Expectations can be a dangerous thing, especially when such high expectations are placed on kids that are 19 years old. Such was the challenge that faced the Lansing trio of Noah Syndergaard, Aaron Sanchez and Justin Nicolino coming into the 2012 season. I had heard the hype and I had even had the chance to get a limited sample size viewing of Nicolino and Syndergaard during the 2011 season. Having watched prospects in the Midwest League for many years, one thing that I have learned is that lofty expectations placed on kids can sometimes lead to disappointment. My thoughts initially were that if just one of these kids could live up to the hype, it would be amazing. Much to my amazement, not only did these three live up to expectations, they somehow exceeded the lofty expectations that were placed on them.
From late May through the end of the season, the scene was pretty much the same. When Nicolino, Syndergaard or Sanchez would start their wind up, a dozen or so radar guns of scouts from other organizations would rise. The press box talks that would take place between the scouts were always the same, even if the scouts changed, coming to town just to get a glimpse of the Lansing three.
“I heard about this staff in Lansing when I was scouting the Texas League. They’re the talk of Minor League Baseball.”
“Did you see Sanchez last night? The ball might have been up, but my word, every fastball he threw was 96 or 97 on my gun.”
“When is that big Texan getting on the mound? I’ve heard about his big arm and I want to see it for myself.”
“Did you see Nicolino’s change up? That thing is filthy.”
Those are just some of the typical quotes that could be heard from opposing scouts in the press box.
Not only did the Lansing three turn opposing scouts into fans, but a number of Blue Jay front office executives would make the trip to Lansing during their starts. Toronto General Manager Alex Anthopoulos was in town so much, that I was starting to wonder if he had a season ticket package. Talk to anyone related to the Blue Jays about the three of them and faces light up immediately.
“They’ve been outstanding from day one”, stated Lansing manager John Tamargo Jr.. “They put us in the position that we were in.”
With their first full season coming to a close, I sat down with each of the three individually to get their impressions on what went well and also chatted with Lansing pitching coach Vince Horsman about them as well and here are is what they had to say.
I had the opportunity to see Syndergaard throw twice during the 2011 season and although his fastball impressed me greatly, he showed very little interest in throwing any offspeed pitches. I knew this was something that Syndergaard would have to improve on coming into 2012. At the start of the season, his repertoire featured a mid 90’s fastball, a change up that sat in the mid to upper 80’s and a big loopy curve ball that would enter the zone at 68 to 72 MPH. The speed differential between his curveball and his fastball was too great, indicating that he was possibly slowing his arm down when delivering that pitch. The organization was concerned about the development of his curveball and thought that it may never fully develop so a slider was introduced.
“That was something that was introduced to him by our Minor League Pitching Instructor Dane Johnson”, stated Lansing Pitching coach Vince Horsman. “We weren’t so sure about his curveball, but by him working on his slider, it really helped his curveball, so he ended up getting both. We took a shot and got two for the price of one.”
“The slider helped me maintain arm speed with a breaking pitch”, stated Syndergaard. “Picking up the slider helped my curveball tremendously. I think I got it up to 80 at one point. That is a big jump going from 68 to 80.”
Professional baseball can teach you a lot and things that you did well in the amateur ranks may prove to be weaknesses at the professional level. While he most likely didn’t have many hitters reach base during his prep career, Syndergaard also wanted to focus on controlling the running game better.
“Last year, I didn’t really have a good feel for the running game”, stated Syndergaard. “This year I worked on my holds and being quicker to the plate to give my catcher a chance.”
Syndergaard will most likely start 2013 in Dunedin and with his first full season behind him, he is focusing on his off season conditioning.
“Going through a full season is really hard on your body”, stated Syndergaard. “I’m going to hit the weight room really hard and come into spring training in even better shape.”
Justin Nicolino doesn’t fit with Aaron Sanchez and Noah Syndergaard. He’s left handed and he doesn’t light up the radar gun but he is the most polished pitcher of the three and has good command of all of his pitches. Coming into the year, Nicolino featured a fastball at 90-92, a plus change up and a curveball. That repertoire changed mid season however as Nicolino also added a slider to his repertoire.
“I picked that slider up mid season and that is what I’m going to instructs for it to work on that slider”, stated Nicolino. “From my stand point, never knowing how to throw a slider, I feel pretty happy about it. I used it in key situations in games and it worked. For me that is just a big plus. When you learn a new pitch in the middle of the season and you can command it and you know what to do with it, you feel pretty good about it.”
Nicolino racked up plenty of hardware over the course of the season. He was selected to the Midwest League Midseason and Postseason All Star team as the top left handed starter in the league and also became the first Lugnut pitcher to register the lowest ERA in the league at 2.46. On top of that Nicolino was also the Lugnuts MVP for 2012. Still with all the hardware he collected, Nicolino is quit to give props to his team.
“For me this season was unbelievable”, stated Nicolino. “This is my second year in pro ball and I couldn’t ask for a better team or a better group of guys to be with. I got to learn a lot about myself and I got to learn a lot about these other guys and for me that was tremendous. I see them all as brothers now and what we accomplished this year, no one will ever be able to take it away from us. I’m proud to say that I was a part of this team and that we were the Lugnuts of 2012.”
“He’s outstanding”, stated Lansing manager John Tamargo Jr. “He finished first in the league in pitching numbers wise. It’s just tremendous. He was the best pitcher in the league.”
Looking back on a successful campaign, Nicolino was able to learn several valuable lessons over the course of the season.
“I definitely had to learn how to turn over a line up”, stated Nicolino. “Once we got to go five or six innings, you’re going to face guys two or three times and you have go to learn how to pitch.”
Nicolino finishes with a 10-4 record while walking 21 and striking out 119 over the course of 124.1 innings pitched.
If you read my stuff over the course of the season, it probably is no surprise that Aaron Sanchez is my favorite of the three. He features a fastball that routinely hits 96-97, a plus curveball and a good change up. Sanchez struggled with command at times as he walked 51 in just over 90 innings pitched this year and this will obviously need to be improved, but all the tools are there.
Sanchez struggled in his 2011 season, finishing with an ERA above 5.48 ERA in Bluefield last season before being promoted to Vancouver where his ERA was 4.63.
“Sanchez out of all of them had to go through the most changes in his delivery”, stated Lansing pitching coach Vince Horsman. “I know it looked like he was being successful statistically early on but he had to work on his delivery. That evolution of his delivery to right now might show the results might not be there the way he wants them, but he’s doing everything right now.”
“Timing the delivery and what kind of tempo that I work at and what fits me”, stated Sanchez on some of the tweaks in his delivery. “We made some minor adjustments to make it all fall into place.”
Sanchez’s success early on could not be denied. His ERA through the first half was under 1 and he did not allow a home run until after the all star break. The one concerning thing that I saw as the season progressed was that he would sometimes leave the ball up in the zone rather than leaving the ball down. This, along with a few other things, are some of the lessons that Sanchez was able to take from this season.
“I’ve learned a lot this year”, stated Sanchez. “From the time I started in April till now, there were a lot of ups and downs. I think the biggest thing I took from this year is being able to get hitters out and being able to trust my stuff. The things that I think helped me the most this year though were the four days in between my starts when Vince and I worked. He stayed on top of me with what we were doing and there were a lot of key minor adjustments that we made and it gave me a good season.”
The Lansing three are still a couple of years away and patience will need to be exercised. You won’t see any of the three of them trotting to the mound at Rogers Centre during the 2013 campaign and probably won’t see any of them at all during the 2014 campaign as well. Still, they are something to get excited about and barring injury or trade they could become the next Hudson, Mulder and Zito or Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz.