Results tagged ‘ Chase Lambin ’

Flipping the Switch: A Look at the 2018 Hickory Crawdads with Manager Matt Hagen

Quite honestly, the Hickory Crawdads were a dreadful team to watch much of the first half. There were a few early successes – Catcher Melvin Novoa’s hot April that earned him a promotion and the season-long consistency of Crawdads opening day starter Tyler Phillips – but overall, the team didn’t hit well, didn’t pitch well, couldn’t hold leads, and so on. However, for me, what I will remember about this team is the ability for players to grind through the season and endure the process of development. Several players turned in big second half-seasons and kept the Crawdads in the playoff hunt until the final few days of the season.

The Crawdads came out of the South Atlantic League all-star break at 30-38, and promptly were swept at home in three straight by West Virginia to drop to its low point of the season at 30-41. But the Crawdads bounced back with a sweep of Augusta (S.C.) and then began to piece together series wins. An 18-10 July put the team within the .500 mark, which the Crawdads reached for the first time on August 4 at Hagerstown (Md.).

Hickory stayed within range of first-half Northern Division winner Lakewood (N.J.) for the second-half race and were within 2 1/2 games of the BlueClaws, when they traveled to L.P, Frans Stadium for a series on August 10. Lakewood took 3-out-4 to surge ahead, but a 5-2 road trip by the Crawdads followed and got the team again within 2.5 games of the BlueClaws. Lakewood returned to L.P. Frans for another series and again asserted its dominance with a 3-1 series win to put a bow on the second-half division title. Left with an outside shot at a wildcard slot – something unthinkable when Hickory finished sixth in the first half – the Crawdads took three-of-four at Delmarva (Md.) and the first game of the series finale against Greensboro. However, a loss to the Grasshoppers the next night officially knocked the Crawdads out three games from the end of the season. It was the second straight season in which Hickory was eliminated during the final weekend of the season.

The 70-68 record was the eighth time in ten seasons as the Texas Rangers affiliate the Crawdads had a winning record.

What changed? The hitting improved. The pitching improved. However, in talking with manager Matt Hagen, he was adamant that none of that would’ve occur had the accountability of the squad and their expectations had not changed. In talking with him the first half, there was a constant mantra of being one play short. A big hit in a key spot was missed. One pitch in a key spot wasn’t made. One ball wasn’t caught.

The attitude changed in the second half and the confidence came with it.

During an interview with Matt Hagen prior to the final game of the season on Monday, he talked about that shift in the mental approaches that occurred, as well as highlights of the season with some of the individual players.

Matt Hagen

Manager Matt Hagen from a game in May (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

 

Considering where you guys started, 0-6 and 1-8, that was a heck of a turnaround in the second half. What are some things you contribute that to?

Hagen: Our coaches did a really good job of getting the players better. The players got better, and I think we raised the accountability level and the expectation level. Some of the things we were doing early on, as far as not just not playing with the right level of focus and intensity, we challenged them to be accountable to it.

We flat out just played better. We had a 4.6 ERA in the first half and a 3.2 in the second half. Some of those guys that were hitting .190 at the break ended up hitting .260. So, we had several guys hit over .300 for the second half. So, that was a pretty good deal.

Was there a tipping point at some time in the middle of the season, maybe late June or early July? That time period was a point where there seemed to be a gear shift. You went on a long road trip right after the (July) 4th.

Hagen: It was our first series in Hagerstown (Md.). We had a team meeting and we talked about raising expectations and making sure that guys are completely switched on when they walk in the door, and when they walk out the door to go to the field. From that point on, we won a lot more games than we lost.

The pitching staff, what a turn around: DeMarcus (Evans), Tyler (Phillips), who pretty much had it all year, AJ (Alexy), he finished strong.

Hagen: Reid Anderson.

What were some of the things that you guys were able to figure out?

Hagen: I would give credit to (pitching coach Jose) Jaimes. He’s out there every day sweating in that bullpen with those guys.

Tyler, I think, was more of a continuation of the success he had last year in Spokane.

