Before we jump into talking about players why don’t you introduce yourself and where people can find your writing?
My name is Mitch Rupert and I’m a sports writer with the Williamsport Sun-Gazette in Williamsport, Pa. I’ve covered the Williamsport Crosscutters now for six seasons. So I guess that means I’m a minor league free agent. Looks like I’ll be re-signing to stay in Williamsport for now. To put six years into perspective, that means there are now 11 players on the Phillies’ 40-man roster that I’ve covered in my time in Williamsport. But that doesn’t count the likes of others who have made the big leagues for other organizations like Domingo Santana, Josh Zeid, Lisalverto Bonilla, Jonathan Villar and Lendy Castillo. So I have a good feel for who is in the system and what their capabilities are. You can follow me on Twitter.com/Mitch_Rupert where I post 90 percent of my work on the Cutters and the Phillies.
What makes minor league baseball and specifically Short Season ball so appealing to cover?
What I really enjoy about minor league baseball is the uncertainty of it all. Everything you see with your eyes on the field and try to make sense of through stats comes with the caveat of the potential that all that information can be worthless by the time a player reaches the big leagues. Everything we discuss and argue and analyze is based on track records of what successful big leaguers have done during their minor league careers. The truth is, it could all be quite meaningless potentially because the big leagues are so very different. Some players rise to the occasion of the challenge of more advanced leagues. Some shrivel in the pressure. You can guess who will do the former and who will do the latter, but it’s all a guess because we can’t get inside a player’s head and find out what is really going on up there.
And I love covering short-season baseball because, for the most part, this is the first extended look we’re getting at new players in the system. Until recently, there was nobody in Clearwater really making strides on coverage of Phillies prospects either in the GCL or with the Threshers. So by the time they got to Williamsport, we were seeing if the scouting report matched the actual output of a player. But that still holds true as the New York-Penn League has become more and more of a college player league than it ever was. Players are fresh out of the First-Year Player Draft and it’s the first look we’re getting at them unless it’s a highly-touted college prospect, or a player who played on a team that went to Super Regionals or the College World Series. So I enjoy being the one that gets a first look at the players and is able to help build a base of knowledge on who the player is, and what their capabilities are.
The Williamsport team this year did not show up well in the standing or in the box scores this year, but that doesn’t always tell the whole story. Can you quickly sum up the season for everyone out there?
Quickly? This team pitched well and hit like crap. It was an odd turnaround from the start of the season when the team both hit and pitched well, but ran into a buzzsaw of a State College team which just recently captured the NYPL title. This was the most intriguing collection of prospects I’ve covered in Williamsport since my first season with the likes of Leandro Castro, Sebastian Valle, Jonathan Pettibone, Darin Ruf, Zach Collier, Anthony Hewitt, et al. So while the wins weren’t there, the stories were. There were plenty of players worth writing about for the duration of the season.
Who was the top hitter you saw for the Crosscutters this year?
I’ll break this into two categories, statistically and developmentally: Statistically, the best hitter was either Jiandido Tromp or Drew Stankiewicz, but I’m going with Tromp. Having previously covered him for a year, I really knew what I was getting with him — at least I thought I did. Then all of a sudden he comes out and hits 14 home runs, all of which came in the not-so-friendly confines of 88-year old Bowman Field. The power surge made him into a completely different kind of prospect and player than the one the year before who was still a NYPL All-Star. There’s still a giant hole in Tromp’s swing as he’s a dead pull hitter and is going to need to learn to attack the pitch away to the opposite field. But the blessing of being only 20 is there’s time to fix that.
Developmentally, it’s hard not to pick Jose Pujols. He did so many things in the half-dozen games I saw him that made my jaw hit the floor that he’s a player who can not be ignored. He is the most physically gifted hitter I’ve seen in six years in Williamsport. I’d put him just slightly ahead of Maikel Franco in terms of raw talent. He’s got a tremendous feel for hitting and how to attack the field from foul pole to foul pole with immense power the likes I haven’t seen before, and there’s still room to add more strength. He’s an incredibly intriguing player.
Who was the top pitcher for the team?
Again, broken into two categories: Statistically, it was either Brandon Leibrandt or Matt Imhof. It’s tough to give this to Imhof because he was here for so short of a time, but he does two things that I love to see from young pitchers: 1, He commands the strike zone. He doesn’t just throw strikes, but he throws strikes where he wants to throw strikes. And 2, He commands the strike zone with the fastball. His secondary stuff is a work in progress, but he dominated here with just his fastball, which is why he had to be moved to Lakewood to better get into his secondary stuff and try to use it. Leibrandt is a phenomenal pitcher. He’s not a thrower with incredible stuff (but his change-up is a plus pitch and his slider is above average). Knowing who his dad is and how his dad pitched, it’s not a surprise he knows how to move the ball in, out, up and down, and change speeds while doing it. He’s a couple ticks more on his fastball away from being a fast-moving prospect.
Developmentally, I loved what Ricardo Pinto showed this year. A fastball which he can run up into the mid-90s when he wants to with a big league-caliber change-up. With those two quality pitches, I think his floor is a reliable big league reliever. But he’s got to get a grip on his slider to be a legitimate starting pitching prospect.
There were a lot of familiar names on the Crosscutters this year, but there are always names in the background not getting their due. Who are some players fans should be familiar with and keep their eye on going forward?
Here’s a few:
1, Edubray Ramos: If you already follow me on Twitter, you know I was fawning over this guy. Picked up off the scrap heap after St. Louis had closed its Venezuela academy last year, he went through three levels of the Phillies system this year with a fastball which topped out at 96, a wipeout breaking ball (we can argue slider vs. curveball similarly to the way we do with Aaron Nola), and an average to above average change-up. His numbers all season, not just in Williamsport, are absolutely filthy.
2, Calvin Rayburn: This kid makes me think right-handed Jake Diekman. He made a small mechanical change late in the season that got his fastball consistently sitting 93-95, and he told me early in the college season he was sitting 95-96. He comes from an extreme three-quarters arm slot from the right side which seems to make his slider even more difficult to pick up. A big problem I see is he throws too many strikes. I’d like to see him bounce two-strike sliders and expand the zone up and out more. But that can be taught.
3, Rhys Hoskins: Finished the year with 9 home runs, which in the New York-Penn League is a darn good number. Only other players I’ve seen hit at least 9 for the Crosscutters are Zach Green, Dylan Cozens and Jiandido Tromp, so it’s a significant number. He seemed to use the whole field much better for the last month of the season which is why he was able to hit over .280 for the last month. Solid defender, very good receiver at first base. Saves tons of errors.
You have covered the Crosscutters for a few years now, what lessons have you learned that have made you a better evaluator? What advice would you give to people who want to get something out of watching minor league games?
Biggest thing I learned is that stats matter so very little at this level. People get worked up over guys who hit .230 or worse at this level, but there are so many variables which go into that. I trust my eyes far more than I trust a stats sheet because the sample size is so small. Now, I’ve learned to use a happy medium and supplement what I see with what stats or a stopwatch tell me. The advice I’d give is to watch the players, not the outcome. A home run doesn’t necessarily mean the player had a good at-bat. A ground ball to the pitcher or a strikeout doesn’t mean they had a bad at-bat. Watch how opposing batters react to pitchers. Batters who are constantly late on a guy who doesn’t have plus velocity suggest a myriad of things which point to good deception. The bottom line is trust your eyes. I love what the idea of advanced metrics have brought to baseball, but I will always trust my eyes first and foremost.
You can find our entire series of recaps here. Header photo by Tom Hagerty.