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.
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.

Pint-sized Altuve and Albies Reminiscent of Former New Orleans Phenom Allan Montreuil

Major leaguers Jose Altuve and Ozzie Albies look like boys playing among men on the baseball diamond, especially when their opponents are hulks Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton.  The two diminutive infielders bring to mind a New Orleans native from yesteryear, Allan Montreuil, who reached the majors despite his five-foot-five, 158-pound stature.

Altuve is all of 5’ 6” tall, while Albies is the “giant” of the two at two inches taller.  Despite their relatively small size, compared to most of their teammates and opponents, they stand tall on the diamond when it comes to displaying their hitting and fielding skills.

Altuve is the reigning American League MVP for the 2017 World Series champion Houston Astros.  Currently in his eighth major-league season, the second baseman has already won three batting titles and is currently on a pace to record his fifth consecutive 200-hit season.  He also shows surprising pop in his bat for a player his size, as he has slugged twenty or more home runs in the past two seasons.

Albies, in only his first full major-league season with the Atlanta Braves, made the 2018 National League all-star team.  He is the league-leader in runs scored with 74 runs, to go along with 20 home runs and 55 RBI at the All-Star break.  Also a second baseman, he is a big reason the Braves are contending for the NL East Division title this year.

Growing up in the 1950s in New Orleans, Montreuil typified the true definition of “phenom.”  A Times-Picayune story about Montreuil said he was the subject of a “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” cartoon, which called attention to his hitting feats as a two-year-old toddler.  At age six, he was reportedly already playing on a 10-year-old team at New Orleans Recreational Department (NORD).

In 1956, NORD was the state Babe Ruth champion, and when they advanced to the regionals, Montreuil, not quite 13, went 6-for-8.  In 1957, Montreuil’s NORD team progressed all the way to the Little World Series, only to lose its opening game.

He attended McMain Junior High and De La Salle High School, where he excelled in baseball, but was too small to play other varsity sports.  In his senior season at De La Salle, he was named to the Catholic League all-district team and the Louisiana all-state squad.  A standout shortstop in Babe Ruth, American Legion, and All-American leagues, his coaches included some of the most legendary in New Orleans amateur baseball history: Kevin Trower, Emile Evans, Fats Dantonio, Johnny Altobello, and Rags Scheuermann.

Throughout his early career, Montreuil had pursued every opportunity to play in the leagues available for his age.  When he became too old to compete in the All-American League in 1963, he took an opportunity to play in the collegiate Basin League in Kansas, where he led the league in hitting with .375 average and was named MVP.  Later that summer he also played with semi-pro Ponchatoula Athletics, who finished in second place in the National Baseball Congress tournament in Wichita, Kansas.

Montreuil played for Loyola University in New Orleans in 1962 and 1963.  The 20-year-old decided to forgo his other two years of college baseball, when he inked a professional contract with the Boston Red Sox who gave him an $8,000 bonus.  Danny Doyle, who had played for the New Orleans Pelicans minor-league team in 1946, was the Red Sox scout who signed him after the NBC tourney.  Montreuil was recommended by former Red Sox great Bobby Doerr, who had seen him play in the Basin League and liked him as a hitter.

Kevin Trower, Montreuil’s coach on Babe Ruth teams, commented to the Times-Picayune after the right-handed hitting infielder signed his pro contract, “I lived half a block from Allan.  He was a child prodigy who handled himself like a major-leaguer when he was three years old.  Nobody taught Allan to hit, or field, or throw.  He was born with the natural physical actions of a pro and the baseball instinct of a Hall of Famer.”  He added, “I have coached him on my team and against him, and have always been convinced that Allan was born to play in the major-leagues.”

Johnny Altobello, who coached Montreuil on De La Salle prep and legion teams, offered this assessment to the Times-Picayune: “In a ball player, a scout looks for a boy with a strong arm, who can run, hit and field.  Allan can not only do all of those things, but best of all, he can think and always make the right play.  Allan’s height is not handicap.  He can do everything and more that 6’ 2” man can do in baseball.”

Montreuil reported to Boston’s Class A affiliate Waterloo Hawks for his first pro season in 1964.  It appeared he would continue to live up to his “phenom” billing, as he got off to a hot start with the bat.  He was named Topps Chewing Gum’s Player of the Month in May.  He wound up hitting .328 with 15 home runs, 63 RBI and 25 stolen bases for the season.  He collected 90 walks and struck out only 28 times in 479 plate appearances.  He was named the North Division’s shortstop for the Midwest League All-Star Game.

He was promoted to Double-A Pittsfield in 1965, but his batting average would drop off 70-80 points each season (compared to his rookie season) during the four years he was with them.  He got a brief promotion to Triple-A Tacoma during 1967, when he filled in for an injured player.  In 1968 Montreuil was a member of the Pittsfield team that won the Eastern League regular season title.

The Red Sox had Rico Petrocelli and Mike Andrews ahead of Montreuil on the major-league roster and gave up on him after the 1968 season.  He started the 1969 season with Double-A San Antonio in the Chicago Cubs organization, but then was promoted to Triple-A Tacoma where he was a member of the Pacific Coast League playoff champions.  For the entire season, he improved his batting average to .283 in 98 games.

Then for the next five seasons, Montreuil played with the Cubs Triple-A clubs at Tacoma and Wichita, but didn’t post outstanding seasons that warranted a permanent promotion to the big-league team.  Plus, Chicago had infielders Don Kessinger and Glen Beckert entrenched on their major league roster.

When Beckert went on the disabled list in late 1972, Montreuil finally got his call-up to the big-league club.  He made his debut on September 1, going 1-for-5 against the San Diego Padres.  However, he wound up sitting out two weeks with a pulled hamstring.  Altogether he played in five games for the Cubs, hitting for only a .091 average.

In an interview with the Times-Picayune, Montreuil said about his debut game, “Of course it was quite a thrill to play in a big league park, to wear a big-league uniform.  I hit the ball well five times, but it was right at somebody four of them.”

Cubs manager Whitey Lockman said about Montreuil’s brief stay, “He didn’t get a chance to play an awful lot.  He did a good enough job for us.  He hit the ball real well in one game.  He’s never had a real chance, though, to prove he could hit in the big leagues for an extended period of time.”

Montreuil played his last season in 1975 with Double-A Midland.  At age 31 after 12 seasons in the minors, he quit baseball as a player.  Following that, he considered taking a scouting job for a major-league organization.  When New Orleans was being considered for a major-league franchise upon opening the Louisiana Superdome in 1975, he had hoped to land a job in baseball related to the new franchise.  But, the big-league club never materialized in New Orleans.  Montreuil wound up going into business for himself in the New Orleans area.

Considering the 12 seasons he spent in the minors, he was figuratively in the majors for “only a cup of coffee.”  In an interview with the Times-Picayune, he said his main complaint about his career was he didn’t play enough in the majors to qualify for a pension.  In effect, he felt like he got nothing back for his long commitment to pro baseball.

His physical size was comparable to former major-league players of his era, such as Nellie Fox, Phil Rizzuto, Albie Pearson, and Freddie Patek.  In today’s game, he would be compared to mighty mites Altuve and Albies.  Unfortunately, he didn’t have their hitting skills at the professional level, which ultimately limited his opportunities to land a regular spot on a major-league roster.  However, he did leave a legacy as one of the legendary amateur players of the New Orleans area.

Montreuil died in 2008 at age 63.

MLB's All-Star Games Filled With Memorable Moments

The 89th Major League Baseball All-Star Game will be played Tuesday at Nationals Park in Washington, D. C.  The Midsummer Classic, as it’s often referred to, is really the only competitive showcase of all-stars of the three major U. S. sports.  Of course I’m biased, but can anyone remember specific highlights of an NFL or NBA all-star game?  Some of baseball’s greatest moments have come in All-Star Games.

The first MLB All-Star Game was conceived by Chicago sportswriter Arch Ward as a one-time promotional event associated with the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. With the sport’ biggest stars participating, it turned out to be such a success that it evolved into an annual contest.  With the exception of 1945, when commercial travel restrictions were in place during World War II, the game has been played every year since 1933.  During 1959 to 1962, Major League Baseball hosted two games each season.

As the National Football League and National Basketball Association gained popularity in the 1950s, they, too, instituted all-star games to showcase their talent.  However, both of those sports’ events have evolved into perfunctory games in which the defensive elements have become practically non-existent.  The NFL Pro Bowl Game now strongly resembles amateur flag football, while the NBA All-Star Game is dominated by uncontested dunks and three-point shots.  The National Hockey League All-Star Game actually does a better job of resembling its competitive regular season games than the NBA and NFL.

Of course, one of the factors that makes all the sports’ all-star games attractive is the involvement of their fans to select certain members of the teams.  MLB started this practice for its first all-star game in 1933.  Before the advent of the internet, all-star voting ballots could be obtained by attending a game in a major-league stadium.  Nowadays, on-line voting is by far the predominant method of fan voting.  Ballot stuffing through internet-based voting is a problem the MLB has to guard against.

But even in the old days of paper ballots, the Cincinnati Reds fans cast enough ballots in 1957 to vote seven of their eight starting lineup of position players to the National League All-Star team.  The situation caused MLB Commissioner Ford Frick to step in and replace two of the Reds players on the National League all-star squad.  As a result, fan voting was discontinued and not re-instated until 1970.

Following are just a few of the unforgettable all-star game performance over the years.

In the first All-Star Game in 1933, it was only fitting that Babe Ruth hit the first home run.  The 38-year-old Sultan of Swat was winding down his outstanding career by then, but he still had enough pop to homer off Wild Bill Hallahan in the bottom of the third inning of the American League’s 4-2 victory.

In 1934 National League starting pitcher Carl Hubbell wowed baseball fans by striking out five consecutive American League all-stars that included Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Fox, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin.  However, the AL team wound up scoring six runs in the fifth inning to win 9-7.

Not known for his home-run hitting, St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Red Schoendienst smacked a homer off Ted Gray in the 14th inning to propel the National League to a 4-3 victory in the 1950 classic.

Stan Musial hit a walk-off home run off Frank Sullivan in the 12th inning of the 1955 All-Star Game to give the National League a 6-5 win.  Musial would ultimately appear in 24 All-Star Game classics.

The 1967 contest was the longest in All-Star Game history to that point.  Cincinnati Reds third baseman Tony Perez broke up a 1-1 tie in the top of the 15th inning with a dramatic home run off Catfish Hunter to give the National League a victory.  In 2008, there was another 15-inning game won by the American League, 4-3, when Michael Young drove in the winning run with a sacrifice fly off pitcher Brad Lidge.

Reggie Jackson hit what is remembered as the longest home run in the 1971 All-Star Game.  The A’s slugger hit a mammoth shot off Dock Ellis at Tiger Stadium.  The ball hit a light tower on the roof above of the second deck and was estimated to travel 532 feet.  The American League’s victory broke an eight-game winning streak by the National League.

The 2002 All-Star Game ended in a 7-7 tie after 11 innings, when both teams ran out of available pitchers.  Beginning in 2003, the MLB Commissioner’s Office declared that the winning league of the All-Star Game would be awarded home-field advantage in the World Series, to prevent future tie-game results.  It was further evidence that MLB All-Star Games were considered more than just casual exhibition games.

Before interleague play began in 1997, the annual All-Star Game was seen as a marquee event that facilitated the matchup of baseball’s best hitters and pitchers from both leagues for the first times in their careers.  For example, it was a rare opportunity in the 1950s for fans to see a Whitey Ford facing off with an Ernie Banks in a classic confrontation where neither player is holding back his effort to get the best of his opponent.  Now, even with interleague play, it’s a treat to see a showdown between Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout in an All-Star Game scenario.

Of course, the MLB All-Star Game has had its share of unforgettable quirky events, too.

Diminutive San Francisco Giants pitcher Stu Miller is most remembered for a balk he committed in the 1961 All-Star Game, when his delivery on the mound was interrupted by a big gust of wind at Candlestick Park.

When Randy Johnson’s fastball flew behind the back of batter John Kruk in the 1993 All-Star Game, Kruk was so intimidated by Johnson he merely waved his bat at his next pitches, making for an easy strikeout.

I’ll be glued to the TV on Tuesday night to see what this year’s game will bring.

BoSox and Bronx Bombers Will Duke It Out to the Finish

The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox appear to be in a fight to the finish.  They are like two heavyweight boxers going toe-to-toe in a slugfest.  Mid-way through the current bout for first place in the East Division, they are pretty much even in points (win-loss record), and neither one appears to be going down for the count any time soon.

The boxing analogy is indeed appropriate.  The Yankees and Red Sox are practically deadlocked in a tight race in the East Division.  Since May 1, the two teams have been in first or second place, never more than 2 ½ games apart.  They are both offensive juggernauts, only surpassed by the West Division’s Houston Astros in a few categories.  In head-to-head competition so far this season, the Yankees have won five of nine games from the Red Sox.  Neither team shows any sign of faltering.  They are both on a pace to win over 100 games for the season.

Of course, what’s at stake is a first-place finish in the division, so that a risky wild-card playoff situation is avoided.  In a one-and-done wild-card game, a season filled with excellence, like both teams are currently demonstrating, can go down the drain with one unlucky inning.

The Yankees have had mixed results from the last two times they finished the regular season with a wild-card berth.  Last year the Yankees finished in second place behind the Red Sox, but got past a relatively weak Minnesota Twins team in the wild-card game.  The Yanks defeated the Indians and then almost got into the World Series, losing the AL pennant in seven games to the eventual champion Houston Astros.  However, recall the Yankees were put out of the post-season in a wild-card game loss to the Astros in 2015.

The highly successful Red Sox and Yankees are amazingly being led by first-year managers, Alex Cora and Aaron Boone, respectively. They are pushing all the right buttons, and neither manager has blinked so far in the showdown through the first half of the season.  They are making the MLB manager’s job look easy, but just ask another first-year skipper, Dave Martinez of the Washington Nationals, how easy it really is.

Of course, a big factor that helps both managers is that their rosters are loaded with talent.  The Red Sox added free-agent slugger J. D. Martinez during the off-season, while the Yankees acquired 2017 MVP Giancarlo Stanton in a deal with the Miami Marlins.  These big-time acquisitions signaled that both teams were willing to pull out all the stops this year to get back to the World Series after several years of absence.

Stanton is complementing the new core of the Baby Bombers that includes Judge, Sanchez, Bird, Gregorius, Torres, Hicks, and Andujar.  Martinez, who leads the league in home runs and RBIs, has been a nice addition to Boston’s young core of Betts, Benintendi, Bogaerts, Bradley, and Devers.  Both teams have youth on their side, as the batters of both teams remarkably average only 27 years of age.  Only the Chicago White Sox having a younger offensive lineup in the American League.

Not only are their won-loss records pretty much even, but the two teams are very similar in almost every other respect.  Here’s a comparison of the American League ranking of the two teams in several key offensive categories:

Batting Category

Yankees

Red Sox

Runs Scored

3rd

1st

Home Runs

1st

2nd

Slugging %

1st

2nd

On-Base %

3rd

2nd

On-Base Plus Slugging %

1st

2nd

OPS+

2nd

3rd

 

It’s a similar situation in the key pitching categories in the American League.  The Houston Astros are the leaders, but either the Yankees or the Red Sox are second or third in most of the rankings.

Pitching Category

Yankees

Red Sox

Runs Allowed

2nd

3rd

Earned Run Average

2nd

3rd

Walks and Hits per 9 Innings

2nd

5th

Strikeouts per 9 Innings

2nd

3rd

Fielding Independent Pitching

2nd

3rd

ERA+

2nd

3rd

 

The Yankees’ pitching staff is headlined by 24-year-old Luis Severino, while 18-year veteran CC Sabathia seems to be getting better in his elder years.  The Red Sox have four starters with nine or more victories.  Both clubs have reliable relief staffs.

Of course, both teams need to stay injury-free during the second half of the season.  The Yankees have starting pitchers Masahiro Tanaka and Jordon Montgomery on the DL right now, which will likely push them to acquire some help for the starting rotation at the trade deadline at the end of the month.

