Dave Talks Baseball
Instruction, profiles, quotes, news
WHO IN THE HELL CAN SPELL "KRZYZEWSKI"?
My Buddy, Duke’s Coach K
Watching Duke hammer Princeton I’m reminded of a story I wrote 17 years ago when most of you weren’t even born. Yes, that’s sort of a joke but I can’t spell LOL.
This is very self serving, which isn’t exactly unusual, but it makes a point—not just for basketball, my favorite sport, but also for baseball. If it bores you, then move on. I'm sure there's a precious and infinitely inane epic on Meghan and Harry just waiting for you. Everywhere.
But if you have the perseverance, the gonads (or the feminine equivalent), the vicious tenacity, the endurance to hang in until the end, there is definitely a punch line.
And words of wisdom from Coach K. Well, I think it’s wisdom.
Here’s the original story I wrote in “Developing Pitchers.”
DUKE’S LEGENDARY COACH K
It was the Final Four in March, 2001 and Duke was behind by 11 at halftime and looking as vulnerable as a Republican in SoCal. But in the second half the Blue Devils ignited to KO Maryland 95-84 and advance to the final.
When they asked Duke coach
what he said to his players at the break, he showed once again why he's one of the greatest mentors in the history of any sport, not just basketball. "I told them we wouldn't be calling any more plays," Coach K said. "I told them to just go out and play tough defense and let their instincts take over on offence."
In other words,
See ball, Hit ball.
What a great piece of coaching. Play defense. And, when we have the ball, get your mind out of the way. Let your instincts surge and control the game. It's just another Battle of the Playground, the hoops you loved and thrived on when you were a kid playing for the sheer fun of it, the supreme joy of being an athlete set free.
I prefer "reflexes" to "instinct" because that's what it is. Guys who have played two-on-two and three-on-three all their lives react out of reflex. Shove a hand in their face as they drive to the hole and they'll double pump like a wizard and slip the lay-up under your arm.
But there is absolutely no way even a great athlete can do this unless he's been there as often as birds fly or the sun rises. It requires relentless, endless hours on the court. Only then will your reflexes be so fine tuned you can just relax and let your body work like a Ferrari.
r Body Play
Coach K, in his wisdom, understood the Blue Devils were thinking too much. Getting tight instead of loose. Their minds were a blockade, a thick cement wall inhibiting their bodies and screwing up their reflexes.
So, instead of tightening his grip and taking even more control, which would have been a disaster, he stepped back and said, "Play. Stop thinking and just play."
What an absolutely brilliant understanding of human psychology. How secure is Mike Krzyzewski? Secure enough to tell the world his team got hot
coaching. And that is the greatest coaching of all--just knowing when to get out of the way and let them "Play."
What I'm really talking about is the Duke players themselves. When they stopped over-thinking and set their bodies free they turned the game around. And only a player who is as fundamentally strong as the base of a pyramid can do that.
Five players from Duke's 2015 national champions went on to the NBA. Can you name them? There is no prize and don't wait for my answer. I have no idea and I'm too lazy to do the research. I just needed a picture here to brighten up the page.
Did I mention "Let Your Body Play"?
Your body can only take over when you've done the endless repetitions that make your actions reflexive. Without those reps the body has no chance to react instantly. A split second of doubt and the moment is lost. Coach K knew his players had done their work in practice, knew they were as sound as an aircraft carrier.
How does this apply to baseball? Mostly to hitters, who often think too much at the plate.
Get your mind out of the way of your body. See ball. Hit ball.
But it also applies to pitchers. Groove your mechanics when you're throwing your bullpens. Think ahead in a game, planning your attack on the hitter. But, then, when it's time to cut it loose, get your mind out of the way. Focus on the catcher's glove, relax, let your body work, set it free.
That's when you'll be In Synch, that's when you'll See How Easily You Can Throw Hard. That's when you'll understand the wisdom of a great mentor called Coach K.
When I did my latest rewrite of the book I contacted Krzyzewski to see if my perceptions were right. Obviously I expected him to hire me on the spot as an assistant coach or at least insist the AD recruit me as the new Duke baseball mentor. Hell, maybe I'd even replace the AD.
Alas, it was not to be. But I did get this lucid and memorable quote. Genuflect.
