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July 9, 2013

Baseball ProGUESTus

How the Twins Can Fulfill Their Potential

by Parker Hageman

Most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Parker Hageman is one of four founders of TwinsDaily.com and has covered the Twins since 2006. He provides stat analysis, interviews and GIF breakdowns. Follow him on Twitter at @OverTheBaggy, where you’ll come for the baseball but stay for the dysfunction.

Raising a ballplayer
Mike Radcliff has seen his share of promising prospects.

A former scout for the Major League Scouting Bureau dating back to 1983, Radcliff has been with the Minnesota Twins organization since 1987, holding a bevy of jobs ranging from lowly scout beating the backwoods roads in search of hidden talent to the director of scouting who captained amateur drafts that netted such players as Joe Mauer. Now the team’s vice president of player personnel, Radcliff leads the Twins’ overall player evaluation process at both the major and minor league levels.

One National League general manager recently told CBSSports.com’s Jon Heyman that the Twins, who control future stars like Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton, are the owners of the game’s best farm system, an evaluation with which BP’s Jason Parks agrees. That would seem to make Radcliff’s job the baseball equivalent of a San Diego meteorologist (“Still sunny. Back to you, Ron.”). Radcliff, of course, dismisses that notion and reiterates how arduous the process of finding, selecting, and grooming players in order for them to one day fulfill their potential can be. Simply having the top talent funnel into your system does not mean the job goes on autopilot.

Minnesota’s prospects receive individual attention that is catered to their needs to assure they are major league-ready—or as close to major-league ready as possible— when general manager Terry Ryan comes calling. That’s the Twins Way.

Making the right selection
From the beginning, the Twins blend science with art when it comes to talent identification. On draft day, scouts and front office personnel pour over data and statistical analysis to supplement their tried-and-true eyeball test.

“You can get about any statistic that you want on any high school, college, junior college, summer league,” says Radcliff, and the Twins draft team uses that access to information to its full advantage.

“At the collegiate level, as we’re going through the evaluation process and putting players on draft lists and trying to determine who to select, we’ll break out how hitters are doing on Friday night versus Sunday,” he continues. “Friday they normally face guys who are good with velocity on their pitches versus Sunday who is probably a freshman who is trying to get his feet on the ground.”

Naturally, the availability and usefulness of stats when applied to the amateur draft varies greatly between high school and college and even between collegiate conferences. It may assist in sorting the player rankings on a draft board, but players need to pass an eyeball test as well. For instance, Buxton’s high school stats in a lightly populated Georgia region were secondary in comparison to his overall physical tools. That’s where the art side takes over.

The same can be said about this year’s fourth overall pick, pitcher Kohl Stewart. The Houston native put up impressive numbers in his senior year, but his pitching background wasn’t as extensive as those of some of the other high school draftees. As a football player, Stewart eschewed summer ball to play on the gridiron.

“He didn’t pitch in the summer,” says Radcliff. “He pitched about three innings last summer. He went to showcases, and you pitch an inning here and an inning there. He doesn’t have 400 innings from age-12 to age-18 through summer and high school. He was playing football all summer.”

So how did the Twins know that he was a top-five talent without all the statistics to back it up? Stewart, Radcliff says, had a tremendous arm and four identifiable good pitches on the scouting scale, as well as off-the-charts athleticism and outstanding makeup.

The development process
For the Twins—and other organizations—becoming a professional means adapting to the reality that you are no longer in the comfort of your childhood home or basking in the local adulation supplied by friends and family. The on-field adaptation is sometimes a secondary focus.

“They come from high school or college programs, and now you are going into a pro environment and there are absolute things that you have to do on a daily basis just to survive and just to compete and put your physical talents on display,” says Radcliff. “You have to learn to be a pro, which is handling yourself both on and off the field. It sounds like it would be a given, right? But it isn’t. We’re talking about kids who have never been away from home. Whether you’re Dominican or from Houston like Kohl Stewart—the guy has never lived by himself before, he never had a roommate. So simple stuff like that which sounds basic—and it is—but it is part of it.”

When they enter the Twins organization, teenagers are most often assigned to the Gulf Coast League, where they are introduced to a radically different lifestyle that frequently disrupts their on-field play. Radcliff cites Torii Hunter’s first year in the GCL, when he hit just .190, as a reason not to focus too much on the statistical side of a player’s development. Hunter, whose high school development in Pine Bluff, Arkansas didn’t prepare him for the next level of competition, was overwhelmed by GCL pitchers who had pitches that went beyond the standard fastball-curve combination, struck out three times in one game, and reportedly flung his bat over the backstop in disgust. Some players make seamless transitions, while others struggle at first.

“The survivability skills are just as important as the eventual skills to be able to succeed,” Radcliff says. “If you are dealing with a 16-year-old Dominican guy that is an important piece of the equation, you have to be able to survive first before his talent even has a chance to come out, two or three or four years down the line.”

The Next Set of Challenges
How do the Twins know when to push their players to the next level? The answer goes beyond the glamor stats.

“For every player there is a productivity, analytical, sabermetric test that you would like to see,” Radcliff says. “But there’s the eyeball test, too. And that incorporates how they handle themselves, their makeup, feel for the game, how they are doing their job professionally, whether it be a hitter taking at-bats or reacting on defense or a pitcher going through the pitch-by-pitch adjustments. There’s an eyeball part of the equation that has just as much impact.”

