Hang around player development folks enough and you'll hear all about the importance of process versus results. As a hitter, you either hit the ball or you don't. Once it's in play, it's out of your hands. It sounds simple, but once a team has invested millions in your future and your livelihood depends on your production, all those fly balls caught on the warning track start to weigh on you.
Which brings us to the Rays' Richie Shaffer. The 24-year-old Clemson product was the 25th pick in the 2012 Draft by Tampa Bay. At the time, MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo described him as having "plus raw power" and noted he could "be a power-hitting run producer." But in the first two years of his pro career, he was anything but.
Things began to unravel in 2013, when the Rays sent Shaffer to Class A Advanced Charlotte. Shaffer applied his talents there just as he had in college, constructing an approach built around his power. When he's at his best, the third baseman is driving balls into -- and preferably over -- the left-center field gap. With his well above average strength, he'd never experienced mere warning track results.
"I would drill a ball to left-center, and it was 100 percent humidity and 100 degrees with the wind blowing in," he said. "That just snowballed. …The FSL -- it's a tough league, and I sort of thought maybe I had to do more and started pressing."
The end results were underwhelming. Shaffer batted .254 with 11 homers and a .707 OPS. His .145 isolated power with Charlotte ranked 19th in the Florida State League among qualified hitters. That'd be great for most hitters, but it was well below the expectations Rays fans had for Shaffer, and below the standards Shaffer had for himself.
Tampa Bay promoted the third baseman to the Southern League for 2014. There the weight of his 2013 frustrations combined with the pressure of the jump to Double-A, and Shaffer's game unraveled. He overhauled his swing and approach, ditching the gameplan that propelled him to his college successes. The move just made things worse, and by the end of June, he had a .204/.290/.396 line. The results dropped him off MLB.com's Top 20 Rays prospects list entirely.
"I thought I needed to make changes and do stuff that didn't come naturally to me," he said. "I tried to manipulate my swing to do things that didn't come naturally to me and didn't really work."
Last summer Shaffer took a few days over the All-Star break to reconsider his approach. He deemed his swing overhaul a flop and decided he'd pick up his old swing in the second half. He brought back his pre-swing leg kick but began to adjust its height based on the pace of a pitcher's delivery. He worked with the Rays' coaches to create a more direct bat path. As much as anything, he decided he was going to believe in his process regardless of the results.
"Late in the year, I realized I just had to trust my hands," he said. "I've been more direct to the ball and let the bat do the work pretty much ever since. I've felt great. I've felt like I'm really driving the ball."
His numbers began trending in the right direction in July, when he posted a .211/.296/.400 line. In August, he blossomed into the powerful slugger Tampa Bay envisioned, posting a .273/.398/.591 line with seven homers.
Then, this offseason, Shaffer added the one element he'd been searching for since high school: He finally managed to put on weight.
Every offseason of his pro career, Shaffer had hit the weight room on his own, trying and failing to add good mass to his 6-foot-3 frame. He finished the 2014 campaign at a wiry 204 pounds.
As soon as the 2014 season ended, Shaffer headed for Charlotte, North Carolina. He spent the winter at the United States Performance Center -- a sports performance facility that provides personal training and nutritional advice.
"I had a [personal trainer] and I told him what I wanted, that I needed to get a lot bigger, a lot stronger," Shaffer said. "I knew I had the frame and the build to put on a lot of muscle. You hear the spin about how baseball players can't lift -- they'll get too big. I wasn't in any danger of getting too big. I was pretty skinny."
Shaffer pushed his weight to 229 pounds and bemoans the fact that he never hit 230. The 25 pounds he added look like enough, though.
The extra mass has allowed him to use a heavier bat this year while maintaining his bat speed. Now, those fly balls that got caught in the wind and humidity in Port Charlotte are soaring over fences in the Triple-A International League.
Shaffer has already tied his career high with 19 home runs in a mere 73 games between Double-A and Triple-A, and his .639 slugging percentage is tops among all International League hitters with at least 100 plate appearances by 71 points.
"I can swing more easily now," he said. "That kind of helps me on those in-between balls where you hit it hard, but it's right at the track or maybe it hits off the wall. Between my strength and the ability to swing a bigger stick, those in-between ones are making their way over.
"Then it's just sort of the confidence to know I don't have to swing as hard as I can. I've just realized if I take a nice, quality cut under control and barrel it up, it's going to go."
Royals LHP Sean Manaea, Class A Advanced Wilmington: An abdominal strain kept Manaea out for Opening Day and then a groin strain kept him on the shelf even longer, meaning the 2013 first-rounder (34th overall) didn't make his season debut until late June. After making one rehab start in the Rookie-level Arizona League, Manaea jumped up to Wilmington, where he's managed a 0.82 ERA in two starts, striking out 13 without a walk over 11 innings. The 23-year-old appears to be healthy and back to his old form already, and that form was good enough for 146 strikeouts in 121 2/3 innings with Wilmington last year. Expect the southpaw to be in Double-A before August and possibly in contention for a big league rotation spot at some point in 2016.
Nationals RHP Lucas Giolito, Class A Advanced Potomac: Washington held the best pitching prospect in baseball in extended spring training for the season's first month to limit his innings. When he debuted in May, he struggled with his fastball command, but he's since adjusted and dominated. He's thrown 19 consecutive scoreless innings and has a 19-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his past three starts. The right-hander's stuff sets the bar for best in the Minors right now, and his command is coming along. He could jump to Double-A by year's end and might be in the Majors at some point in 2016, if not sooner.
…And one not
Mariners 1B/3B D.J. Peterson, Double-A Jackson: It's a tough thing to be a bat-first prospect, because when the bat falters, there isn't much left to the profile. Peterson has spent a lot more time at first than third this year, which only heightens the pressure on his stick, and so far, his offensive game hasn't been up to the challenge. Peterson has a .218/.289/.337 line with the Generals, hitting just five homers. The good news is Peterson has had success in Double-A before, hitting .261 with 13 homers in 58 games there last year. But this year's step backward is a concern for the 2013 first-rounder (12th overall).