Tagged: Braves

A Teachable Moment

‘Tis the season for fall instructional league, one of the most overlooked and least understood annual rituals of the baseball calendar.

Instructional league is often confused with the Arizona Fall League, but one has nothing to do with the other.

For openers, the Arizona Fall League is, well, in Arizona.

Instructional league runs in the Florida or Arizona minor league complexes of major league organizations.

The instructs end around the time the AFL starts. While the AFL usually has many of the top prospects in the upper levels of minor league baseball, instructional league rosters feature mostly players who were drafted or signed last June.

The AFL was created as a finishing school of sorts for top prospects, an opportunity to showcase them and accelerate their progress to a major league roster the next year. The instructs are more like extra homework for selected students.

Official stats are kept by the AFL, although how much they mean is debatable. The AFL is a part-time job as everyone plays a couple times a week, but few play every day. The dry desert air turns these games into high-scoring affairs — Coors Field with cactii. Some players try harder than others, and quietly everyone hopes they don’t get hurt. Although the original concept was to feature top prospects, in reality many organizations send players who project as setup relievers, utility infielders, or backup catchers. Each team has players from five organizations, so to field a normal lineup a team needs “niche” players.

No official stats are kept or reported at the instructional league. The reason is the games are more like a glorified practice. Rules are loosely enforced. If a young pitcher falls behind in pitch count, his manager can simply call an end to the inning and the other team takes the field. It’s not uncommon to see ten-man lineups with two designated hitters. The DHs might take the field mid-game, with two position players becoming the DHs. Although the home team has won, the bottom of the 9th might be played anyway to get extra practice.

This year, the Oakland A’s are fielding two teams in the Arizona instructional league, the first time I’ve seen an organization field two squads. That’s another reason not to put any value in statistics. What happens when they play each other? Certainly players can move back and forth between the two rosters.

Stats are kept internally, of course, but under the above circumstances you can understand why they wouldn’t be “official.” Another reason is more basic — no official scorer is present at these games. There’s no neutral party to keep score and report it to Major League Baseball Advanced Media, which now keeps official stats for MLB and the minors.

I was at the Washington Nationals’ complex in Viera, Florida for their September 23 instructional league opener against the Atlanta Braves. Major league catcher Jesus Flores underwent shoulder surgery last fall and missed all of 2010. He was in the lineup but was scheduled to play only three innings. He homered in his first at-bat, but going into the bottom of the 3rd it appeared unlikely his slot in the lineup would bat in the inning. So the Nats simply sent him to the plate again, to get him an extra plate appearance.

Click here to watch video of Flores’ homer. Windows Media Player and a broadband (cable modem, DSL) Internet connection required.

The game was also the professional debut of Bryce Harper, the 17-year old selected #1 overall by the Nationals in the June 2010 draft. Matt Lipka, chosen by the Braves in the supplemental phase of the first round (#35 overall) was in Atlanta’s lineup.

Click here to watch video of Harper’s debut.

Click here to watch other highlights from the September 23 game.

For many of the players, this is their first opportunity for intense instruction in the ways of professional baseball. The Nationals’ coaching staff is headed by Bobby Henley, the minor league field coordinator. He answers to others in the Nats’ hierarchy, including Bob Boone, assistant general manager and vice-president of player development. Boone was also present at the opener.

The Nationals schedule runs through October 13, with the last home game on October 9 against a team from China training in Vero Beach.

The experience is fascinating for a baseball fan, because a player’s day isn’t focused on winning the game that afternoon. It’s about teaching how to win. And it’s here on the minor league fields of an organization’s complex that the teaching begins.

For a fan, you can walk in for free and watch the training up close. You can learn alongside the players.