Phillies Prospect Conversation: Jason Parks (Baseball Prospectus)

Leading off our tour of Phillies Prospect coverage is Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus. Jason became the head of BP’s scouting staff when Kevin Goldstein was absconded away by Jeff Lunhow and his Hugh Grant eyes to join the Houston Astros. Jason is a skilled evaluator with an insatiable appetite for baseball. He enjoys a squeeze of citrus in his water. I can sit here and tell you how good Jason is at his job, how wonderfully realistic his assessments of talent are and how Jason’s content separates itself from the rest of the prospecting world because he’s simply the best and most unique pure writer of words we have. But perhaps the most ringing endorsement I can give Jason’s work is this: Whenever someone approaches me about how they can get into scouting and what they need to look for when evaluating talent, I refer them to Jason’s chapters in Baseball Prospectus’ 2012 book, Extra Innings. I can’t do better than those chapters so I won’t try.

I know an overwhelming number of our readers here probably already have subscriptions to BP. If you don’t, you need to head on over there and snatch one up. Even if you’re not sabermetrically inclined, the prospect coverage alone is already worth the small fee and is going to evolve into the most comprehensive public scouting database on Earth when the 2013 season starts. More on that in a bit. For now, enjoy my hour long talk with Jason which I transcribed to the best of my ability. Keep an eye out for my notes and links throughout.

Eric (via text)- I’ll call you in 15 minutes if that’s okay

Jason (via text)- I’m waiting in line for coffee, should be home in 15 minutes. Perfect.

15 minutes, 37 seconds later

(phone ringing)

Jason– Hello?

(Jason and I engage in 20 seconds of small talk neither of us is particularly comfortable with)

Eric– Alright, let’s get into this. Why don’t you start by telling everyone about your new job and how it’s going?

Jason– It’s good. Different. Kevin’s (Goldstein) level of success gave me all sorts of freedom when he was still around. Our prospect coverage complimented one another and his presence gave me all sorts of freedom to write things like….faux fiction. Now there’s more structure to what I’m doing. I knew the direction I wanted to take things right away. I wanted to bring in more eyes and run things like an actual scouting department. (Eric’s note: He has. Several writers/evaluators across the country have joined BP to cover the minors this season. I’m curious to know what the output’s format will be for all this scouting data but it will certainly be exhaustive and ground breaking)

Eric– What does the Top 10 process entail?

Jason– I make a preliminary sketch of the top guys in the system and then make a list of guys I know within the industry who have coverage of that team. I make calls and work that information into the list. Then I’ll ask for contributions from the BP team about the top ten and ask for suggestions on players we think will get to the majors this year, or who might have a breakout season. I want as many sources as possible.

Eric– I want your thoughts on the Phillies philosophy on acquiring amateur talent. I know in the past you’ve said you really like what they do, but since then your writing has indicated a change in your stance on the pure, raw tool athletes the Phillies lust for every June.

Jason– My views have….refined on the Phillies tool heavy approach. It’s not that I’m no longer a fan of toolsy freak guys, I’m just no longer a fan of guys who don’t know how the hell to play baseball. I’ve given up on teaching the freak athlete how to play baseball because those guys just don’t develop. You have to see feel and instincts. If those things are lacking, the kid won’t bear fruit. I’m all for big tools as long as they show an aptitude for playing baseball as well.

Eric– One thing I find fascinating is an entire farm system’s worth of talent has been exported over the last half decade or so (since the Blanton trade) and nobody has made the Phillies regret trading them yet. Do you have thoughts on a cause to this or is this just some random stroke of luck?

Jason– Let me start by saying that no teams want kids they trade to fail. You draft and develop a relationship with these kids. You don’t send him away and hope he burns out or gets hurt. Sure, teams want to “win” these trades, whatever that means, but not at the expense of someone’s job or career. I think that gets lost on blogs. To answer your question, one reason things may have worked out like this is because teams are supposed to know their system better than anyone else. Only teams that see a prospect come to work every day can claim that his makeup is a known commodity. Makeup (Eric’s note: the definition of makeup throughout baseball is not uniform. Some will tell you lack of faith in a god is a sign of poor makeup, others couldn’t care less what you do at home as long as you strive to get better at baseball. Jason skews toward the latter) is an underrated part of this whole process and when you have a handle on that and other teams don’t, you have the upper hand. That’s not to say all prospects are traded because they have poor makeup. This thing with the Phillies is probably mostly luck, but the internal evaluation process is something to consider as well.

