BRADENTON, Fla. – Every year it seems like I am asked why the Pirates are giving a position player starting time in Altoona. The player typically is coming off poor numbers in Bradenton the year before but was still promoted and still receiving starts. Looking at the stats, it’s hard to see what the team likes about the player. But as the Altoona season goes on, the player eventually shows why the team kept giving him chances.
This happened in 2015 with Max Moroff and Adam Frazier. Moroff had a .665 OPS in Bradenton the year before, while Frazier had a .616 OPS. Moroff had a .783 OPS with Altoona, and Frazier had an .801 OPS, propelling both to become future MLB players. It happened again in 2016, as Eric Wood posted a .782 OPS in his second year in Altoona, two years after a .739 OPS in Bradenton.
Bradenton plays in the Florida State League (FSL), which is one of the most pitcher friendly leagues in minor league baseball. It’s expected that a player would see better results in a different league. That said, I wanted to get a better idea of why these types of breakouts happen, and whether it was more than just park and league factors.
How to Evaluate the Florida State League
We can’t just ignore the FSL. It was the fifth worst league in OPS during the 2016 season, and the second worst full-season league. Three of the other five worst leagues are the Dominican Summer League, the Gulf Coast League, and the New York-Penn League. The Pirates have teams in all of those leagues, meaning their hitters have it pretty rough in most of the lower levels. Meanwhile, Altoona plays in the Eastern League, which is middle of the pack in offensive production.
“Historically, the Florida State League is a tough league to hit in,” Pirates’ Director of Minor League Operations Larry Broadway said. “There’s a lot of parks that are big. There’s a lot of parks where the wind blows in. There’s a lot of different factors. Certain types of players, if you don’t elevate the ball at all, you don’t have whole lot of love in the Florida State League.”
Broadway called the FSL a good “transitional league” due to various factors. Those include the heat, a lot of commutes, or adjusting to a schedule where you’re going to bed late and waking up early, while still doing community service.
“There’s a lot of things where, when you get through the Florida State League, you build some grit into your character down here,” Broadway said. “The heat, the weather, the rain. It’s mental toughness. There’s a lot of different things that kind of sharpen you up as a man at this level. If you can take the field everyday at this level, you’ve got a pretty good shot at having some success at the next level, if you can answer the bell every day physically and mentally.”
The league can definitely prepare you for challenges going forward, but how do you determine which players are more likely for success, especially when the numbers can be very misleading?
“We don’t put a ton of stock into the average there,” Broadway said. “Just more so the quality of the command, the strike zone, the contact, and the overall makeup of the player to where we’re going to bet on them exceeding the surface numbers at the next level.”
With that set of evaluation guidelines in mind, let’s take a closer look at the guys who broke out in Altoona the last two years.
The Altoona Breakouts of the Past
As someone who covers Bradenton on a regular basis, I get a look behind the numbers with each player. Frazier, Moroff, and Wood were all guys who looked better than their numbers indicated when they were in Bradenton. Here were the summaries of my write-ups on each player in the 2015 prospect guide:
Frazier (#40 prospect)
Pre-2015 Report: Frazier’s upside is a utility player in the majors, and while his 2014 season didn’t look great, he doesn’t have a ton of work to get to that level. He needs to show improvements on defense, especially at shortstop. He also needs to take his skills at the plate and have them translate over to the stat sheet. That happened in 2013. He looked good in person at times during the 2014 season, but lacked consistency throughout the year.
Despite the below-average numbers in Bradenton, Frazier could jump to Altoona in 2015. He’s going to need to show that he can hit there before moving any higher. His ability to play the middle infield spots, potential for good contact, strong plate patience, and his speed combines to give him the potential to be a future utility player in the majors. He’s athletic enough that the Pirates could give him a shot at playing in the outfield going forward, in order to further increase his value off the bench.