The two teams will face off four more times in August and six more times in September, including a three-game series on the final days of the regular season at Fenway.  Unless one of the teams can deliver a knockout punch sometime before that last series, the division race should come down to the final bell.

Switch-Pitcher Pat Venditte in Rare Company

On my annual baseball trip to major-league games a few weeks ago, I got a chance to see a once-in-a-lifetime novelty in a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves.  Pat Venditte, a switch-pitcher appeared in the game for the Dodgers.  His uniqueness is that he is ambidextrous and he threw pitches with both hands in the game.

Switch-hitting batters are very common in baseball.  Some of the best players in history have been players who batted from both sides of the plate.  Mickey Mantle, Eddie Murray, and Chipper Jones come to mind pretty quickly, but there are countless others.  In today’s game with so many teams using up to five or six relief pitchers in a game, having switch-hitters in the lineup is an effective weapon to combat the use of lefty-righty matchups by opposing managers.

However, not so common are switch-pitchers.  In fact, they are among the rarest of players in the long-history of the game.  Only Greg Harris has accomplished this feat in a modern-day major-league game in 1986 with the San Diego Padres, but he only threw to a handful of batters with each hand in his only ambidextrous appearance.  Supposedly, pitchers Tony Mullane, Elton Chamberlain, and Larry Corcoran also did it in big-league games before 1900, but I suspect their situations might have been just exaggerated stories handed down by word of mouth over the years.

Venditte is a legitimate ambidextrous pitcher though.  He has spent his entire professional career throwing with both hands.  In the game I attended, he faced six batters in his relief outing in the sixth and seventh innings.  He gave up a run on three hits in his 2/3 inning pitched, as the Dodgers defeated the Braves, 7-3.  He was able to switch hands a couple of time during his appearance.  He has a specially-made glove that allows him to use it on either hand.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts says he views Venditte as being two pitchers in one, as he works out of the bullpen.  Similar to the use of switch-hitters in the batting lineup, Roberts has additional options with Venditte when navigating through opponents’ lineups with his relief staff.  “The thing that stands out about Patrick is the ability to get a bad swing,” Roberts said.  “That translates into guys being uncomfortable and not seeing him well, there’s a little funk in there, and soft contact.”

Venditte was a non-roster invitee with the Dodgers during spring training this year, when he demonstrated he could still get batters out.  He earned a job with the big-league Dodgers in mid-May after a solid start with their Triple-A affiliate Oklahoma City, where he posted a 1.53 ERA.

The 33-year-old Venditte says he starting throwing with both arms when he was three years old.  A natural right-hander, his father encouraged him to pitch from both sides of the mound.  However, all during his path through amateur baseball, he had to prove to his coaches he could be effective with both hands.

Venditte gained national attention when he was selected by the New York Yankees in the 20th round of the 2008 MLB Draft out of Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.  He spent seven seasons in the Yankees organization, reaching the Triple-A level briefly before being granted free agency after the 2014 season.

The Oakland A’s signed him for the 2015 season, and he finally made his major-league debut on June 5 of that year.  He appeared in 26 games for the season, compiling a 2-2 record and 4.40 ERA.

He played parts of the 2016 season with Toronto and Seattle, although he recorded only 15 appearances between them.  He had a credible season with Philadelphia’s Triple-A club in 2017, posting a 9-5 record and 3.36 ERA in 52 relief appearances.

Shortly after his appearance against the Braves on June 8, Venditte was optioned back to Oklahoma City to make room for a needed position player on the Dodgers roster.  But chances are good that he will get a return visit with the big-league club once the long season takes its toll on the pitching staff.

On Saturday there was another unique display of dexterity by Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Vince Velasquez.  He received a blow to his throwing arm from a hard-hit line drive from a Washington Nationals batter.  Unable to use his right arm, Velasquez had the presence of mind to quickly pick up the ball with his left-hand and throw the runner out at first base.  Although not in the same category of Venditte’s capability, the play was impressive nonetheless.

For all my Mississippi Delta blog readers, you will be interested to know that Shaw native Boo Ferriss, Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer, was ambidextrous, although he never did pitch in a major-league game with both hands.  However, he did amaze sportswriters of his day by frequently playing first base left-handed during Red Sox batting practices.  A natural right-hander, Ferriss didn’t need to pitch left-handed, as he compiled 51 career wins against only 18 losses before he injured his arm in mid-1948, effectively ending his career.

MSU's Rally Banana the Latest in Baseball Superstitions and Rituals

The Mississippi State baseball team got a lot of ink and air time during the NCAA regionals and College World Series for its introduction of the rally banana as a way to spur the team to win several games involving dramatic walk-off home runs and hits.

We’ve heard of baseball teams employing rally caps, rally towels, and even rally monkeys before.  But rally bananas?  It seemed like an off-the-wall idea for a superstition bringing good fortune, but apparently it worked until the Bulldogs ran into the hot-hitting lineup of Oregon State in the CWS semi-finals.

“Rally” paraphernalia is just one of the many superstitions and rituals that have been part of baseball for since the game’s early days.  During 1880’s infielder Cap Anson would not talk to his starting pitcher on game day because he thought it would contribute to his pitcher staying focused.  Members of the 1894 Baltimore Orioles drank a glass of turkey gravy before each game to bring them luck.

Players usually adopt these seemingly crazy actions because they are looking for something to attribute their good fortunes on the field and then want to make sure they can maintain it.  Often that results in a superstition or ritual, many of which are pretty bizarre.  Following is a selection of some of the most noteworthy in baseball lore.

Hall of Famer Wade Boggs ate chicken before every game.  Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield would eat a pound of spaghetti before games he pitched.

“Yankee Clipper” Joe DiMaggio would step on second base when running from the outfield to the dugout.  Oakland A’s Jason Giambi wore a golden thong to get out of a slump and supposedly convinced a few other players it worked.

Houston Astros Hall of Famer Craig Biggio never washed his batting helmet despite collecting years of dirt and pine tar.  Slugger Reggie Jackson wore the same batting helmet with the Angels that he had used while playing for the Yankees, of course re-painted with the Angels logo.

Pitcher Charlie Kerfeld wore a Jetson’s T-shirt while playing with the Houston Astros.  It supposedly brought him luck because the Jetson’s dog was named “Astro.”  Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Famer Willie Stargell never used a bat with his own name stamped on it.  In the 1950s and 1960s, Pirates first baseman Dick Stuart would throw a piece of gum across the plate during each at-bat.

One of the most notable player rituals in the batters’ box includes David “Big Papi” Ortiz, who would spit on his batting gloves and then slap his hands together.  Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra had a routine of adjusting his batting gloves on every pitch.  His ritual became so popular that practically every 12-year-old amateur player wound up mimicking his glove adjustments.  Former Texas Rangers and Cleveland Indians first baseman Mike Hargrove was called the “human rain delay” for his time-consuming routine during each at-bat.

There were a couple of pitchers who gained notoriety for their antics on the mound.  Upon entering a game as a reliever, former Cardinals pitcher Al Hrabosky would turn his back on the batter, roll the ball between his hands, slam the ball into his glove, turn around quickly and stomp back to the pitching rubber before throwing a pitch.  1970s pitching sensation Mark “The Bird” Fidrych’s antics included talking to the baseball and smoothing out the dirt on the mound with his hand.

Over the years, many players have resorted to wearing the same socks or t-shirt without washing them during a hitting or pitching streak.  Former Houston Astros slugger Glenn Davis re-used his chewing gum every day during his hitting streaks.  Other players have resorted to pre-game rituals in the clubhouse to ensure their luck was maintained.

Perhaps one of the most well-known superstitions in the game involves teammates refraining from mentioning to a pitcher that he has a no-hitter while he is in the middle of throwing one.  It’s considered a jinx to the pitcher if someone does, including the broadcasters in the TV/radio booth.

Former Mets and Cubs relief pitcher Turk Wendell may have been the king of superstitions and rituals.  With four seasons of 70 or more appearances, he had a lot of opportunities to demonstrate them.  His repertoire included having the umpire roll a new ball to him; eating black licorice instead of gum or tobacco; brushing his teeth between innings; waving to his centerfielder at the start of each inning; slamming the pitcher’s resin bag down hard on the ground; and taking an exaggerated hop over the foul line.

There has actually been a precedent for Mississippi State’s rally banana.  The Dominican Republic national team featured a rally plantain they used during their eight-game sweep in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.  Pitcher Fernando Rodney, who recorded seven saves during the series, was the keeper of the plantain.  Unlike the Dominican team that won the WBC championship, State’s luck with the banana ran out against a very talented Beavers team in the CWS.

If you have another favorite baseball superstition or ritual, I’d like to hear from you in the Comments section.

Baseball's Family Ties Replenished by 2018 Draft

The annual Major League Baseball Draft kicks off the update of my Family Ties database of baseball’s family relationships for the new season.  I still believe Family Ties is the most comprehensive compilation of current and historical data about the many relatives in baseball.  It continues to be one of my favorite topics in baseball research.

The amateur draft usually has an interesting group of draftees, and the 2018 class of selected players was no different.  I’m always curious to find out the new baseball offspring of some of my favorite players I followed over the years.  Each draft year brings another set of novel stories surrounding many of the selected players.

For example, this year we have another potential third-generation player, two brothers selected in this year’s draft, a first-round draftee whose brother was also a previous first-rounder, players who are the third brothers in the same family to be drafted, and a few “courtesy” picks in the late rounds.

Here are some of this year’s crop of relatives with their stories.

Kody Clemens was picked out of the University of Texas in the 3rd round by Detroit.  He is the third son of seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens to be drafted.  Koby played in the minors and independent leagues from 2005 to 2014, while Kacy is in his second minor-league season in the Toronto Blues system.

Austin Piscotty from St. Mary’s College in California is the third brother in his family to be drafted by a major-league team.  Brother Stephen is currently an outfielder with the Oakland A’s, who also drafted Austin in the 38th round.  Jacob Maton (39th round by Seattle Mariners) is another player drafted with two brothers in pro baseball.  Two of the most recent three-brother families to appear in the majors were Yadier, Jose, and Benji Molina; and Stephen, JD, and Tim Drew.

Noah Naylor was the 1st round pick of the Cleveland Indians.  His brother Josh was also a first-rounder in 2015 by the Miami Marlins.  Some noteworthy major-league brothers who were first-round picks in past years include Andy and Alan Benes; JD, Tim and Stephen Drew; and Dimitri and Delmon Young.

Parker Meadows was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 2nd round.  His brother Austin, who made his major-league debut for the Pittsburgh Pirates this season, was a 1st round pick in 2013.

Former MLB pitcher David Weathers has a son Ryan, also a pitcher, who was a first-round selection by San Diego.  Thirty years ago the elder Weathers was a 3rd round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Antonio Cruz, a third-generation player, was selected out of high school by the Houston Astros in the 37th round.  He is the grandson of Jose Cruz, son of Jose Cruz, Jr., and brother of Trei Cruz, who was drafted in 2017.  There have been only four occurrences of three-generation major-league families in history.  One of them, the Boone family, comprised of Ray (grandfather), Bob (father), and Aaron and Brett (sons), had a fourth generation player (Jake) drafted last year, but it remains to be seen if he will actually make the big-leagues.

Brothers Andrew and Christian Jayne were both drafted out of a North Carolina high school this year.  Andrew was taken in the 19th round by the Baltimore Orioles, and Christian was selected in the 27th round by the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Brothers Blaze and CJ Alexander were also drafted this year.  Blaze was taken by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 11th round, while CJ was selected by the Atlanta Braves in the 20th round.

Kyle Murray was a first round pick of the Oakland A’s.  He was projected to be the starting quarterback for University of Oklahoma this coming fall.  However, the A’s have already signed him for a $4.6M bonus, but agreed to allow him to play for the Sooners this fall.  He is the nephew of Calvin Murray, a former major-league outfielder.

Aaron Ashby was drafted for the second time in two years.  The nephew of Alan Ashby, the pitcher improved his draft position from 25th round last year to the 4th round by the Brewers this year.

Xavier Valentin, the 19th round pick of the Texas Rangers, has extensive baseball bloodlines, two uncles and a brother who played in the majors.

Other former major league pitchers who had sons drafted this year include Kevin Tapani, Tom Browning, Bill Sampen, Scott Sanders, and Kevin Brown.

Former major-league position players who had sons drafted include George Bell, Benji Gil, Benito Santiago, Brian Turang, Damion Easley, Tony Graffanino, George Arias, Chad Kreuter, Rich Amaral, and Jeff Conine

Two stars of last year’s World Series champion Houston Astros had brothers selected in late rounds by Houston.  Carlos Correa’s brother J.C. was taken in the 33 round, while Alex Bregman’s brother AJ was picked in the 35th.  However, neither draftee is expected to sign this year.

TV talk show host Larry King’s son, Cannon, was picked by the White Sox in the 37th round.  Cannon’s brother, Chance, was drafted last year by the White Sox in the 39th round, but did not sign with them.  As high-round picks out of high school, the brothers were most likely courtesy picks by the White Sox, since their father is an avid baseball fan.

The MLB Draft usually includes a few players whose legacy is not in baseball.  This year Adam Hackenberg was selected by the Royals in the 39th round.  He is the brother of Christian Hackenberg, who played quarterback for the NFL New York Jets.  Justin Lewis was the 12th round pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks.  He is the cousin of NBA player Chuck Hayes and the NFL’s Richard Sherman.

Stay tuned for more updates to Family Ties.  Check out my Baseball Relatives website at https://baseballrelatives.wordpress.com/ if you haven’t visited it recently.

Toronto Blue Jays Continue Familial Pattern

The Blue Jays selected Griffin Conine, a hard-hitting outfielder from Duke University who was the second round pick last week.  His father, Jeff Conine, was a two-time all-star in the big leagues during his 17 years, primarily with Florida and Baltimore.  The younger Conine is the latest in the line of the organization’s players to have a relative in professional baseball.

It’s as though the Blue Jays have a specific strategy to select and develop players who have relatives with major-league experience as former players, managers, coaches, and front-office personnel.

Indeed there are some benefits of having such players in the organization.  The value of picking players who are sons of former pro players is that the offspring already have some familiarity with the pro baseball environment.  As youngsters, many of them have been around major-league clubhouses with their fathers.  They already have expectations of what the major-league grind is like and usually come with a strong work ethic instilled in them by their ball-playing fathers.

Of course, the major downside is that the youngsters feel the pressure of living up to their dad’s reputation.  If the son isn’t very good, it doesn’t matter what the name on the back of his jersey is.

The Blue Jays’ major-league and minor-league rosters are chocked full of players with family ties in baseball.

The most prominent of their minor-leaguers with baseball bloodlines play for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, the Double-A affiliate of the Blue Jays.  They feature the sons of three former MLB all-stars, including two Hall of Famers.

The best of those players is currently one of the hottest hitters in all of the Minor League Baseball. Third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the son of newly elected Hall of Famer Vlad Guerrero Sr., is only 19-years-old but presently has 11 home runs, 55 RBI, and a blazing slash line of .407/.457/.667.  At the rate he is going, he could easily get a call-up to the Blue Jays later this year.

Cavan Biggio, son of Hall of Famer Craig Biggio, plays second base for the Fisher Cats.  After playing collegiately at Notre Dame, he was selected in the fifth round by the Blue Jays in 2016.  He is also a productive hitter with 13 home runs and 44 RBI, boasting an impressive slash line of .306/.432/.662.

Fisher Cats shortstop Bo Bichette is the son of former 1995 National League MVP runner Dante Bichette, who was a four-time all-star with the Colorado Rockies.  The younger Bichette, a second-round pick out of high school in 2016, is currently hitting .278 with four home runs and 26 RBI.

Further down in the Blue Jays’ farm system is another legacy of a baseball legend.  Kacy Clemens, the son of seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens, is with Single-A Lansing where he plays first base and is batting .301.  If the younger Clemens was to be promoted to the Fisher Cats to join the other three existing sons, they would become an “All in the Family” infield.

A similar situation has actually happened once before in a major-league game, although the players involved were brothers.  Brothers Aaron (second base) and Brett Boone (third base) and brothers Barry (shortstop) and Stephen Larkin (first base) appeared in a game together for the Cincinnati Reds on October 27, 1998.

