Sports and Outdoors

Thursday, September 6, 2012

A playoff approach in the batter's box

From the official site of Minor League Baseball:

Most of the 17 leagues in the Minors began their postseason schedules this week. Focusing on the five five-game playoff series at Triple-A and Double-A, this column brings an update on five top hitting prospects and their approach at the plate in September.

Pacific Coast League: Wil Myers; Omaha vs. Albuquerque
The first thing second-ranked Royals prospect Wil Myers looks for an at-bat is the fastball. He will tell you this. He will tell the pitcher this. He even told me this. He's not bashful.

"For me, if I start looking at a scouting report too much, start thinking about things up at the plate, I really psych myself out sometimes," Myers said. "I do like to know the velocity of [the pitcher's] fastball. The only thing I look for up there is the fastball and adjust to the off-speed. Every now and then, we'll talk about what he throws in different counts, but really I just want to go up there and look for a fastball."

The simple approach has proven affective. In case you haven't heard, Myers has been the Minors' best player (sorry, Dylan Bundy) if not biggest story (OK, Billy Hamilton). This can be found in the numbers, from Double- and Triple-A: a .314 average, a Minors-leading 37 home runs and those 109 RBIs. And that's with a mid-August 1-for-18 skid that dropped his Omaha average 10 points to, briefly anyway, below .300.

"I changed my approach to stay to the middle of the field. It's more mental. Whenever I think about pulling balls too much, I start rolling over on ground balls, pulling off [the ball], not able to get to the outside [pitches]." said Myers, who has also stood up in his stance to increase his power this season. "I was getting a little pull-happy in August, trying to hit too many home runs. I just want to stay through the middle of the field these last couple of weeks. That really works for me."

So does facing the pitching of Albuquerque, Omaha's first-round postseason opponent. The right-handed-hitting outfielder/third baseman was 17-for-35 (.486) against the Isotopes, and the one pitcher he didn't enjoy facing, PCL Pitcher of the Year John Ely, was promoted to the Majors this week.

"I have swung the bat pretty good against these guys," he understated. "They like to challenge hitters with the fastball. They try to get ahead in the count early. That's something I like, when pitchers try to do that."

Playoff thought: "[The Royals] have already told me I am not coming up, so I am just worried about going out and winning the PCL. Obviously, I'd rather be up there, but since I'm here, I'm really looking forward to playing in these playoffs. I have played in one playoffs before -- last year -- but this team is a lot better than the team I had last year."

International League: Tony Sanchez; Indianapolis vs. Charlotte
The first thing sixth-ranked Pirates prospect Tony Sanchez notices about his recent "feel" at the plate is his hands. They feel good.

"Lately, I have been seeing the ball well. Jeff Brandon, our hitting coach, and we have been fine-tuning my mechanics, getting me into a stronger position. My swing works all around my hands, and my hands start my movement -- that's what gets me into a good position."

In August, his third full month at Triple-A, Sanchez batted .271. He wasn't shabby in July either, hitting six home runs in 23 games. He is just 2-for-19 against Knights pitching this season, but the Indians catcher is comfortable entering his club's first September series.

"We will go over what we have seen from their guys in the past, but there's only so much you can do with a scouting report. A guy can be on or off a certain day, certain pitches will be there and certain pitches won't be. I go out trying to figure out how he is attacking me that day and go from there," he said. "For me, less is more. 'Velo' on the fastball and what his out-pitch is -- that's all I need. I think a lot of guys feel that way. The less information we have, the less we think about it, the more we just go up there and hit."

Playoff thought: We have lost a lot of talent, but we are just as strong as were earlier this season. There will be a little bit more on the line -- we're playing for a ring -- but I'll still try to drive in runs for my team and have good at-bats no matter what the game is."

