Oakland Athletics vs. Milwaukee Brewers (Mesa, Arizona)

When you go to games every single day (last year I did over 150 games total), sometimes you lose track of the day of the week. Today, I forgot it was Saturday, which means increased attendance and longer lines getting into the ballpark. While in standstill traffic trying to enter the ballpark I can hear my mentor, former Big League Pitcher, Pitching Coach, Advance Scout, and General Manager Ron Schueler, in my head telling me I better not be late. By the time I was rerouted to the back of the stadium then rerouted to the front parking and a bit of a walk away from the ballpark I knew I was going to miss the first pitch. Luckily I had seen both starting pitchers before and when I settled into my seat in the bottom of the first inning I was treated to a pitching clinic by Brewers starter Brandon Woodruff.

I first saw Woodruff at the High-A level pitching for the now defunct Brevard County Manatees in 2015. I saw him again in 2016 at the same level and he was much better. I changed my opinion on him (this is allowed, because players DO CHANGE) and I turned in a very good report on him, I thought maybe I was even a little high on him it was so good. Here’s my report:

Delivery: Full-effort and unbalanced delivery from 1B side. Falls forward and never fully gathers to balance point in wind-up. Good drive forward to plate but tends fall-off towards 1B at finish and doesn’t land in good fielding position. Has large scapula load. Shows ball early to hitter, lacking deception in delivery. 

FB – Serious hop to it. Firm sink and arm side run at times. Needs to harness movement better. Pitches inside effectively to RHH and LHH. Shows ability to paint corners. Maintained comfort velo – 96 into the 7th inning of start. Tons of swings and misses and very few hard contact against. 
SL – Good shape, just needs to be more consistent to be plus offering. Freezes RHH when he starts it inside on them and swing and miss down and in to LHH. Swing and miss offering to both.
CH – will throw to RHH and LHH – gets some swing and misses from both due to deception and movement but still developing feel and command to both sides of the plate. 

How he pitches: Uses velo and movement to get outs. Lacks deception in delivery against LHH but his stuff/velo still get them out.  All his pitches can act as ML out-pitches at peak. Commands zone and both sides of the plate with FB/SL. Totally different pitcher than last year (April 2015) – velo was 88-94, sitting 91 and off-speed wasn’t sharp with well below avg command. 

Profile: Power pitcher with avg feel to pitch. Currently has avg command of solid-avg stuff while maintaining 96 on FB deep into games. Projectable upside of abv avg major league starter when everything clicks.

Essentially I had Woodruff as a Present-Future 4-6, meaning he could pitch in the big leagues effectively that day I saw him back in 2016 and he had the projection of being an above average Major League Starter at peak. Well, based on what he did last year at the end of the season and in the playoffs, he has found his groove and today he was even better than I projected. He’s adjusted his delivery to be more balanced and more on-line and that helps his velo get into the 96-98 range at times, while sitting 95-96 with plus arm side run and sink during the 3 innings I saw him today. He also has much more deception due to staying closed at landing. His slider is tighter and sharper with true break at 86-89 mph, his circle change-up continues to play from 85-89 mph, although it can be a little too hard at times, it still has quality movement, and he caps this off with a quality power 3/4 breaking ball that’s both tight and deceptive. With three 6-grade off-speed pitches, an elite fastball and solid command of all of it – he’s easily a Role 6 (above average starter) right now and if he can improve command of his off-speed (and I think he can) there’s a potential for him to be a Role 7 at his peak.

