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OC Register: Farm Failures, Part II: How the Angels’ player development system broke and the plan to repair it


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(Note: This is the second of a three-part series examining the causes of the decline of the Angels’ farm system, and what measures they have taken to improve. Part One looked at how the Angels brought players into the system.)


Talk to just about anyone who has been in the Angels’ farm system about their processes or facilities or environment, and eventually, the conversation comes around to the Dodgers.

While the perspective typically comes from mingling with their blue-clad counterparts or glances across the field, right-hander pitcher Cole Duensing and former hitting instructor Shawn Wooten have a deeper understanding.

They have been on both sides.

Duensing, the Angels’ sixth-round pick in 2016, spent his first five seasons with the Angels before he was released. He signed with the Dodgers before the 2022 season. Wooten, an Angels player on their World Series team in 2002, was a hitting coach for four years in the Dodgers organization before he came to the Angels in 2017.

“The environment was really different,” Wooten recalled, saying everything from the food to the equipment to the collaboration of the coaches was better with the Dodgers. “They went over and beyond what they had to do.”

While Duensing stressed that he enjoyed working with many in the Angels’ system, he raved about the development atmosphere with the Dodgers. He had the best season of his career at the Dodgers’ high-A affiliate in 2022.

“The way the Dodgers phrase it is they say everybody’s a big leaguer until you prove to us that you’re not,” Duensing said. “I thought that the Angels were really the opposite of that. The Angels were saying you’re not a big leaguer until you prove to us that you are.”

The Dodgers have been the gold standard in player development during their run of major league dominance. They withstand injuries or poor performances from their frontline players because the farm system churns out an assembly line of capable replacements or ample prospects to trade for major league-ready help.

The Angels, despite the presence of stars like Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, are mired in an eight-season playoff drought, mostly because their farm system has been one of baseball’s least productive.

The core of the problem is that the Angels have not brought in enough talent, by abandoning the international market, surrendering draft picks and choosing the wrong strategy with the picks they kept.

Beyond that, though, there is a consensus from those who have been around the organization that the Angels could have gotten more from the talent they had if they had operated the farm system more effectively.

Interviews with dozens of current and former Angels minor league players and coaches and officials painted a picture of why the system has been unproductive, usually with a reference to the Dodgers.

“You see things that other organizations were doing and it was like ‘Why can’t we do this? or ‘Why are we so far behind?” one former Angels minor leaguer said. “It was always compared with the Dodgers.”

This player, like many of the players and coaches interviewed, spoke on condition of anonymity.

“It starts up top,” the player said. “You have to have someone up top who is willing to do what it takes to win. … You have to invest in your minor league players because that is the product that’s going to be on the field one day to help you win a championship. That’s just how I feel.”

Many sources suggested the Angels’ leadership was at the core of the issues. While dozens have cycled through supervisory roles with Angels player development since the organization’s heyday more than a decade ago, the common denominator has been owner Arte Moreno.

Moreno, who is selling the team he’s owned since 2003, declined a request, through a team spokesman, to comment on his role in player development.

A former Angels executive said Moreno’s reluctance to commit the necessary dollars to the farm system is at the root of the issue.

“Investments in non-sexy major league players are still good investments for the health of a franchise,” he said. “Whether it’s technology or extra personnel or improved physical spaces, those things were always really hard to come by.”

FLAWS IN THE SYSTEM

The vast majority of minor leaguers don’t make the big leagues, so it’s no surprise that many of them, regardless of the organization, have negative impressions of the process.

“Every organization has huge problems,” said a second former Angels minor leaguer, one who has been with multiple organizations. “This is the one thing I can’t stress to you enough. If there are 30 teams, 26 of them are enormously flawed. In some cases, it’s definitely their fault. But in a lot of cases, it’s just a very hard game. It’s a very hard system. There’s really only a few teams that have figured out a good system where they’re actually producing players year after year.”

In the Angels’ case, many of the issues in 2012 were corrected by 2016, only to give way to different problems. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for development when dealing with hundreds of players and dozens of coaches.

Much has changed from 10 years ago, when the system was at its worst, to now, when there is general consensus that they’re finally on the right track.

That is part of the vicious cycle.

Players, coaches and managers cite a lack of continuity of instruction as one of the main reasons the system has been unproductive. But the system’s failure is why so many coaches and instructors were replaced.

General managers Jerry Dipoto and Billy Eppler both came from outside the organization, which sources said led to a series of shifts in philosophies and personnel in those years.

“A lot of our really good coaches that we had in the minor leagues, they started leaving the organization and going to other organizations,” a former Angels minor league staffer said. “The thought process behind why we did things and the kind of commitment to how we did it was starting to get a little watered down towards the end.”