Elsewhere in the Blue Jays system, there are other instances of family ties, including additional players, coaches, and front-office personnel.

The Blue Jays’ major-league team includes several players with baseball bloodlines.

Outfielder Dwight Smith Jr., has split time between Triple-A Buffalo and Toronto this season, after making his major-league debut with the Blue Jays in 2017.  Smith’s father was an outfielder with four major-league teams during 1989 to 1996.

Infielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. was promoted to the Blue Jays from Double-A New Hampshire this year.  He is the brother of current Houston Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel.  Their baseball lineage includes their father, former Cuban star player and manager Lourdes Gurriel Sr.

Toronto outfielder Dalton Pompey’s brother, Tristan, was drafted last week by the Miami Marlins in the third round.  Tristan has previously been drafted by the Blue Jays.

Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna is the son of Roberto Osuna Sr., who played in the Mexican League.  His cousin, Antonio Osuna, also played in the majors.  Relief pitcher Joe Biagini is the son of Rob Biagini, who played a couple of years in Giants’ farm system.

A couple of other Blue Jays minor-league players with relatives in pro baseball include Brandon Grudzielanek (son of former major-leaguer Mark Grudzielanek) and Tim Lopes (brother of Christian Lopes, currently in the Texas Rangers system)

On the Blue Jays’ major-league coaching staff are Brook Jacoby, Dane Johnson, Luis Rivera, Jason Phillips, and Tim Leiper, all of whom have relatives in pro baseball.  Former major-leaguers Roberto and Sandy Alomar Jr., brothers whose father also played in the majors, are special assistants within the Blue Jays front-office organization.

Could the Blue Jays become the first team in history to field a major-league starting lineup comprised of players each with a relative in pro baseball?  They just might be on a path to do exactly that.

I Don't Like the Way Baseball Has Evolved

Call me old-school.  Say that I can’t handle change.  Tell me I’m a product of the Deadball Era.  I don’t care.  Some others might be hesitant to admit it, for fear of being shamed by the new-age baseball analysts and commentators and other baseball enthusiasts.  But, I’m not afraid to say it--I just don’ like the way the game of baseball has evolved over the past five to seven years.

Data collection technologies and baseball analytics are at the root of the changes occurring.  I understand the value of data analytics.  I worked a long time in information technology for a couple of Fortune 500 companies, where I learned to fully appreciate how comprehending your company’s essential data can offer new insights in how to increase revenues, reduce expenses, improve productivity, and enhance customer satisfaction.  Gaining those insights can fundamentally change your business.

A few years ago, some Ivy League MBA-types figured, “why not apply data analytics methodologies and technologies from the business world to the game of baseball?”  It was as though the basic stats used in baseball for over 100 years weren’t sufficient enough anymore.  Baseball analytics gave life to metrics that only the real baseball geeks (many of them sabrmetricians) previously talked and wrote about.  It started a trend that has consumed the sport now.  You can’t watch a game on TV nowadays that doesn’t reference many of the new metrics.

Analytics are currently used by every pro baseball organization in practically every facet of the sport including roster creation, player selection and development, player health, opposing team and player assessments, and contract negotiations.  By and large, I think it has been good for baseball organizations who, like all other industries, are trying to optimize their business operations.

But it didn’t stop with just the back-office operations of the sport.  Game strategies and decisions are also being heavily influenced by the use of data analytics and are being determined before the games are played, not as the games are happening.  (Remember the Los Angeles Dodgers’ pitching situations in the World Series last year?)  I saw a recent article saying the two most important skills of major-league coaches have evolved to being able to throw batting practice and using the SQL database programming language to navigate the massive amounts of data available to teams.

If you watch any MLB game now, you’re likely to see most pitchers, particularly relievers, throwing in the upper 90s and frequently breaking 100 mph.  Hitters are all about extra-base hits--singles are only marginally valuable.  Strikeout rates for many hitters are in the 20-30% range.  A third of all plate appearances don’t result in a ball put in play—they’re either a strikeout, walk, or a home run.  Fielders, especially infielders, play all over the field using shifting strategies.  It’s not uncommon for a team to use six or more relief pitchers in a game.  Stolen bases and bunting are no longer a strategic part of an offensive strategy.  Pitch framing by catchers is viewed as a skill equally important to digging pitches out of the dirt.

If baseball people had mentioned these as predominant scenarios just ten years ago, most of us probably would have laughed them off.

Yet they are real and are not going away, but I’m not sure they’re all that good for the game.  The game has given way to a simple “throw hard, swing hard” mentality.  A lot of the other intricacies that defined the game for so long don’t seem to be as relevant anymore.  I think the game is losing some of its allure because of this shift.

Baseball has become dominated by new-fangled terminology (much of which is facilitated by data analytics) such as spin rate, launch angle, exit velocity, route efficiency, defensive shifts, defensive runs saved, and runs created.  Basic familiar stats such as saves, wins, RBI, and fielding average are now being debunked as relevant measures of player performance.  Even the most casual fan could count or calculate these basic stats, but nowadays you need a PhD in mathematics and Amazon’s cloud computing services to figure out some of the newer metrics.

Part of the folklore of baseball has involved such things as the tracking of career leaders in various statistical categories.  For example, we all know Mariano Rivera as the all-time saves leader with over 600 saves, and Rickey Henderson’s Hall of Fame career was largely based on his ability to draw walks as a leadoff batter and steal bases.

In the future, will we know Aaron Judge’s career launch angle or Clayton Kershaw’s career spin rate?  I hope it doesn’t come to that.

Little-Known Josh Hader Now Making a Name for Himself

If you haven’t heard of Milwaukee Brewers relief pitcher Josh Hader, you might want to get familiar with him.  In fact, go out and start buying his baseball cards now before he really becomes a house-hold name.

No, Hader’s not up there yet with the likes of fellow relievers Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, or Craig Kimbrel, but he’s definitely on his way.  But when a reliever averages nearly 18 strikeouts per nine innings, there’s something special about him.  Hader has been one of the top breakout players of the season so far.

Hader was initially drafted out of high school in the 19th round by the Baltimore Orioles in 2012.  He was traded to the Houston Astros the next year, and then was bundled with other prospects in a trade to Milwaukee in 2015.

Hader doesn’t have a pedigree as a reliever.  He has been on the top prospect radar for several years, but as a starter.  He was brought up by the Brewers during a playoff push last year, but his first role was as a middle reliever out of the bullpen.  He wound up making 35 relief appearances in which he posted an impressive 2.08 ERA, 12.8 strikeouts per 9 innings, and a WHIP under 1.00.  Yet, he didn’t earn a single vote in the Rookie of the Year balloting.

The Brewers determined that Hader had more value as a reliever, so he returned to the bullpen in 2018 and has picked up where he left off in 2017.  He capped off a great month of April when got national attention striking out eight batters in 2 2/3 innings, the first pitcher in modern era to do it.  He finally got well-deserved, as he was named the National League’s Relief Pitcher of the Month.  He is on a pace to post a 5.4 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), which would be the highest ever for a relief pitcher.

Hader is somewhat of a throwback to the day when relievers routinely pitched multiple innings.  Relying primarily on his fastball and slider, 12 of his 18 appearances have involved more than one inning.  Of course, Brewers fans will recall they had one of the best relievers in all of baseball with Rollie Fingers in the early 1980s.  Fingers pitched in an era when relievers typically went multiple innings in an outing.

The Brewers are currently leading the NL Central Division.  Hader has been a key factor in their success to date.  He just may be the difference in the Brewers getting to the playoffs this year, their first since 2011.  In any case, he won’t be the unfamiliar reliever much longer.

The Baby Braves Are Showing Signs of Maturity

A couple of years ago there were the “Baby Bombers” of New York, aptly named when the Yankees roster became populated with young prospects that came up through their system or were acquired in trades.  It was part of a makeover of an aging team that wasn’t living up to the Yankee tradition of championship seasons.  Indeed, the Yankees’ fortune changed such that they are now considered one of the best clubs in all of baseball.

We now have the “Baby Braves” of Atlanta, who embarked on a similar, but even more dramatic, turnover of its roster several years ago and now appear to be coming of age.  Atlanta currently leads the NL East Division, led by a young core of players who have caught the attention of the baseball world.

If this Braves story has a familiar ring to it, just four years ago we were talking about another core of young, home-grown players on the Braves roster that projected to put them a long-term position of competitiveness.

That group included Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, Craig Kimbrel, and Julio Teheran, all of whom had been granted contract extensions even though they collectively had only 12 full seasons under their belts at the time.  For the Braves’ management, these extensions were about the certainty of annual payroll and averting expensive free-agent bidding wars in the future.

In addition to these players, the Braves roster consisted of other young players that included B. J. Upton, Evan Gattis, Brandon Beachy, Alex Wood, and Christian Bethancourt.  Overall, the Braves seemed to be pretty set for the next few years.

However, the 2014 Braves wound up in second place in their division, but failed to have a winning record and finished 17 games back of the Washington Nationals.  This came after having won the division the year before.

John Hart was brought on as general manager after that season, and he rapidly dismantled the team his predecessor, Frank Wren, had assembled.  Hart ultimately dealt away all of the players except Freeman and Teheran, in exchange for a lot of pitching prospects and high draft picks.  The Braves organization also became very focused on the international player recruiting process.

The Braves’ strategy became one of-building a competitive team to coincide with the opening their new stadium in 2017.  The organization acknowledged they were going to get worse before they got better.  And they did just that.  They won only 67 games in 2015 and 68 in 2016.

Well, the new stadium opened as planned, but the team was only four games better (25 games out of first place) than the previous year.  But one could start to see some of the prospects and younger players emerging.

It appears the strategy employed by the organization a few years ago is producing dividends.  The Braves have a slim lead in the division this year.  The offense has been sparked by 20-year-old outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. and 21-year-old second baseman Ozzie Albies, the two youngest position players in baseball, backed by veterans Freddie Freeman (still only 28 years old) and Nick Markakis.

Albies, only 5-foot-6 and 165 pounds, is in the mold of the Houston Astros’ mighty mite Jose Altuve—he packs a lot of punch in a small body type.  As of Saturday, Albies led the National League in home runs and total bases.  Since Acuna Jr. was promoted to the big leagues on April 25, the Braves have won 13 of 15 games on the road.  Their teammates are awed by the two youngsters’ ability and confidence.  They are being compared to the former youth combo of Alan Trammel and Lou Whitaker, when they played together as 20 and 21-year-olds for the Detroit Tigers in 1978.

Ender Inciarte and Dansby Swanson are two other young players making an impact with the Braves.  Swanson, the overall No. draft pick in 2015, struggled a bit with his hitting in his first full season last year, but now seems to have made the appropriate adjustments.  A 2017 all-star selection, Inciarte is an all-around player, as he is one of the better center fielders in baseball and currently leads the National League in stolen bases.

Julio Teheran (still only 27 years old) leads the starting rotation.  He’s been a workhorse on the staff, with 30 or more starts, since 2013.  He’s joined by relative newcomers Sean Newcomb, Mike Foltynewicz, and 20-year-old Mike Soroka.  Veteran pitcher Brandon McCarthy has been outstanding since coming over from the Dodgers last year.

The relief staff of mid-20s pitchers has been pretty impressive, too.  Arodys Vizcaino has stepped up as the closer, while Shane Carle and A.J. Minter have ERAs under 1.00.

There are still question marks about whether the Braves are having a breakout season this year or are just be another middle-of-the-pack team.  The Washington Nationals were expected to be the runaway winner of the division again, but it looks like they will have some stiff competition from the upstart Braves and possibly the Phillies and Mets, too.  We’ll have to wait and see if the Braves have truly come of age.

Prince Albert a Sure Bet to Join Baseball's Royalty

Albert Pujols joined one of the most elite groups in baseball with his 3,000th career hit last Friday night.  He had already accumulated over 600 career home runs.  Upon achieving that combination of milestones, he became only the fourth player in Major League Baseball history to reach both.

Pujols joined previous 3,000-hit/600-HR club members Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Alex Rodriguez.

However, the elite group is defined as much by who is not included, as it is by those Pujols joined.  For example, it does not include Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, and Stan Musial, all of whom are considered among the all-time greatest players in the sport and of course have a bronze plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Pujols is a sure-fire, dead lock to get his own plaque one day.

Pujols has experienced two distinct parts of his career, currently in the 18th season.  His record with the St. Louis Cardinals from 2001 to 2011 is as good as anyone’s in history.  In fact, if the first-baseman had ended his career after 2011, he would still be elected to the Hall of Fame.  His performance during that period was that impactful.  Only a handful of players have ever attained Hall of Fame status with fewer significant seasons.  For example, Hall of Fame pitchers Dizzy Dean and Sandy Koufax were each elected largely on only six outstanding seasons during their 12-year careers, but their situations involved circumstances in which their careers were prematurely cut short due to injuries.

During that 11-year period which started when Pujols was 21 years old, his slash line was an amazing .328/.420/.617.  He accumulated 445 home runs and 1,329 RBI.  He was National League Rookie of the Year in 2001, and he finished in the Top 5 of the MVP Award voting in 10 of his first 11 seasons.  He captured the award in 2005, 2008, and 2009.  Pujols led the Cardinals to three World Series, winning in 2006 and 2011.

Pujols’ first 11 seasons remarkably paralleled first-baseman Lou Gehrig’s first full 11 seasons (1925-1935), during which the Yankees slugger’s slash line looked like .342/.446/.637, to go along with 377 home runs and 1,557 RBI.  Pujols also wasn’t too far behind Babe Ruth’s 496 home runs and 1,441 RBI during the Bambino’s first full 11 seasons as a position player (discounting Ruth’s first few years primarily used as a pitcher).  That’s pretty impressive company for Pujols.

But then beginning in 2012 at age 32, Pujols’ production took a dramatic downturn compared to the standard he had set for himself in the prior 11 seasons.  Through 2017, his slash line had dropped to .262/.319/.459, although he was still averaging 28 home runs and 98 RBI per season.  For many other major-league players, however, those numbers would have been more than acceptable.  During his time with the Angels, Pujols has been on only one play-off team.

Pujols’ decline coincided with his being acquired as a free agent by the Los Angeles Angels, after the St. Louis Cardinals decided to not re-sign him after the 2011 season.  Cardinals management was heavily criticized for not retaining the marquee player in baseball at the time.  However, they were unwilling to shell out Pujols’ market value in a long-term contract.  The Angels signed Pujols to a mega-deal worth $240 million over 10 years.

However, neither Pujols’ change in scenery nor his big bankroll were the reasons for his offensive drop-off.  He didn’t age well, primarily plagued by plantar fasciitis in both feet.  Although he has played through the injuries for most of the time, his 2013 season was ended in July when he went on the disabled list (though not choosing to have surgery.)  The Angels have been forced to use Pujols as a DH much of the time to help him deal with the pain.

When the Angels promoted top prospect Mike Trout in 2012, they reckoned to have one of the best offenses in the game, led by the combination of Trout and Pujols.  However, Pujols didn’t deliver as expected; but Trout did his part, and in fact his career started much like Pojuols’ did with the Cardinals.  Trout was the American League Rookie of the Year in 2012 and has recorded six Top 4 finishes for the MVP Award in his first six full seasons, including first place in 2014 and 2016.  One wonders what the Angels could have been if Pujols had been able to sustain the performance he experienced with the Cardinals.

The Angels are saddled with a contract that still owes Pujols $87 million after this season.  His contract, along with the one Alex Rodriguez had with the Yankees, have become prime examples of why most major-league organizations now avoid such deals.

It’s not clear whether Pujols will finish out his contract with the Angels, which ends in 2021 when he will be 41 years old.  But one thing is pretty certain, Prince Albert, as he became known in St. Louis, will go down as one of the premier players in the history of the game, regardless of how or when he completes his career.

1970s: a Heyday for New Orleans American Legion Teams

The Louisiana high school baseball playoffs are about to begin, and within a month the American Legion regular season will follow.  Legion baseball in New Orleans is as strong as it ever has been since its beginning 90 years ago.  Within a long history of success at the state level, the New Orleans-based Legion teams of the 1970s were among the most dominant, as they won 9 of 10 state championships.

