Memorial Day Scouting Report – Wilmington Blue Rocks and Frederick Keys

Today, I was fortunate enough to spend my Memorial Day on a scouting trip to Frawley Stadium, home of the Wilmington Blue Rocks, who are the High Single-A affiliate for the Kansas City Royals. The 34th pick from the 2013 Amateur Draft, Sean Manaea, was the starting pitcher for the Blue Rocks. The Frederick Keys countered with Joe Van Meter.

  • Coming into today’s game, I had heard the Left-handed pitching Manaea was sitting 92-93 mph and could get all the way up to 96. However, today his velocity was down a little from those numbers, as he sat 89-91 with his fastball, but did hit 94. The 6‘5” LHP had a very smooth and repeatable delivery, as he gathered himself nicely over the rubber. As he lifts his leg, he turns his hips in slightly, which helps him stay closed, as he remains slightly closed at foot strike. He doesn’t throw across his body too much, so that should not be an issue. His arm action is pretty long in back, as he nearly straightens his left arm. However, he is able to get his arm up by foot strike because he is able to gather himself over the rubber; as the game went on, though, he was not always able to get his arm up by foot strike, which caused him to miss up in the zone. Now that we’ve analyzed Manaea’s delivery, we can look at his performance. He worked with 3 pitches today: Fastball (FB), Slider (SL) and Changeup (CH). As I mentioned before, his FB was a little below where it has been this season, as he sat right around 90 mph. Early in the game he commanded the FB to both sides of the plate. In his first two innings, Manaea showed very strong command for both his FB and his SL. However, in his third inning, Manaea started leaving his FB up in the zone, which made him much more hittable. The real issue I saw that inning was that once Manaea had to pitch from the stretch with men on base, he began to rush through his delivery. From the stretch, he works with a knee-to-knee leg kick, which did not allow him to get his arm up by foot strike, consequently, he began leaving his pitches up in the zone.  In that inning, the Keys’ players also did a nice job hitting Manaea’s SL, even though that was the one pitch he was able to keep down in the zone. The SL ranged from 79-83 mph and while it did not have a ton of horizontal movement, it did drop to a second plane, and it was still effective because its movement came late. What really impressed me about Manaea was his confidence in the pitch, as he was willing to throw it to both lefties and righties and used it as both a strike pitch and out-pitch. He did not throw too many CHs, but the few I did see were 83-84 mph with a little arm-side fade. As I said, Manaea was hit hard in the 3rd inning, allowing 6 runs (1 ER). However, he went on to throw two more scoreless innings, as he found the bottom half of the zone again. Manaea did not have his best stuff for today’s outing, but excluding one inning, he executed his pitches well. He needs to work on his delivery from the stretch, so that he is not rushing to the plate. It is not hard to tell why he was selected 34th overall. Right now he has two plus pitches with his FB and SL and a third pitch, in the CH, that could become plus. His feel for pitching was very polished for a 22-year-old, and I could see him moving quickly through the Royals system. Right now he projects as just a middle of the rotation pitcher, but he is likely to reach that level.
  • Another 2013 Royals’ draft pick playing in this game was Hunter Dozier, who was selected 8th overall. The 3rd baseman was 0-5 on the day, but showed a pretty patient approach at the plate. He also had a very simple load with a small toe-tap and not too much activity with his hands. In his second at-bat, he dropped his bat head well on a FB down and in resulting in a deep flyout to centerfield. In the bottom of the 9th, Dozier put up a good at-bat before striking out on a great slider from Matt Hobgood. As a 22-year-old, he should be moving passed Single-A soon, even though his power has yet to develop.
  • Also playing in today’s game was Bubba Starling, who was the 5th overall pick of the Royals in the 2011 draft. He was considered one of the best athletes in the draft, but that athleticism has yet to contribute to production on the field, as he is still in Single-A. In today’s game, he did go 1-4 with a single in the 9th, but his swing did not look good. His swing was very long and he had a very funky load, with a lot of movement of his hands. Also, as he starts his swing, Starling leans out over his front side, which takes away any chance of him hitting for power. To me, he does not project as much of a prospect until he fixes his swing, but he did show that he still has his athleticism by running down a deep fly ball in right center.
  • The Blue Rocks’ catcher for today’s game was Cam Gallagher, who has not been much of an offensive force this year, but the former 2nd round pick is a good receiver with a strong arm. Gallagher had a strong day at the plate today, as he went 2-4 with a double and an RBI. His double was on an inside FB, where he just turned and drove it down the 3rd baseline. In his four ABs, the 22-year-old showed a good ability to keep his hands inside the ball, but he did not show much power in his stroke. Gallagher may be able to reach the Big Leagues in a few years as a backup catcher, due to his defense, but if he has any chance of becoming a starting catcher, he will need to improve the offensive side of his game.
  • Manaea’s counterpart, Joe Van Meter, had a nice outing going 6 innings allowing just one run on 5 hits. Van Meter had an interesting delivery, as he leans back when he begins driving towards the plate, which makes it that much more impressive that he is able to get over his front side as well as he does. He creates a good downward plane with a more drastic hip tilt than Manaea. He worked with a FB that got up to 94 and sat 90-92 mph. He also had an effective cutter at 84 mph. His best pitch on the afternoon, however, was his curveball, which had sharp 11-5 break and sat 75-77 mph. he was able to throw it for strikes, but also for swings and misses out of the zone. Van Meter is 25 years old, so he is old for this level, but this is his first year in the Baltimore organization so he could move up the minors more than he did with the Rangers’ organization, where he made it to Double-A.
  • The next pitcher for the Keys was Matt Hobgood, who was also the hardest thrower on the day. He was the 5th overall selection by the Orioles in the 2009 amateur draft, but has yet to move past High-A ball at the age of 23. The Right-handed pitcher, touched 97 and worked 3 innings sitting comfortably at 94-96 mph. They shifted him to bullpen this year after he struggled as a starter in previous seasons. He worked with a starter’s repertoire, throwing a FB, SL (85 mph) and a Curveball at 75 mph. In his 3 innings of work, Hobgood allowed 5 hits and 2 runs, while striking out 2. However, both the runs and most of the hits came in his 3rd inning of work, when he may have been tired. His first two innings were much more effective. With his FB-SL combination, I can see Hobgood moving through the Orioles system quickly and potentially reaching the Majors by 2015 if he stays healthy and improves his command.

