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You Can Learn a Lot By Watching – Down on the Farm – And All for 2 and a Quarter

July 2, 2011

June 25, 2011 – State College Spikes @ Jamestown Jammers

Being a reasonably good husband, when my wife wanted to visit her family outside of Chicago, I drove her to Buffalo for her flight. Considering the empty apartment that awaited my return, I decided to delay the inevitable and take in a local minor league game. While none of the local teams had afternoon games on their schedule on the day, baseball is a game that requires some patience, and being a patient man, I chose to wait it out until the evening game. Say what you will about Jamestown, New York, but green hills are always nice, and Jamestown is engulfed in green hills.

At this point, I should point out that, while much of what is written in this blog is centred on the Blue Jays, I am, first and foremost, a baseball fan. I recognize that, had I not grown up in Toronto, I would very likely have focused my attention on a different team. As a child, I became enamored with Will Clark (at least enamored with Will Clark’s baseball card, so I watched that team whenever I could. Small pieces of my innocence were shed in 1989 and again in 2003 (this time from a dwindling supply). I now quietly cheer for Justin Verlander’s Detroit Tigers and Andrew McCutchen’s Pittsburgh Pirates. Next month I will make my first visit to Fenway Park and I will root (just this once, I promise) for the home team. You get it. I like the game. I like to see how the game differs from level to level and how to interpret what I see at each level.

Why this game? I could have stayed in Buffalo, but the players involved, while ostensibly close to The Show, were not too interesting. Syracuse, once home of the Jays’ AAA franchise, now hosts those of the Nationals. They were welcoming the Twins’ AAA affiliate from Rochester for a double header. Again, not as much to dream on the players there, outside of Rochester’s game 1 starter, Kyle Gibson. Jamestown had two distinct advantages. First, the drive home promised to be almost one hour shorter than the drive from Rochester. Second, scheduled to pitch for the visiting State College Spikes (the second rung in the Pirates lower ladders) was Stetson Allie, making only the 2nd start of his professional career. Allie, who was given a signing bonus of $2.25 million to forego a college scholarship after being drafted in the 2nd round of last year’s draft out of high school in Lakewood, Ohio. Although all scouting reports noted his lack of command, his arm strength made him a 5-star prospect for Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein, while Baseball America ranked him 3rd among future Pirates in their 2011 annual. He’d be on a strict pitch count, having only pitched 2.1 innings in his debut last week, but I decided to take the opportunity and see what $2.25 million buys these days.

Being a dreary Saturday afternoon, overcast and damp, I had to ask myself if that $6 investment in a seat behind homeplate (not to mention the extra 2 hours of driving that I had committed myself to) would come to naught. The clouds overhead looked to be of the water-bearing kind and too much of the wet stuff would cancel the game.

Also a going concern would be food. The town was not overflowing with culinary delights, nothing looking tastier than the grape jam that passed for the team’s logo and mascot. As the GPS was only showing fast food and empty lots, I considered myself lucky when I spotted a diner out back of the local Laundromat. A drizzly hike outside of the shrine of Roger Toby Peterson and some reading, and I was ready for baseball.

What Jamestown’s Roger E. Diethrick Jr. Park (Diethrick Park to the locals) lacks in charm, it makes up in…well…you be the judge. The grandstand resembles a community park, with a roof covering the seats behind home plate. The netting behind the plate extends from roof to backstop. The outfield didn’t so much have a wall as it did a series of advertising placards. Which makes sense, when you consider that my $6 seat made me one of 659 in attendance. So Diethrick does have intimacy to support it.

Watching his pre-game bullpen session, I could peg Allie with a low ¾ delivery, but my vantage point did not allow me to see if he was hitting his spots. When the game, my suspicions that the Jammers’ starting pitcher was not a prospect were confirmed as the two scouts in attendance did not pull out their radar guns for him. Sneaking a peak at the guns on display belonging to the gaggle of pitchers charting, I could see that Tom Peale was only hitting the mid-80’s with his fastball. And this is how jaded I’ve become. When I played ball, a guy who could hit 80 with his heater was to be feared. On a professional diamond, a guy who can hit 85 is only marking time, collecting stories for his future co-workers around the office and later, doting grandchildren. By comparison, the heat that I had feared now looked meek. The Spikes’ hitters thought so too, repeatedly taking his pitches into the left field corner. All he had going for him was his control, in stark contrast with the man of the hour.

In each of the three innings in which Allie participated, he walked the opening batter, including the first man of the game, on 4 pitches. What I had seen in the bullpen bore true in game-action. Allie threw with a cross-fire delivery, often missing the zone wide on the arm-side (Allie is a righty, so he would miss inside to righty bats and away to lefties). Once in a while, he would seem to make a barely perceptible change to the angle of his throws, and the result would be very hard to hit for the low-level prospects dotting the Jammers lineup. Scanning the 4-6 radar guns now on display, I can confidently report that Allie threw mostly fastballs in the 91-93 range, well down from his reported 98-99 as a high schooler, but I can excuse some rust in only his second pro game as well as the cold and damp a few clicks. Notable for when he raised his slot, he dropped his velocity closer to 90-92. I may just be talking through my ass, but if what I saw in Allie’s arm slot was correct, a slight adjustment and as many repetitions as needed to make it consistent could make him a very effective pitcher. Allie also threw a few sliders in the 84mph range, but stuck mostly to his fastball in this truncated appearance.*

*In Allie’s next start (I wasn’t there) he was much more effective, lasting 4 innings, allowing 5 hits, 1 earned run, zero walks and striking out 5.