In the first Louisiana American Legion state championship game in 1928, Shreveport YMCA defeated the Beekman’s entry from New Orleans.  A year later, the New Orleans White Sox defeated Monroe for its first state title, and New Orleans area-based teams have now won a total of 58 state championships.  Five of those teams went on to win the American Legion World Series, the most recent being Jesuit-based Retif Oil in 2012.  Many of the Legion players from the New Orleans area went on to have success at college and pro levels.

The 1930s were another decade of dominance by New Orleans, with Zatarain Papooses largely carrying the load.  However, a distinction of the 1970s was that five different teams contributed to the nine state titles:  Rummel captured four, Holy Cross won two, and Shaw and Redemptorist each took one.

In 1970 Rummel-based Schaff Brothers defeated Lake Charles Stevedores in a three-game series.  Pitcher Joe LaSalle and first baseman Bill Surcouf were the stars of the final championship game.  Rummel High School coach, Larry Schneider Sr., was the coach of the Schaff team.

Schaff Brothers repeated at state champion in 1971, when they defeated Ruston’s T. L. James Contractors.  LaSalle was the winning pitcher in the championship game for the second straight year.

Ruston avenged their loss from the previous season by winning the 1972 state title over Shaw’s Tasty Bread team.  It would be the only year in the decade a New Orleans area team did not win the title.

Redemptorist TAC Amusements defeated Lake Charles Stevedores in two games for the 1973 title.  Bob Dean went the distance on the mound for TAC, while Bruce Bono led the offense with three hits.  Legendary high school and amateur league coach Skeeter Theard was the TAC skipper.

Schaff Brothers returned to the championship round in 1974 and swept New Iberia in two games.  At one point, Schaff had a 30-game winning streak.  Rick Zibilich, Vince DeGroutolla, and Matt Bullinger were among the team’s talented group of players, eight of whom would go on to play college baseball.  Schaff ultimately advanced to the American Legion World Series in Roseburg, Oregon, where they won two of four games for a third-place finish.  The 1974 Schaff Brothers team tied with the 1980 Jesuit-based Odeco Drillers for honors as the best American Legion team of all-time in New Orleans, as determined by a panel of former players, coaches, and sportswriters organized by New Orleans sportswriter Ken Trahan in 2009.

Odeco Drillers won the state title in 1975, the first championship for a Jesuit-based team since 1965.  They defeated Monroe in two games in the championship series.  Brian Butera, Jim Gaudet, and Drew Lukinovich were among the stars of the team.  Gaudet would eventually play in the majors for the Kansas City Royals.

Schaff Brothers got their fourth state title in seven seasons in 1976, qualifying them as one of the “dynasty” Legion teams from the New Orleans metro area.  Schaff defeated Lafayette Burger King in a tight championship game in Lafayette.  Then for the second time in three years, Schaff appeared in the American Legion World Series in Manchester, New Hampshire.  However, they fell short again of getting the national title.  Ken Francingues was one of the star pitchers, while David Stokes and Gus Malespin provided offense.  Stokes was named the Region IV Player-of-the-Year, while Malespin captured the Legion’s national honor.  All three players advanced to play at the college level, while Francingues and Malespin also played professionally.

Holy Cross-based Saucer Marine defeated Bossier City Legionnaires in two games for the 1977 state championship.  It was the first Legion title for a Holy-Cross-based team since the 1940s, when they captured three.  Billy Hrapmann (Tulane), Lou Wineski III (Nicholls State), Don Bourgeois (Southern Mississippi), and Armand Sinibaldi (UNO) went on to play at the college level.

Behind the 13-strikeout performance by Conmaco’s Paul Mancuso, the Shaw-based team defeated Layafette Burger Chef for the 1978 state championship.  Greg Delaune and Darren Barbier were the hitting stars for Conmaco.  Delaune later played at Tulane. After playing at the University of New Orleans, Mancuso pitched five seasons of minor-league ball.

Dickie Wentz pitched Jesuit-based Odeco Drillers past Lake Charles Abe’s Grocery in the third and deciding game of the 1979 state finals.  It was Frank Misuraca’s second win as coach for Odeco in five years.  Tim Parenton and Steve Riley recorded key hits in the game.  Parenton later coached at several colleges, as well as a stint in the pros in the Tampa Bay organization.

Nico Van Thyn, former sportswriter and editor from Shreveport, recently coordinated a compilation of information about all the Louisiana American League state champions for the past 90 years.  He has plans to make this information publicly available through various media outlets.  His compilation was used as a source for some of the material presented here.

Ohtani-mania

Remember back in 1981 when Fernando Valenzuela took the baseball world by storm as a relatively unknown Mexican-born pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers who won his first eight games of the season?  He fueled a period of “Fernando Mania” that had baseball fans excited all across the entire country, not just in L. A.

We’re witnessing a similar situation this spring, except now the national sensation is Shohei Ohtani, a Japanese two-way player with the Los Angeles Angels, who may well be the re-incarnation of a young Babe Ruth.

Unlike Valenzuela, 23-year-old Ohtani came into this season with a lot of hype from the recruiting period last fall involving virtually every MLB team, which eventually resulted in his signing with the Los Angeles Angels.

Baseball analysts and commentators speculated whether Ohtani would play as a pitcher or position player, since he had excelled in Japan in both capacities.  (In 2016, he posted a 10-4 record with a 2.12 ERA and .957 WHIP, while recording a .322 batting average with 22 HR, 67 RBI, and 1.004 OPS).  Of course, as part of their sales pitches, MLB suitors promised he could do both, even though most observers estimated his pitching ability was ahead of his hitting.  In reality, no major-league player had been effective as a routine two-way player since Babe Ruth’s early days in the majors over 100 years ago.

During spring training though, Ohtani wasn’t overly impressive as a hitter or pitcher.

In his first outing as a pitcher, the slender right-hander struggled with his command, and his fastball wasn’t topping out like it has been advertised.  But most people were quick to write off his performance as just needing more time to adjust to the major leagues.  He was better in his next appearance, recording strikeouts for all eight outs in 2 2/3 innings, but still gave up two runs on four hits.  However, he did display an effective slider as his secondary pitch.

Ohtani was then relegated to pitching on the back diamonds for the rest of the spring.  In his last tune-up against minor-league hitters before the season started, his performance was still uneven, as he walked five batters, hit a batter, and threw two wild pitches.

As a hitter, he wasn’t the same player he was in Japan either.

All in all, his stats for the spring included an 11.77 ERA and a .107 batting average.  He didn’t fulfill the expectations initially set for him from his Japanese career, but it was speculated he just needed more time to adjust, including some time in the minors to polish his game.

However, the Angels took a gamble and kept Ohtani on the major-league roster as they broke spring training camp.  Perhaps they were thinking they couldn’t send him down to the minors from a marketing standpoint.

And then Ohtani demonstrated why spring training stats can sometimes be misleading. Here’s a recap of his first few major-league games:

  • Opening Day:  he got a hit in his first at-bat as the Angels’ DH.

  • April 1:  he won his first start as he pitched six innings, yielding only three hits and a walk while striking out six.

  • April 3:  he went 3-for-4 including his first home run and three RBI

  • April 4:  he went 2-for-5 including a two-run home run off Cleveland’s ace Corey Kluber.

  • April 6:  he homered in his third straight game

  • April 8:  in his second start, he flirted with a perfect game, when he struck out 12 batters before giving up a single in the 7th inning.

  • April 12:  he hit a three-run triple

Ohtani’s combination of having a homer in three consecutive games and posting a double-digit strikeout game as a pitcher in the same season made him only the third player in history to accomplish this feat.  Babe Ruth did it in 1916 and Ken Brett in 1973.

These are the kinds of performances baseball fans had expected, and Ohtani is now fulfilling the pre-season hype his signing had originally generated.  Not surprisingly, the comparisons to Babe Ruth immediately emerged, and Ohtani-mania is well underway.

Of course, Ohtani isn’t the first Asian pitcher to attain significant notoriety in Major League Baseball.  Before him, there were Hideki Irabu, Hideo Nomo, Chan-Ho Park, Chien-Ming Wang, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and most recently Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish.  Most of them achieved periods of success  in the United States, and Ohtani appears to be on a similar path.

Through April 13, Ohtani is batting .367 (11-for-30) with five extra-base hits, including three home runs, 11 RBIs and three walks in the eight games in which he batted this season.  He’s been just as impactful on the mound, going 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA and 18 strikeouts over 13 innings.  Ohtani was scheduled to make his third pitching appearance on Sunday against Kansas City, but the game was postponed due to weather conditions.

The fans in Los Angeles surely welcomed Ohtani this season.  Even though the Angels already have the best player in baseball in Mike Trout, they’ve played in the post-season only once in Trout’s seven seasons.  They’re hoping Ohtani’s bat and arm can provide the extra boost to get them a playoff berth this year.

Didi Gregorius Becomes Capable Shortstop Replacement for Derek Jeter

When Yankees living legend Derek Jeter retired from baseball after the 2014 season, there was a lot of concern among Yankees fans about how the club would backfill the irreplaceable star.  After all, he was one of the biggest reasons the Yankees hadn’t suffered a losing season during his 20-year tenure.  No one could reasonably be expected to fill his shoes, unless GM Brian Cashman went out and traded for another premier shortstop.

Furthermore, during the time Jeter wore the pinstripes, he had virtually blocked all Yankees shortstop prospects from getting any time in the majors.  Consequently, there were pretty slim pickings from candidates in the Yankees’ organizational pipeline to inherit Jeter’s spot in the lineup.

Cashman indeed reached outside of his organization to find Jeter’s replacement.  After the 2014 season, he came up with Didi Gregorius from the Arizona Diamondbacks.  Other than for his unique name, Gregorius hadn’t garnered much attention during his three partial seasons in the majors.  He was initially signed by the Cincinnati Reds in 2007.  He was born in The Netherlands, but spent most of his life in Curacao, historically an unusual breeding ground for major-league prospects.  The Reds then traded him to Arizona after the 2012 season in a three-team deal that also included the Cleveland Indians.

Before going to the Yankees, Gregorius had a reputation as a good-fielding, light-hitting player, certainly not in the same stratosphere as Jeter.  His signing by the Yankees raised more than a few eyebrows, even though they were in the process of revitalizing the team with younger players.  He had some big shoes to fill.

However, Gregorius responded with a decent debut season with the Yankees in 2015.  He had a respectable season as the regular shortstop, when he hit 9 HR and 56 RBI while batting .265, all career highs to that point in his career.  The Yankees managed to claim a wild-card spot that season, only to lose to the Astros.

In 2016, Gregorius upped his game when he found a home-run stroke that led to 20 dingers for the season.  Jeter had last hit 20 or more home runs in 2004, so Gregorius’s improvement was a pleasant surprise for the Yankees.  He also drove in 70 runs while improving his batting average to .276.

2017 was an even better season for Gregorius even though he missed most of the first month of the season due to injury.  He wound up hitting 25 homers and drove in 87 runs, batting in the cleanup spot for a good part of the season.  The Yankees hit the most home runs in the American League, while featuring Rookie of the Year Aaron Judge, who hit a rookie record of 52, and Gary Sanchez, who smacked 33.  The team came within one game of getting to the World Series, as Gregorius did his part by slamming three home runs in post-season play.

When Giancarlo Stanton was acquired by the Yankees over the winter, it was naturally assumed the slugger would bat in the cleanup spot.  But Gregorius, a left-handed hitter, has maintained his cleanup role so far, sandwiched in between the right-handed hitting Stanton and Sanchez.

So, while Gregorius is no Jeter (who generally batted at the top of the order and hit .310 and had an OBP of .377 for his career), he has found his niche in the potent Yankees’ offense.  Often overshadowed by the other members of the Baby Bombers, Gregorius hasn’t yet been mentioned in the same breath as other premier American League shortstops like Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Xander Bogaerts, and Manny Machado.  But he is rapidly changing that perception.

Jeter got his bronze plaque in the Yankee Monument Park last year, alongside Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra and other legendary players.  Gregorius won’t likely be joining that elite group of Yankees greats down the road.  But right now, there aren’t too many people complaining about what he’s doing for the Yankees.

You're not going to believe these pre-season picks

Well, Major League Baseball finally got it right by having all 30 major-league teams play their first game of the season on the same day, a true Opening Day, versus spreading it out over a few days like it’s been done for the past several years.  I’ve long advocated for baseball’s Opening Day to become a national holiday, but how could you celebrate a holiday when it’s spread over several days?

I’m a few days late in getting out my pre-season predictions before Opening Day, but it’s no big deal since I figure it’s shaping to be a pretty boring regular season anyway, with regard to the division races and wild cards.

Boring?

It will be boring from the perspective that I think all of last year’s division winners will repeat again this season.  Boston, Cleveland, and Houston in the American League.  Los Angeles, Washington, and Chicago in the National League.  With the exception of the Red Sox, they aren’t viable challengers who can overtake last year’s winners, unless of course last year’s winners should unfortunately incur injuries to key players.  Repeating division winners can make for a boring regular season.  Each of those six teams is returning a strong club; and even though the Red Sox and Nationals have new managers in 2018, they figure to be very capable of leading their veteran teams.

The only division that might be contentious is the AL East where the Yankees will give the Red Sox a good run for its money for first place, like they did last year.  A lot of people are picking the Yankees to win the AL East because they believe the addition of slugger Giancarlo Stanton will propel them to overtake the Red Sox.  I don’t see Stanton and fellow slugger Aaron Judge repeating their “career years” from last season, when they both led their respective leagues in home runs.  Plus, it is unrealistic to think Yankees first-year manager Aaron Boone’s, with his lack of actual managerial and coaching experience, will be as good as 10-year veteran manager Joe Girardi, who came within one game of getting the Yankees to the World Series last year.  The “Baby Bombers” will have a good team again, but will have to settle for a wild card spot again, finishing behind Boston.

Now, here’s the really crazy part of my predictions for this year.  In addition to the Yankees, the other three wild-card spots will be repeat teams from last year, too.

The Minnesota Twins helped themselves in the offseason with the addition of veteran players in some key spots.  I predict they’ll win the other American League wild-card spot again.  The Los Angeles Angels will be better this season, too, so they could be the top challenger to the Yankees and Twins for a wild-card spot, but ultimately will fall short.  I don’t expect new Japanese two-way player Shohei Ohtani to provide the Angels the impact everyone is expecting this year.  The Angels have open questions in their pitching staff.

In the National League, Arizona and Colorado will outpace the Brewers and Mets for the other two wild-card spots.  The Rockies added much-needed depth to their relief staff.  The Diamondbacks’ Paul Goldschmidt will continue to lead a good offensive team that will be without the slew of home runs from J. D. Martinez in the last half of last season.  I’m picking them to repeat even though the Brewers, who were on the verge of reaching the playoffs last year, added veterans Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain to bolster their outfield, while the Mets hired former Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway as its new manager to harness their young stable of horses on the pitching staff.

Based on history, I realize the odds of every playoff team from last year, including the wild cards, repeating this season are practically zilch.  It’s never occurred since the divisional playoff system began in 1969.

However, here’s where I deviate from last year’s overall results.  The Astros and Cubs will win their respective leagues, but the Cubs will prevail over the Astros in the 2018 World Series.  Cubs manager Joe Maddon will figure out a way to re-focus his team this season to re-capture the magic of the 2016 team.  For Cubs fans though, that really wouldn’t be such a boring season after all, would it?

Who Are the MLB's MIPs?

So, your first question probably is, “What’s an MIP?”  Some new baseball statistic or sabermetrics jargon?  Or is this just a typo—was it meant to be MVP instead?

MIP is my acronym for Most Indispensable Player.  It’s similar to the more familiar acronym MVP (Most Valuable Player), but I’m using MIP to identify the player on each MLB team who would most likely impact their ability to get to the upcoming season’s playoffs.  It’s a prospective, forward-looking identification, whereas MVP is usually a post-season determination of impactful players of a team.

