Feature Photo: Chad Pinder, IF, Athletics
Oakland A’s minor league infielder Chad Pinder emerged on the national prospect scene this season when he won the Texas League MVP award by hitting .317/.361/.486 as a shortstop for the Double-A Midland RockHounds. He continued to impress during the Arizona Fall League season, earning a spot on Jonathan Mayo’s “10 breakout prospects from 2015 Fall League” list. While his bat was steady in AFL, it was Pinder’s ability to play both middle infield positions this Fall that generated buzz among evaluators. With the A’s middle infield situation unsettled, Pinder’s ability to play multiple positions potentially gives Oakland options moving forward.
A 2013 compensation round pick (#71 overall) by Oakland, Pinder was a third baseman and shortstop at Virginia Tech and played primarily at short in his debut season at Short A Vermont. He moved to second base in 2014, teaming with Daniel Robertson — a highly regarded shortstop prospect taken by the A’s in the 1st Round of the 2012 Draft (#34 overall)– up-the-middle for the High A Stockton Ports. Pinder hit .288/.336/.489 for the Ports while playing on the right side of the infield for the first time in his career. When the A’s traded Robertson to the Tampa Bay Rays before the 2015 season, Pinder shifted back to his more natural shortstop position with Midland.
While Pinder’s bat opened eyes all season, scouts in Arizona focused mostly on his glove this Fall. Does he have the ability to stay at shortstop in the big leagues? Or is he better suited for second base or even a utility role? As far as the A’s are concerned, that question still remains to be answered.
Oakland A’s director of player development Keith Lieppman indicated that Pinder’s movement around the infield is part of a bigger organizational plan to have him as an option for a variety of roles at the major-league level. Lieppman says that Pinder’s progress at shortstop this season went better than the organization expected, but that they want to continue to expose him to second base, as well.
“The fact that he played second a lot [in 2014] and he had been moved back-and-forth in college, there had been some discussion as to what best suits him,” Lieppman said. “Sometimes in baseball you have to expose them to the opportunities and let them show you what they can do. There is no predicting how it is going to play out for a guy. Over time [the game] sort of puts players where they belong or where the situation requires them.”
Eric Martins, a longtime A’s scout who served as the hitting and infield defensive coach with Midland this year, says that Pinder was quick to embrace the move back to short this season, even though it required re-learning the position.
“Chad is a kid who when he sets his mind to do something, he really gets after it,” Martins said. “We set a pretty good routine a couple of times a week of [pregame] infield instruction to help him. There would be times when he would be asking for the extra work. One thing that we were worried about was that it was going to take away from his offensive production to have to worry about playing shortstop, but he obviously proved us all wrong with that.”
Pinder says the move from short to second in 2014 provided more challenges than the move back to short this year.
“That took me a couple of weeks to feel confident over there [at second],” Pinder said. “It’s totally different. Everything is backwards. Once I got acclimated over there, I really, really enjoyed the position. Going back to short this year, you are playing at a higher level, but you have done it all of your life. You are playing at a quicker pace but you have made those plays before.”
The A’s player development department believes that Pinder has the tools to be an everyday shortstop, if that is where he is presented the best opportunity to play at the big league level. However, both the A’s and Pinder himself acknowledge that he is a work-in-progress at the position.
“I try to hold myself to a little bit of a higher standard,” Pinder said. “I know I have a lot of work left to do [at shortstop] at least to live up to what I want to do there.”
Martins was impressed with the improvement Pinder made at the position during the season.
“It’s not about his ability. To play that position, if you haven’t played it in awhile, the game speeds up a little bit with guys who can run a little more than they can in the college ranks,” Martins says. “He did a good job. Fundamentally, Chad has good hands. He has a plus arm. It’s just working on some different reads, footwork and angles with him.”
In addition to working with Pinder on his defense, Martins worked closely with Pinder to improve his approach at the plate this season. A naturally aggressive hitter, Pinder struckout 4.5 times for every walk in 2014. While he didn’t significantly improve his overall walk-rate in 2015, Pinder did reduce his K-rate by more than 3%. That improved contact rate led to a spike in batting average (.288 in the California League to .317 in the Texas League) in a more difficult league to hit in.
“Chad is a smart kid,” Martins said. “He is really a student of the game. We didn’t want to take away his aggressiveness but it was about having a better approach, understanding what pitchers were going to try to do to get him out at the plate. Chad’s not a free swinger. He had an idea of what he wanted to do at-bat to at-bat. He really stuck to that and did a great job.”
Ironically, Pinder’s best position defensively may be the one he has logged all of 40 innings at since turning pro: third base. Pinder played a lot of third base at Virginia Tech, but the A’s are deep at third base with three third basemen among their top-20 prospects (Matt Chapman, Renato Nunez and Ryon Healy). Consequently, Pinder hasn’t seen any significant playing time as a pro at the hot corner even though many within the A’s organization believe he could be an above-average defender at the position based on what they saw of him at third in college.
For his part, Pinder says he’d feel comfortable moving back to third if need be, although he acknowledges that he is a bit rusty at the position. He has had just 16 chances at third as a pro and has been charged with two errors.
“I really enjoyed playing [third] in college,” Pinder said. “That’s one of those positions that you think of playing and going back over there, that’s also a huge jump because everything is much more of a reaction and everything is quicker over there.”
Despite his movement around the infield, Pinder continues to impress the A’s with his overall skills.
“He played a tremendous shortstop last year. He was outstanding. He is our Player of the Year and not all because of his bat,” Lieppman said. “He made the routine plays and the exceptional plays in the hole. His arm is there, quick actions. He has played the part. Whether he is in-line for that position in the future [with the A’s] remains to be seen. It’s more likely that there is a spot next year for a second baseman, and that is part of the reason that we sent him to the Fall League was so that he could get more experience at second base in case that opportunity did come about.”
One National League scout sees Pinder filling a utility role in the big leagues.
“Pinder is passable at shortstop, which is to say I think he has enough fundamental skill to make most routine plays, but lacks the footwork and quick step for ideal range at the position, and he isn’t going to take away many hits,” the scout said. “He’s more of an average second baseman for me rather than a below-average shortstop. Overall, more of a utility type that can show some skill at the plate and versatility on the infield dirt.”
In conversation with another American League scout, I made the comparison that Pinder could be the player that the A’s hoped their 2009 first-round pick Grant Green would grow into: an infielder that can play several positions while hitting for average and some power. He agreed with that assessment.
Pinder also sees the value in continuing to get better at multiple positions.
“It’s good to be out here in the Fall League and be able to do both short and second because they are so different,” Pinder said. “To be able to do both of those things at the same time has helped me grow at both.”
Pinder says he has taken advantage of playing alongside fellow middle infield prospects Robertson, J.T. Riddle and Eliot Soto this Fall with the Solar Sox and has picked their brains on how they approach a variety of plays up the middle.
“We have traded different tidbits about different angles for different plays, moving to the left and to the right and different footwork,” Pinder said. “When you get around this type of talent, if you walk away without learning something from someone else, I feel like you are shortchanging yourself.”
When talking to the A’s brass about Pinder, one quality that is continually mentioned is how hard he works to improve all aspects of his game. Whether it has been an aggressive assignment to the California League in his first full pro season or moving positions, the A’s have consistently challenged Pinder and he has responded to each challenge.
Lieppman has been impressed with how Pinder has embraced those challenges.
“He has accepted his role and has actively tried to get better,” Lieppman said.
It is that studiousness and drive to improve that the A’s feel will allow Pinder to find success in whatever major league role he is presented.