A Week of Baseball in Arizona – in Photos

I spent my final afternoon in the Phoenix area watching baseball this afternoon as Surprise (with 7 Twins prospects and pitching coach Ivan Arteaga) traveled to Mesa.

I thought a good way to put a wrap on this trip would be a post that includes several photos of each Twins participant along with some basic perceptions of what I saw from that player in admittedly limited action in the games I watched.

Let’s do this in reverse alphabetical order, shall we?

That means we start with lefty reliever Randy Rosario, a 22-year old from the Dominican Republic. I saw Randy twice, pitching two innings in each game. He gave up a couple hits, a walk and a run in the first outing on Monday, but struck out three in two hitless innings on Friday. Only one stadium in the AFL circuit shows pitch speed on the scoreboard (or “talent meter”, I’m told the pitchers call it), so I have no idea what kind of velocity Randy (or anyone else) had, but his fastball certainly was good enough to make some guys look silly with his off-speed stuff.

While they wait for their turn to take the mound, relievers take turns playing catch with the right fielder between innings. This was Rosario's turn.

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Next up would be another southpaw bullpen arm, Mason Melotakis. When I last saw Melo in action in a Kernels uniform in 2013, the Twins were trying to see if he could be converted to a starting pitcher. A couple of years (and one TJ surgery) later, he’s mowing batters down as a reliever. Melotakis was almost untouchable in his two 1-inning appearances this week, striking out 3 in a couple of 1-2-3 innings. He has given up just one hit in 10 innings. He has a 11/1 strikeout/walk ratio.

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I was glad to hear the Twins were sending shortstop Nick Gordon to Arizona, not necessarily because I thought he was near being ready for the big leagues, but because I was anxious to see how he would fare against better pitching than he’s likely seen thus far in his career. If his AFL performance is any indication, he could really move up quickly. Gordon was 4-11 in three games this week (though he went hitless in the “Fall Stars Game” Saturday night) and had a double and a triple. He’s hitting .344 for the fall with an .875 OPS. He’s been successful in 3 of 4 stolen base attempts.

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I only got to see one start from Stephen Gonsalves and it wasn’t what he, or anyone, was hoping for. Gonsalves has been dealing with a back/shoulder strain that caused him to miss most of the AFL season. He threw 2 innings in his return last Friday and managed to get just two outs in his start on Wednesday. His velocity was obviously way down and he struggled with control, leading to being charged with 4 runs on 3 hits and 3 walks. The Twins don’t give me a vote on these things, but I’d shut him down and just let him rest that tired arm. He should only have one more start scheduled in the AFL season anyway.

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Catcher Mitch Garver is completing his second stint in the AFL after playing here last fall, as well. Garver was just 3-13 in games I saw this week, with one double, but he was hitting a lot of pitches right on the screws. I’d love to know what the exit velocity was on the balls he hit, especially in the first two games I watched. Seven of Mitch’s 14 hits this fall have been for extra bases, four of which have left the park on the fly. Today (Friday), he also threw out three of four runners trying to steal second base on him.

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If the Twins sent outfielder Tanner English to Arizona to find out if his success at AAA in the five games he spent with Rochester this year was a mirage, they’re getting their answer. No, English isn’t batting over .300, but he’s making good contact. I saw him strike out just once in 11 plate appearances this week and, technically, he DID bat .300 (3-10 exactly) in the games I saw. English also covers a lot of ground in the outfield and I saw a couple instances where he cut off a ball in a gap to hold the hitter at first base, rather than give up a double.

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Righthanded reliever John Curtiss started the 2016 season with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, so I’m guessing not many would have predicted he’d be finishing the year in the Arizona Fall League. But Curtiss tore through Midwest League hitters and got a quick promotion. The 6′ 4″ 23-year-old has shrugged off a tough first appearance in the AFL to have an excellent fall. He has struck out 16 while walking just 3 in 10 2/3 innings. In the two single-inning appearances I saw this week, he gave up just one hit, walked none and struck out two (both in today’s appearance).

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I also enjoyed getting a chance to catch up with Ivan Arteaga, who served as the Kernels’ pitching coach in 2014 and is filling that capacity with Surprise this fall. I’ve always enjoyed talking pitching, baseball and life, in general, with Ivan and this week was no exception,.

gonsalvesarteagaafl16bThis was my first trip to the AFL where all members of the Twins’ contingent had come through Cedar Rapids with the Kernels and I got a chance to at least say a quick ‘hi” to all of them. It’s just really enjoyable to see the way the players have matured as ballplayers now that they are so close to realizing their dream of playing Major League baseball.

