Peter Gammons: The development curve for Curaçaoan and Aruban players
In September, 2014, the Rangers’ highly intelligent general manager Jon Daniels, patient through a run of injury setbacks for the once Everyone’s All-American Top Prospect, made an interesting observation about the talented young players from Curacao and Aruba.
“We have to appreciate that most of the kids out of these islands come from strong, extremely stable families,” said Daniels. “They are exceptionally well educated; most speak four to seven languages. So they don’t have the problems dealing with the cross-culturalization issues young players from other foreign cultures have problems encountering in their development in the minor leagues. They don’t have difficult adjustments, and can blow through to the major leagues.
“But often when they get to the major leagues, things change. The kids from Curacao and Aruba have played very little baseball compared to kids from the Dominican or Venezuela or, of course, the United States. The major leagues confront them with the necessity to make adjustments that only a lifetime of games can provide. So, once they get to the major leagues, it becomes a major struggle.”
That was the season that the Red Sox made a major blunder, panicking over Xander Bogaerts’ development. Bogaerts was 21. After 50 plate appearances during the regular season, he had an .893 OPS in a post-season that culminated in winning the world series, Bogaerts got off to a slow start, offensively and defensively. Scott Boras, who had turned down the Red Sox qualifying offer for Steven Drew, couldn’t get an other close to what had been turned down, and campaigned to get Drew back to Boston and have Bogaerts moved to third. National and Boston Globe reporters went to see Drew work out and advocated the Drew campaign.
Drew was not pennant-race ready, batted .162, the Red Sox finished last and the Red Sox set back Bogaerts’ development. In September, after Daniels had made his observation, Bogaerts was asked about what he thought.
“I think there’s a lot to it,” said Bogarts. “Where it comes into play for me is with my internal clock defensively. In the last week, I’ve fielded two balls up the middle in shallow center and made flip throws back to Dustin (Pedroia) at second. Both were mistakes. The runners at second were both safe.
“In both cases,” Bogaerts continued, “the runner at first was really fast, the batters who hit the balls were slow, and I should have thrown to first base. I hadn’t thought it out. I think that comes from experience.”
My reaction was that the fact that Bogaerts understood and was forthcoming about his mistakes spoke volumes about his future development. “No doubt,” Brian Butterfield said when informed of the response. “That he acknowledges what he’s done and knows how he has to prepare between pitches tells me a lot about where he’ll go in time.”
Hensley Meulens is now a Giants coach. He was born in Curacao, got to the Yankees in his sixth professional season, and in the last two World Baseball Classics has been the coach of the Dutch team, heavily stocked with players from the two islands. He has coached in other world tournaments.
“It’s completely different for kids from Curacao and Aruba,” says Meulens. “As kids, they play ten or eleven little league games. Their high school seasons are very short. They play about 30 games in the summer, maybe 40 if they’re lucky.
“Compare that with the games kids in the States play as teenagers,” says Meulens. “These showcase kids, between high school and the circuits and the showcases play up to 100 games a year. Dominican and Venezuelan kids play games every day. You learn situations by playing games. It isn’t a classroom education. It’s not something you learn on a laptop, you learn by playing. A player going into the draft (think Dansby Swanson) plays hundreds of high school and summer league games, go to college and play on the highest level (SEC Tourney to the College World series), they play on Team USA (and The Cape)…and have no social adjustments.”
We all know Andrelton Simmons is one of the two or three best defensive shortstops — or, more likely, the best — in the game. But he has struggled offensively. His homers went from 17 to 7 to 4 from 2013–15. He has seen 2.74 pitches per at-bat this season, worst of the 220 regular players in MLB. “I am constantly in a learning stage,” Simmons said this spring. Now, in junior college, the majority of teams wanted him because he threw 95–97 MPH, and he blew through the minors quickly because of his glove. “I’m still trying to learn how pitchers want to get me out, and when to look fastball. Or when to lay off breaking balls. I strongly believe that I will figure it out. But like you talked about, it’s different for us.”
Bogaerts Saturday hit a bomb of a three run homer that was the biggest hit in a win against the Blue Jays. The next morning, the issue of whether or not he’ll hit home runs was raised. It was his eighth homer in 2015–16.
