The Tenth Inning
 The Tenth Inning Blog
Periodically, I will post new entries about current baseball topics.  The posts will typically be a mixture of commentary, history, facts, and stats.  Hopefully, they will provoke some  of your thoughts or emotions. Clicking on the word "Comments" associated with each post below will open a new dialog box to enter or retrieve any feedback.
Mid-term report card: pre-season predictions off the mark

At the beginning of the regular season, I predicted the Boston Red Sox would repeat as World Series champs this year, beating out the Colorado Rockies (see blog post from March 23).  Despite the rarity of a team repeating as champions, I was convinced the Red Sox had the makings to put it all together again.  And that was in spite of the loss of two of their main relief pitchers over the winter.  I also figured the Rockies were on the verge of getting to the next level and would finally break the Dodgers’ streak of division championships.


Well, so much for my predictions.  If the season ended today, neither of my World Series picks would even capture a wild card spot.  But, hey, that’s what makes this game fun.


Recapping my pre-season picks: in addition to my Red Sox pick, I also had Cleveland and Houston as American League division winners and New York and Oakland as wild card entries.  In the National League, besides the Rockies, I picked Philadelphia and Chicago as division champs, with Washington and Milwaukee as the wild card teams.


Currently, the Yankees, Twins, and Astros are atop the AL divisions.  The Rays, A’s, and Indians have the next-best records.  The Braves, Cubs, and Dodgers are leading their respective divisions in the NL, while the Nationals and Brewers have small margins over the rest of the wild card hopefuls.


The Yankees have turned out to be the most impressive team in the AL.  Who would have thought they could survive all the early-season injuries they incurred?  Not only did they survive; but they thrived with a set of replacement players.  DJ LeMahieu, originally acquired from the Rockies over the off-season as utility player, has to be considered a serious MVP candidate for the performance he has turned in so far.  The Yankees will be buyers at the trade deadline for additional starting pitchers to help secure their hold on the division title.


The Red Sox, currently trailing the Tampa Bay Rays in the division, have largely been disappointing for most of the season.  Infielders Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers have been leading the team offensively, but I expect Mookie Betts and J. D. Martinez to improve their output during the second half.  However, relief pitching will have to improve for them to overtake the Rays, who have been really good this year.  The Rays don’t have the big-name players on their roster; but they seem to get the job done anyway, especially their pitching staff which leads the AL in ERA+ by a good margin.


The Twins have led the Central Division for practically the entire season.  They have gotten big benefits from their off-season acquisitions.  They have an impressive run differential of 122, while leading the AL in many offensive categories.  Cleveland has made recent improvements to close the gap between themselves and the Twins, but they are below league average in most offensive categories.  The jury is out on whether they will be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline.  It will depend on how close they can stay to the Twins in the meantime.


It appears the Astros will be the runaway winner of the West Division again.  Their lineup is solid when everyone is healthy, but like the Yankees, they have survived injuries to key players so far.  Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole are undoubtedly the best Number 1 and Number 2 starters in the league, but the Astros need more depth and will consequently be in the market for additional starters.  The A’s are staying in contention for a wild card spot with a reliable starting pitching staff that doesn’t have a true ace.


At this point, the Yankees and Astros have to be considered the favorites for the AL pennant.


The Braves are proving last season was no fluke, when they won the NL East division.  The youthful team is playing winning baseball again, with 22-year-old rookie Austin Riley adding to its potent offense.  Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann are providing the veteran leadership for the young lineup.  Pitcher Mike Soroka has been outstanding, and the addition of veteran Dallas Keuchel will re-inforce the staff down the stretch.


It’s conceivable Washington, currently six games behind the Braves, could make a run for first place.  They have the best overall starting staff in the league with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, and Anibal Sanchez.  However, their chances will likely rest on the shoulders of Anthony Rendon to continue to power the offense.  The Nationals should secure a wild card spot even if they don’t overtake the Braves.


That leaves Philadelphia on the outside of the playoff picture.  Rhys Hoskins has been their best player, aided by having Bryce Harper hitting in front of him.  Harper has contributed as advertised, but most of the rest of the starting lineup has performed below league average.  Their pitching staff is below average as well.


The NL Central Division is the most competitive in the majors this season.  As of Saturday, only 5 ½ games separate first-place Chicago and last-place Cincinnati.  The Cubs should prevail unless they suffer some kind of unexpected meltdown.  Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, and Kris Bryant headline the offense, but the team could still use an effective leadoff batter. They’ve already added relief ace Craig Kimbrel to shore up their bullpen, but they will be in the market for more arms there.


The Brewers have perhaps the best player in baseball in Christian Yelich, but their pitching staff is barely average, resulting in an overall negative run differential.  Still, they only trail the Cubs by 1½ games.  They should be in the market to add some pitching depth, but they typically haven’t had the financial resources to compete for top-flight players.


Even they are currently close in the standings, the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds don’t figure to seriously challenge the Cubs or Brewers.


The Dodgers are the cream of the crop in the NL and are poised to finish that way at the end of the season, too.  Except for a handful of games in mid-April, they have been in first place the entire season.  Cody Bellinger rivals Yelich for the distinction of best player in the league.  Hjun-Jin Ryu has taken over the role of ace of the Dodgers’ staff, even though veteran Clayton Kershaw and the young Walker Buehler are having good seasons.  The Dodgers are desperate for a World Series championship after having fallen short the past two seasons.  They’ve become the Atlanta Braves of the 1990s by winning the NL West for the last six seasons.


The rest of the teams in the NL West trail the Dodgers by 13 or more games.  It’s doubtful any of them will challenge for a wild card position.  However, the San Diego Padres are showing signs of the type of exciting team they could look like a couple of years from now.


The Dodgers are considered strong favorites to win the NL pennant for the third consecutive year.


It would be nice to see a Yankees-Dodgers World Series again.  They have competed against each other in some of the most memorable World Series in history, although it’s been 38 years since their last contest.  I would gladly sacrifice my pride (admitting my poor predictive capability) to see that matchup.


2019 rookie class may be unparalleled

We just might be seeing one of the best crop of rookie position players to come along in a long time.  When it comes time to vote for the Rookie of the Year Awards after the regular season ends, baseball writers will likely have a bevy of impressive players from which to choose in casting their ballots.


It was widely recognized coming into the season that Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr. would be at the top of the rookie class, given all the hype they had garnered during their minor-league days leading up to their debuts this year.  They had also received added attention because of their baseball bloodlines.


But what was less expected was the number of other youngsters who have progressed more rapidly than their teams figured during spring training.  These upstarts have been impressive, impactful players since they began getting regular playing time with their big league clubs.  Several of them are part of the mix of players contributing to the current home run craze.  Another major characteristic of many of the new players is that they have added value to their teams by playing multiple positions.


A number of these rookies are projecting to become cornerstones of clubs that are in re-building mode and consequently giving their fans something to dream about.


Guerrero and fellow teammate Cavan Biggio are the talk of the town in Toronto.  Guerrero was promoted at the end of April, while Biggio made his debut at the end of May.  They became the first teammates in baseball history to have Hall of Fame fathers (Vladimir Guerrero Sr and Craig Biggio).  20-year-old Guerrero currently has eight home runs and 25 RBIs, while Biggio has six home runs and 23 RBIs.  Normally a second baseman, Biggio has also played first base and outfield positions.  The Blue Jays are still a few years away from being contenders, but these two players are sure to be at the heart of the lineup.


20-year-old Tatis has lived up to pre-season expectations in San Diego.  He broke spring training camp as the Padres’ starting shortstop and has posted an impressive slash line of .324/.391/.593, to go along with 12 HRs and 29 RBIs.  At one point he had a hit in seven consecutive at-bats and has collected 13 stolen bases in addition to having a strong bat.  After several seasons of being at the bottom of the division, the Padres are only a couple of games from second place in the NL West.  Tatis is one of the main reasons for their turnaround.


Pete Alonso came out of spring training with the Mets still unsure how much playing time he would have at first base, with Dominic Smith also competing for the job.  However, by June 1 Alonso had recorded the most home runs before June (19) by a rookie since Mark McGwire in 1987.  He currently has 29 homers (second in the NL) and 66 RBI (sixth in the NL), while posting a 1.003 OPS.  He was the only rookie selected to the NL All-Star team.


Outfielder Austin Riley has made a big splash with the Atlanta Braves since his debut on May 15, further adding to the youth movement already in place there.  He had already knocked 15 home runs with Triple-A Gwinnett before being called up.  Since then, he has smashed 16 home runs to go along with 41 RBIs for the Braves.  He slugged the first 10 of his homers after only 24 games, the fastest a Braves players had accomplished this since 1930.  He was the NL Rookie of the Month for May, even though he played only half the month.  The Braves currently hold first-place in their division.


Eloy Jimenez was originally signed by the Chicago Cubs as a 17-year-old from the Dominican Republic and was later acquired by the cross-town White Sox in a trade.   Now 22, he came out of spring training earning the starting left fielder job with the White Sox.  He is second on the club in home runs (15), while collecting 36 RBIs.  One of his spectacular games included a two-homer, 6-RBI performance against the Yankees.  The White Sox embarked on a re-building strategy in 2017, and Jimenez is being counted on as a foundational player in their future.


Michael Chavis initially earned his spot on the Boston Red Sox roster as a replacement for injured second baseman Dustin Pedroia.  He has since seen considerable time at first base also.  The Red Sox have been struggling so far this season, but the 23-year-old rookie has been a pleasant addition to the team, as he has responded with 15 HRs and 48 RBIs.


Pittsburgh Pirates left-fielder Bryan Reynolds hasn’t received as much ink as some of the other rookies, but his slash line of .339/.413/.518 is impressive.  The switch-hitter doesn’t hit for much power (six HRs and 29 RBIs), but he has solidified the second spot in the Pirates’ batting order with his ability to get on base.


Jordan Alvarez was a pleasant surprise in his initial call-up to the Houston Astros.  The 22-year-old hit a home run in his debut game and then accounted for four in his first five games.  The Astros are struggling to maintain a spot for the outfielder on an already deep, talented roster.  But it seems the Astros are content with using him as the designated hitter for now.  Alvarez shows a lot of maturity at the plate for his age and experience and currently has a slash line of .324/.403/1.123 to go along with his seven HRs and 22 RBIs in only 18 games.


Nick Senzel was the second overall pick of the Cincinnati Reds in 2016 and is now the starting centerfielder for the team.  His contributions are helping the Reds stay only 3 ½ games behind the division leader.  He has 8 HRs and 27 RBIs.


The season is only half-finished, so there is still plenty of time for these players to put up bigger numbers.  Furthermore, there will be additional rookies being promoted from the minors looking to make their impact right away.


One prospect who has yet to be called up this year, but is projected to have promising potential at the major-league level, is shortstop Bo Bichette.  He is another player with the Toronto Blue Jays that has an all-star major-league father (Dante Bichette).  With the Blue Jays in a re-tooling mode involving a youth movement, he will likely get his promotion after the All-Star Game to begin getting big league at-bats under his belt.


This year’s class conjures up memories of a group of rookies from 1982 that turned out to be pretty good in their own right.  That class of youngsters included future Hall of Famers Cal Ripken Jr., Wade Boggs, and Ryne Sandberg, as well as future all-stars Steve Sax, Willie McGee, Kent Hrbek, and Chili Davis.  Another noteworthy rookie class was the 1986 group that included Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, Will Clark, Kevin Mitchell, and Ruben Sierra


Only time will tell if the 2019 group of rookies actually reaches the full potential they are demonstrating now; but with the type of performances they are presently posting, it may be sooner rather than later.


It used to be the players were juiced, now it's the baseballs

When the historic home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa occurred in 1998, we initially thought it was great for the game of baseball.  It provided excitement for fans perhaps not seen since Roger Maris was chasing the Babe’s 60-home run record in 1961.  There’s a home run craze going on now, with seemingly most of the MLB players getting a piece of the action this time around.


It turned out the players were juiced thirty years ago, but now it’s the baseballs that are creating the excitement.  There were more home runs hit in the month of May this year than any month in history.  This season is on a pace to see over 400 more home runs hit than last year.  It’s a trend that has been building for several years now.


Perhaps one of the best pieces of evidence it’s the baseball that causing the surge is Baseball America reported there’s also been a power explosion at the Triple-A level of the minor leagues.  It began using the major-league baseball this season rather than standard minor-league balls of the past.  Based on April’s games, Triple-A hitters homered every 29 plate appearances, which was a rate 49 percent more than in April 2018.


When initially challenged by experts over a year ago, MLB denied there was any change in the specifications for baseballs, maintaining that the balls were within approved manufacturing specifications.


The Commissioner’s Office later admitted there was “a drag issue” with the baseballs but didn’t quantify what caused it.


Scientists have contended that the physical characteristics of the ball have changed resulting in a significantly lower drag coefficient than that of previous years.


Astrophysicist Dr. Meredith Wills recently published in The Athletic her own independent study that evaluated the possible causes of a decrease in drag, including lower seams of the ball, smoother leather on the ball, a rounder ball, thicker laces on the ball, and a smaller ball.


Dr. Wills concluded that the decrease in drag could be traced to an increase in lace thickness, which inadvertently produced a rounder ball.


It’s not as though baseballs have been illicitly altered.  They haven’t been knowingly “juiced” in the same sense that hitters in the Steroid Era were gaining unfair advantages by taking PEDs.  While it may be true any changes in the ball have been within the allowed range of specifications for major-league baseballs, even small changes have had an effect.  (Baseball Prospectus’s Robert Arthur asserted that a three percent change in drag coefficient can work to add about five fee to a well-hit fly ball, which in turn can increase home runs league wide by 10-15 percent.)  It perhaps suggests that the ranges for the manufacturing standards of baseballs are too permissive.


If the results of changes in the ball were indeed unintentional by Major League Baseball, they are certainly not complaining about the results it’s had with respect to the increased entertainment it has provided the sport.  It seems like a new home run milestone is being set by a player or a team every day, whether it involves the number home runs hit or the distance balls have travelled.


The small change in baseballs, in conjunction with a general change in hitting approach by many players focused on launch angle and exit velocity, is responsible for the surge in home runs.


The surge is fueling new interest in the game and is now largely defining MLB’s game, similar to the way the NFL’s offense has become pass-happy and the NBA is thriving on the three-pointer.


More players are putting up bigger offensive numbers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are overall better players than those from earlier days.  (Tommy La Stella of the Los Angeles Angels is averaging a home run once in every 19 at-bats so far this year, when he had averaged one in every 94 at-bats in his previous five MLB seasons.)  But no one seems to be worried about comparing stats from today with traditional marks from baseball history.


Perhaps the only negative of changes in the ball is that pitchers are getting battered more, as demonstrated by overall increases in earned run averages (ERA).  Pitchers have also complained about the balls causing more blisters.


It’s true the game needs more excitement nowadays.  The propensity for higher strikeouts and the pace of play issues need to be countered, and an increase in offense is a good way to accomplish that.


Let the balls fly out of the park!


Turn Back the Clock:"New" Pelicans Lose Home Opener in Superdome in 1977

Since the opening of the Louisiana Superdome in August 1975, the city of New Orleans had lobbied hard with Major League Baseball’s owners to relocate one of their franchises to the Crescent City.  While the major tenant originally intended for the Superdome was the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, the stadium had also been designed to allow baseball and basketball seating configurations.  The NBA’s New Orleans Jazz began playing in the Dome in October 1975, and city officials had every expectation that the Superdome would attract a major-league baseball team as well.

While several major-league teams considered New Orleans for franchise moves, there were no firm commitments forthcoming within the first two years of the Dome’s operation.  Lacking a strong financial backer from New Orleans, officials even proposed a novel joint-city arrangement, where New Orleans and another city would share a major-league franchise.

The American Association Triple-A league approached Superdome officials as a potential home for its Tulsa franchise.  New Orleans figured that hosting a minor-league team might provide a path to eventually landing a big-league club.  The National League was considering additional expansion at the time, although Washington and Denver were considered the favorites at the time.

A. Ray Smith eventually struck a deal with New Orleans to relocate his Tulsa team that was an affiliate with the St. Louis Cardinals.  His aim was to eventually upgrade it to a major-league franchise.  The Tulsa club had a 65-70 record in 1976, finishing third in the West Division of the American Association.

The new team took the name Pelicans from the former pro baseball team in New Orleans, which initially fielded a team in the late 1880s.  The last year of the Pelicans had been in 1959 as a member of the Southern Association.

The “new” Pelicans were managed by Lance Nichols who came over from the Montreal Expos system.  The first game of the new franchise occurred in Oklahoma City on April 15.

The Pelicans hosted the Omaha Royals for a three-game series starting April 30 in what was the first game in the Superdome.  In true New Orleans fashion, Pelicans players rode in a parade down Canal Street to the Superdome the morning of the game to start the day’s festivities.  After all, the city had much to celebrate; it had been 18 years since New Orleans had been home to a professional baseball team.  Parade-goers might have thought it was Mardi Gras season, as the players tossed Styrofoam baseballs, doubloons, and bags of peanuts from the lead float.  The parade featured St. Louis Cardinals legend Stan Musial and Negro Leagues star Satchel Paige, who was affiliated with the Pelicans’ front office.  The opposing Omaha players even got into the act by riding on a parade float and throwing trinkets to the downtown crowd.

The Royals were 6-6 coming into the game, while the Pelicans were 4-7, having lost their last three games on the road even though they held leads into the late innings.  The Pelicans’ Eddie “King” Solomon and Royals’ Dave Hasbach were the starting pitchers.

For 26-year-old Solomon, the Cardinals were his third major-league organization.  He made 26 appearances with the big-league Cardinals in 1976 and was finally getting his chance to be a regular starter.  He had already pitched a one-hitter for the Pelicans during the first two weeks of the season.  The day before the first home game on April 30, Solomon commented on his assignment as the starting pitcher, “Opening up on any night is an honor, but it’s a real pleasure for me to be opening up in the Superdome.  I’m looking forward to it.”

18,197 fans turned out for the night contest whose pre-game activities included honoring baseball immortals Stan Musial, Luke Appling, Cool Papa Bell, Lloyd Waner, Mel Parnell, Denny McLain, Paul Dean, and Allie Reynolds.

Feedback from the major-league pre-season exhibition games played in the Dome the year before had been that the air was heavy and the ball didn’t carry well.  However, following batting practice prior to the game, Pelicans catcher Tom Harmon said, “I can’t believe how the ball carries in here.  We must have hit 40 out in batting practice.  You know the ball carries if (Tommy) Sandt hits one out.”  (Sandt wasn’t known for hitting home runs, but remarkably he played fourteen seasons in the minors and wound up hitting 10 of his 28 career minor-league home runs for New Orleans that season.)

In fact, the game that followed was a slugfest, with Omaha spoiling the Pelicans’ festivities with a 13-8 victory.  The two teams combined for 29 hits, including seven home runs.  Pre-game suspicion about a “dead air” problem in the Superdome obviously didn’t materialize.

Omaha didn’t wait long to get the fireworks started.  In the top of the first inning, Joe Lahoud homered with Dave Cripe on base.  Gary Martz followed with a solo homer to run up a 3-0 lead. In the next inning Omaha put up another run on Lynn McKinney’s RBI single.

In the bottom of the second, Tony LaRussa smacked a home run into the left-field seats.

In the top of the third, Omaha piled on three more runs on Martz’s second home run and singles by Clint Hurdle, Willie Wilson, and Rudy Kinard.  But the Pels retaliated with three runs in the bottom half of the inning on a home run by Pat Scanlon with Tommy Sandt and John Tamargo on base.

The home team tied the game, 7-7, in the bottom of the fourth on Ken Oberkfell’s three-run homer to right field after Tom Dettore and Sandt had walked.

The Royals pulled ahead again in the next inning when Hurdle got to third on Charlie Chant’s misplay of a fly to center.  Hurdle scored on Wilson’s single; and after the speedy Wilson stole second, U.L. Washington drove him in with a single.

The Pels made the score 9-8 on back-to-back doubles by Mike Potter and Chant, and missed another opportunity by ending the inning with bases loaded.

Omaha broke the game open with four runs in the top of the seventh, highlighted by Cripe’s three-run home run, contributing to the final score, 13-8.

Royals reliever Jerry Cram held the Pelicans scoreless for the final three innings to claim a save.  McKinney, who relieved Hasbach in the fourth inning, was the winning pitcher even though he gave up three runs on six hits.

While Solomon may have been looking forward to his role as Opening Day starter, it didn’t turn out to be a memorable outing for him.  He left the game bruised and battered by Omaha’s potent offense that delivered seven runs on nine hits in only 2 1/3 innings.  However, reliever Dettore was credited with the loss for the Pelicans.

Every Royals player in the starting lineup, except Steve Patchin, recorded a hit.  Wilson, the future Kansas City Royals’ career stolen-base leader, had a 4-for-5 night with three stolen bases and four runs scored.

Tamargo led the Pelicans with three of the team’s total of 12 hits.  Oberkfell and Scanlon each recorded three RBIs.

The Pelicans ended the season with a 57-79 record and a last-place finish in the American Association West Division.  While it turned out the Pelicans squad would largely be short on player talent, five members of its roster eventually became managers.  LaRussa managed for 33 years in the majors, compiling over 2,700 wins including three World Series championships.  He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014.  Oberkfell and Tamargo eventually returned to New Orleans as managers of the Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs.  Sandt managed at the Triple-A level in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.  Jim Riggleman, who was added to the Pelicans’ roster after the season started, also managed in the majors for 13 seasons.

The Pels lasted only one season in New Orleans, as Smith moved the team to Springfield, Missouri, in 1978.  New Orleans never did get its major-league franchise.  The only baseball played in the Dome after 1977 involved annual major-league exhibition games, college tournaments, and a couple of LSU-Tulane rivalry games.

Ranking the best father-son combos in MLB history

Father’s Day is a good time to recall some of the all-time best Major League Baseball father-son duos.

There have been over 250 combinations of fathers and sons to play in the majors since Jack Doscher became the original second-generation player in the majors in 1903.  They represent about 2.5% of the 19,500+players to ever play in the big leagues.  Almost 30 of the sons were still active at the end of the 2018 season, and already six more made their debuts this season.

One would think sons of major leaguers have an advantage over other prospective professional players, because of their name.  That’s probably true.  A player with the last name of Biggio or Yastrzemski would likely attract a baseball scout’s attention more than a player with a last name like Smith or Jones. 

In fact, when many sons of major leaguers were growing up, they spent time with their dad in the clubhouse or during pre-game warmups and batting practice.  From that perspective, they have an advantage of being more comfortable in the major-league environment once they get there.  For example, during the heyday of the Cincinnati Reds “Big Red Machine” teams of the 1970s, sixteen Reds players had sons who went on to play professional baseball, including the sons of Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Ken Griffey, Lee May, and Hal McRae.  Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium was like a second home to their kids.

Furthermore, sons of major-league fathers probably had better access to advanced coaching when they showed potential in their developmental years in the sport.  They also had ready access to a father who could advise them how to handle the mental side of the game, such as how to deal with being in a hitting slump or recovering from an injury.

However, having the same last name as a major league father obviously doesn’t guarantee success for a son aspiring to a professional baseball career like his father.  Sons of major leaguers usually have more pressure to excel.  Some of the second-generation players have struggled as much against their family name as they did against the opposition.  For example, sons who didn’t measure up to their father’s Hall of Fame careers include Eddie Collins Jr., Tim Raines Jr., Ed Walsh Jr., George Sisler Jr., and Joe Wood Jr.

Former major leaguer Moises Alou, son of former major-league player and manager Felipe Alou, perhaps said it best, “If you can’t hit, field, and throw, it doesn’t matter who your father is.

So who were the best father-son duos in the majors?  Who were those sons that managed to become good enough to follow in their father’s footsteps and have a respectable career themselves? The Bonds and Griffey duos are the most recognizable, but the rest of the list may not be as obvious.

Below are the Top 10 duos ranked by their combined Wins Above Replacement (WAR).  Pairs were eliminated where one of the players didn’t have a substantial major league career. (For example, Pete Rose had a WAR of 79.7, but his son played in only 11 career major-league games and actually had a negative WAR.)  Fathers are listed first in the below combinations.

Bobby (57.9) and Barry (162.8) Bonds

Total WAR 220.7.  Barry has the fourth-highest WAR in baseball history, which makes their ranking practically uncontested by any other duo.  He was a seven-time MVP for the Pirates and Giants and was selected to 14 all-star games.  He has a slash line of .298/.444/.607 and holds the major-league record for most career HRs (762).  His father Bobby finished in the Top 4 for MVP voting twice and was a three-time all-star selection.  He was noted for his combination of power and speed, connecting for 331 (107th all-time) career home runs and swiping 461 bases (51th all-time).  Both players were outfielders.

Ken Sr. (34.5) and Ken Jr. (83.8) Griffey

Total WAR 118.3.  Ken Jr. fulfilled his potential as the overall Number 1 of the MLB draft in 1987, by hitting 630 HRs (7th all-time) and 1,836 RBIs (16th all-time) while posting a career slash line of .284/.370/.538.  A thirteen-time all-star selection for Seattle and Cincinnati, he was a near-unanimous selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.  Ken Sr. was a member of two World Series championship teams with the Reds.  He posted a career batting average of .297 and was selected as an all-star in three seasons.  The father-son duo, who were both outfielders, became the first to play in a major-league game as teammates in 1990.

