More than two hours before a Single-A Kane County home game on a warm July morning, second baseman Gioskar Amaya fields a grounder, prepares to throw to first base and then it comes.
Cougars manager Mark Johnson, with a bat and ball in hand, stops the infield routine.
“Hey, we’re throwing home,” first baseman Dan Vogelbach yells.
“Pay attention,” Johnson adds.
In the Cubs’ organization, particularly at the lower levels such as Kane County, there is a heavy emphasis on the importance of pre-game work. That’s true in most baseball organizations. In some regards, that work – which includes drills centered on fundamentals – is more important than the games themselves.
“Hopefully, the work that’s done early goes into the game at some point throughout the season,” Cubs director of player development Brandon Hyde said.
Each individual coaching staff in the minors is given the responsibility of creating a daily pre-game plan, which can be influenced by what time the game starts, travel plans or weather conditions, although the Cubs provide a format with expectations to every manager.
On Friday, it was the pitchers’ turn to take fielding practice. They spent 30 minutes before batting practice working in the 90-degree heat as Johnson hit hard grounders.
Pitcher Felix Pena jumped in the air, snagging the ball and delivering a perfect throw home.
“Way to go,” Johnson shouted.
Days are often long without much free time. Johnson typically logs 12-hour days, creating pre-game routines and, at this point in the season, updating each player’s development plan, which the player and coach eventually sit down to discuss.
“They push us. They push us to the limit, and that’s the way it should be,” Vogelbach said.
For home night games, players often arrive at the ballpark four hours before game time. Johnson estimates the minor leaguers work about 200 straight days from spring training and minicamp to instructional league.
Individual development vs. WINNING
Ultimately, minor league wins don’t matter. A successful team doesn’t translate to major league talent just as a team that struggles to win, such as the 35-57 Cougars (worst in the Midwest League), is not necessarily unproductive.
To reach the majors, minor league players need to trust the process. In addition to the pre-game routine, which can run nearly two hours, players in the Cubs’ organization have homework – mandatory neuro scouting tests.
Each day during a homestand – and once while on a road trip – position players take the test, the same one Vogelbach took in 2011 during a pre-draft workout with the Red Sox when Theo Epstein was still with Boston.
Some of the tests, which can take five to 20 minutes on a computer or iPad, focus on timing, where players watch a pitcher throw different pitches and they must wait until it gets into the box before hitting the space bar. Others force players to swing at an on-screen pitch when it’s white and reaches the box or lay off if it’s red.
“It helps your hand-eye coordination, helps your reaction time to lay off pitches,” Vogelbach said. “I think we definitely have an upper hand on that.”
The Cubs hired a Latin American liaison, Rey Fuentes, to teach English. Cougars starting pitcher Felix Pena, a 23-year-old born in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, appreciates the impact learning English can have on his quality of life on and off the field – even though that means attending the hour-and-a-half English classes from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., most recently Friday and Saturday.
On the mound, Pena is now able to communicate better with his teammates and pitching coach Ron Villone. During mound visits, Pena is confident he can get across what he needs to say, even if it doesn’t make complete sense. And unlike the majors, there is no official team translator to act as a go-between. Albert Almora, a 2012 first-round draft pick, and pitcher Lendy Castillo often fill the role of translator, especially for Spanish-speaking teammates who talk to the media.
“Sometimes the toughest thing is the time it takes place because we’re tired from baseball, and then to go into it is a little overwhelming,” Pena said through Almora.
The English classes are mandatory, missing one is a $100 fine. The 10 participating Cougars must complete 25 to 30 hours by the end of the season.
Reliever Armando Rivero didn’t know any English before leaving Cuba. Since joining the Cougars after signing in March, Rivero has taken four English classes and is beginning to feel comfortable talking to teammates, although there are adjustments away from the ballpark.
“It’s 100 percent different here with the culture compared to Cuba,” Rivero said through Castillo. “But I’m getting used to it. It’s very different, like with the food.”
Castillo, who learned English during his time in the Phillies’ minor leagues and also took a refresher course this year during spring training in Mesa, is thrilled his Spanish-speaking teammates are taking the classes seriously.
“You don’t have to worry about anyone helping you,” Castillo said. “Like, if you got pulled over by the police, that stuff can happen and you know how to talk to them.”
Hyde said the Cubs’ goal is to make sure international players aren’t caught off guard in an unfamiliar environment and let it affect their performance. Helping them better communicate with teammates and coaches and even do something as simple as ordering at a restaurant is a high priority.
“You try the best you can to give the kids that are coming into a new experience, I think have sensitivity to how hard that really is of not knowing the language and culture,” Hyde said. “We invested more time and money helping our international players understand the culture here so they’re able to perform better and relax.”
Looking beyond statistics
In many cases, statistics don’t explain the whole story with prospects. Maturity and mental readiness are “an enormous factor” in assessing a player, Hyde said, especially when evaluating whether he is ready to be promoted.
“That’s a huge part of it for me when you’re promoting a guy. Obviously, we look at numbers, but a big factor is, ‘Is this guy ready for this level, mentally, maturity-wise?’” Hyde said. “Because it is so much different level to level. It’s the same game, but there are different factors at every level.”
Shortstop Javier Baez earned a promotion to Double-A Tennessee after putting up respectable numbers at High-A Daytona (.274 batting average, .338 on-base percentage, 17 home runs and 57 RBIs).
Despite an expanded strike zone, leading to 78 strikeouts, and committing 31 errors, Baez’s intangibles contributed to his readiness. Almora is heading down a similar path. Not only does he impress on the field, batting .323 with three home runs and 20 RBIs for the Cougars, but Almora’s off-field demeanor has helped.
A sign-up sheet was taped on the Cougars’ clubhouse door Thursday requesting two players to volunteer Friday morning for a one-hour appearance at Cadence (Delnor) Health and Wellness Center, for which the players would be compensated $25. All day Thursday the sheet remained void of names, eventually forcing Johnson to address the situation after the Cougars’ 3-2 loss to Great Lakes that night.
“Who has yet to do one?” Johnson asked as players hung around eating their postgame meal of tacos.
While the clubhouse remained quiet, Almora, sitting at his locker, raised his hand.
“I’ll do it,” Almora said.
“You’ve done enough of them,” Johnson replied.
Two Cougars eventually volunteered to appear at the event, but afterward Johnson said of Almora, “that’s what makes him a special kid, doing things like that.”
Statistics in the minors can be misleading because of the emphasis on personal development. For a starting pitcher, it could mean the organization requires he throw his worst pitch for 30 percent of his pitches in one start. Even if the pitcher gets lit up, his development outweighs the ugly pitching line.
“We do put a huge emphasis on the process,” Hyde said. “We understand results aren’t going to happen overnight. And that’s reported, too. … Sometimes performance is sacrificed for development.”
Statistics can’t – and don’t – accurately reflect the work put in outside of minor league games.
“I don’t think people understand how much work they put into it,” Johnson said. “When you put the hours that we put in daily and if you looked at it like we’re getting paid at minimum wage, we’d be making about $1.20 an hour.
“It’s an absolute grind and a marathon at this level.”