Eric– The one guy who was considered untouchable throughout that whole exile was Domonic Brown. This was a guy who (I proceed to crush on Domonic Brown) and no longer looks like that player. I’d like to know why.

Jason– I would also like to know why. People need to realize that the jump from Triple-A to the Major Leagues is insane. The level of competition is far and above what you see in Triple-A. You’re suddenly playing against much better players in bigger stadiums in front of many more people. Then, once you succeed at the major league level, your competition is going to adjust. Then you have to adjust. And then they’ll make more adjustments. This cycle continues for the rest of your career and some guys just can’t do that. This isn’t something you can simulate in the minor leagues. I don’t know why Brown hasn’t lived up to the lofty expectations yet but that might be part of it. Others believe he still has a chance to be special. He is still quite young and I know teams were trying to get him thrown in to deals this winter in an effort to buy low.

Eric– I know in today’s online world we like to place the blame on something or someone, so is it fair to say that Brown hasn’t gotten to where we thought he would because of some combination of everything people have pointed to? All the stuff you mentioned, injuries, mishandling, luck, swing changes…?


Eric– Ok, let’s get into your list itself

(Eric’s note: Baseball Prospectus’ Top 10 Phillies Prospects

1.        Jesse Biddle

2.        Maikel Franco

3.        Adam Morgan

4.        Roman Quinn

5.        Tommy Joseph

6.        Ethan Martin

7.        Cody Asche

8.        John Pettibone

9.        Carlos Tocci

10.        Shane Watson)

and talk about Jesse Biddle, who’ll likely be the number one guy on everyone’s list this year. Give me your assessment of Biddle and touch on the strange fluctuations in velocity he tends to suffer from. Is that an incedental side effect of his development from a once a week high school pitcher in the short scheduled Northeast to a full time ballplayer? Or is that something we should be concerned about long term?

Jason– Biddle certainly isn’t your ideal type of #1 prospect and he does have a lot of warts on him already. As far as the velo concerns go, I think saying it’s due to growing pains is a convenient excuse. I’m not sure it’s okay to think that after Biddle has been in pro ball this long. His delivery is clean, but whatever relationship he has with the ball, his explosiveness and intensity, is lost at times. Once he completely grows into his body, maybe it’ll stick. If he can pitch at 90-93mph or maybe a little lower if he can learn to manipulate the ball and add movement, I think it’ll work at the Major League level. He’s got a mid-rotation ceiling. Not sexy.

Eric– Talk me through why Maikel Franco is so high on your list.

Jason– He has crazy bat speed. His hands are explosive. The reports I got on him were better than he looked when I saw him. For instance, I don’t think he sticks at third base. He’s too thick and slow in the lower half to confidently project at third. Maybe right field is an option since you’d hate to waste the arm at first. People outside the Phillies organization would like to see him move behind the plate. That’s a difficult move for anyone to make at this stage in the game, especially when you also want this guy to be a high end hitter. There’s just not enough time to work on all that stuff. Franco plays too fast at times. He needs to slow down. He loves to swing, the approach needs some serious work.

Eric– Do you think coaches can deploy developmental tools to help him improve his approach or is that just something some players have and others do not?

Jason– I think a coach can aid development with the approach but can’t assist with pitch recognition, which I think is an inherent thing that seriously influences the quality of one’s approach.

Eric– You’ve got Adam Morgan next on your list. I’m quite taken by him. Do you think he sustains the success he found last season?

Jason– Something concerns me about Morgan and slider pitchers in general. (Eric’s note: I am of the mind that Morgan’s best secondary pitch is his changeup, not his slider. I am in the minority on this) Bad sliders are home run pitches. If Morgan’s fastball isn’t working for him, if he’s not locating it or it doesn’t quite have the juice it needs, he becomes over reliant on his slider. His changeup comes and goes.

Eric– I actually like the changeup better. Wouldn’t hesitate putting a 6 on it in each of the times I saw him. I’ve kicked around the idea of doing a list myself and am not sure how high I’m going to stick Morgan. Could go as high as #2.

Jason– Well then let me ask you this. Based on what we both think about Biddle and the pitcher he is and the pitcher he might become and what you’ve just told me you think about Morgan, why couldn’t you go and put Morgan at #1?

Eric– Well, (redacted because I don’t want to give away my rankings) and….I know I shouldn’t care about this but I do…I don’t want people to think I did it just to be different. I know I should just evaluate the player, have an objective opinion about him and that’s it, but I know if I see something fishy on someone else’s list, I tend to wonder if they did what they did primarily for attention. I don’t want that to happen.