To see the transformation of Reid Anderson, who won only one game last year. His demeanor on the mound was better. His presence was better. His conviction was better. His belief was better. His confidence was better.

Reid Anderson 2018

Reid Anderson was in the SAL top-ten in ERA (3.22) and WHIP (1.13) in 2018 (Photo courtesy of Ashley Salinas/ Hickory Crawdads)

 

I think AJ has just completely progressed as a pitcher, everything from his preparation to his mentality to his repertoire, his control, his attitude. Everything has gotten better.

And then our bullpen, my goodness, our bullpen was probably one of the best one in the league in the second half. If we had a lead in the seventh inning, we held on to it.

You mentioned the bullpen, what a luxury to have DeMarcus and Joe (Barlow). I talked with him and he talked about the walks to the point of saying I’m not going to use the word. (Joe) Kuzia had a good second half. (Josh) Advocate, when he was healthy, had a good second half. Did you get a sense that those guys got together to change the attitude of the bullpen?

Hagen: I think they took a lot of pride being in the bullpen. They saw it as kind of a brotherhood down there. It’s a great collection of guys. They joke around a lot and they pick on each other, but it’s like a family and they hold each other accountable, too.

DeMarcus, his numbers tell the whole story; he was lights out. He and Joe Barlow were like 1 and 1A; take your pick. Statistically, they were two of the best three relievers in the league. You can’t even argue that. The other guys you named were really good down the stretch, too.

DeMarcus Evans 2018

DeMarcus Evans struck out 66 during the second half and had over 16 Ks per 9 innings to lead the SAL (Salinas/ Hickory Crawdads)

So, I think there was a confidence that kind of grew when one or two guys started having some success, and I think it got contagious down there.

 

Tyreque (Reed) was another guy that when the calendar turned to July, he found something. He talked about his approach going up the middle and going away, and he added the power back. What did you see with him, as far as flipping that switch?

Hagen: He came in right away and his first at-bat was a walk-off home run. Then, having not played at an affiliate yet, I think the rigors of playing against better competition, the hotels, the bus rides, the fans, playing under the lights, that kind of stuff caught up to him a little bit. Once he and Bubba (Thompson) kind of realized, hey, not only do we belong here, we can excel here, you just handed the keys over to them at that point. When Bubba was clicking in the leadoff spot, he was a guy that hit over .300 in the second half. Then, Tyreque, more or less, carried the middle of our lineup for the entire last month. If he were here all year, who knows where his numbers end up. We’d be talking a potential league MVP had he been here all year.

To watch those guys and to know the conversations that (hitting coach) Chase (Lambin) was having with those guys every day, making sure they stayed logged in, making sure they stayed confident and got their work in every day. It was a pleasure to high five those guys as they came around the base.

Tyreque Reed (2).jpg

Tyreque Reed finished third in the SAL in slugging pct. (,503) and OPS (.846) (Salinas/ Hickory Crawdads)

 

Bubba (Thompson) had a little hitch and then in July, he found a switch. It just seemed like a bunch of you found a switch at the same time.

Hagen: Bubba is a really talented kid and he can beat you in a lot of ways. One night, he’d go out – you talk about trying to leave your fingerprints on the game in a positive way – he may have gone 0-for-4 at the plate, but he might have made two or three plays in the outfield that might have won us the game. As young players do, they get locked in on the fact that maybe they didn’t have a great day at the plate, but you can still walk, you can steal two bases, you can still make plays in the outfield. He’s a special kid and not a lot of people can beat you in that many ways.

Bubba Thompson- Proffitt.jpg

Bubba Thompson stole 32 bases for Hickory and had a second-half slash of .300/.341/.441 (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

 

Yonny (Hernandez), I just like watching him play. You said it in the first meeting you and I had where you called him “The Mosquito”. He’s another guy that had a strong second half. You put him second in the lineup and that seemed to be a good niche for the guy with he and Thompson at the top of the order.

