Lowell Spinners players adjust to life in pros

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Lowell Spinners players adjust to life in pros

By Maureen Mullen
CSNNE.com Follow @maureenamullen
LOWELL, Mass. The goal of baseball at any level is, of course, to win. Sometimes those goals, though, are defined within certain parameters.

Wins and losses are important, no matter, said Mike Hazen, the Red Sox vice president of player development and amateur scouting. Guys dont go out there to lose. I dont care what level baseball it is. Guys are competitive. They go out there to win. We want our guys to go out there and try to win. But at the end of the day, youre not going to see us have a guy throw a no-hitter in the New York-Penn League. I can guarantee that. Those guys are going to hit the pitch count. The pitchers are going to be protected. We want guys to go out there and get their at-bats. If they go 0-for-20, theyre going to get a chance to go 0-for-24, things like that. Its not about playing the same way and under the same focus that they do in Fenway. Its just not going to be run the same way.

Having said that, we want those guys to go out there and compete. We dont feel like were trying to have their hands wrapped behind their backs at all. We just take a different approach to how were going to use guys in certain situations. You wont see us match up with right-handed or left-handed relievers. The guy thats supposed to go in that day to relieve is going to go in that day to relieve no matter what the opposing lineup looks like, things like that. So its a lot different. But we still want them to go out there and compete and win.

In short-season Lowell, the Sox entry in the New York-Penn League, which began its season just under a month ago, the average age is about 20. For many of the players, its their first time on their own, in a professional environment, in a new organization. Some players have been in the organization before this season. But for others, Lowell is their first stop on their way to what they hope will eventually bring them to Fenway Park.

While the expectations are still high, theyre also different for players at this level.

From a performance standpoint, were not really bearing down on the performance necessarily, Hazen said. Were watching these guys go out and play, either for the first time professionally in the case of college or high school kids who were just drafted or for the kids that have been in extended spring training this is the first time theyre in Lowell. So getting acclimated to professional baseball, its really the first time theyre getting a look at what its going to look like for the rest of their career -- playing games every night, the flights, the travel, etc. Those are probably the biggest things, the biggest transitions for a lot of these kids.

Then the stats count a little bit more. In extended they dont really count or in college obviously theyre coming in without any performance history. So, the stats start to mean a little more when they get to that level.

For most of the players this season is about adjustments, not only on the field or at the plate.

Travis Shaw is one of the college kids. The son of former pitcher Jeff Shaw, he was drafted by the Sox in the ninth round last month out of Kent State University after also being selected by the Sox in 32nd round out of high school in 2008. In 21 games he is seventh in the league with a .329 batting average (24-for73), and is tied for the league lead in home runs, with six, and walks (19),is second in slugging percentage (.671) and OPS (1.139), and third in on-base percentage (.467).

So far, its been pretty good, Shaw said of the early returns in his first professional season. I got off to a pretty fast start, which has helped me a lot to just relax, not really worry about anything, just go through my everyday routine and business, and just keep trying to be a run producer for this team, and keep putting numbers up.

The biggest difference from college?

I would say atmosphere-wise, in the dugout, in the locker room, said Shaw, who turned 21 in April. In college its more rah-rah, coaches in your face, teams yelling, screaming back and forth. Here its more laid back. Its on you to get your job done, push yourself because coaches arent going to be on you as hard as they are in college. Thats been the biggest transition.

Right-handed reliever Michael McCarthy is also new to the professional ranks. He was on the field at Cal State-Bakersfield last month organizing an intrasquad game when a teammates father called to let McCarthy know the Sox had selected him in the 14th round. McCarthy was heavily involved in student life in college. He was the president of the student-athlete advisory committee and has a part-time job waiting for him at school in the off-season. Hes ultimately planning for a career in the medical field when his playing days are done, but it was an easy decision to sign with the Sox.

I didnt really think about it too much, said McCarthy, 23. I knew I wanted to sign. I knew I wanted to play and give this a shot and give them everything I have until they tell me 'Hey, youre not cutting it.' Hopefully, Ill have a long career here but if not, good fall back plans.

And for now, he can focus all his attention on baseball.

