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Player Game Report: Chevez Clarke, 3/20/10

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Last Saturday, I took in a game between The Walker School and Marietta High School, with The Walker being the host. I went to the game purely to see Chevez Clarke, and I was not disappointed. Clarke features excellent athleticism and a good idea of how to use it, and I came into the game expecting to see something special. Scouts were a little down on him entering the spring, as his effort was seen as subpar, and he really lacked pitch identification at the plate. However, I knew beforehand that he was showing a renewed enthusiasm on the field, coupled with better pitch identification, resulting in a better overall product. That was the Chevy Clarke I saw on Saturday.

Let me preface this by saying that Clarke was facing competition clearly below his level. The Walker School has a solid history as a successful small-school baseball program, but they’ve typically done it with players that are well-coached rather than extremely skilled. Notable recent alumni, though, include 2009 third round draftee David Hale, who came out of Princeton, and possible early round 2010 prospect Matt Price at Virginia Tech. They don’t have a Hale or Price on this year’s team, but you could tell they were a smart team, though one that didn’t match up with Clarke’s pure talent level.

Knowing that little fact, I came into the game wary of what I might see. Clarke could have easily dominated the game, but I wasn’t sure what that would tell me. There weren’t even any other scouts there, as this wasn’t a matchup that scouts expected to yield any new information. However, since I hadn’t seen Clarke before, I felt the trip was worth it. As soon as I got to the field, I could tell which player Clarke was, even without jerseys or numbers, as Marietta warms up in t-shirts before putting their jerseys on right before the game. He just stood out, both for his body and for his swagger. He just had that extra little something that catches the attention of those watching. When you see him up close, you can see why scouts dream on him. He stands roughly at six feet tall, and his frame is just simply described as wiry. He has wiry strength on a lithe frame, and he’s the type of kid that projects to add strength while keeping his athleticism. He simply needs to fill out in his upper half. His legs are strong, and he has a mature lower half in general. Once his upper half matures and fills out, he could be dangerous.

I left plenty of time to see Clarke in action in warm-ups before the game, hoping to get a glimpse at what is described as an above-average to plus arm. I was a little disappointed when I didn’t see that arm really let loose. He would get to a ball quickly, and then simply throw it at what looked like 80 percent to the base during infield. Even then, though, his arm looked like an average weapon with obvious room for more, since he wasn’t even getting behind his throws. I didn’t get to see him unload a throw during the game, either, but I’m pretty sure that the reports about his arm are true.

In game action, the Marietta team has Clarke hitting leadoff. I can see the advantages of that, but I have to wonder if they might want him to drive in some runs every once in awhile. He never got to hit with anyone on base other than a time when he was intentionally walked and had a single runner on first, so if I were coaching for Marietta, he’d be more useful in the middle of the lineup. However, I’m not the coach, so I got to see how Clarke would look as a leadoff hitter, which is his eventual destination anyway in the pros. In his first at-bat, he took some pitches, but he fell behind quickly as a result. When he did decide to swing, he was fooled badly by a well below-average curveball, jumping out on his lead foot and swinging through the pitch for strike two. The pitcher, realizing Clarke’s problems reading that pitch tried to sneak one past him again, but Clarke simply rolled over the pitch instead, grounding it fairly weakly to the second baseman. He was thrown out with plenty of time to spare, and he reached first in 4.51 seconds, having slowed down in the last ten feet.

Now is the time to tell you about a player I really enjoyed watching on Marietta, which was sophomore shortstop Dansby Swanson. One of only three sophomores on the Marietta roster (a second being his middle infield partner), Swanson immediately stood out during infield. I figured he was like most lanky, young shortstops in that his hitting was well behind his solid fielding and average arm, but I was wrong. Marietta had him hitting third in the lineup, over a number of experienced upperclassmen. He hit from the right side in his first at-bat, from the left side in his second at-bat against the same pitcher, and then went back to the right side for the remainder of his plate appearances. His first at-bat was a bit of a revelation, even though it only lasted a single pitch. I expected a kid that would try to muscle the ball up, but instead, Dansby simply blasted a fastball right back through the box with solid-average bat speed, getting a single to center field. He never showed much more than fringe-average speed, but he looks like he could be an excellent follow for the 2012 class. It’s a nice surprise when you go to a game for one prospect, but come out feeling good about another, and Dansby made the trip enjoyable.

Clarke didn’t come up again until the third inning, mainly due to Marietta hacking at a pitcher with high-70s velocity. Unfortunately, Clarke did the same thing. After fouling off a few pitches to get behind in the count again, he got something out over the plate, and he flashed plus bat speed on a screaming line drive to right-center field for a single. He reached first base in 4.56 seconds on the turn, showing good speed once again. Once Clarke was at first, though, I was treated to how raw of a baserunner he is. Against a pitcher with an average pickoff move, he was nearly picked off with an average lead at first on two separate occasions, back-to-back. When the batter following him hit a solid groundball for a perfect double play ball, I did like what I saw in Clarke’s effort to break up the double play, though he was unsuccessful. He did go in hard, though, and I liked that he didn’t let up simply to save his own body.