In 2015, at the age of 22 and with 162 games of major league experience, Bogaerts hit .320 with a .355 on base, a .776 OPS, 45 extra base hits, a 4.6 WAR, 81 RBI, 11 errors. With runners in scoring position his slash was .331/.364/.450, with two out and runners in scoring position .386/.442/.586.
“Xander is already a remarkable situational hitter,” says Red Sox hitting coach Chili Davis. “He’s 23. He’s learning what individual pitchers want to do with him. How to use counts. He’s got as much power as anyone on this team. To criticize him for not hitting homers — yet — is ridiculous. He’s got tremendous power. He’s extremely intelligent. But he’s learning, so now, in situations, he’s not looking to go deep, he’s looking to get hits and knock in teammates. He works as hard as anyone, he’s diligent, he cares…” Two weeks into the season, he has one fewer Defensive Run Saved that Simmons, he continues to learn the complexities of shifts he never encountered until two years ago in half a season at shortstop.
One AL East manager last week predicted, “the American League breakout player of the year is going to be Jonathan Schoop. Every time I see him it seems he gets better, and with his power and that gun of an arm, he can be a star as he plays enough in this country.”
Here is the progress of four prominent young players from Curacao and Aruba:
Player (homeland) BA/OBP/Slug/HR/OPS+
Andrelton Simmons: (Curacao) 27 yrs. old, 7 pro seasons
Jonathan Schoop: (Curacao) 25 yrs. old, 8 pro seasons
2013: .286/.333/.500/1/122 (5G)
Didi Gregorius: (Curacao) 26 yrs. old, 9 pro seasons
Xander Bogaerts: (Aruba) 23 yrs. old, 7 pro seasons
2013: .250/;320/.364/1/88 (18G)
Then go back in time, before the showcase/PED/GasMaster Era, to when hitters who reflected what many used to believe: that power is often the last thing to come.
Don Mattingly: In his first professional seasons after a legendary three sport high school career in Evansville, Ind., Mattingly hit a total of nine home runs; in fact, because he is ambidextrous, he worked at second base in the New York-Penn League because of concerns about his power. He hit 10 homers in triple-A, 4 in 91 games as a rookie in 1982, 23 in 1984, 106 in 1985–87 before a congenital back issue limited him. Included in the jump was the 1986 season in which he slashed .352/.394/.573 and led the American League in OPS, OPS+ at 161 and total bases with 388.
Carl Yastrzemski. Yaz didn’t hit 20 homers until his fifth major league season, then hit 40 three times in four years.
Ryne Sandberg: In the minor leagues, Sandberg hit 25 homers in four years. His first two seasons in the big leagues, he hit a total of 15. Then, after Jim Frey help him hunt for pitches ahead in counts. He then hit 17 and 26 homers, and eventually, at the age of 30, hit 40.
Jose Bautista: In his first four pro seasons after signing out of junior college, Bautista hit 20 homers in four seasons. In 2004, finally in the majors, he played for four different teams and did not homer. At age 25, he played in 142 games and hit 16 homers, then, at 29, he hit 54 in 2010.
Rafael Palmeiro: Remember, Palmeiro played on a great Mississippi State team with Will Clark and Bobby Thigpen that played in the College World Series. He was a first round pick of the Cubs in 1985. But the Cubs traded him to Texas fearing his lack of power as a first baseman; he hit 12 in 140 games in double-A and didn’t hit more that 14 until he was 26. He then had home run seasons of 39, 39, 43, 47, 39, 47, 43 and 38, finished with 569 (12th all-time) and is 16th all-time in RBIs, 11th in total bases, 17th in doubles, and 7th in extra base hits. At 23, Palmeiro hit 8 homers for the Cubs and was traded at the end of the season for Mitch Williams, and Steve Wilson.
So maybe Bogaerts will hit 30-something homers when he’s 28 or 30. Ditto Schoop. Maybe Simmons will get it next year, or in 2018. And the way Didi Gregorius keeps improving, he may be the Yankee shortstop well past 2020.
“To draw conclusions about kids from Curacao or Aruba when they’re 23 or 25 years years old shows someone who knows nothing about where these kids came from,” says Meulens.
Adds Chili Davis, “no kidding. I grew up in Jamaica. I didn’t play much baseball until I moved to the States and took it up at 15.”
Simply put, the kids at Harvard Westlake and Miami Westminster and the kids from Oranjestad run into professional baseball from totally different starting lines, and we have to appreciate it.