Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Q&A with Jonathan Mayo
MLB.com writer and radio personality
Good morning everyone!
Well, the Twins got a nice 10-3 win over the Reds last night. Kyle Lohse pitched three more shutout innings, but the name that is most intriguing from the game is none other than Pat Neshek. Not only does he have a great website, but he is an excellent pitcher. He threw two more shutout innings, and he struck out three batters. He really looked dominant. Now, he has that funky sidearm delivery with a different follow through that is hard to explain, but batters don't pick it up either. With Juan Rincon yet to make an appearance this spring (due to surgery to remove bone spurs in his pitching elbow), it is very possible that Neshek could open the season on the Twins roster if Rincon starts the year on the Disabled List! He is proving his ability, and last night, he got some big league hitters out. (Check out his own thoughts on the game and more, at On the Road with Pat Neshek.)
On another positive note, Justin Morneau's swing really looked good again. Since a bad game in the WBC against South Africa, Morneau has looked good. He has stayed down on the ball nicely and made solid contact. That is very good to see.
But today, I am really, really excited to bring you my Q&A with Jonathan Mayo. I don't know how many of you are able to listen to MLB.com radio, but if you do, you will know who he is. You see, Jonathan has a radio show, Around the Minors (with Mayo) which airs on Tuesdays and Fridays at 1:00 p.m. central time. (So be sure to check it out today!!) He has great guest interviews but also answers listeners questions on prospects. You can read his thoughts several places as well. He has a blog also named Around the Minors (with Mayo) where he writes shorter topics regarding the minor leagues. He is also a prominent writer for MiLB.com. Jonathan and I have exchanged several e-mails on Twins prospects, but also prospects in general the past few months. I finally just asked him if he would have any interest in participating in a Q&A session for his site, and fortunately for all of us, he agreed. I sent him a bunch of questions, and he was gracious enough to answer all of them. I want to thank Jonathan very much for doing this, and again, encourage everyone to check out all of his great work. If you have any questions for Jonathan, please e-mail me, and I will be sure to send them to him. You can also leave Comments below. Thanks again and...
Let the Questions Begin
SethSpeaks: How long have your been working and writing for MLB.com?
Mayo: I began working for MLB.com in April 1999, when we were still majorleaguebaseball.com. So we're closing in on seven full years.
SethSpeaks: How long have you been doing the radio show "Around the Minors (with Mayo)"?
Mayo: I'm entering my third baseball season doing the show, though I've been hosting shows on MLB Radio since its inception, including hosting the "Baseball Breakfast" and the "MLB.com Roundtable" in past years.
SethSpeaks: What is your journalism/communications background, and how does it transfer into your current job?
Mayo: I have a B.A. in Communications, though the program at my college was actually about the theory of communications, rather than hands-on practical training (I can analyze a presidential debate with the best of them). But we had a terrific daily newspaper and I got hooked. I was the sports editor there and then set out to find work in the field. At times, that was easier said than done, but it's worked out OK. Before MLB.com, I worked at the New York Post for nearly four years, doing everything under the sun (or anything to get a byline in the paper). All of that transfers to what I'm doing now in terms of the writing element...the radio/video stuff I have some background in but I've had to rely on my natural wit more than any training I've had.
SethSpeaks: What is your background in baseball? Did you play when you were younger? How long? What positions?
Mayo: I did play when I was younger. Unfortunately, I peaked at around age 12. I was an All-Star in Little League, for whatever that's worth. I played for two years in high school as a first baseman. Once I started seeing some breaking stuff and the fastballs actually were, you know, fast, I knew it was time to hang 'em up. I was a good field, no hit 1B who could run...and that doesn't exactly work. I knew it was time to stop when, in my sophomore year on the JV team, my coach would use a DH for me when I played first. Talk about the game humbling you.
SethSpeaks: Growing up in Minnesota, Kirby Puckett was definitely my favorite player. But Claudell Washington was another maybe lesser-known favorite of mine. Who were your favorite players growing up?
Mayo: I grew up in the New York area and I'd have to say my first favorite player was Chris Chambliss. I liked picking guys who weren't necessarily the "superstars" (like Reggie) and Chambliss was the reason I wanted to be a first baseman growing up (being left-handed aided my cause). On the superstar front, I became a huge Darryl Strawberry fan the second he reached the big leagues...boy was that a cautionary tale for a young fan, though I always admired the grit of the Wally Backman's of the world, too.
SethSpeaks: Were there any writers that influenced you?
Mayo: I can't say if there was one particular writer that influenced me, but more a collection of guys I enjoyed reading when I was younger, then as I started in the field, guys I really enjoyed watching do their work in the clubhouse, press box, etc. I've always felt the writers at the NY Times were unparalleled in terms of writing ability and then working with some beat guys at the NY Post, just watching their ability to crank out copy on tight deadlines was a real eye opener. If I had to pick one guy I like the most, I always make sure I read every word Tom Verducci writes in Sports Illustrated.
