National League West Prospect Notebook For June
Padres' Esteury Ruiz Succeeds With New Approach
Double-A San Antonio center fielder Esteury Ruiz went hitless in five trips to the plate on May 22, snapping a 44-game on-base streak that dated back to the final six games of 2021.
On May 25, Ruiz reached base three more times and hit his sixth homer during a doubleheader, continuing a torrid start that has the 23-year-old Dominican.
Through 45 games, Ruiz was hitting .343/.476/.608 with eight home runs and 33 stolen bases.
One underlying metric suggests that the 6-foot, 169-pound Ruiz, who was acquired from the Royals in a July 2017 trade with the Royals that also netted Matt Strahm and Travis Wood.
Ruiz cut his chase rate from 29.8% last year to 19.7%, a development not all that different from Jose Azocar’s strides while working with Missions hitting coach Raul Padron last year. Azocar is now in the big leagues.
“The biggest thing is he saw what happened with his buddy Jose Azocar,” San Antonio manager Phillip Wellman said. “All we did was hammer his chase rate and strike-zone discipline. Jose lowered his chase rate tremendously, and now so has Esteury.
"He’s not afraid to walk, because if he walks he’s going to steal second and probably third and put himself in a good position to score. And when he gets his pitch, he’s not missing it."
To Wellman’s point, Ruiz had walked 30 times against 38 strikeouts, lowering his strikeout rate from as high as 29% when he stole 49 bases in the Low-A Midwest League in 2018 to 18% this year.
As such, Ruiz’s plus speed was on display. His 33 stolen bases led the Texas League and ranked second in the minor leagues to fellow Padres prospect Max Ferguson.
“He’s just locked in right now,” Wellman said. “The last thing a team wants to do is walk him because they know what’s coming after. He can fly.”
Giants’ Mason Black Finds Early Success With Brains And Brawn
In an unsurprising move for a bioengineering major from Lehigh, righthander Mason Black has embraced the scientific parts of pitching.
“I’m kind of a nerd, so I’m able to dive into the analytics a little bit more than most,” said Black, the Giants’ third-round pick last year. “And just having that foundation allows me to think about and orient the ball as I would in space.
“It does make a big difference when you’re trying to design a pitch.”
In his first pro test at Low-A San Jose, Black passed with flying colors. In eight starts, Black put together a 1.57 ERA in 34.1 innings. He struck out 44 and walked eight.
In four May starts, Black worked a combined 19.2 shutout innings with 22 strikeouts and three free passes. That earned him a promotion to High-A Eugene on May 24.
“He knows what he wants to do. He knows what he’s capable of, and he just continues to get better and execute time and time again,” San Jose pitching coach Dan Runzler said.
Listed at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, Black throws in the mid 90s and has a slider and a split-changeup. He and Runzler worked to alter his changeup grip.
“The changeup grip is a lot better for me just because the seams orient a little bit better,” Black said. “I’m able to use that to both sides, righty and lefty (hitters), rather than just having the standard fading changeup.”
Black might be a studious type, but he’s not mild-mannered while he’s pitching.
“There’s almost like a hyper focus when I’m on the mound, and it could come off as very intense and mean,” Black said, “but I promise I’m not angry.”
Runzler said that when Black pitches, “a lot of guys don’t know (that) if you give him a high-five, your hand might go to the backstop. He’s that locked-in. When he’s on that mound, until the ball is taken from him, it’s a pretty impressive alter ego we see.”
After Early Bumps, Rockies’ Karl Kauffmann Has Found A Groove
It has taken awhile, but Karl Kauffmann is finally progressing and on a good development path.
This season, the 24-year-old righthander logged a 3.75 ERA through nine starts for Double-A Hartford with 63 strikeouts and 16 walks in 50.1 innings.
The Rockies drafted Kauffmann in the supplemental second round in 2019 out of Michigan.
Because Kauffmann pitched in the College World Series that year and threw 130.2 innings, the Rockies sent him to Low-A Asheville to throw bullpen sessions and get familiar with the staff to prepare for pitching there in 2020. The pandemic, of course, scuttled those plans.
Instead, Kauffmann began his pro career in 2021 at High-A Spokane, where he made just two starts. With a need at Hartford, the Rockies rushed Kauffmann to Double-A. He struggled to a 2-11 record with a 7.35 ERA and 2.00 WHIP in 82 innings.
“He could never get timed up,” Rockies farm director Chris Forbes said. “He was so long out of the glove, and he would just kind of get longer and longer. And he’d start getting down the slope before his arm could catch up. Everything was high, or instead of being late sink, it was belt-line run.”
Flint Wallace, the Rockies' coordinator of pitching strategies, worked with Kauffmann to be more compact when he takes the ball out of his glove.
“The action on the sinker is much improved,” Rockies assistant farm director Jesse Stender said. “It’s been relatively flat over the past year, year and a half, and he’s finally getting that finish to it.”
Kauffmann sits 93-94 mph with that pitch, 85-86 mph with his changeup and averages 84 mph with his slider.
“Everything’s just a little more crisp than it has been,” Stender said. “He is commanding the baseball. He’s putting it where he wants. He’s working to both sides (of the plate), up and down.
"He’s doing all the things that we thought we were going to get in this guy when we drafted him.”
D-backs' Dominic Fletcher Handles Double-A With Ease In Return
Dominic Fletcher might not have had the kind of Double-A season he wanted in 2021, but the outfielder still managed to find positives to take from it.
Those positives, he believes, help explain his hot start to this season.
The 2019 supplemental second-rounder from Arkansas started slowly last season but finished strong, then carried that success into this year. After being sent back to Double-A to open 2022, Fletcher hit .346/.408/.591 at Amarillo to earn a mid-May promotion to Triple-A Reno.