(All photos are the property of S D Buhr and may not be used without permission. That said, permission is REALLY easy to get. Just ask.)

Images From Arizona Fall League – Day 2

Yeah, I really should have looked at the Surprise Saguaros’ schedule before I reserved my hotel for this trip. After Saturday night’s Fall Stars Game and Monday afternoon’s Surprise game, the Saguaros (for whom all of the Minnesota Twins AFP prospects play this fall) have no more home games while I’m in town.

The game today was the first of four games that Surprise is playing in some other distant part of the Phoenix area. Just means I’ll be doing a lot of driving between now and Friday. Live & learn, I suppose.

The Saguaros dropped a 10-7 decision to the Mesa Solar Sox this afternoon (Tuesday). It was interesting, in that Mesa scored four runs in each of the first two innings and when the score stood 8-5 after three and a half innings, this was looking like it had the makings of a four-hour game.

In the end, it wrapped up in two hours and forty-six minutes. It is not a coincidence that they use the pitch clock in this league. It really does keep the game moving.

It also didn’t hurt that the only two Twins prospects to take the field for Surprise, relief pitchers Mason Melotakis and John Curtiss, each worked a clean 1-2-3 inning when their turns came to toe the rubber.

Tomorrow afternoon, it’s over to Scottsdale. With any luck, some of the Twins’ position players will be back in the lineup and maybe I’ll even get to see Stephen Gonsalves get a start against Tim Tebow and the Scorpions.

As always (or almost always, anyway), here are a few pictures of Twins in action today.

Ivan Arteaga
Ivan Arteaga
Mason Melotakis
Mason Melotakis
Mason Melotakis covering first base on a ground ball to the first baseman
Mason Melotakis covering first base on a ground ball to the first baseman
Mason Melotakis
Mason Melotakis
John Curtiss
John Curtiss
John Curtiss
John Curtiss
John Curtiss
John Curtiss

All photos by S D Buhr and may not be used without permission.

Ivan Arteaga on Change ups, Sliders and Curves

There’s much about the game of baseball that never changes. Three strikes and you’re out. Bases are 90 feet apart.

Then again, some aspects of the game are constantly adjusting to the times. Witness the amount of defensive shifting going on in Major League Baseball this season.

You could say that one thing that never changes is that pitchers try to throw fastballs by opposing hitters.

But the arsenal of pitches the pitchers use beyond the fastball seems to differ from one era to another.

Pitchers in the first part of the 20th century could – and did – legally throw a spitball.

Even after the spitter was outlawed, pitchers continued to do whatever they could get away with to gain an advantage over the batter. Roughing up the ball became popular.

Now umpires toss baseballs out of the game the moment there’s the slightest scuff noticed on the surface of the sphere.

Even legal pitches have come in to, and fallen out of, favor among professional pitchers.

Recently, writer Pat Jordan posted an article at SportsOnEarth.com entitled, The Decline of the Curve. Jordan talked to a number of big league pitching coaches about why fewer pitchers are throwing a curveball than was the case in previous eras.

Some of the coaches he talked to indicated that their organizations dissuade pitchers from throwing the traditional curve and others indicated that they don’t teach the pitch to their pitchers.

Since I’ve observed a number of Cedar Rapids Kernels pitchers throwing curveballs, I was curious about whether the Twins organization and, in particular, Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga, have any established policy aimed at dissuading use of the curve or any other pitch.

Over the past weekend, Arteaga graciously agreed to talk to me about the subject.

I started out by asking whether the Twins have any kind of established policy concerning the subject of Jordan’s article, the curveball.

“We actually encourage it,” Arteaga said. “We believe in having a complete mix. I believe, this is my opinion, mix creates value.

“For example, I’ve got (Ricky) Nolasco this week here. He’s got five different pitches. Throws a slider, he throws a curve, he throws a split, he throws a straight change up, he’s got a two-seemer. And he throws low-90s.

“We were having a conversation and one thing we agreed on was that pitchers in the big leagues actually have to reinvent themselves time and time again.

“So that being said, the curve is a pitch that is high-to-low, 12-to-6, you name it. It’ll give you depth. It’ll make your fastball better. It’ll save your arm a little bit.

“So we encourage it. If you have the curve, great. If you don’t, we’ll try to teach you one. Hopefully, you can get it.”