Oakland couldn’t get much going today against Woodruff or the Brewers relievers all of whom have big league experience besides #6 rated prospect (according to MLB Pipeline) RHP Zack Brown. I saw Brown in 2017 at the Low-A level pitching for the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and I liked him giving him a Present-Future grade of 2-5. Here’s what I said:

Delivery: Athletic, full effort drop and drive with lots of head whip and tilt to release as he explodes to plate – almost looks like he’s jumping at times. Able to stay on top consistently for solid plane despite blw avg prototypical pitching size and long stride. Mostly linear. Extreme scapula load. Sometimes his arm moves too fast in delivery and gives him some control problems. Throws everything with same arm speed.
FB – 2-seam sinker 88-93 with some cut and late run mostly 91-92. Movement is inconsistent. 4-seam has hop and cuts a little 92-96, mostly 94-95. Sat mostly 92-93 (90-95 range) in 1st outing on 7/19 with 3 command and 4 movement. On 7/24 velo was 92-96 and mostly sat 93-94 with 5 movement and 4 command. Showed ability to maintain velo and even sitting 94-95 later in game (6th inning). About same number of swings and misses as hard contact against.
SL – calls it a curveball but it’s really a tight power slurve with decent shape. Throws to both RHH and LHH. Can be a little long at times when it’s harder 85-86. Works best around 82 mph. Works as a backdoor pitch to LHH. Shows ability to add and subtract from it. Better command in 2nd outing.
CH – tendency to cut it. Pronates to RHH when ahead. Throws with good arm speed. Didn’t throw many.
How he pitches: LHH see well but RHH have some trouble picking him up. Has some swing and miss offerings and hitters are overall uncomfortable against him in the box. Showed better command, velo and stuff in 2nd outing than 1st.
One Line Summary: Profiles as real solid league avg starter @ peak

Today, Brown was solid and showed enough stuff that he can be long-reliever or spot-starter right now in the big leagues, even though he has never pitched above AA. His fastball was in the 91-94 range, sitting 92 overall with solid sink and average arm side run and some hop at the top. His 2-seam he really pronates and it goes from 89-90, but also tends to stay a bit more up in the zone.

He showed a fringe-average 12-6 curve from 80-82 mph and flashed a 2-plane circle change-up that he used to RHH as well at 86 mph. Because of his shorter size and the drop and drive delivery his fastball and his curve don’t have consistent depth. The Curveball can have a tendency to hang and Marcus Semien, the Oakland batter, just misses on crushing this mistake up in the zone (see video below).

Brown does do a fairly decent job of staying on top and his Fastball does have solid sink to it when his timing in his release is proper and you can also see the quality of movement (in the video below) getting Oakland’s Matt Chapman to ground out to SS.

He actually got stronger as his outing went on and finished the day with 3 innings pitches, no hits and no runs but also no strikeouts and 2 walks. I like the tenacity that he showed and he really gets after it, but sometimes at the expense of his command. He’s going to have to work on his command but with an assortment of fringe to average offerings right now, there’s no reason to think he can’t be up with the big league club by the end of the year and contributing to the Brewers in some fashion.

The guy to lock in on today was Brewers #1 rated prospect, second-baseman Keston Hiura, a first round pick in the 2017 draft who I saw make his debut at the A-ball level that same year and then I saw him again this past Fall in the Arizona Fall League. When I first saw him he was only DH’ing after suffering an injury to his throwing arm in college and he looked a little tired from a long season that started for him with games back in February of that year. I still liked him though and I put a big league grade on him, just with some serious concerns about what position he could play AND with his exaggerated front leg lift if he had enough bat speed to catch-up to plus velo consistently. Those concerns were mostly maligned by the time I saw him last Fall playing 2B in the AZ Fall League and he had shortened his leg lift enough to where he was turning on balls with ease thanks to his plus bat speed and rather compact bat path to the ball. He elevates the ball with ease and his swing/body type reminds me of Brian Dozier a lot. He’s not an exceptional athlete by any stretch of the imagination and I don’t see him being able to play on the left-side of the infield with his adequate arm strength, at best, but boy, this kid can hit the ball. With 2-strikes on him and the bases loaded he shortened his leg lift a bit more and drilled a 87 FB (something he should drill) that was down the middle, beyond the left-field wall for a grand slam (see video below).

There’s no doubt this guy is going to hit (and he’s already done it at every level in the minors) mostly with more doubles than homers, and that’s something you like to see out of young hitters, since game power is usually the last thing to come once they reach the big leagues. I see him as an everyday 2B, with above average power and slightly above average hit tool. I may be a bit low on him because MLB Pipeline grades the future hit tool as a 70, but as I mentioned I still have some concerns with his timing AND with his ability to cover the whole plate.

