Sometimes lost in the scouting analysis and statistics around prospects, for those of us who aren’t in the clubhouse or at the field every day, is the human element. Who a player is personally has an effect on who they’ll be as pro ballplayers. It’s also just that much more fun to follow these prospects when you get to know them. So we do interviews.
I interviewed eight Kannapolis players last week while I was there for a few games, as well as their manager (who was a player in this organization only a few years ago). Below are some highlights (2 to 5 questions and answers) from each interview, featuring not only a glimpse into the personalities in those uniforms, but a view into some dynamics that effect what they do on the field.
Q: You just got back from the disabled list and rehab assignment, but we didn’t get a report on exactly what the injury you had was. Can you tell us?
A: Yeah, it was on a swing; hamate fracture. Just felt a little pop on the swing. After that, went to the doctor, and it was the hook of the hamate that was fractured. Went back to Arizona, had it surgically removed, then rehabbing and now I’m back.
Q: Do you have a particular slot in the outfield you feel you’re best at, or feel the most comfortable with?
A: I’ve played mostly in right field, had some time in center, played a little left field in my rehab in Arizona. Out of all three outfield positions, I like right field the most. That’s where I’m comfortable.
Q: So you grew up in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but then later moved to the Dominican Republic, correct? Is your family still in the D.R.? Have they gotten to see you play here yet?
A: Yes sir. I moved back to the Dominican when I was 14. I did some showcases for about a year and a half, and then I was on the White Sox. My family is in the Dominican Republic. They’re coming up in August, on a vacation, and to see me play. My dad is coach with the Boston Red Sox, in their Dominican Summer League team.
Q: What are your goals for 2016?
A: Well first, I want to win a ring, with these guys here. Win games, keep it rolling. Definitely get better and more consistent with my hitting, and be an all-around good player, defensively and running the bases. I want to hit a lot of doubles. Not too worried about hitting home runs right now, the ball leaves the yard when it should. Just trying to make solid contact. Working on my plate discipline. Take it pitch by pitch, just try to be smart with situations, just let it happen the way God intends it to happen.
Q: You don’t often steal bases, but is that something you think will be part of your game in the future?
A: Definitely, anything to help my team win. I try to work as much as I can on my jumps during BP. I try to pick up things from the pitchers, when I’m in the dugout. If I pick up something, even though I don’t have the green light to run, I share with my teammates, especially the guys who steal bases.
Q: You’re now about 3 years removed from Tommy John surgery. And you’ve been throwing out a lot of runners this year. Does your arm feel like it’s back to where it was before the surgery? Anything you’re doing differently now because of it?
A: Definitely better than it was pre-TJ. It feels good. Just have to make sure I’m doing my arm care stuff every day, make sure everything’s ready to go.
Q: I know that your former college coach, Tony Gwynn, was a big influence on you personally. But what about baseball-wise? Were there some things you specifically learned from him that have stuck with you?
A: Definitely. He wanted you to have a plan every day to get better, and make sure you execute that plan, and make sure you do it the right way.
Q: As a catcher, do you ever look at tape or discuss the opposing hitters with your pitchers before the game at this level?
A: No. Every day is different, but I look at each batter one by one. I like to see what their swings look like, what they are doing on deck. See if they look like they’re trying to put the ball the other way, or trying to pull the ball. Like, if you see their hips are opening up, try to throw some stuff away. It’s just what I see in the moment. I’m not perfect, sometimes I make mistakes. It’s just watching the little things, and talking to my coaches and my pitchers.
RHP Zach Thompson
Q: You’re back at the same level as last year, but the results obviously are much better this year. What would you say is the difference between 2015 Zach and 2016 Zach as a pitcher?
A: I would say my approach. I’m able to hit my spots, and I’ve got my sinker running a lot this year, that two-seam helps me a lot. If I’m behind on guys, which I was a lot last year, I can throw it for a strike and trust it to get ground balls.
Q: So is there a specific pitch you’re working on most right now?
A: My change-up. I don’t really throw it that much. I’ve got my breaking ball down, my fastball has been good, so it would be my third pitch. Obviously the goal is to move up, and having that third pitch down will help that, but that’s something you can’t really control.
Q: What is your primary breaking pitch?
A: 12-6 curveball, a little knuckle curve. I spike it [shows grip].
Q: What does a start day look like for a pitcher at this level? What does the routine involve, at least for you?