“Your perceptions are correct. Good luck with your book.”
WHEN THE WEST COAST WAS KING
The Golden Age of Morneau and Dempster
Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth in the 1990’s the west coast of Canada was a fertile breeding ground of dynamic baseball talent. Top draft picks popped up faster than video game icons. It was a veritable deluge of major leaguers.
For openers there was Larry Walker, a raw slugger from Maple Ridge who went on to sit on the edge of the Hall of Fame. He was followed by American League MVP Justin Morneau and all star Ryan Dempster, who threw for 16 MLB seasons.
Then there were hard-throwing righthanders Rich Harden and Aaron Myette. Plus a pair of blue chip blazers, Adam Loewen and Jeff Francis, who were both drafted in the first round in 2002. Francis posted a very solid career with six MLB teams and Loewen would have been the best of them all if he hadn’t wound up with a steel plate in his arm courtesy of some misguided coaching.
Adam Loewen, the greatest Canadian talent ever
It was a Golden Age, a time when flamethrowing arms and crushing swings blossomed like hothouse flowers. The B.C. Selects dominated the Canada Cup and the Junior National Team might as well have been stationed in Vancouver so the players wouldn’t need to travel.
The Parksville tournament every May was a magnet for scouts and you looked forward to it like Christmas. When 17-year-old Loewen took his 6-6 frame and 96 mph fastball to the hill the crosscheckers and area scouts were three deep, flashing an army of radar guns and licking their lips.
The Premier League coaches were guys like Bill Green and Ari Mellios and Dennis Springenatic and Dave Wallace and Mike Chewpoy and dudes named Dave Empey and Paul Gemino and we were either working for expenses or $5 an hour if we were lucky. But no one seemed to care. We were developing pro ball players hand over fist and they were even making it into the Big Time. Hallelujah.
We had some obvious advantages over the rest of the country. The weather here is downright balmy compared to Winnipeg and Orillia. In fact, it’s much milder than most of the US of A. Try taking outdoors BP or infield practice in January in Nebraska or Oklahoma or West Virginia.
"We mercy almost everybody. Our kids keep asking when we're playing that Canadian team because you always give us a battle."
What’s more, in the early days, before the PBL, our schedules often included two weekend trips every month south of the border. Our kids played the best American teams we could find in Washington State and thrived on the competition. All told we played about 120 games every year and practiced three times a week.
When I started with the North Shore Twins I was told not to schedule U.S. Bank because the Bankers were a powerhouse, almost the Washington State all-star team and they even imported players from as far away as Chicago. So they were one of the first teams we scheduled and we played them five years in a row. We never beat them but their coach told me, “We mercy almost everybody. Our kids keep asking when we’re playing that Canadian team because you always give us a battle.”
With the Twins we often had two or three players drafted every season and, at one point, Walt Burrows, the head of the Major League Scouting Bureau, had the Twins play the rest of the province for his annual scout day. “The scouts say you have the best prospects,” he told me.
Theo Millas, who went from the Reds to the Blaze to the JNT
So what the hell’s been going on for the past 16 years? There have been some sparse shining lights, most notably James Paxton, but B.C. no longer dominates the Canada Cup and only two west coast players, Theo Millas and Tate Dearing, made the current Junior Nats.
It’s like the Gobi Desert has relocated to B.C. The Major League Bureau stopped scouting this area several years ago because there wasn’t anybody to scout. Eventually the Bureau was even disbanded.
I talked to half a dozen scouts about this scourge. One told me, “The PBL is awful now. I don’t go to the games any more. There are very few good players. And nobody in B.C. gets drafted. The proof is in the pudding.”
Why? Burrows, who is now scouting for the Minnesota Twins, has a few perceptive reasons. “The kids don’t put in the time,” he reflects. “They think they’ve got it made. They think they’re going to the Promised Land.”
Walt says he sees a lot of pitchers who lack arm strength because they don’t throw enough. “A lot of the guys here used to throw 85-86 and now it’s 78.”
Burrows, who is one of the best in the business, is always looking for that kid with a pro body who has developed his mechanics well enough to blitz the zone with velocity. He doesn’t see it here very often. “Anybody throwing 85 now is throwing hard compared to the rest,” he says. “But the major league average is up to 93 miles an hour.”
