TORONTO — In this era of baseball, when every movement on the field of play is tracked and recorded, and player performance is dissected like never before, it’s always worthwhile reminding yourself just how difficult the game is. They say the further away you are from the diamond, the easier it appears to be. The ball’s moving a lot slower on television than if you’re standing in the batter’s box or on infield dirt. And the intensity of play at field level bleeds away row by row as you move up stadium seats.
It’s a game predicated on failure. Slumps will happen. Entire bad seasons, even. Injuries will impede productivity. Players will get figured out by the opposition, make an adjustment to correct it, and then get figured out again. The effects of all this are seldom more evident than with young players in the minors still growing and learning how to be their best as professionals. We envision prospects all developing steadily on straight, upward lines, improving year over year until they reach the majors. But linear progression is rarely what happens.
“Everybody wants that straight line and the continuous improvement that’s consistent and rapid. But everybody goes through these struggles,” says Gil Kim, the Toronto Blue Jays’ director of player development. “And we’ve always acknowledged how valuable a lesson and an experience of struggle can be in order for players to grow. They get used to building out mental resilience, to being their own best coaches, to blocking out outside pressure. All of the struggles that our players have had, we see as positives because we know they’ll grow and learn and develop from it.”
So keep that in mind when you’re thinking about top prospect rankings, such as the one Baseball America released on Wednesday. Three Blue Jays made the list: Nate Pearson (No. 7), Jordan Groshans (No. 29) and Simeon Woods Richardson (No. 61). And 21-year-old catcher Alejandro Kirk just missed the cut. Inclusion on the list is deserved recognition of the progress and results these players demonstrated during the 2019 season. But it doesn’t mean there won’t be tough times ahead.
Take 23-year-old Blue Jays infield prospect Kevin Smith. At this time last year, Baseball America had him No. 91 on its list after he hit .302/.358/.528 with 25 homers between mid- and high-A during a breakout 2018. At the time, Blue Jays developers eagerly talked up the analytical curiosity and work ethic that led to his success. Smith wanted to know the earliest date he could report to spring training. He wanted extra work in the cages hitting against high-velocity pitching machines. He was texting his hitting coaches YouTube videos about swing mechanics at 1 a.m.
And he didn’t stop doing stuff like that in 2019. What changed was his results. Challenged to make the jump to double-A, Smith hit .209/.263/.402, striking out in nearly a third of his plate appearances. The Blue Jays extended his season to let him keep working, sending him off to the Arizona Fall League. There, he had six hits in 67 trips to the plate, striking out more than half the time.
What was most tormenting for Smith was that his struggles were borne out of being proactive toward holes in his game, rather than waiting to have them exposed. Amidst his breakout year, Smith was accumulating Trackman data demonstrating a weakness against fastballs up in the zone. The opposition was going to catch on eventually. So, following the season, he tweaked his swing to produce a flatter bat path and, in theory, keep his bat in the zone longer.
But the change didn’t take, and by mid-season Smith’s swing was an unintended hybrid of his old, more lofty mechanic and his new one. As he struggled to figure it out in-season, Smith’s approach wavered, and he started swinging at pitchers’ pitches he had little chance of driving. He finally got hot in July, putting up a 1.079 OPS with eight homers in the month. But in August he fell back into a deep funk. And his Fall League stint was miserable.
“You learn a lot of stuff when that happens — about yourself, about how to interact with teammates, about how to control a situation when it goes like that,” Smith says. “I’m always looking for ways to get better and to improve as a player. And last year just shows that it doesn’t always work out.”
Conventional baseball wisdom for a player like Smith coming off a stellar season like his 2018 is not to change anything. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But that’s not how things work in today’s game, rich with video and data for opponents to study. The other side is constantly analyzing your tendencies, devising more effective ways to get you to make outs. If you aren’t working to stay ahead of the pitchers you’ll be facing, you’re just letting them catch up.
Developmentally-minded organizations like Toronto aren’t looking for athletes who experience success, earn some prospect praise and put things in cruise control assuming they have it all figured out. They want individuals who look to build on their success and reach higher levels, constantly learning new things about their games and viewing their performance with an objective, critical eye.
The challenge for a player like Smith is to trust that process over his disappointing results. It’s not so easy when you’re striking out twice a night as a minor-leaguer trying to climb the organizational ladder. But the same thought process that dug Smith into a hole is what will help him pull himself out. It’s what got him onto a top-100 prospect list in the first place.
“I’m never going to say sorry for trying to get better,” he says. “It’s just in my nature to try to improve things and get better where I see I can. This time, it just didn’t work out. But I put the work in that I wanted to put in. And I’ll be going at it with the same approach this year.”
This year he’ll be back at double-A New Hampshire, likely playing alongside another highly regarded middle infielder who’s withstood developmental setbacks while progressing through the professional ranks — Toronto’s first pick in the 2017 draft, Logan Warmoth.
