Sunday, Aug. 26, 2012

My feature on the life of a low-A baseball player

By Nicole
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This originally ran over at Brew Crew Ball, but I'm really proud of how it came out, so I'm cross-posting.

Star-divide

And while many of this year's Timber Rattlers went to college and have at least some idea of what it's like to live on their own and take care of themselves, players like Yadiel Rivera that were drafted out of high school (and, for Yadi, don't speak English as a first language) are taking on a lot of new life when they make it to low-A.

This season for the Timber Rattlers could find the team even more prone to a downswing. The first half of the season was full of exciting, walk-off wins and a first half championship. Since then, the team is playing .500 baseball and the players admit that it's difficult not to just look ahead to the playoffs, since they don't have to worry about getting there.

The whole thing means manager Matt Erickson not only has to worry about teaching his team about, you know, baseball, but how to stay in tune with their body, how to recognize fatigue and how not to let the grind of the season wear you down.

"I mean that’s kind of one of the big challenges of any staff or manager," Erickson said. "But we try to in our daily work – obviously preparation is involved every day. But we try to mix it up a little bit so it doesn’t get monotonous for the guys. We tried to add a little competition into our preparation - friendly competition - which always increases the energy level a little bit."

I asked Chadwin Stang, Yadiel Rivera, Greg Hopkins, Chad Pierce and Brent Suter each about how they handle the season doubling in length and I got surprisingly vague answers. Each one, to a man, said it's about having a routine and doing your work every day. That's it.

Pierce called it a roller coaster and Hopkins said the old cliche about marathons, not sprints really rings true, but most of them just said all the right things about putting in work, trying to move up and finding a routine.

For the newest Timber Rattler Brent Suter, the longer season is something of an unexpected surprise. While getting drafted and heading into pro ball was the plan, there were certainly no guarantees. So after his 60-some game college season, he then headed to Helena to pitch for another four months.

Yes, his season is going significantly longer than it could have, but Suter says "it's a good longer."

"... the adrenaline’s going to be enough to keep the body going through it...I got a whole month off because my college season was a little shorter, so I’ve kind of been able to rest up a little bit and I’m still feeling fresh... I’m really, really excited to have this extra maybe week or two in line, that’s awesome, I can’t wait for it", said Suter.

Much like Suter is doing, Rivera spent last season in Helena with the final few weeks of the season coming with the Timber Rattlers. But Erickson says that these seasons in the lower levels produce the most development in players like Rivera. Not only can you notice a huge physical difference in him, but you can see a maturity of baseball knowledge.

"That’s one of the nice things. We spend so much time together – you know 140 game schedule, you’re with these players. Now with Instructional League in the fall and Spring Training, you’re with these guys for seven or eight months out of the year. And it’s nice to see those kids, like a younger guy like Yadiel Rivera, I mean not only his physical stature and his strength getting better, but also his baseball mental IQ getting better," said Erickson.

Rivera himself is happy he was able to become acclimated with Appleton for a bit last season and just wants to keep improving.

Hopkins is spending his second full season in Appleton and while he feels like he's learned a lot and improved as a player, he's hoping this is his last view of Time Warner Field.

"I didn’t know what to expect. I mean, I didn’t have the greatest year last year. I had some positives last year, but at the same time, I mean obviously you know I had some things to work on – like we all do, that’s why we’re here. But yeah I came into it with a clear mind and with some confidence and I worked hard this offseason and I’m just glad we’re having a good year here so far and hopefully we can go out there and win a ring – that would be fun...Ideally after two years here, I think it’s time to go somewhere else. I’m 23, so I think it’s time to start hopefully moving up and continuing to get better."

Despite wanting to get the heck out of Appleton in terms of climbing up the system, every one of the players I spoke to today had glowing things to say about the fans and the experience of being a Timber Rattler.

"I think the people here are awesome. You always hear about the Midwest hospitality and there’s nothing like it. And playing in front of a pretty full size crowd every night. It kind of prepares you, hopefully, for the future. I mean, I know it’s a smaller scale then the big league atmosphere, but it’s just nice to having that atmosphere every night to play in and have the support," said Hopkins.

Stang said that the support they receive and knowing that they're going to be playing in front of a relatively big crowd also helps make the grind of the season easier.

