A statement of philosophy: I feel about purchasing tickets to a Triple-A game much the way George Carlin felt about getting a pet. It's going to end badly. You are purchasing a small tragedy.
The Buffalo Bisons Sunday lineup on June 20th, 2016 featured the following players, with their BP Top 101 appearances noted:
Domonic Brown, RF: 2010 (24), 2011 (4)
Matt Dominguez, 3B: 2009 (26), 2011 (80)
Dynasty League players of a certain age wince involuntarily, then nod solemnly.
In addition, Andy Burns, Alexei Casillia, and David Adams all started. All have played some in the majors. This is distinctly not the majors.
The Lehigh Valley stadium tries to emulate it as best it can though, if in 1:3 scale. There's a very nice concourse on the top level with a bar and food court that wouldn't look out of place in a big-league park. And the Iron Pigs are well known for their food, rated best in minor league baseball. They have food truck festivals and serve beer in mason jars. And if I wasn't currently on 40mg of Nexium a day,[iv] you'd instead be reading a tick-tock on my purchasing and eating the “Big Pot Belly Porker,” which, as best as I could tell from the picture, is a hot dog, pork rib, pulled pork, and onion rings all crammed into a woefully-inadequate bun.
Their broadcast on MiLB.tv is a professional production with a good center field camera.
The parking is better than most minor league parks.
But there's an edge to all the proceedings. Normally, minor league crowds are pleasantly-distracted by their Thirsty Thursdays and between-inning air guitar contests. They root, root for the home team, but even if things go badly, there's plenty of “attaboys” to go around.
There's a meanness in Allentown. Maybe it's because they know your name.
They know Dom Brown's name for sure. He played 180 games here. He played in an All-Star Game. Their booing here is specific and personal. It is not good-natured. Granted, they still didn't boo him as badly as the t-shirt toss guy who couldn't get one over the netting on the backstop. Brown, for his part, looks like he would rather be anywhere else.
Then, Junior Lake forgets how to run the bases
I will recount it to the best of my abilities:[v]
Junior Lake is on first base.
Junior Lake has been on first base a lot actually. At one point he was a 3-1 hack away from walking in three consecutive at-bats.
When on first base, Lake is a bit of an adventure. He seems to be the last one in the stadium to recognize that the pitcher is throwing over, and how best to get back to the base appears to him as a convoluted puzzle out of a blocky, early-gen, Tomb Raider game. He is still fast though, and on this occasion tries a delayed steal, I think. That may be giving him extra credit.
Lake actually does swipe the bag, but slides past the base. J.P. Crawford had to come to the first base side to take the throw, but quickly takes note of this and goes back to tag Lake. Rather than get to back to the bag, Lake takes off running for third. Crawford gives chase but Lake is called out for running out of the baseline, even before Crawford tries to tag him or starts the rundown. He just…runs out of the baseline.
At lower levels in the minors, such a play would be a source of bemusement, a quick text to a colleague: “You’ll never guess what I just saw in Batavia.” This is a small bit of cruelty to be sure, but commiseration keeps you sane. For Lake, I felt only fremdschämen.
It was the same for Matt Dominguez, who every time I saw him make a play at first base, I was reminded of the pre-arb extension he turned down. When Jesus Montero walked to the plate, I thought of his surreal run-in with a scout. This isn't fair of course. It's a cruel synecdoche, a minor tragedy.
The pathos of these games is quiet, wistful, akin to watching a YasujirÅ Ozu film. The slow recognition of old men (in baseball terms) watching their world move on. Coca-Cola Park even had a low, field level deck, the perfect height for a tatami shot of the proceedings. Major-league careers, dispatched as mere ellipses.
But baseball, as is its wont, defies all formalist narratives.
“This Space Left Intentionally LeBlanc”
Wade LeBlanc is starting
Wade LeBlanc is
leading the International League
easy lefty, easy tempo, easy action
a study in pitchability,
locate to both sides,
it is never a fastball count
work off the cutter, mix in the curve,
minimum through three
[my catcher nearly plunks me on a throw down
to second. i stare, resigned, nowhere in particular,
as i walk back to the dugout]
it is not a visage that intimidates,
a minor heavy in a Lorenzo Lamas
not a recurring figure
never shows up during sweeps
the hits come now.
[a quality start is a misleading stat,
but we get Quaker Steak and Lube
after the game regardless
tired of wings]
the call, in another anonymous Best Western,
two queen beds, non-smoking, mute Sportscenter
[cash considerations or a player to
be named later, i could be
traded for myself
another port of call,
his name on the back
of the jersey again
The most important
is strike one
“so far he has been efficient,
able to command the strike zone”
hit ‘em where they ain’t
[pitch ‘em so they hit ‘em
where they are]
sometimes they hit them hard
PITCHf/x has trouble classifying Wade LeBlanc
can’t pick him in out of the throng
dancing around home plate
[i don’t factor into the decision,
when do i ever]
Wade LeBlanc has
the longest active scoreless inning streak
in major league baseball.
Wade LeBlanc is active.
I am actually here to see J.P. Crawford, who may be the best prospect in baseball.