MIPs aren’t necessarily the best players on their team.  In many respects, identifying MIPs is a subjective exercise.  However, it’s intended to be the player on a team’s current roster that they can least do without, perhaps due to injury.  Or it’s the player who, if he doesn’t perform as expected, will negatively impact the team’s ability to reach the playoffs.  A player’s intangibles, not just their historical performance stats, are also considered.  A team’s depth of players (or lack thereof) could also be a factor.  I acknowledge that picking MIPs is a largely a subjective process, but that’s what makes this an interesting exercise.

So, who are the MIPs for each MLB team for the upcoming season?

To start with, I’ve selected an MIP for one team in each of the six divisions, providing my rationale for why I’ve picked them.

AL East Division – New York Yankees:  Gary Sanchez.  One might naturally expect newly acquired slugger Giancarlo Stanton or 2017 Rookie of the Year Aaron Judge to be the MIP selection for the Bronx Bombers because of their home run prowess, but I’m going with Sanchez.  As I wrote in my blog a couple of weeks ago, I believe Sanchez is the key to the Yankees returning to their dynasty status.  The catcher is the glue in the multi-talented lineup.  The Yankees have enough big bats to pick up the slack of a Judge or Stanton if they were to post just an average season, but Sanchez would be really hard to replace if the lineup were without him.

AL Central Division – Minnesota Twins:  Brian Dozier.  Dozier provides a lot of pop at the plate for his second base position that normally doesn’t expect a lot of offense.  The gritty player has also developed into a Gold Glove winner.  Besides teammate Joe Mauer, Dozier is the guy who has been the constant factor in a young Twins lineup.  I selected Dozier over pitcher Ervin Santana, who is the ace of the Twins pitching staff.

AL West Division – Houston Astros:  Jose Altuve.  Altuve is a good example where the team MIP also happens to be the MVP.  Perhaps the best testament of Altuve’s importance to the team is the fact the Astros recently signed him to a 5-year, $150M+ contract extension that carries him through 2024.  The athletic Altuve, who was the 2017 American League MVP, is the sparkplug of the team.  His teammates seem to thrive on his clutch hitting ability.  He leads the team in hits and stolen bases, and can also provide power at the plate.  I selected Altuve over other Astros’ impact players, Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Justin Verlander.

NL East Division – Atlanta Braves:  Freddie Freeman.  The Braves still have a ways to go to be a contending team, but they’d be much further away if Freeman weren’t around.  The first baseman’s become the cornerstone of a young team in re-building mode.  When the Braves organization shed a number of its players a few years ago to start their rebuilding process, it was Freeman they kept.  Outfielder Ender Inciarte was my second choice for the Braves.

NL Central Division – Milwaukee Brewers:  Chase Anderson.  Anderson had a breakout year in 2017 and now he on the rise to the role of ace on the staff.  He’s still not a household name among the league’s leading players, but then neither are most of the other Brewers players.  Milwaukee got close to reaching the playoffs last season and will contend again this year if Anderson stays healthy and continues to progress.  I gave the nod to Anderson over fellow pitcher Jimmy Nelson.

NL West Division – Los Angeles Dodgers:  Clayton Kershaw:  Perhaps Kershaw is the least surprising of all the MIPs, but indeed the Dodgers team rides on the shoulders of the best pitcher in baseball.  His performances set the tone for the rest of the team.  The Dodgers have won five consecutive division titles, and Kershaw is the main reason for their results.  Third baseman Justin Turner is my second choice for Dodgers MIP, although this teammates Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger get most of the Dodgers’ ink.

Below is a list of MIPs for the rest of the MLB teams in each division:

AL East

Boston Red Sox – Chris Sale

Toronto Blue Jays – Josh Donaldson

Tampa Bay Rays – Chris Archer

Baltimore Orioles – Manny Machado

 

AL Central

Kansas City Royals – Salvador Perez

Cleveland Indians – Corey Kluber

Chicago White Sox – Jose Abreu

Detroit Tigers – Mike Fulmer

 

AL West

Oakland A’s -- Kendall Graveman

Texas Rangers – Adrian Beltre

Los Angeles Angels – Mike Trout

Seattle Mariners – Nelson Cruz

 

NL East

Philadelphia Phillies – Jake Arrieta

Washington Nationals – Bryce Harper

New York Mets – Yoenis Cespedes

Miami Marlins – J.T. Realmuto

 

NL Central

Cincinnati Reds – Joey Votto

Pittsburgh Pirates – Josh Harrison

St. Louis Cardinals – Carlos Martinez

Chicago Cubs – Anthony Rizzo

 

NL West

San Francisco Giants – Madison Bumgarner

Colorado Rockies – Nolan Arenado

Arizona Diamondbacks – Paul Goldschmidt

San Diego Padres – Eric Hosmer

Gary Sanchez Next Catcher in Line to Extend Yankees' Dynasty

Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are getting most of the publicity this spring on the New York Yankees team.  Stanton’s addition over the winter has baseball analysts and fans drooling about the prospect of what the two behemoths can do offensively, including comparisons with past legendary Yankees power duos, Ruth-Gehrig and Mantle-Maris.

But the guy who just might be the key to the next edition of the Yankees Dynasty is catcher Gary Sanchez.  It should come as no surprise, since each of the previous Yankees teams that produced championship streaks were built around a standout catcher, even though players like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Reggie Jackson, Derek, Jeter and others drew most of the attention over the years.

Sanchez has been a top Yankees prospect from the Dominican Republic since he first signed as a 17-year-old in 2009.  In his first pro season in 2010, he was already being rated the Number 2 prospect in the Yankees organization by Baseball America.  His future potential continued to be evaluated highly in annual prospects lists.  It took him six years to finally make his major-league debut with two games in 2015.  But the Yankees front office was patient with his development, since he started out at such an early age.

He began the 2016 season at the Triple-A level, but then got a permanent call-up to the Yankees in early August.  He proceeded to put on one of the best power displays by a rookie during the final two months of the season.  In only 53 games, he slammed 20 home runs and drove in 42 runs, while posting a slash line of .299/.376/.657.  He provided a much-needed offensive boost to help the Yankees stay in contention for a wild-card spot, before the team crumbled during the last two weeks of the season.  Sanchez finished second to Detroit Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer in the voting for American League Rookie of the Year.

Sanchez is an integral part of the Yankees’ youth movement that began to materialize in 2016.  He is one of the Yankees’ new “Core Four” which includes Aaron Judge, Luis Severino, and Greg Bird, all players who came up through the Yankees farm system like the original “Core Four” of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettit, and Mariano Rivera, who played a generation ago.

Last year Sanchez blossomed into the full star the Yankees were expecting from his early days in their farm system.  In 122 games (he missed a month early in the season due to injury), he slammed 30 home runs and 90 RBI and won the Silver Slugger award for catchers.  He combined with Judge to become a feared one-two punch in the lineup.  When the Yankees led the American League in home runs, the team acquired the label “Baby Bombers,” in a reference to the “Bronx Bombers” of the 1920s and 1930s.  Sanchez and Judge brought the Yankees to the brink of their first World Series since 2009, leading the Houston Astros 3-2 after Game 5 of League Championship Series before losing the last two games.

In the 115 years of the Yankees franchise, 60 of their seasons were manned by only six players who served as the primary catcher of the team.  Those six catchers were involved in 35 of the 40 World Series appearances the Yankees achieved, and they also contributed to 24 of the 27 World Championship teams in the franchise’s history.  To help put those startling numbers into perspective, during the Yankees’ longest dry spell without a post-season appearance (1982-1994), they had seven different regular catchers in just those thirteen seasons.

Here’s a quick review of those six accomplished catchers and the impact they had on building and maintaining the Yankees Dynasty

The first was Wally Schang, who contributed to three World Series beginning in 1921.  Bill Dickey was the Yankees catcher from 1929 to 1943, winning seven of eight World Series appearances.  Yogi Berra became the regular catcher in 1947 and held the job until 1960.  During that time, he was a participant in eleven World Series, winning eight of them.  Elston Howard supplanted Berra as the regular Yankees catcher in 1961 and helped the team win two of four consecutive World Series appearances.  Thurman Munson played in three Yankees World Series during the 1970s, winning two.  Most recently, Jorge Posada, one of the famed Yankees “Core Four” of the late 1990s and 2000s, played on four World Series championship teams.

Of course, Yankees fans would like nothing more than to have Sanchez become the next in line of elite Yankees catcher leading them to more World Series championships.

White Sox Broadcaster Hawk Harrelson: After This Season, "He Gone"

One of the signature calls of popular Chicago White Sox television broadcast announcer Ken “Hawk” Harrelson is “He Gone,” frequently used after an opposing batter strikes out.  But after the 2018 season, Harrelson will be the one gone, as he retires after this final season to call White Sox games.  It will cap a 34-year broadcasting career that began in 1975.

The 75-year-old Harrelson has been a favorite of Chicago area fans since 1982.  His witty, colorful broadcasting style included the use of several signature phrases and his assignment of nicknames to White Sox players.  He’s what’s called in the broadcasting industry a “homer,” a broadcaster who openly roots for his home team on air.  They are usually admonished for showing partiality to their home team during broadcasts, but Harrelson seemed to get a pass in that regard.

Nicknamed “Hawk” for his distinctive facial profile, Harrelson played nine major-league seasons with four different clubs.  His breakthrough came in his third season with the Kansas City Athletics in 1965 when he hit 23 home runs and 66 RBI.  However he was traded in mid-season in 1966 to the Washington Senators.

Kansas City re-acquired him again in 1967, but abruptly let him go less than three months later when he openly called out A’s owner Charlie Finley over the firing of manager Alvin Dark.  The Red Sox signed Harrelson for the final month of the season to replace injured Tony Conigliaro, and he helped them win the American League title in a close race with Minnesota and Detroit that wasn’t decided until the last day of the season.  Red Sox teammate Carl Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown that season, and Harrelson jokingly took credit for Yastrzemski’s success by claiming Yaz got all the good pitches, because opposing pitchers didn’t want to face Harrelson behind him in the batting order.

The 1968 season with the Red Sox would be the best of his career.  He hit 35 home runs and led the American League with 109 RBI.  He finished third in the balloting for Most Valuable Player.  He played his final three seasons with the Cleveland Indians.  He retired from the Indians in mid-season in 1971 at age 29 and briefly pursued a professional golf career.  Harrelson is often credited with the regular use of batting gloves in baseball, with the first ones actually being re-purposed golf gloves.

Having gained popularity for hosting a half-hour TV show while playing in Cleveland, Harrelson landed his first broadcasting job with Boston in 1975.  He later signed on with the White Sox broadcast team in 1981 and served as the general manager of the team for a brief period in 1986.  It was a disastrous year in which he fired the team’s manager and assistant general manager.  He held jobs with the New York Yankees and with national baseball game broadcasts before returning to the White Sox as a broadcaster in 1990.

Over the years he has developed several signature calls, including “He gone” and “Grab some bench” when an opposing team’s batter struck out.  He used “You can put it on the board, yes!” when a White Sox player hit a home run, and he often referred to White Sox players as the “good guys.”

Of all the nicknames he came up with for White Sox players over the years perhaps the most famous ones were “Big Hurt” for White Sox slugger Frank Thomas and “Black Jack” for pitcher Jack McDowell.

Harrelson is certainly no Vince Scully, former long-time Dodgers announcer, from oratorical standpoint, but the Hawk has his own entertaining style that has made him one of the more popular announcers in the game.  The White Sox are paying tribute to Harrelson by having his long career commemorated on the cover of their 2018 baseball media guide.

Major League Baseball in Florida Will Stink in 2018

It’s been a relatively slow Hot Stove season.  Hasn’t been very hot with respect to off-season trades and free agent signings.  With MLB spring training camps opening this past week, five of the Top 10 free agents still haven’t been signed.  There are over 80 free agents still looking to catch on with a team.

However, the two MLB franchises in the State of Florida have been providing most of the sparks that have generated the little activity that has occurred.  But it’s not been the type of sparks that have gotten fans of the Miami Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays revved up for the upcoming season.  In fact, the two teams are headed for what portends to be some very hard times this season.  More bluntly, they will stink.

Tampa Bay and Miami have struggled to be contenders in recent years for different reasons, but they could very likely hit all-time lows in in 2018.  Both of them are currently fully committed to an approach that builds the organizations to be contenders for the long-term.  It’s not a new strategy, as the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs have proven, but it’s the timing the Florida teams have chosen that has some baseball people baffled and certainly most of their fans pretty upset.

There was no love lost for Jeffrey Loria by Miami fans when he sold the Marlins franchise to a new ownership group with Derek Jeter as the face of the organization.  Loria had angered many of those fans for making too little investment over the years and a having penchant for bad decisions.  Miami faithfuls saw Jeter as one of the most successful baseball players in history and were hopeful his success and image would carry over to his role as an owner.  What the fans didn’t necessarily know was that Jeter and his partners’ plan called for dumping their better players with higher salaries to get overall payroll under control and then start a re-building effort with top prospects.

Many folks thought the Marlins roster at the end of 2017 was within a few players of putting them into contention for 2018.  They already had the National League MVP, Giancarlo Stanton, locked up for a long time.  Other younger players like Dee Gordon, Christian Yelich, Marcel Ozuna, and J.T. Realmuto had formed a core, along with Stanton, that appeared to be set for the next few years.  The Marlins’ biggest need was in pitching depth, both starters and relievers.  It was argued that addressing those needs would be the quicker plan to put them into contention.

Instead, the Marlins transacted eight different trades that got 21 players in return, most of them top prospects and not able to help the team immediately. But now all their established stars are gone, except for Realmuto, and it’s not unlikely he will be dealt away soon, too.  Ironically, each of those players were highly sought out to fill critical needs of other teams trying to fill a hole in their roster that could be the difference-maker in their getting to the playoffs.  Why didn’t the Marlins just do that themselves?

In 2017 the Marlins finished in second place in the NL East, albeit 20 games behind leader Washington Nationals.  The result of their winter activities will likely put them in the best position to finish last in 2018 and probably for a few years thereafter.  The franchise already had a problem with home attendance, but it will get worse with the team they put on the field this year.  But Jeter and his front office team will have at least accomplished one of their organizational goals—getting the team payroll down to peanuts.

The Tampa Bay Rays have won 80 games in two of the last three years.  But their problem has been having to compete in perhaps the best division in baseball with the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays and Orioles.  Their success has largely been built around its pitching staff, with the organization well-known for developing young pitchers.

Apparently not convinced they will be in the hunt for a play-off spot in 2018, the Rays have followed the Marlins’ approach of moving its players at the top.  Six of their seven top home run hitters in 2017 are no longer with the team.  Most notable are long-time Rays third baseman, Evan Longoria, the face of the franchise since he arrived in 2008, and Logan Morrison, who hit 38 home runs last year.  Additionally, two of their best pitchers, Alex Cobb and Jake Ordorizzi, won’t be with team this year.

Two other top-flight players, pitcher Chris Archer and outfielder Kevin Keirmaier, are still with the team in spring training, but they could likely become bargaining chips later this year at the trade deadline.  Faced with the possibilities of being part of a weak team this spring, Keirmaier has publicly expressed interest in being traded now.  That’s a poor reflection on the team.

Tampa is in a similar situation as Miami in terms of home attendance.  They were last in the American League last year with 1.2 million.  Dismantling the team over the winter will almost assuredly have them continuing to bring up the rear.  Rays ownership has an active initiative to build a new stadium in the Tampa area, a critical factor in being able to hold on to the franchise.

However, in the meantime, the Rays will be a bad team.  Their fans won’t have much to cheer for.  The biggest baseball highlight for the Tampa area this year will probably be watching the star-studded Yankees play their spring training schedule at Steinbrenner Field in the city.

It’s not a good time to be a Marlins or Rays fan right now. The good news is that both teams have a plan for eventually becoming competitive again.  The bad news is that it’s going to take a while for their plans to pay off, if ever.

Celebrating MLB Players with Negro League Heritage

Black History Month is a good time to look at Major League Baseball players whose baseball heritage stemmed from the Negro Leagues.  Of course, it’s well-known that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in MLB in 1947, and until then African-American ballplayers could only play professionally in the Negro Leagues.  It was only natural that their offspring would take up the game, too, except their sons and grandson finally had the opportunity to play on the game’s biggest stage.

