Some scouting notes from the games I hit over the weekend here in Arizona.
• Kansas City Royals starter Yordano Ventura showed two plus pitches in his three-inning stint on Saturday against the San Francisco Giants, sitting 96-97 mph and touching 99 at least three times in the outing, with a loose and easy arm action that seems to require very little effort on his part. He didn't throw a lot of curveballs, but after popping the first one, he threw several around 82 mph that were plus, one a hard downer to strike out Francisco Peguero and another with more of an 11/5 break down and away to fan Wilson Valdez. He threw a few changeups at 84-85 but they were below average, easy to pick up out of his hand and very soft coming across the plate.
The lack of a third pitch is one reason a lot of scouts view Ventura as a future reliever, an opinion I also hold, but his size is another significant factor. Ventura is listed at 5-foot-11 and right-handers that short rarely become big league starters, especially if they're power guys rather than command guys. In 2012, only seven right-handed starters 6-feet tall or shorter qualified for the ERA title, four listed at 6-foot and three below it. Among those pitchers, the only ones who had above-average velocity were Bud Norris, Anibal Sanchez, Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez. (Rubby De La Rosa will probably join that list in 2013.) There is the potential for a selection-bias issue -- that short right-handers are consigned to bullpen roles early based on height rather than ability -- but the lack of downhill plane on a 5-11 starter's fastball can make him fly ball- or homer-prone. Ventura's arm is so quick and his delivery so easy that it seems like a waste to put him in a relief role, but the odds are against him staying a starter.
• Giants first baseman Brandon Belt is having a strong spring statistically, which should help him secure a full-time job in San Francisco, and while his mechanics at the plate have improved slightly over where they were late last season, he's not quite all the way back to where he was in his breakout 2010 campaign. At some point over the past year and a half, Belt began drifting forward at the plate from his head to his hips, robbing him of his power and giving him trouble covering the inner part of the plate. His stride became longer, and as a result his body was almost forced to follow, while his hands were far enough back that he was almost barring his lead arm.
The good news is that the drift is less pronounced now, especially at the hip. His stride is still too long and his hands end up too far back when he's fully loaded, but having him bring his front foot down sooner and further back in the box might (emphasis on "might") cure everything without causing major damage to the rest of his swing.
• On Sunday, I went to Phoenix Muni for the Brett Anderson-Tyler Skaggs matchup, but Anderson had a muscle spasm in his right trapezius muscle and exited after facing just two batters. Skaggs completed his four innings of work but wasn't as sharp as he had been in his previous outing, working from 88-91 with below-average command of both his fastball and his 71-76 mph curveball, although the curve had its usual depth and shape. Skaggs had been 92-plus in his previous outing, while on Sunday it looked like he was releasing the ball a little early, which would at least explain why the rotation on his curve wasn't as tight as usual.
• I've seen Oakland shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima in parts of three games so far, and based just on that, I don't think he's an everyday shortstop. He can't run and he doesn't have much range at short, while at the plate he's slashing through the ball and is usually way out in front of everything. I put very little stock in spring training statistics, but I am not surprised that Nakajima leads A's hitters in strikeouts even though he's fourth or fifth in plate appearances. I know the A's committed a lot of money to Nakajima ($6.5 million over two years), but unless I got a bad read, they're better off if he's on the bench or off the roster.
• The A's outfield situation should be pretty clear at this point, but I've seen way too much of Coco Crisp in center this week. Chris Young, acquired this winter from Arizona, is by far the best defensive center fielder on the roster, and I have to think when the bell rings in April, he'll be out there more often than anyone else, with Yoenis Cespedes in left, Josh Reddick in right and Crisp the fourth outfielder when any of those three needs a night off or switches to DH for a game.
Young is clearly better from a scouting perspective, and the defensive metric ultimate zone rating backs that up. Per UZR, Young was more than 10 runs above average in center in each of the past two years, and he's 29.6 runs above average in total over the past three years, covering more than 3,400 innings in center. Crisp's UZR in center was negative in each of the past two years, and over the past three he's just 0.9 runs above average across about 2,600 innings on defense. The spring training playing time may not mean anything, but I hope by Opening Day Bob Melvin has named Young his starter in center