Once Allie departed for the night, I let the baseball come to me. Neither team is overly burdened by the expectations laden on top, highly paid prospects, Allie aside. On the Spikes, the one guy who stood out was relief pitcher Emmanuel De Leon, a thin righty coming off a season where he was limited to 7 IP in the GCL. He regularly hit 91-92 in over 2 innings of work. Wes Freeman was once highly touted as a high school athlete. He`s still only 21, but with a lifetime batting average of .189 in 376 at bats across the lower minors, his time may be running short in this business. He went 1-5 on the night, striking out twice, one of the few Spikes` batters not to hit Tom Peale hard. The most impressive hitters for State College were non-prospects CF Alex Fuselier, DH Justin Bencsko, C Derek Trent and 3B Chris Lashmet. Why do I call these guys non-prospects? Well, in the New York Penn league, you expect to see players who were drafted out of college in the range of 21 years old, or still raw high schoolers drafted in previous years like Allie and Freeman. Anyone 22 or older in this setting is already behind the developmental curve. Furthermore, any players drafted out of a four-year college later than the 10th round is automatically seen as an organizational guy (there only to make up a team for a younger, more talented player) unless and until he can work his way up and start to show something good at AA or higher. Fuselier is 21 and was drafted in the 21st round this year out of Louisiana-Lafayette. Bencsko will turn 24 in August and was drafted in the 20th round last year out of Villanova. Trent is 22 and was drafted in the 31st round last month out of East Tennessee State. 22-year-old Lashmet was taken two rounds after Trent, out of Northwestern. So we know he’s smart. Catcher Samuel Gonzalez might be something, but he was taken out of the game even before Allie was, so I’ll skip passing judgement on him.

For the Jammers, Terrance Dayleg was their most impressive hitter, but further research deadens that impressions. To put it simply, Dayleg is old enough to know better. Other than Allie, I was not familiar with the rosters of either team before game time, recognizing a few names but little else. Not wanting to pay Rogers’ egregious US roaming charges, I had to take notes on what to look up after the game. Dayleg, who went 3-5 with a walk, a double and the game’s only home run, pulled deep to Left Field off the very hittable Cliff Archibald. Well, it turns out Dayleg (A B.C. boy) will turn 24 before this season is out. After being drafted in the 22nd round back in 2009 out of Western Kentucky, Dayleg hit a combined .238 with .637 OPS between Low and High A last year. Getting older and going backwards is not a recipe for baseball success.

Catcher Jobduan Morales also had a good game at the plate, while not so hot behind it. Morales, a 20-year-old switch hitter, drafted in the 9th round of the 2009 draft out of Puerto Rico, went 3-6 with a double. Morales also dropped a third strike in the eighth, not locating the ball behind his mask. One inning later, with southpaw Stephen Richards struggling, the potential game-tying run at 3rd and the go-ahead run on second, Morales treated me to a scene I had never witnessed before in baseball. With first base open and only one out recorded, Jamestown elected to walk the pinch-hitter to create a force play at each base. Bear in mind now that Morales has only been playing behind the plate for around three years, moving there from third and first base in his draft year. On the fourth intentionally wide ball, Morales held his glove to the right, and came up empty-handed. Again, he couldn’t locate the ball and as the tying run scampered home, Richards stood on the mound, waiting for instructions. Morales dropped the ball, but Richards failed, as well.

One other performance on the Jammers I wanted to mention before turning to the abstract side of things is LHP Kenneth Toves. He has the makings of a good LOOGY, with a fastball and nice breaking ball as a chase pitch earned him three strike-outs – two swinging, and two groundballs from five batters.

And now for some ephemera. In a small stadium like this, with only 659 in attendance, you can pretty much sit wherever you want. I sat behind homeplate. The first row was pretty much reserved for pitchers not active for this game, charting pitches, video-recording and taking notes on what their teammates were doing. In the second row sat a pair of scouts, one from each league. Yes, I eavesdropped on a few conversations. No, they weren’t very enlightening. I found out that former Marlins’ 2nd rounder Bryan Berglund, who I believe may have been the first Sweden-born player to be drafted, is just now starting to throw again in the Marlins’ complex after 2010 labrum surgery.  Some of the players are exceedingly well-built young men. Some look just like any other young guy, but a few really look like you expect a quarterback to look. Particularly impressive were Jammers’ Blake Brewer (maybe too thin to be a quarterback, more like a shooting guard)and Spikes pitchers Ryan Hafner and Nicholas Kingham.

The Jammers had another big man down front. Not big in a way that would inspire awe, but more in the sense that you hope he never sits in front of you in a movie theatre. This guy had his hair grown out a bit, was intermittently spitting tobacco juice into an otherwise empty water bottle and spoke in an unmistakably Southern drawl. What made this guy stick out, more than his size, was that he seemed to have a girlfriend sitting in the last row. Whenever he thought he could get away with it, he would leave his mates and sit with her. And this got me thinking. Based on his drawl, I ruled out the possibility that he was local. Also, bearing in mind how recently the season had started and that the Jammers had only been I town for five days, each of which had a game scheduled, I thought it unlikely that he had already started up a relationship of any consequence. Then I got home and discovered who he was. Suddenly it all made sense. It was Josh Hodges, of New Albany, Mississippi. Listed at 6’-7”, Hodges is a big’un, drafted by the Marlins in the 9th round of the 2009 draft out of his local high school. Having just turned 20, Hodges still has youth on his side (and his size), but his professional wheels are spinning in place. This is now the third season in which he has pitched for the Jammers. Noted for a 96 mph fastball after being drafted, he has yet to turn that heat into results, with a cumulative professional ERA of 5.75, and 7K/9, with a WHIP of 1.529. Three years at the same affiliate is enough to find a local sweetheart. I wish them both luck.

And with nearly 4 words per person in attendance, it’s time for this post to come to an end. I will be able to write more frequently now – and I have a few things in the works – as my own professional swamp (June) is finally over. Happy baseball.

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