Brenton Del Chiaro began his career in Angels player development in 2008, and he spent nine seasons as a manager and hitting instructor before he was let go following the 2016 season.

“When staff is just getting settled and getting comfortable and up to speed, there was another change and so a lot of us felt like we were walking on eggshells,” said Del Chiaro, now the Milwaukee Brewers’ minor league hitting coordinator. “A lot of us felt like we weren’t being included in conversations. Are we doing what they are expecting of us? Are we pleasing them or are we coaching to keep our jobs? It was very tough to be in limbo there for a number of years, kind of not knowing what to expect.”

At the Angels’ Double-A affiliate, they had nine managers and seven pitching coaches in a nine-year span, from 2011 to 2019.

“It didn’t help my cause that there were three different people in charge of the pitching in my tenure,” said Duensing, who pitched in the Angels’ system from 2016-21. “It was kind of like every year and a half somebody came in with different philosophies.”

Another reason for the continuing turnover among the staff was that the Angels were toward the bottom of the industry in what they paid minor league coaches, managers and instructors, multiple sources said. The Angels have significantly raised the pay of their minor league coaches under current GM Perry Minasian, sources said.

Several coaches that earned glowing reviews from players were lost in the shuffle.

One of the most notable coaches who left was Ethan Katz, who got his first shot in professional baseball with the Angels. Scott Servais, who was the Angels’ farm director before becoming the Seattle Mariners manager, hired Katz off the campus of Harvard-Westlake High in Studio City. His program produced three first-round pitchers in three years: Max Fried, Lucas Giolito and Jack Flaherty.

Katz spent a couple of years in the Angels’ farm system and then went to the Mariners, following Dipoto and Servais. He is now the pitching coach for the Chicago White Sox, who have had a Cy Young Award finalist in each of his two seasons.

Donnie Ecker spent one year as the Angels’ Triple-A hitting coach in 2018, earning praise from several players. One referred to him as a “rock star.” Ecker left the Angels when he got the opportunity to be a part of the major league staff with the Cincinnati Reds, and he spent 2022 as the Texas Rangers’ bench coach.

The turnover led to vastly different philosophical approaches. Wooten, who spent one year coaching in the minors and one year in the majors with the Angels, said that when he arrived the organizational mandate was to emphasize pitch selection over the actual mechanics of the swing.

“That came from the top,” said Wooten, who is now a private hitting instructor. “It was their focus. They want guys that get on base. … Get a good pitch and hit it hard, right? That makes perfect sense. Everybody’s trying to do that. Well, if you’re not in the right position to get off a good swing, then you might as well throw that out the window.”

The conflict between Wooten’s idea to focus on the swing and others, who believed it was best to focus on pitch selection, was representative of what other players and coaches described as a disconnect in instruction.

“If you have a lot of people pointing in different directions,” a second former Angels coach said, “it’s really hard to move in one direction.”

LOW TECH

Infielder Alex Yarbrough was the Angels’ fourth-round pick in 2012, the first of Dipoto’s drafts. He was in the system until 2016, peaking at Triple-A. He then spent one year with the Miami Marlins before calling it a career, never having reached the majors.

Yarbrough and other players from his era said the Angels were dramatically behind when it came to even the most basic technology.

“I almost never watched video in the minor leagues,” Yarbrough said. “I would say less than five times I got on laptops to watch a side angle of my swing. … No one in the minor leagues was making that a priority. At least, not in the years that I was at the affiliates.”

Wooten, who joined the Angels’ farm system in 2017, said the video system they were using when he arrived “was absolutely terrible,” so he brought in the one the Dodgers had been using.

“The (Angels) were one of two teams that were still using the system that was from way way way back,” Wooten said.

Other technological advances arrived with Eppler, starting in the spring of 2016. They began to use Rapsodo devices, which measure pitchers’ spin rate and other analytics during bullpen sessions. They used Edgertronic cameras to give pitchers and coaches a better idea of how different grips affected their pitches.

It’s all ubiquitous technology now, but the Angels were a couple of years late to implement it in the minors, according to the players and coaches who were there prior to Eppler.

“I just wish we had known more about the technology and stuff that was coming,” said player No. 1, who began his career during the Dipoto regime. “Houston was already on that. The Dodgers were way above and already on that.”

Denny Hocking, who managed or coached in the Angels’ farm system from 2013-16, said the Angels were behind.

“Looking at how progressive other organizations were, my educated guess would be the Angels just weren’t on the forefront, when I was there, of going out and using the technology,” he said. “Other organizations were all-in or just being pioneers about it.”

