The Transition Game

After winning the Double-A championship in 2007 with the San Antonio Missions, several players made the leap up to Triple-A Portland this year. It's been a smooth transition for some, a little rocky for others. Dirk Hayhurst, Will Venable, Josh Geer and Matt Antonelli answered questions on a variety of topics regarding the move up in levels.

Relief pitcher Dirk Hayhurst has had a solid season. Although his 3.75 ERA is up from what it was in San Antonio (3.19), his 98 strikeouts in 84 innings are a vast improvement from last year (55 SO in 59.1 IP). Still, it translated into a big league call-up.

Outfielder Will Venable has also put together a nice year. After being asked to concentrate more on his power this season, Venable's 14 homeruns are nearly double his total a year ago, and his average is also up, from .278 to .297.

Starting pitcher Josh Geer had a stellar season with San Antonio in 2007, going 16-6 with a 3.20 ERA. This year hasn't gone as well. Although he leads the Pacific Coast League in innings pitched with 160, his record is just 8-8 and his ERA has climbed to 4.44.

The player who has probably had the most difficult transition is second baseman Matt Antonelli. Coming into this season, Antonelli was the number two prospect in the Padres organization and perhaps the pressure got to him a little. His .213 average with the Beavers is over 80 points lower than it was with the Missions and his OBP has also taken a sharp dip. Antonelli appears to be turning things around; in August he's hitting .297 and his OBP is at .416.

With the 2008 campaign winding down, these players reflect on their respective seasons. And, as per his usual, the gregarious Hayhurst has a lot to say.

How do you think the transition from Double-A to Triple-A has gone?

Dirk Hayhurst: It comes down to how you look at your job and what contingencies make your job harder or how you have to train yourself. I tend to look at my role as a consistency role, that's kind of how I market myself. I just want to throw as many strikes as I can, get guys out, I don't care how I get them out, but I don't want to walk anybody. I would rather give up hits than walks so I'm going to try to fill up the zone as much as I can. When you have that approach, I think you can pitch at any level when you're trying to continuously be in the strike zone every time out there. I've kind of bought into that approach no matter who I'm facing.

If you're looking at sabermetrics, that's going to give me the best odds every time no matter the team. Since I've subscribed to that and believe in it completely, I think it's helped me take the fear factor or the wow factor of ‘this is Triple-A' out of the equation and look at it more as these are batters – they're better hitters – but they're batters, and batters struggle with balls down, balls in the strike zone, being on the defensive. And as long as I keep them off-balance, keep them on the defensive, I'll be successful.

Will Venable: It's gone well so far, I think I've learned a lot between Double-A and Triple-A. It helped me out a lot just being in the Fall League and kind of putting into play some of the things the organization wanted me to do here.

The biggest difference is these guys in Triple-A are able to put the ball where they want to. Their stuff's all so good, and they can pitch, and maybe letting by some of those ball that are strikes that I would've swung at last year because there wasn't a whole lot of them, now you have to lay off and wait for a better one and hope you get it. Trying to be a professional and have a professional approach.

Josh Geer: It's gone good. Each level you learn more and more. I've learned to keep the ball down, especially here in fastball counts. Big guys sit on that fastball and they hit it out from anywhere in the park. It's been a big change.

You learn stuff at every level and this one's been the toughest so far, just keeping them off-balance, keeping the ball down.

Matt Antonelli: Well, it's different. I've always heard that the transition up to Double-A is the hardest one, but Triple-A's been a little different than all the other ones. You're facing older guys up here and smarter guys, more veterans.

I think it's a pretty big transition and I think a lot of the guys that have done it have learned a lot this year.

You struggled early on but now seem to have found your groove. Was it just a matter of getting comfortable?

Matt Antonelli: I think for me maybe the first few weeks was about getting comfortable, but I think that I went into some mechanical flaws that I had going on, and it kind of steamrolled from there and got going pretty bad.

But it's been pretty much not even worrying about who I'm playing or anything like that, it's been more about myself and trying to get my swing fixed up a little bit. I haven't felt like I've had my natural kind of feeling at the plate going or my swing going until probably the last month of the season. It took a while, but I'm trying to end strong and then take it into next year, that's what I'm hoping.

Have you noticed a significant difference in talent between Double-A and Triple-A?