Historians have difficulty pinpointing the exact beginning and ending dates of the Negro Leagues, but it’s generally accepted that the organized leagues existed from 1920 to 1950.  During that time, there were countless players on numerous African-American teams, although official records don’t exist for all of them.  However, there are indeed many Negro League players whose careers are well-chronicled.

There have been a number of major-leaguers whose fathers or grandfathers played in the Negro Leagues.

Among current players are brothers Rickie Weeks and Jemile Weeks, whose grandfather Victor Weeks played briefly with Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues.  Just when the Major League Baseball opened up to African-American players, Victor got injured and ended his baseball career prematurely.  Ricky and Jemile’s father played college baseball at Seton Hall and Stetson and passed on his love of the game to his two sons.  Ricky is a 14-year veteran of the big leagues, primarily playing for the Milwaukee Brewers.  He had an all-star season in 2011.  Jemile has appeared in six major-league seasons as a reserve player.

Going back to the 1960s, Luis Tiant made his major-league debut with the Cleveland Indians and proceeded to play 19 years, including eight seasons with the Boston Red Sox with whom he became one of the premier pitchers in the American League.  He accumulated 229 career wins.  Luis’ father, Luis Tiant Sr., a native of Cuba, played in the Negro Leagues from 1926 to 1948, while also playing professionally in his home country.

Bob Veale was a menacing pitcher at 6-foot-6, who made his debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1962.  He posted all-star seasons in 1965 and 1966 and played on the Pirates World Series championship team in 1971.  He won 120 games over 13 years, while posting a career 3.07 ERA.  Before embarking on his pro career, he pitched batting practice as a teenager to the Birmingham Black Barons team.  Bob’s father, Robert Veale, played briefly with the Newark Eagles.

Nate Oliver was a reserve infielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1962 to 1967, making one World Series appearance with them in 1966.  After two more seasons split among the Giants, Yankees and Cubs, he would play several more years in the minors before becoming a minor-league coach and manager.  Nate’s father, James Oliver Sr., played briefly in the Negro Leagues during 1941-1945.  James Oliver Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, is named after him.  Nate’s brother, Jim Oliver Jr. played one season in the minors in the Cincinnati Reds organization.

In the 1970s, Lyman Bostock Jr. was an up-and-coming major-league star, when the 27-year-old was tragically shot and killed in Gary, Indiana, in 1978, in a domestic dispute involving two other acquaintances.  Lyman had two seasons when he hit .323 and .336 for the Minnesota Twins.  His father, Lyman Bostock Sr., played for the Birmingham Black Barons from 1940 to 1946 and the New York Cubans in 1948.  He reportedly helped future Hall of Famer Willie Mays learn the game when he played one season with the Black Barons before reaching the majors.

Vic Harris was a reserve infielder for five different major-league teams during 1972- to 1980.  Vic was the son of William Harris, a Negro League player whose career included a season with the Pittsburgh Crawfords team that included legendary African-American players Satchel Paige and Jimmie Crutchfield.

In the 1980s, Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd captured the nation’s attention with his popular nickname, when  he posted three seasons with double-digit wins for the Boston Red Sox during 1984-1986.  He played a total of ten major-league seasons, ending his career in 1991.  His father, Willie Boyd, reportedly played briefly in the Negro Leagues.  His uncle, Bob Boyd, was the first African-American player signed by the Chicago White Sox organization in 1950 and went on to play nine major-league seasons.

Garry Templeton was a major-league shortstop for 16 seasons (1976-1991), mostly with the St Louis Cardinals and San Diego Padres.  He is often remembered for being involved in the trade that sent future Hall of Famer from the Padres to the Cardinals.  As a Cardinal for six years, Templeton twice hit above .300 and never below .288, while logging two all-star seasons.  However, his career batting average with the Padres was only .252.  Garry’s father, Spiavia Templeton, reportedly played in the Negro Leagues, although there is no official record of it.  Garry’ son, Garry Templeton Jr., played two minor-league seasons and six independent-league years, before becoming a scout and minor-league coach and manager.

Brian Giles was the third generation of his family to play pro baseball.  The infielder made his major-league debut with the New York Mets in 1981 and went on to play five more seasons, including time with the Brewers, White Sox, and Mariners.  He was a career .228 hitter.  His grandfather, George Giles Sr. played in the Negro Leagues from 1927 to 1938.  In one season he batted .429 for the Kansas City Monarchs.  Brian’s father, George Giles Jr., played in the low minors from 1953-1955.

There were also a handful of major league players who got their start in the Negro Leagues and then had sons who also played pro baseball, although were unable to advance to the big leagues.

Don Newcombe was a Negro League player before he joined Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949, when he earned National League Rookie of the Year honors.  He played a total of eight seasons with the Dodgers, compiling a record of 123-66, including the 1956 season we he won both the MVP Award and Cy Young Award.  After playing for several more teams, he retired in 1960.  His son, Don Newcomb Jr., played one season of minor-league ball in 1984

Larry Doby began his Negro League career at age 18 in 1942 and eventually became a star with the Newark Eagles.  When the color barrier was broken in the Major Leagues, Doby became the first African-American to play in the American League with the Cleveland Indians.  He went on to a Hall of Fame career that ended in 1959.  His son, Larry Doby Jr., was an outfielder for three seasons in the minors from 1979 to 1981.

Minnie Minoso played four seasons with the New York Cubans of the Negro Leagues before making his major-league debut with Cleveland in 1949.  He was a seven-time all-star during his 17-year major-league career.  He finished among the Top 4 in the MVP Award voting in four different seasons.  He was a career .298 hitter.  His son, Orestes Minoso, played five seasons in the Kansas City Royals organization from 1971 to 1977.  His grandson, Sam Macias, played two minor-league seasons in the White Sox organization in 2013 and 2014.

There is one three-generation major-league family whose family tree began in the Negro Leagues.

Brothers Jerry Hairston, Sr. and John Hairston were major-leaguers whose father, Sam Hairston Sr., started in the Negro Leagues, played in the majors in 1950 for the White Sox organization, and then became a major-league coach.  Jerry had the more significant career, playing all but 51 of his 859 career games in the White Sox organization during 1973 and 1989, while John played only three major-league games for the Chicago Cubs in 1969.  Sam’s two grandsons, Jerry Hairston Jr. and Scott Hairston (sons of Jerry Hairston Sr.) had substantial major-league careers themselves.

Seahawks QB Russell Wilson Traded to the Yankees. Say What?

One of the stories that got buried in the post-Super Bowl media coverage last week was Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson being traded to the New York Yankees.  Wait, isn’t that the wrong sport?  Actually not, since the Texas Rangers had previously drafted Wilson and technically had the baseball rights to him.  Sure, the trade to the Yankees was a publicity event for the Yankees and Wilson, but there have indeed been legitimate two-sport stars in pro football and baseball over the years.

Wilson was a high school baseball star in Virginia and was initially drafted out of high school by the Baltimore Orioles in the 41st round of the 2007 MLB Draft.  However, he went on to play baseball and football for three seasons with North Carolina State University and played two seasons in the Colorado Rockies minor league system during his college years.  The Rockies had drafted Wilson in the fourth round of the 2010 draft.

He transferred to the University of Wisconsin for his 2011 senior year to play football and ultimately decided on football as his career sport, signing with the Seattle Seahawks after a third-round selection in the 2012 NFL Draft.  He has become one of the premier quarterbacks in the NFL, winning the Super Bowl in 2013 and being selected for four Pro Bowls.

Wilson won’t likely try his hand at pro baseball again, but the latest former NFL player to pick up a bat and ball was Tim Tebow during the 2017 season.  He signed with the New York Mets organization to play in the Arizona Fall League in 2016, although he had not played baseball since high school.  The 29-year-old Tebow, who had been out of pro football since 2012, then appeared as an outfielder in the low minors with the Mets last season, demonstrating only marginal success (.226 BA, 8 HR, 58 RBI).

Two of the more noteworthy two-sport stars involving football and baseball are Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders.  They got to the major leagues via different paths, after starring in both sports during college.

Even though Jackson was a second-round pick of the New York Yankees in the 1982 MLB Draft, he attended Auburn University from 1982 to 1985, culminating his fabulous college football career as the Heisman Trophy winner.  He also played baseball for three seasons with Auburn, including a junior season with a slash line of .401/.500/.864, 17 HR, and 43 RBI.  The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made him the first overall draft pick in the 1986 NFL Draft, while MLB’s Kansas City Royals drafted in the fourth round that year.

While still at Auburn, Jackson believed that Tampa Bay had intentionally taken him on a visit to its football facilities that was not approved by the NCAA, in order to sway his decision to play football.  As a result, he was subsequently forced to quit Auburn’s baseball team during his senior season.  Consequently, he forewarned Tampa Bay he wouldn’t sign with them if they took him the draft, but they did anyway.  Jackson instead signed with the Royals and made his major-league debut in a September call-up later that season.  Jackson went on to play seven more seasons in the big leagues, including an All-Star Game appearance in 1989 when he homered in his first at-bat for the American League.

Jackson signed with the Los Angeles Raiders in 1987 after they drafted him in the seventh round.  He proceeded to play four seasons with them while still playing baseball.  However, he suffered a football career-ending hip injury during the playoffs with the Raiders in January 1991.  He attempted a comeback in the major leagues after hip replacement surgery that caused him to miss the entire 1992 baseball season.  A modern-day “Bionic Man,” he wound up playing parts of two seasons in 1993 and 1994 with the Chicago White Sox and California Angels before retiring.

After being drafted out of high school by the Kansas City Royals in the fifth round of the 1985 MLB Draft, Deion Sanders decided to play football and baseball at Florida State University.  During his junior year, the New York Yankees drafted him in in the 30th round, and he wound up signing with them to play in the minors during 1988.  He returned to Florida State to play his senior season in football, when he won the Jim Thorpe Award as the best defensive back in college football.  The Atlanta Falcons picked the All-American defensive back/kick returner in the first round (5th overall) in the 1989 NFL Draft, and he became an All-Pro selection by 1992.

Sanders’ pro football and baseball careers overlapped from 1989 to 1995 and in 1997.  After two years with the Yankees, he played with the Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds, and San Francisco Giants in baseball.  Following five seasons with the Falcons, he played for the San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, and Baltimore Ravens.  A six-time All-Pro selection, Sanders was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011.  He was a career .263 hitter in the majors and batted .533 for the Braves in the 1992 World Series against Toronto.

Jackson wasn’t the only Heisman Trophy winner to have a career in pro baseball.

Vic Janowicz was a triple-threat player for Ohio State, winning the Heisman in 1950.  He initially passed up pro football offers to play baseball.  He reached the majors with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1953, followed by another season in 1954.  Altogether he appeared in 83 games as a reserve player, hitting .214.  He returned to football with the Washington Redskins in 1954, and after his 1955 season as a starter at running back, he suffered a serious brain injury in an automobile accident that left him partially paralyzed and ended his athletic career.

Howard “Hopalong” Cassady was another Ohio State running back who won the Heisman in 1955.  He also played baseball in college, leading the team in home runs in 1955 and stolen bases in 1956.  Cassady signed with the Detroit Lions in 1956 and was a member of the NFL Championship team in 1957.  He played seven seasons with the Lions and later played for the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles.  After his pro football career, Cassady eventually got back into baseball as a scout and minor-league coach in the New York Yankees organization.

Ricky Williams is best known as the 1998 Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Texas and later an All-Pro running back in the NFL.  However, he also played professional baseball while in college.  He had been drafted out of high school in 1995 by the Philadelphia Phillies in the eighth round and wound up playing four seasons in their organization as an outfielder.  He was a career .211 hitter in 170 games.

Chris Weinke began his pro career in baseball as a 1990 second-round pick out of high school by the Toronto Blue Jays.  He rapidly progressed through their farm system as a first baseman, reaching the Triple-A level in 1995 as a 22-year-old.  However, after one more season, he quit baseball to pursue a football career.  He enrolled at Florida State University in 1997 to play football for head coach Bobby Bowden, who had previously recruited him in high school.  As the starting quarterback, he led the Seminoles to a national championship in 1999.  In 2000 he won the Heisman Trophy at age 28.  After playing his NFL rookie season in 2001 with the Carolina Panthers as the starting quarterback, he served four more seasons as a backup.

Current Tampa Bay Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston was the youngest player to win the Heisman Trophy in 2013 while playing for Florida State.  He was drafted by the Texas Rangers out of high school in 2012, but decided to attend college instead.  He was an outfielder and pitcher on the Seminoles’ baseball team, but never pursued a professional baseball career.  He was the first overall pick by Tampa Bay in the 2015 NFL Draft.

Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway was a two-time Super Bowl winner with the Denver Broncos.  But before he began his pro football career, he played one season in the New York Yankees organization in 1982.  He was selected by the Baltimore Colts as the first overall pick in the 1983 NFL Draft.  However, his father advised that Elway not play for Colts head coach Frank Kush, who had a reputation as a hard coach to play for.  Elway threatened the Colts that he would not sign, but would play pro baseball instead.  Ultimately the Colts traded him to the Broncos for offensive lineman Chris Hinton (the fourth overall pick in the draft) and a future first-round pick.  Elway would go on to play 16 seasons with the Broncos and is now the head of football operations for the team.

Before the days of the NFL becoming a lucrative sport for players, it wasn’t uncommon for gridiron players to cross over to baseball.  NFL-MLB combo players from that era included Pro Football Hall of Famers Jim Thorpe, George Halas, Ernie Nevers, Greasy Neale, Cal Hubbard, and Ace Parker.

More recently, Carroll Hardy and Brian Jordan played both major sports.  Jake Gibbs was an All-American quarterback at Ole Miss and was drafted by both AFL and NFL teams in 1960, but opted for a major-league career with the New York Yankees.  Jay Schroeder played four seasons in the Toronto Blue Jays organization before becoming a Pro Bowl quarterback for the Washington Redskins.

Russell Wilson will probably get a chance to work out with the Bronx Bombers during spring training in Florida.  He’ll get to hang out with Yankees sluggers Aaron Judge and newly acquired Giancarlo Stanton, two of the largest players in the majors at 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-6, respectively.  Wilson would relish the thought of having those two studs blocking for him on the Seahawks’ offensive line.

Baseball's Free Agent Market Not Keeping Pace with Stock Market

It’s been a record-setting time for the U. S. stock market during the past year (even considering the jolting sell-off it experienced last week).  Investor optimism has contributed to a thriving market.  However, it seems Major League Baseball hasn’t shared the same optimism with regard to its free agent market.  There are only a couple more weeks before pitchers and catchers start reporting to spring training, and yet there are still a boatload of unsigned free agents out there.

Only three of the Top 10 free agents have been signed to date, including Lorenzo Cain, Carlos Santana, and Zack Cozart.  Only half of the Top 50 have signed, and there remain over 100 unsigned free agents.  Until Cain signed with the Milwaukee Brewers last week for five years, no player had inked a deal more than three years during the off-season.

Still available are top-flight players such as J. D. Martinez, Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas.

There are usually only a handful of unsigned players this close to spring training.  It’s got baseball people scratching their heads why.

It seems that major league front offices have determined that it’s generally bad business now to sign free agents in their early thirties to long-term mega deals.  Of course, those players figure it’s their prime time to land lucrative deals.  They want to lock up longer contract terms that keep them from having to compete in the market multiple times before their eventual retirement.

However, too many GMS have been burned by such deals in past years.  Only a few actually worked out favorably for the clubs.  All too often, the players’ production on the field falls off significantly in the latter years of their contract, and teams wind up not getting their money’s worth.  Sometimes it’s due to the players’ health dwindling before the end of their terms, or their increasing age naturally diminishing their skills.

Consequently, the clubs get stuck with players they can’t use in order to be competitive.  For example, the Los Angeles Dodgers reportedly carried over $100 million on their payroll in 2017 for players who were not on their current roster because the team ultimately decided to dump them before the end of their contractual commitments.  Former American League MVP Josh Hamilton finally came off the Los Angeles Angels payroll in 2017, but he hadn’t played for them since 2014.

