By The Baseball Beginnings Guy
September 2, 2012
When people ask me, “Hey, John, who’s the best young arm you’ve ever seen?”
I have a quick answer.
The best young arm I have ever seen in person is Felix Hernandez, age 17, in his first pro season, in 2003, for six innings for Everett in Yakima County Stadium. I was the radio guy then. Hernandez was sitting 98-101. Sitting easy. The Mariners didn’t let him throw breaking balls, so he threw straight change-ups at 92. You got me right. Change-up at 92. Might have even been his two-seamer. No offense to any guy I’ve seen since. But nobody, and I mean nobody, has had a better arm at a better age than Felix Hernandez.
The thing that has always stayed with me about Hernandez from that age is that he had the strength to play. He had these big, broad physical features – yet at the same time, he wasn’t quite physically mature. This was a kid who had grown up in the country without video games, with manual labor, without a bunch of variables common to domestic pitchers today. He had a baby face, the good face some old practitioners of this craft might say, and it was all in front of him.
If you had seen Felix Hernandez at age 17 and then never seen him again until he threw his perfect game, you would have seen a guy with the exact same easy delivery for his body type. The only difference is that his body trimmed out and the baby fat went away. But he’s still got those physically strong features – the arm, the chest, the legs, the torso – and most of all, the coordination. The reason we get so many Tommy John surgeries with guys so young is that their parts do not work well together and the baseball industry doesn’t penalize you at the point of the draft for it. They’ll always take the gamble. So you get guys whose legs, torso, and arm don’t work in sync. Felix, even at a young age, was always in balance. You almost always can’t give a guy that gift.
You know, you can take a young pitcher who can throw hard with no earthly idea how he does it, and you can put him in the weight room. But there is something to be said for the few and the gifted who are genetically strong, and then work at being strong from a young age.
I look at Hernandez and I say to myself, look at this. Here was a guy who didn’t have all the travel ball and especially the showcase adulation that we shower upon American pitchers of significantly less ability. Here was a guy who was a name in his own backyard and a pricey International signing back in the day, but we didn’t see him coddled compared to what we see now – and this is only a decade later. Nobody messed with his arm. Nobody worried about pitch counts at a young age, within reason. And he has never been cut on as a result.
This is what makes Hernandez a stud. Strength. Period. I saw Michael Pineda in Instructs in Fall 2010. He was big, tall and rangy and threw 97. Of course you could like him. But he was max effort and his delivery was a mess. He was a pusher. It wasn’t only that Hernandez was strong. He was balanced and proportioned. His strides were consistent and correct for his body and his fastball had life. You didn’t see a guy who was throwing for radar guns. You didn’t see a guy doing the things we see American high school pitchers do – reaching back for what is not there, throwing too many off-speed pitches consecutively, trying to micro-manage a pro game plan in a high school or college game. I saw a guy attacking hitters instead of trying to make a coach happy. I saw a guy dancing with the lady who brought him to the dance. I didn’t see a guy who was timid. I didn’t see a guy who thought what he did at age 17 was life or death or the end of the world. I saw a mature guy, comparatively speaking. It takes some maturity to leave your native country as a teenager to go chase a dream. Some guys freak out about moving to a new state.
I also saw a guy who was not afraid to be pushed. I saw a guy who didn’t need to be pampered or pushed, whose parents realized, this is what he has and this needs to start now. I saw so many good things in Hernandez that I do not see in so many high profile American high school aged pitchers today. And it’s part of the reason why he is King Felix and previous American high school pitching deities are pumping gas in the bush leagues. May as well be pitching with blinders on. That’s no way to learn how to pitch in the big leagues. And it’s one more reason why Felix Hernandez had the best young arm I’ve ever seen.
One day, I’m scouting them as amateur free agents and covering them on the website. The next, they are getting busted for performance-enhancing drugs. My, my, how quickly they grow up.
Or don’t grow up, as the case is with one of the recently busted players I covered here, right-hander Marcus Stroman.
Stroman is every bit as obvious a pre-draft offender as Bartolo Colon is a major league offender. And now, Stroman has something else in common with Colon other than being a smallish, fat, short-arm grunter.
I remember the first time I saw Stroman. I do not think he was on anything when I first saw him. This is the bullpen video at Chatham in the Cape when Stroman was playing for Orleans after his freshman year at Duke. At the time, he was an emerging two-way guy, but the arm strength was the better tool than his speed or his bat. He wasn’t really physically built for a long-term major league career as an infielder and he wasn’t strong enough for the offensive grind. But the arm played immediately. He developed a slider and the rest is history. Stroman should have been the first college pitcher from his draft class to pitch in the big leagues, and he should have been in the Toronto bullpen by the end of the season. Instead, he starts his career with an asterisk.