Felipe (42.2) and Moises Alou (39.9)

Total 82.1.  Felipe was the best of three brothers that all played in the majors at the same time.  A three-time all-star selection, he led the league in hits twice and in runs scored once.  A career .286 hitter with 206 HRs and 852 RBIs, he played for the 1962 World Series champion San Francisco Giants.  Moises finished third in the MVP voting twice, when he played for Montreal and Houston.  He was a six-time all-star who had a .303 career batting average with 332 HRs and 1,287.  Moises was a key member of the 1997 Florida Marlins that won its first World Series.  He was one of only a few major-leaguers to have played for his father as manager, when they were with Montreal.

Gus (15.4) and Buddy Bell (66.3)

Buddy Bell (66.3) and David Bell (15.3)

Total WAR 81.7 and 81.6.  Buddy is actually part of three father-son duos, including one with his father Gus and two with sons David and Mike.  A career .281 hitter, Gus was a four-time all-star selection with the Cincinnati Reds as an outfielder.  David was an infielder for 12 seasons, appearing in the World Series with San Francisco in 2002.  Buddy was the best of the three generations as a five-time all-star and Gold Glove winner at third base in six consecutive seasons.  He batted .279 with 201 HRs and 1,106 RBIs.  There have been only four occurrences of three-generation families in major-league history.

Sandy Sr. (10.5) and Roberto (67.1) Alomar

Total WAR 77.6.  Roberto is a Hall of Fame second baseman who was selected to 12 consecutive all-star teams and won 10 Gold Glove awards.  He was a career .300 hitter with 200 HRs, 1,135 RBI, and 474 stolen bases.  He won two World Series rings with Toronto.  Sandy Sr. was an all-star selection for one of his 15 seasons.  The infielder hit only .245 with only 13 HRs during his career.  Sandy Sr. had another son, Sandy Jr., who played 20 seasons in the majors, but didn’t have near the productive career as his brother Roberto.

Tony Sr. (69.2) and Tony Jr. (5.2) Gwynn

Total WAR 74.4.  Tony Sr. was a Hall of Fame outfielder who won eight batting titles, while compiling a career .338 average and collecting 3,141 hits.  He was selected as an all-star in fifteen seasons, while capturing five Gold Glove awards and seven Silver Slugger awards.  He appeared in two World Series for San Diego.  Tony Jr. was an outfielder during eight major-league seasons after being drafted in the second round of the 2003 MLB Draft by the Milwaukee Brewers.  It turned out he couldn’t hit like his father, as his career batting average was 100 points less.

Jose Sr. (54.4) and Jose Jr. (19.5) Cruz

Total WAR 73.9.  Jose Sr. had a career slash line of .284/.354/.420 in his 20 major-league seasons (19 with Houston).  The outfielder was in the Top 8 for National League MVP voting on three occasions.  An all-star selection in two seasons, he had 1,077 RBI and 317 stolen bases.  Jose Jr. was the third overall selection of the 1995 MLB Draft by the Mariners and went on to play 12 major-league seasons.  Ironically, he was traded during his rookie season in which he was the runner-up for Rookie of the Year honors.  A Gold Glove winner as an outfielder with the Giants in 2003, he was a career .247 hitter with 204 career HRs.

Mel Sr. (43.1) and Todd (22.9) Stottlemyre

Total WAR 66.0.  Mel Sr. won 15 or more games for the Yankees during six seasons, while totaling 164 career wins.  A five-time all-star selection, he posted an impressive career 2.97 ERA.  He started three games for the Yankees in the 1964 World Series against St. Louis.  Todd pitched for 14 major-league seasons during which he posted double-digit wins in eight seasons and compiled 138 career wins.  He was a member of two World Series championship teams with Toronto.  Mel Sr. had another son, Mel Jr., who pitched in one major-league season.

Yogi (59.8) and Dale (5.5) Berra

Total WAR 65.3.  Yogi was one of the most accomplished catchers of all time.  The Hall of Famer was a member of 10 World Series championship teams with the Yankees.  He hit 358 HRs and 1,430 RBIs, while being selected to 15 all-star teams during his 19-year career.  He was voted the American League MVP in three seasons.  Dale was a first-round draft selection of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1975.  He was infielder for 11 major-league seasons, but fell well short of playing up to his father’s standards.  He hit a meager .239 with only 49 career home runs.

The next five father-son combos (also ranked by WAR) include George Sr. (56.3) and Dick (8.0) Sisler; Dizzy (49.6) and Steve (13.3) Trout; Maury (39.7) and Bump (16.5) Wills; Bob (27.4) and Bret (22.8) Boone; and Gary Sr. (30.4) and Gary Jr. (14.2) Matthews.

There are three sons of Hall of Famers currently playing in the majors:  Cavan Biggio (Craig), Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (Vladimir Sr.), and Dereck Rodriguez (Ivan).  They obviously have big shoes to fill, but may ultimately have the best chances to break into the all-time list of most prolific father-son duos.

MLB draft keeps family ties pipeline filled

In some families, there is a legacy of sons following in their father’s footsteps as lawyers, doctors, farmers, and military servicemen, often spanning several generations.  Professional baseball is also one of those occupations where sons dream of playing their father’s game, ultimately hoping to reach the big leagues.

Major League Baseball’s annual amateur draft took place last week and realized plenty of opportunities to replenish the pipeline of new players who have family ties in the sport.  Over 60 players were drafted that have a relative who currently or previously played professional baseball.  Five of these had brothers who currently play in the big leagues.  28 are sons of former major leaguers.  Nephews, cousins, grandsons, and great-grandsons of former major leaguers, as well as relatives of minor league players, account for the balance.  All of these players contribute to an ever-growing pipeline of young men with family ties in baseball.

The 2019 MLB Draft was no different from past years in terms of interesting backgrounds of the drafted players.

Bobby Witt Jr. was the second overall pick of the draft by the Kansas City Royals.  His father Bobby Witt Sr. was a third-round pick in 1985, thus making them the highest ranked father-son duo in draft history.  An indication of how much things have changed in 34 years, the younger Witt stands to sign for over $7 million as a bonus, whereas his father received $179,000.  Other first-rounders with family ties this year were Logan Davidson (A’s), Alek Manoah (Blue Jays), Hunter Bishop (Giants) and Sammy Siani (Pirates).

Multiple generations of baseball families are becoming more common. This year, Grae Kessinger (grandson of Don Kessinger), Trei Cruz (grandson of Jose Cruz Sr.), and Luke Bell (grandson of Buddy Bell) were drafted.  In fact, if Luke Bell was to ultimately make the majors, he would become the fourth generation in his family to play, which has never occurred before.  His father is former major-leaguer Mike Bell, while his great-grandfather was Gus Bell, a major leaguer in the 1950s.  Other grandsons of major leaguers include Jonathan Allen (grandson of Don Landrum) and Ryan Berardino (grandson of Dwight Evans).  Berardino’s other grandfather, Dick Berardino, was a long-time minor-league coach and instructor in the Red Sox organization.

Eleven drafted players had more than one relative.  In addition to Kessinger, Cruz, and Bell, Nick Paciorek had three uncles (Tom, John, and Jim) who played in the big leagues.  Jack Leiter’s father (Al), uncle (Mark), and cousin (Mark Jr.) have played in the majors.

Brothers Jake (Yankees, 24th round) and Micah Pries (Indians, 13th round) were both selected in this year’s draft.  Their father Jeff was a minor-league player in the 1980s.

Braden Halladay, son of recently-elected Hall of Fame pitcher Roy Halladay, was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays, one of his father’s former teams.  However, the younger Halladay has already stated his intention to play for Penn State next year.

Yorvis Torrealba was selected by the Colorado Rockies.  His father, Yorvit, fairly recently retired from the game in 2014 at age 35.  Had the father been able to remain active a few more years, it would have potentially set up a situation where the father-son duo could have played in the majors at the same time.  There have been only two previous occasions of father-son combos accomplishing this feat:  Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. and his father; and Hall of Famer Tim Raines and his son.

Several of the drafted players have relatives in the managerial and front office ranks of major-league teams.  Dylan Hoffman (son of Glenn Hoffman), Cole Roberts (son of Dave Roberts), and Nic Ready (son of Randy Ready) are the sons of major-league managers.  Cade Hunter, Davis Moore, Nate Bombach, and Chase Solesky are the sons of major-league scouts.  Jonah DiPoto is the son of Mariners general manager Jerry DiPoto.

There were an additional 16 players selected that had relatives in sports other than professional baseball.  Blake Sabol (Pirates, 7th round) is the cousin of current NFL player Troy Polamalu, while Todd Lott (Nationals, 9th round) is the son of NFL Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott.  Jake Mangum’s (Mets, 4th round) father (John), grandfather (John Sr.), and uncle (Kris) were former NFL players.

Three drafted players had family ties with participants in the Olympic Games.  The mother of Oraj Anu (Red Sox, 16th round) was a sprinter representing the Bahamas in the 1984 Olympics.  Mason Janvrin’s (Orioles, 14th round) father was a decathlete in the 2000 Olympics for the United States.  Alex MacFarlane’s (Cardinals 25th round) mother participated in the 1988 Olympics in taekwondo for the US Virgin Islands.

The grandfather of Adley Rutschmann, the Number 1 overall pick of the draft by the Orioles, won NAIA national championships in both college football and baseball for tiny Linfield College in Oregon.

The entire list of 2019 draftees can be viewed at https://baseballrelatives.files.wordpress.com/2019/06/2019-mlb-drafted-players-v1-formatted.pdf

 

Baseball's bloodlines are booming

I’ve used this blog in the past to publicize the prevalence of major-league players with family ties in the sport.  Within the last two weeks that situation has never been more evident, and it has included some of baseball’s biggest names.

The promotion to the big leagues of a young player who has relatives in the game brings up the age-old debate of whether the player has benefitted from having good genes or being the product of a baseball environment in which they grew up.  In my book Family Ties: A Comprehensive Collection of Facts and Trivia About Baseball’s Relatives, I quoted Phil Pote, a scout for the Seattle Mariners, who probably summed up the situation the best, “I think genes give the potential and the environment sets how close to the potential you might reach.  A kid could be in Afghanistan and have great genes; I mean great quickness, the hand-eye coordination, balance, and agility, whatever.  But if he doesn’t have the environment no one would ever know, including him.”

Several of the players from strong baseball backgrounds involving multiple family relationships recently received big-league promotions.

Mike Yastrzemski made his major-league debut on May 25 for the San Francisco Giants.  The outfielder is the third generation of his family in the sport.  His grandfather, Carl, is one of the most recognizable names in Boston Red Sox history and was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame after 23 major-league seasons.  Mike’s father, also named Mike, played five seasons in the minors, reaching the Triple-A level in the Chicago White Sox organization.

Cavan Biggio made his debut on May 24 for the Toronto Blue Jays.  He made history when he and Blue Jays teammate Vlad Guerrero Jr. became the first pair of major-league teammates to have fathers in the Hall of Fame.  The second baseman recorded his first big-league home run in his third major-league game.  Cavan’s father, Craig, was a seven-time all-star in his 20 seasons for Houston Astros.  He collected over 3,000 hits and 600 doubles during his career.   Cavan’s brother, Conor, was selected by the Houston Astros in the 34th round of the 2015 MLB Draft, but did not sign.

Arizona Diamondback first baseman Kevin Cron made his debut on May 24.  He had 21 home runs and 62 RBI in the minors this season before his call-up.  Kevin’s father, Chris, played briefly in the majors in 1991 and 1992 for the California Angels and Chicago White Sox.  Chris is in his 20th season as a minor-league manager and was managing Kevin with the Reno Aces at the time of his call-up.  Kevin’s brother, C. J., is currently a major-leaguer with the Minnesota Twins.  Kevin is in his sixth big-league season after being a first-round draft selection of the Los Angeles Angels.

In only his third pro season, pitcher Zach Plesac made his major-league debut with the Cleveland Indians on May 28.  Zach is the nephew of former major-league pitcher Dan Plesac, who played 18 seasons for six different clubs.  Zach’s father, Joe, played six seasons in the San Diego Padres organization following his second-round draft selection in 1982.

Two other recent big-league promotions involved players with brothers in pro baseball.

On May 24, Canadian-born Josh Naylor made his debut with the San Diego Padres.  He was the first-round pick of the Florida Marlins in 2015.  He is the brother of Bo Naylor, who was the first-round pick of the Cleveland Indians last year.

Mitch Keller made his debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates on May 27.  He struck out seven batters in four innings pitched, but took the loss against the Cincinnati Reds.  He is the brother of Jon Keller, who pitched for five seasons the Baltimore Orioles minor-league system.

Earlier this year, Vlad Guerrero Jr. had the most anticipated major-league debut since Bryce Harper.  Guerrero had been the Minor League Player of the Year in 2018 as a 19-year-old.  He got his promotion on April 26 with the Toronto Blue Jays and has since showed his potential with six home runs.  Guerrero Jr. is the son of recently elected Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero Sr., the nephew of former major-leaguer Wilton Guerrero, and the cousin of 2018 major-leaguer Gabriel Guerrero.

Other players with family ties who made their MLB debuts earlier this season include:

Fernando Tatis Jr., shortstop with the San Diego Padres, is the son of 11-year veteran Fernando Tatis Sr., who hit 34 HRs and 107 RBIs in 1999.

Cal Quantrill, pitcher with the San Diego Padres, is the son of former major-league pitcher Paul Quantrill, a 14-year veteran who led the American League in appearances for four consecutive years

Josh Fuentes, infielder with the Colorado Rockies, made his debut in a game in which his cousin, all-star third baseman Nolan Arenado, also played.

Carter Kieboom, shortstop with the Washington Nationals, is the brother of major-league Spencer Kieboom, who also plays in the Nationals system.

Kyle Zimmer, pitcher with the Kansas City Royals, is the brother of major-leaguer Bradley Zimmer, who made his MLB debut in 2017.

Nate Lowe, first baseman with the Tampa Bay Rays, is the brother of minor-leaguer Josh Lowe, who also plays in the Rays organization and projects to be a future major-leaguer.

The Toronto Blue Jays have a potentially interesting situation developing in their organization.  Already with three players with family ties on their big-league roster (Guerrero Jr., Biggio, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr.), the Blue Jays also have Bo Bichette at the Triple-A level in their minor league system.  Bichette is the son of Dante Bichette, former four-time all-star and 1995 National League MVP runner-up.  When the younger Bichette is called up, the foursome will form a complete Blue Jays infield of players with baseball bloodlines.

Next week I’ll report on the baseball bloodlines represented in the 2019 MLB draft of amateur players that starts on June 3.  It’s shaping up to be a bumper crop again, and the debate on genes vs. environment will continue.

All-Star Team of Military Veterans

On Memorial Day, as we honor the service men and women who died while in the United States Armed Forces, baseball followers should recall the Major League players who died while serving in the military.  Three big league players died overseas during World War I.  Eddie Grant was the most notable, as he was killed in action in France.  Major Leaguers Elmer Gedeon and Harry M. O’Neill were killed in action during World War II.  Major Leaguer Robert O. “Bob” Neighbors was never found after missing in action following a bombing mission during the Korean War.

Memorial Day is also a time to remember all veterans of the Armed Forces, so I’ve taken the opportunity to nominate a “Military Veterans” All-Star team of Major League players who interrupted their baseball careers with service in the Armed Forces.  To round out the club, I’ve also incorporated a manager, two coaches, an executive, and even an umpire. 

There are quite a few Hall of Famers among this group and yet many of them missed baseball seasons in the prime of their careers.  Who knows how many victories Bob Feller would have posted or how many home runs Ted Williams would have slugged had they not missed those years!

Our sincere gratitude to all who served this country so well over the years—and not just the ballplayers!

Here’s my All-Star team:

1B – Hank Greenberg, one of the first Major League players to enlist during WW II, initially in the Army.  Later enlisted in the Air Force where he rose to the rank of Captain with four battle stars. He missed the entire 1942-1944 seasons and part of 1945.  HOFer.

2B – Charlie Gehringer, at age 39, enlisted in the Navy after the 1942 season during WW II and became a Lieutenant Commander. HOFer.

3B – Frank Malzone, missed the 1952 and 1953 seasons due to service in the Army, prior to his first Major League season. 6-time All-Star.

SS – Rabbit Maranville, missed most of the 1918 season during WW I, enlisting in the Navy and serving on the USS Pennsylvania as a gunner. HOFer.

OF – Ted Williams, missed almost five full seasons as Navy air corps pilot during World War II and 39 missions in the Marines’ air wing during the Korean conflict. HOFer.

OF – Joe DiMaggio, missed three full seasons while in the Army during WW II.  HOFer.

OF – Johnny Mize, spent three years in the Navy, stationed on a Pacific island during WW II, missing the 1943-1945 seasons. HOFer.

C – Bill Dickey, missed the 1944 and 1945 seasons while in the Navy during WW II. HOFer.

DH – Ralph Kiner, spent the 1943-1945 seasons in the Navy during WW II. HOFer.

LHP – Warren Spahn, spent 1943-1945 and part of 1946 in the Army during WW II. Fought in the Battle of the Bulge, receiving a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.  Received a battlefield commission. HOFer.

RHP – Bob Feller, spent 1942-1945 seasons as chief specialist on the USS Alabama during WW II, earning five campaign ribbons and eight battle stars. HOFer.

RP – Hoyt Wilhelm, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and received a Purple Heart during WW II, missed the 1943-1945 seasons. HOFer.

Mgr – Ralph Houk, saw combat action in WW II from 1942 to 1945, achieving the rank of Major.

Coach – Danny Ozark, spent three years in the Army during WW II, fighting at the Battle of the Bulge and Omaha Beach, receiving a Purple Heart and five battle stars.

Coach – Billy Hitchcock, spent 1943-1945 in the Army Air Corps during WW II, receiving a Bronze Star.

Exec – Larry MacPhail, enlisted as a private and rose to rank of Captain during WW I; served as a Colonel as special assistant to the Undersecretary of War during WW II. HOFer.

Ump – Nestor Chylak, served in the Army during WW II, seriously wounded in Battle of the Bulge.

 

Below are a few “honorable mention” players, not because of their play on the ball field, but due to their service on the battle field:

Moe Berg, fluent in twelve languages, a counter-intelligence spy during WW II in a military organization that was the forerunner of the CIA , serving after his playing career.

Hank Bauer, served in the Marines from 1942 to 1945 during WWII, receiving two Bronze Stars, seeing action at Guadalcanal.

Al Bumbry, awarded the Bronze Star for service in Vietnam during 1969 and 1970, prior to his Major League career.

Lloyd Merriman, trained as a pilot near the end of WW II, then served as a jet pilot with 80 combat missions in the Marine Corps during the Korean conflict, missing the 1952-1953 seasons.

Edwin Jackson sets new mark for journeymen

A journeyman in baseball is generally defined as a player who frequently moves from team to team over the course of his career.  Of course, the advent of free agency gave rise to the number of players who moved around often without being traded or released outright.  Even so, if a player wears at least five to six different hats over the course of his career, he typically gets the journeyman tag.

Journeymen sometimes get a reputation for being players who can’t stick with a team because of lack of ability, but it’s not always the case.  Pitchers more often get tagged as journeymen, but position players occupy their share of this inauspicious designation, too.  Some players’ careers have been defined by their journeyman label.

Such is the case for Edwin Jackson who set a new record for journeymen when played for his 14th different team in the majors on May 15.  He made his debut with the Toronto Blue Jays, pitching five innings without a decision in the Blue Jays’ 4-3 loss to the San Francisco Giants.

Jackson had been tied with Octavio Dotel for having played for 13 teams.  Three other players have appeared with 12 different teams, including Mike Morgan, Matt Stairs, and Ron Villone.

Jackson began his major-league career as a 19-year-old in 2003 with the Los Angeles Dodgers.  The most seasons he has played for a single team is three, with the Dodgers, Rays and Cubs.  Since the end of 2011, he’s been a free agent after each season except for 2014 (with the Cubs).  He’s appeared in nearly 400 career games, with roughly 75% of them as a starter.  During his prime years, Jackson was a workhorse, routinely logging 30 or more starts and over 180 innings pitched per year.  Despite his history of movement, teams like him because he can provide innings.  He had one all-star selection in 2009 with the Detroit Tigers and made World Series appearances with Tampa Bay in 2008 and Texas in 2011.

Long before free agency, pitcher Gus Weyhing was one of the earliest journeyman players during 1887 and 1901.  During his 14 seasons, he played for 11 teams in four different leagues (American Association, Players League, National League and American League).

Left-handed pitcher Dick Littlefield was a true journeyman, having played for nine teams during his nine major-league seasons from 1950 to 1958.  He was involved in nine trades, including one that was voided--when Brooklyn’s Jackie Robinson refused to his report to the New York Giants team after the 1956 season.

Currently active pitchers with nine or more clubhouses they have called home include Fernando Rodney, Tyler Clippard, Rich Hill, and Zach Duke.  Outfielder Melky Cabrera is with his eighth team this season.

Veteran pitcher Bartolo Colon, who finished his career last year after 21 seasons, played for 11 teams.  He amassed 247 career wins, 50th on the all-time list.  However, over 100 of his wins occurred after he began the migratory part of his career.

A journeyman player is all too familiar with baseball’s rules for declaring free agency, being traded, being released, being put on waivers, and being claimed off waivers.  There’s a good chance catcher Erik Kratz is one of those.  He is currently on his ninth team in his 10th major league season.  He’s been involved in 27 official major league transactions since he originally signed with the Blue Jays in 2002.  A backup catcher on every one of his big league rosters, Kratz is valued for his defense and game-calling.

Pitcher Oliver Drake had a bumpy ride in the majors last year, when he set the major-league record for playing with the most teams (5) in a season, when he appeared for the Brewers, Indians, Angels, Blue Jays, and Twins.  As the 43rd round pick of the Orioles in 2008, he wasn’t expected to make the majors, but he managed to stick around until he made his major-league debut in 2015.  His story is one of perseverance, and it’s likely he prefers bouncing between major-league teams to sitting at home being out of baseball altogether.

But not all journeymen players have been mediocre-to-average players.  Gaylord Perry and Lee Smith each played for eight different teams, and they have bronze statues in Cooperstown, along with Hoyt Wilhelm who played for nine teams.  Bobby Bonds, Gary Sheffield, and Kenny Lofton are regarded as all-star-caliber players, although they each played for eight different teams during their careers.  In fact, Sheffield’s career stats qualify him for the Hall of Fame, but the negative perception that he was a journeyman player has likely hurt his chances with Hall voters to date.

Teams often prefer journeyman players because they fill a specific need on the roster without the front office having to make a multiple-year commitment.  That was the case with Steve Pearce last year.  He was the most unlikely World Series MVP candidate for the Boston Red Sox last year, largely because of his journeyman tag (the Red Sox were his seventh team in 12 seasons).  But then he surprised everyone with a brilliant offensive performance that included three home runs and eight RBIs, as the Red Sox topped the Dodgers.  The Red Sox liked him so much they rewarded him with a new contract for the 2019 season.

Edwin Jackson probably has every major-league clubhouse and equipment manager and traveling secretary on speed dial on his cell phone, because he has to be ready to mobilize for whatever team will provide his next payroll check.  He’s currently 35 year old.  If he pitches as long as Bartolo Colon (who was 45 last year), then Jackson’s got at least another seven or eight teams he’ll suit up with.

Joey Gallo: an extreme example of current-day batters

When the Texas Rangers’ Joey Gallo recently set a new MLB record on May 8 for reaching 100 career home runs before he got his 100th single, it was representative of the trend of today’s hitters who are mostly known for either hitting a home run, striking out, or drawing a walk.  It’s a trend that has been developing for several years, and Gallo seems to subscribe to the latest hitting mantra “hitters don’t get paid to hit singles.”

Gallo has become the poster boy for today’s hitters.  This is Gallo’s fifth major-league season.  He secured a regular job with the Rangers in 2017, after making his debut in 2015.  When considering his total career plate appearances (1,402) from 2015 through May 9, Gallo has hit a home run in 7.1%, walked in 14.1%, and struck out in 37.6%, amounting to almost 59% of his plate appearances.  Among his other 149 career hits, 93 were singles, 50 were doubles, and six were triples.

But Gallo’s career numbers in those categories are more extreme than the average American League hitter.  Using this year as a comparison, the average for all American League teams is 3.4% of plate appearances resulting in home runs, 9.1% in walks, and 22.8% in strikeouts.  Yet Gallo’s average for non-HR hits (singles, doubles, and triples) is almost half of the league average (10.6% vs. 18.4%).

When initially looking at Gallo’s power production numbers in 2018, his 40 home runs and 92 RBIs are attractive.  But then when you look further, he also struck out 207 times (third most in the American League) and barely broke the Mendoza Line in batting average.  According to Sports Illustrated, in 2017 Gallo became the first player ever to post a slugging percentage above .475 with a batting average below .215.  He repeated that performance in 2018.

With his reputation as a lefty pull-hitter, opposing teams have routinely applied defensive shifts that have largely produced the intended results.  On one occasion, the Houston Astros played every fielder on the right side of second base, except one outfielder in left field.  Like most extreme hitters, Gallo would rather risk a strikeout trying to hit (preferably a home run) over the shift than attempt an opposite-field single.  Occasionally, he will surprise opponents by laying down a bunt toward the empty left side of the infield.  Earlier this season he hit the first sacrifice fly of his career (after 1,337 plate appearances), but it’s premature to say he is changing his approach at the plate.

