Fire League – The AZL and Instructs

Fire League – The AZL and Instructs (by Kim Contreras)

Kim Contreras covers the Oakland A’s for Oakland Clubhouse and the Chicago White Sox for South Side Sox. She’s also followed spring training, the AZL, instructs, and the Arizona Fall League in Arizona for the past 15 seasons.

The Arizona Summer League (AZL) is a rookie (R) level complex league, played on the backfields of ten Cactus League facilities in and around Phoenix. The experience levels range from college seniors to 17 year old international free agent signees playing their first games in the U.S. The talent is often raw, the playing conditions are a challenge – the heat, not the fields – and because there are no announcers, walk-up music, video boards, concessions or ticket sales, and though admission is free, there is little if any attendance. The energy resembles more of a laid back workout than an official game. It takes a little bit to adjust.

For those who appear in a handful of games before a promotion to a full-season team, their stat line is rough and says nothing about their ability. This is important to keep in mind for all players but even more for those top position-player draft picks on whom unrealistic expectations are placed by those who know little about the development process. They join the team a week or two after games have begun, when their teammates and opponents have acclimated to the heat and game conditions.

To those who’ve never experienced the first few weeks of the “Fire League” the 7pm start is misunderstood as being a relief from sun and heat. And they would be wrong. Yes, it’s a “night” game but the first pitch temps especially the first few weeks register anywhere from 108 – 114 degrees and even when the sun begins to set around the 3rd/4th inning, the difference is negligible. In 2019, game time will be moved up to 6pm in hopes of completing games before the monsoons can wreck havoc on a full slate of games. Everyone understands how heat impacts performance, we can all relate.

But for position players like White Sox’s Nick Madrigal (2018) and Zack Collins (2016) and Cubs’ Kris Bryant (2013) their offensive numbers while in the AZL sent the respective fan bases into a panic. [Eye roll] Ridiculous. Three great ballplayers, all Golden Spikes finalists, with KB winning in 2013, and all three reported to Arizona after battling with their college teammates to be win it all. Only one was successful in the AZL, Madrigal. The final month of NCAA games were high energy, high profile, high intensity. Crowds, media, music, spotlight! They report to the complex in Glendale or Mesa and….crickets. It’s like they entered the witness protection program.

Remember when the Baltimore Orioles played the silent game after the riots in 2015? No music, no fans, no announcer, nada. That’s every game in the Arizona League. But it’s also 110 degrees with the sun in your eyes for the first third of the game. Forget intensity and emotion, these guys are trying to not melt as they walk from the parking lot to the clubhouse. Everyone else on both teams went through the same thing, but three weeks earlier, so these “stars” are having to play catch-up. Then there’s catcher Zack Collins, who did, in fact, strap on all his gear and catch three games in the AZL before heading to High-A Winston-Salem. Once promoted to a full-season team, where there’s familiarity with the flow, and fans, it all balances out. Pitchers are less negatively impacted than their position player counterparts. But the fielding, or lack thereof, is raw. The sun is an issue for even the most experienced fielders, but somehow it’s always the pitcher whose numbers are impacted. The Arizona League may be rookie-level, but it isn’t easy nor does it provide a clear picture of a player’s abilities.

Quick note on Extended Spring Training (Extended) and the Fall Instructional League (Instructs). They are both informal camps, workouts, scrimmages, practice, etc. They are not official leagues and to keep stats is unfair. This is where they try new things, work on a new pitch or batting stance. For instance, if a pitcher enters the game with 2 outs and is scheduled to throw for 10 predetermined pitches, the game will extend after the 3rd out or he could give up a home run on each pitch, it’s the work he needs and will get, it’s practice. Hit a home run? You’re stoked until you realize it is as official as ones you hit during batting practice. Give up a homer? You don’t really care because maybe you’re working on developing a new pitch and bullpens can only tell you so much.