October 23, 2012
Finding a Way to Walk off the Island
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Jorge Arangure has been a baseball writer since 2003. He has worked as a senior writer for ESPN and The Washington Post. He's got #want and is #wet and will probably spend his BP freelancing money drinking with Jason Parks.
Two years ago, during a lull in an often sloppily played Dominican Prospect League game being contested at a team academy on the outskirts of San Pedro de Macoris, an independent trainer conspicuously called to a player in the batter’s box in the middle of an at-bat. After a pitch had thudded into the catcher’s glove, the boy, aged 15 and frail, turned quickly and stepped out of the batter’s box.
“Stop looking at pitches,” the trainer said angrily. “Swing the bat.”
The boy nodded and continued his at-bat, which concluded with a groundout to shortstop.
Games of this sort, played by unsigned prospects, have become commonplace in a country that is trying to narrow a learning gap that has become exposed as the game continues to shift toward more nuanced baseball skills. While raw skills will always be coveted, it’s the players who can translate skills into statistical production—the definition of which seems to change every day—who are considered stars.
These games, and to an extent Dominican Summer League games, are fascinating character studies. Since no fans are allowed into the academies, the majority of observers are either coaches, scouts or trainers, which creates a highly pressurized environment for kids aged anywhere from 14-17. Prospects can hear every word shouted to them, and all of these instructions hold special resonance since they are uttered by men who control their young futures.
Kids will listen to what these men say, and follow their instruction. Unfortunately, much of what these young players are hearing—like the trainer chastising his prodigy for being selective—is steering them astray.
It’s been more than a decade since the value of on-base percentage reached the mainstream, yet the significance of that has yet to hit the island. While the industry has evolved to evaluate players based on advanced metrics that capture the impact of previously overlooked contributions, scouting and teaching in the Dominican continues to be based on raw skills grounded in flawed fundamentals.
Put simply, among other things, Dominican players don’t walk. Some stunning number to consider: out of the top 10 leaders in walks last year in each of the 10 full-season minor leagues, only four of the possible 100 players were Dominican. Only two undrafted, non-U.S.-educated, Dominican-born players rank in the top 40 in baseball in walk rate since 2009: David Ortiz, and Cleveland’s Carlos Santana.
In the short term, this deficiency is causing teams to waste valuable developmental time in trying to teach on-base skills and plate discipline to kids who have no concept of what that means or who have grown up believing that watching a pitch pass by is a sin. And in the end, it might be a fruitless cause anyway.
“I think you can help a kid, but I don’t think you can change a kid from what he is,” said one American League international scouting director. “You’re not turning someone like Vladdy (Vladimir Guerrero) into a disciplined hitter.”
Mark Newman, a Yankees senior vice president, believes that with hard work—usually during periods such as the instructional league, which will take place for most organizations in the next month or so—a team could significantly improve the walk rate of approximately 10-15 percent of players, a number that hardly seems encouraging. In that example, only one out of 10 offensive players signed out of the Dominican will ever acquire the secondary skills that would make him a very valuable hitter in the majors.
Dominican youngsters are trading potentially lucrative long-term contracts as professionals for the quick profit they can turn by exhibiting skills that will get them a signing bonus as amateurs. Only one of the 30 biggest contracts ever handed out was given to a Dominican-born, amateur free agent player: Alfonso Soriano. And the biggest reason why the Soriano contract has turned into such a disaster for the Cubs? While Soriano can hit (he has 372 career home runs), he can’t walk (a lowly .323 career OBP and 7.2 percent walk rate).
The simplest explanation for this endemic lack of discipline is that Dominican kids rarely play games. Socioeconomic conditions have made sports a low government priority in the poverty-stricken country. By the time players are 17, the AL international scouting director estimates, Dominican players are at least 1,000 at-bats behind their American counterparts.
“There’s not a lot of little league baseball,” said Brian Mejia, co-founder of the Dominican Prospect League. “There is a lack of structure for organized baseball at that level. Some kids only learn ‘see ball, hit ball.’ Free swingers are out there because if they don’t have a lot of athleticism, they believe that ‘I have to hit.’ A lot of it is too because so many of those kids suffer from malnutrition that they have to start their swing so early [because they lack the strength to catch up quickly to fastballs]. They are trying to adapt but getting rid of bad habits is difficult.”