Hagen: The expectations were, we know he can play defense and we know he can run the bases a little bit. The question was, is he going to hit. You look up and he’s second in the league in walks and second in the league in stolen bases. He hit over .300 in the second half and raised his batting average over 70 points. Pretty special. He’s a disruptor, too. He gets on the bases and gets the pitchers thinking about him instead of the hitter. The next thing you know, the pitcher leaves a pitcher over the middle that (Ryan) Dorow or Tyreque and three runs are on the board.

He’s just a fun kid to watch. You just let him go out and do his thing. He attacks the game very aggressively.

Yonny Hernandez

Yonny Hernandez finished the season second in the South Atlantic League in steals (44) and OBP (.371) and third in walks (58) (Salinas/ Hickory Crawdads)

 

The three-headed monster at catcher wound up being two with (Yohel) Pozo and (Sam) Huff. Please with their progress this year?

Hagen: Yeah. The goal was to get them both over 400 at-bats and they both got their 400 at-bats. Two guys that made an all-star team. Obviously, Melvin was doing good enough to get promoted. He was on fire early.

From a defensive standpoint, they both finished the season, hopefully with winning records <Note: Yohel Pozo was 30-30 entering the final game of the season. Pozo caught the game, which Hickory lost to Greensboro.>

Sam Huff and Yohel Pozo

South Atlantic League All-Star Catchers Yohel Pozo (left) and Sam Huff played a big role in the pitching staff’s turnaround in the second half (Salinas/ Hickory Crawdads)

To see those guys mature, to where the pitchers have confidence in them – you’ve got to give them a lot of credit for the success the pitchers had in the second half, too. Because, they got better in calling the game and controlling the game. Two guys that can throw pretty well and I think they both finished in the top two or three in the league in receiving metrics. They’re getting pitches that are strikes called strikes, and stealing a few strikes here and there.

 

Was there any disappointment that Miguel (Aparicio) didn’t have the year I think folks were expecting from him, and maybe Pedro (Gonzalez), as well? Any concerns on their progress for this year?

Hagen: No, if we look it up, Pedro’s run production is the third best on the team, as far as scoring runs and driving in runs. The only downside there is the batting average is down a little bit. The slugging pct. is good. He’s had some leg issues that kind of plagued him all year, so his stolen bases weren’t as high as he wanted them to be. Earlier in the season, he was stealing bases when he was healthy. For me, I think Pedro actually had a good year.

Miguel was just up-and-down. He was player of the week one week, and then the next week you see a 19-year-old kid who’s going to struggle. He’d struggle to stay in his approach and then the next week he’d get hot again. Obviously, the power is there, as evidenced by the home run he crushed a couple of days ago over the advertisements there. For him, it’s just finding a way to be consistent.

Miguel Aparcio

Top-30 prospect Miguel Aparicio took home a South Atlantic League hitter of the week award in mid-July, but struggled much of the season and finished at .214/.263/.361 (Salinas/ Hickory Crawdads)

 

The glue of the team all year, for me, was Dorow. Is that a fair read for you?

Hagen: That’s a bull’s eye right there. We came in talking about somebody needing to step up to surprise you. I knew Dorow could catch a ground ball if it was hit to him, but I had no idea that he could catch every ground ball within running range and then throw guys out from any arm angle. What he did at the plate, he’s two away from 30 doubles, 12 home runs and right around .300 most of the year.

He really exceeded a lot of people’s expectations and he’s been a pleasure to watch run out and play and go about his business. You just plug him into the lineup and let him go. He has a very mature approach and a very tough kid mentally, and a very tough kid physically. He’s a manager’s dream.

Ryan Dorow

Ryan Dorow (Proffitt)

 

When you look back at this team in a couple of years, what’s going to stick out for you?

Hagen: I think just the turn around from where we were in the first half to where we finished up. The way they came together and started worrying less about themselves and started playing for each other a lot more, which is hard to do in this game, because everybody wants to get to the big leagues. They were able to take the focus off of their individual success and started thinking about what the team was doing.