A third former Angels minor leaguer said “the Astros were three years ahead” of the Angels when it came to technology. However, that player now works with cutting-edge technology as a coach, and he said being slow to adapt is better than going in too quickly.

“You’ve got to be careful with all these things,” he said. “Now that I’ve understood it to a different level, it’s better to do nothing with the technology than to act on it and really mess somebody up.”

Technology goes hand in hand with analytics, which is the information teams use to make their players better. The Angels seem to have lagged in that area too.

“We were just behind,” said player No. 4, speaking mostly of the portion of his Angels career before Eppler took over in 2016. “Everybody likes to talk about analytics. I know there’s a lot of people that don’t like them. I think they help a lot. I think they give you a lot of answers to the test. So there’s not a lot of guessing.”

He added that other organizations “were playing a different game. They were way ahead of us. There were teams that knew where I was hitting the ball better than I knew where I was hitting the ball.”

Once Eppler took over, the use of analytics changed too. Players began to be graded and evaluated more on what they called “process” metrics than the results. Teams posted weekly statistics in the clubhouse, giving pitchers grades for their strikeout percentage, walk percentage, opposing exit velocity, whiff rate and chase percentage.

“We took that sheet with pride,” said player No. 1, a pitcher. “We definitely saw value in that sheet.”

Player No. 5, another pitcher, said the metrics were emphasized more than the results. He said they were told, essentially: “If you can throw the slider with the most horizontal break or the fastball with the most hop or the most vertical break and you throw that thing to the backstop 10 times in a row, that’s OK because we can mold that.”

Hitters were graded on their chase percentage, which negatively impacted players for swinging at balls, but not for taking strikes. Players were told that promotions would be based on those kinds of numbers, more than batting averages or slugging percentages.

“Theoretically, that sounds like a great idea,” player No. 2 said. “The problem is you end up taking a lot of pitches early in the count that are borderline, and you end up deep in counts, and you end up hitting with two strikes all the time.”

Some players agreed with this philosophy, reasoning that the “minor leagues are literally practice,” player No. 4 said. A sixth player said: “We got so developmental that it was like we were doing drills in games.”

Instead of keeping the experiments and swing changes for pregame workouts and trying to win the game that night, players were encouraged to still focus on the processes, not the results, even in games.

“They specifically said minor leagues are for development,” player No. 2 said. “We do not care if you win games. It’s about becoming better players. … There are serious implications of that ideology. The biggest one is not even that you’re losing games in the minor leagues, but the big problem is that you’ve got a culture of not winning games, then go to the major leagues where you are expected to win games.”


Next: Winning games in the minor leagues became a focus for General Manager Perry Minasian, who said winning and development go together. The Angels just finished their best minor league season in years, which has given hope that the farm system has turned the corner.


 

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36 minutes ago, AngelsWin.com said:

Another reason for the continuing turnover among the staff was that the Angels were toward the bottom of the industry in what they paid minor league coaches, managers and instructors, multiple sources said.

I brought this up a couple times but no one had exact figures as to the pay scale for the Angels minor league coaches, just the league average which really isn't good to start with. Now start with not good and go steps below and you can see where the Angels quality of coaching candidates are sourced from; the bottom tier.

And as you can see by the article, there was no consistency in instruction from one level to another and year to year with the turnover. I saw this going to 66er games that each season there were new managers and coaching staffs but it wasn't as though the old staff was promoted to the next level. They just moved on to somewhere else. 

 

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2 hours ago, T.G. said:

Minasian has his work cut out for him. 

I'm disappointed in what has transpired under Arte's ownership, but I'm hopeful that new ownership can right the ship.  They can't get here soon enough.

What a cluster-F.

Minasian’s background gives me hope that he communicated to Arte how valuable it is to invest in the player development process as a whole.  I do see signs of an improving farm system on the whole, so perhaps he has been able to implement some significant improvements?

It’s hard to say.  These articles are fantastic though - very eye opening, and confirms a lot of the stuff that we suspected.

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I'm still clueless on what the problem is. I have no idea what makes an org good or bad at developing players.

Obviously we suck at it.

Still, I wonder how much the problem is development vs scouting. (I'm sure it's both). I look back on names drafted, and I don't think the Dodgers or anyone else could have done a better job with them. But who knows.

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The crazy part to me is that how it happened is understandable. Stupid, nut I get it. Moreno went all in financially on the big league club and did so because he was desperate to win a ring.

He took over the team, and we had a solid decade of being one of the best teams in baseball. But kept getting cockblocked for a ring.

I can't fault Moreno for (stupidly) trying to buy one, and losing sight of the big picture.