SethSpeaks: With a job that insists you know so much about the minor leagues and its players, there are a series of questions I have regarding how you get your information. I think that the first has to be where you stand on the SABRmetric versus Traditional scouting of minor leaguers. We have obviously seen that both can be successful.
Mayo: I honestly believe that the best recipe for success is a combination of the two schools. And, to be honest, if you subscribe to only one, you're selling yourself short. To get the most complete picture of a draft prospect, for instance, why wouldn't you back up what your scouts see several times with statistical analysis? While Theo Epstein has been labeled as a "stats" guy, what with hiring Bill James and all, one his true keys to success is forming a baseball think-tank of sorts in Boston's front office, where both schools are encouraged to debate players. Sure, maybe they've gone heavier with the college guys, but they're open to both schools. The Indians, more quietly, have long used a combination of statistical analysis, though maybe not in the true "SABRmetric" form, along with traditional scouting, and they have one of the best systems in baseball.
SethSpeaks: How many minor league games do you actually watch during the season?
Mayo: That number seems to be increasing each season we expand our Minor League coverage. Between Minor League All-Star Games, regular season games, playoff games and the Arizona Fall League (can I count those?), I'll hazard a guess of about 20 games in person. But I'm sure that number will continue to rise and I also listen and watch games (shameless plug) on MiLB.com.
SethSpeaks: How much time do you spend talking to minor league coaches and scouts?
Mayo: This is how I get most of my information, talking to people in the industry. I'd say a good portion of my work is conducted over the phone talking to scouts, farm directors, etc. Much of it is done on the air on my radio show, but especially when it comes to prospect rankings or draft scoop, I have to do a ton of stuff "off the record," with anonymity being the key to getting any good information.
SethSpeaks: How much time do you spend looking at box scores and statistics?
Mayo: With 150 or so affiliated clubs, there has to be a component of just hunkering down and looking at league leaders, daily box scores, that sort of thing. Not sure I could quantify it in terms of hours...I'm not quite a numbers junky, but I certainly scour the stats more than the average fan.
SethSpeaks: And finally, what is your process for bringing all of those things together to make an evaluation on a minor leaguer?
Mayo: Hmm, that's like asking me to give out the secret family recipe. Just kidding. I'm not sure I have a "process," per se, but I try to let all of the information I gather percolate for a while and see what comes out. I do rely heavily on those out there in the field who have likely seen a lot of these players in person more than I have. When I do get to the AFL and Spring Training, what I see certainly enters into the equation, but a combination of scouting reports and performance results (again, that marrying of the two schools) is how I'd make an evaluation. Keep in mind with prospects, those evaluations can change fairly quickly because of an added pitch, 15 pounds of muscle, a strict offseason conditioning program, etc. When you're dealing with young players, there are a lot of variables that can figure into development, both positively and negatively.
SethSpeaks: Along with Age and Minor League Level, what other statistics do you look at for hitters or pitchers to determine potential future success?
Mayo: There are so many numbers -- and there seem to be so many new ones coming out on a regular basis -- to use as metrics when trying to predict future success. Regardless of the statistic, one thing to always take into account is how the league and home parks play. California League (hitter friendly) stats aren't the same as Florida State League (pitching haven) stats and you have to know the variables to take into account when assessing the numbers. That being said, there are certain things you can look at anywhere. For pitchers, a good strikeout rate, low walk rate and low hit rate to an extent are all good indicators. Often, pitchers are on tight pitch counts, especially when they start out. And you can't necessarily expect efficiency right from the get-go. So what I like to see if improvement in terms of efficiency, whether it be strike percentage or pitches per inning average. Even a guy who has some command issues but can throw triple-digits needs to improve in those kinds of statistical categories to have long-term success at the highest level.
As far as hitters are concerned, I like plate discipline -- so OBP and walk rate are nice to see. But I also don't think it's a be-all, end-all. Not everyone is going to draw a ton of walks and people can have success without doing so (Hitters who strike out a fair amount, too, can also have success). So looking at things like contact rate and isolated power (in addition to good old fashioned slugging percentage) is important. Ideally, improvement in strikeout rate for guys who whiff a lot when they first get started is a good thing, but I don't think a hitter completely has to stop swinging and missing to have a career. It's what they do when they make contact that matters most, assuming they're making contact more often than not. And to me, plate discipline doesn't mean just walks. I've been playing around with something along the lines of pitches per plate appearance. The more pitches you see, the better chance of success you're going to have, whether you draw ball four or not.
SethSpeaks: On your radio show, you have done a number of interviews with minor leaguers. Who are some of your favorite; the guys with charisma, or just good guys?
