It was a strange trip for former Kansas City Royals (and now, former Colorado Rockies) outfielder Vance Vizcaino, in 2019.
From his release by Kansas City, to being contacted by the Rockies while he was on the road heading back home, to his eventual success and subsequent selection in the Rule 5 Draft by the Chicago Cubs, it’s all been a roller-coaster ride. And Vizcaino has enjoyed every moment of it.
Drafted by the Royals in the 11th round out of Stetson University in 2016, Vizcaino got off to a slow start with rookie-level Burlington, slashing .265/.335/.314 in 53 games. A notable stat was his stolen-base total (16 of 25), as he stole 35 bags in 118 games at Stetson. He split 2017 between Class-A Lexington (.315/.381/.376 with 11 steals) and rookie-level Idaho Falls (.287/.344/.460 in 22 games, with 10 steals), and again the speed was on display.
His numbers took a step back in 2018, as he was promoted to High-A Wilmington after only 16 games with the Legends. Vizcaino slashed only .241/.294/.307 with the Blue Rocks, with only two steals. He was released on March 31st of 2019.
He remembered his time with the Royals organization as a great experience, as many other players have. Even after his release, handled as well as could be expected by both organization and player, he left with no ill feelings apart from the disappointment of being without a team.
“I thought Kansas City handled it very professionally,” Vizcaino began. “They told me, “’It’s not that we don’t think you’re a good player. We don’t really have the space for you in the organization. We don’t want you to waste your talent. You’re sitting around waiting for something to happen. We want to give you the freedom to get out there. And if anyone else is interested, we want them to be able to pick you up because they have a need for you.’”
“And I really respected that, because it wasn’t that they weren’t telling me that I wasn’t good enough. It was just that they wanted what was best for me and they didn’t feel that they could provide that anymore at that point, just because they didn’t have room.”
“I thought it was really a first-class organization. I thought they did a really good job with their player development, the staff that they had put in place to make the minor-league experience as good as possible for the players that they had,” Vizcaino said. “When I was going through the process of being scouted and recruited by them, I thought they were very professional. They put everything in terms that were pretty easy to understand.”
“I thought (Lexington’s coaching staff) was great, the staff that was there when I was there,” he continued. “I had (Scott) Thorman as my manager, and he’s a really great guy to play for. He makes the minor league experience fun, puts a good emphasis on winning and developing. And he makes sure that he treats his players like young men, but he also does his best to keep them in line and teach at the same time, not giving them so much freedom that they run wild or irresponsibly. That kind of stuff.”
“I knew Brooks (Conrad) from spring training, and I thought he was very similar. You know, he respected the fact that we’re not just kids playing a game, anymore. We’re grown men and we should be treated as such. And I thought he was very professional and did a really good job getting to know his players and treating them like adults.”
Vizcaino was impressed with coaches Jesus Azuaje and Glenn Hubbard, as well, and had a great deal of praise for them both.
“When I was there with Jesus Azuaje as the hitting coach, I thought he was fantastic. He made coming out to the field everyday very fun. He was very focused on performing well and having success, and he enjoyed watching players succeed. He tried his best to help guys through struggles when they weren’t performing well, or if they weren’t living up to what he thought they were capable of, he would always try and give them a little push.”
“Hubbard was amazing. I mean, his longevity in the game has been fantastic,” Vizcaino offered, in effusive praise for the long-time baseball veteran. “And the amount of knowledge you can extract from him, just being around him, talking to him, spending time with him, asking why he’s looking at what he’s seeing is just really, unbelievably impressive. He really does a good job of trying to impart the wisdom of what he looks at when he’s watching the game and the experiences that he had. It keeps that way of seeing the game going to the next generation; finding things that not everyone looks for and using those things to your advantage, doing anything you can to get a leg up on your opponent.”
When it was all said and done, Vizcaino found himself on the road, heading back home and an uncertain future. Fortunately, that uncertainty wouldn’t last long. Not at all.
“When we ended up parting ways, it was really a quick turnaround. The Rockies called the next day,” Vizcaino said. “My wife and I were driving back from Florida, and they called while we were on our way. I think we were in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, and they called and said, “’Hey, if you don’t mind, turn around, we’d love to have you. Just head back to our spring training facility in Scottsdale.’”
“And they were hitting their break after spring training before “extended” started. So it was really nice the way it went down, because we got to get into Scottsdale, move into the hotel, get kind of used to the area we were in. And then when we went into the facility, everything wasn’t brand new. We had been there a couple of days. And once I started with the team, they were very welcoming.”
As with Kansas City, Vizcaino recalled a very positive experience in joining his new organization.
“Everyone was very professional and they had a lot of their front office come in during the first few weeks of extended,” he began. “So I got to meet a lot of the people that had been watching me over the years, and were impressed with what I’d done. So it was very nice to get to meet them and thank them for the opportunity.”
Next on his “first-time experiences” list was an assignment to Class-AA and the Hartford Yard Goats, quite a step up from High-A, especially for someone who had a rather brief stint at that level. But the Rockies saw the potential. Even so, it wasn’t a smooth ride. Not at first, anyway.