Frazier had a career 12.8% strikeout rate and a 7.8% walk rate. He also showed good contact skills, and was hitting the ball hard, despite it not showing up in the numbers. Looking at what Broadway mentioned above, he checked every box, and it wasn’t a surprise that he broke out once he reached Altoona.
“Coming to Bradenton was my first full season,” Frazier said. “I felt like I didn’t really know what to expect and how to prepare myself. I guess there was that level of uncertainty. I kind of got away from my approach, sticking to staying simple and what got me there. This is also a tough league to hit in down here. Young prospects, live arms, and then the big fields and the weather on top of that. … Going to the second offseason, knowing what to expect, how to prepare myself mentally and physically, I think that helped a lot. And then going to Altoona, and just getting back to the approach that worked for me and sticking to that.”
Pre-2015 Report: Scouts love Moroff, and he’s gotten praise every year for his skills and improvements in his game. However, it appears that the thing he needs to improve on the most is being a bit more aggressive at the plate. The over-selective approach can lead to problems in the upper levels, with more strikeouts and fewer walks. Moroff already saw that in his jump to High-A, and it will only get worse when he moves to Double-A. He’s got the upside of a utility player.
Moroff didn’t have the best strikeout rate, at 25.1%, but his 12% walk rate was a good one. A big reason for the strikeouts was what I wrote at the time — he was too selective, and would sometimes watch every pitch and get to a 3-2 count without swinging the bat. He has good contact skills and the ability to drive the ball, but the overly selective approach led to him watching balls that he could drive.
He worked with Altoona hitting coach Kevin Riggs the next year on being more aggressive early in the count, and that led to the breakout numbers. But he already had the indicators that he would be capable of this when he was swinging the bat in Bradenton.
“His hard contact percentage was off the charts, and he was using the big part of the field if you look at his spray chart,” Pirates’ Minor League Hitting Coordinator Larry Sutton said. “Those are huge indicators that players are ready for the next level. When Max hit Altoona, he hit the ground running.”
Pre-2016 Report: The Pirates keep giving Wood a lot of playing time, but his offense hasn’t reached its full potential. He’s got a lot of raw power, but hasn’t applied that to the games since being in the lowest levels. He can play third base, but isn’t a strong defensive option there, with good arm strength but poor glove work and first step quickness. He’s had strikeout issues, and didn’t hit for average in his jump to Double-A, while seeing the worst power of his career. The Pirates could still give him chances, although those will be difficult in 2016. Wyatt Mathisen will be moving up to take over at third base in Altoona, and Wood didn’t perform well enough to keep getting promoted up the ladder. He should move to a bench role in 2016, possibly getting time in the outfield. If his bat breaks out, he could fight his way back to regular playing time at third base. He’s at the point now where he will get passed over by the guys in the lower levels of the system unless he finally sees that breakout.
Wood had some strikeout issues prior to his 2016 breakout, although nothing extreme and he drew a good amount of walks. He made hard contact, but never really saw his power consistently translating to the stats until the 2016 season.
“The consistency of keeping your approach the same every game, and not giving up at-bats was big for me,” Wood said. “I still had to make some adjustments in the higher levels, but you just learn to do them faster. Taking care of it, addressing the problems, and things that needed to be addressed immediately, rather than months going on.”
Wood said that most of his adjustments in Altoona were mental, with a plan to attack every pitch if it was in a good spot for him to attack. This is similar to the approach with Moroff, where it’s a case of being aggressive early, rather than being selective and getting yourself into a deep count quickly.
What Adjustments are Being Made?
Again, this isn’t all about park factors, and while each player has a different approach to their development, I wanted to see if there was an underlying reason why these guys were breaking out in Altoona, and whether it was something being taught in the system.
I talked with Minor League Hitting Coordinator Larry Sutton about this, who had some pretty good insight about the approach the Pirates take. The Pirates have taken an approach in recent years where the things they used to teach in Double-A are now being taught in Low-A West Virginia. This involves learning how to hit off-speed pitches, and the results don’t always show up until Altoona.