Mayo: There are two interviews that immediately come to mind. The first was last summer when we had these guys from the Stockton Ports on. Eddie Cornejo, Bennie Winslow and Jed Morris made a feature-length film called "Dream Revolver" during the season and they all came on together (Nov. 4, 2005, for those who want to check the archives of MLB Radio). First off, the movie was a lot deeper than I anticipated -- it was rather surreal and with some help could be a decent film. They actually have it entered in some kind of film festival next month. ... Anyway, they were absolutely hilarious on the air, completely understanding what I was trying to accomplish in having them on. All three, truth be told, aren't real prospects, but they seemed to understand that and we had a great time talking about life in the Minors and their film-making careers.
The other interview that really pops into my head is one I did leading up to the 2005 draft. High school shortstop Justin Sellers came on with his father, former big league pitcher Jeff Sellers. Now, with high school kids, you never know what you might get in terms of ability to articulate and show personality. Well, Justin was about as media-savvy as I've seen a young player. He and his father could've gone on the road as a comedy team, as far as I'm concerned. They played off each other perfectly. Justin, picked in the sixth round by the A's, doesn't lack self-confidence, but not in the annoying, egotistical way. It made for very good radio (That one is from May 10, 2005).
SethSpeaks: There are a number of obvious top prospects (guys like Delmon Young, Jeremy Hermida, Francisco Liriano). Can you name one or two guys that would be outside of your Top 50 that you will be keeping your eye on in 2006?
Mayo: I'll throw out a few names. Keep in mind that my Top 50 isn't done yet, so if some of these guys sneak in, my apologies. I'll start with a pair of Astros pitchers. Jason Hirsh is just about ready to contribute, but will probably start the year in Triple-A, but Troy Patton may have the most upside. The lefty is on the fast track and could see Houston by 2007. Everyone knows about all those Dodger prospects who were in Jacksonville last year -- LaRoche, Loney, Russ Martin (who I particularly like), Billingsley. But there's a guy who was a notch below in Vero all year and then tore up the AFL. His name is Matt Kemp. And I'm not just touting him because he'll be doing a journal for us on MiLB.com. Then, just for kicks, I'll throw out Chris Lubanski, the Royals No. 1 pick from 2003. I think he's going to put a complete year together in 2006 (he's been a second-half guy in his first two full seasons) and sneak up on people very soon.
SethSpeaks: Are you able to watch many Major League Baseball games? I ask this question in this way; having followed the minor leagues so much, can you just enjoy the game? Or, last year, did you watch the Angels and just picture their infield with Dallas McPherson, Brandon Wood, Howie Kendrick and Casey Kotchman in it? Or, is it fun to see guys that you have been following for 3 or 4 years finally get a chance?
Mayo: I don't watch that many MLB games anymore. Once upon a time, when that was my focus, I did. These days, I don't catch too many. Maybe I listen to more on internet radio, but that's about it. I'm just getting to the point now where guys I developed rapports with are making it to the bigs, so that's been a lot of fun. Rickie Weeks is one guy in particular. The first time I talked to him was when he was still a student at Southern and yet to be drafted. I've been able to talk to him several times since. That Angels infield sure would be a good one, I guess with Kendry Morales as the DH, huh? After seeing the Jacksonville Suns win the Southern League title in person, thinking about Billingsley on the mound starting in Los Angeles, Broxton coming in to close, with Martin behind the plate, Loney at first, LaRoche at third, maybe Tony Abreu at short or second (Delwyn Young was gone by then, and now he's an outfielder) and Joel Guzman...well, wherever they decide to put him -- that would be pretty cool.
SethSpeaks: Not all prospects make it. Who are a few guys that you 'missed' on, and why?
Mayo: Actually, I've been 100 percent accurate. Wow, I managed to get through that with a straight face. There are the obvious ones, like Josh Hamilton. After seeing him rake at the Futures Game, I thought it was only a matter of time. Shows you that you can't account for all outside variables in terms of derailing a career. Guillermo Quiroz was a guy I had in my top 25 at the start of the 2004 season and he just fizzled completely, thanks to a number of injuries, after a breakout 2003.
SethSpeaks: Without researching, how would you rank the Twins minor league system?
Mayo: Well, I tend to "research" in my head, but I'd put the Twins in the top third of baseball in terms of their minor league system. It's obviously a little drier in terms of position players (though not barren by any means), and ridiculously pitching-rich. Now that I think about it, they've got some nice position players, but when you compare it to the pitching, it's no contest.
SethSpeaks: How much communication do you have with the likes of Mike Radcliff and Jim Rantz?
Mayo: I'll talk to both Mike Radcliff and Jim Rantz several times over the course of the season, whether it's for a specific story or to run something by them for background information. I have a lot of respect for how the Twins do things, so when I want an opinion that I think matters, I may turn to them. We'll talk to Jim at length every winter for the Twins organizational preview (running on March 28) and it's safe to say that my communication with Mike increases as we get closer to the draft.