“When I went out to Hartford, I went out just for a little bit. I think it was like a four-day stint the first time, because they had someone get hurt and they sent me out. I didn’t really do much, and then I came back, and it was the same thing,” he recalled. “I reached out and I just said “’Look, I believe that I’m ready, and I’m not one hundred percent sure what’s going on as to why I’m going back, but I just wanted to let you guys know that I can do this. And if the chance is there, I know I can live up to the opportunity.’”
To be sure, Vizcaino was certain about his ability. As it turned out, the Rockies were dealing with the ups and downs of minor-league roster reassignments.
“They reassured me about it. They said, “’You know, we know that you’re ready. It’s not that we don’t think you can handle yourself there. It’s that we have people coming down the ladder. Unfortunately, it was just that you had to go back to extended.’”
His return to extended was a brief one. The next time he would return to Hartford would be the last time he had to worry about heading back to the spring training complex and the uncertainty of his immediate future.
“I was only back in extended for a couple of weeks, and then they sent me back out to Hartford and gave me a real opportunity,” Vizcaino remembered. “I got the chance to take advantage of it. And I can’t thank them enough for how much they did for me this year. I mean, the year was fantastic, but I wouldn’t have been able to play if it wasn’t for the people that brought me into that organization. I also want to remember the ones who allowed me to play after having bad days, and stuff like that.”
At Hartford, Vizcaino had the opportunity to work with a hitting coach who contributed a great deal to his success with the Yard Goats.
“I thought (coach Lee Stevens) was really good. He was good at making the game fun and keeping everyone upbeat when it came to playing the game, day in and day out. There was no negativity, which was really, really great, especially when you consider that there’s so much failure in baseball that you have to learn how to deal with it. If you fail seven out of ten times, you’re a Hall-of-Famer.”
“When I got there, he didn’t really know me. I didn’t know him that much. We got to know each other, very well. And I thought he did a great job as our hitting instructor cause he would approach you as an individual. He would also ask the hitters what they thought of the approach he was taking toward them, and what sort of hitter he believed they were.”
Stevens, as with other prospects, eschewed the cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach to hitting, approaching each hitter as a unique individual and working with their strengths to bring out the best in each of them.
“For me he said, “’Look, you’re hitting the ball with a lot of authority and a lot of it is on a line,” Vizcaino said. “’So it’s not that I don’t think you can hit home runs, but I don’t see you being like a big 20, 30, 40 home-run guy. But I know the ones that you do hit are going to be screamers that are on a low angle, that really get out of the park, quickly.’”
“I mean, it turned out to be pretty true.”
As with other organizations, the Rockies had no shortage of technological support, utilizing the same equipment that is becoming ubiquitous throughout the pro ranks.
“The Rockies used a decent amount of technology, with the Trackman during games. And we would use the Blast Motion (bat sensor) during BP, as well as Rapsodo, sometimes.”
“And I thought it was really good, because they would look at those numbers and say, “’All right, so this is what you’re doing,’” “’This is where you’re kind of a little behind the curve,’” or “’This is something that we can improve on. And so let’s find the adjustments we need to make to improve on that while keeping all the other things you do well.’”
Vizcaino continued, “Coach Stevens told me, “’You don’t swing and miss a lot. You don’t chase out of the zone a lot. We like everything you do, and you’re getting older, getting stronger as you’ve gone from Lexington to Hartford. You’re bigger, faster, stronger now. So, just hitting the ball consistently is a good thing, and then as you get bigger and stronger, you’re going to hit it consistently and then it’s just going to have more authority behind it.’”
“And that’s kind of what started happening, this year. I was driving the ball; I had more doubles, home runs, triples. It wasn’t that I was trying to do these things. I was trying to just continue to hit the ball on the good part of the bat as much as I could. And naturally, it started jumping off the bat better, you know?”
Along with his new-found confidence and strength at the plate (.266/.341/.408 in 89 games, with 14 doubles, seven homers, 36 RBI, and 32 steals), Vizcaino had a few memorable plays in the field that he recalled fondly.
““There were some pretty big defensive high points, you know,” he began. “Robbing a couple of home runs in Hartford, for example. There were a few stretches where I didn’t feel as good or play as well as I knew I should have. But the management that was there in Hartford, they were fantastic, and were very good at keeping an eye on everybody and watching the guys who were really struggling. Coach (Warren) Schaeffer would give a guy a day off, if he felt they needed it, just for the mental side of it, to give a guy a break that way. It kept us from pressing too hard.”
Like all athletes, Vizcaino had moments in which he was pressing so much, “trying too hard” as they say, that his plate discipline suffered. Coach Schaeffer’s feedback helped him get back on track, Vizcaino said.
“One of the days off when I wasn’t performing as well as I knew I could, he said, “’It seems like you’re a little frustrated, and you’re outside of yourself a little bit. Seemed like some of the good pitches, you weren’t ready for them. And then the ones that you were going after weren’t the ones that you usually go after, and so you were chasing a little bit.’” And I said, “’Yeah, I know.’” He said, “Look, man, just stay with what you know how to do. You know you’re a good fastball hitter. As soon as you get one, and it doesn’t matter if it’s in, out, up, or down, you usually make good contact. So just stay consistent with that. Always be ready to hit.’”
