It's All About Development
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It's All About Development

Most observers of minor league prospects want to see an upward track of production as they ascend the minor league levels and many of those same folks want to see the great numbers being posted right from the beginning. While that certainly would be a welcomed sight in a perfect world, the prospect landscape simply doesn't work that way for the most part.

Sure there are some guys who match their great tools with production right out of the proverbial gate, somebody like current prospect Tyler Austin who hit a ridiculous .354 in his professional debut season a year ago and then followed it up with .322, 17 home run, 23 stolen base season in his second year.

However, the game of baseball itself is a game of adjustments and that is exponentially more true at the minor league level where kids are trying to find out what works for them and what doesn't, and yes, even including the likes of players like Austin.

"In Charleston definitely, after probably the first month teams started pitching me a lot differently," Austin said. "I definitely had to make an adjustment to that, to the way they were pitching me. I adjusted to the way guys pitched me in Charleston after a while and I guess I did that too at the other levels."

For many outside of the game looking in they only want to see an upward trajectory for these young burgeoning big league players, but no matter who it is and what they've accomplished they are all in the same boat -- they have to adjust.

It may seem elementary but in order to adjust one has to struggle. And for many of the youngest prospects in the game, the professional level is the first time in their lives that they have in fact struggled at all, a point seemingly lost on many of the uninitiated.

Case in point is Charleston shortstop Cito Culver who finished his first full season hitting a meager .215 for the RiverDogs, the same player who struck out all of four times over the course of his entire senior season in high school.

"It was a tough year for me numbers-wise but I felt like I learned a lot and I grew a lot as a player and a teammate," Culver said. "I think people look at my numbers and think I didn't get anything out of this year but I think I learned a lot and grew as a player.

"How to deal with failure [is the biggest lesson learned]. When we grow up playing baseball you're always one of the best kids on the team and it's not the same anymore.

"You're playing with and against kids that are just as talented as you are, if not more talented. Just learning to deal with that failure and not giving up on yourself is big."

Gone are the days for these former amateur players who endured what they thought were the rigors of a 30-40 game season. Now they're being asked to make the transition to playing four to six times that many games in one calendar year when you include Spring Training games and post-season instructional camps.

Learning how to pace yourself, educating one's self on how to treat your body, adapting your mindset to forget the previous day's successes or failures so you can focus on the new day, these are all subject matters that can't be taught. They have to be experienced.

"You have to keep a good pace during the entire year," Dante Bichette Jr., Culver's teammate in Charleston, said. "You can't burn yourself out in the first half because you have another 70 more games to play.

"Other than that it's about being really professional with everything. The way you go about your routine is very important. I feel like that just improved as the season went on with my approach and with my days in general."

Bichette's numbers in his first full season were not all that inspiring of what many consider to be one of the better prospects either. He hit just .248 with three home runs. It was the first time in his life that what he had been doing wasn't getting the desired results.

Another subtle point lost on many outside of the game is what a lack of success can do to your mindset. Forget about the fact of any potential waning confidence as a result of less than stellar results, it causes many of these once uber-successful individuals to begin tinkering on their games, games they have played a particular way for the better parts of their lives.

And they not only tinker or make adjustments to doing something they have never done before in the hope of changing their on the field results, but some get into the habit of tinkering all of the time and that can have negative effects as well.

They begin to search for answers from anyone they can think of. They go to former coaches, players who have had better success at higher levels or from ones who have gone through the exact same hiccups at a similar minor league level. They begin to get advice from anyone and everyone, and some of it comes from unsolicited sources as well.

"I definitely did," Bichette admitted. "I had a lot of different advice being thrown at me from a whole bunch of different people, whether they were in the game or out of the game. I made the mistake of listening to every single one of them.

"I've pretty much been a people pleaser always so I like to make people happy by listening to their advice but sometimes I have to know what works for me and things that don't."

Really that's what the minor leagues are for, to learn what works for you and what doesn't. While in a perfect world each prospect would have dreams of unbridled success on the field come to fruition, that's not reality.

There's also a subplot within the game of making adjustments as well. Just like in life there are literally multiple ways to get a particular job done and it isn't the same for every person. What works for one guy may not work another.

Finding that comfort level with a particular swing or tweaking your throwing motion while making a certain pitch is not an easy process. In fact, it could take several different ways of trying to achieve the same goal before one is able to find the right solution for him.

Baseball is also a results oriented game. To change something you know needs to be fixed for future success isn't easy when you know whatever is working for you at the current time is able to get the desired immediate results.

"I never really worked on it all that much during the season," left-hander Chaz Hebert said of his curveball. "I just threw what I had during the season because it worked for me so I kept throwing it. Once I move up against these better hitters though I'm going to need something else and one of my pitching coaches during Instructs helped me out and it just clicked for me."

Hebert wanted good numbers in his debut season this year and he knew his loopy mid-60s curveball was good enough to get the rookie level batters out so he kept it going even though he knew that it wasn't for the betterment of his long-term success.

Behind the scenes though he tinkered constantly on finding a better curveball and he couldn't get it down the way he wanted. He tried and tried all year long and nothing worked until he got to work with a pitching coach he had little to no interaction with during the course of the regular season.