For baseball historians, Gallo conjures up remembrances of Dave “Kong” Kingman, a slugger from the ‘70s and ‘80s, who was noted for his monstrous home runs (career 442), but who was plagued by strikeouts (three times the National League leader) and a low batting average-(career .237).

Gallo is also compared to slugger Adam Dunn, a 14-year veteran who hit 462 career home runs.  Dunn averaged 193 strikeouts a season, and he still earned a good living playing in the majors, making over $112 million during his career according to Baseball-Reference.com.  Gallo hopes that will be true for him, too.  Otherwise, he’d likely starve if he were forced to become a singles hitter.

Cody Bellinger's April performance a constant highlight reel

It seemed like every day in April Dodgers outfielder Cody Bellinger was at the top of every baseball highlights show and baseball column recapping the day’s heroes.  He put on a hitting display in the first month of the season, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in quite a while.  In the process he has spurred the Dodgers to a first-place lead in the NL West Division, becoming the first team in either league to compile twenty wins.  The first team to win 20 games during the last three seasons (2016 Cubs, 2017 Astros, and 2018 Red Sox) won the World Series.

“Belly” started the season on a hot streak at the plate.  In only his sixth game on April 2, his fifth home run of the season was a grand slam.  His sixth home run and 16th RBI on April 6 tied a record with Alex Rodriguez and Eddie Mathews for production during first eight games of a season.  By April 26, he had set a modern-day record for most total bases (88) for the months of March and April.  The next day he set a record for most RBI (37) before May 1, passing Mark McGwire and Juan Gonzalez.

Bellinger’s season total numbers at the end of April were staggering.  He had accumulated a slash line of .431/.508/.890, to go along with his 14 HRs, 37 RBIs, 47 hits, 97 total bases, and 32 runs scored.  He was leading the National League in each of those categories.  Some players would love to have a full season’s results like he did in just the month of April.  However, being on the MLB leaderboard is not entirely new territory for Bellinger.  He was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2017 when he finished the season second in home runs (39) and compiled 97 RBI in 132 games.

His fantastic 2019 start has squelched some of the negative talk about Bellinger’s numbers last year, when he struggled a bit more at the plate during a full season.  His power numbers dropped off as he posted 25 HR and 76 RBI, while his slugging percentage fell over 100 points.  His strikeout rate was of concern, and it was highlighted during the Dodgers’ World Series loss against the Red Sox.  He got only one hit and struck out six times in 16 plate appearances and wound up in a platoon situation with the Dodgers.

In only his third major-league season, he has been the leader of the Dodgers’ left-handed hitting group that includes Joc Pederson, Max Muncy, Alex Verdugo, and Corey Seager.  They have been ravaging opposing pitchers, while the right-handed part of the lineup has been struggling to start the season.

Part of Bellinger’s improvements so far this season come from being more selective at the plate.  The result has been a strikeout rate that has fallen to 12% versus 25% during his first two major-league seasons.  He has more walks than strikeouts.  Manager Dave Roberts also credits Bellinger’s success to learning situational hitting, where sometimes an opposite-field single is needed versus trying for the home run.

Bellinger was named the NL Player of the Month for April.  He beat out Christian Yelich of the Milwaukee Brewers who had an MVP-type month himself.  In fact, Bellinger and Yelich are the early front-runners for NL MVP Award for the season.

Bellinger can’t be expected to continue hitting at his current pace.  There’s practically no chance he will hit at the .400 pace all year, maybe not even at the .300 level.  He could even see an increase in his strikeout rate as pitchers learn how to adjust to his hitting approach.  But it’s not a big reach for him to continue producing runs with his slugging.

The Dodgers are desperate for a World Series ring, having lost to the Astros and Red Sox in the last two seasons.  If Bellinger can continue to put up the seemingly daily highlights, he just may be the guy to finally get them their first championship since 1988.

April's MLB Musings

Here’s a sampling of players and teams that have turned in noteworthy performances so far.  They make up of some of the early successes and failures, newcomers and veterans, as well as a few oddball events, of the young season.

Based on early results, this will be a banner year for outstanding rookies.  For example, Eloy Jimenez (White Sox), Fernando Tatis Jr. (Padres), and Pete Alonso (Mets) are already showing they can make an impact with their teams.  Vladimir Guerrero Jr. just got into his first MLB game on April 26 in one of the most anticipated debuts in MLB history. (Remember the debuts of Ken Griffey Jr., Bo Jackson, and Bryce Harper?)  Any one of these 2019 newcomers will be a viable candidate for Rookie of the Year.

Only eight seasons separated the major-league careers of the father-son duo of Vladimir Guerrero Sr. and Vlad Jr.  A’s pitcher Brett Anderson became the first to face both of them.  Recall that Ken Griffey Jr. and Tim Raines Jr. both had the distinction of playing with their fathers in the same game.

The Baltimore Orioles are on a pace for a new record for home runs allowed in a season.   They’ve already given up 69 when the league average is currently 36.  The Orioles have already used 24 pitchers this year.  Their combined 6.11 ERA is more than double that of the AL-leading Tampa Bay Rays.  It’s going to be a long season for the O’s.

The Boston Red Sox are one of the most surprising teams in baseball this year.  But not for the right reasons.  Their win-loss record so far isn’t much better than the lowly Orioles.  After the Red Sox’s superior season last year and with the same team returning this year, they seemed like a cinch to repeat at American League champions.  It just goes to show you how hard it is for a team to repeat as World Series champion.

Yankees’ injured list for the season has gotten up to 13 players.  With names like Romine, Ford, Urshela, Tauchmann, Wade, Estrada, and Frazier in the starting lineup to replace the injured regulars, who would have thought they would still be playing over .500 ball?  It was thought DJ LeMahieu (acquired over the winter from the Rockies) would have a hard time finding playing time in the Yankees lineup this season, but that hasn’t been an issue with all the injuries.  The Yanks were fortunate to have him.

Paul Goldschmidt is proof that sometimes a change of scenery is good, even for the best of players.  He’s become the darling of his new St. Louis Cardinal team, as he fills a void from last year’s team for a much-needed power bat.  He’s been instrumental in the team’s early first-place ranking and has made himself an MVP candidate.

Other National League MVP candidates are Milwaukee’s Christian Yelich and Los Angeles Dodger Cody Bellinger.  Yelich tied a record for most home runs (14) before May 1 (with Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez).  His slash line is a whopping .350/.459/.810, all on a pace to surpass his MVP season in 2018.  Bellinger is even better so far this season with .420/.500/.890.  What’s surprising about Bellinger is that he hasn’t hit abode .267 in his two previous major-league seasons.  One of the big differences in his performance this year is his lower rate of strikeouts (11% vs. 23% of plate appearances last year).

The Seattle Mariners’ barrage of home runs has put them in an unexpected first place position in the AL West.  In their first 20 games of the season, they hit at least one home run.  It’s helped the team lead the league in runs scored per game.  The question is whether they can continue the pace and finally overcome the Houston Astros for the AL West Division title.

This season has been a “Tale of Two Davises.”  Baltimore’s Chris Davis had a hitless streak of 54 consecutive at-bats to start the season before getting his first hit on April 13.  On the other hand, Oakland’s Khris Davis has picked up where he left off last season and is second in the AL in home runs so far this season.

Players who wear uniform number “0” are pretty rare.  However, on April 19 New York Yankees pitcher Adam Ottovino faced Kansas City Royals batter Terrance Gore.  Both of them wore number “0,” the first time that’s ever happened.

In the twilight of his 19-year career, Albert Pujols continues to compile offensive numbers that put him among the all-time greats.  He tied Lou Gehrig this season for career RBIs with 1,995 and will surpass Barry Bonds for fourth place with one more.  He was already sixth in all-time home runs (637), 10th in doubles (642) and 23rd in hits (3,100).

Max Scherzer passed the 2,500 career strikeout milestone.  His strikeouts per 9 innings rate so far is on a pace to better his 300 strikeouts for last season, the first time he reached that milestone.  He is 35th on the all-time list for career strikeouts.  Uncharacteristically for Scherzer, however, is his 4.12 ERA this season, especially since he was under 3.00 in the last four seasons.

Minnesota Twins shortstop Jorge Polanco is having a career-breakout season.  His slash line is .341/.396/.637.  In a game against the Phillies on April 5, he was 5-for-5 and hit for the cycle.  He’s one of the primary reasons the Twins are leading the AL Central Division.

As of Saturday, the Detroit Tigers have scored only 90 runs in its first 25 games, the lowest average of runs scored per game in the American League.  By contrast, the Seattle Mariners have scored 183 runs.  It’s a wonder the Tigers have still managed to post a 12-13 record so far.

Kansas City Royals speedster Adalberto Mondesi has put on two displays of outstanding hustle this season.  He became only the ninth player to hit two triples in an Opening Day game.  On April 23, he scored from second base on a wild pitch by the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Los Angeles Dodgers are the only division-winner from last year that is currently holding first-place.  The Mariners, Rays, and Phillies, which haven’t been contenders for several years, are leading their respective divisions.  It’s true no team is really out of contention yet (except maybe the Marlins, Royals, and the Orioles).  It appears we’re headed for some tight races as the season progresses.

2018 John Curtis diamond team helps fill college ranks

For the past two seasons, John Curtis Christian School has added baseball to its list of state championship titles.  For a school that is historically known for its prep football prowess, it’s quite an accomplishment, as they competed in the LHSAA Division I level.

The 2018 Patriots squad that defeated St. Paul’s for the state title was special in that it produced eight players who signed to play at the college level for 2019.  The team ranks among the all-time best in New Orleans high school history, in terms of the outstanding talent it produced.

Historically, the metro New Orleans area high schools have been an abundant feeding ground for college baseball programs.  Most of them compete for Louisiana universities and community colleges, but usually there are others who wind up playing for colleges in surrounding states, as well as a few colleges outside of the mid-South.

This year’s college baseball rosters contain over 150 high school players from the metropolitan New Orleans area (East Bank, West Bank, North Shore, and River Parishes), representing 45 high schools attended and 33 colleges to which they advanced.

John Curtis’s contribution to the college ranks this year includes eight seniors who played on its 2018 championship team.  Patriots coach Jeff Curtis, the Times-Picayune Metro Coach of the Year in 2018, fielded a talented team, as four of the Patriots’ seniors were first-team All-Metro selections, with three additional seniors and a junior receiving honorable mention recognition.

Infielder Cade Beloso was named the Metro Player of the Year in 2018.  He is currently the starting first baseman for the nationally-ranked LSU Tigers.  Pitcher Will Ripoll was honored as the Metro Pitcher of the Year that season based on his 10-0 record and MVP honors in the state tournament.  He is now Beloso’s teammate at LSU.

Catcher Jay Curtis, a three-time All-Metro Team selection, is currently the starting catcher for University of Dayton in Ohio.  Pitcher Ian Landreneau was an All-Metro Team selection based on his 10-0 record.  He is now in the starting rotation for Gulf Coast (MS) Community College.

Infielder Logan Stevens signed with Tulane, while infielder Jordin LaBruzza signed with Baton Rouge Community College.  Both have filled utility roles for their respective teams this season.

Two additional college signees from Curtis, Landon Gambill (LSU Alexandria) and Hunter Bufkin (Nunez Community College), have been unable to play this season due to injuries.

In the annals of New Orleans prep baseball history, there are two other noteworthy teams that rival the 2018 Patriots’ team in terms of number of players who went on to the next level.

The 1936 Jesuit Blue Jays are often referred to as the best high school team in local New Orleans history.  It featured eight players who went on to play professional baseball, including three (Connie Ryan, Fats Dantonio, and Charlie Gilbert) at the major-league level.  Amazingly eleven players from that team were awarded All-Prep honors for the season (eight on the first team and three on the second team).  The unbeaten Blue Jays won the Louisiana state championship.

The 1980 Jesuit team also captured a state championship.  There were eleven players on that squad that eventually advanced to play at the college level.  Five were named to the Times-Picayune All-City team in 1980.  Will Clark went on to become the 1986 Golden Spikes winner as the nation’s best college player and then have a 15-year major-league career that included six all-star selections.

An updated list (through 2019) of over 1,600 New Orleans area high school players who have gone on to play at the college or professional levels can be viewed at http://www.thetenthinning.com/articles.html.

Baby Cakes roster evidence of increasing number of baseball relatives

Travis Sawchik, author and MLB reporter for FiveThirtyEight, recently wrote a paper citing evidence that suggests the number of players in the majors who are sons of former major league players is on the rise.

The New Orleans Baby Cakes roster this season supports the case that players with family relationships in baseball are indeed prominent; and the relationships are not confined to just fathers and sons, but also to brothers, uncles, nephews, and cousins.  Moreover, the Baby Cakes’ instances demonstrate that the sport is experiencing increased occurrences of three-generation baseball families and that the family relationships extend into baseball’s non-player (managers, coaches, and front office) roles as well.

61 of the 2018 major-leaguers were related to either past or present major-leaguers.  Another 131 major-leaguers had relatives that have played in the minors.  93 of the 2018 minor-leaguers were related to past or present major-leaguers, while another 193 minor-league players were related to minor-league players.  These relationships included sons, brothers, cousins, grandsons, nephews, and brothers-in-law.

With respect to the Baby Cakes team, there are eight players and one of its coaches who have relatives in professional baseball.  They are included in the above stats from 2018.

Third-base coach Justin Mashore is one of those rare players who had both a father and brother to play in the majors.  He didn’t play in the majors himself (spent 10 seasons in the minors), but his brother Damon played parts of three seasons with Oakland and Anaheim from 1996-1998.  Their father Clyde was a major-league utility outfielder from 1969-1973 with Cincinnati and Montreal.

Pitcher Tommy Eveld is making his debut at the Triple-A level with New Orleans.  A reliever who came to the Florida Marlins organization from Arizona last season, he has a career ERA of 2.11.  His brother, Bobby Eveld Jr., has pitched in the Toronto and Texas minor-league systems.

Pitcher Mike Kickham returns to the Baby Cakes after spending parts of the 2017 and 2018 season with them.  He was originally a sixth-round draft pick of the San Francisco Giants in 2010.  He made his major-league debut with the Giants in 2013.  His brother Daniel had been a pitcher in the Detroit organization in 2011, followed by a season in an independent league in 2012.

In his 10th minor-league season, relief pitcher Brian Moran is making his debut in the Marlins organization.  His brother Colin, a first round pick of the Marlins in 2013, is the third baseman for Pittsburgh.  The Moran brothers are the nephews of former major-league brothers B. J. and Rich Surhoff.  B. J. was the first overall pick of the Milwaukee Brewers in 1985 and went on to play 19 major-league seasons.  Rich was a pitcher for one major-league season in 1985.

Infielder Jon Berti made his major-league debut with Toronto last season and is now is now in his first season in the Marlins organization.  Berti is in his ninth pro season after being drafted by the Blue Jays in the 11th round in 2011.  He is the son of Thomas Berti, an infielder in the Detroit organization in 1978 and 1979.

Infielder Deven Marrero is in his first season in the Marlins organization after spending 2018 in the Arizona Diamondbacks system.  He was a first-round pick of the Boston Red Sox in 2012 and played parts of three major-league seasons with the Red Sox.  He is the cousin of Chris Marrero, who played in three major-league seasons with Washington and San Francisco and now plays in the Japan Pacific League.  Deven is also the cousin of Christian Marrero, played 12 seasons in the minors from 2006 to 2017.

After playing seven minor-league seasons in the New York Yankees organization, first baseman Matt Snyder is making his Marlins organization debut with the Baby Cakes this season.  His father Brian pitched in the majors in 1985 and 1989 for the Seattle and Oakland organizations, while brother Brandon is currently playing for the Tampa Bay Rays in his sixth major-league season.  Matt and Brian are cousins of Madison Younginer, who briefly pitched for the Atlanta Braves in 2016.

Outfielder Isaac Galloway is in his fifth season with the Baby Cakes, making his major-league debut with the big-league Marlins last season.  He is the third generation of his family to play professional baseball.  His father Ike played in the Philadelphia organization in 1987 and 1988 after being drafted in the eighth round out of high school.  Ike’s grandfather Issac pitched one season in the Baltimore organization in 1960.

Baby Cakes outfielder Gabriel Guerrero comes from an extensive baseball family from the Dominican Republic.  After making his major-league debut in the Cincinnati organization last year, he was acquired by the Marlins in the off-season.  His uncles, Vladimir Sr. and Wilton, played in the majors, with Vladimir Sr. being inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame last year.  A third uncle, Julio, played four seasons in Boston’s minor-league system.  Gabriel’s cousin Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is the top prospect in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, while cousin Gregory played two minor-league seasons with the Mets in 2016 and 2017.

Lists of all 2018 major league and minor league players with family ties can be retrieved at https://baseballrelatives.wordpress.com/family-ties-2018-season/

Yankees need the services of a M.A.S.H. unit

When shortstop Troy Tulowitzski suffered a calf strain on April 4, he was the 11th Yankees player to go on the Injured List (new name for the Disabled List). The MVP for the New York Yankees this year just might be the team’s head of the medical staff.  With the unfortunate rash of injuries to a number of players, team physicians, trainer, and rehab coaches will be busy trying get the players back on the field.  The big question is whether they can return soon enough to avoid incurring a big deficit in the division standings.

In addition to Tulowitzski, the Yankees’ casualties since Opening Day have included third baseman Miguel Andujar (small tear to the labrum of right shoulder) and outfielder Giancarlo Stanton (left bicep strain).  Coming out of spring training, they had previously lost the services of outfielder Aaron Hicks (stiff lower back), relief pitcher Dellin Betances (shoulder impingement), starting pitcher Luis Severino (inflamation in right rotator cuff) and starting pitcher CC Sabathia (knee and heart procedure).  With the exception of Tulowitzski, who was brought on during the offseason to replace injured shortstop Didi Gregorius (Tommy John surgery last season), these players were all key contributors to the team that won 100 games last year.

The other player injuries were leftovers from last season: outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury (hip and foot), pitcher Jordan Montgomery (Tommy John surgery), and pitcher Ben Heller (Tommy John surgery).  With the nature of their injuries, they weren’t being counted on for this season anyway.

However, the Yankees are not panicking just yet.  Fortunately, they have some depth and versatility on their roster coming into the 2019 season.  They still have some formidable bats in the lineup with Aaron Judge, Luke Voit, Gleyber Torres, Gary Sanchez, Brett Gardner, DJ LeMehieu, and Greg Bird.  Minor leaguers Clint Frazier and Tyler Wade have been recalled to the big-league club to provide reinforcements.

The pitching staff might be more questionable though.  Severino and Sabathia were being counted on in the starting rotation.  In the meantime, Jonathan Loaisiga and Domingo German have been given big-league promotions.  Neither of them has any substantial major-league experience.

Stanton, Betances, Sabathia, and Hicks are projected to be back in the lineup by the end of April.  Gregorius is expected to return by the All-Star break.  But Andujar (last year’s runner-up for Rookie of the Year) could be out for the season, while it could be late May before Severino (19 wins last season) returns.

It’s been said that pennants can be lost in April.  If a team gets far enough behind in the standings, it takes a Herculean effort and a lot of luck to get back into contention for a playoff spot.  Luck is one thing the Yankees don’t have so far this season.  Even before incurring all these injuries, division rivals Boston and Tampa were expected to provide stiff competition for the Yankees.  Those teams would do well to use the opportunity to create some separation from the banged-up Yankees early in the season.

However, if the Yankees can stay around .500 for the month of April, they should have ample time recover when players return healthy.

Aaron Boone’s managerial skills will be well-tested as he works his way through this period of having a makeshift roster.  Injuries to key players can be demoralizing to a team.  Even the most experienced managers have previously struggled in similar situations to maintain their team’s focus.

Perhaps the second-year Yankee skipper will need to have the phone numbers of his medical staff on speed dial to keep tabs on the status of his injured players.  He’ll need a healthy roster as soon as he can get it.

Who are these O's?

If I said the names Altuve, Bregman, Correa, Springer, Verlander, and Cole, you’d immediately know I was talking about the Houston Astros.  But if I said Sucre, Villar, Ruiz, Mullins, and Rickard, you’d probably ask which minor league team this was.  But in fact they are players who are part of the starting lineup for the current Baltimore Orioles.  In fact, the squad is filled with a bunch of inexperienced, “no-name” players who have little chance of being a competitive team.

The Orioles are one of the latest teams to have overhauled their roster in the hopes of rebuilding a winning team over the next few years through the acquisition of top prospects and player development in their farm system.  In the meantime, the organization will be subjecting its fans to disastrous seasons with a roster of players that don’t have much major-league experience.  Last year the team won only 47 games; it was their worst season in franchise history.  This season doesn’t bode well either.

The Orioles last won a division title in 2014 when they featured Adam Jones, Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis, Nelson Cruz, Jonathan Schoop, and a 21-year-old “phenom” shortstop named Manny Machado.

Machado proceeded to become the face of the Orioles and one of the premier infielders in the game.  However, when he was traded last July to the Los Angeles Dodgers for five minor-league players, it signaled that Baltimore had packed it in for the 2018 season, as well as for the foreseeable future.

Only slugging first baseman Chris Davis remains from that 2014 team.  The only reason he’s still there is his lofty salary no other team wants.  The Orioles liked him so much following his 47 home runs in 2015 (he had hit 53 dingers in 2013) that they signed him to a new contract valued at $161 million.  However, for the past two seasons, his production has fallen off dramatically.  He’s become the poster child for strikeouts in an era in the major leagues when overall strikeouts exceed the number of hits.  Davis had one of the worst seasons in history in 2018 when his batting average was .168 and his slugging percentage didn’t break .300.  His WAR (Wins Above Replacement) last year was negative 2.8.

In fact the entire roster of position players had a combined negative WAR last year, which could be interpreted as they weren’t as good as a team of replacement players from Triple-A.

The sad part about the Orioles’ situation is that Davis is one of their better players this year.  They also have serviceable second baseman Jonathan Villar and outfielder Trey Mancini, but none of the rest on the roster has appeared in more than 300 career games.  Most of them would have a hard time even being a utility player on another major-league roster, much less a starter.  Dwight Smith Jr. is one of the few recognizable names among the position players, but it’s only because his father was a former major leaguer for eight seasons.

The Orioles’ pitching staff has a few more recognizable names than the position players, but they are combination of retreads and relative inexperience, too.  Only one of their pitchers had an ERA+ above 100 (average for the league) last season.

Even the Orioles’ manager is relatively unknown.  After the Orioles fired its popular, long-time manager Buck Showalter following last season, new manager Brandon Hyde is in his first season as a major-league skipper.  Hyde had previously been a first-base coach and bench coach in the Cubs organization.  He has the unenviable task of trying to motivate a team that doesn’t expect to win many games this year, especially against division rivals Red Sox, Yankees, and Rays.  He is a highly-regarded baseball man, but the cards are stacked against his having much success in his debut year.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1969 New York Mets team that won its first World Series.  The 2019 Orioles team would never be confused with the Amazin’ Mets.  Instead they are more likely to resemble the inaugural Mets team that won only 40 games in 1962.

Pre-season picks: It's the Big Four in the AL, a toss-up in the NL

Last year I labeled my pre-season picks “boring” because I picked every team from the 2017 play-offs to repeat I 2018, including the wild cards.

It turned out four of six division winners did repeat, while two of four wild card teams were the same as 2017.  I guess my results could have been worse.

My picks are going to be somewhat boring again this year.  I’m picking the American League division winners and wild cards to repeat from 2018.  The “Big Four,” as I call them (Red Sox, Yankees, Astros, and Indians), are still the cream of the crop.  Their rosters over the past few years were built to last.  I don’t see any of the other teams bumping them out of the post-season playoff picture.  All the other teams in the AL are in various stages of re-building, re-tooling, or are just plain bad.

The National League is a different story though.  It’s going to largely be a toss-up for the playoff spots.  While the Dodgers and Cubs have been prominent in the post-season in recent years (including the Cubs’ World Series championship in 2016 and the Dodgers’ two World Series appearances in 2017 and 2018), I don’t think either of them will be a shoo-in this year.  I believe each of the three divisions will be highly competitive this season, with each having multiple contenders for playoff spots.

Here’s my prediction of each of the playoff teams.

As I mentioned earlier, I believe the five playoff teams in the American League will include the Red Sox, Indians, and Astros as division winners.  The A’s will join the Yankees as wild-card teams.

In the National League, I’m predicting the Phillies, Cubs, and Rockies will take division titles, while the Brewers and Nationals will be the wild-card entries.  This lineup of playoff teams represents some very different results from last year.

The Red Sox have the same lineup as last year, although it would be hard-pressed to deliver 108 wins again.  They have one of the best outfields in the majors and productive super-utility players in Steve Pearce, Brock Holt and Eduardo Nunez, who give the Red Sox a lot of versatility.  Their biggest issue will be replacing key relievers Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly.