Despite it being just his first night in a Timber Rattlers uniform, Suter also mentioned the crowd and atmosphere at Time Warner Stadium, saying it was the best he'd ever played in.

The proximity to their parent club is another driving force for these players to stay focused. They enjoy a modicum of recognition to general fans of the Brewers that many other low-A player don't receive. Brewers fans and front office members attend games regularly and Timber Rattlers games are televised statewide on Time Warner Cable Sports 32. Add that to many of the players' Twitter presence and you have a situation where players are receiving attention they might not normally receive.

And while that might add more pressure to their daily execution, all of the players I spoke to love that Appleton is so close to Milwaukee. They realize that they may receive name recognition from Brewers' staff members they might not otherwise normally see and they understand that the fan support is crucial to the club's success.

"Wisconsin fans love their sports, so it’s great having them and we appreciate it," said Hopkins.

"I can't think of any negatives (to the proximity of the parent club) to be perfectly honest with you," said Erickson.

For the players that spent last season or part of this season in Helena, the surprise success of the Timber Rattlers is a part of their baseball dream come true. Helena has been truly awful since winning the Pioneer League championship in 2010. For Suter, in the length of one plane flight, he went from worst to first. The doldrums of life in Rookie ball in Montana were changed to a playoff push and a chance for a ring.

While each of these guys is hoping of a shot at Major League Baseball, most of the Timber Rattlers won't make it that far. And so while that's the top of the dream list, so is winning a championship ring.

One of the obvious reasons for the success of Wisconsin is the closeness of the clubhouse. Erickson has mentioned it and told his team to realize that though this might be one of their first professional clubhouse experiences, most clubhouses aren't like this. Pierce points out that when Brewers' catcher Jonathan Lucroy recently spent time rehabbing in Appleton, he even commented on the camaraderie that exists.

The grind isn't the only thing T-Rats players have to adjust to. The longer season within the Western Division of the Midwest League means that they are facing opponents way more often then they are used to. This means that hitters like Stang are facing pitchers who know their hitting tendencies and pitchers like Pierce are facing batters who already know what he'll throw in any count and know exactly what his out pitch is.

Stang likened it to a game of cat and mouse and said that it allows him to focus on developing specific aspects of his game. Hopkins likes that he knows a pitchers out pitch, but Pierce pointed out that as long as a pitcher is putting the ball in the right location, the batter's knowledge of his repertoire doesn't matter.

"I mean, when you pitch to your strength – working the fastball, with me, or the change up – you know, guys can see you umpteen times, but if you’re able to locate a pitch, it shouldn’t really matter. You just got to make pitches and execute and then it doesn’t matter if they see you 100 times or the first time," said Pierce.

It seems like the situation would be most difficult for pitchers, but Pierce pointed out that rosters are usually so different from the first half of the season to the second with promotions and call-ups that it often isn't too much of an issue. He did point out, though, that the two batters who had four hits off him Thursday night were the two guys who'd been on the roster all season.

However they deal with their first taste of major-league-style baseball, this year's Timber Rattlers have found success that we haven't seen since they became a Brewers' affiliate. Watching the players interact and seeing their excitement for each other and for the run they're making shows that they truly have found that special mix as a team - you know what it looks like, you saw it in last year's Beast Mode. What they're doing is working for them.

Championships aren't the goal of a minor league club - the focus is always on player development - but after the Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum trades decimated the farm system and left many calling it the worst in the majors, there has to be something said for a bounce-back by a low-level team. These are new draftees and guys not expected to make major league impact. It says something about the farm system when a team makes a playoff run and in this case, I think it's a statement about how the team didn't lose as much value as they might have thought.

It's likely no more than speculation on my part, but one has to wonder about the lack of changes happening to the Timber Rattlers roster. It seems to me that once the teams turned to August on their calendars, Brewers brass may have decided not to mess with the obvious team chemistry in Appleton. Going through a playoff run is likely as meaningful and educational for a player as a few week in Brevard County would be. It's my opinion that the lack of call ups both from Helena and to Brevard have to do with the clearly special team that's been put together in Appleton. I think they're letting these guys ride that as long as it lasts.

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