A: At home, I’ll usually show up around five o’clock, sit around for a while. About 45 minutes before my start, I’ll do my shoulder program, to loosen my shoulders and get ready to go. Then stretch, and a simple running routine. I try not to think too much about it. I’m a very intellectual person, and sometimes the more I think, the worse I get. Dray [Pitching Coach Brian Drahman] has been really good about keeping my down to earth, keeping it simple. Get on the mound, click it on, and here we go.
INF Danny Mendick
Q: Which part of your game would say you’re more proud of – hitting or defense?
A: This year, I’d say more my hitting. I’ve been trying to learn the strike zone better, trying to stay within myself. Fielding-wise, I think I could be doing a little better. Some of the balls have been taking tough hops. But other than that, I’m pretty satisfied with where I’m at right now. But there’s always something to improve on, something I can do better. So I need to find what that is, and work on it.
Q: You recently went to the South Atlantic League All Star Game. What was that experience like?
A: It was an absolute blast. We went to Lexington, they set us up in a nice hotel. Got a nice breakfast and lunch, got to go play at a beautiful ballpark in front of a whole bunch of people. I couldn’t ask for anything better. It’s a great reward for what you earned.
Q: You’ve played all three skill infield positions already as a pro – is there one of them you’re most comfortable with, or most enjoy playing?
A: Well, I played shortstop in college. This year I’ve been mostly second base and third base so far. I’m actually starting to fall in love with third base a little bit. But I like second base as well, and I think all three of them are fun.
Q: You’ve obviously got some speed, and steal some bases. When you get on base, are you immediately thinking about stealing a base, or are you more of an opportunist?
A: When I get on base, I’m trying to steal a base right away if I can. I want to get a timing off the pitcher, see what his time to home is, and then go from there. I want to go within the first two pitches, but I’m really looking to go almost every pitch, trying to be aggressive.
Q: Offense versus defense – as a center fielder, which part of the game takes more effort or work, in your view?
A: I’m proud of both. I take my defense very seriously. Just helping the pitching staff, any play you can make in the outfield, to make the right decision, the right throw, little things to help get outs. It’s hard to say which I work on more, or which is more important to me, but it feels pretty great when you make a game-saving, diving catch. I work on both, but mentally too, especially with the hitting.
Q: Some of the players here were your teammates on the AZL team. Do you think there’s something valuable to moving people up together as a group like that, playing together beyond just one stint?
A: I definitely think there’s something positive with that, because you get comfortable playing with certain guys, build a camaraderie. Especially with everything going on. It works either way, but it’s a lot of fun having guys from AZL here with me.
Q: Looking at what you’ve done so far statistically, in Great Falls and Kannapolis, you’ve shown the ability to draw a good number of walks and make good contact, walking nearly as often as you struck out last year. As that isn’t necessarily common at this level, can you tell us if you are thinking in terms of walks, or just seeing more pitches, in your hitting approach?
A: I mean, I like to hit first pitch fastballs too, but during a long season you see pitchers over and over and you see what they like to do, and you work that. I take the same approach every time, just see the ball, hit the ball hard. And if not, then just take balls, and take your walks because on-base percentage is big.
Q: You went on a tear in April at the plate, then fell back some in May, and then you started coming back up again. Streaks are part of the game for all hitters of course, but in your case, what do you see the cause being? Is it the pitchers adjusting to you, you adjusting to the league, changes you’ve made from coaching – what is the main factor in your view?
A: I think it’s just baseball. You have ups and downs, it’s an extremely hard game to play. You’re facing the best pitchers in the world. You’ll have balls you hit hard that get caught, and balls they don’t catch that they should. During the season the challenge is just to stay even keel, and guys who do that are the ones that have success. I don’t worry too much about results, just keep having fun and enjoy it.
RHP Taylore Cherry
Q: Going back to draft time. When you were drafted, when we went to look into your background, you hadn’t pitched that year at UNC. It’s unusual to draft someone in a situation like that. Was there an injury that kept you out that year, or something else?
A: Basically, I just quit playing baseball in February. I took a little time off, then got back into it a little before the draft, and luckily I got picked up.
Q: Since you went into the AZL last year having not seen action earlier that year, and now into Kannapolis, how are you handling the quick ramp-up? What are you working on right now?
A: Just trying to be more consistent with all my pitches, the offspeed pitches especially.
