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Minor Leaguers Adjust To Alternate Site Training In 2020

During the five-plus months since the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the United States and across the globe, not many people can say that the circumstances have helped them live out a dream.

For Phillies catching prospect Logan O’Hoppe, though, there was a little bit of a silver lining. O’Hoppe, whom the Phillies chose out of a Long Island, N.Y., high school with their 23rd-round pick in 2018, grew up rooting for the Yankees and had been to Yankee Stadium on many occasions, both as a fan and as a player for scouting events.

The pandemic forced teams into a revamped version of spring training—informally dubbed “summer camp”—that took place in each team’s home park. The brief reboot consisted mostly of workouts and intrasquad games, but also featured a few exhibition games at the end.

One of those games pitted the Phillies against the Yankees in the Bronx, and O’Hoppe got into the game, meaning he got to hear his name called over the public address system at his old childhood haunt for the first time as a professional.

“My whole job, wherever I’m at, is a dream come true,” O’Hoppe said, “and that happened to be one of the better parts.”

In a virus-free 2020 season, O’Hoppe likely would have begun the year at low Class A Lakewood with a chance to make it to high Class A Clearwater in the second half. Instead, he finds himself working out and playing in five-inning intrasquads as part of the group of players and prospects at the Phillies’ alternate training site in Allentown, Pa.

The experience is like a slimmed-down version of the instructional league or extended spring training experience, albeit in much better surroundings and with a smaller, more diverse group of players (in terms of age range).

“We’ll go through our workout in the morning and our prep work and early work and everything that you’d expect,” O’Hoppe said. “The games are maximum five innings, so that’s nice because it scratches your baseball itch, but it doesn’t burn you out.”

Another key way that life at the alternate site differs from instructs or extended is in its mix of players. Take the three catchers the Phillies have at Lehigh Valley. In addition to O’Hoppe, the organization’s trio of backstops also includes Rafael Marchan and Deivy Grullon.

Marchan is a defensive wizard who, like O’Hoppe, was likely to start this year in the lower levels of the minor leagues. Grullon is a more seasoned vet and made his big league debut in 2019. Even in a normal year, he would likely have spent a good portion of the season at Triple-A, waiting for an opportunity to help the club in Philadelphia.

It is very unlikely, however, that all three of O’Hoppe, Marchan and Grullon would have seen one another once spring training ended and players headed to their respective levels.

So given the unique circumstances, O’Hoppe has a chance to spend the coming months picking Grullon’s brain for tidbits that will help him in 2021, when things are hopefully back to normal and he can re-start his ascension through the minor leagues.

“In a (normal) year, I’m assuming that I wouldn’t have played with guys who either had big league time or were on the brink or anything like that,” O’Hoppe said. “So (I’m) able to pick people’s brains a lot more and to get a lot more useful information because it’s coming from a direct source.”

Another interesting element to the atmosphere at alternate training sites is the lack of true competition. On the one hand, it makes it hard for players to get as amped up as they would in game situations against real competition with wins and losses on the line.

Conversely, the controlled atmosphere allows players to work on more developmental-type of goals without worrying about statistics potentially obfuscating their progress. Rangers righthander Tyler Phillips, for example, is working this season to completely overhaul the way he pitches.

He has worked to tweak the axis on his four-seam fastball in order to give it enough riding life to be effective when thrown in the upper part of the strike zone so he could then pair it with a hard, downer curveball.

That’s not an easy change to make under any circumstance, but a controlled environment allows Phillips to work on that approach without the fear of getting hit hard in the process and sullying his statistics.

“How I used to pitch, I had to live down in the zone. And if I missed anywhere up in the zone, I was getting punished,” Phillips said. “I had a little talk with some of the coordinators and some of the other pitching coaches and analytics coordinators about what pitch I thought needed some work, and it was the fastball because I was getting hit around at Double-A.

“So I’m just really trying to change my axis on where I release the ball, and I’ve gotten that and my (vertical break) has come back up a notch. I need to learn where I can live in the zone and where ‘up’ is. I had a perception that up in the zone was at the nipples or at the letters. And that’s just not a competitive pitch these days.”

Not only does the atmosphere at the alternate site provide Phillips a safe space to make such wholesale changes, it also puts him around an experienced group of players—catchers in particular—who can provide feedback informed by years of upper-level and big league experience.