Mejia estimates that about 60 percent of prospects in the DPL are playing organized baseball for the first time. Players who don’t play baseball as children usually lack a basic understanding of baseball’s more mental skills: baserunning, plate discipline, etc.
It’s not that Dominicans are less culturally inclined to be patient—a notion so stereotypically ignorant that it’s hardly worth mentioning—it’s that they simply haven’t had the experiences that would teach them to play that way.
But with amateur signing bonuses now being capped by baseball’s new rules regarding international free agents, there is no better time to shift thinking toward more advanced methods of instruction.
If they don’t adapt, Dominican players face a future in which an industry de-values them and limits the length of their careers as they climb up baseball’s organizational ladder. The older these players get, and the more they lose their raw athletic skills (bat speed, running speed, hand speed, etc), the easier it will be for them to be replaced by the next crop of young, fundamentally flawed Dominicans.
As a young boy, Carlos Santana learned to play baseball like most of his peers: on the streets of Santo Domingo. Yet when he turned nine years old, Santana was encouraged to join a local youth league. Soon coaches realized they had discovered a prodigy who could not be wasted in pre-teen leagues. While children Santana’s age played against kids their own age, Santana was pushed to play against older boys. By the time he was 12, Santana was playing against 16-year-olds who threw hard and spun breaking balls.
Each time Santana saw a new type of pitch, he made a mental note to remind himself of what might come in his next at-bat. Because he was challenged by playing against older boys, Santana developed an advanced approach. He was not nearly as strong or as tall as the older players, but he could survive if he was more mentally prepared.
“I was an aggressive hitter, but I could take my walks,” Santana said. “I didn’t really think about walking. I would swing at the first or second pitch, but if it wasn’t a good pitch, then I wouldn’t swing.”
While Santana didn’t always walk, he walked enough that some coaches tried to discourage him from being so patient. But Santana didn’t change his approach.
“In the Dominican, they tell you to swing,” Santana said. “But really, when you get up to that plate, it’s up to each individual player to swing or not. Every player is different.”
When Santana turned 16, he joined trainer Rafael DeLeon’s program in Santo Domingo. The aim, of course, was to get signed by a professional team. DeLeon, a former scout for the Expos, Marlins, Rays and Giants, turned out to be an ideal choice.
“Santana was a very talented kid,” DeLeon said. “When he got here, he had that hitting ability already. What surprised me the most was how advanced he was as a hitter, and he wasn’t even a very strong kid at that point. That talent that he has to locate pitches, it’s something he’s brought naturally.”
Although DeLeon didn’t specifically encourage Santana’s selectivity, he put a system in place that further developed Santana’s on-base skills.
DeLeon’s group of boys often played as many as five games a week. The trainer made sure top-level pitchers were always available to pitch to hitters in games. Often, early-morning batting practice was followed by games from 11 AM to 1 PM Evening sessions consisted of even more batting practice. Repetition was the most important thing.
“I try to get kids to play in as many games as possible,” DeLeon said. “I can’t teach them as much in a practice as I can in a game. It’s important for me for kids to see as many live pitches as possible. You can’t teach kids to be like robots, because then you’ll see them in games, and they might have all the ability in the world but they can’t apply it. With Latin kids, it’s often emphasized that they need to be aggressive. That’s flawed. It has to be aggressive, but with control.”
By the time he was 19, Santana had attracted the attention of the Dodgers, Indians, Padres, Braves, Tigers and Cubs. Eventually he signed with Los Angeles for $75,000. It had been his raw hitting ability, not his patience, that had gotten him signed.
Yet in his first three minor-league seasons, Santana posted OBPs of .412, .379, and .431, respectively. Little did the Dodgers know that they had stumbled onto an on-base machine. Even Santana had very little appreciation for his own skills.
“I didn’t really know that walking was important until 2009 when I was in Double-A,” he said.