Stewart’s journey through the farm system is just beginning, as he starts his apprenticeship in the Gulf Coast League. The Twins have some specific things he will need to work on—beyond getting used to his new lifestyle—before advancing in the system, like learning how to be a pitcher instead of a thrower.

“He can throw really hard,” Radcliff says. “He can throw a breaking ball really hard and he can throw a slider really hard. He is going to have to learn how to command and touch and feel and manipulate all those pitches for strikes and in different parts of the zone. More often than not, guys just show up here as pitchers and they just throw…You have to start the process of pitching, which is different for them. They just throw as a high school guy. Seven guys in a lineup, they are automatically out, and there are only two guys they have to worry about. And they throw their best pitch, the curveball, and they’re out. So they haven’t pitched, they just throw.”

Stewart’s lack of innings could mean that additional patience will be required in his development timeline.

“His pitches are easily seen and observable,” Radcliff says, “but he doesn’t have a whole lot of pitching background. So it is getting his feet on the ground and realizing that the next curveball he throws shouldn’t be 81 miles an hour, it needs to be 75 miles an hour because it will work better. He will get a feel for all his pitches. He’ll throw a few bullpens, and then he’ll probably have a few games where he tries to show everyone how good he is, and then he’ll settle in and get guys out.”

Buxton, who was recently rated as the top prospect in baseball by Parks, proved to be a quick study. Not too far removed from the Gulf Coast League himself, he has since moved up a few levels, most recently transitioning from Cedar Rapids in the Midwest League—an environment with early-season chills but comfortable ballparks—to the Fort Myers Miracle in the Florida State League, which features sweltering heat and parks the size of the Everglades. The crushing humidity and improved competition often create difficult conditions for prospects to thrive. Hitters begin to see guys who throw breaking balls in fastball counts and have better velocity. Advance scouting reports start to circulate. Adjustments, the key to being a successful major league hitter, are a must.

“The Florida State League is a notorious pitcher league,” notes Radcliff. “It is very difficult to hit in the Florida State League, batting practice is rained out about fifty percent of the time so you have to hit in the cage. The parks are gigantic, so if you don’t have a line-drive swing or real approach and know what you are doing, discipline-wise, at home plate, you’re just going to lead the league in fly ball outs.”

Shortly before Buxton arrived in Florida, Miguel Sano was moved to New Britain—and for good reason. In spite of those gigantic Florida State League parks, Sano had smacked 16 home runs in 234 plate appearances. Double-A presented a new series of challenges, including competition that included more of the game’s top prospects.

“The [Double-A] pitchers are more consistent with their pitches,” observes Sano’s current teammate A.J. Pettersen. “They command the fastball on both sides of the plate and are generally down in the zone more often. The off-speed hasn't been a lot different, except for the few guys throwing knuckleballs up here. Guys might throw a few more strikes with the breakers. The velocity in the bullpen is a little better and the starters might throw a touch harder.”

Once Sano has decimating opposing pitching in Double-A, like Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia before him, his path to the majors will be unimpeded. However, Radcliff says there is value to facing Triple-A pitching. In spite of the prevalence of radar readings in the mid-80s, Triple-A pitchers often have had major league experience and have the knowledge and know-how to carve up a hitter.

Aggressive or conservative?
Parks used the term “SuperMagicUnicornGood” when describing the play of Buxton, doing nothing to temper expectations for the youngster. Parks’ optimism is easy to understand: in a conversation with an unnamed scout, he was given career comps for Buxton of Mike Trout and Willie Mays. While it’s easy for sensible Midwesterners to dismiss that talk as some fast-talking shyster trying to sell the town a monorail system, Parks’ positive reports might actually undersell Buxton’s skills compared to the sight of a play like this:

Suddenly, the Mays comp starts to make sense. Then there is Sano, about whom Parks wrote “the power is extreme and it made me question my religious beliefs” after watching him destroy baseballs for just one series. Those descriptions heighten Twins fans’ desire to see this talent play. After all, the Twins are on pace for their third consecutive 90-loss season. Why couldn’t the organization take the aggressive route and have Sano and Buxton in the majors like previous 19-year-old rookies Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, or Miguel Cabrera?

First, Radcliff challenges the notion that the Twins are conservative when it comes to player development. In addition to current players like Arcia (who had all of 34 Triple-A plate appearances prior to getting the call) and Hicks (no Triple-A plate appearances), he points out, the organization has a track record of moving players like Mauer, Scott Erickson, and Chuck Knoblauch through the system quickly. It all comes down to the individual and the team’s need.

“I wouldn’t consider it not as aggressive,” says Radcliff in regard to the development of Buxton and Sano compared to Harper and Trout. “Every situation is unique and different. Bryce Harper competed at junior college all the way to the Junior College World Series and then got his number of at bats in the minor leagues.”

“We have every reason to believe we will be pushing these guys as fast as possible,” he continues. “They are talented young guys that we think are going to help our major league team soon. That’s why Terry [Ryan] will move them along. He pretty much defers to us in the minor leagues. We’re all a part of the process, evaluation-wise. Terry is one of the GMs with the scouting background who goes and sees our players, so he has a direct influence in the process. He’ll have a very big part how he sees those guys—Sano and Buxton—and how they move along and when they eventually get up to his team.”

As a teaser, Radcliff adds, “Who’s to say we won’t have Buxton in Double-A in a month and in big league spring training next year?”

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