When it Comes to Player Development, Small Changes Can Yield Big Results

A couple of weeks ago I sat down with Myrtle Beach Pelicans radio announcer Scott Kornberg for what was supposed to be an interview. Instead, it turned into an hour-long discussion of prospects and baseball.

Baseball has always been a game of inches. The smallest change yesterday could yield the biggest results tomorrow. For example, Jake Arrieta has been adamant that moving to the right side of the pitching rubber is largely responsible for his improved performance. Rob Zastryzny stated that a new grip on his cutter changed everything for him in the middle of 2016. And Preston Morrison struggled in his first month as a South Bend Cub until he made like Arrieta and moved to the right side of the rubber. A year later, he’s pitching in Double-A.

It was these small changes and their big effects that became the crux of the conversation on a rainy afternoon.

I began by asking Kornberg about the success of several former Pelicans who were going to be in Tennessee this year. Zach Hedges came up first. Koenberg detailed several conversations on the bus between Hedges and former reliever James Farris, who is now in the Rockies’ system. Hedges is known for pitching down in the zone with a naturally sinking fastball.

Farris would often talk about how he liked what Hedges did with certain hitters or how he approached batters in certain counts. Farris then suggested that his teammate add a four-seam fastball to complement his ability to pitch down in the zone. The four-seamer would stay up and keep hitters guessing. As a result, Hedges had his best year as a pro in the Cubs system.

While players sometimes talk to each other and offer suggestions about how to do things, Kornberg detailed several other instances in which manager Buddy Bailey stepped in to ask questions.

Yasiel Balaguert’s career as a minor leaguer had been a mixed bag prior to last year. He had a reputation for having never not met a fastball he didn’t like. Then he busted out to hit 19 home runs and drive in 96 with an improved approach for Myrtle Beach in 2017. Most of the damage came after a simple conversation with Bailey.

Kornberg relayed a few details of the talk, which took place in the cage after Balaguert had spent the better part of batting practice pulling everything to the left side. Bailey stepped into the cage and asked one simple question: “How have pitchers  been getting you out lately?”

“Down and away,” came the response.

Kornberg went on to tell how Bailey suggested going the other way more, taking what the pitcher gives instead of forcing it. As a result, Balaguert took off and was a driving force behind the Pelicans’ second straight Mills Cup win.

Sometimes these things seem so simple. David Bote was arguably the MVP for the Pelicans down the stretch as he hit over .400 in the months of August and September. At the beginning of the year, it looked as though he was on the track to be little more than an organizational player.

After the trade of Gleyber Torres and Rashad Crawford to the Yankees, though, Bote stepped into the role he would maintain for the rest of the year. He made an adjustment to his swing that created more lift. Kornberg doesn’t know specifically where that suggestion came from, but Bote looks very much like a pure hitter and a legitimate prospect and he’s carried it over to begin his 2017 season.

Kornberg also detailed conversations between Bailey and Trevor Clifton that focused on aggressiveness. The broadcaster touted the mental skills program and how it had really impacted players like Charcer Burks and Donnie Dewees. We shared more stories about some of the players who will be at Myrtle Beach this summer — including prospects like Eddy Martinez, Carlos Sepulveda, Eloy, and Matt Rose — and how the little tweaks they’ve made have propelled them.

I have always known that player development happens in small increments, that one small adjustment can have a big effect on a player and an organization. Scott Kornberg echoed those sentiments throughout our discussion. What most impressed me about his tales was how Bailey took the time to get to know the players and how the players responded.

Kornberg also praised the Cubs scouting staff for selecting players who are extremely coachable and open to making adjustments to improve their performance. I think those two sentiments speak volumes about how player development can be set up to succeed.

There is plenty more information from our “interview” that will come out in later articles as the season wears on.

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