Burrows is not a big fan of showcases. “The umpires speed up the game by expanding the strike zone,” he points out. “And they start with a count of one and one. Scouts flock but a showcase isn’t what really matters. Just watching BP isn’t good enough. You have to see them play in games.”
Still, a lot of parents don’t understand. “They buy in,” Burrows says. “But look at the results, look at the reality of who gets signed.”
Walt Burrows, one of the best
He uses Dempster as a classic example. Ryan used to throw over 100 pitches in bull pens twice a week when I had him with the Twins. He was solid, his mechanics were perfect, he used Jobe’s and tubing to take care of his arm and he ran thousands of sprints to build fast twitch endurance. There was virtually no chance of him injuring his arm.
And, if you think a 100 pitch side session is excessive for a pitcher who is in mid-season shape, I beg to differ. When you throw 100 in a game it’s actually more like 180, including your warm-up and the eight before each inning. What’s more, you’re bearing down on every pitch. Plus you sit down after each frame and your arm tightens just a shade. A bull pen is straight through and you’re working on command and fine tuning. It has far less stress. But it certainly develops arm strength.
"These kids pitch two innings and they're done."
“Ryan didn’t care about all the radar guns,” Burrows says. “He cared about winning. I watched him throw in at least 40 games and I don’t remember him ever not throwing seven innings. Now these kids will pitch two innings, 40 pitches, and they’re done. They don’t have any endurance.”
Walt pretty well nailed the problems. But, wait. There’s hope for the West Coast after all. There are stirrings, little bubbles of hope. Are things about to turn around? Is a U-turn on the horizon?
Maybe so. In our next story let’s take a look at some of the B.C. prospects who competed in the T12 tournament this fall in Toronto.
NINE FOR THE MONEY
The Pendulum Swings West
There were nine West Coasters who gave notice at the T12. It comes as no surprise that five of them are on the roster of Doug Mathieson’s Langley Blaze.
RHP Theo Millas (Blaze)
Theo threw a pair of good ones against Venezuela and Panama in the Pan Am U18’s. He’s only 16 so he has a lot of head room and he’s the trailblazer. He was also a standout at the T12.
“He was the best pitcher there with a lot of upside,” said former Blue Jays ace Duane Ward. “He went out and pitched. One of the few guys who hit 90 MPH.”
And from assorted scouts:
“He worked five plus innings and was smooth and effortless with a fastball up to 89 MPH with a good slider.”
“He attacked the strike zone and showed excellent composure.”
“Threw hard for strikes. I can see him being a guy to watch.”
RHP Eli Saul (UBC Thunder)
I love his build, his arm strength, and he displayed great mechanics.”
“He has good size (6-5, 205) and the older he gets the better he’ll get.”
“He attacked hitters and ran his fastball up to 90 MPH. He threw some good sliders and a few change ups.”
“Touched 89 MPH and there is more in that arm. He has a nice easy delivery.”
“Everyone I spoke to liked him. First player to watch from UBC’s entry into the Premier League.”
LHP Justin Thorsteinson (Blaze)
First time I saw him throw he was 13 and he looked like a blue chip prospect already. He keeps getting better and he's had a scholarship at Oregon State since grade 10, which speaks volumes.
“He has size (6-4, 205), a good body and a great arm,” says former MLB home run king Jesse Barfield.
Another scout added, “He attacked hitters, filling up the strike zone. He has an imposing frame and his fastball was 88 MPH. He looks the part.”
INF Joshua Walker (Victoria Mariners)
“I really like the kid,” says former Blue Jays slugger Lloyd Moseby. “He has incredible hands. He can get to the next level.”
Another scout: “He handled the bat well and I liked his glove.”
“Had a good batting practice and played well at third.”
“He’s a great hitter. He crushed the ball. And he showed well in the field.”
“Could the pendulum be swinging back to the west coast? He’s a good one to watch.”
RHP Carter Morris (Okanagan Athletics)
“He’s young, but he hit 90 MPH and he used all his pitches,” Ward said.
“His fastball was close to major-league average," added a veteran scout.
OF Brandon Nicoll (Blaze)
“He’s a spark plug,” Barfield said. “I like him a lot.”