The Yankees will get edged out by Boston again for the AL East title and have to settle for a wild-card berth again.  Re-signing J.A. Happ and acquiring James Paxton were key Yankees’ moves to bolster the starting rotation, but it still may not be enough to overtake the Red Sox.  However, they’ll win a lot of games again and be contenders because they still have the best bullpen in the American League (even with losing David Robertson); and they may be the first team in history to hit 300 home runs in a season.

The Indians will beat out the Twins for the AL Central division title.  Cleveland has two Top 10 American League infielders in Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez.  Losing outfielders Michael Brantley and Edwin Encarnacion will force them to go with a younger corps with less overall power.  But they did re-sign Carlos Santana to offset the power loss.  The Indians’ starting rotation is still very solid.

The Astros will continue their dominance in the AL West even though they had key free-agent losses in super-utility player Marwin Gonzalez and pitchers Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton.  Pitcher Lance McCullers was lost to Tommy John surgery.  However, shortstop Carlos Correa is healthy again and they added Michael Brantley in the outfield.  Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole still comprise one of the most formidable one-two punches for a starting rotation and if the rest should falter, their top pitching prospect Forrest Whitley will likely get a callup around mid-season.

The A’s surprised everyone last year with a 97-win season.  They won’t win that many games this year, but will edge out Tampa and the Twins for the other AL wild card spot this year.  Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Khris Davis, and Steven Piscotty provide the offensive punch, although veteran Jed Lowrie, who was lost to free agency, will be missed.

The Phillies were the clear winner in the free-agent market with the signing of Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura, J. T. Realmuto and David Robertson.  These strategic additions are enough to make them the favorite in a competitive NL East Division over the Braves and Nationals.  The big question for the Phillies is whether the Phillies’ starting rotation is deep enough beyond Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta.

Cubs starting pitchers will be at full strength this year.  Look for Kris Bryant to have a resurgent year.  As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, manager Joe Maddon is on the hot seat this year to keep his job.  He’ll have his team hitting on all cylinders this year, and they will top the Brewers and Cardinals in a close division race.

The Rockies’ star third baseman Nolan Arenado got his lucrative contract extension.  Now he’ll focus on leading the team to a division title, replacing the Dodgers who have six consecutive NL West championships under their belt.  In fact, the Dodgers will fail to make the playoffs this year after losing the World Series for the past two years.  The Rockies’ lineup that has made the playoffs the past two seasons largely remains intact.  The loss of DJ LeMahieu will more than be made up for by their acquisition of Daniel Murphy.

Even though the National lost their face of the franchise, Bryce Harper, they’ll make up for him with a full season of last year’s 19-year-old sensation Juan Soto and rookie Victor Robles.  Anthony Rendon will prove how valuable he really is to the team, without having to play in Harper’s shadow.  The Nationals’ pitching staff of Scherzer, Strasburg, and newcomer Patrick Corbin is one of the strongest in the big leagues.  New second baseman Brian Dozier will have a bounce-back year.  The Nationals will claim one of the NL wild-card spots.

The Brewers will be the other NL wild-card team.  They narrowly missed out on defeating the Dodgers in the NLCS last year and should make another run this year.  They managed to keep all their young arms and appear to be in the hunt for reliever Craig Kimbrel.  Starter Jimmy Nelson returns to the starting rotation after missing last year due to injury.

Even though it’s rare for teams to repeat as World Series champions, I’m picking the Red Sox to prevail over the Colorado Rockies in the World Series, just like in 2007.

Tulo out to prove he's still got gas in the tank

In his prime, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki didn’t think he would playing for minimum wage at age 34.  But his career has taken him on a path of twists and turns that included multiple years of injuries, a surprise trade from Colorado, ae entirely missed season, and his release last year from Toronto with money still owed to him.

Tulowitzki was acquired by with the New York Yankees over the winter to fill the gap at shortstop created by Didi Gregorius’s Tommy John surgery to repair his right elbow ligament that will likely keep him out for most this year.  Yankees GM Brian Cashman is taking a chance on Tulo after he sat out the entire 2018 season due to surgery to remove bone spurs from both heels.  The Yankees job is apparently his for the taking.  The team has an alternative to play infielder Gleyber Torres at shortstop, but prefer to keep him as their regular second baseman.  The ball’s in Tulowitzki’s court now to prove he can still be a viable everyday shortstop.

Tulowitzki was indeed one of the best shortstops in the majors during the first 9-10 years of his career.  He was a five-time all-star who was very good at the plate and even better in the field.  At one point in his career, when fielding percentage was still the best measure of defensive ability, he had the best career percentage for a shortstop in baseball history.  He has since slipped to third on the all-time list.

However, the knock on Tulowitzki has been staying healthy.  In addition to missing all of last season, he played in only 66 games in 2017 due to a fractured ankle.  He appeared in 91 games in 2014 and only 47 in 2012.

His home run in his first spring training at-bat was encouraging, but he has had to work diligently to get his timing down. After all, he hadn’t batted in a major-league game since July 28, 2017.  His slash line is .227/.280/.545 with two home runs and five RBIs in nine spring games.  His fielding has been heavily scrutinized this spring.  So far, he has a passing grade to show he still has range.

The Yankees are looking at Tulowitzki as a no-risk option.  Toronto is still paying $19.45 million of his 2019 salary.  It allowed the Yankees to sign him to a minimum salary ($550k) contract.  If he should falter, the Yankees still have the Torres alternative.  In any case, the Yankees see him as a one-year stop-gap measure.  If he proves he still can be an everyday player, but the Yankees decide they ultimately want to keep a healthy Gregorius, then Tulowitzki could be dealt to another club later with no financial impact.

In the meantime, Tulowitzki is anxious to demonstrate he can still hit and field and be an important factor in getting the Yankees get back to the World Series, something they haven’t done since 2009.

In 2010, the Yankees used their desire for Tulowitzki, then an all-star with Colorado, as a bargaining chip to get 36-year-old Derek Jeter to accept a three-year deal for an amount Jeter thought was too low.  Now, nine years later, Tulowitzki will end up in pinstripes after all.

It's Cubs manager Joe Maddon's turn to be on the hot seat

What do Joe Girardi, John Farrell, Mike Matheny, and Dusty Baker have in common?  They were all successful big-league managers on baseball’s biggest stages.  Their teams won one or more league pennants.  Except for Baker, all have World Series rings.  However, they are living proof that success doesn’t last forever, as they all became unemployed as managers within the last two years.

Iconic Cubs manager Joe Maddon was the toast of Chicago when his team completed its rise from a total re-building effort with a World Series championship in 2016.  But after a disappointing loss in the 2017 NLCS in five games and a wild-card game loss in last year’s playoffs, Maddon’s now being evaluated by the Cubs’ front office to see if he is the right guy to continue to lead the talented club.

Maddon has generally been regarded as one of the best managers in both leagues.  He can be put in same class of successful managers as Girardi, Farrell, Matheny, and Baker.

The Cubs have won at least 90 games in each of Maddon’s four seasons at the helm of the Cubs.  If he does it again in 2019, he would be only the second manager to have won 90 games for two different teams (Maddon was previously with the Tampa Rays).  Al Lopez accomplished the feat with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox in the 1950s and 1960s.  Only 13 managers in history have put together ten or more seasons with at least 90 wins, and 11 of them are in the Hall of Fame.

Chicago’s President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein recruited Maddon from Tampa.  Epstein liked him because he was a charismatic leader and progressive user of baseball data analytics.

Epstein sees a window of opportunity for the Cubs to get back to the World Series.  The talented club was expected to have better post-season results since their last World Series season.  Two of the frustrating factors about 2018 were the power drop in hitting and inconsistency of the starting rotation.  Starters Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood, and Mike Montgomery didn’t contribute as expected.  The Cubs’ run differential in the second half fell off dramatically even though they were ten games above .500.

Epstein publicly acknowledged the Cubs didn’t display a sense of urgency in the second half of the season.  They got complacent.  Some of that criticism had to reflect on Maddon.

Part of the solution was to change out several key positions in the coaching staff.  In fact, the Cubs’ biggest off-season activity came in hiring a new hitting coach (Anthony Iapoce), a new pitching coach (Tommy Hottovy), a new assistant hitting coach (Termel Sledge), and a new quality assurance coach (Chris Denorfia).

The Cubs are going to have stiff competition in the division.  Milwaukee won the division last year in a one-game playoff with the Cubs after they tied during the regular season and is expected to have another good team, while the St. Louis is on an upswing.  Even Cincinnati made a big splash during the winter with several trades and free-agent signings.

If the Cub’ results don’t improve in 2019, Maddon just may be the next one to go. 

What Bryce Harper's signing means

Bryce Harper finally made his decision last week on his new team, one that will take him 13 years into the future with the Philadelphia Phillies.  The 26-year-old signed a $330 million deal that set a new record for highest contract value.  Harper eclipsed the former record by Giancarlo Stanton who had signed for $325 million in November 2014 with the Miami Marlins.  Harper’s sweet deal includes a $20 million signing bonus, a full no-trade provision, and no opt-outs.

Besides making Harper a very rich man, the signing has additional implications in major league baseball.

The Phillies’ addition of Harper changes the landscape in the National League East Division for the foreseeable future.  They had already made a big statement with the earlier signing of free agents Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura, J. T. Realmuto, and David Robertson (see my blog post on February 17); but the addition of Harper definitely puts them into the status of pre-season favorite for the division title and playoff opportunities.  Phillies owner John Middleton said over the winter he was prepared to spend “stupid money” to put the team in this position; he wound up putting his money where his mouth was.

The Phillies haven’t had a winning season since 2011 when they finished in first place for the fifth consecutive season.  Included in that string were two World Series appearances.  But then their roster aged without adequate prospects to replace them, and the team fell on hard times.  When the Phillies dismantled the core of the team (Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, and Cole Hamels) that brought them the division titles, they conducted a fire sale that some thought was a deliberate attempt to match their NBA counterparts (Philadelphia 76ers) in “tanking.”  But the Phillies were just following the example of the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros, who had taken similar approaches to re-build before eventually winning World Series rings.  It’s safe to say now the Phillies’ re-building mode has ended.

Harper’s signing also signifies that the days of mega-deals are not yet over.  For the past couple of years, there had been indications that major-league clubs were frowning on making long-term deals locking them into huge salaries in the event the players’ productivity suffered downturns.  This was especially true for players who became free agents after the age of 30.  Harper reportedly had several suitors, including the Dodgers, Giants, and Yankees, willing to pay top-dollar for a one or two-year deal, but Harper held his ground and eventually got the contract he wanted.  26-year-old Manny Machado, the other top free agent during the off-season, also landed a huge contract worth $300 million over 10 years.

The Phillies’ deal with Harper doesn’t bog them down with respect to affording other quality players.  Harper’s average annual salary will be $25.4 million (14th highest in history).  That’s actually a reasonable amount for a player of his caliber when considering there are other players making in excess of $30 million per year.  It allows for the Phillies to pick up other players to shore up any weaknesses that might develop.  In fact, they may not be done yet this spring.  Rumors are circulating the Phillies are pursuing starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel or relief ace Craig Kimbrel.

Harper wasn’t the only one who benefitted from his new contract. Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, scored another blockbuster contract.  He continues to be a major force in the free-agent market, having previously negotiated other major deals for clients like Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixiera, Matt Holliday, Max Scherzer, and J.D. Martinez.

To put Harper’s huge contract into perspective, Philly.com calculated he would earn an estimated $11,132 per pitch, $44,906 per plate appearance, and $191,685 per game.  Not bad for a day’s work.

One downside of Harper signing with a new team is that he won’t get to play with his older brother Bryan, who is a minor leaguer in the Nationals farm system.  Perhaps they will eventually get to face each other in a divisional game.

The Phillies’ acquisition of Harper is analogous to Pete Rose being signed by the Phillies in 1979, after he had played 16 seasons with the Cincinnati Reds.  Rose helped the Phillies get to the World Series in 1980 and 1983. With Harper, the Phillies are legitimate contenders again in the National League.  Let’s see if he can get similar results.

Superdome hosted rare prep baseball doubleheader in 1977

New Orleans baseball fans from the ‘70s, ’80s, and ‘90s will most likely remember when the Louisiana Superdome played host to major league baseball exhibition games, a minor-league team’s regular-season games, and annual college baseball tournaments featuring local universities against other nationally-ranked programs.  What those fans may not remember though are two high school baseball playoff games played as a one-time event in the Dome on May 6, 1977.

When the Dome was originally conceived, it was designed to be a multi-sport facility.  Of course, the stadium is best known as the home of the New Orleans Saints and its Who Dat fans.  The New Orleans Jazz NBA team, featuring legendary Pete Maravich, also played there for four seasons in the 1970s.

Baseball was originally in the grand plan for the Dome, too.  The seating design for the stadium even allowed for a particular baseball configuration.  However, despite repeated attempts to convince Major League baseball teams to re-locate to New Orleans, the city never got its own big-league franchise.  The closest the Superdome got to pro baseball was a one-year stint of the New Orleans Pelicans Triple-A baseball team in 1977.  The Pelicans, an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, played all of its home games in the Dome that season before moving to Springfield, Missouri, the next season.

With the Pelicans scheduled for a road trip to Omaha in early May, local high baseball officials arranged for De La Salle, West Jefferson, Bonnabel, and Chalmette to play regional AAAA playoff games in the Superdome to determine the teams that would advance to the Louisiana state playoffs in Baton Rouge.  The venue was naturally a big step up from the usual Kirsch-Rooney Park used by high school teams.

The first game pitted De La Salle’s Cavaliers against the West Jefferson Buccaneers.  Dave Moreau was the hitting star for the Cavs with his two-run single providing the deciding runs and lifting them to a 3-1 victory.  De La Salle’s Bruce O’Krepki pitched a complete game in which he struck out 11.  The Cavaliers advanced to the state quarterfinals to play Glen Oaks.

De La Salle coach Jerry Burrage commented after the game about Moreau’s performance: “I would rather have Moreau at bat with runners on base than anyone else.  He has really come through for us as he has maybe five or six game-winning hits this year.”

In the second game of the doubleheader, Chalmette defeated Bonnabel, 4-2.  The Owls’ Lorne Landreneau hurled a four-hitter, while Randy Wilheit drove in three runs.  Chalmette would battle East Jefferson in the next round of the playoffs.

Forty-two years later, Moreau and Burrage still have vivid memories of the game in the Superdome.  Both were recently interviewed about their recollections.

Burrage recalls meeting with the coaches of the other three teams (Ray Ferrand of Bonnabel, Jean Faust of Chalmette, and Jesse Daigle of West Jefferson) at Andy Kreutz’s office in the Superdome to iron out the details of the two contests.  Burrage said, “Each team had an hour and a half to practice in the Dome the day before the game.  My emphasis in our session was to make sure the players were acclimated to the Dome’s playing environment, mostly through fielding drills.  Some thought it was odd we didn’t take our turn in the batting cage.”  He added, “The game in the Dome was a great thrill for our school, our kids, and their relatives who attended.  Other than winning the state championship that season, it was my most unforgettable moment at De La Salle.”  Burrage spent ten seasons with the Cavaliers and later coached at East Jefferson from 1995 to 2007 before retiring.

Moreau remembered the thrill of seeing the playoff games being advertised on the huge outdoor display board at the Superdome.  He also noted, “De La Salle got to play the early game of the doubleheader so we could attend our senior prom later that evening.  Back then, that was a big deal for us.”  As the third baseman on the Cavalier team, Moreau especially recalled the ground balls coming fast off the artificial turf at the Superdome.  Like Burrage, he still counts the game in the Dome as one of his all-time athletic highpoints.  Moreau is currently athletic director at Jesuit High School, following a lengthy career as its head baseball coach.

De La Salle went on to win the state championship by defeating Chalmette in the finals.  Burrage recalled that all the Chalmette losses that season came at the hands of his Cavaliers squad.

Neither Moreau nor Burrage could definitively say whether their playoff appearance was the first high school baseball contest in the Superdome, which opened in August 1975.  However, this writer’s search of the Times-Picayune archives didn’t surface any other prep baseball games having been played in the Superdome.

Will the Phillies' Off-Season Moves Get Them A Playoff Berth?

The Philadelphia Phillies have been one of the more active teams during the off-season, as they seek to improve their chances to win the National League East Division in 2019 and get to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.  However, their division rivals haven’t been sitting idly by either.  The division has been mostly dominated by the Washington Nationals for the past five seasons, although the Atlanta Braves had their break-out year in 2018.  The division is shaping up this season to be one of the more competitive ones in baseball.  The question is: will the Phillies’ off-season transactions be enough to put them over the top?

The Phillies made a run at the division title last year.  From July 6 to August 12, they held first place, and were still only two games back of Atlanta at the end of August.  But then a disastrous September (9-20 record) took them out of contention.  They wound up in third place, ten games behind the division-winning Braves, while the Nationals edged them for second place.

Gabe Kapler, in his first year as Phillies manager last year, was thought to have an unconventional approach to several aspects of the game.  His image suffered from a few early-season managerial gaffes, but by the end of the campaign he was viewed as having turned in a credible performance with a team that wasn’t overly talented.

Over the winter, Phillies owner John Middleton declared he was ready to spend “stupid money” to get the players the Phillies needed.  The statement was thought to be in reference to being willing to outbid other suitors of the top two free agents, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.  It is believed the Phillies have put lucrative offers on the table to both of these superstars, who have been courted by a number of other teams, including the Yankees, Dodgers, and White Sox.

Aside from their pursuit of the two game-changers, the Phillies added key players in targeted positions where they had weaknesses.  And they didn’t have to spend “stupid money” to get them.

David Robertson’s acquisition added a solid veteran to the bullpen, where they needed more depth.  Andrew McCutchen was signed to a three-year deal after he bounced last season between the Giants and Yankees.  The former MVP still has a lot of gas in the tank.  Jean Segura gives the Phillies a big upgrade at shortstop.  He put together an all-star season for the Mariners las year and is a good candidate for another 200-hit season.  Perhaps the Phillies’ most valuable acquisition was J.T. Realmuto as their new catcher.  Recruited by a number of teams, he is generally thought to be the best overall catcher in baseball.

The New York Mets, led by new GM Brodie Van Wagenam, have been equally active over the winter.  They finished only three games behind the Phillies last year, but needed more offensive help to go along with a good starting rotation headlined by Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom.  They acquired 36-year-old second baseman Robinson Cano, whose addition many analysts questioned because they believe he has passed his peak years.  Wilson Ramos was added to provide long-needed offense from the catcher’s position.

The Mets are counting on free-agent veteran infielder Jed Lowrie, to provide the same kind of performance he did with the upstart Oakland A’s last year.  Slugging outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, whose bat was sorely missed by the Mets when he sat out most of last season due to surgeries on both heels, is uncertain when he will be able to return this year.  The Mets could use his bat back in the lineup.  They bolstered the bullpen by adding Edwin Diaz to go along with Jeurys Familia, whom they re-acquired from Oakland over the winter after trading him at the deadline last year. Diaz led the major leagues in saves last season.

The Braves and Nationals were less active in the free agent market in terms of number of transactions, but both teams made key acquisitions or re-signings.  Atlanta added third baseman Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann (who previously played for the Braves from 2005 to 2013), while bringing back outfielder Nick Markakis.  The Nationals signed the biggest contract for a free-agent pitcher over the winter with Patrick Corbin (six years, $140 million), while also adding second baseman Brian Dozier.  Right after the regular season ended, Harper declined an offer from the Nationals for $300 million over ten years.  If he doesn’t get a better offer elsewhere, it would be a pretty sure bet the Nationals would extend their offer again.  But even without Harper, the Nationals still figure to be a contender for the division title because of their starting pitcher staff.

The Phillies took matters into their own hands over the winter to complement its young team with solid veterans.  Now it’s Kapler task to assimilate the new players into the culture he is building there.  But they’ll have stiff competition within their division.

It’s not certain the Phillies are done yet with all of their deals.  There are reports the Phillies are still in the hunt to get Harper or Machado.  Perhaps the “stupid money” remains to be spent.  And if that happens, the other divisional teams should be really worried.

Frank Robinson: Baseball's Pioneer as First Black Manager

Following Jackie Robinson’s debut as the first black player in the majors in 1947, it took over a quarter of a century for Major League Baseball to hire its first black manager.  Frank Robinson, who died last week at age 83, made history in 1975 when signed a contract as player-manager of the Cleveland Indians.  Robinson also became the first black manager in the National League in 1981 with the San Francisco Giants.

Robinson had been traded by the California Angels to the Cleveland Indians with three weeks left in the 1974 season.  At 38-years-old, he was in the twilight of a Hall of Fame career.  At the time, he was fourth on the all-time home run list following Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays.  He was the only player to be voted the Most Valuable Player in both leagues (Cincinnati in 1961 and Baltimore in 1966).

When Indians manager Ken Aspromonte resigned with just days left in the 1974 season, Cleveland GM Phil Sehgi offered him the job, but under the condition that he would continue to play.  Although not his preference to hold both roles, Robinson agreed to the arrangement.  When it came time to talk about his salary for the new job, the Indians offered him the same amount, $180,000, as he had previously signed as just a player.  Robinson initially balked at the offer as being unfair because the Indians were essentially asking him to manage for nothing.

Robinson’s agent, Ed Keating, counseled him that if he wanted to manage in the big leagues, this would be his big chance.  Ever since his early playing days in Cincinnati, Robinson had decided he wanted to stay in baseball after his playing career, ideally to manage a major-league team.  However, he hadn’t envisioned he would ever be the first black to manage.  Robinson ultimately agreed to the Indians’ terms, but alerted the front office that his primary focus would be on the other 24 players on the roster and that player Frank Robinson would be secondary in his priorities.

Robinson’s appointment was truly significant, since there had been only three black managers (Gene Banks, Tommie Aaron, and Hector Lopez) in the minor leagues and only a handful of blacks as coaches on major-league teams at the time.  Robinson’s managerial experience included five seasons at the helm of Santurce in the Puerto Rican Winter League.

Before a home crowd on Opening Day in 1975, manager Robinson placed himself second in the Indians batting order.  In the bottom of the first inning, he hit a home run off New York Yankees pitcher Doc Medich.  Robinson said it was his all-time thrill during his 37-year career, as the Indians also won the game, 5-3.

The Indians wound up one game short of a .500 season, finishing in fourth place, 15 ½ games behind the Boston Red Sox.  Robinson led the team to an 81-78 record the next year but then was let go after 57 games in 1977.

He went on to manage the San Francisco Giants, Baltimore Orioles, Montreal Expos, and Washington Nationals for a total of 16 seasons.  He was American League Manager of the Year with the Orioles in 1989.  The season represented a dramatic turnaround by the Orioles who had lost their first 21 games of the previous season during which they won only 54 games.

Robinson blazed the trail for other prominent black managers in the majors, including Dusty Baker, Don Baylor, Cito Gaston, Ron Washington, and Hal McRae.

Robinson may have been underrated as a player by virtue of his career occurring at the same time as Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron.  But he was a true “five-tool” player before the term became widely used to describe players with equally outstanding hitting, fielding, and running skills.

In any case, the baseball writers got it right by electing him to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1982.  Following his career on the field, he held various executive positions in Major League Baseball’s front office.  He was regarded as one of the outstanding ambassadors for the game.

(Note: Frank Robinson’s book Extra Innings (McGraw-Hill, 1988) was the source for details about his first managerial job with Cleveland.)

How Tom Brady and the Patriots are like Yogi Berra and the Yankees

Tom Brady did it again.  Won his record-setting sixth Super Bowl with the New England Patriots by defeating the Los Angeles Rams.  Just when we think the 41-year-old signal caller could be hanging up his cleats, he does it again.  Perhaps he’s correct when he says he plans to play until he’s 45 years old.

Brady has been the main factor in the Patriots reaching the playoffs repeatedly since 2001.  With the exception of 2002 and 2008, the New Englanders have finished in first place in the AFC East Division.  During his 18 years, the Brady-led Patriots missed going to the AFC Championship Game only five times.  This year was the Pats’ ninth trip to the Super Bowl since Brady’s been with them.  This is indeed the definition of a dynasty.  New England coach Bill Belichick, of course, gets credit for being the master-mind behind this superior franchise, but Brady has been the one constant on the field throughout the term.

The Patriots and Brady remind us of a baseball dynasty of yesteryear that had similar results and impact on its sport.  The New York Yankees have actually had several periods of dynasty status, but the one most closely resembling the Patriots occurred during 1947 to 1964, when Yogi Berra was one of the core players.

Berra made his major-league debut with the Yankees in 1946 (playing in seven games) after having served in the Army in 1944 and 1945 during World War II.  After playing as a reserve in 1947, he broke into the Yankees’ lineup as the regular catcher the next season.

During Berra’s 18 major-league seasons with the Yankees, they won the American League pennant every year except 1946, 1948, 1954 and 1959.  The Yankees won the World Series in 10 of those seasons.  The Yankees’ dynasty also included a World Championship in 1964 after Berra had retired.

Like Brady with the Patriots, Berra was one of a few constants on the Yankees roster during their pennant-winning stretch, along with pitcher Whitey Ford and outfielder Mickey Mantle who also played critical roles on many of those teams.  Casey Stengel was the Bill Belichick of his day, as the Yankees manager from 1949 to 1960.

During the years 1950 to 1956, Berra captured three American League MVP Awards (1951, 1954, 1955), while also finishing second (1953, 1956), third (1950), and fourth (1952) in the voting.  He was selected to the All-Star team in 15 consecutive seasons.