That said...

It's not 2014/15/16 anymore. The farm being ignored for a few years led to the inevitable. And 8 or so years ago, ok, makes sense. 

... but it's more than a decade now. How the hell do you not fix the problem for a solid decade?

It's insane.

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11 minutes ago, ten ocho recon scout said:

The crazy part to me is that how it happened is understandable. Stupid, nut I get it. Moreno went all in financially on the big league club and did so because he was desperate to win a ring.

He took over the team, and we had a solid decade of being one of the best teams in baseball. But kept getting cockblocked for a ring.

I can't fault Moreno for (stupidly) trying to buy one, and losing sight of the big picture.

That said...

It's not 2014/15/16 anymore. The farm being ignored for a few years led to the inevitable. And 8 or so years ago, ok, makes sense. 

... but it's more than a decade now. How the hell do you not fix the problem for a solid decade?

It's insane.

What I hope you saw from these stories is that in a lot of cases Eppler went 180 degrees in the opposite direction from Dipoto. He was really trying. And he was convincing Arte to spend more. But it takes time, and sometimes well meaning changes can have unintended consequences that are new problems. 

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6 minutes ago, Jeff Fletcher said:

What I hope you saw from these stories is that in a lot of cases Eppler went 180 degrees in the opposite direction from Dipoto. He was really trying. And he was convincing Arte to spend more. But it takes time, and sometimes well meaning changes can have unintended consequences that are new problems. 

Yeah, credit where it's due. And in defense of Dipoto, he had to deal with what Reagins left. Minasian has a tough problem, etc.

Just unbelievable to see the org taking so long to fix something that was clear a decade ago. I know Eppler made a lot of progress in the minors, but even then, the end result (so far) is still ugly.

I'd just assume Moreno at some point, 7 or so years ago, would have seen the farm system, recognized the last guys who were drafted and made it were ancient history, and dedicated himself to spending whatever it took to aggressively fix the problem.

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Reading these articles is as hard to read as reliving a car wreck that took your favorite dog.  I enjoyed reading it, but damn it hurts to see where the Angels fell off the tracks.  It does remind me a bit of when Dean Lombardi took over for the Kings and the sad shape they were in, right down to people still using typewriters.   Hopefully the new owner and Perry can mimic the Kings rebirth.  Come to think of it, AEG would be a good ownership group.

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The irony here is that the Angels were essentially the minor leagues for DIpoto as a GM. Evidently he learned the lessons he needed--did "drills" and didn't worry about winning--and then moved on to the "majors" (the Mariners org). Not saying that's a great GM, but he seems like a very different one for the Mariners than he was for the Angels -- certainly better, and presumably learned from his errors.

The timing of this excellent (if depressing) series is interesting...there's some dirty laundry being aired, and presumably that's only because a sale is going to happen at some point relatively soon. Sort of like we're in Moreno's lame duck session. 

Oh, and great reporting, @Jeff Fletcher

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Nice article, even though the subject matter and conclusions kinda suck.  

It's pretty much what we expected, I think - an under-resourced minor league system that lacked a coherent vision and continuity of staff and philosophy.  I've been guessing at it for years, but the results (lack of) have always spoke for itself - that the system wasn't in the first tier, to put it as nicely as I can.  

Thing is, the Dodgers could lose their GM, or any one of their key development people tomorrow - and I promise you their minor league system wouldn't miss a beat.  Because they built a system and a philosophy over the years that transcends whoever is currently occupying some seat.  

As McCourt stripped the Dodgers to the bone, I thought it was a great opportunity to raid their system - to sweep up as much of their system's key personnel and then try to emulate (ok, "copy) what they had built.   But of course, better to put up taunting billboards and make shitty trades and sign shitty deals for over-the-hill "stars" who weren't.

Honestly, Arte can't sell this team fast enough.  He's had 20 years to figure it out - but he's only managed to prove that being a billionaire doesn't mean you're smart.  

 

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6 minutes ago, DCAngelsFan said:

Honestly, Arte can't sell this team fast enough.  He's had 20 years to figure it out - but he's only managed to prove that being a billionaire doesn't mean you're smart.  

 

And yet..  he's smart enough to walk away with $3 billion when all is said and done.

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Jeff, as I mentioned yesterday after part 1, great reporting!

I definitely see things began to turn around with Eppler. It's often the second guy in who reaps the rewards so I hope Minasian stays the course.

@Jeff Fletcher noticeably absent from the article is any mention of or quotes from Mike Scioscia. Did he decline to comment? What was the thought process for not including him?