One of the strategies being employed by practically all the major league clubs, including the usual high spenders, is to get under the payroll luxury tax limit (a form of salary cap), so as not to pay overrun penalties to MLB.  In the past, the cap hadn’t prevented clubs like the Yankees, Dodgers, and Red Sox from going out and signing the best free-agents in the marketplace, but most clubs are holding down payrolls now by focusing on building their rosters through the annual amateur draft and player development.  In this way, the teams have contract control of its younger players for five to six years at salaries much lower than that of veteran free-agents.

Of course, the free agents in their thirties are frustrated with the current situation.  They feel like they aren’t getting their due financially.  Their agents are encouraging them to reject lesser offers, while GMs seem to be steadfast in holding the line on their preferred contract terms.  This stalemate is the main reason there are over 100 players still unsigned.

In fact, it has some player agents beginning to hint at the possibility of collusion occurring among the GMs in their efforts to hold the line on contract terms and salaries.  That’s a pretty heady assessment at this point, one that would get the players’ union awfully riled up if there was some merit to it.

But what is likely happening is that many teams are positioning their payrolls now to be able to afford some of the premium free agents coming onto the market after the 2018 season.  It’s expected to be a bumper crop with superstars like Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Adam Jones, Zach Britton, Andrew Miller, Andrew McCutchen, and Clayton Kershaw being available.

Fans of teams finishing low in their division’s standings are starting to think their favorite team is “tanking,” purposefully not signing available free agents that can improve their team in the near term, but rather are content re-building with youth for the longer term at a much lower payroll.

However, there are some good players out there now for teams on the cusp of breakthroughs.  The Milwaukee Brewers recognized this and recently added outfielders Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich, who represent significant upgrades to a team that nearly captured a wild card spot last year.

The next few weeks will be interesting to watch.  Who will finally give in?  The players or the teams?  Will this off-season be an anomaly with regard to free agent signings, or is this truly the wave of the future?

Will Top Prospect Vlad Guerrero Jr. be the First to Join His Father in the Hall?

In many respects, it’s ridiculous to predict the Hall of Fame career of a player who has played less than 200 minor league games.  Yet it’s tempting to do so when the player is rated the top hitting prospect in the minors, and he also has the baseball bloodlines of a Hall of Famer.

While his father played major-league baseball during 1996 to 2011 and was recently elected to the 2018 class of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Vlad Guerrero Jr. is just starting to blaze his own trail in professional baseball as an 18-year-old.

Guerrero Jr. just completed his second season in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, after collecting a $3.9 million bonus during the international signing process in 2016.  He began this year at Single-A Lansing and then got a mid-season promotion to High-A Dunedin.  Between the two teams, he managed to hit 13 home runs and drive in 76 runs, while hitting for a .323 average.

He was recently named the top hitting prospect in the minor leagues, attaining a rating of 80 (out of a possible 80) by baseball analysts at MLB Pipeline.  It is the first time a prospect has ever received that rating in the hit tools category.  Guerrero Jr. is the third overall top prospect in all of Major League Baseball and the top-rated prospect in the Blue Jays organization.  While he still requires some maturing, it’s not out of the question he could be playing in the big leagues in 2019.

He is being compared to current major-leaguer Miguel Cabrera, who began his major-league career in 2003 at age 20, went on to win two MVP Awards, and is a cinch as a future Hall of Famer.

Guerrero Sr. garnered 92.9% of the vote in his second season of eligibility for the Hall of Fame.  He will be first player to go in as an Angels player, even though his career also included significant time with the Montreal Expos.  He is the third Dominican player to be elected, following pitchers Juan Marichal and Pedro Martinez.

Guerrero Sr. was a five-tool talent, finishing his career with a .318/.379/.533 slash line.  With a reputation as an unconventional hitter, he collected 449 home runs, 1,596 RBI, and 1,328 runs scored.  His career accomplishments included nine All-Star selections and eight Silver Slugger Awards.  In his first year with the Angels in 2004, he was the American League’s Most Valuable Player, leading the Angels to a first-place finish in the AL West.  He made his only World Series appearance with the Texas Rangers in 2010.

Guerrero Jr. continues the family tradition in professional baseball.  In addition to his father, uncles Wilton and Julio played pro ball.  Wilton was a major-leaguer from 1996 to 2004 with four teams, while Julio played in the minors with the Red Sox organization.  He also has two cousins, Gabriel and Gregory, who are currently in the minors.

Guerrero Jr. is one of several sons of former major leaguers currently in the Blue Jays organization.  Second baseman Cavan Biggio is the son of Hall of Famer Craig Biggio.  First baseman Kacy Clemens is the son of seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens, while shortstop Bo Bichette is the son of Dante Bichette, a four-time all-star.

In addition to Biggio, there are several other Hall of Famers with sons or grandsons currently toiling away in the minors or in college.  They include Cal Ripken Jr., Ivan Rodriguez, Tom Glavine, Carl Yastrzemski, and Harmon Killebrew.  Then there’s also Mariano Rivera, a sure-fire lock to be elected to the Hall in 2019, with a son currently in the minors.

So, what are the odds of Guerrero Jr. getting into the Hall?  The reality is there has never been a father-son player combination in the Hall.  Not even prolific duos like the Griffeys (Ken Sr. and Ken Jr.) and the Alous (Felipe and Moises).  Lee and Larry MacPhail, baseball executives from the 1930s to 1960s, are the only father and son currently in the Hall of Fame.

We’ll have to check back in about 25 years from now to see if the Guerreros are actually the first players.  (Although it probably won’t be me doing the checking.)

 

Now Hoopsters, the NOLA Pelicans Have a Baseball Heritage

Locals in New Orleans know of a locally-produced song whose refrain is “ain’t there no more,” which refers to popular businesses and landmarks of the Crescent City that ceased to exist over the years.  The current New Orleans Pelicans are now an NBA team, having changed their mascot name from the Hornets for the 2013-2014 season. However, for many old-time baseball enthusiasts the Pelicans will always be remembered as the local professional baseball team, even though it “ain’t there no more.”

 

The last time the Pelicans name was associated with a baseball franchise in New Orleans was in 1977. Let’s take a nostalgic look back at that time, the team, and its players.

 

Prior to that team, Organized Baseball had not fielded a baseball team in New Orleans since 1959, the last year of existence for the previous New Orleans Pelicans who had a near continuous presence since 1887.  When minor-league baseball owner A. Ray Smith offered to relocate his Triple-A Cardinals franchise to the city for the 1977 season, folks in New Orleans thought it only natural that they would have a professional baseball team again, hopefully leading to a future major-league club.  In fact, at the time, the city had a relatively new stadium, the Louisiana Superdome, where such a team could play.  The planners and designers of the Superdome had conceived and developed a baseball configuration, in anticipation of eventually getting a major-league baseball team.  Securing the minor-league Pelicans in the city seemed like a good next step.

 

The 1977 Pelicans finished with a 57-79 won-lost record, placing last in the four-team West Division of the American Association, a Triple-A league.  The attendance at Pelicans games was 217,957, outpacing all teams in the American Association except league champion Denver Bears (288,167).

 

So, who were some the players for the New Orleans Pelicans in 1977 and whatever became of them in baseball?

 

Outfielder Benny Ayala made the American Association’s post-season All-Star team in 1977.  He led the Pelicans with 18 home runs and finished second in RBI with 78.  He went on to play 10 seasons in the majors, appearing in two World Series with the Baltimore Orioles.

 

As a rookie, Pat Darcy pitched for the Cincinnati Reds in the 1975 World Series against the Boston Red Sox.  However, he appeared in only three games for the Pelicans in 1977, and shortly afterwards he was out of baseball due to injuries.

 

Steve Dunning was a first-round draft pick (2nd overall) in 1970 for the Cleveland Indians and went straight to the majors from Stanford University.  He hurled 10 complete games in 24 starts for the Pelicans, but led the team with 13 losing decisions.  He wound up only winning 23 of his 64 career major-league decisions.

 

Of the pitchers on the Pelicans team, Pete Falcone had the most extensive pitching career in the big leagues, as he posted a 70-90 major- league won-lost record over ten seasons.

 

Outfielder Dane Iorg made his major-league debut for the Philadelphia Phillies on April 9, before being sent to New Orleans in a mid-June trade with the St. Louis Cardinals.  His major-league playing career covered 10 years, and he appeared in two World Series, with the Cardinals in 1982 and the Kansas City Royals in 1985.  His post-season batting average was .522.  His brother, Garth Iorg, was also a major league player.

 

Second baseman Ken Oberkfell made his major-league debut with the St. Louis Cardinals on August 22, 1977, after being one of the key players for the Pelicans.  He had a distinguished 16-year major league career, batting .278 and appearing in two World Series, in 1982 with the Cardinals and in 1989 with the San Francisco Giants.  Oberkfell returned to New Orleans when he managed the Zephyrs as a Mets Triple-A affiliate in 2007 and part of 2008.

 

Catcher John Tamargo hit 10 home runs and 42 RBI for the Pelicans.  He also returned to New Orleans in 1998 as the manager of the Triple-A Zephyrs in the Astros organization, when they won the Pacific Coast League championship. Tamargo’s daughter played for the Colorado Silver Bullets (a women’s professional team from 1994-1997), and his son is currently a minor-league coach.

 

At age 32, Tony La Russa was the “old man” of the Pelicans team, whose average age was 25.  He made his major league debut in 1963, and the 1977 season was his last as a player.  He appeared in 50 games for the Pelicans as a utility infielder, but managed to hit only a meager .188.  He became one of the most successful managers in major-league history, leading teams to six league championships and three World Series titles.  He amassed over 2,700 wins in 33 years of managing the Chicago White Sox, Oakland A’s, and St. Louis Cardinals.  La Russa was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 2014 and currently works as a special consultant for the Boston Red Sox.

 

Jim Riggleman was second on the Pelicans club with 17 home runs.  Although he never appeared in a major-league game as a player, Riggleman went on to a major-league managerial career of 12 seasons for the San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs, Seattle Mariners and Washington Nationals.

 

A native of New Orleans and an East Jefferson High graduate, Barry Raziano was a 30-year-old pitcher for the Pelicans who appeared in 20 games in relief.  However, the 1977 season with the Pelicans was his last in professional baseball.

 

Randy Wiles, a New Orleanian who pitched collegiately at LSU, was a 5th round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1973.  He appeared in three games for the Pelicans in 1977.  However, he made his major-league debut with the Chicago White Sox in August 1977, his only season in the majors.

 

Pelicans owner Smith decided not to return to New Orleans for the 1978 season, instead moving the franchise to Springfield, Illinois.  New Orleans never did get its much anticipated and desired major-league franchise.  The Superdome never really did hit the big time as a baseball venue, only hosting annual college baseball tournaments and some major-league spring training exhibition games for several years in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.  However, professional baseball did return to New Orleans in 1994, when the Milwaukee Brewers re-located its Triple-A Zephyrs team from Denver. The Zephyrs (now Baby Cakes) have also been associated with the Astros, Mets, Nationals, and Marlins major-league organizations.  The team will be entering its tenth season as the Triple-A affiliate of the Marlins this spring.

 

Many old-time baseball fans, who recall the baseball Pelicans, thought it was sacrilegious for the basketball team to adopt the Pelicans name.  On the other hand, most of the New Orleans basketball fans welcomed the change, because they never really did take to inheriting the Hornets name from Charlotte, when the NBA franchise transferred for the 2002-2003 season.  In any case, for Tom Benson, the New Orleans Saints owner who now also owns the NBA franchise, Pelicans seemed like a logical choice, particularly since he already owned the rights to the sports franchise name, a little-known fact that became evident at the time of the change in 2013.

 

Even though the 1977 Pelicans only lasted one season in the city, they still contributed to the long, eventful baseball history of New Orleans.  Yes, it’s true Pelicans baseball “ain’t there no more,” but thanks to past efforts of local baseball historians Arthur Schott and Derby Gisclair (developer of neworleansbaseball.com), the Pelicans will always be remembered for its baseball heritage.

 

Casting My Mythical Hall of Fame Ballot

This year’s ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame doesn’t have a large number of new superstar candidates competing for votes, as some prior years did.  Consequently, one might think it’s easier an easier task to make ten selections this year.  On the other hand, the situation causes a serious (and difficult) review of the carryovers from previous years, looking at players that had been passed over for one reason or another.

Every year that I fill out a “fantasy” Hall of Fame ballot, I try to put myself in the official voters’, the baseball writers’, shoes.  It causes me to think hard about the candidates who are real and suspected PED users.  Should they be allowed to enter the Hall?  How much weight should be placed on the more objective analytics versus being influenced by other career accumulation measures used in the past, like 300 wins, 3,000 hits, and 500 home runs?  Should off-the-field image affect a player’s voting?  These questions and others create some great debates around the annual voting.

So what’s my mythical Hall of Fame ballot look like this year?

To recap last year, I voted for Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Ivan Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero, Lee Smith, Gary Sheffield, Trevor Hoffman, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Curt Schilling.

Bagwell, Raines, and Rodriguez received the required percentage (75% or greater) of votes cast by the writers.  Apparently the voters discounted the suspicions about Bagwell and Rodriguez having been PED users.  Raines was elected on his final appearance on the ballot.  However, Smith fell off the ballot in his 15th and final year on the ballot, as he was able to garner only 34.2% of the votes.

I’ve decided to carry forward my other six votes from last year to 2018.

I’m sticking with Sheffield even though he collected 13.3% of the votes last year.  On the Baseball-Reference.com website, there is a similarity score for each major-league player, indicating other players who have had comparable careers.  7 of the 10 players (such as Mel Ott, Reggie Jackson, Mickey Mantle, and Frank Robinson) on that website designated as similar to Sheffield are already in the Hall of Fame.  Two of the other players, Chipper Jones and Carlos Beltran, are very likely to become future inductees.  Sheffield’s career suffers from the fact that he played for 8 different teams during his 22-year career.  Apparently many voters view that with a negative connotation.  Furthermore, he wears the PED suspicion badge like Bagwell and Rodriguez did.  In any case, I don’t see him making a significant jump in this year’s tally, but I’m not changing my view.

Hoffman narrowly missed getting elected last year with 74% of the vote.  Guerrero was in a similar situation with 71.7%.  Both will get over the hump this year.

I have been a proponent of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens for the Hall for several years now, despite their struggles with the PED issue.  Both increased their percentages to around 54% last year, signaling there continues to be a softening of the writers’ points of view on the issue.  This will be a pivotal year (their sixth year of eligibility) with regard to their ultimate election.

Curt Schilling still gets my vote this year, despite a negative image problem which has been self-induced by the controversy he created on several national social and political issues.  His numbers for Career Strikeouts (15th all-time), Strikeout/Walk Ratio (5th all-time), and WAR for Pitchers (26th all-time) indicate he is comparable to the top pitchers of his era, plus his post-season performance is among the best in history.  However, he suffers from not having won 300 career games (he retired with 216) and not having won a Cy Young Award.  Schilling got 45% of the vote last year, but that was a decline from 52% the year before.

So that leaves room for four new picks for me this year.

Chipper Jones heads the list of new entrants on the ballot for 2018, and I think he’ll be a first-ballot selectee.  His slash line is outstanding with .303/.401/.529.  He has one MVP Award among three top six finishes to his credit and was selected to the all-star team eight times.  He compiled 468 home runs (33rd all-time) and 1,623 RBI (34th all-time) during his career.  His Offensive WAR is 87.4, which is the 25th all-time best.  He is one of the key reasons the Atlanta Braves were a dominant National League team in the 1990s.  The third base position is one of the least populated in the Hall, and Jones will be a worthy addition.

Three other first-timers in 2018 I considered, but didn’t include in my final ten votes, were Jim Thome, Johan Santana, and Omar Vizquel.  I’ll come back later to explain why.

Instead, I am opting to vote for three players who are carryovers from previous years:  Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, and Larry Walker.  I haven’t voted for any of these players in prior years, simply because I thought there were more worthy players ahead of them.