Warmoth improved rapidly while playing college ball at North Carolina, raising his OPS from .597 as a freshman to .883 as a sophomore and .957 as a junior before he re-entered the draft. And he held his own in his first exposure to professionals, hitting well throughout a truncated season at rookie ball and low-A.
But high-A was a struggle in 2018, as Warmoth posted a .641 OPS over 75 games in a season shortened by a hamstring injury. He bounced back nicely at high-A the next year (despite missing another month due to injury) with an .803 OPS, earning a mid-season call-up to double-A. But that’s where things fell back off, as Warmoth hit .200/.290/.277 over his final 65 games of the season at the higher level.
“I’m not saying I’m naive about baseball — I know I’m going to fail. But you don’t really know what it’s like until you really get hit in the mouth,” Warmoth says. “It’s tough to swallow because you feel like you put in so much time and work that year, that season, and it doesn’t work out. You really reflect and question things. Like, ‘What really went wrong?’”
The biggest frustration for Warmoth has been injuries occurring at times when he felt he was finally making strides with the off-field work he was trying to carry into games. That’s why his biggest focus this winter hasn’t been his swing or his approach, but how he conditions his body for a full season.
Counterintuitively, that can often mean doing less rather than more — paying attention to soreness and fatigue, and knowing when to give your body adequate time to properly recover instead of pushing through unnecessary volume. It’s hard to be your best in games when you’re playing with dead legs.
Every athlete wants to be known as the first in the gym and the last to leave. And most want to be doing everything they possibly can to get even marginally better and squeeze out another drop of their potential. But over-training, and the deleterious effects it can have on performance, is real.
“You don’t want to be the lazy guy. You just don’t,’” Warmoth says. “But that can lead to over-doing it. It’s tough. Especially for me, because I’m almost like a perfectionist. I want everything to be perfect. I want to make sure I’m doing X, Y and Z every day. But taking a step back when I was hurt and looking back on it, I was like, ‘Maybe I didn’t need to do all that stuff that day. Maybe I needed to give my body and my legs a little bit of a break.’”
All prospects face immense pressure to produce, but Warmoth is in a uniquely more stressful position as a first-round pick whose career will forever be measured — fairly or not — against where he was selected in the draft. Every disappointing season he has will accumulate fodder for those who want to label him a bust. And any successful campaign he puts up won’t be a pleasant surprise — as it was for the fourth-rounder Smith — but something that was expected.
Of course, Warmoth received a $2.82 million signing bonus based on his selection with the 22nd overall pick in the draft, so he’ll be just fine. But he wants to succeed as quickly as possible, like anyone would. And baseball observers often have less patience for high draft picks to experience lulls in their development than they do for players who weren’t as highly rated when they turned pro.
“I try not to feel it. But, at the end of the day, there ultimately will be pressure,” Warmoth says. “I’ve learned ways to handle it. Whether it’s not reading everything or whatever. I learn a little bit more every year how to silence that and just do me. I just want to be healthy, play every game this year, get in a good rhythm and routine, and see where that takes me.”
For players like Smith and Warmoth, whose once-high prospect stocks have taken a hit, it’s important to remember how many bonafide major-leaguers struggled early in their professional careers and used that adversity to grow and continue developing.
Trevor Story’s one of the best-hitting shortstops in the game today, but few were predicting that when he hit just .233/.305/.394 with 183 strikeouts in 130 games at high-A after tearing up lower levels. Carlos Santana’s enjoyed a long, productive career any player would be happy to replicate, but his development stalled for a season when he hit .223/.318/.370 as a 21-year-old in A-ball.
All-star catcher J.T. Realmuto was traded for a significant prospect haul last winter but he was hardly a top prospect himself when he followed up a .664 OPS at high-A with a .663 mark the following season at double-A. Ketel Marte finished fourth in NL MVP voting this year, but who saw that coming when he was posting sub-.700 OPS’s at mid- and high-A?
These are cherry-picked examples, of course, and your typical MLB star is extremely productive as a minor-leaguer, which is what gets them to the majors in the first place. But it does demonstrate that no one should be quick to write off a player suffering through a challenging season or two early in their career. Just as no appearance on a top-prospect list is a guarantee of future success.
Maybe it works out, maybe it doesn’t. All we know is the game’s always harder than it looks from wherever you stand. And, for all players, struggle is part of the process.
“Look, in an ideal world, nobody fails. Nobody struggles ever in their lives. But if we all learn from our struggles and our battles, then we’re all going to be better for it.” Kim says. “We definitely acknowledge how challenging it is for these guys to play this game at this level. Especially in today’s age, where there’s constant information and everybody knows what everybody’s doing. We know that these guys are facing a lot of pressure and a lot of challenges. So, the most important thing we can do is support them through it. Because that experience can be a powerful learning tool with time.”