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2 hours ago, Angelsjunky said:

The irony here is that the Angels were essentially the minor leagues for DIpoto as a GM. Evidently he learned the lessons he needed--did "drills" and didn't worry about winning--and then moved on to the "majors" (the Mariners org). Not saying that's a great GM, but he seems like a very different one for the Mariners than he was for the Angels -- certainly better, and presumably learned from his errors.

This is what annoyed me the most in this part of the three-part series.

Dipoto comes off as clueless and way behind during his time as Angels GM— and then he’s turned it around with Seattle, where they are on the forefront of technology and analytics.

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Everything I needed to know about Arte's complete misunderstanding about how to run a successful MLB organization occurred the day he signed Hamilton. That money should have been spent on Torii (who would have returned for a small fraction of that cost), some badly needed starting pitching, and some badly needed investment in the minor league system. He seems like a genuinely nice person, but he loves to go for the shiny object instead of the investing in the boring, but necessary things that are going to take years to bear fruit.

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33 minutes ago, TempeAngel said:

Jeff, as I mentioned yesterday after part 1, great reporting!

I definitely see things began to turn around with Eppler. It's often the second guy in who reaps the rewards so I hope Minasian stays the course.

@Jeff Fletcher noticeably absent from the article is any mention of or quotes from Mike Scioscia. Did he decline to comment? What was the thought process for not including him?

I actually didn’t quote any Angels big league managers, if you’ll notice, because they are really beyond the scope of what this is about. The manager in the big leagues isn’t involved in the day to day grind of scouting and player development. 

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2 minutes ago, Trendon said:

@Jeff Fletcher

Stories like these are great, thank you for writing this!

Did the pending sale of the team enable this three-part series to be written? Like were people more willing to speak now that they know Arte is gonna sell the team or was this already in the works before then?

I think it’s a coincidence. The people who criticized Arte are entirely people who no longer work for the Angels, so I don’t think it mattered to them that he’s selling. 
 

It’s a story that has to happen in the off-season, and it wasn’t going to happen in the off-seasons of 2018-2019 (things were better), 2020 (no minor league season), 2021 (lockout and, honestly, I was writing a book), so this is when it happened. 

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7 minutes ago, Jeff Fletcher said:

I think it’s a coincidence. The people who criticized Arte are entirely people who no longer work for the Angels, so I don’t think it mattered to them that he’s selling. 
 

It’s a story that has to happen in the off-season, and it wasn’t going to happen in the off-seasons of 2018-2019 (things were better), 2020 (no minor league season), 2021 (lockout and, honestly, I was writing a book), so this is when it happened. 

It’s just odd that it’s essentially three regimes lumped into one piece.

It starts with Dipoto, moves to Eppler, and now to Minasian.

The timing would make more sense if the failures of Dipoto were written as Eppler made his changes and now the failures of Eppler were written as Minasian made his changes.

This isn’t a criticism of you, but I don’t understand why the internal issues of Dipoto’s tenure weren’t chronicled publicly until now.

The fact that the faults of the Dipoto regime didn’t get revealed until now made me wonder if it was related to the pending sale.

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To generally sum it up....

Stoneman/Reagins - The Angels system became too political, too much of a good ol' boys club among scouts and coaches. 

Dipoto - They were rudderless. No direction. No technology, no scouting, no analytical wing of things. No international presence. They were a barren wasteland. 

Eppler - They heavily invested in technology, but there was no culture, no continuity, no identity. 

Minasian - There's a balance of things. They're big on scouting and technology. They're redeveloping culture. But now the question is, how long will he be around? With the sale of the team, the new owner will likely want his own man running things, meaning the Angels will once against be starting from scratch. 

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38 minutes ago, Second Base said:

To generally sum it up....

Stoneman/Reagins - The Angels system became too political, too much of a good ol' boys club among scouts and coaches. 

Dipoto - They were rudderless. No direction. No technology, no scouting, no analytical wing of things. No international presence. They were a barren wasteland. 

Eppler - They heavily invested in technology, but there was no culture, no continuity, no identity. 

Minasian - There's a balance of things. They're big on scouting and technology. They're redeveloping culture. But now the question is, how long will he be around? With the sale of the team, the new owner will likely want his own man running things, meaning the Angels will once against be starting from scratch. 

While this is possible, the new owner may leave things intact if Minasian looks like he's doing a good job.  Minasian's pedigree is strong and from all accounts, it does look like he is developing a solid sense of cohesion throughout the system.  Players are more than just potential - they appear to be developing and growing.

When the Guggenheim group took over, they waited a few years before they move on to Friedman.  I am hopeful that Minasian will get a few more years, because it does seem like he's doing a good job, at least IMO.

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