OF Alejandro Cazorla (Surrey)
“He showed good instinct.” says Ward. “Played the outfield well and puts the ball in play.”
OF Daniel Martin (Blaze)
“He showed a good approach at the plate and hit a ball to the second deck flashing his power. He also showed the best arm from the outfield.”
Loreto dominated at the Little League World Series two years ago.
RHP Loreto Siniscalchi (Blaze)
This might just be saving the best for the last. He’s only 14 but he’s already 6-2 and Mathieson projects him as a possible first rounder in 2022. “He’s a special kid,” says Mathieson. “He has a clean delivery and arm action with a 12 to 6 breaking ball. And he’s easy to work with.”
In Florida for the Perfect Games tournament Loreto sat on 84-86 and he routinely posted 14 K’s in games with the Langley juniors.
One T12 scout said, “He was up to 86 MPH with a live arm with natural cut on his fastball and a sharp curve ball.”
Burrows will wait and see. “He’s 14 and pitching against 18-year-olds. There’s a lot to work with but his delivery is not real good. We’ll see what happens three years from now.”
That, of course, is the crux of the matter. A lot can happen in two or three years. And a scout can only project so much. Still, these kids are the New Wave surfing the West Coast. Like the man said, the pendulum keeps swinging.
WHO CARES ABOUT HIS ARM?
Jupiter's "Win at Any Cost" Jackasses
You want to know how crazy baseball coaches can get? Let me tell you.
The Jupiter Perfect Games tournament includes 88 of the top travel teams in the US of A. It’s a magnet the size of an asteroid for every scout and college recruiter from Stanford to Stetson. There are 1,500 of the best draft class players on the planet performing on 13 fields for five days in late October.
But this Florida monster ain’t like most showcases. No, sir. The kids aren’t just trotted out to pitch a few innings or take some cuts. Jupiter is as cut throat competitive as a knife fight in the Octagon.
“It’s dog eat dog,” says Perfect Games founder Jerry Ford. “They want to win.”
341 golf carts at $500 a pop and over a quarter of a million in fees.
And how much do the coaches want to win? Well, Ford remembers one playoff game.
“There was this kid, who ended up being a first-rounder, and they were just riding him. He threw a complete game in the quarterfinal and won. That put them into the semi, which was the very next game.
“In the fifth inning I saw this same kid warming up again. I walked over and said, ‘Hey, you’re not going to pitch, are you?’ He says, ‘I think so.’ I say, ‘Hey, listen, you shouldn’t pitch.’ I can’t control the teams, but I thought maybe I could get through to the player."
“I don’t think the kid knew who I was—he probably thought I was a scout. But he went into the dugout after he warmed up and I think he told the coach, who I know very well, that the guy over there told me I shouldn’t pitch. He never got back up. But they were going to throw him. That just shows you how competitive this stuff gets.”
Now think about that. This kid is in Florida to showcase for a swirling throng of elite MLB scouts and college coaches. He’s talented enough to be a first round pick, which means millions of dollars in bonus bread and a jump start into the major leagues. He's just thrown seven innings and his ligaments and tendons and muscles are tightening up and screaming for rest. He needs to heal. If he steps on the mound two hours later he's playing Russian Roulette with his arm. With a fully loaded gun.
And these vile jackasses were so blood hungry, so bleeping polluted by their ego need to win, they were willing to gamble his arm, his career, his future, his lifelong dream, to win a bleeping baseball game.
Since then Perfect Game has adopted the USA Baseball regs, meant to help prevent overuse injuries. But why in hell would you ever need that for any game, especially in a showcase?
Mike Trout was a surprise package.
Jupiter is the Super Bowl of all showcases. It’s billed as a wood bat world championship on those 13 fields at the Roger Dean complex, the spring training facility for the Cardinals and the Marlins. Games kick off at the unholy time of 8 in the morning, which means getting your kids up by 6 a.m. to prep. And the wrap is 10 at night.
It’s so frantic for the scouts and recruiters they rent golf carts to scurry willy-nilly from one side of the complex to the other, 600 yards away. When a blue chip prospect is on the hill the carts stack up deeper than a Los Angeles freeway in the heart of rush hour.
