This is the interview I have looked forward to the most since I started this series. Given how many Reading games I watched and listened to this year, I have heard Mike Ventola’s voice more than any other baseball radio/TV person out there. Chris LaBarge wrote here this summer before starting his own site and his insights and data collection on Reading were invaluable. To top that all off we have an incredibly exciting set of prospects to talk about here.
To start, introduce yourself and where can people can listen to you or read your work?
Mike: My name is Mike Ventola and I am the play-by-play radio voice of the Reading Fightin Phils. People can listen to the games on Sports Radio AM 1240/FM 98-5 in Reading, PA or via online at fightins.com. Download the TuneIn App as well and just type in “Reading Fightin Phils” in the search bar and you’ll be able to listen the games.
Chris: My name is Chris LaBarge and I’m very new to writing about Phillies prospects. I spent most of 2015 writing for Matt at Phillies Minor Thoughts, contributing a piece called “The Eye Test”. I try to offer thoughts and opinions on my in-person visits to the ballpark while also gaining some insight from talking to the players and coaches. Towards the end of the season, I branched off on my own and started a blog called “Phillies On Deck” where I will be posting my Eye Test work and offering other news bits about my 2 local teams, the Reading Fightins and the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs.
Before talking about players, how was the playoff run to follow?
Mike: Such a joy to put it in its simplest of terms. It was a huge thrill to have a front row seat to seeing each and everyone of these players grind it out in pursuit of winning a championship. Granted losing that deciding game was a heartbreaker for everyone going from Dusty Wathan down to the last player, but this team truly showed it’s heart and grit throughout every game of the postseason. It takes a lot out of these guys going through the regular season and for them to play with such great intensity throughout the playoffs really made it memorable.
Chris: Other than the way it ended, it was a great run. Just having one more reliable starter might have brought home the hardware, but I still like the way Dusty Wathan and Company handled things. Watching this group of kids face two veteran ball clubs in the playoffs and more than hold their own speaks volumes of the improvements this system has made. And on a personal note, this was easily the most fun group of ball players to be around. What’s nice about Reading is the access the team and players allow you. The fans became a part of their celebrations after they clinched a playoff birth, the Division crown, and a spot in the Finals. My son was in his glory but I’ll admit it was something I’ll never forget either.
No one will argue anything other than J.P. Crawford being spectacularly good. What makes him so special compared to his peers?
Mike: He has the “it” factor. No moment is too big for J.P. Let’s start with his approach at the plate. In my two seasons with the Fightin Phils I have not seen a player so confident with two strikes in the count. He acts as if he’s going to get on base every time he steps in the batters box and the mindset doesn’t change if he’s down 0-2 in the count. He’s not afraid to shorten up his swing or take a walk. He had more walks this season than he did strikeouts. He was the perfect #2 hitter in the lineup and I believe the Phillies project him to be a slotted in that spot in the lineup when he gets up to the major leagues. His defense is outstanding. A lot of people would argue me on that word due to him committing 20+ errors in Reading. Those 20+ errors were errors that he doesn’t make nine times out of ten. His range is excellent and I believe will continue to get better. He’s truly a “special” player and I believe the Phillies have a diamond amongst a treasure chest full of jewels.
Chris: There are so many intangibles that this kid possesses but I think it’s his maturity on the field that sets him apart. He is unflappable out there at age 20. It seems that no moment is too big for him and no situation to dire. He does his thing regardless. There were 2 aspects of his game that stood to me this season and regardless of the situation, they don’t change. First, his approach at the plate is incredibly advanced for his age. He hunts fastballs early in counts and seems to ignore anything spinning. He knows his “Nitro Zone” and attacks balls in that zone quickly and violently. Then with 2 strikes, he shortens up slightly, expands his zone slightly, and battles like no 20-year old I’ve ever seen. He actually seems MORE comfortable with 2 strikes. Secondly, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a middle infielder turn a double play quicker than JP. His footwork and transitions are astoundingly quick and his throws are strong and accurate. I told my son more than once, treasure this. You won’t see another JP Crawford come through here for a while.
The Fightin Phils had a vaunted rotation to start the season. Most fans are aware of Aaron Nola by now, Tom Windle ended up in the bullpen, and Biddle struggled his way to AAA. How did the last two (Zach Eflin and Ben Lively) evolve over the season?
Mike: Let me start with Zach Eflin. Zach was by far one of the best pitchers on the Fightins staff this season. His ability to pound the strikezone, get ground ball outs and pitch two good starts in the playoffs just show the type of guy the Phillies are hoping for in him. He is as true a sinker ball pitcher as you’ll find, strikeouts are not his cup of tea but he’s not afraid to attack hitters. I love his ability to not be swayed by the big moment. When he returned from the Pan-Am Games he had a few bumps but he found a way to get around them. I really think Zach has the ability to be a good major league starter someday. I’m really excited about his future.
