Clubs Use Instructs As Lab

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When the minor league season ends, the tinkering begins.

While an organization's older prospects may go to a winter league in the Dominican Republic or Venezuela or to the Arizona Fall League, many of the club's younger prospects will be assigned to the team's spring training site for the instructional league. Every team except for the Cardinals held an instructional league this year.

Instructional league—commonly referred to as "instructs"—exists because there isn't a lot of time to tinker during the regular season. Coaches work with players on their skills, give them tips on how to improve and conduct drills every day, but there just isn't much time to try to learn a new pitch, adjust swing mechanics or try a new position when the team is trying to win every day and players want to perform as well as possible.

Instructional league also gives players a chance to play after missing part of the season with an injury or signing at the deadline and not playing during the regular season.

"For me, it's a time to spend one-on-one time with the young prospects in the organization," Royals pitching coordinator Rick Knapp said. "As a coordinator, your time to do that during the season is very limited."

The instructional league has evolved over the years. Former closer Lee Smith, a roving pitching instructor with the Giants, pointed out two big differences between when he went to instructs as a player and what instructs is like now as a coach. For one, teams bring a lot more players to the instructional league today. Smith said the groups of players were a lot more condensed back in his day, allowing for more one-on-one interaction with the coaches.

Smith also remembers big leaguers being more involved in the process. He said as a young player in the instructional league, it was Ferguson Jenkins who suggested he switch from throwing a curveball to a slider.

"I was always trying to throw a curveball and Fergie taught me how to change my grip and throw a slider," Smith said. "For me, a lot of the older major league guys would come out to instructs for a week and just talk to the kids. We got a chance to meet Rick Reuschel and Dick Tidrow and guys like that. Those guys came out a lot. Now the guys may do a little thing in spring training, but back then they would actually come out to the instructional league.

"When Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal and those guys come out and talk, those kids listen."

These days, instructional league typically lasts from mid-September to mid-October. On an average day, players arrive to the team's complex around 7 a.m., eat breakfast and are out on the field by 8. They break into groups by position to work on position-specific drills and then have a team meeting at 9 to go over the previous day's game. After that, there are more drills, one-on-one instruction and batting practice to prepare for a game at 12:30.

The games are laid back. Pitchers that aren't pitching that day make up most of the sparse crowd, as they sit in the bleachers to chart pitches and run the scoreboard. There are typically a handful of scouts, a few girlfriends and a few tenacious autograph collectors. Lineups can stretch past nine batters; statistics and standings are unofficial.

The games are crucial, though. One-on-one instruction is great, but there's no substitute for going out and working on new things in game situations, no matter how relaxed the atmosphere may be.

Last year, coming to instructs was huge for Cubs outfielder Reggie Golden, a second-round pick out of Wetumpka (Ala.) High.

"When I first came in, I was one of the rawest guys here and didn't have a clue what was going on," Golden said. "Last year, instructs helped me a lot for the upcoming season."

Mark Johnson, who managed the Cubs' instructional league, said seeing that light bulb go off and watching players adapt to instruction is the most rewarding part of his job.

"That's what it's about—just trying to get somebody better in one way or another," Johnson said. "Whether it's upstairs or with his feet or with his bat or whatever, that's why we do it. That's what's fulfilling."

One of the biggest storylines for players in the instructional league this year was the Mariners moving 2010 second-round pick Marcus Littlewood from shortstop to catcher.

The Mariners first brought up the idea of moving Littlewood behind the plate in June.

"Pedro Grifol, the farm director, and (general manager) Jack Zduriencik called my dad and they just brought up the idea of me catching to see what I would think about it," Littlewood said. "At first it was a shocker but as I started to think about it, I realized it could be a great opportunity and that I have some intangibles that could fit well back there. So I started working out with (catching coordinator) Roger Hansen once every 10 days or so and we would do stuff on the side."

The Mariners emphasized adding catching depth to their farm system this year and adding Littlewood to the mix will help. He didn't have the best range at shortstop but has the arm strength, athleticism and intangibles to make the transition work behind the plate.

Littlewood said he had about 10 workouts with Hansen during the season.

"For the first month, all we would do is stretch out—stretch out the hips and make sure that I was ready to get back there in the instructional league," Littlewood said. "That was the whole plan was just to get ready to get back there in instructs. They did a great job of taking it slow so I didn't get hurt doing it. We'd just practice getting into stances and doing everything perfect so I don't get into bad habits. Eventually we started doing some receiving off the machine, doing some dry blocks and footwork going to second base. I'd go out with the catchers and learn the plays—it's a whole new world back there. I didn't even know how to put on my gear when I started out."

Littlewood said he caught about 15 innings in the instructional league and is slowly starting to feel more comfortable behind the plate.

"It's almost like I was born to be a catcher," Littlewood said. "I feel comfortable and I feel confident back there. I've got a long way to go, but I love it back there. I'm going to keep working at it and see where it'll take me."

Most of the tinkering done in the instructional league is a lot more subtle. Royals righthander Christian Binford, for example, worked hard to learn a changeup during instructs.

Binford, a 30th-round pick out of Mercersburg (Pa.) Academy, never had the need for a third pitch in high school.

"I could get through high school by throwing my fastball and my breaking ball," Binford said. "And I never really needed to use a changeup. I'm learning more now that professional hitters, they know the difference between a fastball and a curveball, so you need that changeup for a third pitch. That was really my big thing—I had no confidence in throwing it. . . After these five weeks, I'm so much more confident in throwing it in a game."

Binford tinkered with a few different changeup grips during instructional league. He started out with a basic, four-finger changeup and then tried out a circle-change grip. He couldn't get the feel for the circle grip, saying the pitch felt like it was squirting out the side of his hand and that he couldn't control it. He tried out the two-seam changeup grip before going back to the original four-finger grip with his middle and ring fingers laid across the seams and his pointer finger and pinkie finger on the outsides of the ball.

Part of getting young pitchers to have success with the changeup depends on convincing them that faster isn't always better.

"There was always that thought in my mind that, 'How can a pitch going 80 miles an hour be effective?' " Binford said. "Throwing it in bullpens and figuring out that it does move a lot more than I thought and then throwing it in games and seeing the hitters' reactions, and knowing that they're going to get really off balance with these pitches, just really boosted my confidence after the first couple times of trying it out in games."

Knapp knows what adding a changeup can do for a pitcher's career—he's seen it help many players during his time in the game. One player that stands out is Twins' righthander Kevin Slowey.

"He was a really good college pitcher and surprised a lot of people and was a command and control-oriented guy, but he never had a changeup," Knapp said. "He came to the instructional league with that: 'Kevin, you're going to learn to throw a changeup.' He was on the back field throwing changeups and he was getting beat up and knocked around, but he was still throwing changeups and, you know what, he walked out of that instructional league with a changeup and it became a weapon for him the next season.

"I'm not saying that's what got him to the big leagues, but there's a guy with all kinds of college experience and was well on his way, but was missing an element and that instructional league really helped him click."

But instructional league isn't just about trying out a new position, learning a new pitch or making adjustments to a hitter's stance. Instructional league allows a team to emphasize organizational philosophy to its young players, showing them what to expect when they return for spring training. It also serves as a breeding ground for team bonding.

"It's a place where you can create a sense of unity that, we're all in this together," Knapp said. "The game, the way it is, has so much built-in failure that you're always looking for a support network of guys that can help. One thing the players don't understand is that they're not going to get to the big leagues because somebody else stinks. So, they don't have anything to lose by rooting for somebody. The bottom line is that you get to the big leagues because you're good, not because somebody else isn't good."