How do you develop winners?
There isn’t one miracle approach, but in Ogden, the staff leading the Raptors seems to have the magic when it comes to this particular team.
In early April, when the bulk of the players employed by the Los Angeles Dodgers dispense to their various minor-league assignments, a handful remain in Arizona for extended spring training. These are players expected to play in rookie leagues like the Arizona League or the Pioneer League.
Players like Ogden infielder Jacob Amaya, who is hitting .362 with an on-base percentage of .485 this season, remained in Arizona. They continue training with the coaching staffs for the Ogden Raptors and the Arizona League Dodgers, which includes this year’s Ogden manager, Jeremy Rodriguez, and last year’s Ogden manager, Mark Kertenian.
There, the coaches preached professionalism, not perfection.
“Guys are going to make errors, we understand that. If they do, so what, we make an adjustment the next day,” Rodriguez said. “We get more disappointed when guys are missing the bus or not showing up for open cage, or just taking it easy. So I think these guys understand our standards.”
That didn’t stop when the short-season Pioneer League began in mid-June.
“Our guys from extended understood that, so that helped when the new draft guys came because they told them ‘Hey, this is all they want,’” Rodriguez said. “That relieves pressure off them to feel like they need to make every play, hit homers, we’ve gotta win — no, let’s worry about the things off the field first. If we take care of that, we’ll have fun and take care of stuff on the field, too.”
Ogden returned home Wednesday to open the second half after posting a 26-12 record in the first half — the best record any Raptors team has posted in any of the 49 halves the franchise has played since 1994.
The approach Rodriguez described has been apparent at the plate. In the first half, Ogden hit the most home runs (48) and also drew the most walks — 197 in 38 games works out to more than five per game.
“It all comes down to the little things,” Amaya said. “Nobody is trying to do too much or be flashy, we’re just going out there to do what we do best, and it showed in the first half.”
Leagues like the Pioneer League split their season into two halves. Division champs from the first half are guaranteed a spot in the playoffs come September. So the Raptors have already made their first step in an attempt to repeat as league champions.
Baseball is unique because games are played every day, with occasional days off here and there. The Raptors are focusing on that daily professionalism to continue their success.
“The staff has done an amazing job in the cage, with pitchers and catchers … I think the players see the work we put in to prepare them, (the players) read that and feed off it, and that’s where the success is,” Rodriguez said.
“Everyone is buying in and listening to what they have to say, whether it’s hitting mechanics or fielding mechanics,” Amaya said.
The Raptors are winning at a pace that would eclipse last year’s franchise-best 47 victories. But with the playoffs guaranteed, the team seems unwilling to settle.
“The worst thing we can do is feel like we can let off the gas a little bit and just cruise. That’s when teams who won the first half can get in trouble when the playoffs start because it’s hard to push on the gas and get it going again,” Rodriguez said.
“We’ll definitely have some guys get more opportunities. Everyone’s going to get the reps and get the playing time they need. But we’re going to play every game like it’s a playoff game ... We’re going to play aggressively like we’ve been doing. We’re going to develop these guys and try to win ballgames.”
Amaya doesn’t see a need to change anything.
“Yeah, we won the first half, but the season’s not over yet. We have to bring what we had in the first half into the second half,” he said.
“It’s something great to be a part of, but we haven’t talked about it much. As of right now, we’re worried about what we can do in the second half and winning a ring.”