Jason– Sure, but you could justify it. There’s enough evidence and room for subjectivity for you to stick Morgan at #1 in a bad system and totally justify it. Now, if someone put Roman Quinn at the top of their list, then THAT would be someone I’d point at and say, “this person wants attention.”

Eric– Good, I’m glad you brought him up because we need to talk about him and an overarching issue the public seems to have with overvaluing speed. Do you think we see speed, that tangible, sexy tool, and forget about more important aspects of a player’s profile? Especially in a system like this where plus-plus tools are in short supply, do we see an 80 tool and fall in love even though the rest of the player isn’t all that good?

Jason– Speed clouds judgment. Having a catalytic tool like speed causes people to think you’re going to do the things you’re doing now all the way up through the major leagues. The ways he gets on base, the way he gets extra base hits….those sorts of opportunities don’t come around very often in the Majors. Sure, he’ll put pressure on infielders, but what MLB infielder is used to fielding a ball cleanly and throwing out fast guys at first base? How often do big league outfielders misplay a ball so badly that even the fastest of runners can stretch a double? It doesn’t happen. This is the fastest player in baseball not named Billy Hamilton and I don’t think it’s going to matter. I was one of the few that didn’t buy into Dee Gordon. Sure he’s a total burner and he’s good enough to play shortstop, but you have to hit. You have to have the strength to hit and control a baseball bat. Quinn is going to have to develop that strength and that’s a really hard thing to do.

Eric– What about the defense, do you think he sticks at short?

Jason– If they’re in A-ball and you’re questioning the defense already, they’re probably going to have to move. His hands and actions need serious improvement if he wants to stay at short.

Eric– Let’s discuss guys that are a long ways away. Gabriel Lino (Eric’s notes: acquired for Jim Thome this past season). Any chance the bat develops enough for him to be a backup? I know the tools are loud.

Jason– Yeah…it’s not gonna work. Lino is big and strong. The build is strong. He has impressive catch and throw skills and the raw pop is awesome, but you only see it at 5 o’clock. He needs to hit. I just don’t think he’s going to.

Eric– Andrew Pullin, go.

Jason– Ah yes, when I started making calls Pullin’s name started popping up. He’s sort of a weird guy. The bat is interesting but his entire status as a prospect totally depends on whether he can successfully convert to second base. There’s not enough bat for a corner outfield spot. Watch for the defense, it’s key.

Eric– I guess we sorta need to talk about Darin Ruf. When he had that August and interest in him really exploded, it seemed questions were directed at everyone but you. I want your thoughts on Ruf.

Jason– I understand the excitement. We’ve seen it before when a guy who’s just an org guy or a four-A guy has a stretch where he just goes apeshit. People assume that because this guy is doing this at Double-A that he’s close enough to the majors that it’ll translate and he’s just going to keep mashing. You can’t Ruf has a ton of raw strength, just bull, country, lift balls out all over the place strength….but it’s just not gonna happen at the big league level. We had some discussion amongst the scouting staff at BP about putting him in the back half of our top 10 because some think he’s a platoon bat. There’s value in a platoon bat and some argued that value and, more importantly, the certainty of that value compared to the high risk involved with the young players we ended up with at #9 and #10 meant we should include Ruf. I’ve dealt with l angry comments because we didn’t.

Eric– Let’s do some rapid fire, one sentence evals. Dylan Cozens.

Jason– Got some love. Was a candidate to be in our “on the Rise” section.

Eric– Jake Diekman?

Jason– Got some love there, too. If he can command that plus-plus velocity then he can pitch in more than just a specialist role. Righties do pick it up early though because the arm slot is so low.

Eric- Larry Greene?

Jason– I’m not a fan of the bat speed. I’ve had some say he has slider bat speed. He’s a first -base-only guy.

Eric– Kelly Dugan

Jason– No love

I then thanked Jason for spending over an hour on the phone with me, we talked for five more minutes and then I went to play darts with my future brother-in-law. Up next in our prospect conversations series: Baseball America’s Jim Callis.

Chase Utley and Left-Handed Pitching

Ken Rosenthal reported this week that the Phillies may be in search of a right-handed bat, listing Scott Hairston, Alfonso Soriano, and Vernon Wells as possible targets. Leaving aside the fact that the latter two are horrible tire-fires, the phrase “right-handed bat” triggers in me a gag reflex many years in the making. The notion that the Phillies are “too left-handed” has been around since at least Ryan Howard‘s arrival, and possibly longer. You could find such a claim on some blog or newspaper for any season since their run of success began.

