Toolshed: Baz talks tools after trade

Rays right-hander reflects on move from Pirates one year later

Shane Baz has struck out 27.6 percent of the batters he's faced this season. (Steve Roberts/Bowling Green Hot Rods)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | July 31, 2019 11:30 AM

Shane Baz had to put his phone down.

Walking into the Bristol Pirates clubhouse in Johnson City after an 11:33 a.m. start on Aug. 14, expecting little more than to turn in his reports from chart duty, he noticed his cell was blowing up with notifications. Before he could respond, he was called into Miguel Cruz's office, and the Bristol manager confirmed the news: Baz had been traded to the Rays as the player to be named later in the Chris Archer deal involving Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow. He would be staying in the Rookie Advanced Appalachian League, moving to Tampa Bay's affiliate in Princeton, but Cruz suggested Baz keep his phone close by during the trip.

Indeed, the young right-hander got calls from members of the Pirates front office and from his new general manager and assistant GM with Tampa Bay, all talking him through the situation. That was well and good, but by the time he reached the hotel between Johnson City and Princeton -- between his old life and his new one -- he needed to break off all communication and soak in exactly what had just happened.

"I was sick of being on my phone, so I just kind of sat there," Baz said. "I kept thinking, 'Well, this is a new opportunity.' It was a time to hit the reset button and make all new first impressions. I knew I had to be the same guy every day, but at the same time, I kept thinking my new career starts now. Let's be better than last time."

Wednesday is July 31, the day of Major League Baseball's Trade Deadline, the day when many prospects across the Minor Leagues will get their own trade stories. Yet Baz's story is unique in many ways.

Start with the timing. Baz -- now ranked as MLB.com's No. 96 overall prospect -- was officially moved on Aug. 14 in a deal that had first gone through on July 31. The Pirates entered the final day of the Trade Deadline 3 1/2 games back for the final National League Wild Card spot and decided to boldly go for a playoff spot with a pair of pitching moves. In one, they strengthened the bullpen by getting Keone Kela from the Rangers for prospects Taylor Hearn and eventually Sherten Apostel (who would also be officially added to the trade in August). In the other, they acquired Archer in the blockbuster of the summer.

No doubt, a high price had been paid in Meadows and Glasnow alone -- two former Top-100 prospects who had taken their lumps in the Majors but still had considerable ceilings. Hindsight has only helped this line of thinking; Meadows was an American League All-Star earlier this month; Glasnow was on his way to joining him before being shut down with a forearm strain. The player to be named later could have been a sweetener. Instead, it was the 2017 12th overall pick moved 14 months after his mid-90s velocity had pushed him comfortably into the first round coming out of a Texas high school. Because of his perceived status within the Pirates system, Baz thought he was safe from a trade that early in his career.

"It definitely was not what I was expecting," he said. "I didn't even know what a player to be named later was. It was kinda weird. It was definitely a shock. The Pirates made a few deals last year, so our team [in Bristol] knew that a guy or two in that clubhouse would go, but I definitely didn't expect it to be me. I saw the trade for Meadows and Glasnow and thought they'd be elite, as they have been this year. So you're not expecting a high-up prospect to be that player named later. I kind of left the day in shock, but the Rays welcomed me with open arms.

"It's still crazy getting traded in your first full season. There's the whole thing about a first-round pick being considered untouchable, yadda yadda yadda. But it introduced me to the business of baseball real quick."

Video: Hot Rods' Baz fans Williams-Sutton

Once he felt settled into the physical move of the swap and took some time in the hotel to collect himself, Baz eventually felt like he could also turn to the motivational aspect of it as well. He may have been traded rather quickly by the team that drafted him, but he also felt truly wanted by the team that went out and got him as part of a major headline-making swap.

"At the time, there's some pressure to be the guy, to be worth one-third of Chris Archer or whatever percentage you want that to be," he said. "It puts a chip on your shoulder. I always wanted to make the trade sting. They may not think you're worth that much, but you can go out and prove everyone wrong. It puts some added motivation on the fact that I want to spend the least amount of days in the Minors and help Tampa Bay win a World Series. That's the goal now."

