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A Conversation With Shortstop Joe Sclafani, or: The Development of a Utilityman

A 14th-rounder out of Dartmouth, Joe Sclafani has always been a shortstop. But now, in a system stacked with quality infielders, he's finding ways to fit in and make himself useful. I pulled him aside before the start of Lancaster's game against the High Desert Mavericks on Saturday, August 3.

Anthony Boyer

We've spent a lot of time talking about the depth that Jeff Luhnow has built in the Astros' minor league system. One aspect of that that we rarely consider is what it means for guys who aren't among those top prospects - "tweeners," who show enough promise to be more than organizational guys, but who lack the shine of the top prospects. Joe Sclafani is one such guy. It wasn't long ago that Sclafani's numbers would have prompted many to consider him as one of the Astros' top prospects, but in the current system, he's near the end of a logjam of infielders with big league potential.

I pulled him aside recently to talk about how he's adjusted to playing in such a prospect-rich system.

(transcript lightly edited for clarity)

Thanks for talking to me, Joe. I know you spoke with Jayne Hansen at What The Heck, Bobby (link) earlier this year. I tend to focus more on the developmental side of the minor leagues, and while everyone loves the top prospects, I have a soft spot for grinders, myself.

That's a good way to describe me. I'm definitely a grinder.

You're a fourteenth rounder out of Dartmouth. You know Astros fans like their Dartmouth guys. Brad Ausmus never actually played there, but he went there. Can you tell me about the whole draft process? Wasn't it within days of your college graduation?

Yeah, it was a very special time for me. I had actually just finished. I turned in my last paper that Monday. I got drafted on Tuesday. Three days later, my parents were up there for graduation. I think I graduated that next Sunday, and I went to Tri-City on Monday. So everything was kind of a whirlwind, but it was really cool because all my friends were done with classes. I had gotten word that I might get drafted in the fourteenth or fifteenth round, so all my friends came over and that made it a very cool thing.

You were on the Brooks Wallace Award watchlist, among the top thirty college shortstops in the nation. Out of a small school like Dartmouth, that's an accomplishment.

It was a big honor for me. Just a testament to the groundwork I laid over four years, just very consistent, and eventually I got on someone's radar. It was definitely cool to be recognized among the top shortstops. I think (Nolan) Fontana was on there, too, and a few other guys I knew. So it was definitely a cool thing.

Being three-time All-Ivy League doesn't hurt. Two-time team MVP.

I had a good career there. Baseball America picked me three times to be preseason player of the year, but I didn't get it. It was still cool that they thought really highly of me.

Batting leadoff and starting at shortstop your freshman year will help.

Yeah, I had a great opportunity to go there and play. That's part of the reason I went there; it was the best combination of athletics and academics, and they had just lost two senior shortstops, so I was going to have a good chance to go there and play. Had a good fall. The team was just an awesome group of guys. Couldn't have asked for a better group of guys, and then we kind of took off. I had a couple of good weekends, and didn't really let up after that.

Since Bob Whalen took over in 1990, twenty-one guys have been drafted out of Dartmouth, which is more than were taken in the thirty or so years before he got there. Do you think Major League baseball teams are just turning over more rocks, or is it something that Coach Whalen and his staff are doing?

Coach Whalen does a phenomenal job there. Just look at his track record. His overall record is above .500, which is impressive for an Ivy League team, because we start our season later and we always play big teams. He does a really great job developing guys. Recently, the coaching staff up there has done a phenomenal job finding guys. More guys are looking for that combination I was talking about, academics and athletics, and our strength coach up there, Coach Miller, does a fantastic job. They had three guys drafted this year and another guy signed as a free agent.

Seven drafted in the last four years.

It didn't hurt that we won the Ivy League my freshman and sophomore year. We were one game away my junior year and senior year. They got swept this year, but still, they were in it again. So I think people are starting to notice. When we were in the Miami Regional my sophomore year, we were on national TV. We showed very well. We played great, and the guys are smart. Having a backup plan is all you can really ask for. Some guys play this game out of necessity because they have nothing else. We have the luxury of having a nice Plan B. So if, God forbid, if you get hurt or if they just tell you it's time to hang ‘em up, you can go out and get a good job.

"The caliber of guys and all the depth that we have here is just so unbelievable that I have to make myself versatile in order to find a way to get into a lineup."

So was that the reason for going back your senior year?

Honestly, I was ready to go my junior year, but nobody called me. My best year at Dartmouth.

A lot of people do think that was your best year, but what I saw in your senior year was a guy who raised his walk rate by four percentage points while cutting his strikeouts down. Was that a change in approach?

Not really. Because of the success I'd had early on, people pitched me differently. It took me a little bit to get used to that. My senior year, I figured it out. I was a little unlucky. My batting average wasn't very good, but I was hitting balls hard all over the place.

Unlucky is a good way to put it. Your batting average on balls in play fell sixty points.

The coaching staff did a great job just helping me prepare. We go through all those stats: How guys are going to pitch you, how they've pitched me in the past four years. We were very in-depth about it. It definitely helped me.

Do you think that's helping you as a pro, as well?

Yeah. I'm one of those guys that keeps one of those books that they gave us last year. Some guys don't really care, but if you can pick up any tendency... any little thing that you can get is going to help. Just an extra hit a week.

One thing I find interesting about you is you're a switch-hitter, and last year you were much better as a righty, but this year you're much better as a lefty.

It's absurd. Last year righty, I struggled a little bit at the beginning, too, but those things tend to even themselves out. Just here, it's been so many right-handed starters.

So you're just getting a lot more reps there?