The throng includes former big leaguers watching their sons, MLB general managers, cross-checkers, a myriad of scouts, prowling agents, and top college recruiters with their pockets crammed with full rides.
This year they rented 341 golf carts at $500 for the weekend.
And get this. The entry fee is $3,000. Even with my rudimentary math I figure that comes to 264 large. Holy, Batman, Mabel, a quarter of a million plus for one baseball tournament. Where do I get a piece of that action outside of Vegas?
Wisely, a lot of the top arms are bypassing Jupiter. High school pitchers often hibernate for a couple of months before prepping for their season, which starts very early in the New Year. "But, even though the top guys aren’t going,” says Twins scout Jack Powell, “there’s still good pitchers there. They show up, perform and elevate themselves.”
Scott Kazmir lit it up.
And the hills of Jupiter have seen a flurry of flamethrowers.
“Several years ago, I watched the Indians Scout Team,” says Ford. “They had a stacked team with eight or nine future big leaguers. But Jose Fernandez was pitching against them and nobody in the majors could have hit him that night. That’s how good his stuff was. Mike Trout was here and he was kind of a big surprise to us just how good he was at pretty much everything. But I would never in my wildest dreams have predicted that Mike Trout would be this Mike Trout.”
And Powell remembers the night Scott Kazmir lit up the late night sky. “The place was packed. He dominated and took himself to a higher level. We all knew he was good but it was even better. It was so impressive everyone stuck around.”
Which is how it should be. Just as long as the vultures don’t have you warming up to pitch two games in a row.
A Tale of Two Trades
James Paxton traded to the Yankees on November 19.
Rowan Wick traded to the Cubs on November 20.
If I was into Astrology or UFOlogy or Tarot Cards or Ouija Boards or Big Foot Sightings or JFK Conspiracies or Fate or Everything Happens For a Reason Horsebleep I would know this is a heavenly lightning streak from Zeus Himself. The World is Coming to an End! Save Yourselves! Sell your Stocks and Bonds! Leave Your Homes! Gather Bread and Water! Dig a Trench! Build a Barricade! The End is Near!
But I’m an Existentialist so I just accept it as a Bleeping Coincidence. No message. Zeus is having a beer.
Still, how often do a pair of big league guys you’ve worked with get traded not just in the same week, but only hours apart? And to two of the best baseball cities ever. C'mon you Analytics, WAR, FIP, OPS gurus, give me the odds on that one.
What a Long, Strange Trip it's Been
Paxton’s road to the Yankees has been a roller coaster ride peppered with speed bumps that would have ejected the weak at heart.
Twelve years ago Ari Mellios and Mike Kelly hired me to be the pitching coach with the North Delta Blue Jays. We had a blue chip crew on a team that went 39 and three at one point and James was the gun, the ace, the Chief of Staff. He had some residual elbow soreness from the previous season so we went easy in the spring and he started slowly. No problem. By mid-summer James was as unhittable as a hurricane.
I spent a lot of time with him in the bull pen, talking pitching. To me he had a big league arm. He was smart. He was creative. He invented grips. He listened. He competed hard. He worked and he was dedicated.
I was sure he’d go in the top 10 rounds of the draft, maybe the top five. I told every scout I saw that James was the real deal, a certified MLB pitcher. No question.
But James wasn’t top 10. Or 20. Or 30. In fact, he wasn’t drafted at all.
And I was amazed. They could have waited until the 40
round and then offered him seventh round money. It would have been the biggest steal since Dillinger.
There’d been talk that Paxton wasn’t very athletic, which made no sense at all. Compared to David Wells he was Five Tools. Maybe that brief arm problem skewered the mix or maybe it was the full ride at the U of Kentucky that scared them off. I dunno. But it was an enigma as big as the Milky Way.
After his freshman year James returned to Mackie Park for a session. The Wildcat coaches were paranoid about stolen bases, something a lot of college guys obsess over as compared to Greg Maddux, who never shortened his delivery and somehow wound up in the Hall of Fame. If they steal a bag, they steal a bag, was his mantra.