In college I knew baseball was important but my academics were a huge priority, too, he said. Here you entire job is just to play baseball, from the time you wake up in the morning, taking care of yourself, eating well, getting enough sleep, playing, every little detail . . . Here it's all baseball and its really enjoyable to be able to focus on the thing you enjoy doing the most.

Right-hander Swen Huijer is just 20 but hes already in his fourth season with the Sox, playing the past three seasons with the Sox Gulf Coast League team in Fort Myers. Huijer signed as an international free agent out of The Netherlands in April 2008 when he was just 17.

Its been quite amazing, and quite overwhelming, too, Huijer said of the transitions hes been through in the last few years. You come from a country thats on the other side of the world. You have to start over down here by yourself. I came over here when I was 17, had to leave my family, my parents, my friends, everything behind. You get down here, someone picks you up at the airport and you start a whole new life. It was a great experience and it made me grow up a little faster and experience things in a different way. Its pretty cool, actually. Im pretty happy I took the step. You get used to it and life is absolutely great.

And his transition to Lowell, where he has a record of 1-1 with a 2.04 ERA in six games, spanning 17 23 innings?

Its been pretty good, so far, he said. Ive been doing alright on the mound. You get in an environment like this with the fans and everything and its just fantastic. It takes baseball to a whole different level. Its awesome. Its way different than the rookie ball level I played the last three years.

His brother Lars, 17, recently signed with the Mariners. His parents are visiting this week after watching Lars play in Arizona. Its the first time in three and half years his parents are able to watch him pitch, and first time in over four months he has seen them. Its nice to have them around.

The players are not the only ones making adjustments. Manager Carlos Febles, pitching coach Paul Abbott, and hitting coach Rich Gedman are all new in their jobs. Febles is in his fifth year with the organization, while Abbott and Gedman are in their first years. Each has coached and managed previously Abbott with the independent Orange County Flyers and at Fullerton Junior College, Gedman with the independent Worcester Tornadoes and North Shore Spirit.

Gedman, of course, is not new to the organization. He signed as a non-drafted free agent in 1977, and played 13 seasons with the Sox, Astros, and Cardinals, and was an All-Star catcher in 1985 and 86. Now, its a matter of gaining the players trust.

These guys really havent failed much, he said. For some of them its their first time playing every day, doing all those things that let you become a successful athleteMy job is to basically help them understand what the Red Sox approach is all about. That its a daily approach to the game, to hitting a baseball.

Abbott, who was drafted by the Twins in the third round of the 1985 draft, spent parts of 11 seasons from 1990 to 2004 with the Twins, Indians, Mariners, Royals, Rays, and Phillies. For him, its about watching young guys adapt to a new level. His succeeds when they succeed.

Youve got guys who up to this point really havent dealt with failure, he said. The talent starts getting better. Theyve never been on a bus every day, traveling, getting in early in the morning. Its a grind.

But watching them buy into what you might be trying to help them with and watching it work. Theyre young kids. Seeing it on their face going, Alright. I cant replicate being on the field in front of 40,000 people every game but I can still get joy out of seeing these guys get better. But I tell them: I cant, nobody can take credit for you getting better because youre the one out there. But you can still give them a little influence to get better and they execute it. Thats fun.

Maureen Mullen is on Twitter at http:twitter.commaureenamullen

Betts not afraid of slumping in sophomore season

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Betts not afraid of slumping in sophomore season

Rookie seasons are no small task for players -- regardless if it’s a pitcher or hitter. It’s the major adjustment of facing guys who have better control with multiple pitches, or hitters who’ve seen just about everything.

However, if you ask some players, the real adjustment comes in the second full season, when organizations have developed extensive scouting reports on players.

The “sophomore slump” is something hitters deal with during that stretch. Numbers tend to drop because scouting reports expose flaws, something that minor league pitchers don’t often have access to.

Mookie Betts, however, doesn’t entirely agree with the notion that it calls for a major slump.

“I mean I don’t know if it’s necessarily a thing,” the sophomore right fielder said. “You hear about it and whatnot, but I think it’s just an adjustment period guys go through. Everybody’s done it. Some people just get out of it faster.”