“As an organization on an offensive program, we’ve lowered the learning curve from Double-A to Charleston,” Sutton said. “In the industry, most teams will wait until their hitter gets to Double-A, and he’ll figure out how to hit off-speed. We’ve lowered that learning curve to Charleston in what we do with our program. Because of that, they’re basically cutting their teeth in Charleston. They come to Bradenton, where it’s a hard hitting league — the weather is hot, it’s a pitching league, more off-speed — but they kind of hit the ground running, even though the numbers don’t show it. They have competitive at-bats. They’re swinging at off-speed pitches in the middle of the count. Some other hitters are just guessing. We’ve already started teaching them how to hit it at an earlier level.”
If you’ve seen my coverage over the years, you’ve seen pictures and videos where players have a row of baseballs lined up across the plate, aiming for contact deeper in the zone. By seeing the ball deeper, they have more time to react to breaking stuff, and can work on hitting to the opposite field.
“Early on in the system, that was our main key — opposite field batting practice in the cage, off the tee,” Moroff said. “I definitely think that helped me, just to have that approach early on, rather than learning that later. Also, you’ve got to be able to pull the ball too, obviously, but just having that swing in your back pocket helps.”
Moroff joined the Pirates out of high school, and Wood was a JuCo freshman when he joined the system, so a lot of what they learned came from the Pirates. Frazier learned the opposite field approach in college, and might be one of the best opposite field hitters in the system.
“I’ve always gone the other way better than I do pull side,” Frazier said. “That’s something you learn probably in college. Because if you can’t go the other way, you’re going to get eaten up. That’s something I’ve always done. A lot of young guys, they want to pull, pull, pull. If you can’t use the whole field, you’re going to get exposed. I think that’s Sutt’s way of seeing things. That’s my way of seeing things as well. I try to go to all fields, and minimize the weaknesses that a pitcher can attack.”
Wood’s strategy is a bit different than Moroff and Frazier, probably because of his power profile. Frazier and Moroff don’t project for a lot of power, and are more contact and line drive oriented. Wood has some power, and doesn’t seem to be on the same development plan as the others.
“They’ve always told me to hit the ball hard, and wherever it goes, it goes,” Wood said. “I’m more of a simple guy. Other guys might talk in more detail about when they’re trying to go the other way, or when they’re trying to get the head out. For me, it’s a much simpler approach. I’m looking for a ball in an area, and then if I think it’s going to be in that area, I’m going to try and blister it.”
In all of these cases, the Pirates got an early start on teaching players the skills they needed in order to hit upper level pitching. That approach starts in West Virginia, continues in Bradenton (although it’s difficult to show progress with the numbers), and by the time they arrive in Altoona, they’ve got plenty of experience under their belts and can just go out and attack and be aggressive at the plate.
Making Altoona Part of the Finishing School
The players aren’t complete when they reach Altoona. Sutton also mentioned that the industry looks at Triple-A as a finishing school. The Pirates are lowering that as well, making Double-A the start of the finishing school. Kevin Riggs will get the hitters in Altoona, and start giving them the final adjustments and approaches needed to hit in the big leagues. As they develop, they will be passed off to Indianapolis hitting coach Butch Wynegar, who completes the finishing school approach.
“We’re able to start that finishing part of their development at Double-A,” Sutton said. “Hitters are starting to become their own hitting coaches at a higher level. They’re understanding zone awareness and pitch recognition better. And they’ve already developed and understand our hitting plan. All of this preparation and development and the seeds that we’re planting at the lower levels, it’s almost like a fertile ground for Altoona. When Riggs gets his hands on them, it’s almost a blossoming effect.”
That approach makes Riggs one of the most important hitting coaches in the system. He’s the guy the organization is trusting to start this transitional period — taking young hitters from the point where they understand the hitting plan, to applying that in a way where they can have success in the majors. Keep in mind that this approach doesn’t just apply to guys like Frazier, Moroff, and Wood. It also applies to the top prospects in the system, like Josh Bell and Austin Meadows.