Ivan Arteaga
Ivan Arteaga

Some of the coaches that talked to Jordan blamed the shrinking strike zone for the demise of the curveball. Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan could throw fastballs at the letters and get them called strikes, which set up their devastating curveballs.

Umpires today won’t call that high pitch a strike and Arteaga agrees that the strike zone getting smaller has had an effect on the choices pitchers have made when it comes to their arsenal.

“Over time, pitchers started to throw the change up more, moving back and forth,” Arteaga observed. “I remember in the 80s and 90s, the split finger fastball was the pitch to learn and then came the slider. That’s the pitch these days being taught.

“Those pitches are basically strike zone down, strike zone right or strike zone left. The curve actually starts up away from the strike zone and it gets in to the strike zone at the end with some depth.

“So if you have that pitch, the hitters are so used to looking for pitches in the strike zone, that once they see the ball go up, they give up on it. And then once they give up on it, it’s hard for them to actually make an adjustment and hit it. So they give up on it and you get some weak swings.

Arteaga has a theory, beyond those that the coaches Jordan interviewed expressed, concerning why you see fewer pitchers throwing a curveball today.

“This goes beyond professional baseball. Because in college, you get big programs, the same way you get big programs in Venezuela, Dominican and Puerto Rico, and so forth and so on. What creates value? The fastball.

“Thirty-five or forty years ago you had to mix, you learned how to pitch. These days, you get kids that are 17-18 years old, they’re just fastball throwers. If they throw something else, it will be a change up and it will be a slider, because it’s easier to throw. But at the same time, it creates more stress on the shoulder and in the elbow.”

Jordan, in his article, claimed that the curveball actually is easier on the pitcher’s arm than other pitches, which goes against some conventional wisdom in the game. Arteaga agrees, however.

“It’s less stressful. It’s not as stressful as the slider.” Arteaga explained. “What happens with the slider is, there’s some kids who believe the slider should be lateral – should be either right or left – it’s more sidewise than it is up and down. And for them to create that, they have to actually drag their arms a little bit.

“So when they drag their arm a little, they get a lower angle. Once you want to make that ball spin, the elbow suffers a lot. So you get tight. Once you get tight, those muscles start to pull against those tendons. That’s when you get all the injuries.”

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and then-Kernels pitcher Ethan Mildren
Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and then-Kernels pitcher Ethan Mildren

There has been talk among the fan base about the Twins limiting the number of sliders and similar pitches that some of their youngest pitching prospects throw in a game. The coach’s next comment perhaps sheds some light on that philosophy.

“If you ask an 18-19 year old to pitch at a level like this,” Arteaga observed, “where he understands he has to come up with something more than the fastball, then he’ll throw the slider more than he should. He might not be ready to throw it, because he needs to mix.“

Arteaga doesn’t necessarily see the curveball as the hardest pitch for his young pitchers to master.

“The change up to me is like the last pitch to come in an arsenal,” Arteaga said.
“There’s not many guys that have the feel for the change up and the repeatability for the change up. And so it’s easier to throw fastball-slider-fastball-cutter than become a fastball-slider-change up guy. So the change up is like the last pitch to come in to the arsenal.

“It’s hard to repeat, because there’s a couple of things that come in to play,” he explained. “One is the grip. You have to find the perfect grip. And number two, you have to find a repeatable delivery, the same as the fastball. So you can get that extension out in front and the pronation to actually make the ball fade a little bit or go down as much as you can.

“So you need to repeat it a lot. Almost as much as your fastball. You need to repeat it so you can get that same feeling, every time, of extension, pronation and arm speed.

“Because if you ask any guy what they fear the most, it is to leave a fastball or change up or breaking ball up in the zone. They say, ‘I don’t want to do that,’ so what do they do? They develop a sinker, they develop a slider; anything they can do to make it go down.“

Arteaga was asked about that split-fingered fastball that he acknowledged was all the rage 20 or so years ago. Does he, or do the Twins, teach splitter?

“No, we don’t,” he answered quickly. “If you have one out of college or whatever and you can throw it, yeah, we’ll let you throw it. Why not? But we don’t encourage that.

“We believe the less stress you put on the arm, the better it is. If you see the games on TV, in the big leagues, you don’t get that many guys throw the split finger fastballs any more. Maybe a few, but not what it used to be.

“And it really has to be a good one for you to throw it in the big leagues, because they can see the seams. If it looks like a fastball, yes, you’ve got an advantage. Make it look like a fastball, in and out of the strike zone, you’re OK.”