LHP Alex Katz
Q: A couple months ago you did an AMA on Reddit. One thing you said that stood out was that you spoke with [White Sox pitching coach] Don Cooper regularly. How did that come about, and how often do you speak with him?
A: It all started with my coach from travel coach from high school. He’s actually an advisor in the Yankees organization now, and he introduced me to Don Cooper at a White Sox vs Yankees game in September. I got a field pass for the game, hung out in the dugout, and talked with him for like half an hour. We exchanged numbers and kept in contact during the season. He actually has family in New York too, and he visited in January and watched me throw a bullpen. I’d send him a video every week or so, and he’d get back to me with some tips.
Q: Describe your pitching approach for us, since our writers haven’t gotten to see you live yet.
A: I’m a 3-pitch guy, fastball-slider-change, and I throw a 2-seam fastball. I like to go right after hitters. I’d say my slider is my out pitch. I try to lean on my fastball early in the count, maybe throw a change-up to get a ground ball.
Q: With lefty relievers coming up through the system, there’s always that question of whether they might profile as a lefty specialist, or as a general reliever. Do you see yourself going one way or the other yet?
A: Facing left-handed hitters is definitely a strength for me. I haven’t checked recently, but I think over my pro career, they’ve hit in the .100’s against me. So I think down the road I could see myself as a lefty specialist. Right now I’m used as a 2-inning guy, like most of the relievers.
Manager Cole Armstrong
Q: Since you were a player just a few years ago… did the thought ever occur to you during your playing days that you might coach or manage eventually?
A: Yes and no. I think later in my career, when it started to be clear I was headed out the door, that’s when you start thinking about that sort of stuff. Early on as a player, it’s such a tough game and such a long road, it’s tough to look that far ahead in the future. But definitely as you start getting older, and you starting seeing things aren’t really coming together the way you had wanted them to, you start looking around for what you’re going to do in the second part of your career.
Q: So, after you retired as a player, there was a short gap, then you ended up in Great Falls. How did that happen? How does a former player open that door?
A: I reached out. I kept good relationships with Cappy [Nick Capra] and Buddy [Bell] and other people in the organization, just kept in touch over the years. When a job came open, I didn’t have a lot of options plan-wise, so it just seemed like perfect timing.
Q: Here’s the question I always ask minor league managers. In the minors, you have to balance player development, with the desire to win games. Sometimes, those come into conflict. How do you manage that balance?
A: I think you see different parts of it every night. No question, when seven o’clock rolls around, everyone’s out there trying to win the game. That said, you’re not going to do anything to win a game, at the risk of hindering someone’s development. The easiest way to put it is, sometimes a player is benefited by walking into a mistake where, yeah, we could have seen it coming and controlled it. But a lot of times that mistake in the game ends up being the best teacher. And that can be the hardest part sometimes, because you want everybody to succeed so badly that the hardest thing to do is let a guy make a mistake, and teach afterwards about why it happened. And that said there may be times where a guy may not do the right thing in a situation, but it works out. Those are sometimes the nicest teaching moments because you can say “hey, it worked out this time, but here’s why we as an organization believe that there’s a different way to do it.”
Q: How would you describe how you handle or manage the clubhouse and culture of the team?
A: For me, it’s their clubhouse. That’s a place for them to come every day, and it’s really a second home for them. The biggest thing for me is, what I try to do is be a consistent presence in a game that is anything but consistent. Sometimes it’s hard. You’d love to go in there sometimes when you lose four or five games and turn over some tables and yell. But then all of a sudden you’re going to win five games in a row and you’re happy. Over a 140 game schedule, the biggest thing I can do is come in here and give them a consistent place to work and a consistent attitude. If they see a manager or coaching staff riding a roller coaster with every result, they’re going to reflect that in some ways. The best way I know to play this game is to be mentally consistent every day and go about your work the same way every day regardless of what the result is.
Q: It seems there’s a higher percentage of managers that are former catchers than would be random. Do you think being a former catcher gives you an advantage going into managing?
A: Yeah, I think so, but you could say something like that for middle infielders or center fielders. I don’t think it’s a huge advantage but I think being a catcher you learn to take a leadership role. I think it lends itself to being a little more vocal, working with the pitchers more. I think that’s the biggest advantage, is knowing something about running a bullpen. But then again I never played the infield, so I rely on Jirsch [hitting coach Justin Jirschele] for positioning and stuff.
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