“Oh? Pretty cool. You are seeing the best prospect in baseball, that must be an amazing experience for a prospect guy.”
Well, it’s mostly like watching a guy that isn’t quite good enough for the majors yet.
I do think that is an important point. And Crawford is an unusual case even in this cohort. His tools don’t really jump out at you. There is no moment like watching 19-year-old Carlos Correa at the Futures Game in 2013 and nodding along: “Mmm, yes, this is extremely good.”
I find it useful, when I can, as much as I can, to watch a few rounds of major-league BP, or get a look at a major-league starter from as close as possible to…well, behind the backstop. Major leaguers look different. And you don’t see them a lot, even in Allentown, PA. So they can become an abstraction, something to be imagined, projected, while the thing itself remains elusive in your memory.
Jenrry Mejia is instructive here.[vi] I caught him on rehab a few years back in New Britain. Most rehab stints are just guys getting their work in as they round back into game shape. But Mejia didn’t have a guaranteed major-league job waiting for him after his umpteenth arm issue. But he was healthy now, and it immediately became clear that this was what it was supposed to look like.
Four major-league quality pitches. A cutter that no one on the Rock Cats had a chance at. Scouts sneaking knowing smirks at each other. And while Mejia was no slouch as a prospect himself, he was merely in the end a pretty good late-inning reliever. He was once projected for near the heights that I (and others) see for Crawford. But in that moment, his major-league role was patently obvious. No projection needed.
Crawford rewards a close reading. Okay, the glove does jump out. It did the first time I saw him in the South Atlantic League. I hadn't loved the profile going into the previous Summer's draft. I had no special information or intuition mind, but the usual caveats of the toolsy high school shortstop applied. Will he hit? Can he really stick? My biases were given free rein. Two minutes into your standard 4 PM infield drill, and the latter concern was put to rest. A couple good BP sessions, and a home run onto the berm in Lakewood took care of the former.
And two years later and three levels higher, the glove is still impressive. Crawford didn't have to do anything flashy in this look, but everything was smooth, every throw shoulder high. The game speed for him was as breakneck as a Shostakovich waltz. His defense may not quite inspire the orgiastic heights of Francisco Lindor's, but it is an easy plus.
Now there's no way around it, Crawford isn't hitting a ton this year. The days have started getting shorter again, so we can't just hand wave it as small sample size. And for all you kids out there, you should never scout the stat line, but Crawford is in Triple-A, a Freddy Galvis oblique issue away from being expected to contribute in the majors. It's reasonable to ask what you can expect and how quickly you can expect it. And in Triple-A you see more pitchers with major-league experience. They may not all be “major-league pitchers,” but it's often at least a fair facsimile. If Crawford struggles against Drew Hutchinson and Wade LeBlanc, that might very well mean something.
I don't worry about the bat either. He showed me everything I would want to see in two-game look. He smoked 93 mph hard and just a bit foul. The power with Crawford has always been a tantalizing possibility, but it has never shown up more than occasionally in games. He seems fairly content to work gap-to-gap, like he did later in that at-bat, lining another fastball back up the middle. His approach is excellent, he tracks east-west especially well, and he will foul off pitches and extend at-bats.
But it was an at-bat early Sunday against LeBlanc that sold me. It was a sea change, if not something that jumps off the page via a pitch-by-pitch description. His first time up, Crawford rolled over to the first baseman. Second time up, LeBlanc got ahead quickly with two curveballs. Crawford was front-footed on the first, cued the second one foul into the stands. Then the battle started. He took another close curve, a close cutter. Works back to 3-2, fouls off some tough ones. Finally LeBlanc has to go to the slider, his fourth pitch, and Crawford lines it back up the middle.[vii]
We can talk about “approach,” Crawford has that. That doesn't always translate against top level arms[viii] But he takes “major-league at-bats.” That is something different. That plays. Does that make him the best prospect in baseball? Ordinal rankings are a shell game, false precision for page hits. They are also, of course, a job requirement.
I can't tell you for sure that he is better than Yoan Moncada or Lucas Giolito. I've gotten huge reports on Austin Meadows. Maybe he ends up better than any of the usual suspects. Maybe we're all wrong and it is really Victor Robles or Alex Reyes.
Crawford sure looks the part though… well at least the part as I imagine it.
[i]Yes, it went Harper, Trout, Montero, Brown.
[ii]Kotchman predates BP prospect coverage, but made the BA top 25 four straight years from 2002-2005, peaking at #6
[iv]This did not stop me from eating both breakfasts at Waffle Hourse.
[v] As mentioned, Lehigh Valley has one of the most professional broadcasts in the minors. I could easily go back and find the exact play in the MiLB.tv archive, but I prefer the impermanence and unreliability of memory here, the lingering question if I saw what I thought I saw, each recollection fuzzing the edges more.
[vi] The first time that's been written in a didactic context other than “Don’t take the same banned substance three times.”
[vii]Impressive work against the active major-league leader in consecutive scoreless innings.
[viii] Or the major league leader in consecutive scoreless innings, Wade LeBlanc