As Arteaga alluded to earlier, Nolasco spent the better part of a week in Cedar Rapids, getting a pair of rehabilitation starts in with the Kernels. The interview came before Nolasco’s final Kernels appearance Sunday, but the coach liked what he saw of Nolasco leading up to that point.

“He threw everything he’s got in the first outing so I expect the same in this one too. He got in to a jam a little bit there, and struck out a couple of guys. He looked like a big leaguer. Throwing his pitches down, making it go right, left, down.

“Like Joe (Mauer) was saying, he’ll make it tough on hitters, when he’s right, he’ll make it tough because everything goes different directions and it’s the same motion.

“Just seeing him throw in the bullpen, he’s got command, he’s got control. And he’s healthy, so hopefully he’ll be OK.“

And did Arteaga’s young Kernels pitchers watch the way Nolasco went about his business?

“Oh yeah. That’s the way it should be. They’re paying attention.“

Thorpe, Romero Make Kernels Debuts

As the Cedar Rapids Kernels wrap up the final stretch of the first half of their 2014 Midwest League season, the parent Minnesota Twins sent them some needed starting pitching help in the form of two teenage pitching prospects.

Australian 18-year old lefty Lewis Thorpe and right-hander Fernando Romero, a 19-year old out of the Dominican Republic joined the Kernels from extended spring training last week and both were immediately inserted in to the starting rotation by manager Jake Mauer and pitching coach Ivan Arteaga.

Lewis Thorpe
Lewis Thorpe

Thorpe was the 6th ranked prospect in the Twins organization by MLB.com during the offseason and #7 on Baseball America’s list of Twins top prospects.

Romero was also among the organization’s top 15 prospects by both organizations coming in to the year.

Romero was the first of the pair to debut, getting a start on Thursday on the road in Appleton WI against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. The righty went five full innings, giving up a pair of earned runs on seven hits and one walk. He struck out six Rattler batters. The Kernels lost the game 7-4 but Romero got a no-decision, leaving the game with the score tied at 2-2.

Thorpe had less luck in his first start with the Kernels, picking up a loss in Kane County on Saturday as the Kernels fell to the Cougars, 5-2. All five runs were charged to Thorpe and all were earned. He gave up six hits, walked three and struck out just one batter in 4.2 innings.

It makes for an ugly stat line for Thorpe, but that’s more than a little misleading.

One very close pitch at the knees being called ball four instead of strike three was the difference between escaping the fifth inning relatively unscathed and getting the hook. He left the game with two runs across and bases loaded in the home half of the fifth inning, but all three baserunners came around to score after he departed.

Afterward, Arteaga agreed that Thorpe looked much better than his stat line would indicate.

“He got through two outs in the fifth inning, but just ran out of gas, unfortunately,” said Arteaga. “I think he deserved better. His line doesn’t say what he actually looked like. One thing is his line, but another thing is what he actually did and how he looked.

“He had poise. Obviously he needs a little work with the breaking ball but his fastball (command) isn’t going to be a problem. He throws the ball well. Being the first time and all, I think that I’m very pleased with what I saw.”

Arteaga was also happy with his first look at Romero since spring training in March.

Fernando Romero
Fernando Romero

“He’s got one of those arms that make you go, ‘wow,’ Arteaga said, adding that Romero throws, “94 to 99 (mph). He was able to throw a hard slider and a couple of them were sharp, especially against right-handed hitters. Coming over for the first time, I thought he looked really good.”

Arteaga, whose rotation has struggled at times through much of the season, was heartened by his first look at the new additions.

“It’s very encouraging, to have those two guys join the rotation – very encouraging for everybody because they showed that they will compete. They will throw it over and they’re going to be just fine, as advertised.

“I saw Romero and Thorpe during spring training. It was just basically a matter of time before they were going to join us and the time has come. They’re here and they’re doing really well.”

Pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and pitcher Ethan Mildren
Pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and pitcher Ethan Mildren

Thorpe and Romero will form one-third of the Kernels’ six-man rotation going forward, joining four pitchers selected by the Twins in the 2013 First Year Player Draft: Kohl Stewart (1st round), Ryan Eades (2nd round), Aaron Slegers (5th round) and Ethan Mildren (12th round).

The Kernels, who sat in seventh place in the eight-team Western Division of the MWL coming out of the weekend, will get a chance to start over with a clean slate as the league divides their season in to two halves with the second half starting on Thursday, June 19, after next week’s MWL All-Star Game. – JC