At any rate for some reason James has never been able to develop a good pick-off move and the Kentucky coaches wanted him to slide step. I’ve tried to get James to emulate Andy Pettitte’s devastating move but he seems to have a block, similar to Jon Lester of the Cubs, who can’t even throw over. At any rate, I just told James to go back to where he was with North Delta and he looked good.
Pettitte had the best move ever
When you enroll at a four-year school you aren’t eligible to be drafted until after your junior season so James waited until 2009 when Toronto scooped him in the first round. To celebrate, his parents threw a party and I spent an hour with him dissecting pro baseball in the minor leagues--the prep, the bus travel, the fast food, the boredom, the homesick days, all that good bleep. He was ready. He was on his way.
But it was really No Way.
James hooked up with notorious agent Scott Boras, on board as his “adviser.” To say MLB owners and GM’s hate Boras would be like pointing out that left wing liberals aren’t fond of some guy named Trump. Mention Boras the Virus and GM’s break out with a body rash that never stops itching. Boras is the Vito Corleone of Baseball.
The Blue Jays offered Paxton a million big ones or so but there were rumours they reneged on a pre-draft offer they made to Boras for even more. Whatever the reason, Team Paxton and Boras turned down the Toronto offer and James headed back to Kentucky for his senior year.
Except he didn’t. NCAA rules are pretty strict about college players hiring reps and, as far as they’re concerned, “adviser” is spelled “A.G.E.N.T.” James was as welcome in Kentucky as a serial killer.
Muscling up his grit and determination Paxton survived the traumas of doubt and independent baseball before signing with the Mariners. This time he really was on his way. Yes, really.
But, sticking to the script, the speed bumps kept jumping up disguised as nagging injuries. Paxton has been on the DL as often as Meghan Markle appears on the IE home page. He’s been sore in so many places the Mariners had to send out for another MRI machine.
The Maple Grove will become the Weeping Willows
But he perseveres.
Two years ago James started the season in AAA in Tacoma. When I asked him why he said he was fine tuning his arm slot, which had gotten too much over the top. When that correction locked in he became one of the most feared hurlers in the game. When he no-hit the Blue Jays it was both a modicum of revenge and an exclamation point.
The Mariner fans will miss The Big Maple. His cheering section will be morose as they retire their EH signs. Do Canadians really say that?
If James stays healthy he’ll go shoulder to shoulder with Luis Severino as the Duo Aces of the Bronx Bombers. And the Yankees will balance on the edge of being the best team in baseball.
New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town. And James will undoubtedly hear a lot of Sinatra spreading the news.
The Windy City with the Big Shoulders
It came as a bit of a surprise when San Diego traded Wick to the Cubs because they seemed to like him a lot. But it shouldn’t have been. The Padres have a massive logjam on their 40-man and they seem to think their minor league system is stacked, which is a bit optimistic from what I've seen. Rowan would certainly have been corralled if they'd put him on waivers. So they traded him. Good move.
The Chicago blogs are more or less neutral on Wick’s arrival but not impressed by the 6.48 ERA he posted over 10 MLB games in September. They expect him to be demoted to AAA in Iowa.
And that’s where they’re wrong.
As usual these gurus are Obsessed with Stats. Yes, Rowan gave up six runs in 8 and a third. But five of those markers came in one suspicious inning against the Reds when he was brushed by two groundball singles and two bunt singles. One of those was a bunt and run and the coaches told him the second baseman blew it, which makes no sense at all and truly makes me wonder about the Padres. (See “One Bad Pitch” and “The Lethal Weapon No One Uses.”)
Otherwise Wick was virtually lights out, including a brilliant debut where he blew away the Rockies with a sparkling heater and a razor blade slider.
I think Rowan has a great shot at starting the season on the Cubs roster. He should make a couple of mechanical adjustments—more load and more knee coil—but his velocity is solid, that slider is as filthy as a toddler in a mudhole, and his command keeps locking in.
The Cubs coaching staff is in the Bermuda Triangle right now with abdications left, right, center and off the grid, which makes you wonder about manager Joe Maddon. The latest resignation came from pitching mentor Jim Hickey so they’re scrambling to find a replacement. Hopefully, the new guy has heard of the bunt and run.
Meanwhile, Rowan can dream about “Cubs Win! Cubs Win!” Chicago, Chicago, That Toddlin’ Town…
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