This talking point persisted despite the fact that, from 2008-2010, the Phillies were the second-best hitting team in the NL against left-handed pitching when measured by their 105 wRC+ (friendly reminder that this is just park-adjusted and league-normalized wOBA). It seems almost shameful in its ingratitude nowadays, when an extra-base hit or a walk is almost a luxury for Phillies fans. In the two most recent seasons, the Phillies certainly have struggled against left-handed pitching, posting a 92 wRC+ in that split in 2011, and an 86 wRC+ in 2012. It’s less of a canard and more of a legitimate issue now.

The departure of Jayson Werth put a dent in the lineup’s LHP effectiveness for sure, but just as costly was Chase Utley‘s time lost to injury, and the apparent crumbling of his adverse platoon abilities. Entering 2011, Utley was just about equally lethal against either flavor of pitcher for his career. In fact, in 2010, he hit .294/.422/.581 in 166 plate appearances against lefties, compared to .266/.371/.381 in 345 plate appearances against righties. After knee injuries forced him to miss lots of time in the next two seasons, his bat declined, and his defiance of the platoon advantage principle unraveled in dramatic fashion. His wRC+ crashed from 172 in 2010 to 73 in 2011. It rebounded to 90 in 2012, but that figure is still second worst of his career.

It’s not hard to pick out what’s underlying that. Take a look at this table (click for larger), which plots various measures of Utley’s contact, discipline, and power against left and right-handed pitchers since 2007.

wXB/H is a statistic that measures power totally independent of contact ability, which is why hits are in the denominator. For more information, see here

The areas with discernible trends — and in which the decline is markedly worse against LHPs — is in BABIP and the power metrics. Utley is swinging roughly as often against LHPs as he usually has, and putting the ball in play about as often too. But those balls in play are becoming hits much less often, and, even when they do, they’re less likely to go for extra bases, or turn into home runs.

The culprit appears to be Utley’s pulled balls. From 2009-2010, when pulling the ball against a left-handed pitcher (136 plate appearances), Utley posted a .556 wOBA. For 2011-2012, in 97 such plate appearances, his wOBA is less than half of that — .246. The effect is easily visible when you chart his hits and plate coverage in these scenarios. Observe his hit locations when pulling the ball against left-handed pitchers, 2009 to 2012:

Now look at his slugging percentage when pulling a ball into play against lefties, over that same time period:

More outs and weakly hit balls are evident since his injury. Needless to say, we’re slicing the data up rather finely here, and these are pretty small sample sizes. But it’s not blogging without some questionable speculation. With that in mind:

Pulling the ball requires the hitter to be ahead of or right on the incoming pitch. Timing and recognition is crucial, especially if you’re a left-handed hitter trying to pull the ball against a same-handed pitcher, since you “see” the ball for significantly less time. For the Utley of old, this was never a problem. His pitch recognition was and still is among the best in the game, and his short, compact swing allowed him to bring the bat through the strike zone as quickly as needed, getting on top of left-handed offerings without issue. If his chronic knee issues have forced him to make alterations to his swing, even minor ones, this advantage could be obviated. A change in footwork could slow his bat just enough to hamper his contact abilities, or sap his ability to generate power to his pull side, relegating Utley to the production of a more traditional left-handed hitter.

This is not to say that such an outcome would be disastrous. Utley’s performance against lefties in 2011 was atrocious, but it rebounded significantly in 2012. Even then, with an OPS of .679 against left-handed pitching last season, Utley was 11% above the average left-handed batter in adverse platoon scenarios. His overall line of .256/.365/.429, while somewhat sub-Utley in caliber, was still more than acceptable for a second baseman of his defensive talents.

Besides that, Utley was really the least of the Phillies’ problems against lefties last season. There were several notable non-lefties who couldn’t hack it against southpaws — Jimmy Rollins (221 PA, 65 wRC+ vs. LHP), Placido Polanco (101 PA, 65 wRC+), and Michael Martinez (54 PA, 46 wRC+). And a few of Utley’s same-sided cohorts had their own problems — Ryan Howard (106 PA, 60 wRC+ vs. LHP), Juan Pierre (60 PA, 13 wRC+), and Domonic Brown (59 PA, 70 wRC+). The good news is that Polanco, Martinez, and Pierre are no longer with the team, and there is room to hope that Rollins and Brown will improve upon their figures. If Utley is able to build upon 2012 and make a further effort to resurrect his lefty-on-lefty abilities, and any of the previously mentioned players can make their own adjustments, the Phillies could even their nasty platoon split without the addition of the ever-elusive right-handed bat.