Amazingly, not one person had ever praised him for what was quickly becoming the skill that was going to get him to the majors.
In 2009, Santana, who had been traded to the Indians in ’08 in exchange for Casey Blake, was having a conversation with a Venezuelan teammate at Double-A Akron who asked, “Hey how do you walk so much?”
Santana responded: “Well it happens mostly because they don’t throw me very many good pitches to hit.”
“Well that’s a very good quality for a player,” the teammate said.
“Oh really?” Santana said.
It was then that it started to occur to him that all the things he had been taught as a child were wrong. Players shouldn’t really swing at everything. Sometimes, a walk was just as good as a hit.
Although Santana had become a complete hitter without even realizing it, the knowledge that his on-base skills were important further empowered him to become an even better hitter.
He tried to encourage other Latin teammates to be more patient.
“Come up to the plate with a plan,” he told them. “With a plan you can get walks. If they don’t throw the pitch that you want or were waiting for, then don’t swing.”
That such a career-altering conversation had happened with a Venezuelan teammate was no surprise. Venezuelan hitters, who typically play hundreds of little league games as children, are one of the Latin American groups whose hitters actually walk. The fact that such a conversation—or at least one that had resonated with Santana—had never happened with a coach prior to that perhaps shows a flaw in the developmental system.
“I know so many [Dominican] players who get angry if they get walked,” Santana said. “But it shouldn’t be that way. I try to remind guys that hitting isn’t easy, especially in the big leagues where pitchers throw a lot of strikes. There’s going to be days when you don’t feel at your best. You need to be focused. It’s not easy to get walks, because that means you will have seen at least four pitches that were out of the strike zone. That’s a lot of pitches in the majors.”
Last year, only Adam Dunn (16.2 percent) had a higher walk rate in the majors than the 26-year-old Santana (14.9). Despite all the dubious instruction and the lack of encouragement, Santana had beaten the odds and become the anomaly: the rare Dominican hitter who could walk. Even though he hadn’t realized it, his entire life—the early youth games against older players, the trainer who forced him to play games, the conversations with teammates—had set him up to become a patient hitter. And it was only in this perfect environment that he had learned to do so.
The Santana example points to the possibilities. In the right environment, Dominican hitters can become complete hitters. It’s incumbent on organizations and trainers to encourage such skills.
Newman said the Yankees constantly have conversations with their players about the importance of getting on base by any means necessary. New York has young Dominican players hit endless amounts of toss drills and batting practice, along with having them watch video designed to show examples of good at-bats.
Newman chuckles at an incident that convinced him that Dominican players could learn to appreciate the walk. One time in Tampa, Newman challenged a group of Dominican players to a home-run-hitting contest that would award $100 to the winner. Players who had swung wildly at pitches during games now carefully selected pitches to hit that could be sent over the fence.
“You guys are looking at better pitches so that you can win 100 bucks,” Newman joked with the players. “Do you guys realize that the starting salary for a major leaguer is $500,000? Your focus is misplaced.”
“It’s something we’re dealing with every day,” Newman said. “We believe we can make headway. Most of it is about attention. Like the home run derby example. If it’s important to them, they’ll do it. For 100 years, people paid attention to batting average. Just now players are starting to pay attention to a different approach.”
It also falls partly on teams to encourage on-base skills during scouting trips. Mejia said that often during DPL games, scouts get annoyed if a particular player walks several times during a game. He will hear complaints from scouts.
If scouts are encouraging players to be aggressive, then trainers will also prod their players to be aggressive. Trainers will do whatever it takes to get their prospects signed. It all seems like a self-defeating approach.
“Maybe there is a disconnect from what we value as scouts and what the industry values at the major-league level,” said one American League international scouting director. “Because to be honest I'm looking for a kid who rakes down there: guys who are aggressive, have the hand-eye coordination to barrel the ball, bat speed, etc. I'm not going to cede on any of those because the guy walks in the games down there. But I think it’s all related. I'm after the guys who can hit, guys who see the ball well, recognize offspeed, recognize strikes. Those are guys who should carry high OBP down the road.”
Additional data on Dominican players and plate discipline here.