When Kyle Gibson was a rookie with the Minnesota Twins, he was once scared that a few of the club’s veterans were going to make him swim in the fountain at Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium.
Gibson was playing catch with a frisbee with pitchers Mike Pelfrey and Kevin Correia when it fluttered into the fountain. Gibson, 23 years old at the time, was sure he was going to be the one who had to jump into the water to retrieve it.
“I just remember saying in my head, ‘Please, no, don’t make me do this,’” Gibson recalled with a smile. “But then Correia thankfully goes, ‘Nah, it’s hot out here anyway, I want to take a swim.’ Two minutes later, they’re both swimming in the fountain, and here I am watching.”
Gibson said that was the closest he came to dealing with any “rookie hazing,” noting that when he became a big leaguer in 2013, that aspect of clubhouse culture had mostly faded away. That, Gibson said, is one way that being a young player in the major leagues is easier today than in the past.
But that might be it.
Brandon Hyde and Baltimore’s veterans all agree: Adjusting to the big leagues is harder now than it’s ever been. The Orioles have seen that firsthand this season.
Most of the organization’s youngest players have struggled despite coasting through the minor leagues. Grayson Rodriguez, the organization’s top pitching prospect, was optioned to Triple-A in late May after posting a 7.35 ERA in 10 starts. Gunnar Henderson entered the season as the American League Rookie of the Year favorite, but he’s spent much of the season hitting below .200, although his bat started to heat up in recent weeks. And Kyle Stowers, who has a career .864 OPS in Triple-A, struggled in both of his stints with the Orioles this season, going 2-for-30 at the plate.
Of course, it’s not just Orioles players. New York Yankees shortstop prospect Anthony Volpe is hitting .188. St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Jordan Walker was demoted in late April after a poor start. And Colorado Rockies shortstop Ezequiel Tovar posted a .567 OPS in April before finding his stride.
Youngsters needing time to adjust to the majors is far from a new phenomenon. But Hyde, Gibson, Adam Frazier and James McCann all gave their reasons why it’s tougher now — from nastier stuff from pitchers to social media to analytics.
Hyde said one of the more challenging parts of the game now isn’t just the arsenals pitchers possess, but the fact that most relievers are throwing high-90s.
“Pitching is better than ever before, at least the stuff-wise. The stuff from pitchers is off the charts. It’s so hard to hit right now,” said Hyde, a minor leaguer in the Chicago White Sox organization in the late 1990s and a coach for three organizations since 2005. “With the way bullpens are, too, people can match up with guys throwing 100 [mph] out of the bullpen.
“Just the velocity, the stuff that pitchers have now is extremely challenging. Being in the big leagues is a lot different than being in Triple-A. There’s a lot more exposure, you’re on TV, there’s a lot more pressure, there’s social media. There’s a lot of things that is different up here. It doesn’t make it any easier for a younger player.”
Given that it’s more challenging, Hyde said that makes it even more important for players to take their lumps in the big leagues and learn. It’s almost expected for them to struggle at first, and the way they respond could be what makes or breaks their career.
“It’s a really tough time to be a young player in the big leagues right now. I think any sort of experience that they get is valuable,” Hyde said. “It’s very normal for young players to struggle early or go through times where they’re scuffling. To be able to have those experiences, that’s not always a terrible thing — dealing with adversity, understanding they’re gonna be better players for it down the road.
“We’re trying to field a competitive team and to win, and we’re trying to put our best roster we can at the big league level. And sometimes that means younger players have to platoon or not get everyday at-bats.”
McCann made his MLB debut in 2014, and one of the biggest developments during his career has been the prevalence of social media. Having a “healthy relationship” with it, he said, is one of the most difficult parts of the game today.
“If I’m being completely honest, the hardest thing about today’s game is the media. Whether you’re a top prospect or not, your career is written for you the moment you get drafted,” McCann said. “There’s a lot more outside noise in today’s game than there was ever before, whether that’s for social media or if it’s just readily available and at everyone’s fingertips.