Simple advice, on the surface, but not so much when you’re pressing so much that you forget what got you to where you are. Vizcaino gave credit to Schaeffer for going beneath the surface, helping him to get out of a mental funk, as well.
“He could tell I wasn’t in the best mood because of how I was playing at the time. So he said, “’Look, I believe that you have what it takes to get where you want to go. You run, you throw, you catch. You hit well, you do everything well, and you’re very professional about it.’”
“‘And I think you have what it takes to make it.’”
That, as would be expected, made a definite impact on Vizcaino.
“So, just to be sitting with someone who’s been in the game for a while, and has seen some good players…for him to say that really boosted my confidence and gave me the drive to get through the rest of the season. I just focused on doing as well as I could, because I knew I didn’t need to prove myself.”
It wasn’t all about the progress that the coaches at Hartford helped him make, however. Vizcaino’s off-season training and renewed approach to building on his particular on-field strengths came at just the right time.
“I think a lot of preparation for the season was built around finding a personal trainer when the season ended,” he said. “And some days we worked on strength, others on speed and agility.”
“When I started pro ball, I knew that this was the sort of player I wanted to be: that I could cause some trouble for the other team, if I got on base. I wanted to be able to impact all facets of the game.”
“I found a personal trainer to work with, in the off-season,” he said. “Going into it in the beginning, he said, “’We’re going to be doing speed and agility stuff on the weekends, if you want to come out for it, too.’”
“And I said, “’I want to do that, as much as possible.’”
His new approach to off-season training, coupled with the generous leeway Hartford gave him on the bases, put Vizcaino on the right track to not only adjusting to Double-A ball, but allowed him to showcase his talents in memorable ways. Two of those moments are prominent in Vizcaino’s memory of the season.
“Obviously, one of the steals that stood out for me was stealing home (Ed. Note-@ home vs. Portland; August 14th, 2019). Coach Schaeffer said, “’You know, the catcher’s sort of lolly-popping those throws back to the pitcher. If you think you’ve got it, take off.’” And it worked out perfectly,” he said.
“The other time was in a tie game against Harrisburg,” Vizcaino recalled, though the date of the game escaped him. “I went to put down a bunt to move the runner over, and it wasn’t a great bunt. It didn’t get that far from home. They got the guy at second, but I made it to first.”
“I was like, “’Aw, man, I just messed up. I let the team down.’” But then I thought, “’If I can get to second base before the hitter moves me over, we’d be in the same situation again.”
“So as soon as I reached first, I was thinking, “’I’m going.’”
“I ended up getting the base, and they drove me in, and we won the game, anyway. But in my head, I was thinking, “’I let the team down.’” But still, I wasn’t gonna beat myself up for a long time, you know? Learn from it, move on.”
As to the “light-touch” approach of Coach Schaeffer regarding his base-runners, Vizcaino felt this allowed him to truly explore just how much he could accomplish. As he mentioned before, he was able to explore how much of a problem he could be, for the opposing team.
“When I was in spring training with the Royals (in 2019), I was running well. My legs were feeling good, they felt strong. And they told me, “’You’re running better than we’ve ever seen you run, and we’re really happy about that.’”
“Then, when I got to the Rockies, and I was in extended and we would go through base-running stuff when the coordinator was in town, I’d ask questions and talk about things with them, and they were very open with helping me. They told me, “’If you’ve got (the base), take it. We’re not going to sit there and tell you not to run. If we do, there’s a reason behind it.’” But more often than not, they said, “’If you’ve got the base, just go.’”
Coach Schaeffer echoed this base-running philosophy, and Vizcaino, for lack of a better phrase, ran with it.
“When I got to Hartford, (Coach Schaeffer) said the same thing. He said, “’If you think you can get it, get it. Go do it.’”
“As the year went on, he was pushing me even more. He’d say, “’Hey, man, you could get thirty, this year.’” I think Hartford’s record is 34, 36 steals. He said, “’I think you can do it before the season is over. You can go get it.’” And that was just more motivation to get on and be ready to run, at all times, you know?”
“I kind of felt that fear of getting thrown out go away.”
“If you were getting thrown out 100% of the time, it wouldn’t be that they’d be upset with you, or that they’d feel like you ran them out of a run-scoring situation. They encouraged being aggressive.”
Hartford had a practice of praising the “little things”, as well, things to which some fans may assign little value, if any at all.
“They kept track of things like ‘Best Situational Hitter of The Month’. Players that could move the runner over on ground-outs, for example. So that was a big part of it all; they wanted you to do everything you could to help the team.”
Vizcaino finished the season second on the team in runs scored (47 in 89 games), as well as leading the team in steals, with thirty-two. Not bad, for playing in barely 64% of the team’s games. And though the number itself doesn’t jump out at you, his seven homers was a career-high, and a product of his bolstered confidence and Stevens’ coaching. As he would find out when the season ended, he was drawing the attention of what would become his third major-league organization, and an entirely-new challenge.