SethSpeaks: Everyone seems to have an opinion on Francisco Liriano. What is your take on what he could be?
Mayo: On Liriano. I think he could be Johan Santana, or something close.
SethSpeaks: What are your thoughts on the high school pitchers that the Twins drafted early in the 2004 draft (Kyle Waldrop, Jay Rainville, Anthony Swarzak and Eduardo Morlan)?
Mayo: The thing that I like about some of those high school picks -- and it's proof positive that it's not just college players that can move quickly -- some of them are pretty advanced. Maybe it'll take Waldrop and Morlan a touch longer to get there, but Rainville and Swarzak are both guys who are definitely on the fast track because of their stuff and command, a combination you don't see that often in high school pitchers.
SethSpeaks: Those four high school pitchers were taken early in 2004. Glen Perkins was a first round college pitcher in 2004. In 2005, the Twins selected college pitchers Matt Garza, Kevin Slowey, Ryan Mullins and Brian Duensing. Do you have any thoughts on drafting college versus high school pitcher?
Mayo: Ahh, the old high school vs. college debate. I don't think there's one rule of thought that's the "right" way to go. Obviously, with the college pitchers, you're minimizing risk somewhat. They're move advanced, more mature, you have more performance to base your decision on. High school pitchers might give you more upside. In the end, I love what the Twins do, which is go with what they feel is best that year, or what their system needs. To say you're only going to take one or the other, I think, is selling your organization short.
SethSpeaks: Follow me on this one, if you don't mind... In 2004, a 19 year old Brandon Wood hit .251/.322/.404 with 30 doubles, 11 homers and 64 RBI for Cedar Rapids in the Midwest League. He struck out every 4.1 AB. In 2005, a 19 year old Trevor Plouffe hit .223/.300/.345 with 18 doubles, 13 homers and 60 RBI for Beloit in the Midwest League. He struck out every 6.0 AB. Plouffe got off to a horrible start in April and May in Beloit, but after that, he was not bad. He hit more homers than Wood while getting on base with an Isolated Discipline of .071, the exact same as Wood's. So, my not so veiled question is... Is there any way that Trevor Plouffe could bust out in 2006 the way Brandon Wood did in 2005? (realizing that Plouffe will be in the Florida State League while Wood was in the California League in '05)
Mayo: That's asking a lot of Plouffe, but yes, I can see him taking a nice step forward this year. Considering no one predicted what Wood did last year in the slightest, it's hard to go too far out on a limb with Plouffe (still my favorite name to say on the air). But I think what people saw in the second half of 2005 is more in line with what kind of player he could become..
SethSpeaks: Who would you rank as the top 5-10 Twins prospects?
Mayo: Top 10 Twins prospects
1. Fransisco Liriano
2. Glen Perkins
3. Jay Rainville
4. Anthony Swarzak
5. Jason Kubel
6. Matt Moses
7. Denard Span
8. Adam Harben
9. Matt Garza
10. Trevor Plouffe
SethSpeaks: Which other Twins prospects are most intriguing to you, and why?
Mayo: Intriguing prospects: Kevin Slowey...he's a Pittsburgh kid, how can I not like him? Seriously, he's the kind of guy who goes under the radar and suddenly is winning 15 games a year in the bigs; JD Durbin...have to give a shout out to the "Real Deal," even though his stock has slipped. If he can stay healthy, the velocity will get back up to near triple-digits. Even if he ends up in the pen, the Twins don't have too many guys who can crank it up like that, do they?; David Winfree...I like guys who figure out a way to drive in 100 runs with less than 20 homers.
SethSpeaks: Is there any other topic that you would like to discuss here? The court is yours.
Mayo: I'm helping to put together this project in New Orleans, in conjunction with the Zephyr's Opening Day. I know this isn't Twins-related, but thought for a worthy cause, you might be willing to get the word out. Working with an organization called Magical Builders (www.magicalbuilders.com), a Boys&Girls Club that was damaged by Hurricane Katrina will be renovated April 3-6, leading up to the Zephyrs' April 6 opener.
At some point (early next week, at the latest), there will be a "gift registry" of sorts on their site where people can go and donate something directly to this project, or even supplies for the kids it will be servicing. Maybe once that registry is up and running, you'd be willing to post something about it?
Thanks again to Jonathan Mayo for taking a lot of his precious time to answer so many questions for us. He is a good man, and very good at analyzing the minor leagues. Be sure to check out his blog, his radio show and all of his writing between mlb.com and milb.com. Again, if you have any questions, feel free to e-mail me, and I can forward any thoughts or questions to Jonathan.
That is it for today. I hope you have a great day! Thanks!
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