This is what I hate about players who get busted. Stroman – dude, you didn’t need to put anything in your body other than fruits and vegetables and train hard – and you were THERE. But instead, Stroman’s decision casts a skeptical light upon everyone who has been involved with this player over the past several years – from colleges, through amateur programs, to people he associates with, to those he entrusts his career to. It embarrasses what I think is an otherwise OK kid (if my instincts are what I think they are), it casts his upbringing in a poor undeserving light, and above all, it calls into questions his makeup, motivation and priorities. It also means he has a red flag next to his name inside front offices for the rest of his career – like every other guy who got caught – and he hadn’t really even started his career. But all baseball players must live with their decisions.
The Stroman suspension evokes another question. How many more players load up in the unregulated scantily tested months and years before the draft? And guess what – there are many people in and around baseball who don’t care if they do, and in fact, would urge, support, forgive, look the other way, and tell that player he is better than he really is. But what they won’t tell you is that the baseball industry has a long, long, memory – and only players pay the price when guilty is the verdict.
I have seen some of these players – oh, yes I have and they do stand out like the short, swollen, stubby, neck-less wonders they are – and I have marked on scouting cards at big events and big college games which “name” guys I suspect have already juiced. Hell, I have my hunches about a few very young and famous big leaguers right now. This topic is taboo inside baseball, dismissed as the cost of business, the price to be paid. But it still leaves the game and the player in a bad light. I am confidant in saying there are many other high draft picks that I have covered on this site who I feel are, or have been, drug users. I have my hunches about where the stuff comes from. I don’t name names, because, well, I don’t want to get sued. It’s more fun to keep you all guessing.
But let’s face it – the safe way is for the player to look himself in the mirror before he does something stupid. If you’re good enough to play in the major leagues, you will. And if you think you need drugs to get there, you probably won’t, or are so insecure that you don’t believe in yourself enough to do it on your own. A guy looking for shortcuts is asking to be a career under achiever. But let’s face it – can anyone name a baseball player with a PED story that actually has a good ending? Even if you make all the money in the world, win MVPs and Cy Young Awards, you’re still just that no good cheating bum.
Dollar Sign on the…Dollar
The Red Sox-Dodgers trade illuminates something very telling about the modern major league game. Inside the industry, the trade is considered a stunning success for the Red Sox because of the enormous salary dump. The thought process is money first, talent for talent second. Here’s why.
I don’t really love the talent level of the players the Red Sox took from the Dodgers. James Loney is a stiff. I always felt Jerry Sands was a fringy guy with one tool – right-handed power – and this plays at Fenway, but probably as a bench guy. I don’t think he’s Mark Trumbo. He was a spare part with the Dodgers and he will become a spare part here. Ruddy De La Rosa has a live arm, but I hate his arm slot – you better use him exclusively out of the bullpen because he throws too hard for the unnatural action he has – which means he has a limited shelf life in the bullpen. Ethan Martin is the best piece of puzzle, though I am almost never a fan of trading bats for arms. In reality, the Dodgers bought those contracts fair and square. You had to include players, otherwise the league office would not have approved the “trade.” It reminds me of when Charlie Finley tried to sell Vida Blue and Rollie Fingers for cash only.
The best thing about the trade, for the Red Sox, is you remove Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford from the payroll, the clubhouse, the roster, and the city. Of course, the Crawford cash grab was a horrendous signing and Crawford got what was coming – you sell out, you shop for cash, don’t be surprised when you’re miserable, stop hitting and, get hurt. He’s going to have to play left field whenever he gets healthy again, because he ain’t moving Matt Kemp. Beckett has blown a lot of natural ability after his best years. The real winners were the Marlins when they dumped him in the first place. I will say this – it would have been a GREAT trade if the Red Sox had managed to dump Kentucky Fried Lackey on the Dodger Dogs.
Right place, right time – I found myself in the ballpark for Red Sox shortstop Jose Iglesias’s first week in the big leagues. When I left the park, he was still waiting for his first big league hit. I seem to recall that when we ran video on him a few years ago, I felt that the kid might have the bat blown out of his hands. He is taller, stronger, and still lean. He can hold onto the bat, but the ball still owns him.
The good news is I got him down the line, once at 4.13 and once at 4.28 with a bad jump. So he’s an average to above-average runner, which is pretty good for a big league shortstop. He got the bad jump because he still has a long swing. That’s not so good and he should have already figured out that this isn’t the Cuban Industrial League anymore.
He has good hands and a chance to be a consistently good hitter if he can understand the concept that he is a slap hitter. But with this look, I don’t think he will. I suppose Fenway Park has a way of tempting little shortstops into thinking they have power – Where Have you gone, Freddie Patek? Bob Zuk proudly lied to sign you – but Iglesias, in the at-bats I saw in person, lacked the consistent offense approach he should already have here upon arrival.
This means he will have to learn while he is playing in the big leagues, which means he isn’t gonna be as good offensively as he should be. I think he’s a .260 hitter with plus speed, plus arm, plus defense written all over him. His hands and footwork are what they’re supposed to look like. If he learns to be what he is offensively, you could win a pennant with this guy. If he doesn’t, he can go hang out with Jose Offerman in a few years, and they can go fishing together in the Atlantic League.