Early on it appeared Betts was falling into the stages of a “sophomore slump,” going through a 1-for-19 rut after opening day, then 2-for-21 stretch through mid-April.

Since that last slump ended on April 20th, Betts has boasted a .321 clip with two home runs, two triples and three doubles. He’s knocked in eight runs in the process, scoring 14 times himself.

So -- needless to say -- he doesn’t think it was the aforementioned slump

“No, I think it was just adjustments,” Betts explained. “I pretty much think it was just more adjustments that I had to make. Fortunately I was able to make a couple of them. That’s all it is. They make a move and we’ve got to make a move back.”

The adjustments weren’t a mechanical issue either -- it was more related to his approach at the plate.

“It’s important for me to go be aggressive,” Betts said. “They’re not trying to walk me, they aren’t trying to walk anybody -- except David Ortiz.”

One thing Betts has done a better job of since his last slump was shoot pitches to right field. He has to do that if he hopes to hit well because most, if not all, pitchers know he’ll clear out any inside pitch to the Monster seats faster than they can blink.

“They still make mistakes, too,” he said on pitchers working away from him. “I think the part is being aggressive and being ready for those mistakes.”

Like most hitters, Betts doesn’t expect to go though a major slump in 2016, but he knows there are more factors in play than the contact he makes.

“It just depends,” Betts said. “A lot goes into balls falling. I think I’ve hit the ball well this year and haven’t gotten a lot to fall. But then again, I have gotten some to fall. I think I’ve done pretty well, even through the time I was struggling I thought I did all right. [It’s] just [about] trying to get out of those little slumps quickly.”

After dominant April, Porcello only cares about what's next

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After dominant April, Porcello only cares about what's next

Sinkerball pitchers are typically low-walk and low-strikeout pitchers. They want hitters to swing and pound that sinking fastball into the dirt.

Rick Porcello’s been a little different than most contact pitchers since he arrived last season.

In 2015 Porcello had his highest strikeout average in his career, nearly logging eight per nine innings pitched. That was in part because his fastball had bumped up from 2014 with Detroit, occasionally hitting 95 mph.

However, he’d gotten away from his bread and butter -- his movement. It wasn’t until his 15-day stint on the DL last August that he realized he needed to make an adjustment.

“I was really focused when I came off the DL last year on getting my sinker going again, be under control, locate. Get back to doing the things that I was doing the previous year that was working for me.”

After realizing he’d strayed from the pitcher he was, Porcello identified he needed to change the tempo of his delivery. It’s clear that taking a little off his delivery has been the pivotal adjustment since he came back from his late-season injury.

“I was making a conscious effort to slow things down, and locate the fastball, and go from there,” Porcello said.

However, Porcello’s back to striking hitters out again, almost averaging 10 K’s every nine innings.

But that hasn’t been a bad thing this time around. And he claims it isn’t completely deliberate -- and that he’s still trying to force contact.

“That’s really been my approach my entire career,” Porcello said. “I’ve never been a strikeout pitcher. When we get to two strikes then we’ll take our shots. It’s really more mixing speeds, changing eye levels and just trying to induce contact to get quick outs. That’s always been our focus and all we’re trying to do.”

While he’s enjoyed punching hitters out better than he ever as -- coupled with positive results -- he doesn’t expect the strikeout rate to maintain.

“Right now we’re happy to generate more strikeouts,” he explained. “But it’s not always going to be like that – that’s just the way it’s gone so far. So I try not to get caught up in that and focus on locating pitches. Whatever happens when I let go of the ball is out of my control. It’s kind of a product of what we’ve been doing thus far, but it hasn’t been our focus.”

John Farrell’s also made mention that the righty is in a good place mentally, and that focusing on the moment -- one pitch at a time -- has been huge.

Porcello explained that he’s always had that mental approach. He also noted that his mentality towards this season has been positive since the start -- and he plans to keep it that way.

“I’m confident and I felt like coming to the season I was in a good place,” Porcello said. “I was trying to ride that out and continue to do so. April’s behind us and there’s a lot of baseball to be played. I need to continue to get better and I need to continue to keep giving us a chance to win and throw the ball the way I’ve been throwing it.”