As for Ben Lively I was a bit disappointed. Now don’t get me wrong, I think Ben has great ability because he can be deceptive with his pitches. His fastball command was not where he wanted it to be and I think he’s continuing to learn what type of pitcher he wants to be. He was a strikeout guy in the Reds system but I think he’ll need to be more of a “pitch-to-contact” type pitcher with the Phillies. My reason for that is even if he gets his fastball command to where he wants it to be, I think he’ll have more success going that route. 92-93 mph can strikeout guys but I think if he became a bit more of a ground ball type pitcher I think he can be more successful. Now this upcoming season will be a stronger telling of what type of pitcher Lively is. I’m very confident he’ll have a better season in 2016 than he did in 2015.
Chris: Pitchers are my favorite subject and Eflin and Lively are two of my favorites to talk about so this may take awhile. Coming into the season, Lively seemed to be the more talked about of the two but both were thought of very highly. I’ll start with Lively as I saw him the most in the first half of 2015. The scouting reports I had seen on Lively were pretty accurate. He throws his fastball around 92-93 and has a changeup, curve, and slider. I was a little disappointed in his fastball command but not knowing what he was working on at times makes it tough to get too down on it. His change seemed to need the most development and the team appeared to stress it over the summer as he threw more of them than I expected, but not terribly successfully. His slider and curve both need work as neither stood out to me as anything more than slightly above average. What I did like is how he used the breaking pitches, often in fastball counts to keep hitters off balance and rarely hanging them. Because when he did hang them, they get punished. Eflin was the pitcher I drew the most in the second half of the season and the one who my family and I chatted with the most post game. He was much more open about what he was up to all season than I ever expected a prospect to be and it made it more fun for me to watch as he developed. What I had read about Eflin was also accurate but not as in depth as it should have been. Zach has one goal on the mound, keep the ball down and his upright motion is conducive to doing just that. The sinker that I had heard so much about is actually a 2-seam (which is just semantics, I suppose) and shows good movement in 2 planes, breaking arm side and down. His 4-seam is almost always down early in the count and works well on both sides of the plate. When he’s struggling, he misses on the arm side, though. Early in counts, he’ll sit around 93 but with two strikes he can reach back and pump it up to 96-97. His slider is his next best pitch and is good, not great. Like Lively, what makes it good is using it early in counts and not hanging it. Eflin’s changeup is the pitch he doesn’t really seem to have a feel for. In most starts, I don’t think you could him throwing more than 5 of them and the club seemed OK with him not using it much. But probably the biggest development to Eflin’s game was the return of his curve, a much talked about pitch on Minor Thoughts. Some time around the Pan Am Games, he started using it and continued right through the playoffs. I personally prefer it to his slider. The best part of watching these two all season was getting to see them in the playoffs, with the brakes off. Both showed that they are more than capable for those few weeks of extra baseball. I’m certainly not a pitching coach, but I would like to see Lively gain better fastball command. The other stuff needs work too but one easy way to improve your secondary stuff is to be able to spot the heater. For Eflin, I don’t know which pitch it is, but he needs to develop an out pitch. I’ve never seen someone have more two strike pitches fouled off. But the guy can still get hitters out. Considering their ages, it’s hard not to like this pair. Did I mention that these two are my favorite subjects to talk about?
Something strange seemed to happen when players reached Reading. Andrew Knapp, Angelo Mora, and Dylan Cozens had solid numbers in Clearwater, but huge numbers in AA. Any reason for the breakouts?
Mike: I have spoken before why Reading is more of a hitters-ballpark compared to the rest of the system. No need for me to break that down again. I think with the players mentioned a lot of it had to due with the type of lineup Reading put out there. Andrew Knapp was absolutely locked in and may have been the most important guy in the lineup besides Crawford. Knapp hit everything that came his way. I knew he was a good hitter but he really took it to the next level. He didn’t strike out often and put everything into play. He’ll have high expectations in 2016 and deservedly so. As for Angelo Mora I think he just took advantage of a situation. Brodie Greene had struggled a lot and Reading was in need of second-base help and Mora came right in and did his part. As a switch hitter I think he has potential. Dylan Cozens I saw very late in the season. Let me say this about Dylan: if he starts the season in Reading and plays all the way through, he could be a challenger for Darin Ruf’s home run record in 2012. There is a lot of power with Dylan and I also think he has a strong understanding of being more than just a home run hitter. Keep an eye on this guy for 2016.
Chris: This is actually a question I asked myself all season with no definitive answer. I would also throw Harold Martinez into the discussion. The ballpark does seem to be a hitters’ park, so that doesn’t hurt. Playing in a lineup with out many holes is also a big boost. As the playoffs started, Cam Perkins was arguably the weakest hitter in the lineup and is hardly an easy out. Hitting with runners on base almost always is a nice advantage. I will admit I hadn’t seen any of these guys before Reading so I’m not sure if they made any adjustments on their way up. I will say that Knapp’s success came from being able to square balls up consistently and battle at the plate with 2 strikes. It took him awhile for those two things to stop happening. Cozens really seemed to attack balls in the zone early in counts and pitchers didn’t seem to adjust to it. His swing is very Altherr-ish, in that it produces an amazing amount of line drive contact. Mora’s success was similar to Cozens with less power. He seemed to like to jump at pitches early and hit a lot of balls hard. Overall, it may just be talent that contributed to the breakouts.