Yeah. I won't get to hit right-handed for a few days, then all of a sudden a left-handed reliever will come in. One of those funky guys, throws real hard, it's like you can't really get in any rhythm. I work really hard to stay as sharp as I can from the right side. I've been a little unlucky so far. It'll even out.

So you come in here to Lancaster, and you've got Delino DeShields at second, Nolan Fontana at shortstop. You're finding places everywhere. Third base, DH, short, second. What's it like to prepare, not exactly knowing that you have a home on the field?

That's a good way to put it. It's fun. I was a shortstop my entire life, but obviously, I'm also very realistic. When I was in Quad Cities, Carlos (Correa) was there. I needed to expand my arsenal a little bit. So I worked real hard with Adam Everett and (Tom) Lawless. Since I've been here, I just get work in everywhere. I told Rodney (Linares) I can play outfield, too, probably if they needed me to. I just have to do what I can to find a way, because the caliber of guys and all the depth that we have here is just so unbelievable that I have to make myself versatile in order to find a way to get into a lineup.

The Astros' minor leagues have just become so stacked with depth over the past couple of years. It's got to be hard to stand out as a guy who's not among the crowd that everyone talks about so much. Your numbers are right up there with any of them. Your wRC+ is 15th in the Cal League among guys with at least fifty plate appearances.


You're second on the team behind Matt Duffy.

Duffy's a machine. He's unbelievable.

Another college shortstop.

I played against him. My first game in college, in fall ball, we played Vermont when he was there.

Then his program closed and he had to find a new school.

He's good enough, it didn't really matter.

So what are you working on?

It's a never-ending process. Obviously, I'm learning to play a couple new positions, as well, so Morgan (Ensberg) and I work all the time. Just kind of simplifying things. Don't let the game speed you up. I have to cut down on the errors a little bit. If I'm going to play the way I am, giving guys rest here and there, or if they get nicked up and I have to go in, there can't be a dropoff.

It's got to be tough, because you're not getting the reps in game situations, and when you are, they're at different positions.

Right. I have to work harder.

That utility aspect has got to be difficult.

It's tough. It's a new challenge that I've never had to deal with before, but I'm embracing it. In the offseason, I'm going to work out everywhere. I'm going to get an outfield glove. Being versatile just helps my case. We have so many good guys at every position. A guy who can step in and play any of those positions is a great asset to have, I'm assuming, from a coach's perspective.

"If I'm going to play the way I am, giving guys rest here and there, or if they get nicked up and I have to go in, there can't be a dropoff."

One of the things that impresses me a lot - I was at the most recent Rancho Cucamonga series, in Rancho. A ball goes into the bullpen in left field and Brandon Meredith makes a sliding grab, but there's Joe Sclafani, just a few steps behind, having covered twice as much ground. That motor appeals to me. Like I said, I like the grinders. Is that something you've always had?

You know, I've never been the most physically-gifted guy in the world. My dad is a great guy, and he instilled great values in me. I was a small guy, but I was a little bulldog. The one thing he always got through my head was that you can control how hard you play. You can't control what happens after you hit a ball. Sometimes a ball's going to take a bad hop. All those things, just let them go. You get up four times a game, maybe. You need to run hard four times. There's no skill in that. I like it. I like being a grinder; a dirtbag. That's what I was in college for four years, and that's why I had the good career that I had.

See the play yourself.

That ties into another skill of yours. So far this year, you've got forty-four walks and forty-five strikeouts. How do you explain your ability to draw walks and to get on base, even when you're not getting hits?

It's something I've definitely worked on my entire life, because I've always been a top-of-the-order type of guy. Through college, I led off for four years. In high school, I hit first or second all the time. It goes along with what the Astros are preaching: Being selectively aggressive. If you get a good pitch to hit early on, go for it, but I'm not a guy who has a ton of power, so I'm not necessarily going to drive the ball out of the park. If they're just nibbling on the edges, I'm comfortable enough to hit with two strikes, so I won't bite at those. That leads to laying off of changeups or sliders in the dirt that maybe, if you're a little over-aggressive, you swing at. I just look to get into good counts, and if I'm doing that, then I know that the hits will come.

There was a rumor going around that the Astros were telling minor leaguers not to swing on full counts (link). I'm going to guess no one's ever told you that.

I don't know where that's coming from. No one's ever said that to me.

"You get up four times a game, maybe. You need to run hard four times. There's no skill in that. I like it. I like being a grinder; a dirtbag. That's what I was in college for four years, and that's why I had the good career that I had."

This new guy we got from Kansas City, Kyle Smith. He's a control guy who can paint the black. Smaller guy, not an overpowering fastball, known for his control. Is that the kind of guy that would give you the most trouble as a hitter, because you tend to lay off of borderline pitches?

It's kind of a double-edged sword. When I know guys are going to be around the zone, I can expand a little bit. But those guys that throw 98 but they're going to be all over the place, those guys actually scare me a little bit more. When I know it's going to be around the plate, I'm actually more comfortable.

What did you hear about the Cal League before you got called up from Quad Cities?

I knew it was an offensive league. The wind here obviously blows a lot, but there are also just a lot of really good hitters. The jump from the Midwest League is huge. The first month in the Midwest League is so tough, just because it's so cold. But guys here, they just don't miss a good pitch. Everybody's approach is very good. The league is impressive.

What about Darryl Robinson as a hitting coach?

I love him. He's great because he's not too technical. He's not going to try to change every little thing, which messes with me a lot. I've had coaches who tried to do that, and you start thinking about things. But D-Rob, he preaches a lot about approach, and just being ready and being on time. He makes everybody in there feel comfortable, and he's always available to go out and do extra work. Couldn't ask for more from a hitting coach, and you can see the results.

Well, I won't keep you any longer. I appreciate your time.

Thanks so much.

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