Brady equals Berra in regular season MVP honors, with three to his credit (2007, 2010, and 2017).  Plus, the quarterback was the MVP of the Super Bowl four times (2001, 2003, 2014, and 2016).  He was selected for the Pro Bowl 14 times.

Berra was generally regarded as the best catcher ever to play major league baseball until Johnny Bench came along in the late 1960s.  Brady has earned the distinction of best quarterback in NFL history. 

Brady was a left-handed hitting catcher in high school, good enough to be selected by the Montreal Expos in the 18th round of the 1995 MLB Draft.  Berra never played football, although his son, Tim, did play one season with the Baltimore Colts.

Although they were comparable in their impact to their respective teams and sport, no one would ever confuse Tom Brady with Yogi Berra from a physical standpoint.  Brady is the Adonis-looking, 6-foot-4 superior athlete, while the 5-foot-7 Berra could have been easily mistaken for the clubhouse equipment manager.

Brady and Berra are not athletes who are normally associated together, but they are both big-time players on some big-time teams.

 

The Saints lost a season, Galarraga lost immortality

Bad calls in sports can be demoralizing.  Just ask New Orleans Saints fans.  Referees and umpires can change the course of a game, a season, and even a player’s career in a split-second by making a poor decision, or the lack of a decision, when performing their officiating duties.

The referee’s “no-call” in the NFC Championship Game last week ruined the season for the Saints, robbing them of a chance for their second Super Bowl appearance.  When you consider the immense struggle and the physical and emotional effort it takes to get to a Super Bowl, the outcome of the Rams game was devastating to Saints players, the organization, and the Who Dat Nation.  Despite the team’s impressive 13-3 record and No. 1 ranking in the NFC playoffs, their season was essentially wasted.  Lawsuits against the NFL, petitions to replay the game, blistering billboard messages, and angry callers on talk radio shows aren’t going to alter the outcome.

There was a Major League Baseball game in 2010 in which Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga was the unfortunate victim of a bad call by an umpire.  In his case, the result was Galarraga lost a chance to be remembered for one of the most rare occurrences in all of baseball—a perfect game (when a pitcher retires 27 batters without any of them reaching base by any means). At the time, only 18 perfect games had ever been accomplished in nearly 120 years of the modern era of major-league baseball.

Detroit faced the Cleveland Indians at Comerica Park on June 2, 2010, in what was expected to be just a routine contest between two struggling teams.  Except on this day, Galarraga started the ninth inning with a 3-0 lead, but more significantly he hadn’t allowed even one Indians batter to reach base.  He had been a below-average pitcher to this point in his career, so the game had the makings to be the biggest one of his life.

The first Indians batter in the top of the ninth, Mark Grudzielanek, hit a deep fly to center field that Austin Jackson caught with an over-the-shoulder effort.  Mike Redmond then grounded out, bringing Jason Donald to the plate as the Indians’ last hope to break up the perfect game.  Donald hit a ground ball between first and second base that first baseman Miguel Cabrera raced over to field.  He threw the ball to Galarraga who had sprinted to cover first base.  The ball went into Galarraga’s glove just before Donald crossed the base.  But first base umpire Jim Joyce called the runner safe, thereby ending Galarraga’s bid for an obscure perfect game.

The crowd angrily booed Joyce, once a replay in the stadium revealed Joyce’s error.  Since this was at a time before managers’ were allowed to challenge an umpire’s call via replay, there was no changing Joyce’s initial call.

After the game, Joyce admitted he blew the call. “I just cost that kid a perfect game.“  Uncharacteristic of most umpires, he tearfully approached Galarraga in the clubhouse and apologized for his blunder.

Galarraga’s career didn’t amount to much after the near-perfect game either.  Sure, he had newly-found notoriety from the near-perfect game, but he didn’t win many games.  The hard-luck pitcher was completely out of baseball by 2013.  Thus, his only opportunity for achieving baseball immortality was ruined by Joyce.  (By the way, in 2011, Joyce, Galarraga, and author Daniel Paisner collaborated on a book based on the game, Nobody's Perfect: Two Men, One Call, and a Game for Baseball History.)

This is the second consecutive season in which the Saints have suffered a depressing finish in the playoffs.  The emotional cost to the team will be difficult to overcome next season.  Will the Saints be able to rebound as a contender again next year, or will they suffer a similar fate as Galarraga and be remembered as just another hard-luck team?

Current free-agent market a repeat of last year

Last year at about this same time, I wrote a piece about baseball’s free-agent market still being in a state of flux with a lot of free agent player still unsigned with about a month left until players began reporting to spring training.  I asked the question then, “was the situation an anomaly or was this just the way it was going to be in the future?”  Not only is the game changing on the field, but off the field as well for players and their agents.

Last year wasn’t an anomaly.  There are about 300 free-agent players currently unsigned right now, with roughly 40 days left until major-league players start reporting to Florida and Arizona.

Like the stock market recently performed in December, the free-agent market has hit a low point again this year.  Owners are holding firm on offering contracts with a term more than a year or two.  Many of the unsigned players are the older ones (generally over 32 years old), and teams are unwilling to sign them to longer-term deals.  Teams have found that the younger players and prospects on their rosters, who are already under salary control, are able to fill spots as role players or utility players.

Manny Machado and Bryce Harper are the two premier free agents this offseason, a pair of superstars under 27 years old on the open market.  Both are reportedly looking to break the record for largest contract in MLB history, currently held by Giancarlo Stanton, who inked a 13-year, $325 million pact with the Marlins in 2014.  Harper and Machado are still being courted by several teams, and they will eventually get their huge deals.  But most of the remaining unsigned free agents aren’t affected by where they wind up.

The other top free agents haven’t generally had too many problems catching on with new teams.  However, with the exception of a few players (Nathan Eovaldi and Patrick Corbin), they aren’t being offered contracts more than two years.  Players like Josh Donaldson, Michael Brantley, Nelson Cruz, Zach Britton, and J. A. Happ still have gas in the tank and are being given their due monetarily, based on past proven performance and the fact they can fill a critical gap on a major-league roster.

Twenty of the top 50 ranked free agents are still available, including a few stars like Dallas Keuchel, Cody Allen, Craig Kimbrel, A. J. Pollack, Justin Smoak, Asdrubel Cabrera, Nick Markakis, and Marwin Gonzalez.

But then there are serviceable players, although long on the tooth, like Melky Cabrera, Marco Estrada, Evan Gattis, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Josh Harrison, Denard Span, Neil Walker, and Jose Bautista, who are still on the market looking for a job.  They will eventually land spots on major-league rosters, but making a lot less money than they’ve been accustomed to earning.

There is another category of players who will accept minor-league contracts so that they at least have an affiliation (although with no guarantees) with a big-league organization, versus playing the waiting game to sign later (possibly even after the season starts), or risk not being able to catch on with an organization at all.

Some baseball analysts have suggested a deadline on off-season free agency signing, such as January 1.  Of course, the players would favor this, but there doesn’t seem to be an imperative for major-league organizations to go along with this.

Front offices are now filled with people who are primarily businessmen, not ex-players or others long-associated with the game, as in years past.  They aren’t tied down by the history of players continuing to draw big salaries with long-term contracts when they are well past their prime playing years.  It’s clearly a young players’ game now.  The use of advanced analytics by the new-style front offices is helping identify the players with declining skills and those who have become “one-trick ponies.”  Versatile players that are able to fill several positions on the field are valued by GMs and managers when constructing rosters and lineups.

It may take some time, but the player market will eventually shake out.  There will likely be more losers than winners on the contractual front, but that seems to be the trend for the foreseeable future.

 

The Brewers need to pull the trigger again

Emerging major-league teams look for the window of opportunity to make a step-jump with their roster to put them in a position to contend for division titles, league championships, and ultimately a World Series ring.

Following the 2017 season, one of those teams was the Milwaukee Brewers.  They had been contenders for the NL Central Division title for a good part of the season, only to succumb to the Chicago Cubs who had a fantastic September that ultimately separated the two teams by six games at the end of the season.

Then before the 2018 season began, the Brewers realized that window of opportunity for a post-season berth was staring them square in the face.  They pulled the trigger with two key acquisitions that indeed put them on a path for another successful regular season.  In fact, the Brewers came within a game of advancing to the World Series last year for the first time since 1982.

The Brewers aggressively pursued outfielder Christian Yelich, who was part of the fire-sale the new Miami Marlins’ ownership undertook to dramatically lower its payroll.  Yelich had been an under-valued player at Miami, on the cusp of a breakout season.  The Brewers got Yelich at a bargain-basement price, giving up four minor-league prospects and none of the players on their active roster.

Brewers GM David Stearns didn’t stop there.  The Brewers signed free-agent outfielder Lorenzo Cain, a veteran outfielder with the Kansas City Royals who had been a member of their two World Series teams in 2014 and 2015.

Yelich wound up having the breakout season the Brewers were hoping for.  He was the American League’s MVP, as he posted career highs in practically every offensive category.  Cain brought speed and defense to the team, and he finished the season seventh in the MVP Award voting.

Furthermore, Jesus Aguilar was elevated to the starting first-baseman role in 2018, and he responded with an all-star season that included 35 home runs and 108 RBIs.

The Brewers’ newfound offense was complemented by a pitching staff that featured one of the best bullpens in baseball.  Josh Hader, Corey Knebel, and Jeremy Jeffress were dominant against the opposition’s best hitters with their high strikeout rates and low WHIP rates.  Rookie reliever Corbin Burnes was promoted to the team after the All-Star break, and he provided yet another set of strong performances out of the pen.

If the Brewers had a weakness in 2018, it was their starting rotation.  The Brewers best pitcher, Jimmy Nelson, missed the entire 2018 season due to injury.  They lacked a true ace on the staff, although Chase Anderson and Jhoulys Chacin turned in credible seasons.  Wade Miley, a free-agent starter who signed before the 2018 season, didn’t come into the rotation until after the All-Star break.  Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta were up-and-coming starters, but are still unproven in an entire season.

The Brewers have been relatively quiet during the off-season, particularly with respect to upgrading their starting rotation.  It seems the window of opportunity is still open for the Brewers to repeat as division winners and challenge for the World Series in 2019.  So, why aren’t the Brewers waiting to pull the trigger again?

It’s understandable they weren’t a contender for the top free-agent hurlers available over the winter, due to the club’s financial limitations as a mid-market team.  However, others they might be able to afford include Miley and Gio Gonzalez, both of whom spent time with the Brewers last year.  Marco Estrada and Drew Pomeranz are two other free-agents still available.

The San Francisco Giants are reportedly interested in parting with its ace Madison Bumgardner in a trade for the right package of playes.  The cost would be high for the Brewers, possibly including a combination of one of their top three bullpen guys and young pitchers Burnes, Woodruff, and Peralta.  Furthermore, Bumgardner would be a short-term rental for the Brewers, since he would be eligible for free agency after 2019.

However, MadBum would be just the type of pitcher that could put the Brewers over the top.  He’s certainly got a World Series pedigree, as he’s pitched the Giants to three world championships since 2010.

The Brewers can’t afford to be complacent though.  Competition in the NL Central Division will be tough again in 2019.  The St. Louis Cardinals would have to be favored due to the addition of all-star first-baseman Paul Goldschmidt and bullpen ace Andrew Miller.  And then you can never count out the Cubs, even though the seemed to have fallen off a bit since they captured the World Series in 2016.  Cincinnati was extremely active during the off-season, but they won’t contend just yet.

The Brewers helped themselves last week by upgrading their catcher position with the addition of Yasmani Grandal.  Reportedly they are in the market for a second baseman, too.  It seems like the time is now for the Brewers to also take some action to solidify their starting pitching.  It’s been an awfully long time since that last World Series appearance.

Baines' HOF election shouldn't justify a degradation of Hall standards

Harold Baines’ election to the Baseball Hall of Fame last month by the Veterans Committee still has a lot of people scratching their heads about the criteria some of the voters used to evaluate candidates.  It seems to be inconsistent with current thinking that utilizes more than the traditional metrics used since the beginning of the Hall in 1936.

On the other hand, if Baines is truly Hall-worthy, then perhaps some of the players, who fell off the ballot without receiving the required minimum of 75% of the votes during their years of eligibility, should be re-evaluated.  There is a formal process to do this through the Hall of Fame Veterans Committees, which is how Baines was elected last month and Allan Trammel and Jack Morris were elected a year ago.  However, the integrity of the process was called into question in Baines’ case.

The following tables illustrate the stats of some of the position players from Baines’ era (Group 1) that could be reconsidered.

Table 1 shows selected stats from an analytics standpoint, including the usual slash line (Batting Average/On-Base Percentage/Slugging Percentage), Adjusted On-Base Plus Slugging (OPS+), Wins Above Replacement (WAR), and Top 7 Years for WAR (WAR7).

Table 2 shows traditional stats (Batting Average, Hits, Home Runs, and Runs Batted In) for the same grouping of players as Table 1.  The Awards column includes All-Star appearances (AS), Gold Glove Awards (GG), first-place finishes for Most Valuable Player Award (MVP) and the number of finishes in the Top 10 for Most Valuable Player (MVP10).

For comparison purposes, Group 2 shows the same stats for Baines, as well as several other recent HOF inductees.  Group 3 contains retired players who will be coming up on the ballot within the next few years.  The players in this group are generally thought of as being sure-fire electees when their eligibility comes due.

The data shows there are a number of players in Group 1 who had better careers than Baines.  Dale Murphy and Bernie Williams are two that stand out based on a combination of their analytics and traditional stats.

Murphy was frequently among league leaders in home runs and RBI.  However, he suffered from playing for some poor Braves teams, as they had only three winning seasons in his 15 years with them.  When the Braves finished first and second in their division in 1983 and 1983, Murphy was the National League MVP.

Williams played during the Yankees dynasty years of 1996-2006, when they won six World Series.  He played in the shadows of the Yankees’ popular Core Four consisting of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettite.  The group really should have been called the Core Five, with Williams as an integral part.  Williams was their regular centerfielder throughout the dynasty years.  He was a five-time all-star that earned four Gold Gloves.

But then when Murphy and Williams, as well as any other players from Group 1, are compared to other recent Hall of Famers in Group 2, they don’t quite measure up.

Putting the Group 1 players up against the future Hall of Famers in Group 3 yields similar results.

The Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) voters got it right with respect to the Group 1 players when they were on the ballot.  Baines should be considered an anomaly and not be used to justify a degradation of the standards for getting a bronze plaque in the Hall.  As good as players like Murphy and Williams were, they belong in the Hall of Very Good, not the Hall of Fame.

Table 1 – Selected Analytics Stats

Name

Years Played

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS+

WAR

WAR7

Group 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oliver, Al

1969-1985

0.303

0.344

0.451

121

43.7

28.1

Murphy, Dale

1976-1993

0.265

0.346

0.469

121

46.6

41.2

Hernandez, Keith

1975-1990

0.296

0.384

0.436

128

60.4

41.3

Mattingly, Don

1982-1995

0.307

0.358

0.471

127

42.4

35.7

Williams, Bernie

1991-2006

0.297

0.381

0.477

125

49.6

37.6

Parker, Dave

1973-1991

0.290

0.339

0.471

121

40.1

37.4

Grace, Mark

1988-2003

0.303

0.383

0.442

119

46.4

29.7

Garvey, Steve

1969-1987

0.294

0.329

0.446

117

38.1

28.8

Clark, Will

1986-2000

0.303

0.384

0.497

137

56.5

36.1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Group 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baines, Harold

1980-2001

0.289

0.356

0.465

121

38.7

21.4

Biggio, Craig

1988-2007

0.281

0.363

0.433

112

65.5

41.7

Bagwell, Jeff

1991-2005

0.297

0.408

0.540

149

79.9

48.3

Piazza, Mike

1992-2007

0.308

0.377

0.545

142

59.6

43.1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Group 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carlos Beltran

1998-2017

0.279

0.350

0.486

119

69.8

44.4

Adrian Beltre

1998-2018

0.286

0.339

0.480

116

95.7

49.3

Ortiz, David

1997-2016

0.286

0.380

0.552

141

55.3

35.2

Jeter, Derek

1995-2014

0.310

0.377

0.440

115

72.4

42.4

 

Table 2 – Traditional Stats

Name

BA

H

HR

RBI

Awards

Group 1

 

 

 

 

 

Oliver, Al

0.303

2743

219

1326

7 AS, Bat Title, 3  MVP10

Murphy, Dale

0.265

2111

398

1266

7 AS,  2 MVP, 4  MVP10, 5 GG

Hernandez, Keith

0.296

2182

162

1071

5 AS,  1 MVP, 4 MVP10, 11 GG

Mattingly, Don

0.307

2153

222

1099

6 AS, 1 MVP, 4 MVP10, 9 GG

Williams, Bernie

0.297

2336

287

1257

5 AS,  1 MVP10, 4 GG, Bat Title

Parker, Dave

0.290

2712

339

1493

7 AS,  1 MVP, 6 MVP10, 3 GG

Grace, Mark

0.303

2445

173

1146

3 AS, 4 GG

Garvey, Steve

0.294

2599

272

1308

10 AS, 1 MVP, 5 MVP10, 4 GG,

Clark, Will

0.303

2176

284

1205

6 AS, 4 MVP10, 1 GG

 

 

 

 

 

 

Group 2

 

 

 

 

 

Baines, Harold

0.289

2866

384

1628

6 AS, 2 MVP10,

Biggio, Craig

0.281

3060

291

1175

7 AS, 3 MVP10, 4 GG

Bagwell, Jeff

0.297 

 2314

449 

1529 

 4 AS, 1 MVP, 6 MVP10, 1 GG

Piazza, Mike

0.308

2127

427

1335

12 AS, 7 MVP10,

 

 

 

 

 

 

Group 3

 

 

 

 

 

Carlos Beltran

0.279

2725

435

1587

9 AS, 2 MVP10, 3 GG

Adrian Beltre

0.286

3166

477

1707

4 AS, 6 MVP10, 5 GG

Ortiz, David

0.286

2472

541

1768

10 AS, 7 MVP10,

Jeter, Derek

0.310

3465

260

1311

14 AS, 8 MVP10, 5 GG

 

Casting my mythical 2019 Hall of Fame ballot

Harold Baines’ recent election to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee (now known also known as Today’s Game Era Committee) has caused quite a bit of stir again in questioning the criteria the committee uses in evaluating the candidates.  People who go strictly by advanced analytics practically choked on his election.  While I didn’t personally think Baines was Hall-worthy, I did feel sorry for him when his fine career was unfairly marginalized in the public arena by baseball pundits immediately following his election.

Indeed it’s sometimes hard to separate the sentimental view of players’ careers from the hard facts.  In my own case, it was Will Clark, my favorite player of the 1980s and 1990s.  I would have voted for him for the Hall of Fame, but in reality he should only be considered for the “Hall of Very Good,” just like Baines.  The facts are that Clark was among the best players in his first 6-7 years, but he just didn’t have enough years of peak performance to be elected.  The Veterans Committee apparently felt the same way; Clark failed to get enough votes in the recent special election of players from the 1987-Present era.

However, getting back to the matter at hand of my selections on my mythical Hall of Fame ballot for 2019, here’s my rationale.

Recapping last year, my selection of Hall of Fame players included: Chipper Jones, Vladimir Guerrero, Trevor Hoffman, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Curt Schilling, Larry Walker, and Gary Sheffield.

Jones, Guerrero, and Hoffman were all elected by the official Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) voters, as well as Jim Thome, a first-ballot selection whom I completely missed in my consideration.

Clemens, Bonds, Schilling, and Sheffield are players I have supported for several years now, and I’m continuing to put them on my make-believe ballot this year.

Clemens and Bonds are two of the best players ever in the majors.  No question about it.  However, a cloud of uncertainty continues to surround them because of their perceived PED use.  Their percentage of votes received last year were still well short of the required 75%, at 57.3% and 56.4%, respectively.  Their vote percentages represented only slight increases over their 2017 numbers.  In their seventh years of eligibility, will they get over the hurdle?

Schilling had a slight increase, too, but I’m afraid his off-the-field publicity faux pas in recent years will hurt his chances.  He compares favorably with Mussina in the various Hall of Fame ranking systems, except his career also included a resume of post-season performances that is among the best all-time.

Sheffield doesn’t get much consideration from BBWAA voters.  He was an impact player, a top 3 finisher for MVP three times, with six times in the top 10.  He achieved those regardless of the team with whom he played.  In fact, that may be one of his detractions—not being identified with a single major team during his 22-year career may have painted him with a reputation as just a “journeyman” player.  He’s also tainted by PEDs, since he admitted to using a steroid cream in 2002, although it occurred before the MLB instituted drug testing requirements.

Last year was the first time I had Martinez and Mussina on my list.  I was convinced by the baseball analytics experts that they deserved election.  I believe they will finally get the required minimum number of votes this year.  Baines’ election, with his career as a DH highlighted, will help Martinez’s case.  Jack Morris’ election last year by the Veterans Committee will further enhance Mussina’s case.

I’m going with Larry Walker again.  Currently in his ninth year on the ballot, he received only 34.1% of the votes last year. So his time is running out quickly.  He had some amazing individual seasons for On-Base Percentage, finishing at .400 for his career.  He was a complete player, since he was an MVP in 1997, could steal bases, and won seven Gold Gloves.

The top candidates making their debut on the ballot this year include Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay, Todd Helton, Andy Pettitte, Lance Berkman, and Roy Oswalt.

Pettitte, Berkman, and Oswalt would be good candidates for the “Hall of Very Good,” but don’t quite measure up to Hall of Fame quality, in my opinion.

I’m also passing over several hold-overs from previous ballot years--Omar Vizquel, Fred McGriff, Jeff Kent, Billy Wagner, and Scott Rolen--in favor of newcomers Rivera, Halladay, and Helton.

The all-time saves leader, Rivera will be a first-ballot selection.  He was better than reliever Trevor Hoffman who got elected last year.  Rivera was a huge factor in the latest version of the Yankees Dynasty during the 1996-2003 timeframe when they won six AL pennants and four World Series.

Halladay will have the sentimental factor working in his favor this year, because of his untimely death 13 months ago.  But a close look at the facts of this popular player’s career indicate he was dominant in his era as a starting pitcher.  He finished in the top 5 for Cy Young Award seven times, earning top honors in 2003 and 2010.  He was a true workhorse, leading the league in innings pitched four times and complete games seven times.

Helton was a hitting machine for the Colorado Rockies for 17 years, and it was during 2000 to 2005 that he was at his best.  In that period, he had a slash line of .344/.449/.626, while averaging 34 HR and 116 RBI.  His OPS+ during that timeframe was 158.  He was a three-time Gold Glove Award winner at first base.

So, recapping my ten selections for 2019, they are: Bonds, Clemens, Schilling, Sheffield, Martinez, Mussina, Walker, Rivera, Halladay and Helton.  Come January 22 when the official announcements of the ballots are made, let’s see how my selections compare.

By the way, I was glad to see reliever Lee Smith elected by the Veterans Committee earlier this month.  I felt vindicated that I had stuck with him over the years even though he had never received more than 50% of the BBWAA votes.  (He had dropped to 34.2% in his final year of eligibility in 2017.)

All-time baseball team featuring Christmas holiday names

Let’s put aside free agency, Hall of Fame candidates, pre-season predictions, and other essential topics of the Hot Stove season for a week.  All of them will still be around for us to debate after the first of the year.

The Christmas season is a time to have some fun, so I’ve come up with an all-time baseball team of major-league players whose names fit with a Christmas holiday theme.  Here’s a bit of background on each player of this eclectic team.

Starting Pitcher – Ervin Santana.  Okay, his last name isn’t exactly “Santa,” but it’s close enough.  Regardless, Santana wasn’t delivering any presents to the Cleveland Indians on July 11, 2007, when he threw a no-hitter.  The two-time all-star has won 149 career games through 2018.

Relief Pitcher – Clay Carroll.  Carroll had a lot to sing about as a member of the Cincinnati Reds “Big Red Machine.”  They won three National League pennants in the 1970s, including a World Series ring in 1975.  The two-time all-star posted an impressive 2.94 ERA during his 15-year career.

Catcher – Steve Christmas.  Of course, Christmas has the ultimate holiday celebration name.  But it’s too bad he wasn’t able to celebrate more on the playing field.  In 24 major-league games scattered over three seasons, Christmas batted a paltry .162.

First Base – J. T Snow.  J. T. Snow covered first base for the San Francisco Giants as effectively as a wintry snow covers the ground at Grandma’s house during the holidays.  He was a Gold Glove Award winner for six consecutive seasons while playing for the California Angels and the Giants.  Snow’s father, Jack, played 11 seasons the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams.

Second Base – Cookie Lavagetto.  Lavagetto is best known as the hitter who broke up Bill Bevens’s no-hitter in Game 4 of the 1947 World Series.  His all-star career was interrupted by four years of military service during World War II.  If his family made cookies for the Christmas holidays, they would surely have been an Italian-style treat.

Third Base – Gene Freese.  Freese had the best season of his 12-year career in 1961.  He helped the Cincinnati Reds put a December-type “freeze” on the Los Angeles Dodgers’ attempt to overtake them for first place during the final two months of the season.  It was the Reds’ first National League pennant since 1940.