Then you have the A’s – who had just 5 hits on the day combined. One of them came off the bat of Franklin Barretto who was playing CF. I noticed this only after looking at the box score following the game. I can’t remember him being challenged out there and so that’s both good and bad – good for him that he didn’t stand out and make a mess but also bad for me as an evaluator because I still can’t throw a defensive grade on him yet even after seeing him across 3 positions and approximately 5 games in the past 10 days. This remains one of the most difficult parts of this job – they tell you to work from pitcher to the batter to the catcher and then back up the middle. You can’t watch the flight of the pitch, the batter’s swing, the catcher’s set-up and read the instincts / first movement of a particular defender (or a few) all at the same time. It’s usually once you have the pitcher and catcher graded out that you start moving around the defense (that is, if you’re not focusing on the hitter either). In cases like Spring Training where there is seemingly a new pitcher every inning and someone that you most likely haven’t seen yet – grading out defensive skills tend to be reactionary (once the ball is hit – picking up where it’s headed and if there is a throw involved). Doing it this way will give you a fairly decent idea of actions/movements/arm strength but the missing piece to the puzzle is in the first movements and reaction time. Again, we are starting to get access to data that helps us evaluate the quickness, speed, and efficiency in a player’s defense but we still need to watch for other indications too. Barretto is playing 2B, SS, and CF thus far – and I want to figure out WHERE he looks most comfortable, where does he look most natural, where is he a liability (if at all)? His set-up, his footwork, his body language, his secondary set-up pre-pitch, his real time and in person first step as the pitch is delivered – these are all part of the evaluation process, that can’t all be measured, and takes years of watching a spectrum of players across those positions to understand what it is you are looking for. For example, last year I was in AA Midland Texas scouting Oakland’s farm team. The starting SS Richie Martin was playing there pretty much every day, on occasion he would move to 2B for a game and the normal everyday 2B would play SS. Now, I had graded Martin out as a plus defender with a chance to be elite at the Major League level (which is partially why the Orioles used the #1 pick in the Rule 5 draft in December), but on the day he played 2B he just LOOKED so unnatural and unsure there. It’s not something you can measure precisely with data but to the trained scouting eye, you could see the difference.

The Oakland prospect that I was trying to zero in on was Sean Murphy who I also saw last year in AA Midland. I believe he has the tools and makeup to become an above average Major League catcher at his peak, eventually. The swing is powerful, he displays good plate coverage and is showing a better ability to use the opposite field (as the video below shows).

He hasn’t done much damage at the plate yet this year and he is still learning the nuances of calling and receiving at the big league level, and that’s why he’ll probably be slated to start the year in AAA, but as he matures over the next year and gains more AB’s and experience at the highest level of the minors he’ll be in a spot to start contributing at the Major League level soon. I actually think he could start the year with the big league team but he shouldn’t get the bulk of playing time and given his youth and inexperience, even though the talent is of Major League caliber right now, he’ll be better served getting everyday AB’s in the minors for now.

Top Hitting Performer: Keston Hiura (MIL) – the Brewers #1 prospect had a day at the plate going 2-3 with a walk, 4 RBI’s (on the grand slam).

Top Pitching Performer: Brandon Woodruff (MIL) – the righty was his normal dominant self, working 3 innings and only giving up 1 walk and 1 hit while limiting the A’s to no runs and striking out 5. He the stuff, command, and composure to definitely be considered a top of the rotation starter for Milwaukee when they break camp.

Most Intriguing Prospect: It’s easily Hirua here as the top prospect but Oakland’s Sean Murphy, Milwaukee’s Lucas Erceg who came in late to play 1B, and the Brewers RHP Zack Brown are all intriguing for me.

Biggest Takeaway: Never assume you’re going to waltz into the ballpark at any Spring Training game, plan for and prepare for traffic backups. Also, never forget your headphones, so when the fan behind you think that he’s the next Vin Scully and starts doing the play-by-play on every pitch, you can just drown it out with your Itunes.