The Keys’ standout offensive performer for the day was Shortstop Adrian Marin. The Orioles selected Marin, who is just 20 years old, in the 3rd round of the 2012 draft. Marin went 2-3 with 2 doubles. Marin showed a very quick, compact stroke on both his doubles. He looked very comfortable at shortstop with good footwork and a strong arm. He could move up through the Orioles system, likely ending in Double-A this season, but could reach the Majors within a few years. He is also likely to stick at shortstop because his defense is his real strength.

Is it Time to Worry About the Cardinals’ Offense?

Entering the 2014 season, the St. Louis Cardinals were considered heavy favorites to win the NL Central. While it was a tight race in the Central last season, the Pirates, who were 2nd in the division, were expected to regress substantially from their first season above .500 in 20 years. The Reds, who ranked 3rd in the division, were likewise expected to regress after they lost Shin-Soo Choo through Free Agency and did little to improve their roster during the offseason. The Cardinals, however, seemingly improved their roster with the additions of Jhonny Peralta and Peter Bourjos. However, 42 games into the season, the Cardinals are struggling to score runs and lingering around .500. The Cardinals currently sit 5 games behind the division-leading Brewers, who have been one of the season’s biggest surprises. With the Cardinals averaging just 3.78 runs per game, a full run lower than the 2013 Cardinals, is it time to start worrying about the Cardinals?