"I didn't change the grip," Hebert said. "I was out there in the field warming up, tossing it back and forth. I couldn't really get the feel for it with the way they were telling me how to throw it.

"And one of my coaches, Danny Borrell [the pitching coach in Charleston this year], he said he had the same problem when he was pitching. He'd get around it and get over it. I told him I could feel it with every movement I make and I'm really coming around the ball and flipping underneath it.

"He said 'throw a slider and gradually start to turn your wrists'. It took me two days and I figured it out. It was something I was able to do."

The adjustment was made. However, not every adjustment is a physical one or even a teachable moment. A lot of the time the adjustment needed to be made can only happen through on the field experience.

And even when the adjustment is made and you do find the success you want there are still things that can go wrong. Case in point, right-hander Bryan Mitchell.

Mitchell has long been lauded for his plus stuff across the board but it never really materialized to consistent on the field success. He seemed to have turned the corner immediately upon the start of the 2012 season, however, giving up two earned runs or less in nine of his first ten starts with the RiverDogs.

His mechanics were perfect, his stuff was outstanding, and his command issues were seemingly a thing of the past. As dominant as he was though he didn't get promoted after two months of fantastic pitching and that left him seeking answers.

"I think the biggest thing that hurt me this year was I came out of the gate really well and I had a really good April and May," he said surprisingly. "I had maybe one or two starts right at the beginning of the year that weren't too good but after that I strung together six or seven starts and I was in line to get like five wins in May.

"I was doing really good and at that point, I was pitching with Caleb [Cotham] and he got moved up, and I was like 'alright, that should happen to me soon'.

"It didn't happen so I thought I had to do better than what I was doing and then I started going down from there. I was putting too much pressure on myself trying to do better than I had already been doing and just kind of screwed myself from that point."

So even when a young talented prospect is doing everything right and having the desired results it's still a game of adjustments. He learned to just keep doing what he needed to do and not worry about trying to do more than he could.

It sounds simple at its core but it's incredibly hard to deal with it going through it firsthand. Whether it was the desired lesson to be taught or not, the Yankees taught Mitchell to stay within himself.

Everyone wants to run faster, hit for more power, and throw harder. And especially in the case of the latter, while it is a welcomed addition most observers would be giddy about, it too comes with its own set of adjustments. It's not simply as easy as throwing harder equals tangibly better results.

Right-hander Gabe Encinas finished his season in Staten Island this year posting a 4.97 ERA with nearly as many walks [39] as strikeouts [48]. In fact, throw in a team-leading eight hit basemen there weren't too many positive numbers for him outside of bumping his velocity up to the 94-96 mph range.

"I'm not used it, I'm used to staying in the low-90s," Encinas said. "As you start to throw harder sometimes the ball starts to rise up. That's what happened, as the later innings went on the ball would continue to rise up and it's hard to bring it back down to where you want it to be.

"It's something you have to practice with. Throwing that hard isn't easy to control, you have to practice."

Baseball is just such a complicated game. There are a ton of moving parts when it comes to both pitching and hitting. Everything needs to be right. All of the moving parts must work together in concert and if one aspect is off it can really mess things up.

It's certainly true of pitching and it's definitely the same case with hitting. Not only is a prospect expected to hit for average and power, but they're supposed to have a discernible eye at the plate so they can draw walks too.

Culver, who spent nearly the entire 2012 season as one of the youngest players in the league, has shown that kind of big league plate discipline at an extremely early age but yet could barely get off the interstate with his batting average.

"I think my swing path was a little different," Culver said. "I don't think my pitch selection was bad. I just fouled off a lot of balls that I should have been hitting. I feel like once I fix my swing path to the ball [the average] will be a lot better."

The switch-hitter and his coaches tweaked the swing all year long. They removed a lot of pre-swing bat waggle movement to quiet his load and it simply took some time to get used to. He felt better about his swing towards the end of the season and further gained confidence with it during Instructional League this offseason.

It took time though. Bichette didn't have the pre-swing bat waggle but he did have a leg-kick in his swing load and that was a point of contention for him all season long.

"You can leg kick, you can knee tuck, and you can tap," Bichette said. "For each one of those [timing stances] there's a great hitter that hits a different way. That's just timing and you can do it each and every way, which I did throughout this season. I did all three of those."

He finally settled on a Albert Pujols-like knee tuck in his swing and it helped him hit .371 over his final ten games to end the season. Still though, it took time and plenty of trial and error over the course of the season to get there, and he might not be done having to make adjustments.

All of that trial and error and continuous adjustment making is just part of the game. Each prospect's timetable is different because each adjustment situation is different, some things work quicker for some guys, others need to experiment on everything to see which avenue works the best, and all the while that entire process does have an effect on a particular player's numbers.

Don't be alarmed, however, this is how the cookie is made. And what many outside of the game don't realize is this process of trial and error, and subsequent lackluster statistics, is actually the recipe for success.

"I had to go through that," Bichette Jr. said. "Part of learning what is good for you is learning what is not good for you.

"I learned early instead of being in the big leagues and listening to people in the big leagues. I struggled with a certain thing now and that's probably a lot better."

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