The 24-year-old Fletcher said he has refined his approach this season by waiting for pitches he can handle and expanding the zone less. He said he is using the whole field better and being more competitive with two strikes.
“He looks like he’s so much more in control up there,” D-backs farm director Josh Barfield said. “I think last year he tried to do too much and it got him in trouble.”
Fletcher’s so-so 2021 season allowed him to be overlooked in a system filled with interesting outfield prospects. He is getting himself back on the radar this year, and Barfield said that while Fletcher “might not have the flashiest tools,” he sees the potential for an above-average big leaguer.
“He has plenty of pop, can drive the ball to all fields, competes really well up there,” Barfield said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see him grow into more power as he continues to develop. He kind of reminds me of a guy who was here the last couple of years in (Kole) Calhoun—just a gritty type of player.”
Barfield said he sensed some of that grit from the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Fletcher when he was told he would be repeating Double-A. Fletcher said he figured that would happen, but Barfield thought he used it as motivation.
“I do think he came in with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder, which is great,” Barfield said. “You can take it the right way or the wrong way and he took it the right way. He came in quickly and showed he was ready for that next step.”
Turnaround Led Dodgers To Pluck Michael Grove From Fruitful Farm
When injuries thinned their rotation in May, the Dodgers turned to their recent draft classes for help.
Righthander Ryan Pepiot made his MLB debut, becoming the first player from the organization's 2019 draft class to reach the majors.
Righthander Michael Grove made his MLB debut days after Pepiot, becoming not only the first player from the Dodgers’ 2018 draft to reach the majors but also the rare player president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman had called up from Double-A in his 17 years running the front offices of first the Rays and Dodgers.
“It’s a dream come true,” Pepiot said before his debut. “It’s a great team to be a part of.”
Pepiot earned the callup by learning from last year’s experience with Triple-A. Promoted to Oklahoma City in the second half of last season, Pepiot had a 7.13 ERA in 11 appearances.
This year was a different story. He recorded a 2.05 ERA in his first six starts for OKC, holding opposing hitters to a .189 average.
“I think talent (and) I think performance has put him in this position,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.
Grove was more of a surprise to see in Los Angeles. Recovering from Tommy John surgery when the Dodgers drafted him out of West Virginia in the second round, Grove struggled to regain his velocity. Mechanical adjustments at midseason last year finally put him back on the right track and helped him show enough for the Dodgers to add him to their 40-man roster in the offseason.
Grove had a 2.76 ERA and twice as many strikeouts (22) as hits (11) in his first five starts for Double-A Tulsa before his callup.
“It's honestly crazy when I think about it, just where I was in May of last year compared to being here in this clubhouse now,” Grove said after his debut. “I went through a lot but came out on the other side. I'm just super thankful for the coaches.”
Friday MLB Notes: D-backs 2019 Draft Bonanza Paying Big Dividends
Teams with previous bonanzas rarely hit on more than 2-3 of their picks. The D-backs, at this early stage, appear to have hit on nearly all of theirs.
AROUND THE DIVISION
— Padres shortstop CJ Abrams hit .269/.337/.462 with four home runs through 17 games for Triple-A El Paso. The 21-year-old hit .182/.270/.273 in 20 games in the majors before the demotion to play every day in the Pacific Coast League.
— The Padres' duo of lefthander Adrian Morejon and righthander Michel Baez were pitching for Double-A San Antonio in their rehab assignments from Tommy John surgery.
— The Dodgers promoted second baseman Michael Busch to Triple-A Oklahoma City in mid May after he tore up Double-A pitching for 11 home runs and a 1.112 OPS in 31 games.
— Dodgers lefthander Maddux Bruns, the 2021 first-rounder out of high school, is being eased into his first pro season. After pitching five innings in the Arizona Complex League after signing last summer, Bruns pitched into the fourth inning only once in his first nine starts for Low-A Rancho Cucamonga this year. Bruns had a 4.43 ERA, allowing 19 hits and walking 17 in his 20.1 innings.
— D-backs shortstop Jordan Lawlar was placed on the Low-A Visalia injured list with what farm director Josh Barfield called “mid-back soreness.” The organization brought him back to Arizona to undergo testing and be examined by the team physician. Lawlar was off to a terrific start, hitting .352 with seven homers and 18 steals in 33 games.
— Despite Corbin Carroll’s blistering start for Double-A Amarillo, D-backs officials are reluctant to promote him to Triple-A too soon. Arizona prefers to be cautious with his advancement given that the 2019 first-rounder entered the year with just 215 plate appearances in his professional career. Carroll missed nearly all of last season with a shoulder surgery.
— The Giants promoted Mason Black to High-A Eugene in conjunction with lefthander Kyle Harrison moving from Eugene to Double-A Richmond. Harrison was the Giants’ third-round pick in 2020. He had dominated the Northwest League this spring, racking up 59 strikeouts in 29 innings to go with a 1.55 ERA.
— Rockies center fielder Benny Montgomery, taken eighth overall in the 2021 draft, had played in just 15 of Low-A Fresno's first 42 games because of a right quad strain. It began bothering him in spring training, but Montgomery tried to play through it rather than seek treatment, which resulted in him being sidelined from April 27 through May 16. He then played two games before returning to the seven-day injured list.
— Rockies catcher Brian Serven became the first player in MLB to have two multi-run home runs in the same game for his first two career hits. Both were two-run home runs. The 27-year-old was called up after hitting .273/.406/.507 with five home runs in 23 games for Triple-A Albuquerque. Serven had shown more patience, selectivity and growth as a hitter, with 16 walks in 96 plate appearances at Albuquerque this season, the same number of walks he had there in 276 plate appearances last year.