To say that the Cardinals lack power would be an understatement, as they currently rank 29th in home runs, 28th in slugging percentage and 25th in runs scored. This is not too surprising, as even in 2013, they ranked 27th in homers, yet 3rd in runs scored. Incredible situational hitting with runners in scoring position (RISP) drove the Cardinals entire offense in 2013. They set a Major League record with a .330 batting average with RISP. While few people expected such timely hitting to carry over to this season, few predicted they would fall all the way to .240 with RISP. Their lack of timely hitting has had a profound impact on their offense as a whole, especially since their power has failed to manifest itself. While no experts thought the Cardinals could duplicate their numbers with RISP, they argued that the Cardinals would improve substantially with the bases empty, which is an area where the Cardinals greatly struggled in 2013. With the bases empty in 2013, the Cardinals had a batting line of .236/.297/.356 and that line has only slightly improved in 2014 to .250/.318/.365. Clearly this slight improvement has not negated the drastic drop in production with RISP, as their overall batting line has slumped from .269/.332/.401 in 2013 to .246/.315/.359 in 2014. So is this the production the Cardinals should expect all season, or is it just an early season slump?

Looking at their offensive numbers as a team, some interesting correlations are present between the 2014 Cardinals and the 2013 Cardinals. The most concerning trend is that, in 2014, the Cardinals are striking out more often, as they have gone from 5th best in K% all the way to 12th.  This is not too significant, until it is compounded by the Cardinals’ .016 drop in Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP). The Cardinals were in the top 5 in the MLB in both of these statistics last year, but are just in the middle of the league in 2014. Putting the ball in play less frequently and getting on-base less often when you do can have a profound impact on an offense. That is certainly the case for the Cardinals, as their OBP has fallen .017 points, almost identical to their drop in BABIP. However, a more optimistic look at the Cardinals’ offense shows this may just be a slow start worsened by some bad luck. While the Cardinals’ BABIP is down from last year, they still lead the league in Line Drive% at 23.1%, which is nearly identical to their 23.2% from 2013. Line drives carry the highest BABIP with them, which suggests the Cardinals’ liners may just not be falling for hits as frequently as they did last year, but the BABIP should return to climb back towards the mean, if they continue to hit line drives.

Another reason to expect better offensive production from the Cardinals is that multiple players are playing below their career norms. The prime example of this is Allen Craig, who is in the midst of a terribly slow start. Craig entered the season a career .306 hitter, but has slashed just .231/.288/.365 thus far. This drastic decline has largely been driven by his .104 point drop in BABIP, which should come back towards the mean. Another player playing below his capabilities is key offseason acquisition, Jhonny Peralta, who has slashed .252/.341/.469. While his power leads the team, his average is down over .050 points from his strong 2013 and he has the lowest BABIP of his career. While his 2013 production was driven by an unsustainable BABIP, his numbers should climb closer to .300, rather than .250. Matt Adams is also not living up to his billing as a power bat, as he has just two home runs and a .319 OBP, despite a .304 batting average. The Cardinals are also receiving absolutely no production from their bench players, as Mark Ellis, Kolten Wong and Daniel Descalso are all hitting below the Mendoza line. The bench has also driven in just two runs this season. While every team experiences injuries and poor production from key players, the Cardinals have received poor production from 3 consistent contributors. Once these players begin playing up to their capabilities, the Cardinals’ offense will begin to take shape.

The Cardinals have certainly struggled to score runs through these first 42 games; however, most indicators point to them rebounding as the season progresses. The Cardinals will not be able to duplicate their MLB record .330 average with RISP, nor will they begin to hit home runs on pace with the most powerful teams in the league. However, their offense will begin getting on-base at a similar clip to last year, once their hits start falling and their BABIP comes back towards where it was last season. Allen Craig will not finish the season batting in the .220s and Matt Adams will not finish the season hitting just one home run each month. While there should be a sense of urgency for these players to return to form and for their hits to start falling, there is no reason to believe that the Cardinals cannot start hitting near their 2013 levels.

Anthony Cacchione