They learned how to win, so when they get to the next level, or the guys that get to the big leagues, they don’t get there and go, “Well, I’m a big-league player, but I don’t know how to win.” They’re learned how to win and what it takes to win. That’s invaluable.

 

What did you learn this year as a manager?

Hagen: Ooooo, that’s a good question. Something new every day. I think knowing and continuing to learn when to push the guys and when to just pat them on the back. I think I would’ve liked to have held them to a higher level of expectation, earlier on. But there was a lot of getting to know one another still going on at that point.

Definitely letting my staff do their job. That’s been a luxury for me. Knowing when to speak up and when to stay out of the way and let Chase do his thing, or Jaimes do his thing, or Turtle (Thomas). I’m really fortunate to have three really good coaches, and that extends to the weight room, too. I didn’t have to monitor anything there. I’d stick my head in once in a while. Adam (Noel) does a great job with those guys. But, just trusting those guys to do their jobs and letting them do them was a big part of our success.

 

 

Trusting the Process: The Development of a Low-A Hitter

After a brutal season-opening road trip that saw the team score 10 runs in six games, the Hickory Crawdads scored four runs in the first on the way to a 6-2 victory over the West Virginia Power Thursday night. It was the team’s initial win of the season.

The Crawdads came home holding up the bottom of the South Atlantic League in most offensive statistics. The .182/.239/.251 slash was easily the worst in the league in all three categories. Yet, in talking with the coaches, the collective feeling is that the team performed well overall and they were in a period where they couldn’t catch a break.

As one looks at where the team is at the plate, the big picture of how they will perform ultimately at the plate is still coming into focus and it will develop over a longer period of time than a week. The bad start perhaps has skewed perception of what this team will be eventually. Put the slump in the middle of July and the average fan will shake it off as a bad week. Yet, we see the numbers what they are and panic.

Fans must remember that class Low-A is a laboratory of minor league baseball. The guys have showed potential at rookie and short-season level – that’s why they are even at Hickory – but now the real work begins: the process of becoming a professional hitter.

I took some time Thursday to talk with Crawdads hitting coach Chase Lambin about the mindset of the hitters coming off the road trip and about “The Process” of learning about hitting at a professional level.

 

I know it’s a long season and I know this isn’t the way you wanted to start, but you and I talked prior to this, that it was a little bit of a perfect storm with Delmarva (Md.) throwing some guys, the cold weather, etc. Take me through the week of your hitters and the mindset of where they are at the moment.

Lambin: Yeah, it was tough. It’s challenging for them and it’s even challenging for us as a staff. Through it, it was remarkable to see the resilience the guys had and how their work didn’t change and how their attitude didn’t change.

We had some meetings where guys said powerful things and every day the energy in the dugout and the clubhouse was strong. It’s a resilient bunch, but it’s a young bunch. So. They’re going to have their bumps, especially early. Maybe, we didn’t expect it to be this early and this big of a bump, but it’s part of it and part of the process. It’s part of what the maturation process is about and learning how to handle adversity and especially in an environment they’ve never been in.

 

You guys always talk about “the process”. Jose Jaimes (Crawdads pitching coach) will talk about “the process” and (Crawdads manager Matt) Hagen, and so on. What is the biggest part, as far as your hitters, of getting them to understand the process of getting from here to the next level and on up to Arlington, or wherever they are going?

Lambin: It’s understanding the routine, understanding their body, understanding their mind and all those things have to come together. If one is missing, you’re going to struggle. You’ve got to know what you’re doing before the game. You’ve got to have a plan in your approach when you go to the plate. You’ve got to understand your movements. It takes time to learn those things.

They’ve all been successful at lower levels, but that level doesn’t ask you to do as much. Each level you go up has new challenges where you have to be a little more dialed in with each one of those things. That’s what they’re doing. They’re young. They’re 18, 19-years-old and they’re trying to figure out themselves and their approach and their plan, and they will because they’re tremendous athletes.

 

What’s the biggest hurdle in getting them to trust that process?