Texas League: Kolten Wong; Springfield vs. Tulsa
The first thing fourth-ranked Cardinals prospect Kolten Wong does when he gets to the ballpark -- only after dressing and stretching -- is find his way to the batting cage. Actually, there's no "finding" -- he knows his way. Per his pregame routine, Wong hits off a tee before smacking "flips" from his hitting coach, Phillip Wellman. Then, whether a series is just beginning or already ending, he jumps into a hitters-only meeting.

"We'll see who the pitcher is for the day. We'll ask our coach, 'What do you think we need to be aware of?' Everyone throws out comments [like] what pitchers go to [in situations]," Wong said. "At this point in the season, we have probably faced him five to seven times already. I have an idea of how he likes to pitch me and what his pitches are."

Wong has not done as well against Springfield's first playoff opponent, Tulsa, (22-for-104, a .212 average) as he has against the field (.287). "They always come with a different gameplan. Even though each gameplan is similar, when I think a pitch is coming, they go with a different pitch," the second baseman/leadoff man said. "That's the one thing that's hard about playing in the Texas League. There are only eight teams, so you're constantly playing the same people. By the second or third series, they know what your weakness is."

Wong, St. Louis' first-round pick in 2011, has made slight adjustments to his mechanics -- specifically, altering his hand path and increasing the load into his swing -- but hasn't change much else.

"The numbers are sort of where I expected them to be," he said. "I didn't really expect to come out hitting .340 this year 'cause I knew I was going to be a lot more games."

Playoff thought: "The intensity is going to be different. There is a lot of intensity when we're playing during the season, but it's playoff time."

Eastern League: Jonathan Schoop; Bowie vs. Akron
The first thing third-ranked Orioles prospect Jonathan Schoop will do when the playoffs are over is sit down and self-analyze. "I haven't had the season I expected, but once I get to the offseason, I'm going to watch a lot of film of me hitting. We got to fix something," he said. "I will be a better player next year."

Schoop, the 20-year-old Curacao-born infielder and the Robin to Manny Machado's Batman, batted .290 in 2010 and again in '11 but finished '12 at .245. He collected 39 extra-base hits but also struck out 103 times in 124 games. He too battles the information age. He wants to know the opposing pitcher's velocity, his out-pitch and more specific data (like what pitch he throws most often with runners in scoring position), and yet he wants to keep his mind quiet. He can't have it both ways. "Putting pressure on myself," he said of his woes. "When I think too much, I lose my concentration."

Schoop's physical goals at the plate are two-fold: Keep his swing short and find a way to hit the baseball with the thickest part of his bat's barrel. He rarely accomplished both against the Baysox's first September stumbling block, Akron. The Aeros limited the right-handed hitter to 13 hits in 62 at-bats, or a .191 average. At least they no longer boast starter Steven Wright, who was traded midseason (to the Red Sox organization.

"That was the key guy for them, because he threw like 85 [mph], but he had the knuckleball and a good slider," Schoop said. "I actually liked the challenge of facing him."

Playoff thought: "We don't want to change anything just because it's the playoffs. We'll treat it like the normal season."

Southern League: Chris Owings; Mobile vs. Montgomery
The first thing fifth-ranked D-backs prospect Chris Owings worked to fix last instructional league was his timing and vision. He and Arizona hitting coordinator Alan Cockrell found a remedy in a good old-fashioned leg-kick to get Owings' stroke going.

"I have carried that through this season," the right-handed hitting shortstop said.

Owings, a first-round draftee in 2009, began 2012 for a second tour at the Class A Advanced level, where he would bat .324 with 11 longballs in 59 games. In 69 since at Double-A, his numbers have come down some. He went 13-for-58 (.224) against Montgomery and batted .263 with six homers overall. One pitcher he's glad he won't have to prepare for: former Biscuits ace Alex Colome.

"We're going to have a meeting before the series starts, but I have my notes from facing these guys throughout the year," he said. "More mental notes on what their game plan is. I like to keep things simple but also have a plan on what they got. Velocity isn't too big of an issue. Knowing pitches is more important."

Playoff thought: "It will be a little bit better atmosphere, but we have played Montgomery a lot since I've been up here."

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