Shortstop – Billy Klaus.  Had Santa Claus also been a major-league player, he probably would have hit better than Klaus.  Klaus was a weak-hitting shortstop with only 40 home runs and 250 RBI in 11 major-league seasons.  Billy’s brother, Bobby, also played in the majors, and he didn’t hit much either.

Outfielder – Candy Maldonado.  Maldonado helped to make sure his 1992 Toronto Blue Jays teammates’ Christmas stockings were filled with World Series candy (playoff shares), as he hit three post-season home runs in the Blue Jays’ first World Championship.

Outfielder – Jesus Alou.  Alou was no savior for his major-league teams, as he hit only 32 home runs in 15 big-league seasons.  He is best known for having been part of the first trio of brothers to play in the same major-league game, while with the San Francisco Giants in 1963.

Outfielder – Gift Ngoepe.  Ngoepe’s name isn’t a nickname; it’s actually part of his given name.  He is South Africa’s “gift” to baseball, since he’s the only major-league player in history born in that country.  The Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder made his debut in 2017.  His brother Victor is currently in the Pirates’ minor-league system.

DH – Rob Deer.  Deer is the closest name to “reindeer” I could find.  He made some appearances as a designated hitter, although he was primarily used as an outfielder and first baseman.  He managed to “rain” on opponents’ parades many times during his 11-year career, as he hit 230 career home runs.  But he also led the American League in strikeouts four times during 1984-1996.

Pinch-hitter – Turkey Tyson.  Unlike Ngoepe, Tyson’s real name was Cecil Washington, but he was known by “Turkey” during his professional career.  However, his only major-league appearance was as a pinch-hitter in 1944.  The 29-year-old got his “cup of coffee” in the big leagues when there was a shortage of players during World War II.

Manager – Charlie Dressen.  You can’t have turkey without the dressing for Christmas dinner, so Charlie Dressen is the closest name I could come up.  He played eight seasons in the majors, but it was as a manager that he made his mark.  He was the skipper of five different teams over 16 seasons between 1934 and 1966.  His teams won over 1,000 games, and his Brooklyn Dodgers captured two National League pennants in the 1950s.

Merry Christmas to all.

MLB Thinking About Outlawing Defensive Shifts

Major League Baseball’s front office R&D staffs may have outsmarted themselves.  Their strategy of using defensive shifts to cut down on the number of baserunners has had a positive effect in preventing runs.  But it’s also had an unintended effect of making the game less attractive to fans who want to see more offense rather than less.  Concerned about this situation, the MLB Commissioner’s Office recently stated they are now looking at potentially outlawing shifts.  It raises questions about whether that is an appropriate response.

For several years now, the latest generation of baseball analysts, aided by their new technology tools, have been looking at new opportunities for run prevention.  Prior to the analytics era, Major-league teams occasionally utilized extreme defensive shifts to combat some of the best hitters in the game.  Probably the most notable was the Cleveland Indians’ use of what famously became known as the “Williams Shift” against Boston’s premier hitter, Ted Williams, in 1948.  However, since 2014, the number of shifts has increased almost three-fold, as there were over 38,000 occurrences in 2018.

Teams even deployed shifts that left only one or two fielders on the left side of second base for specific left-handed batters.  These batters won’t attempt to hit to the opposite field to try to avoid an out.  And now with the emphasis on home runs, most batters facing a shift will more likely go for the home run, even risking a strikeout, rather than trying to hit a single to the opposite field.  The Dodgers’ Justin Turner was quoted as saying, “You beat the shift by hitting over it, not through it or around it.”  After all, in today’s game, the rewards for hitters are because of their home runs, not singles.

According to NBC Sports, left-handed hitters face the shift almost 30% of the time, whereas righties face the shift only about 9% of the time.  Texas’ Joey Gallo is the poster boy for left-handed major-league players refusing to try to beat the shift.  (By the way, he hit more home runs (40) than singles (38) during the season.)  Teams know that about him, so consequently he faced the second-most shifts in all of baseball last year.  Left-handed pull hitters like Gallo are being eaten up by the shift.

Teams have gotten clever with using analytics to identify hitter tendencies.  It doesn’t seem right that it should be taken away as a weapon for a team.  How is this different than using strategies to expose batters’ weaknesses in hitting specific types or locations of pitches?  Banning defensive shifts in baseball would be an analogous to something like the NFL doing away with blitzes or other defensive packages.  It’s become part of the game now.

Whatever happened to players trying to hit singles to the opposite field?  How about trying to bunt to the side of the field when there are no infielders?  It would seem like batters could learn how to take advantage of the shift, just like they have to adjust their approach when facing certain pitchers?  If they did, over time it would likely become self-correcting.  Can you imagine legendary hitter Rod Carew, who was a master at bat control, playing today against the shifts?  Teams just wouldn’t do it because he’d eat them alive.

Major-league baseball has a problem with fewer batted balls being put in play.  Home runs, strikeouts, and walks now account for over 30% of plate appearances, and run production has declined.  The question is whether eliminating defensive shifts would actually help the situation the most.  For example, limiting the number of pitchers used in a game might have more effect on run production (as well as contribute to reducing the time it takes to play a game.)

One of the options being tossed about is to limit the number of situations per game in which a manager can deploy a defensive shift.  I guess if this was done, we’d have to put another statistic on the scoreboard to keep up with the current count for each team.

There is a precedent for changing the rules to create more offense in the game.  Following the incredibly low scoring in 1968, MLB changed the height of the pitching mound from 15 feet to 10 feet to give pitchers less of an advantage over hitters.  The designated hitter (DH) was instituted in the American League in 1973 to make the game more interesting to fans.

Maybe those darned baseball geeks are just getting too smart.

Five Reasons Why Kyler Murray Will Choose Football

University of Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray was awarded the Heisman Trophy Saturday night, becoming the latest two-sport athlete to win the prestigious honor as the country’s best college player.  Murray also has a baseball background and was drafted in the first round of the MLB Amateur Draft in June by the Oakland A’s.  In fact, he has already signed a contract with the A’s earning him a bonus of $4.66 million.

Murray is now faced with the decision of which sport he will pursue professionally, or whether he could possibly do both.  Former Heisman winner Bo Jackson (Auburn, 1985) has experience with this type of decision.  He wound up being an all-star player in both sports.  Prior to Jackson, a couple of other Heisman Trophy winners were also accomplished baseball players.  Vic Janowicz, who won the award in 1950 as an Ohio State running back, played two brief major league seasons with Pittsburgh before entering the NFL.  Howard “Hopalong” Cassady was another running back from Ohio State who also played baseball for the Buckeyes.  He won the Heisman 1955 and eventually became a baseball scout and minor-league coach in the New York Yankees organization after an eight-year NFL career.

Murray has already indicated he will not be returning to play a final football season at Oklahoma next year.  He is eligible for the next NFL Draft in April and is expected to be a late first-round or second-round pick, since young, top-flight quarterbacks are always in demand.  His major drawback as a potential NFL quarterback is his size; he’s only 5-foot-11.

Murray’s baseball agent, Scott Boras, had previously said his client will honor his commitment and report to spring training with the A’s in February.  The consensus of sports talk shows seems to favor Murray picking baseball as his career sport, largely because he may be too small for the NFL.

But don’t be too quick to dismiss his pursuit of an NFL job.  Here are five reasons why Murray will ultimately choose to play pro football:

  1. Despite his size, Murray has proven football skills, as evidenced by this year’s impressive performance, statistically one of the best ever for a college quarterback.  It can be argued that he was signed to a pro baseball contract based on his potential.  In fact, he played only one season of college baseball at Oklahoma as a regular starter.  It’s not a certainty he will become an accomplished professional baseball player.

  2. He’ll be a high draft pick in the upcoming NFL Draft because of his Heisman status.  There will be at least one team willing to take a chance on him as a viable QB.  If he makes it, the potential for an NFL quarterback’s salary would be comparable to an MLB salary.

  3. Murray will likely play right away in the NFL, or at worst in his second season if his team allows him a year to adjust to the pro game.  He’s looking at a minimum of three years to play regularly in major-league baseball, since he’ll require considerably more development of his batting and fielding skills.

  4. Assuming his football skills translate well in the NFL, his potential for superstar-level notoriety is greater as a football player.  The NFL does a better job than Major League Baseball in marketing and promoting its sport and players.  His NFL image will generate more off-the-field financial opportunities than a major league baseball persona.

  5. There was a reason Murray worked out a deal with the A’s that allowed him to play at Oklahoma this season.  He wanted an opportunity to prove his football skills at a high level.  There could be a scenario where he decides to give the NFL a try first; and if it turns out he’s not successful, he could always revert to baseball, where Oakland would still have the rights to him.

Unlike Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, who both played in the MLB and NFL simultaneously for a short period, Murray won’t likely try to play both sports professionally at the same time.  As an NFL quarterback, Murray will require considerable specialized coaching and preparation during the off-season, which would limit the amount of time he is actually available to play baseball.

There have been a few other Heisman winners with baseball interests, although they never reached the major leagues.

Chris Weinke had to weigh a scholarship offer to play football at Florida State against a pro baseball contract following his 2nd round selection by the Toronto Blue Jays in 1990 MLB Draft.  He initially chose baseball and played six seasons in the Blue Jays minor-league organization, before entering Florida State to play football.  He ultimately won the Heisman Trophy in 2000 as a 28-year-old and then played in the NFL for five seasons.

Ricky Williams (Texas, 1998) and Jameis Winston (Florida State, 2013) were Heisman Trophy winners with baseball in their backgrounds.  Williams played in the minors for the Philadelphia Phillies organization while at the same time playing football at the University of Texas.  Winston, a 15th round pick of the Texas Rangers in 2012, played baseball at Florida State.

Of course, Tim Tebow’s sports career is well-chronicled with his decision to pursue a pro baseball career after winning the Heisman in 2007 and having an abbreviated NFL career.  Tebow will enter his third season in the New York Mets minor-league system, targeted for the Triple-A level in 2019.  The verdict is still out whether he will reach the big-league club.

Although not a Heisman Trophy winner, current Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was in a similar situation as Murray, except he was a senior in high school when he made his decision which sport to pursue.  After finishing high school, Mahomes, a pitcher who was the MaxPreps Player of the Year and whose father was a major-league pitcher for 11 seasons, was drafted in 2014 by the Detroit Tigers.  However, he opted to attend Texas Tech to play football instead of pursing a diamond career, and he has now emerged as one of the top QBs in the NFL this season.

 

Next-Gen MLB Family Ties

If you saw my email last week, you know I just completed my annual compilation of active major-league and minor-league players and non-players (managers, coaches, scouts, executives, etc.) who have relatives in baseball.  The number of family ties in baseball appears to be more prevalent than ever.

Former pro players, especially those who only played in minors and never attained a major-league salary, see opportunities for their sons to excel through personal coaching and today’s competitive environment of club and travel baseball.  The prospect of attaining current-day salaries from major-league contracts is a real incentive to push their sons toward pro baseball.

Major-league scouts and front office personnel are sending their sons in larger numbers to the pro ranks as players.  Even if they never played at the pro level themselves, they frequently use their professional insight as a competitive edge to help their sons achieve success at amateur, collegiate, and ultimately professional levels.

Even the MLB Home Run Derby contests during the annual All-Star Game festivities provide another indication of the influence family ties have in the game.  A number of the recent major-league contestants have used family members to pitch to them, including Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant, Todd Frazier, Robinson Cano, and Javy Lopez.  It’s apparent it’s not the first time these family combos have been in batting practice situations together.

The 2019 baseball season portends to produce another bumper crop of players with major-league bloodlines, who will be making their own major-league debut.  There are some very familiar names among the potential first-year players:  Bichette, Guerrero, Mazzilli, Biggio, and Yastrzemski.  Additionally, there are other players who are likely part of the next generation of MLB players with family ties.

The most notable of the potential rookies is Vlad Guerrero Jr., Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year in 2018.  He is the son of Vladimir Guererro who was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame last year.  Vlad Jr. played in his third pro season at age 19 in the Toronto Blue Jays organization.  He split the season at the Double-A and Triple-A levels where he posted a combined slash line of .381/.437/.636.  The third baseman hit 20 HR and 78 RBI in a total of 95 games.  He is expected to make the big-league roster coming out of spring training next year.

Two of Guerrero’s minor-league teammates in 2018 were also sons of major leaguers: infielder Bo Bichette, son of four-time all-star Dante Bichette, and infielder Cavan Biggio, son of Hall of Famer Craig Biggio.  They had banner offensive seasons in 2018 as well.  They won’t likely make the big-league club right away in 2019, but don’t be surprised if they get call-ups during the season, as the Blue Jays start settling their roster for the next few years.

Mike Yastrzemski, who plays in the Orioles organization, is the grandson of Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski.  The former 14th-round pick played his third season at the Triple-A level last year.  The O’s have started a complete makeover of their roster, and Yastrzemski could likely find himself as one of their new candidates for an outfield spot.  His father Mike formerly played at the Triple-A level in the White Sox organization, falling short of a major-league appearance.

L.J. Mazzilli is the son of former big-league player and manager Lee Mazzilli.  Like his father, he started out in the Mets organization, but was traded to the New York Yankees early last spring and played for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.  He could eventually claim a big-league spot due to his versatility as an infielder and outfielder.

Besides Guerrero, one of the most talked about minor leaguers in 2018 was Fernando Tatis, Jr.  He figures to be one of the new stars for a San Diego Padres franchise starving for a new face of the team. Tatis is the son of Fernando Tatis, who played in the big leagues for five teams during 1997 and 2010.  The 19-year-old shortstop hit 16 HR and 43 RBI in 88 games for San Antonio, before missing most of the second half of the season due to injury.  He plays at an advanced level for his age, and the Padres will likely take advantage of that situation next year.

Kevin Cron, corner infielder in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, put up big number in 2018 at the Triple-A level that included a .309/.368/.654 slash line, 22 HR, and 97 RBI.  He is the brother of current major-leaguer C. J. Cron and the son of former big-leaguer Chris Cron.  As the D’backs ponder the potential trade of its all-star first-baseman Paul Goldschmidt, Cron would be at the top of the list as his likely replacement.

Left-handed pitcher Brandon Leibrandt had an impressive season with the Philadelphia Phillies Triple-A club, posting a 1.42 ERA and .868 WHIP in 20 appearances.  His father, Charlie Leibrandt, was a major-league pitcher for 14 seasons, amassing 140 career wins and a 3.71 ERA and making World Series appearances with the Kansas City Royals and Atlanta Braves.

Cal Quantrill was a first-round pick of the San Diego Padres in 2016 and has progressed rapidly in their system.  He made a total of 28 starts in 2018 split between Double-A and Triple-A levels, compiling a 9-6 record and 4.80 ERA.  His father is Paul Quantrill, a major-league relief pitcher for 14 seasons who led the National League in appearances for four consecutive seasons.

Austin Nola is the brother of Philadelphia Phillies ace Aaron Nola.  Formerly an infielder who converted to the catcher position in 2017, he hit .279 last year for the Miami Marlins’ Triple-A affiliate New Orleans.  If the Marlins’ major-league catcher J. T. Realmuto winds up getting traded during the off-season, Nola could find himself in a backup role with the Marlins in 2019.

Kean Wong is an infielder/outfielder in the Tampa Bay Rays organization.  A fourth-round pick out of high school in 2013, he is the brother of St. Louis Cardinals infielder Kolten Wong.  At Triple-A Durham last year, Kean posted a slash line of .282/.345/.406, 9 HR, and 50 RBI.  He could see a promotion as a utility player in 2019.

 

 

Making Sense of Mega Deals

Superstars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado headline this winter’s class of high-profiled free agents.  They’ve established themselves as two of the game’s best players, and now they are seeking some of the biggest deals ever made.  They figure to command deals worth $31M to $33M a year for nine or ten years.  Sure, they’ve been highly productive players in their short careers to date, but it’s questionable whether clubs should invest that kind of money in long-term contracts.

With both players at age 26, they will be in their prime years for the next 5-6 seasons.  However, interested teams realize they will need to offer contracts with longer terms in order to attract them.  That’s because players generally can’t command another lucrative long-term deal once they reach age 30 or 31, if they only sign for a four or five year deal now.

In the past six to eight years many clubs have taken the approach to build their rosters through player development within their farm systems versus navigating through the veteran free-agent market.  The Astros, Cubs, and Yankees have recently proved this strategy works, while teams like the Braves and Phillies are on the cusp of reaping the rewards for re-making their clubs through more youthful approaches.  The Padres, White Sox, Marlins, and Orioles have recently embarked on similar strategies.

These teams don’t put all their eggs in one basket with a high-dollar deal involving a long-term in order to acquire a high impact player.  They don’t mortgage their future by sinking a sizable portion of their payroll into one or two players.  Most GMs have learned these deals don’t generally work out for the organization in the latter half of the contract terms, when the players have passed their prime years or become injury-prone.  Albert Pujols, Jayson Werth, and Alex Rodriguez are a few examples of this.

Giancarlo Stanton is the latest superstar to land a long-term lucrative deal, when he signed a contract extension with the Miami Marlins in 2016 valued at $325 million over 13 years.  When the Marlins’ new ownership group took over prior to the 2018 season, one of the first things they did was to trade Stanton as part of a massive payroll reduction initiative.  As a re-building, small-market team, the Marlins knew they couldn’t sustain Stanton’s salary for the long-term, despite the value he could bring as a player.  It turned out the Marlins didn’t get much in return for trading Stanton to the Yankees, largely due to Stanton’s no-trade status. But they did it anyway.

So, why are Harper and Machado attracting interest by several clubs despite their projected price tags?

MLB teams look for windows of opportunity where, if they can add one or two key players and dramatically increase their chances of competing for a World Series ring in the short-term, they will spend the extra bucks to put them in a winning situation immediately.  The Milwaukee Brewers did that last year when they added veteran outfielders Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain (although not with long-term contracts), and the team indeed made a valiant run for the National League pennant as a result of their contributions.

Harper and Machado are the type of players who can provide help to a club looking to get immediate results.  Whether clubs actually expect to keep them for the entirety of their contract is debatable.

It appears there are a handful of legitimate suitors of Harper and Machado.

The Washington Nationals, with Harper at the core of its lineup, had been favorites in several seasons to win the National League pennant, but ultimately fell short.  Wanting to retain Harper as a core player after he became a free agent at the end of the season, the Nationals made an offer of $300 million for ten years during an exclusive negotiating period.  Yet Harper and his agent Scott Boras turned it down.  Reportedly, Boras is seeking a staggering $400 million deal for his client.

On the other hand, it’s interesting that the Los Angeles Dodgers aren’t expected to re-sign Machado, whom they acquired from Baltimore as a short-term rental last year to backfill the loss of their regular shortstop Corey Seager due to an injury.  They already have the highest payroll in the majors and don’t want to be saddled with his long-term salary, even though they probably have the deepest pockets among the MLB organizations.

Other teams who have been reported to have interest in the two free agents include the Phillies, Giants, Rockies, and Yankees.  The Rockies and Phillies are two teams that appear to be close to making breakthroughs as viable playoff competitors. The Giants lack much-needed power in their lineup and are perhaps a few years out when it comes to making another run for the NL pennant.  The Yankees’ presence on the potential list of suitors raises some eyebrows, since they already have Stanton’s big contract; but don’t be surprised if Stanton is dealt to another club to make room for Harper.

Last year, several of the game’s top free agents weren’t signed until shortly before spring training.  There was speculation by the players and their agents that major-league owners had conspired to hold down the amounts and years of free-agent contracts.  Perhaps that could happen with Harper and Machado this year.  Interested teams are looking for creative ways to acquire these two players without having to mortgage their future.  So it will probably come down to a battle of wits and fortitude between the teams and these top players.

Trio of Franco Brothers Playing for Rare Place in History

Picture this:  on the baseball highlights show one evening, the sports anchor mentions that Wander Franco hit a game-winning home run for his team.  Well, which Wander Franco was it?

Initially that may sound like a foolish question, but it turns out to be a legitimate one, since there’s actually a trio of current professional baseball brothers with the same first and last name, Wander Franco.  The Dominican Republic-born brothers are still in their early careers, but if they ever get to the big leagues at the same time, they would likely cause a fair amount of confusion for baseball followers who will be challenged to keep them differentiated.

The pick of the litter of the ball-playing Franco brothers is the youngest, Wander Samuel, who at age 17 is already projected to be the next teen phenom in the majors.  He was the Number 1 overall international pick of 2017 by the Tampa Bay Rays and proved in his debut season in 2018 that the Rays were correct in their assessment of his potential.  The switch-hitting shortstop recorded a slash line of .351/.418/.587 at the rookie-league level, while posting 11 HR and 57 RBI in 61 games.  He was named Player of the Year in the Appalachian League.  The Rays’ investment of $3.85 million to sign Franco looks like it may turn out to be a sound one.

22-year-old Wander Alexander played in the San Francisco Giants organization last season at the Single-A level.  He is also a switch-hitter that plays both corner infield positions.  His numbers weren’t too shabby either, as his slash line consisted of .314/.351/.519.  He was originally signed by the Houston Astros as a teenager and spent four seasons in the low minors before being dealt to the Giants.

Wander Javier is the “old man” of the bunch at 23 years old.  The third baseman also currently plays in the Giants organization, after starting his career with the Kansas City Royals.  Playing at the Single-A level in 2018, he showed a tendency to strike out a lot, but also knocked in 65 runs while posting a .271 average.  He was named Offensive Player of the Year for his team.

Reportedly the brothers’ father (yes, his first name is also Wander) had a brief stint in the Chicago White Sox minor league system, although that isn’t substantiated in Baseball-Reference.com.  In any case, he taught them the fundamentals of the game, and they were also influenced by uncles Erick and Willy Aybar, both of whom had major-league careers.

If the three Franco brothers wind up in the majors at the same time, it wouldn’t be the first time.

Altogether there have been only 20 sets of brothers in baseball history that were comprised of three or more major-leaguers.  Perhaps the most famous trio of brothers were the DiMaggios (Joe, Vince, and Dominic), who played at the same time in the late 1940s.  Each of them attained all-star status during their respective careers.

There were the Boyer brothers (Cloyd, Ken, and Clete) in 1955, and the Cruz brothers (Jose, Tommy, and Hector) played in the 1970s.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Delahanty, Mansell, and O’Neill brothers were among the first families with three or more siblings to play in the majors at the same time.

More recently, the Molina brothers (Bengie, Jose, and Yadier) played simultaneously during the 2004-2010 timeframe.  Among the three brothers, all of whom were catchers, they have played a total of 43 seasons, with Yadier still active.  Each of them has at least one World Series ring.

However, the rarest occurrence of three brothers playing at the same time happened when the Alou brothers (Felipe, Jesus, and Matty) actually appeared in the same game on September 10, 1963, for the San Francisco Giants.  In that game, they made all three outs in the 8th inning, with Matty and Jesus making pinch-hitting appearances.  On September 15, the three Alous manned all three outfield positions late in the game.

But there have been countless sets of multiple brothers who didn’t make it.

So it’s still a bit early to predict whether all three Franco brothers will reach The Show, since they have yet to prove themselves beyond the low minors.  Based on history though, the odds are against them; but don’t count them out just yet.

"Big Sexy" Making a Pitch for 22nd MLB Season

One would expect a 45-year-old major-league player to have already started his retirement.  Especially a pitcher who has logged 21 major-league years in his career, as well as another four in the minors.

Not Bartolo Colon though.  He has made it known he is interested in returning to the diamond for the 2019 major-league campaign.  Last season he appeared in 28 games for the hapless Texas Rangers.  Although he wasn’t particularly effective for the AL West Division’s last-place team, he was neverthelessl a workhorse for the club, having started 24 games and logged 146.1 innings, second most on the team in both categories.  He was one of 22 starting pitchers used by the Rangers last year.

Colon acquired the nickname “Big Sexy” a few years ago partly because of his portly build at 5’ 11” and 285 lbs.  In an era of well-chiseled athletes, one might mistake him for a guy in a softball beer league instead of a pitcher in the starting rotation.  In any case, the colorful character gets a lot of support from fans when he’s on the mound, and he looks like he’s having fun facing the game’s best hitters.

Since 1900, only 22 major-league pitchers have started as many games (552) as Colon, with all but five of them enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  He has accumulated 247 wins during his career, more than 12 pitchers currently with a bronze plaque in the Hall.  He was a Cy Young Award winner in 2005 with the Los Angeles Angels and has finished in the top six on three other occasions.

However, Colon is not so sexy from an analytics standpoint.  Last year his numbers included a bloated 5.87 ERA and 1.346 WHIP, while his ERA+ was a paltry 84 (100 is average).

So, why would a big-league team sign Colon for next year?

True, he doesn’t fit the profile of current starting pitchers that most teams are pursuing.  Despite his age, he gives struggling teams like the Rangers outings they can count on every five days.  He’s able to get outs without relying on a blazing fastball.  He’s a gritty pitcher who doesn’t give up a lot of walks.  Plus, he’s cost-effective.  In a time when the average veteran starting pitcher makes $6-10 million per year, Colon only cost the Rangers $1.75 million last year.

From a sentimental standpoint, he’s good for the sport.  For example, he received a lot of fanfare in a game against Seattle in May, when he was hit in the belly by a hard line drive measured at 101 MPH.  Fortunately he had the “padding” in his gut to protect him from serious injury, and he managed to throw the runner out and ultimately won the game.  A disastrous hitter at the plate, he slammed his first and only career home run two years ago, resulting in a raucous celebration by his Mets teammates.

