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Friday July 25 2014
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The Grind

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Pirates rookie left fielder Starling Marte confidently strode into the Minute Maid Park batter’s box on July 27, anxious for his Major League debut. The highly-touted prospect proceeded to blast the first pitch he saw into the left-center field seats.

Nearly 18,000 players have appeared in Major League Baseball games, and only 111 have homered in their first at bat—.oo6 percent—so what Marte accomplished was extremely unique.


But all that it means is that the young outfielder had a good first at bat that night in Houston. Nothing more.


The Pirates, of course, are extremely high on Marte’s ability. They signed him in 2007, a skinny teenager from the Dominican Republic and have brought him along slowly, careful not to rush him through the system.


Marte blossomed last season, his first at the double-A level, hitting .332 and showing signs of power with 12 homers. He continued his rapid development this year, moving up to triple-A and hitting .286 with 12 homeruns, 13 triples, 21 doubles and 61 RBI.


Pittsburgh’s better-safe-than-sorry approach may have come from the club not wanting a repeat of their two most recent big-time prospects.


Pedro Alvarez was the second overall pick in 2008. He raced through the minors and debuted a year and a half later, putting up numbers as a rookie—.256 batting average, 16 homers, 64 RBI—that were better than Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell or Barry Bonds managed in their first seasons.


Alvarez’s second season was a nightmare, however, as he failed to hit .200 and found himself back in the minors for the better part of two months at mid-season. The big third baseman has just started to find some consistency over the past two months.


Jose Tabata provides a similar example.


He nearly hit .300 as a rookie in 2010, stole 19 bases and made things happen at the top of the batting order, finishing eighth in the National League Rookie of the Year voting. He had an up and down campaign a year ago, missing chunks of the season due to injury but hitting a solid .266 and continuing to show promise as a lead-off hitter.


Today Tabata is back in triple-A, slogging along after a miserable start to his 2012 season.


What Alvarez and Tabata have in common, aside from their early career stumbles, is a rocket-fast trip through the highest level of the minor leagues.


Tabata, though he spent several years in the low minors as a teenager, had only 358 at bats above the double-A level when he made his Major League debut. Alvarez had just 242.


One of the most difficult decisions an organization makes is when to promote players through the various levels of the system.


While there is not a specific formula for when to promote players to the next level, there are definite tools and milestones players have to hit before they’ll advance.


“Situational hitting, grinding out at bats, having a two-strike approach, taking care of the baseball on defense, running the bases aggressively, throwing first-pitch strikes, pounding the strike zone,” according to Kansas City Royals first base coach Doug Sisson, who spent almost two decades coaching and managing in the minor leagues.


Yet evaluation at the minor league level doesn’t involve what the players do well—presumably, that was addressed before the player was added to the system—but what they don't do well enough to play in the majors.


“What are they missing to perform at the ultimate level?” asked Jeff Johnson, pitching coach for the Altoona Curve, the Pirates double-A farm team. “Figure out what he’s missing and try to add that to his game.”


Statistics and data, while part of that evaluation, only go so far.


“I remember 15-20 years ago all of sudden we started documenting quality at bats, percentages of hard-hit balls, situational hitting success rates, first-pitch strike percentage,” photo by Pittsburgh Pirateslists Sisson. “But the bottom line is every time you promote somebody it’s based on batting average, RBI and earned run average – production. It’s the eyeball test.”


“You can have good numbers and still be exposed in certain areas,” said Johnson, who adds that evaluation doesn’t necessarily end with the black and white results of wins and losses. “Focus on the process of how we get better, not the result of winning games. As the process gets better and they get better at the process of continuing to improve, well, they’ll win more games.”


As the players accept that process, and come to a realization that they themselves are works-in-progress as baseball players, they often reach a turning point in their individual development.


“You’ve got to get to the point where you accept who you are and the process that works best for you, instead of trying to speed through it all and make it all happen in one year,” said Altoona reliever Vic Black, a right-hander who owns a 1.23 ERA over 36 appearances in his first season at the double-A level. “It takes time and learning, and growing up has been a big part of it.”


Black’s manager, P.J. Forbes, cites a player’s maturation as one of the most important developments in his progress.


“It’s about a process that these guys are going through right now. When they make that realization, the consistency arrives,” Forbes said in the Curve clubhouse less than a week after former Pirates top pick Tony Sanchez was called up to the Pirates triple-A team in Indianapolis. “With maturity—growing boys into men—comes an accountability factor. When you can be accountable for your own career and show that you can be a professional—which means doing the right thing at the right time all the time, regardless of who’s watching—we’ve got something.”


Another crucial part of the process of climbing through the minor leagues is failure – not embracing failure, but learning how to deal with it and succeed in spite of it.


Pirates bench coach Jeff Bannister, with nearly a quarter century of minor league coaching experience on his resume, talked about one of the greatest challenges a minor league manager faces: allowing players to experience real adversity while balancing the goal of winning games.


“Some of the guys I’ve seen, like Aramis Ramirez and Jose Guillen, that were supreme talents as young 17-year-old guys, and you look at them as they start hitting those slumps and they are struggling their behinds off. They know full well that if I take them out and replace them with someone else right now it might be better for the team,” Bannister explained. “But yet how fair is that to the young kid, not being able to fight through those adversities?”


Sisson says that balance comes from an intimate knowledge of the mentality of each player.


“It’s important to know your own players better than anyone else knows them,” agrees Sisson. “When you’re around them every day, numbers and data are important, but it’s more important to be able to get inside a guy and go ‘OK, this guy’s got what it takes. Nothing fazes this guy. This guy is mentally tough enough to handle whatever we throw in front of him.’”


The Pirates’ Alvarez didn’t deal with much adversity on his brief trek through the minors. But perhaps the Pirates’ instructional staff knew his mental make-up pretty well, because he persevered through a brutal 2011 at the Major League level—including a demotion to the minors—and an opening month of 2012 that was nearly as bad.


photo by Pittsburgh PiratesWhether a prospect is a first-round pick like Alvarez, who breezed through the system before hitting a speed bump in the big leagues, or teammate Garrett Jones, who spent 11 seasons in the minors – every player eventually has to deal with the grind of the game of baseball.


“It’s about the grind,” says Sisson. “To fight your way through the minor leagues and be able to bring your A-game every day, when the atmosphere isn’t conducive – you’re in a bad ballpark, you spend the night in a terrible bed, that kind of thing. Those are the guys that make it.”

I was in a minor league press box in Charlotte, NC, last month, taking in one of Gregory Polanco’s final triple-A games. A colleague, upon learning I was from Pittsburgh, approached me with a question.
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