“We were joking that his new nickname is ‘The Reaper,'” Sutton said. “All of these seeds are being planed and grown and watered at the lower levels, and the kids are starting to show signs of it. But when they get to that Double-A level, it’s like all of the fruit and the flowers start flourishing. And then we just pass the baton off to Butch, and we continue that process.”
It’s important to note that this process, and the one in the lower levels, isn’t a blanket approach for each player. As noted with Wood above, each player has a different approach to his game based on the type of player he is projected to become.
“The best way I like to explain it is, when you look at a raw diamond, it’s a rock,” Sutton said. “But a jeweler doesn’t just cut it into a diamond. What’s the vision? What kind of diamond? There’s different types of diamonds out there, and he’ll look at that and say ‘This needs to be this type of diamond.’ And that’s what we get from our front office. They have a projection on our players. We kind of have a vision, and we plan out an individual plan for the hitter, and this is what the progression looks like.”
The Next Altoona Breakouts
I wrote earlier today that Kevin Kramer was one of my breakout picks for the entire system in 2017. Watching him throughout the year in Bradenton last year, I was reminded a lot of Frazier, Moroff, and Wood. He just looked so much better on the field than in the stats, which says something, as he posted a .730 OPS. He also has a 12.3% strikeout rate and a 9.4% walk rate, while showing good contact skills and the ability to drive the ball.
Kramer isn’t alone though. Connor Joe is a guy who I could see breaking out. He’s another guy with good control of the strike zone, and has some raw power that hasn’t been fully unleashed. Jordan Luplow has put up some good numbers in the lower levels, and could continue that and possibly improve as he moves up. Cole Tucker needs some more time developing before he’s ready for the “finishing school”, but he shows some promise.
Sutton believes that the upcoming team could lead to some more good results in Altoona, since most of the hitters coming through are very advanced.
“The team that just finished in Bradenton, they bought into their attack plans probably the best out of the three years I’ve been here,” Sutton said. “They bought into what they wanted to commit to, going in to every single night — individually and collectively as a team. Most of the time, players don’t have a good understanding of that until they get to Altoona. But now you have a group of kids that are going to Altoona from last year’s team — it’s a higher league, better control with a secondary pitch — that whole group is going to hit the ground running. There’s not going to be a large adjustment period for them, or a learning curve.”
A lot of these guys coming up from Bradenton were drafted out of college, rather than high school or JuCo picks like Moroff or Wood. And a lot of those guys were drafted with a similar profile — good control of the strike zone, a good ability to make contact, and the ability to drive the ball, while also displaying good overall makeup. The Pirates didn’t have to start from scratch teaching their hitting plan to these guys, since most of them were close to the overall objective when they were drafted. That was an advantage, and it has led to a team that does look strong, and looks like it could produce a few Altoona breakouts in 2017.
“I think that’s a big testament to our program,” Sutton said. “It’s a testament to our hitting coaches — the Ryan Long’s and the Keoni De Renne’s at the lower levels — who are teaching the simplicity and the foundations we’re building with players. As they continue to climb the levels, we get the buy-in from them, and then we just allow them to mature. We allow them to grow. And as they’re doing that, they’re getting more consistent with what they want to do at the plate, and that’s the cool thing. That’s what excites me as a hitting coordinator.”
The Pirates started going heavy drafting guys like Kramer, Joe, and Luplow back in 2014. They drafted other guys who fit the same hitting profiles and who matched up well with the organizational hitting plan in the past (Frazier was drafted in 2013, while Moroff and Wood were 2012), but they didn’t do it to the extreme that we saw in 2014 and beyond. Now that these guys are arriving in Altoona, and starting the “finishing school” process, it will be interesting to see the results, and whether the Pirates can take this heavy draft focus and turn it into a lot of future MLB players. We’ll get the first indications this year, and in the short-term, I could see a few more breakouts taking place in Altoona.