in the box. He just got back in the box, and grounded out.

It was very mysterious, except to the scouts around me. “You know why he did that, right?” one said, then explained why Rosario had done that, to which another scout assented. I’m pretty sure he’s right. It was right in front of me the whole time, and I missed it. Did you miss it? Why did Rosario throw at Aplin? I'll put the answer in the comments in a bit, or when somebody gets it right.

Fire photo from the Lancaster JetHawks' Instagram.

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

Related Content:  Scouting,  Minor Leagues,  Scouts

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