Lambin: The adversity that baseball puts on them, and the doubts and fears and anxiety that the game puts in your mind. I mean the game is a great equalizer and it will challenge you and it will rip your guts out and make you feel miserable. So, how do you take that pain and turn that into good?

On the other side of pain is growth. That pain is a part of it, like you’re being hardened from the inside-out. You have to explain it like, “I don’t want you to struggle, but this is a part of it and it’s better now than in Arlington.”

This is what you have to do and the game will expose you. It’s exposing some of them that they don’t have a clear plan. They don’t have a clear approach. They don’t trust the routine. They don’t understand their swing. This will show you that you need to make these adjustments because until then, if they’re batting .330 every year, they’ll be like, “This coach doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

 

Who is the person right now – and I get it, it’s six games in – that has the best understanding of where they are in that process?

Lambin: That’s a good question. There are some cerebral guys that are good thinkers. (Kole) Enright has been pretty good in the conversations I’ve had with him mid-game. Pedro Gonzalez is a sharp tack. He talks through what he’s feeling, what he’s seeing from the pitcher and what he going to do in the next at-bat. Chad Smith is another smart one. Justin Jacobs and (Ryan) Dorow are the college kind of veterans. They are the guys that are lower end on talent but they’re higher end on approach and plan and the mental toughness. So, combining all those together, they each have their shortcomings, but they’re all getting better.

 

Who is the person right that you think in the long run will get through that process? Maybe they don’t understand right now, but you talk to them and you see – maybe it’s not the ability necessarily – but you see they’ll have a chance to work through that?

Lambin: I think Pedro is a combination of talent and the mind and the deliberate work ethic. He asks questions and he’s hungry to learn and he’s humble enough to know that he needs to learn.

Some of these guys are so talented that that humility hasn’t hit yet. This six-game losing streak and batting .180 will give you some of that humble pie. Pedro stands out for me. (Miguel) Aparicio’s got a really good feel for hitting. (Yohel) Pozo is a tremendous, instinctual hitter. He’s still learning the thought process that goes behind it, but he’s the type that is just going to hit and hit and hit. He’s an unbelievable barrel finder.

There’s a lot of guys on this team. For me, my job is not to pick who’s going to be a big leaguer. Some are more advanced that others, but my job is to teach them up to be big leaguers.

 

What’s the biggest hurdle for you as a coach to help them get over that?

Lambin: Building trust as a coach is always difficult. I feel like that’s one of my strong suits. I teach with empathy and kindness and service, and I’m not a dictator.

I get with them on their level. I understand the struggles they’re in, I’ve been through it. I’ve been down that road and back 100 times. This game has ripped my guts out. So, I get on their level and I let them know this is going to be hard, but I also know how to work. I show them how to get after it and to have clarity and to have the right intentions with their work and in their process. In doing so, they start to listen to me more.

It’s challenging because they’re still young and their retention level. They may understand it for one day, but to get them to understand it the next day, it’s like they forgot everything when they fell asleep. It’s like a blank slate again the next day. It’s like, “Man, I need you to remember what I told you yesterday.” But at this level, you’ve got to tell them over and over again.”

 

Is there a point as a coach were you guys as coaches step back and let the failure be a part of the process? You see what they’re doing and let them get the golden sombrero.

Lambin: Failure is a gift. It’s part of being a baseball player. It’s going through the failure and rebuilding, fail, rebuild. The way you’re rebuilding your mind, and then your body and your routine.

Yeah, it’s hard, because I want them all to go bat .330 from start to finish and have a great year. But, the reality of it is that you sometimes have got to let them – it’s just like a young kid learning how to walk. If you’ve never let them fall, then they’ll never learn how to walk. You got to let them fall like a parent would let a child fall. They’re like my children in that sometimes I want to make it easy on them and make the fall stop, but sometimes pain is a great teacher. Nobody wants to go to its class, but pain will let you know.

It’s hard on me sometimes, because every time they get out, I feel it in my heart. It hurts me, but I want to grow and get better, too.

 

Melvin Novoa

Melvin Nova strokes a double during the Crawdads 6-2 win over West Virginia Thursday night (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)