“I had some catchers and some coaches talk to me about how the hitters see the ball, from their perspective when they take their initial stride, and I’m learning and where I can put the ball and where it’s the most effective with my curveball because my curveball has a lot of depth to it,” Phillips said. “So there’s a lot of trust issues with, like, ‘I don’t feel comfortable throwing the ball down the middle, belt-high, (because) I was always taught that’s gonna get crushed.’ ”

The day-to-day atmosphere at the alternate sites also has its upsides and downsides. The protocols involved with being in the player pool are obviously restrictive, but the accommodations are markedly better than most players would get in a normal minor league season.

Whereas typical minor league life includes cramming way too many players in one apartment—Phillips’ apartment in low Class A included one roommate sleeping in the laundry room and another sleeping on an air mattress in the dining room—that lifestyle is not exactly pandemic-friendly.

In Lehigh Valley, O’Hoppe has a hotel room to himself. The room has a full kitchen in which he can cook breakfast, which is the only meal he’ll typically have to worry about on a given day. Lunch and dinner are at the ballpark—his favorite so far is pulled pork and sweet potatoes—courtesy of the Phillies’ minor league nutrition coordinator Ellen Rice.

But the players at the alternate sites only tell a fraction of the story. For all those who get to join their organization’s 60-man player pool, there are hundreds of others who have to figure out how to make the best of a bad situation.

With few exceptions, players are not allowed to access their team’s workout facilities and have to do most or all of their development with what their home municipalities allow in terms of COVID-related restrictions and what kind equipment they can access.

Before he was summoned to Lehigh Valley, O’Hoppe worked with his trainer, Adam Belding, and caught bullpens and took batting practice against local players like Blue Jays lefty Anthony Kay, Tigers righty Jason Foley and fellow Phillies farmhand Ben Brown. Phillips was injured toward the end of spring training, so he stuck around the Rangers’ complex in Arizona to rehab before heading to the team’s alternate site.

Every aspect of the sport has been tossed into a state of tumult by the pandemic. For player development executives, it has meant working with a few dozen players in person at alternate training sites while figuring out how to remotely help hundreds of others without knowing the next time they’ll be able to gather in person.

“For me, personally, it’s a juggling act,” White Sox farm director Chris Getz said. “Focusing on what’s going on in Schaumburg (Ill.), certainly at the major league level (too) and staying on top of what’s going with guys who are not here, but our staff’s done a pretty good job. I’ve been happy with what we’ve been able to accomplish, albeit that it’s not in person.”

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That means checking in with players with the help of the organization’s other coaches and coordinators who are not at the team’s alternate site (in Schaumburg) and via video calls and data collected through technology like Rapsodo, HitTrax and plenty of others.

Perhaps the group of players facing the most difficult circumstances are the international prospects who couldn’t go home because of travel restrictions in their home countries.

Those players are stuck either at their team’s complexes in the United States or the Dominican Republic. And although their teams can continue to house them, either at the team hotels or complexes, they can’t do any formal instruction because of the current ban on organized team activities.

“We’ve got, you know, 19 players still at the academy, Venezuelans mainly, who just weren’t able to get home,” Getz said. “And we were not able to formally put anything together at the academy. Granted, we’re still able to feed the guys and house them. They’re able to get some exercise.

“In an ideal world, those guys would be able to do some more, but I’d say, as a whole, on a macro level, I’d say we’ve been able to accomplish some things within reason.”

At this point, very little about the rest of the season is certain. Neither players nor coaches know if they will be allowed to go forward with a traditional instructional league, and the chance at an Arizona Fall League—whether it’s in a traditional or expanded format—seems less likely than it did in the early months of the baseball’s return.

That means nearly every minor leaguer will have had his development stunted. At-bats and innings will be far fewer than expected, and will have taken place under highly unusual circumstances. And that’s only if the player got a chance to develop at all.

The question, then, is whether a season spent at the alternate site or developing away from an organization’s coaches, trainers and other player development staff can stand in for a normal year of development. In other words: Can a player who was expected to start 2020 at low Class A anticipate starting the 2021 season at high Class A, or a player whom the organization anticipated starting at high Class A be expected to make the jump to the upper levels with only time at the alternate site under his belt for the 2020 season?

Much like everything else during the pandemic, the answer remains unknown.

“It’s difficult to equate a full season of a normal season to our time in Schaumburg,” Getz said. “However, based on some of our player progressions this summer I think we’re going to have some interesting conversations next spring as we set assignments.

“Another factor for next season will be the amount of teams and players organizations will have, and what we will value the most is simply giving players the opportunity to play baseball regardless of what level they’re assigned.”

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