In the fourth inning, I got to see Clarke’s defense in action. The Walker was threatening to open the game up, leading 2-0 with the bases loaded and only one out. A hitter stepped in, and when ahead in the count, he ripped a medium-height line drive that looked like a sure bases-clearing double off the bat. The parents in the stands immediately stood up cheering, thinking the same thing. However, Clarke got an excellent jump on the ball, and he showed plus closing speed into the left-center field gap. About ten feet short of the wall in deep left-center, while at full speed, he laid out in mid-air, getting the ball in the very tip of his glove, holding on as he tumbled over, the effect of such a high-effort move. You could tell The Walker players were coached well, as a runner still scored by tagging up, but the catch was simply demoralizing. The stands grew silent, and then started buzzing as parents started asking each other if what they saw was true. I, myself, just stared with my jaw dropped open, then I looked over at his posse (as I like to call his family and family friends who support him at games), who just smiled back. It was a Major League center fielder’s catch, and that erased all doubts about him being able to play center field.

Clarke came up in the top half of the next inning, ready to show off his hitting skills once again. The Walker had a second pitcher in, this one throwing in the low-80s with consistently better stuff than the first pitcher. It still wasn’t even a fair fight, but it was closer. After watching the pitcher against his teammates, Clarke stepped in knowing he wanted a first pitch fastball in. He got it and ripped another single, this between the first and second basemen. He simply has some of the quickest wrists out there, and I have great confidence that he’ll be able to turn on even the best fastballs in the pros. His issues with breaking balls are different, but he can sure hit fastballs. He made it up the line in 5.01 seconds, having no sort of hurry. His baserunning was once again raw on this trip on the bases, which saddened me. With a runner ahead of him at second, the hitter behind Clarke hit a solid flyball to left-center field, which landed just beyond the reach of the left fielder. The runner at second was conservative, and rightly so, since he could have been thrown out at second if he ventured too far and it was caught. Clarke, however, was also much too conservative, and he was only about 20 feet from the first base bag when the ball landed and rolled to the wall, and he only ended up at third after a very athletic effort, getting to third in 10.27 seconds from the time the ball landed. When at third, he became even more conservative, getting one of the smaller leads I’ve seen from such an elite player with plus speed. On a groundball to the shortstop, who was playing back with one out and a two run lead, he didn’t even try to score, having taken a tiny secondary lead in a situation where the run was being granted. He ended up being stranded at third in the inning, with his team down 3-1 with only a couple of innings to go, forcing me to shake my head in frustration. He’s going to need some significant work on the basepaths in order to unleash his athleticism, and I wonder if he’ll ever be aggressive enough to make a difference there.

In the next inning, Clarke once again showed something with his defense, though it wasn’t all positive. On a tailing flyball on a windy day from the bat of a right-handed hitter with no one on base, Clarke’s first instinct was to take a couple of steps in. He quickly realized that was the wrong decision. He circled back immediately, and the ball landed ten feet behind him after he started running at a dead sprint a second earlier. He reached the ball quickly and hurtled the ball back into the infield, but it was too late to catch the runner at second. I thought it could have simply been the wind, so I just wrote down a question mark about his reads, since it wasn’t a definitive play. However, against the very next batter, I was thoroughly convinced that his outfield reads would be right up there with his baserunning and pitch recognition in terms of what pro coaches will need to work on. On a ball tailing the other way, to his right, he got another late jump, though he made sure not to take a step forward this time. Instead, he froze, but then caught up to the ball in the alley at a dead sprint. Instead of simply catching the ball at his waist on the run, though, he did what I considered showboating, though I can’t be positive of the motives behind it. He slowed up and then laid out in similar style to his earlier catch, though the move was quite obvious. I wouldn’t have cared too much if that dive didn’t give the runner at second time to retreat ten feet, tag up, and make it to third with time to spare. His dive cost his team a base, and that could have been worse if The Walker didn’t strand him.

The Walker brought in a left-handed pitcher to try and preserve a 3-1 lead heading into the 6th inning. I was very excited about the possibility of seeing Clarke hit right-handed. However, before Clarke even came up, his teammates walked and doubled, making it runners at second and third with two outs. The Walker coach proceeded to intentionally walk Clarke, which is done without a pitch at the high school level, and Marietta stranded all three runners in the inning, leaving me very disappointed.

That was the last I got to see of Clarke doing anything in the game, but I’m not done with my story. Remember Dansby Swanson, the promising young Marietta shortstop? Well, he wasn’t ready to go out quite yet. Leading off the 7th inning for Marietta, down 3-1 entering the frame, Swanson proceeded to swat an impressive home run to dead center field, with the ball landing approximately 360-370 feet away. This wasn’t some wind-aided home run. This was legit. Marietta did manage to scratch across another run, tying it going into the bottom of the inning, but after loading up the bases with two outs, Swanson proceeded to bobble a potential inning-ending groundball, and all were safe, with The Walker scoring the winning run for a 4-3 victory. That miscue aside, I’m going to enjoy coming back to see Dansby more times over the next two years.

My overall impression of Clarke was positive, despite my numerous words about his weaknesses. One of the best scouts to ever run a scouting department, Paul Snyder, formerly of the Braves, used to say that he wanted to know what a player could do, not what he couldn’t do. I’ll tell you what Clarke can do. He can hit fastballs as good as anybody in this class, and he’ll be able to handle Major League fastballs. He can make adjustments from at-bat to at-bat. He can foul tough balls off, even if he’s fooled by them. His hand-eye coordination is obviously plus, and he could be a .300+ hitter as a Major Leaguer if he learns to lay off the breaking stuff. He can run. He can play plus center field defense. He will give you effort, even when the team you’re playing against is beneath him in terms of talent. That’s what Chevez Clarke can do. He will be a solid addition to a team looking for a franchise center fielder, and even though it may take him a number of years to make it through a minor league system, he’ll be one of the most well-rounded center fielders in those development years in all of the minors. He still looks like a late first-round to early second-round player, and now the only question to me is how much his Georgia Tech commitment is worth.