Will Venable: There's a lot of talent in Double-A [and] I'd say talent-wise it's probably pretty even. There are a lot more guys who – even the non-super talented guys – are really good at what they do and that's why they're here so you're never going to get a day off as far as a pitcher who might not be up to that standard. Everyone here can play the game, and that's a big adjustment I had to make.

Dirk Hayhurst: I have, but I think I've gotten more experience in the game too. When I was younger and came up here in '06, my first time for a month, we had Jack Cust and Jon Knott on the team, and they were hitting balls off of buildings, cars, and pedestrians, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I don't know if I can survive against these people.'

And then you get some time in the game and a little knowledge teaches you, ‘Wait a minute, they're good hitters, don't get me wrong, not taking anything away from them but that you can get them out.' And then you start to play at that level and you realize you can get them out consistently if you know how, and you're going to beat them more than they're going to beat you as it should be for any pitcher, the odds should be in your favor.

Now that I've put some time in at these higher levels, the wow factor, the jump from Double-A to Triple-A isn't as severe maybe as it would be if I was just young and being bounced around. But, as far as the direct comparison from Double-A to Triple-A, there's a refinement that you see.

You see some just naturally raw baseball players, amazing hitters just because they have that talent in Double-A. You don't see quite the refined hitter in Double-A that you see maybe in Triple-A because you have guys up here that have [gone] through the furnace of the big leagues and were brought back down, and they're tempered now. That guy that might chase that pitch [in Double-A] is not going to chase it here and that makes you better. But, refining is a subtle thing, you have to have enough experience in the game to notice this guy's got a good eye or he's smarter. You have to be smart yourself to catch those guys. I've seen some great raw talent in Double-A, but up here, you see knowledge play a lot bigger part of the game.

Josh Geer: There's a little bit of a difference, they have a little bit more power guys, especially the 3-4-5 guys. They usually sit on one pitch. There are more major league guys here so you have better competition.

Matt Antonelli: I don't know if it's just talent level. It's a little bit of everything. I think experience is probably the biggest thing. You're facing older guys, and they're just a little bit smarter with what they're doing, a little bit craftier. They've got a few years experience on some of the younger guys here, which definitely helps them out I'm sure. It's good to play against those guys and with them because you learn more stuff.

On or off the field, what would you say is the biggest difference between the two levels?

Josh Geer: Pressure, because you're so close to the bigs. You just go out each day and try to pitch to the best of your ability and hopefully you get the call up.

Will Venable: Consistency. Being a professional, knowing the game, knowing how to play the game. From top to bottom every single guy on the roster knows how to do [all] things very well.

Natt Antonelli: Off the field, it's travel and plane rides. Waking up at 4 in the morning on road trips and flying out. You don't have to do the long bus [trips], which is cool. On the field, I think you just notice a more sound game kind of played up here. You'll see less errors, more strikes being thrown, more off-speed pitched being thrown for strikes. The game's probably a little crisper up here than it is at the Double-A level.

Dirk Hayhurst: You do get treated better every level that you progress. The dues get a little bit more expensive, but you get what you pay for. Up here, the travel's a little bit easier – you fly. The treatment in the clubhouse is better, the clubbies are used to taking care of guys who've been in the big leagues. The big league guys come down and they gripe – "up in the big leagues, we had this kind of treatment" – and so the clubbies try their best to accommodate. The one here does a fantastic job. Instead of eating peanut butter and jelly, you'll have a steak here occasionally, which is great.

There's also a more laid-back, hands-off approach from the management here unless you're a young prospect phenom that needs it. But most of your development and being taught how to play the game and go about it the right way, the military drilling it into you portion is gone at this level. Up here, you're treated more like an adult, you know what you're body's capable of, you know how you have to prepare it and the management will expect you to do that without them hovering over your shoulder or you're not going to make to in the bigs.

You're on the threshold of your dream coming into fruition, and if you're not capable enough to do what a self-starter needs to do to make it work, you're only going to hurt yourself. Here, everything just seems classier, and I like that as I think any baseball player would. That's one of the great parts about working your way up, the respect, the treatment, the reverence that comes with it. This is great, not that I'm satisfied, but this is great. You do get treated well here. It's always been a great job to have, it's a fun job, but the treatment is much better here than it is in say, rookie ball for a good reason. As good as they say it is here, they say it's a million times better in the bigs. I can't wait to be there.

(Note: On August 23rd Hayhurst got the call and joined the Padres)

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