Only nine other major-league pitchers since 1960 were still active at age 45.  They include names like Hall of Famers Nolan Ryan, Phil Niekro, Hoyt Wilhelm, and Randy Johnson, as well as productive long-timers like Tommy John and Jamie Moyer.

Colon’s career will likely fall short of getting him inducted into the Hall of Fame, but that’s not his goal right now.  He just wants to log another season, even if it is his 12th different major-league team.

Alex Cora: Luck or Genius?

Rookie manager Alex Cora led the Boston Red Sox to their best regular season ever with 108 wins.  His Red Sox then capped off the post-season with a World Series championship ring, in the process posting an astonishing 11-3 record over formidable opponents like the New Yankees, Houston Astros, and Los Angeles Dodgers.  Was Cora that good as the skipper of the BoSox, or was he just in the right place at the right time for the historic season?

Cora is only the fifth major-league manager to win the World Series in his rookie season.  Bob Brenly (2001 Diamondbacks), Ralph Houk (1961 Yankees), Eddie Dyer (1946 Cardinals), and Bucky Harris (1924 Senators) were the only managers to accomplish this unlikely feat.  He is the first Puerto Rican manager to win the Series.

His only experience in the dugout prior to the Red Sox was as the bench coach for the Houston Astros in 2017, when coincidentally the Astros won the World Series.  He had played 14 seasons in the majors with six different teams, including the Red Sox with whom he won a World Series ring in 2007 as a utility player.  After his retirement as a player, he spent four seasons as an analyst for ESPN.

In recent managerial hires, significant prior experience in coaching or managing hasn’t been at the top of general managers’ list of preferred skills for the candidates.  That approach has met with mixed results.  So Cora’s appointment as the new Red Sox manager had its skeptics, especially since the team had just won the AL East Division title the year before under well-experienced manager John Farrell.

However, Cora had the advantage of inheriting a very talented Red Sox roster.  Sure, they had missed David Ortiz’s bat in 2017, but they now had the latest version of the Killer B’s in Mookie Betts, Zander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, and Jackie Bradley Jr.  Furthermore, the Red Sox starting rotation boasted two former Cy Young Award winners in David Price and Rick Porcello, as well as the award’s 2017 runner-up in Chris Sale.  And then they had one of the best closers in all of baseball with Craig Kimbrel.  Going into the 2018 season with that type of talent in its core players, it was hard to imagine Boston wouldn’t be favored again to repeat as the division winner, regardless of who the manager was.

When Red Sox President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski hired Cora, did he know something about the 42-year-old skipper the rest of the baseball world didn’t know?  Had Dombrowski perhaps hired the wrong Cora?  (Alex’s brother, Joey, has been a major-league coach since 2003, including multiple stints as interim manager, and was previously considered for permanent managerial positions.)  Was the long-time baseball executive taking a calculated chance with the relatively inexperienced Cora, knowing the Red Sox would be a strong contender in the division anyway?

Despite being a high-profile job, the Red Sox manager position had all the makings of being a reasonable situation in which to insert a first-time manager.  Frustrated Red Sox fans were ready to see Farrell go, despite his World Series championship team in 2013. (Four of his seven seasons as manager ended in 4th or 5th place finishes.)  Boston was projected in 2018 to be as good as, or better than, their division rival New York Yankees, who had their own rookie manager in Aaron Boone.  But it was naturally expected Cora would experience some snags throughout the season due to his greenness as manager.

However, it turned out there would be few missteps by Cora during the regular season.  Except for a dozen games before the All-Star break, the Red Sox held first-place throughout the season.  The team had added slugger J.D. Martinez right before the season started, and he became an exceptional replacement for Ortiz in the batting lineup.  Dombrowski further added several key role players later in the season, as well as added pitching depth.  Then Cora pulled all the right strings to stay ahead of the Yankees, and the Red Sox essentially clinched the division title by the first of August even though the Yankees won 100 games, too.

In addition to a star-studded lineup led by Martinez and Betts, Cora’s approach to managing the team turned out to be a key factor in the Red Sox’s success.  It was based on the effective utilization of his role players and an aggressive style of play, wrapped in an open communication style with his players.

Cora juggled the lineup practically every day, making good use of utility players Steve Pearce, Eduardo Rodriguez, Brock Holt, Blake Swihart, Ian Kinsler, and Christian Vazquez, most of whom could play multiple positions.  It wasn’t uncommon for one of them to be the star of the game with a clutch hit or a spectacular fielding play.

The Red Sox hit their share of home runs, but their game wasn’t solely based on the long ball.  Cora emphasized aggressive offensive play centered around putting the ball in play, use of the hit-and-run, and opportune stolen bases.

Cora’s overall communication style created a positive vibe and looseness among the players.  There was a calmness about him during games, and it seemed to rub off on his players.  He was reportedly good at letting his players know how to prepare for games, especially as he used various lineups.  He was usually able to put players in a position to succeed.

The Red Sox employ the new-styled analytics as much as any other major-league team, but Cora seemed to find a good balance of “playing by the numbers” provided by the team’s front-office analysts and his own observations and judgements of how his players were responding in various game situations.

In some respects, Cora was indeed lucky with the hand he was dealt as the manager of the Red Sox.  It’s not likely he could have won the World Series with Baltimore’s roster, which finished 61 games behind the Red Sox.  On the other hand, he did manage to defeat two very good 100-win teams, Yankees and Astros, to capture the American League pennant.

It’s too early to declare Cora a genius already, but he sure appears to be on a good path toward it.

It's All Hands on Deck for Pitchers in the Post-Season

Nathan Eovaldi’s performance in Game 3 of the World Series fell only one pitch short of outstanding, especially considering that he also pitched in Games 1 and 2.  The only blemish in his 97-pitch relief outing was a home run given up to Max Muncy in the 18th inning of the longest game in World Series history.  He had held the Dodgers scoreless since the 12th inning.  Normally, he would have started Game 4 the next day, but he was pressed into service when Game 3 turned into a marathon game.

Eovaldi is the Number 4 starter in the Red Sox rotation after Chris Sale, David Price, and Rick Porcello, but he’s not the only starter doing extra duty during the post-season.  Price also had a brief appearance in Game 3.

All of the post-season teams’ relief pitchers are getting extensive workouts, too.  During the American League and National League championship series involving 12 games altogether (5 ALCS and 7 NLCS), there were only five instances where a team used four or less pitchers.  In the two series, five different starting pitchers also made relief appearances.

During the regular season, “bullpenning” has become a mainstream strategy for use of the pitching staff.  Starters are being labelled “openers” by some teams, with the expectation that they only need to get through an opponent’s lineup once.  Then they turn the game over to the bullpen where right-lefty matchups are being managed, often resulting in five or six relief pitchers being used by each team.

Post-season games are following suit, except that the starters are also being pressed into relief service, while relievers like the Red Sox’s Joe Kelly and Milwaukee’s Josh Hader were seemingly making appearances every game.

Elimination games in the post-season are usually the situations when practically every pitcher, irrespective of when they last pitched and how many innings they pitched, has to be ready when called upon in close games.  Managers figure there’s no sense in holding back their best pitchers in these do-or-die situations.

Two of the more memorable World Series, 2001 and 2014, involved aces who were used to secure Game 7 victories for their teams in uncharacteristic reliever roles.  Hall of Famer Randy Johnson pitched the last 1 1/3 innings of the 2001 World Series for the Arizona Diamondbacks to defeat the New York Yankees.  He had previously won Games 2 and 6.  After winning Games 1 and 5 of the 2014 World Series against the Kansas City Royals, Madison Bumgarner pitched the last five innings of Game 7 for the San Francisco Giants in their win over Kansas City.

On one of the recent World Series pre-game shows, studio analyst Pedro Martinez offered the following advice:  “Every pitcher on the team should come to the ballpark with his cleats on, ready to pitch.”  Indeed, that’s been the state of thinking by the various managers during the post-season.

 

Was Aaron Boone's First Managerial Job a Success?

When the New York Yankees fired manager Joe Girardi following the 2017 season, I thought then that whoever replaced him would have an insurmountable task.  After all, what kind of organization fires the manager that just led them to a World Series?  I figured that after Girardi’s Bronx Bombers barely lost the 2017 World Series to Houston, the only way his replacement could be regarded as successful was to actually win the World Series in 2018.

Well, that didn’t happen.  Aaron Boone had been somewhat of a surprise by being named as the Yankees’ skipper replacing Girardi, since he had no coaching or managerial experience prior to accepting the job.  What he did have going for him was a family pedigree in baseball as a third-generation player.  He also he had been an MLB broadcaster for ESPN who was open to the newer thinking about the use of baseball analytics and the relationship required between manager and front office.  The big question at the time of his hiring:  were these factors enough to enable success in one of the most difficult cities in which to be on the big stage?

Boone would have the benefit of a roster that was already battle-tested, having won 91 games in 2017 and pushed the eventual World Series champion Houston Astros to the brink of defeat in the League Championship Series.  Then they added National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton during the off-season, further improving their chances to go all the way in 2018.  It was not unexpected when many pre-season prognosticators picked the Yankees to win the American League pennant and return to their first World Series since 2009.  It seemed the only potential fly in the ointment for this outcome would be Boone’s performance as an untested manager.

So what did Boone’s team of “Baby Bombers” do?  They just went out and won 100 games this year.  However, it turned out to be the third best in all of Major League Baseball behind division foe Boston, who won a franchise record of 108 games, and Houston, who won a franchise record 103 games.

For any of the other 27 MLB clubs, 100 wins would have been considered a highly successful season.  For any other first-year MLB manager, 100 wins would likely have earned him Manager of the Year honors.

Indeed, Boone overcame several obstacles thrown his way during the regular season.  They contributed to situations where he had little opportunity to stick with a set lineup day in and day out.  And yet the Yankees still managed to win 100 games.  Boone deserves credit for keeping things together.

He started the season with two rookies in his starting infield—Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres, who replaced veterans Starlin Castro and Todd Frazier from the previous year.  But he also had veteran infielder backups Neil Walker and Ronald Torreyes, with whom he deftly juggled the lineup periodically.

Two of his mainstays in 2017, catcher Gary Sanchez and first baseman Greg Bird, had miserable seasons at the plate in 2018, forcing Boone to frequently use alternatives to offset their declines.  Again, he had to be creative with lineups that included Austin Romine at catcher, while Luke Voit, Tyler Austin, and Neil Walker took turns at first base.

2017 American League Rookie of the Year Aaron Judge, who hit 52 home runs last season, missed almost a third of this season due to a wrist injury from being hit by a pitch.  Boone resorted to using a number of reserve players and taking Giancarlo Stanton out of the DH role to backfill Judge in right field.

On the pitching front, Boone lost the services of starter Jordan Montgomery early in the season, and veteran Sonny Gray turned out to be largely ineffective against the better opponents.  However, Boone did have one of the better bullpens in baseball, and he had to frequently call on them early in game

Despite Boone’s efforts, Boston widened its lead over the Yankees in August, and pretty much coasted to the East Division title during the last month of the season.  The Yankees passed the first test of the playoffs by defeating Oakland in the wild-card game, but then was overwhelmed by the Red Sox in the Division Series.  Boone was criticized for not using his bullpen earlier in Games 3 and 4 against the Red Sox, when his starters let the games get out of hand in the first few innings.  These were situations where his relative inexperience perhaps affected the outcomes.

The Yankees organization measures success by World Series championships.  They’ve attained the most (27) in baseball history.  Thus, while Boone is to be lauded for his performance in leading the team to 100 wins, he didn’t get them the ultimate prize, the World Series ring.  He’s probably feeling a bit like Joe Girardi did at the end of last season, except Boone still has a job—for now.

Buehler to be Heir Apparent to Kershaw as Dodgers Ace

If you watched the Braves-Dodgers National League Division Series game Sunday, you might be questioning the validity of my assertion in the title of this blog post.  Los Angeles Dodgers rookie pitcher Walker Buehler had a bit of a meltdown in the second inning of the game against Atlanta, yielding five runs as a result of uncharacteristically poor control.  It was looking like Buehler should have “taken the day off” like Ferris Bueller, but then he rebounded to pitch three more innings without yielding a hit while the Dodgers tied the game by the end of the fifth inning.

In any case, Clayton Kershaw’s not ready to be written off as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ No. 1 starter.  While he had a “down” year for him in 2018, he’s still a formidable ace, as evidenced by his recent sterling playoff performance against the Atlanta Braves in the second game of the NLDS.

But waiting in the wings for his turn at the top of the Dodgers rotation is Buehler, who showed in the tiebreaker game for the NL West Division title against Colorado that he’s ready for prime time.  He held the hard-hitting Rockies to just one hit in 6 2/3 innings, as the Dodgers won their sixth consecutive division pennant with a 5-2 victory.

Buehler’s ascent with the Dodgers has been quick, since it was only in 2015 that he was their first-round pick out of Vanderbilt.  He made his major-league debut last year in a late-season call-up with Los Angeles.  Then the 24-year-old right-hander was inserted into the Dodgers’ rotation in late April this season and was 4-1 with a 2.63 ERA in his first nine starts.

After going on the disabled list in early June for several weeks, he had a rough return to the rotation over his next four starts in which his ERA rose by a full point and he took two losing decisions.  However, he got back on track again by the middle of August and finished the season with an 8-5 record and a team-leading 2.62 ERA and 0.961 WHIP.  He was among the best pitchers in the National League for the last two months of the regular season.

In the critical tiebreaker game with the Rockies that decided the division winner, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts went with rookie Buehler on the mound over some of his other veteran pitchers.  Buehler showed he had ice in his veins as he stepped up to the challenge.  Buehler responded by holding the Rockies hitless for 5 1/3 innings before yielding a single to Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon.  Buehler pitched into the seventh inning before being lifted with a 5-0 Dodgers lead.

Kershaw had missed most of May and June this season with two stints on the disabled list with back problems, but finished the season strong after getting back into the regular rotation on June 28.  He completed the season with a 9-5 record and his highest ERA (2.73) since 2010.  It was his third consecutive season in which he has been on the DL with back injuries which significantly cut down his typical number of innings pitched.  At 30 years old, he has experienced a drop in his fastball velocity and has had to resort to other pitches for his effectiveness.

2018 was Kershaw’s 11th big-league season, and it was the first of his most recent eight seasons that he hasn’t been in the Cy Young Award conversation.  (He was won the award three times and finished second twice.)  Kershaw has been the most dominant pitcher of his era.  He has the lowest career ERA for any pitcher with at least 1,500 innings in the live-ball era that dates back to 1920.  Yet despite his career success in the regular seasons, his Dodgers team still doesn’t have a World Series ring.

It’s too early to say Kershaw’s career is on the decline, or that he may soon be in another uniform. (He has two years left on his current contract, but has an early-out option he could exercise now.)

Whenever that happens though, Buehler will be there to step in at the top of the Dodgers’ rotation.  Yes, he stumbled in Game 3 of the NLCS.  The ice in his veins melted temporarily, but he’ll still be the guy the Dodgers will be counting on in the big games down the road.

Tight Competition for MLB Post-Season Awards Expected

The MLB playoff teams are settled, although two tiebreaker games are scheduled for Monday to decide the final seeding in the National League.  There were a few surprises this season, with Oakland, Milwaukee and Atlanta becoming playoff teams for the first time in several years.  The other playoff teams were fairly predictable from the pre-season previews coming out of spring training.

While the individual post-season honors won’t be announced until after the World Series, it isn’t too early to speculate which players might take home the hardware for the Cy Young, MVP, and Rookie of the Year awards.  The competition for these honors is expected to be tight.  Of course, playoff performance by players is not considered in the voting by the baseball writers.

I’m going out on a limb early with my picks.  Several of them were not very predictable at the beginning of the season.

American League MVP

WAR (Wins Above Replacement) has become the standard for the metric used to evaluate the MVP candidates, because it represents the best overall assessment of players, factoring in all elements of performance by both position players and pitchers.  Want to guess who’s got the highest Offensive WAR this year?  Well, it’s the same guy who’s been the leader five out of the past six seasons--Mike Trout.  As a result, the Los Angeles Angels’ outfielder has finished first or second in the MVP voting in five of the last six seasons, winning the honor in 2014 and 2016.  There are strong arguments for him again this season, even though he missed more than 20 games due to injury.

However, when considering Total WAR, which adds in defensive performance, Trout is surpassed by Boston’s Mookie Betts, who led the league in runs scored, batting average, and slugging percentage.  Betts has been the most complete player this season, when also taking into account his base-running and fielding skills in the outfield.  His impact with the Red Sox, in perhaps their best season in history, has been immense.  He’s my pick for the AL MVP Award.

Two other players who received strong consideration by me are J. D. Martinez of the Red Sox and Alex Bregman of the Houston Astros.  Martinez filled the void in the Red Sox lineup, created by David Ortiz’s retirement at the end of 2016, for providing the big bat.  He finished with 43 HR and league-leading 130 RBI.  In many respects he allowed teammate Betts to be the type of versatile player he really is, versus Betts also having to be relied on to provide the thump in the lineup.  Bregman, who keeps getting better and better each year, was the Astros’ most consistent position player on perhaps the best team in the American League.  

American League Cy Young

The temptation for this award is to pick one of the tried-and-true aces who have been in strong consideration or won the award previously:  Boston’s Chris Sale, Houston’s Justin Verlander, and Cleveland’s Corey Kluber.  Kluber has won the award twice and Verlander once, while Sale has finished in the top five in the five previous seasons.  They each turned in masterful performances again this season, with all of them among the league leaders in ERA, strikeout rate, and WHIP.

Yet the hurler who gets my vote for the award is upstart Blake Snell of the Tampa Bay Rays.  The 25-year-old has been a top prospect of the Rays for several years, but didn’t really stand out in his first two major-league seasons.  He finally put it all together this season with league-leading ERA (1.89) and ERA+ (217), while his 0.974 WHIP, and 11.0 strikeouts per nine innings were among the leaders.  And if anyone still thinks number of wins is a useful metric, he led the league with a 21-5 win-loss record.  Snell had the highest WAR for pitchers.  He was a big reason Tampa Bay finished with their first winning season since 2013.  

American League Rookie of the Year

Going into the 2018 season, almost everyone was betting Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani would have the type of season that would make him a cinch for the Rookie of the Year Award.  Indeed, he started out with a bang, both at the plate and on the mound.  But then he began to have arm troubles in early June that led to his restriction by the team from taking the mound.  The Los Angeles Angels switch-player continued to appear in the lineup as a designated hitter and pinch-hitter that resulted in a credible slash line of .283/.361/.564 in 367 plate appearances.  He managed to hit 22 HR and 61 RBI.

However, the New York Yankees came up two pretty darn good rookie infielders this season:  Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres.  Third baseman Andujar gets my vote for the ROY award based on his slash line of .297/.328/.527.  He held his own on the homer-happy Yankees team with 27 dingers, tied for second-most on the team, trailing only Giancarlo Stanton.  He also finished second on the team with 92 RBI.  While Torres was effective, too, with 24 HR, 77 RBI, and a .271 batting average, he was a notch below Andujar.

Kansas City pitcher Brad Keller (9-6, 3.08 ERA) was tops among rookie pitchers in the league.  

National League MVP

The top MVP candidates this season were relative newcomers for this type of honor.  Past winners like Kris Bryant, Bryce Harper, and Joey Votto, and perennial contenders like Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt were not at the top of the list this season.  Instead, Milwaukee’s Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, Chicago’s Javier Baez, and Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman were the headliners.

Among the position players in the National League, those four players topped the list for WAR, and I’m going with the WAR leader Christian Yelich as the winner.  (See my blog post from last week about Yelich’s impactful season for the playoff-bound Brewers.)  Baez was a close second choice for me, as he’s been the Cubs’ most consistent player this season by combining power, speed, and sterling defense.  He led the team in HR (34) and stolen bases (21), while leading the league in RBI (111).  

National League Cy Young

This will likely be the closest race among the post-season awards this year, with Washington’s Max Scherzer, Philadelphia’s Aaron Nola, and New York’s Jacob deGrom all strong contenders.  In my blog post of August 26, I wrote about how these three aces have been 1-2-3 in most of the key pitching statistics.  If Scherzer were to win, it would be his third consecutive award and fourth overall in his career.  Nola had a career breakout season for the Phillies as he’s achieved his “ace” status with a rising Phillies club.

But I’m picking deGrom as the winner of this award for the best pitcher.  Despite his meager 10-9 win-loss record, he was lights out when it came to earned runs yielded (1.70) and strikeouts per nine innings (11.2).  He led all players (including position players) in the National League in WAR.  

National League Rookie of the Year

There will be a close two-man race between Washington’s Juan Soto and Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna Jr. for recognition as the best rookie of the season.  The 19-year-old Soto was so good that he is making Nationals fans not worry as much about the possibility of losing their star player, Bryce Harper, to free agency at the end of this season.  Soto’s slash line defies his age:  .292/.406/.517 in 116 games.  He’s hit 22 HR and 70 RBI.  His season was reminiscent of former Red Sox rookie, 19-year-old Tony Conigliaro’s, in 1964.

However, I’m voting for Acuna, who is only 20 years old himself.  He had similar numbers to Soto:  .293/.366/.552, with 26 HR and 64 RBI in 111 games.  According to advanced stats, Acuna was a better fielder than Soto.  But the deciding factor for me was Acuna’s role in helping the Braves win the division title.  Perhaps it’s unfair to introduce team performance into my assessment, but I believe he was an important spark for the Braves throughout the season.

St. Louis outfielder Harrison Bader and Los Angeles pitcher Walker Buehler will get some consideration as well.

A Change in Scenery Bodes Well for Christian Yelich and the Brewers

Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich has always been a good player.  This season he has been a great player, so much so that he’s among the top candidates for National League Most Valuable Player.

What changed for Yelich?  He was traded to the Brewers during the Miami Marlins’ fire sale over the winter.  Since he broke into the majors in 2013, he had never played for a winning team before this season, and he had always played in the shadow of Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton.

When it became apparent new Marlins executive Derek Jeter intended to dismantle the Marlins roster of its highest-priced players after their sale to new majority owner Bruce Sherman.  Yelich made it known publicly he wanted out, too.

Yelich got his wish when the Marlins traded him to the Brewers in January 2018 for three minor league prospects and one of their up-and-coming stars, Lewis Brinson.

After narrowly missing the playoffs in 2017, the Brewers had been looking for a couple of players who could put them over the top in reaching their first post-season since 2011.  In addition to Yelich, they added veteran free-agent outfielder Lorenzo Cain from Kansas City.

Prior to 2018, Yelich had been a productive player for the Marlins, with a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger award to his credit.  During his first five seasons, he had a respectable career slash line of .290./.369/.432 with an OPS of .800.  He had been a key element of a roster the Marlins were trying to assemble around Stanton, but Yelich hadn’t yet attained all-star status.  From a fan awareness standpoint, he took a back seat to Stanton who was the face of the Marlins.

The Marlins had already traded other key players in second baseman Dee Gordon and outfielder Marcell Ozuna over the winter, when Stanton opted to accept Miami’s proposed trade to the New York Yankees.  It became obvious the Marlins’ strategy was to shed payroll in order to reduce their operating costs, and Yelich figured he didn’t want to be left on a team that was destined for more losing seasons in the years to come.

26-year-old Yelich has responded to his new home in “Brew Town” with the best season of his career and possibly the best offensive performance in the National League.  He is currently leading the National League in batting average (.320), slugging percentage (.570) and on-base plus slugging percentage (.957).  He is hitting a career-high 31 home runs to go along with 93 RBIs.  Twice he has hit for the cycle.  He was selected for his first All-Star Game in July.

The Brewers have capitalized on his presence, as well as that of fellow newcomer Lorenzo Cain.  Also bolstered by the home run power of Travis Shaw and Jesus Aguilar, the Brewers held the first-place position in the NL Central Division for most of the first half of the season.  The Chicago Cubs overtook them after the All-Star break, but the Brewers have been able to stay within a handful games of the Cubs since then.  With a week left in the regular season, they are currently 2 ½ games behind the Cubs, but 2 ½ games ahead of the Colorado Rockies for the first wild card in the National League.  The Brewers haven’t appeared in the playoffs since they finished first in the Central Division in 2011.

Yelich hasn’t had to play second fiddle to anyone in Milwaukee.  He’s finally playing with a real playoff contender.  And that has to suit him just fine.

The "W" is Effectively Dead

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the tight race in the National League for the Cy Young Award, between Aaron Nola, Max Scherzer, and Jacob deGrom.  All three of them could make a legitimate claim for the title; but as I’ve followed them since then, I’ve become convinced New York Mets ace deGrom will emerge as the winner.

Whether deGrom winds up winning the award or not, his performance for the season will put another nail in the coffin for considering the “win” as a relevant statistic to guage a pitcher’s value to his team.

For the past couple of years, the true baseball statheads have been harping on the point that winning or losing decisions should not be considered an individual measure because of many factors which are not under the pitcher’s control.  They’ve finally convinced most of the baseball community the “W” should be de-emphasized, if not discontinued altogether.