Getting back to the nitty-gritty of player development, Baz's move to the Rays did more than just change the ultimate objectives for his career. 

"Almost immediately, the Rays were more -- I don't want to talk bad about the Pirates -- just completely different honestly," Baz said. "It was a whole new perspective, a new approach to pitching."

Some can probably figure out the word that comes next -- analytics. Right from the get-go with his two starts in Princeton, the Rays shared data with their new starter that would influence his work on the mound. Baz's four-pitch mix had always been considered above-average with his fastball velocity and movement especially standing out, but his control had held him back from making the jump to the elite prospect level. At Bristol, he had a 3.97 ERA with 54 strikeouts and 23 walks in 43 1/3 innings before the move. Tampa Bay told him to scrap worrying about being too fine with his pitches. Rely on the stuff that got him this far.

"I saw pretty quickly that I would be big in spin rate and that stuff," Baz said. "They told me my fastball would have the top spin rate in the Majors, if I was pitching there right now. I don't have to be right at the knees every time because the movement is going to be so good, guys aren't going to hit the fastball anyway. The slider is so hard too that it's going to be a good pitch as long as the arm slot is the same. the same with my curve and change. That was the first thing they showed me, and when I saw it in action, I just thought, 'OK, great.' Instructs was a good little trial run, and I've carried that into this year."

The No. 1 speed rate may be somewhat in question, but there is no doubt Baz is elite in that category. FanGraphs marks Baz's average fastball spin rate at 2,600 rpm, fourth-highest among the 446 pitching prospects in its system. Only seven Major League pitchers have a higher average spin rate in 2019, and Mike Minor (2,642) is the only consistent starter of that bunch. At the very least, all of this data is now actively part of the 20-year-old hurler's vocabulary in his second full season.

"We didn't have anything in Bristol," Baz said. "I hadn't even been introduced to this stuff. Now with the Rays, I know how to interpret it and know where I need to be. If one pitch is different, I know how to fix it. I try not to rely on it too much, but it proves to be right every single time. You can't knock that."

After being held back until May to build him up for his first campaign with a full-season affiliate, Baz is riding his fastball more these days, utilizing the slider and changeup as his primary off-speed pitches and the curveball as more of a show-me offering, and he's seeing the results with Class A Bowling Green. His strikeout rate is up from 24.9 percent in the Appy League to 27.6 percent against tougher hitters in the Midwest League. Most importantly, his walk rate has dropped from 11.9 percent to 10.4. Both sets of numbers have come over similar samples as well -- 52 1/3 innings in 2018, 53 in 2019. Unsurprisingly, his other numbers with the Hot Rods have been pretty good, too -- 3.40 ERA, 3.37 FIP, 1.25 WHIP, .221 average-against.

2019 MiLB include

Those numbers should only trend up as Baz continues to regain strength after an intestinal issue that caused him to be hospitalized and miss most of June. (He says he lost about 20 pounds in one week.) He added that he only started to feel up to full power in his most recent outing on July 26, when he fanned six and allowed two earned runs on seven hits and one walk over a career-high six innings against Fort Wayne.

If Baz really has his best days ahead of him in 2019, that's a fun proposition for the Rays, a scary one for the Midwest League and perhaps an even more frightening one for the Pirates.

While prospects traded in deadline deals are far from guarantees, Baz has at least some advice for those about to hear some major news Wednesday or at any point in the future, and it has to do with what happens after all those phone calls come streaming in.

"I'd say, stay true to yourself," he said. "If you're part of a major deal, then you're fine. Definitely don't panic or change anything huge. Ultimately, you're going to a team that loves what you're doing and who you are. It's just a change in the uniform. It's not as big a deal as it will seem at the time. Grind every day, and be the player they hoped they were getting."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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