“It’s tough because I think there’s a lot of benefits to social media. I think it’s awesome that you can get on there and communicate with the fans. But you talk to a lot of guys, and they just don’t look at their notifications.”
Another change for young players is the amount of information at their disposal compared with just five or 10 years ago. MLB allows iPads in dugouts for hitters to see everything from the velocity to the movement to the release point of the pitcher. But now minor league teams have much of the same technology — something McCann was surprised to learn during his rehabilitation assignment last year — so young players are able to learn to use those tools before arriving in the majors.
“When I was coming up, we were lucky just to have a radar gun in the stadium,” he said. “First guy comes back to the dugout and it’s like, ‘Hey, what’s the velo like?’ And it’s a guess. Or, ‘Hey, is it a sinker or a four-seamer?’ Now, guys are coming back and they’ve got an iPad in Double-A. They have the data right there telling them.”
At the same time, though, more information isn’t always good. Learning to “sift through” what works and what doesn’t can be tough for any player, especially young ones, he said.
“There’s more onus on each player to figure out what works for them. Some guys want to talk analytically, some guys want to dumb it down to see ball, hit ball,” McCann said. “If you’re facing a guy like Jacob deGrom and you look at the data, you’re beat before the game starts. You’re being told this guy’s got the best fastball in the league, the best slider and the best changeup. OK, why am I taking the bat up there?
“It’s trying to balance the need to know what his pitches do, how I’m gonna perceive them, but at the same time, I don’t want to give the pitcher too much credit.”
Frazier debuted in 2016, but he doesn’t need to go back that far to describe how the game has changed.
“The game’s completely changed in just the last four years,” he said. “Pitching is just so far ahead of hitting, it’s tough to neutralize it.”
The average fastball in the major leagues is now around 94 mph, about three ticks above what it was 15 years ago. The steady increase in velocity, paired with the sharpening of offspeed pitches, is what Frazier said makes the game harder today.
“Instead of 90 to 95 [mph] with a sprinkle of Craig Kimbrel at 97, 98 — he was kind of the standard when I first got up — everybody’s 95 to 100 now, even starters. It used to be you’d get fourth and fifth starters, they were gonna be sitting 88-91. Now it’s usually those top prospect guys who are the fourth or fifth guy with plus stuff but maybe a little lack of command. That makes it harder.”
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Despite the increase in velocity, pitchers are also throwing their four-seam fastball less often. Instead of “pitching off their fastball,” they’re simply throwing their best offspeed pitch more often. Not having that framework to approach an at-bat, Frazier said, can be tough for an inexperienced hitter.
“The stuff has changed a lot, not just the stuff but the approach to pitching,” he said. “The Rays, for instance, they hang their hat on getting guys that have plus pitches, but they’re gonna use their plus pitch 70% of the time, and it’s not a fastball. The whole philosophy has changed.”
As the oldest player in the Orioles’ clubhouse at 35 years old, Gibson is one of the few players born in the 1980s. Meanwhile, Rodriguez was born near the turn of the century, and Henderson was born in 2001.
While he thinks there’s less “animosity” toward younger players now, he acknowledges that it’s not completely gone from the game.
“There can always be animosity,” said Gibson, who debuted in 2013. “Every starting pitcher who comes up here has a chance to take my job. If I wanted to have animosity toward that, I could. But that doesn’t do me any good. … Winning seems to take away a lot of that animosity. But, regardless, human nature is still there. You want to be the one with the job, and you want to be the one competing. It’s easy for that animosity to creep in.”
The data that’s been added over the past decade has surely helped players improve their games. But it’s also hurt some, giving other teams information on a young player they wouldn’t have had in the past.
“There’s more information on young guys when they get up than there ever has been,” he said. “I can get as much information on a rookie hitter before the game than I ever have been, and same for pitchers. Hitters are seeing everything they need to know about a rookie pitcher before he even steps on the mound. In that aspect, it makes it a lot more difficult.”