To help prove their point, consider that the Mets inept offense has been a huge culprit in deGrom’s win-loss record this year.  In his 29 starts, the Mets have a 12-17 record.  In 18 of those starts, the Mets scored three or fewer runs.  In only five of his starts has deGrom yielded three or more earned runs.  His current 1.71 ERA is the second-lowest in the National League since Dwight Gooden posted a 1.53 ERA in 1985.

Actually, the notion that wins not being a good measure for pitching effectiveness has been around for a while.  When Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young Award in 2010, having barely recorded a better-than-.500 winning percentage with 13 wins and 12 losses for the season, it was considered heresy by many of the baseball analysts, particularly the old-timers.  He beat out David Price and CC Sabathia, with 19 and 21 wins respectively, who finished second and third in the voting.  Yet Hernandez won on the merits of his league-leading 2.27 ERA, while he was the workhorse of the American League with 34 starts and 249.2 innings pitched. 

So, how did professional baseball evolve to the point where pitchers’ effectiveness was measured by number of wins?  In the formative years of the sport over a hundred years ago, wins and losses were indeed relevant statistics for pitchers.  That was because most pitchers threw complete games and could largely be held responsible for limiting the total number of runs opponents were scoring in games.  Of course that presumption was flawed then, as it is now, but there weren’t other meaningful measures of pitcher effectiveness in place then, as there are now.  But with the conservative nature of most baseball historians and reporters over the years, there wasn’t much motivation to change, since ERA, strikeouts, and walks were also available as additional key performance indicators.

Nowadays the occurrence of complete games is a rarity.  The total number for the entire season so far, including both leagues, is only 40.  By comparison, Hall of Fame pitcher Cy Young, after whom the prestigious pitching award is named, had nine seasons (during 1891-1904) in which he pitched 40 or more complete games by himself. 

As is evidenced with deGrom and other pitchers, a win is not a true indicator of individual performance.  Other factors, such as the defensive play of a pitcher’s teammates, as well as how many runs his teammates score in a game, have a direct bearing on whether a pitcher is credited with a win or loss.  A starting pitcher, who yields to his team’s bullpen to finish a game, is dependent on subsequent relief pitchers to maintain a lead the team had when the starting pitcher was removed from the game.  Again, these are factors not under the pitcher’s control.

Despite the efforts by some (MLB Network TV host Brian Kenney is an example) to effectively kill the “W” statistic, it is still prevalently reported in game summaries and box scores as to which pitcher is credited with the win.  The astute baseball follower will recognize that the stat is meaningless, but it may take a few more years, maybe even another generation of baseball enthusiasts before this practice is finally discontinued.

Cubs Capitalizing on the Maturation of Javier Baez

The Red Sox have Mookie Betts.  The Indians have Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez.  The Angels have Mike Trout.  The Cubs have Javier Baez.

For Baez to be mentioned in this elite group of players is a big step for him.  But what they all have in common is they are “complete” players, guys who can do it all really well-- hit, field, and run.  Baez is making his statement this year that he belongs.  He’s progressed from top prospect status as an 18-year-old to MVP candidate at 25.

Baez was 18 years old when he signed out of high school as the ninth overall pick in the 2011 MLB June Amateur Draft by Chicago.  He showed his potential two years later when he hit 37 HR and 111 RBIs in the minors.

He was tagged to be part of the solution to the roster overhaul the Cubs undertook in 2012 under new president Theo Epstein.  The Cubs gave him his first opportunity with the big-league club in 2014, but he struggled in his 52 games when he batted only .169.

Another year of seasoning at the Triple-A level was warranted, and Baez responded well with a .324 batting average, 13 HR and 61 RBI in 70 games in 2015.

Then he became an integral part of the Cubs’ rise to prominence in 2016 with their first World Series championship since 1908.  In his first full season with the Cubs, he demonstrated invaluable versatility for Cubs manager Joe Maddon by being able to play second base, shortstop and third base.  He recorded 14 HR and 59 RBIs while batting .273 during the regular season.  He was the MVP of the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

He had another good season in 2017, but faltered during the post-season as the Cubs lost the National League pennant to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

2018 has been the breakout season for Baez.  He made his first all-star team and currently has 30 HR and 100 RBIs, which leads the league.  He became the first 20-20 player (at least 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases) for the Cubs since Corey Patterson in 2004.  Baez has drawn comparisons to former Cub second baseman, Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, with his ability to hit, field, and run the bases.

With Cubs slugger Kris Bryant out of action a good part of the season due to injury, Baez has more than picked up the slack offensively.  He leads the team in home runs, RBIs, and slugging percentage.  He’s in the highlight videos practically every day with his aggressive base-running and dazzling plays in the field.

The Cubs are fortunate to have nurtured Baez as a young player.  He’s been instrumental in helping the Cubs get into position to win their third straight Central Division title and in the process has worked himself into the National League MVP conversation.

Cardinals' Mike Shildt Another Example of Bold Managerial Change

New St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Shildt has the team’s fans energized and talking about being relevant again.  Not a familiar name among most baseball fans, Shildt was named the Cardinals manager on July 15, replacing Mike Matheny who had been a successful manager since 2010.  But with the Cards just barely playing .500 ball, the Cardinals’ front office felt like something needed to change and decided to pull the plug on Matheny.

Initially Shildt got an “interim” tag as the new manager; but after leading the team to a 26-12 record, he was named the permanent manager on August 28.  Usually, teams making this type of in-season change wait until the end of the season to evaluate the interim’s performance compared to other possible managerial candidates.  In any case, Shildt now has the Cardinals ahead of Milwaukee in the NL Central Division and making a run at the leading Chicago Cubs.

Shildt had previously been the bench coach for St. Louis, but he had quietly risen to the job after only having joined the major-league staff in 2017.  He’s had a remarkable ascent through the Cardinals organization.  He never played professional baseball and initially began work with the Cardinals a scout.  He started managing in the low minors in their farm system and eventually progressed to the top of their system.  An advantage he has as the big-league manager is that he’s already familiar with most of the players on the current roster who came up through the Cardinals’ farm system.”

It was a bold move by the Cardinals to remove Matheny, who was well-respected within the baseball community.  After having led the Cards to four straight playoff berths, including three division titles and a NL pennant in 2013, he had earned a reputation as one of the best baseball minds in the dugout.  But pressure mounted for a change this season when it appeared the Cardinals wouldn’t get into playoff contention for the third season in a row, trailing Chicago and Milwaukee.  With little optimism for a turnaround, Cards GM John Mozeliak pulled the trigger on Matheny two days before the All-Star break.

Fortunately for the Cardinals, Mozeliak’s change has worked so far.  The Cardinals have been 29-14 since Shildt took over and are now in second place 4 ½ games back of the Cubs.  In the month of August, they led all major-league clubs with a 22-6 record.

Shildt’s promotion is really no surprise in today’s managerial chess game.  After the 2017 season, veteran managers John Farrell (Red Sox), Dusty Baker (Nationals), and Joe Girardi (Yankees), all of whom led playoff teams last year, were replaced by the new breed of managers.  The new skippers have little or no managerial experience at any professional level, but bring a focus on newer thinking with respect to the use of analytical data to drive decision-making on the field.  Ironically, Matheny, himself, was one of the first of these new breed of managers at the beginning of the decade.

Shildt is an “organization guy,” entrenched in the Cardinals’ approach to playing the game right.  That came from the time he spent with George Kissell, the long-time coach in the Cardinals system, and some of Kissell’s disciples.  Shildt has benefitted from an influx of young players from the farm system during his short tenure.  He has received praise from his players and coaching staff and apparently has the rejuvenated team headed in the right direction—ideally to gain a berth in this year’s playoffs.

Former LSU Star Aaron Nola Making Strong Bid for Cy Young Award

Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola went toe-to-toe with Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer last Thursday in a classic matchup of two of the best hurlers in the National League.  Nola came out the winner that time as the Phillies try to stay close to East Division rival Atlanta Braves, who led the Phillies by three games as of Saturday.

25-year-old Nola had already established himself as the best pitcher on a young Phillies team last year that finished last in the division.  This year he has emerged as perhaps the best pitcher in the National League on a team that is fighting for first place in the division.  He is one of the main reasons for the Phillies’ turnaround.  Nola is currently sporting a 15-3 record, good for first in the league in winning percentage.  Nola has the third-best ERA (2.24) and WHIP (0.981), while Sherzer and the Mets’ hard-luck pitcher Jacob deGrom are the other two National League hurlers at the top of these rankings.  These three pitchers are currently the top competitors for the National League Cy Young Award.

Scherzer, who has 16 wins to his credit this year, is working toward his third consecutive Cy Young Award.  He has claimed the award a total of four time during his 11-year career.  His 16 wins tops the National League, and he leads the league in strikeouts (244), WHIP (0.886), and Strikeouts Per 9 Innings (12.1).

DeGrom has been the victim of weak New York Mets team that’s had trouble scoring runs when he pitches.  His mediocre 8-7 record is somewhat deceiving, since he leads the NL in ERA (1.71), and is second in the league in strikeouts (204) and WHIP (.958).

When the Phillies acquired free-agent Jake Arrieta from the Cubs over the winter, many expected him to step in and become the ace of the staff.  Yet Nola has upped his game, building on his success during the second half of 2017, when he posted a 3.16 ERA.  Overall last season, he had a 12-11 win-loss record.

So, what are Nola’s chances of winning his first Cy Young Award?

All three pitchers are very close in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for Pitchers, a complicated calculation that attempts to consolidate all the various performance factors of pitching into a single value.  WAR doesn’t appear to differentiate any of the pitchers at this point.

If the Phillies wind up with a division title or gain a playoff berth, this could give Nola a qualitative edge over Scherzer and deGrom, whose teams are lagging behind the Phillies.  Although team performance shouldn’t factor into the individual award, some voters will give de facto consideration to the fact Nola has been instrumental in helping his team get into the playoffs.

In years past, voters for the Cy Young Award gave strong consideration to the number of wins by a pitcher.  Nola and Scherzer are currently neck-and-neck in this category, but nowadays pitching wins are no longer given much credence in measuring the effectiveness of a pitcher.  Thus, Nola’s impressive 15 wins (plus any additional he might gain during September) are almost a moot point.

With Scherzer having won the award in four previous seasons, he already has the reputation of being one of the best pitchers in this decade.  This intangible factor could enter into some voters’ rationale for giving him the edge over the other contenders, since their quantitative performance measures are so close.  DeGrom has finished in the top eight of the voting for Cy Young Award twice before.  This season is considered a breakout year for Nola.

One edge Nola may have is his record of 4-1, with a 2.03 ERA, against the Phillies’ two main competitors (Nationals and Braves) in the division.  Hence, when the Phillies’ biggest games have been on the line with Nola pitching, he’s come through in the clutch.

The bottom line:  unless one or more of these three pitchers gets injured or just falls to pieces during the balance of this season with a number of bad outings, it could very well be a toss-up with regard to who will take home the trophy as the league’s best pitcher.

This is Nola’s fourth major-league campaign.  He was selected by the Phillies in the first round (7th overall pick) of the 2014 MLB June Amateur Draft, after having a stellar career with LSU.

Nola compiled 30 wins (against only 6 losses) for LSU in three seasons (2012-2014).  He was the SEC’s Pitcher of the Year in both his sophomore and junior campaigns and the National Pitcher of the Year in his junior year.

He is one of seven former LSU pitchers who have made major-league appearances in 2018.  Kevin Gausman (Braves), Jason Vargas (Mets) are the other starters.  Relievers include Louis Coleman (Diamondbacks), Will Harris (Astros), Nick Goody (Indians), and Nick Rumbelow (Mariners).

The only other former LSU pitcher to ever receive strong consideration for the Cy Young Award is Brian Wilson, who finished seventh in the voting in 2010, when he led the National League with 48 saves for the World Series champion San Francisco Giants.

Acuna's Home Run Spree Was Good, But Donnie Baseball's Was Better

The Atlanta Braves are demonstrating they have the necessary grit and determination late into the season to remain a contender for a post-season playoff berth, their first since 2013.  One of the “Baby Braves” who is proving to be a key catalyst in their winning ways is 20-year-old Ronald Acuna Jr.

Acuna put on an impressive display of power from August 8 through August 15 that spawned a set of comparisons with major-leaguers before him.

  • He became the youngest player since at least 1908 to homer in five straight games.  Brian McCann was 22 years old in 2006, when he did it.

  • In three of his games, he hit a leadoff home run as the first Braves’ batter of the game.  The only other player in modern history to hit a leadoff home run in at least three straight games was Brady Anderson in 1996, when he did it in four games.

  • He tied the Braves’ franchise record for most consecutive games with a home run, joining the likes of Rogers Hornsby, Joe Adcock, Hank Aaron, Chipper Jones, and a few others.

Altogether during his eight-game stretch, Acuna hit a total of eight HR and 15 RBIs, while scoring 13 runs.  On August 10, he went homerless, but countered that with two on April 15.  His slash line during that period was an astonishing .471/.514/1.235.

As impressive as Acuna’s recent performance was, there was one even more notable in the annals of baseball.  New York Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly tied Dale Long’s major-league record of hitting a home run in eight consecutive games during July 8-18, 1987.

During his streak, “Donnie Baseball” accomplished a few other key milestones.

  • He hit a total of 10 home runs during the eight-game stretch.

  • He extended the hitting streak by delivering an extra-base hit in 10 consecutive games.

  • Two of his home runs were grand slams.  He wound up hitting a total of six slams that season.

Altogether during Mattingly’s stretch, he managed to hit a total of 10 HR and 21 RBIs, while scoring 11 runs.  His slash line was .459/.487/1.324.

Long’s record was set during May 19-28, 1956, while playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Seattle’s Ken Griffey Jr. also tied the major-league record during July 20-28, 1993.

Although not a record, Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Rhys Hoskins belted eight homers over nine consecutive games during August 19-27, 2017.  It wouldn’t be surprising to see more results like this and Acuna’s, with the recent increase in home runs throughout baseball.

If there was a blemish on Mattingly’s solid 14-year career, it was that he reached the playoffs only once (1995) with the Yankees.  Braves fans are hopeful Acuna’s rookie season is the first of many for the Braves as a contender for the post-season.

The Team Nobody's Talking About

The Red Sox, Astros, and Yankees have been getting the most ink as the three best teams in the American League.  It’s been well-deserved, as all three teams have balanced clubs and lots of star players.  The Red Sox appear to be on a pace to win the most games in a season since the Seattle Mariners in 2001.  The Astros seem determined to repeat as the World Series champion, which would be the first time since 2000 that was accomplished.  And even though the Yankees suffered a dramatic setback in their recent four-game loss to the rival Red Sox, they are still a cut above most of the rest of the league.

But one team that seems to get lost in the popularity war is AL Central Division leader Cleveland Indians.  Even the upstart Oakland A’s are getting more attention, because of their recent success and ascent as a wild-card contender.

Yet the Indians have been quietly separating themselves from the rest of the teams in their division, now more than ten games ahead of their nearest competitor.  Admittedly they are competing in the weakest division of both leagues this season, but they’re playing solid baseball in any case.  They’ll be assured of a playoff berth and will be getting geared up during the rest of the season to play the underdog role.

In reality, the Indians are no stranger as a top team in the American League.  Just two years ago, they were on their way to winning their first World Series since 1954, until the Chicago Cubs miraculously came back from a 3-1 game deficit to win their first title in over 100 years.  The Tribe won 102 games last year, only to lose to the Yankees in the Division Series.

Cleveland is close behind the Red Sox and Yankees in many offensive categories.  The Indians are being led by shortstop Francisco Lindor and third baseman Jose Ramirez, who will get considerable consideration as the league’s MVP.  Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez are the front-runners for the award because of their respective roles in the record-setting season of the Red Sox.  But a closer look at Ramirez’s record shows he’s right up there with them in all the key offensive stats except batting average.  In any other season, Lindor would be a worthwhile MVP candidate, too.

The Indians’ starting pitching is virtually tied with the Red Sox’s as the best in league, when considering Wins Above Average.  At the top of the Indians’ rotation are Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer, both of whom can compete with anyone in the league when key games are on the line.

If the Indians have a current weakness, it’s their bullpen, which lags behind most of the other top teams.  However, they will get a much-needed boost from Andrew Miller, who has recently returned from two months on the disabled list, and Brad Hand who was acquired from San Diego before the trade deadline.

Because their lead in the division will be practically uncontested for the balance of the season, the Indians will have the luxury of strategically resting players and trying different lineup combinations as they get ready for the playoffs.  They just have to make sure they don’t get too complacent with their unchallenged lead.

Indians manager Terry Francona relishes the underdog role.  He realizes that Cleveland won’t garner as much attention as the higher-profile franchises like New York, Boston, and Houston.  He’s okay with that situation.  As the winner of two World Series titles as the manager for Boston, he fully understands the pressures that come with being a big-market team.  At this point, he’ll be happy to let those other teams deal with the added pressure, while his Indians fly under the radar.

 

Dodgers Desperate for World Series Ring

The Los Angeles Dodgers felt like they let a World Series championship slip through their fingers in 2017.  After defeating the defending champion Chicago Cubs for the National League pennant, they had their first championship rings in 30 years within their grasp.  But then they ran into George Springer and Charlie Morton of the Houston Astros.

After being nine games back of the division leader on May 1, the Dodgers managed to get back into contention on the backs of Matt Kemp and Max Muncy, two players who didn’t initially factor into their plans in spring training.  They now have a window of opportunity to contend again for a playoff berth and possibly their sixth consecutive NL West Division title.

However, the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies are currently nipping at their heels again and don’t appear to be going away anytime soon.  Dodgers ownership desperately wanted that elusive World Series ring and took no chances to let it get away again, as they were active in the trade market in late July.

Los Angeles outbid a number of suitors in the Manny Machado sweepstakes that culminated at the All-Star break.  Machado, the Baltimore Orioles’ all-star infielder scheduled for free agency after this season, was the biggest prize leading up to the July 31 trade deadline.

The Dodgers gave up five prospects to get Machado, but they figured he could bring another big bat and solidify the Dodgers infield which has been plagued by injuries this season.  For now, they aren’t worried about whether free-agent Machado can be retained after this season.  That’s how dead serious the Dodgers are about winning this year.

For most clubs, the acquisition of a player like Machado would be enough to help ensure success, but the Dodgers didn’t stop there.  They upgraded their second base position by acquiring second baseman Brian Dozier from the Minnesota Twins in exchange for their current second baseman Logan Forsythe and two more prospects.  Dozier had been coveted by the Dodgers in prior years, and they finally seized the opportunity to grab him at the trade deadline.  Dozier brings veteran leadership and another big bat to their lineup.

Then when the Toronto Blue Jays had a fire sale on their pitching staff at the trade deadline, the Dodgers stepped up to get veteran reliever John Axford in exchange for yet another Dodgers prospect.  Pitching depth is always a need, and he was a nice addition to the Dodgers bullpen.

Major-league general managers are challenged to make decisions to give up highly-prized prospects for short-term help to put them in a position to contend for the playoffs.  Fortunately for the Dodgers their farm system has a stable of prospects they’re able to deal.  There were a total of 69 prospects traded by various teams leading up to the trade deadline, and the Dodgers dealt eight of them to secure their additional players.  However, many other organizations aren’t as talent-rich to be able to take this approach.

As of Saturday, only three games separated the Dodgers and their division rivals Diamondbacks and Rockies.  Those two teams took actions of their own at the trade deadline, although not as dramatic as the Dodgers.

With relief pitchers currently high in demand, the D’backs added relievers Matt Andriese, Jake Diekman and Brad Ziegler to re-inforce their bullpen.  The Rockies added reliever Seung-Hwan Oh.

There’s still a lot of baseball to be played.  It will be interesting to see if Machado and Dozier can provide the insurance boost that enables the team to win the division and get another shot at a World Series title.  But the Dodgers also happen to have two other things going for them -- a good pitching staff and a roster containing several players with the versatility to play multiple positions.  Manager Dave Roberts has a lot of options with this team.

Most major-league organizations would be thrilled with the Dodgers’ record of five consecutive division titles.  But not the Dodgers.

Over the past few years, they’ve replaced the New York Yankees as the organization with the biggest payroll in the game.  In a big way, they feel compelled to win a World Series ring now.  It’s been a long 30 years since Kirk Gibson hit the dramatic home run in the World Series to defeat the Oakland A’s.  Plus, they need to justify the use of their deep pockets.  Yes, they’re desperate.

 

Hall of Famer Slugger Mel Ott Figured Out Launch Angle, Exit Velocity 90 Years Ago

When Hall of Famer Mel Ott retired in 1947, he was third all-time in career home runs in Major League Baseball with 511.  He was exceeded only by Babe Ruth (724) and Jimmie Foxx (534) at the time.  Ott was the National League leader in home runs until Willie Mays surpassed him in 1966.  The native of Gretna, Louisiana, held the major-league record for most career home runs by a left-handed batter until Eddie Matthews overtook him in 1968.

One of the remarkable facts about Ott’s propensity for hitting home runs was that he stood only 5’ 9” and only weighed between 160-170 pounds, not exactly the physique one would typically associate with a record-setting power hitter.  For example, Ruth and Foxx were more prototypical home run sluggers at six feet tall or above and tipping the scale at 195 or more pounds.  So, what accounted for Ott’s hitting prowess?

Ott’s batting style is legendary for his high leg lift before making contact with the ball.  Practically every posed photo of Ott in his batting stance illustrated his novel leg kick.

In his biography about Ott (Mel Ott: The Little Giant of Baseball), author Fred Stein said Ott perfected this technique when he worked with Lefty O’Doul on his hitting in 1928.  Ott came to realize that lifting his right leg higher would have the effect of moving his weight more forcefully into the pitch, thereby giving his swing additional power.

Stein further wrote that Branch Rickey, the astute general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, felt Ott’s lifting his front leg was largely responsible for his powerful hitting.  Rickey’s assessment of Ott’s batting stance concluded, “You will notice that he lifts that front leg just as the pitcher releases the ball and he puts it down after he sees what sort of pitch is coming and where it is coming from.  That’s why he never is caught off balance or out of position.”

Thus, it would seem Ott was using the leg movement to get the necessary lift and power behind the ball to drive it over the fence with regularity.  Was Ott just a freak of nature with his strength, or is it possible he intrinsically understood the value of getting good launch angle off the bat and generating enough power and bat speed to create higher exit velocity?

It’s highly unlikely anyone had figured out the physics of hitting baseballs in Ott’s day, especially without the benefit of technology to provide informative data to facilitate such a discovery.  And if someone did figure it out 90 years ago, it surely wasn’t being talked about in baseball circles.  It’s only been in the last five years or so, with new advancements in technology and data analytics, that the popular hitting approach has been widely discussed and routinely measured.

Nowadays it’s fairly predictable how launch angle and exit velocity factor into a batter’s ability to generate home runs.  Home runs have been on the rise, in part because “average” hitters are being coached to adjust their hitting approach to achieve a higher number of home runs.  Examples include recent players like Scooter Gennett and Logan Morrison, who improved their home run output after having posted relatively mediocre numbers in prior years.

Gennett (5’ 8”, 180 pounds) is considered small by today’s standard for major-league players.  He is more similar in build to Ott than he is with most of his current teammates and opponents.  After hitting a total of 35 homers during his first four major-league seasons, Gennett belted 27 last year and is currently on a pace to exceed that this year.  With his current hitting approach, he has proved a player doesn’t have to be a giant like Giancarlo Stanton to put up respectable home run numbers.

If Ott knew something special about his hitting approach, he never let on that he did.  In an interview in Baseball Digest in 1944, he said he couldn’t account for his high numbers, “I dunno.  Perhaps it’s timing, coordination or something else.  I never stopped to figure it out.”

Whether he consciously realized it or not, Ott’s approach at the plate must have incorporated techniques (shifting weight from back foot to front foot, creating power from the hips, and leveraging the ground for power) that produced similar hitting results as current-day sluggers.  Those techniques placed him in an elite group of prodigious sluggers in his era despite his relatively small size.

Josh Donaldson of the Toronto Blue Jays utilizes an Ott-like leg kick to generate a lot of his power and bat speed.  He was one of the first major-league superstars to espouse the benefits of launch angle in generating extra-base hits and home runs.  His former teammate Jose Bautista is another hitter who effectively uses the leg lift for tremendous power.

Unlike most of the home run hitters today, Ott didn’t strike out a lot.  Over the course of his 22-year career, his 162-game-average for strikeouts was only 53.  By comparison, Aaron Judge struck out 208 times in 2017, while J.D. Martinez whiffed 128 times and Nolan Arenado went down 106 times.

Some pundits of Ott’s era believed that his career home run total benefitted from a short right-field porch at his home stadium Polo Grounds.  It’s true that Ott was a prominent right-field pull-hitter, although 37% of his homers were hit on the road.  Furthermore, it is noted that many of Ott’s home runs at the Polo Grounds wound up in the upper deck and would have cleared the fences of other parks, too.  Hence, that explanation as the primary reason for his mammoth home run output doesn’t entirely hold up.

Of course, there’s no way to exactly determine today what specific aspects of Ott’s hitting approach actually accounted for his impressive career home run total, whether there were elements of launch angle and exit velocity, or just plain old brute strength.  But it’s a pretty sure bet if Ott were playing today, he’d be right up there in the home run rankings with today’s sluggers and certainly little Scooter Gennett.