Reading got a huge boost in trade returns. A lot has been written about the new acquisitions, but what has no one talked about, either on or off the field?
Mike: Reading has been the talk of the Phillies in 2015 and deservedly so. This team was special in a lot of ways. The players received a lot of publicity within the Philadelphia media and even some of the coaches as well. Jimmy Cordero, Jake Thompson, Nick Pivetta and Nick Williams all made impacts when they joined the team. Jorge Alfaro was a name talked about quite a bit but didn’t play due to injury. I believe he could be a face for the Fightin Phils in 2016. If there is one area that needed a little bit more publicity was the effort of the coaching staff. I’m biased when I say this but I really felt that Dusty Wathan, Dave Lundquist, Frank Cacciatore and Mickey Morandini all did outstanding jobs with these players. It’s not easy having to mold all this talent and making sure they develop accordingly. I’ve worked with Dusty and Dave for two seasons and these two both deserve the opportunity to coach at a higher level. Frank as well and I worked with Frank just this past season. Mickey got a well-deserved promotion to the big-leagues. Let me say this about Mickey and Frank: a huge reason why you saw a lot of these guys in the lineup hitting so well was due to these guys working with them. Credit these four men, they were outstanding.
Chris: The front office is doing an amazing job with this phase of the rebuild. It probably has been said a lot, but Reading really was an example of how its paying off. It started in December with the acquisitions of Eflin, Lively, and Windle. Personally, I firmly believe the Phils also killed it at the deadline in 2015. That’s before seeing Jorge Alfaro and Alberto Tirado. But the guys who came through Reading were outstanding. Jake Thompson was the best of the bunch and it’s not even close. Nick Williams has work to do at the plate but is oozing with ability. Jimmy Cordero shows flashes of greatness as well but needs some polish. Even Nick Pivetta, for all of his struggles, looks like a prospect at times. It was amazing what a large percentage of new guys were being counted on down the stretch, and delivering. Development is still the biggest factor, but the pieces are streaming into the system like never before. On a personal level, the thing that struck me about the mid season acquisitions was the attitude each of them carried themselves with. Nothing fazes them, regardless of the situation. They all seem so calm and trust their abilities, which is great to see. And off the field, they are all amazing guys.
I have asked almost everyone else about development, what improvements did you see the coaches making to the players (both hitters/pitchers) and where was the emphasis this season?
Mike: I answered this previously but let me add more here with a pitching standpoint. Dave Lundquist was phenomenal with the staff this season. It’s not easy working with as many talented arms as he had to work with this season. Let me also add why you saw guys like Adam Loewen and Colton Murray make the big-league roster; it was due to Dave’s coaching. He’s very hands on with his pitchers and the guys respond to him extremely well. In all my conversations with the pitchers there is nothing but praise for Dave and his work.
Chris: What I saw the most, especially in Reading, was what I’m hoping are new organizational philosophies. For hitters, they seemed to be preaching patience. Outside of a few guys (Nick Williams, Dylan Cozens, Roman Quinn), this club saw a lot of pitches in 2015, something that has been lacking on the big club for years. Maybe its cyclical or maybe its the individual players, but it was noticeable. And until I hear otherwise, I’ll give credit to the coaches. For the pitchers, throw strikes. Yes, the Fightins gave up their share of home runs but as an organization there does seem to be a increased importance placed on attacking hitters and keeping them off balance. The numbers may not always bare that out, but just know that pitchers are ALWAYS working on something.
It seemed to an outsider like this Reading team was very close. Many of the players on this team will put on Phillies uniforms soon, how are they handling knowing that the future rests heavily on some of them?
Mike: I don’t think Reading will ever see a team like this one ever again. “Never” is a long time but I can feel pretty good standing by that statement. What was amazing to me is the amount of competition there is for these guys to make it to the show and yet they knew they all had something special happening in Reading. They all had a strong desire to win it all. By them experiencing the playoffs and going deep into September made them realize what’s at stake if they get up to the major leagues: the ability to play deep into October.
Fans that followed Reading very closely all season that I spoke with told me this team was certainly one of the best to grace FirstEnergy Stadium in a long time. I think the player realized how good of a group they had. All were so close and they all were fantastic teammates toward one-another.
Chris: I’ll bet you will find few teams that were as close knit as this group. I’d also wager that you’ll find even fewer teams that are as “loose” as this group. I had the great pleasure of interacting with the team on many occasion and it was always a pleasure. From the top prospects all the way down to the fringe bench players, this group was fun to hang around with. One of the other things I’ve also learned is that these guys don’t feel pressure. As a group, they are confident in their abilities and understand where they are in the baseball world. I think most of them relish the challenge of being relied on to carry the franchise when their time comes. Either that, or they are really good actors who have me completely fooled.
Photo by Chris LaBarge