I have been convinced by the baseball gurus who specialize in Hall of Fame player analysis that Martinez is Hall-worthy, even though he was used primarily as a designated hitter.  This is his ninth year on the ballot, and the official voters in the past have obviously given him more consideration than I have, since he reached 58.6% of the votes last year.  His career On-Base Percentage (.418) is the 21st best all-time.  His career Batting Average is .312, but remarkably he never led the league, even though he posted years with .343 and .356.  Martinez had six consecutive seasons when his On-Base Plus Slugging Percentage (OPS) was .993 or better.  He was a seven-time all-star.  Martinez’s election will likely open the door for other players who were primarily DHs during their career.

I was never a big fan of Mike Mussina before, as I thought his 270 career wins were a bit over-rated.  He didn’t win 20 in a season until his last in 2008 and he never won a Cy Young Award.  But peeling back the onion a bit more revealed that he is 24th all-time in career WAR for Pitchers (82.7).  He is 23rd all-time in Strikeouts/Walk Ratio.  There were six seasons when he had no fielding errors, in route to capturing seven Gold Glove awards.  Mussina was in the Top 10 for ERA in 11 of his 18 seasons.  He collected 51.8% of the votes in his fourth year on the ballot in 2017.

Larry Walker gets my tenth vote.  He compares favorably in the advanced career metrics (WAR, JAWS, etc.) with players like Chipper Jones and Vladimir Guerrero.  He led the National League in hitting for three seasons with averages of .350, .363, and .379.  He posted his best major-league season in 1997 when he led the league in HR (49) and OPS (1.172).  Oh, by the way, he also hit .366 and knocked in 130 runs, as he won the MVP Award that year.  He was a five-time all-star and six-winner of the Gold Glove.  Walker is in his 8th season on the ballot and would have to be considered a long-shot at this point for election since he collected only 21.9% of the vote last year.

Manny Ramirez is the one obvious player missing on my ballot.  I think he’s actually the best player on the carryover list, but I’m leaving him off because he actually failed MLB tests for PEDs during his career.  Right or wrong, that’s where I draw the line with respect to the PED issue.

Admittedly, I gave preference to carryover players Martinez, Mussina, and Walker over first-timers Thome, Santana, and Vizquel.  The latter three have more time to be considered for election.  Thome will be a strong contender due to his 600 career home runs.  Santana had a stretch of six consecutive seasons where he finished in the Top 7 of the Cy Young Award voting, winning it in 2004 and 2006.  Vizquel is regarded as one of the best-fielding shortstops of all-time, having captured 11 Gold Gloves. He is 43rd on the all-time hits list with 2,877.

In the past three years (2014-2017) of Hall Voting, there were a total of nine player-inductees, not counting the ones elected by veterans committees.  In the three years prior to that (2011-2013), there were a total of three.  The sabrmetric perspective on career evaluation has definitely influenced this increase.  I’m on the side of more players being voted in, versus voting that tends to limit the number of honorees.  I think the chances of another bumper crop are high this year, since Hoffman, Guerrero, Jones, and Martinez have decent chances to attain the 75% minimum vote.

The 2018 inductees into the Hall will be announced on January 24.  It’s too bad my votes won’t count.

A Tale of Two Griffeys: One Very Good, One Dominant

There have been nearly 250 father-son combinations to play in Major League Baseball.  History shows that it’s pretty rare for both the father and the son to excel on the diamond at a high level comprising leadership in batting or pitching categories, all-star selections, and post-season appearances.

Hall of Famers Yogi Berra, Tony Perez, and Earl Averill had major-league sons with marginal success as big-leaguers themselves, while Joe Wood and Ed Walsh’s sons were in the majors only long enough for the proverbial “cup of coffee.” Pete Rose’s son spent 21 years in the minors, but managed to get into only 11 games in the Big Show.  The sons of Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, and Mickey Mantle never made it out of the low minor leagues.

On the other hand, there are a few good examples of father and son careers that were both highly successful.  One of those was Ken Griffey Sr. and Ken Griffey Jr.

Ken Griffey Jr. was simply one of the best players in baseball history.  In 1998 The Sporting News came up with their list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players of all time which included Griffey Jr. who was then only 28 years old.  He joined legendary players such as Ruth, Aaron, Cobb, Williams, Mays, Musial, and DiMaggio.  The ultimate honor for a baseball player is his election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  Griffey Jr. came closest of any player to being a unanimous Hall of Fame inductee in 2016, garnering 99.3% of the baseball writers’ votes.

Griffey Jr. had the distinction of being the first player in history to appear with his father in the same major-league game.  19-year-old Griffey Jr. and his 40-year-old father, Ken Sr., were teammates with the Seattle Mariners in 1990 when they first played together on August 21.  Three weeks later they hit back-to-back home runs in the same game.

While the Mariners’ roster featuring both Griffeys may have been somewhat of a publicity stunt at the time, Griffey Sr.’s own career was nothing to sneeze at.  His performance is often overshadowed by his son’s superstardom.  Even though he wasn’t a Hall of Famer like his son (Griffey Sr. received a meager 4.7% of the votes in his only year of eligibility in 1999), Griffey Sr. did manage to log a few All-Star seasons and claim two World Series rings.

Here is more background and comparison of the careers of the two outstanding players.

Both Griffeys were born in Denora, PA, which was also the birthplace of Stan Musial.  Griffey Jr. shares the same birthday as Musial.

Griffey Sr. began his professional career at age 19 in 1969, being drafted in the 29th round by the Cincinnati Reds.  However, he didn’t make his major-league debut until August 25, 1973 at age 23.  Griffey Jr. was the first overall pick in the 1987 MLB Draft by Seattle when he was 17 years old and made his major-league debut on April 3, 1989.  Griffey Jr. went on to play in 22 big-league seasons, while his dad recorded 19 seasons.  Both were outfielders.

Griffey Sr.’s career slash line (Batting Average/On-Base Percentage/Slugging Percentage) was .296/.359/.431 compared to Junior’s .284/.370/.538.  The biggest contributor to their difference in Slugging Percentage was Junior’s 630 career home runs, currently sixth on the all-time leader list.  Griffey Sr.’s highest season was 21 home runs, as he managed to hit only 152 during his career.  Junior led the American League in round-trippers in four seasons and hit 40 or more in seven seasons.  Griffey Sr. had the edge over his father in Batting Average, as he compiled nine seasons with .300 or better.

Griffey Jr. was selected to 13 All-Star teams while his father appeared on three, including an All-Star Game MVP Award in 1980.  Griffey Jr. also captured the award in 1992.

In addition to Junior, Griffey Sr. had another son, Craig, who took up a pro baseball career from 1991 to 1997.  Craig appeared in seven minor-league seasons in the Mariners and Reds organizations but managed to reach the Triple-A level for only a handful of games.  Griffey Jr.’s son, Trey (Ken Griffey III), pursued football over baseball as his sport of choice.  He wound up playing wide receiver for the University of Arizona for four seasons, had tryouts with the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins, but has yet to make an active NFL team roster.  With no expectation of pursuing a pro baseball career, Trey was selected by the Seattle Mariners in the 24th round of the 2016 MLB Draft as a tribute to his father (Griffey Jr.’s uniform number with the Mariners was 24.).

Griffey Sr.’s biggest claim to fame, and perhaps his most significant accomplishment over his son, came as a member of the fabled Cincinnati Reds’ “Big Red Machine” teams in the early-to-mid 1970s.  He helped the Reds win the World Series in 1975 and 1976.  Junior played on three post-season teams, two with Seattle and one with the Chicago White Sox, but his teams reached the American League Championship Series only once.

Griffey Jr. attained a peak salary of $12.5 million in four seasons with Cincinnati.  He earned a total of $151.7 million during his career.  Of course the economics of baseball were different when Griffey Sr. was playing.  He collected a little over $10 million during his entire career, with his highest annual salary being $1.15 million for Atlanta in 1987.

The Griffeys rank among the top major-league father-son duos for combined career performances.  They lead all pairs in career hits, and rank second all-time behind Barry and Bobby Bonds in games played, runs scored, home runs, and RBI.

In addition to the Bondses, other successful major-league father-son combos include Felipe and Moises Alou, George and Dick Sisler, Gus and Buddy Bell, and Mel and Todd Stottlemyre.

Former big-league stars Roger Clemens, Vladimir Guerrero, Craig Biggio and Dante Bichette currently have sons in the low minors trying to follow in their father’s footsteps.  Perhaps one of these will be successful in forming the next great MLB father-son duo.

 

Looking Ahead to 2018: Predictions, Prognostications, and Prophecies

The 2017 baseball season offered up its usual dose of excitement with new heroes, major milestones reached, surprising teams, new home runs records, winning streaks, and the like.  However, the Hot Stove season has been relatively quiet so far with regard to major free-agent signings, as teams seem to be willing to wait out the players and their agents in the hopes of getting more team-friendly contracts.  In any case, it’s always fun to project what’s going to happen for the upcoming season.  So here’s my early forecast for some the key happenings in 2018.

Edgar Martinez Finally Gets the Call from the Hall

Edgar Martinez will finally get enough votes to be elected to the 2018 Class of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  In his 9th year of eligibility, he will make a big jump from last year (58.6 %) and squeak in, along with ballot newcomers Chipper Jones and Vladimir Guerrero.  Martinez has been left out up until now because voters haven’t valued players who were primarily a designated hitter during their careers.  Sabermetricians have recently been making the case that his offensive career accomplished over his 18 seasons compares favorably with other current Hall candidates.  Martinez finally get the boost he needs and paves the way for other designated hitters (such as David Ortiz and Jim Thome) to also get serious consideration induction into the Hall of Fame.

 

Aaron Judge Comes Down with a Case of Sophomore Jinx in 2018

Aaron Judge was the American League Rookie of the Year last year, setting a rookie record of 52 homers.  He helped the Yankees get within one game of the World Series.  Naturally, there are great expectations for him again in 2018, especially now that he will be teamed up with newly acquired Giancarlo Stanton.  However, Judge will experience the “sophomore jinx” phenomena when his power numbers drop significantly next season.  While he has been praised for making the necessary batting adjustments in the past when he had slumping periods, pitchers will continue to find ways to expose his weaknesses that resulted in league-leading 208 strikeouts last year.  Oh, he will probably still hit 30-35 home runs, but he won’t be the same level of threat he was last season.

 

David Price Makes Big Comeback for BoSox

After leading the Red Sox in 2016 in starts and innings pitched in his first year with the club, David Price struggled to pitch at all during 2017.  Because of elbow problems, the former Cy Young Award winner didn’t make his first start until May 29, and then he also missed the month of August and the first two weeks of September, accounting for only 11 starts during the season.  The $217 million investment in Price the Red Sox made in late 2015 was being second-guessed.  Look for Price to rebound in 2018.  He’s a real throw-back competitor and will relish the opportunity to complement teammate Chris Sale in leading Boston’s pitching staff to fend off the Yankees for the division title.

 

New Manager Dave Martinez Leads Nationals to World Series

Dave Martinez got his first major-league managerial job with the Washington Nationals during the off-season, replacing veteran manager Dusty Baker whose team won 97 games and finishing in first-place in the NL East Division in 2017.  The move sparked questions about what else Dusty Baker could have done to keep his job, since he also had a first-place finish in 2016.  Well, Baker could have gotten them a National League pennant, and that’s what Martinez has been charged to do by Washington’s ownership.  Martinez is a disciple of former Rays and current Cubs manager Joe Maddon, having served as a bench coach for him on both teams.  He’ll bring new thinking and new energy to the Nats.  The team is already solid, led offensively by superstar outfielder Bryce Harper and featuring one of the best starting rotations in the game with Max Scherzer, Steven Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark, and Joe Ross.  The Nationals will easily win their division again and then defeat the Dodgers and Cubs for their first-ever pennant for the franchise that had its beginnings as the Montreal Expos in 1969.

 

The “Brew Crew” Has Sobering 2018 Season

After a promising season last year with a near-wild card showing, the Milwaukee Brewers will regress in 2018.  They had been touted as an up-and-coming team the past few season, and their second-place finish last year in the NL Central Division, six games behind the Chicago Cubs, seemed to be evidence their bright future was coming to fruition.  The Brewers even held first-place from May 27 to July 25, while the Cubs were struggling.  But they played above their talent level, and their finish was partially assisted by uncharacteristically weak St. Louis and Pittsburgh teams.  Their record against division opponents was 40-36.  The Brewers don’t figure to be terrible next year, but their hopes of being a perennial contender will go on the shelf again.

 

“Fish” Fans Experience New Lows

Miami fans thought former Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria treated the city wrongly during his tenure, immediately dismantling a World Series-winning team and failing to invest in top-flight players.  The team hasn’t had a winning team since 2009.  Loria left the team with a whopping, multi-year contract with Giancarlo Stanton, including $295 million still owed, before he sold to a new ownership group that includes Derek Jeter as the head of baseball operations.  Now “Fish” fans are being primed to experience a whole new low, as Jeter’s business strategy is taking a page out of the Cubs’ and Astros’ old organizational handbooks, which involves tearing down the existing team, shedding the most expensive players, and re-building from scratch with cheaper players and young prospects.  Jeter has initiated a fire sale that is unloading the better young talent the Marlins had assimilated, already trading Stanton, Dee Gordon, and Marcel Ozuna, and most likely unloading Christian Yelich and J. T. Realmuto before the season starts.  Consequently, the Marlins will lose over 100 games with the decimated team in 2018.  Unfortunately, their losing ways will continue for another 3-4 years before they are competitive again.  The Miami market is already among the worst in baseball, but it could actually get worse in the short-term.  Don’t be surprised if the franchise ultimately leaves Miami (see prediction below about MLB expansion).

 

The Pitch Clock Starts Ticking

MLB will announce prior to spring training in 2018 that it is implementing a 20-second pitch clock this season to address concerns around the length of games and pace of play.  There are many reasons being offered as to why the game has evolved to its current situation of longer and slower games, but recent studies are showing the time between pitches (with pitchers and batters both contributing to the problem) is the main culprit.  While it may initially be unpopular with the players, most observers believe they will eventually adjust to abiding to the new time limit that will be enforced by the umpires.  The pitch clock has already been implemented in the minors.

 

Bullpenning Goes Mainstream

In 2014 the Kansas City Royals first popularized the concept of automatically calling on several of its hard-throwing relief pitchers after the fifth or sixth inning of games to finish games, versus relying on its starters to routinely go deep into games.  Since then, the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees were among other prominent clubs to adopt the strategy, and it became highlighted in last year’s World Series between Houston and Los Angeles.  Consequently, middle relief pitchers were in high demand for additional teams during the off-season, even commanding record-breaking salaries for a role that had historically been among the lowest paid.  Look for more clubs to embrace the analytics-driven approach in 2018 and beyond.

 

MLB Announces Expansion Plan

Major League Baseball wants to expand the appeal for its product internationally, possibly even overseas.  But first it will take a step forward in the North American continent, by announcing plans to expand the number of teams for the 2021 season.  Montreal Canada and Monterrey Mexico will be new entrants, although a transfer of an existing franchise to one or both of these may be in the cards.  Oakland and Miami are currently struggling franchises in their respective markets.  Montreal will get a second chance by building with a new stadium.  (They previously had a franchise from 1969 to 2004.)  Monterrey with 4-plus million in population is the most Americanized city in Mexico.  The opening of U. S. diplomatic relations with Cuba have some people hopeful that Havana will land a franchise, but that will take a while longer to materialize (perhaps justifying a move from Miami in the interim).  Detractors of expansion (i. e., the baseball purists) will argue that the league is already over-saturated and the overall quality of play will suffer by adding more teams and players; but in the end the almighty dollar will prevail.

Are the LA Angels primed to break out this year?

The Los Angeles Angels have had the best player in the majors, Mike Trout, since 2012.  The problem is, he has been the only significant force on the team since he joined them.  Since the Angels have been a contender for only one season during his seven-year career, Trout has had little opportunity to demonstrate his abilities in the post-season.

In a relatively quiet off-season, the Angels have been one of the most active and successful teams in solidifying their team for 2018, and that may change the Angels’, as well as Trout’s, fortunes in the future.

The Angels did win a division title in 2014, but it was somewhat of an anomaly since their previous title was in 2009.  Their second-place finish last year, even though they wound up under .500 and 21 games behind the Astros, was indeed encouraging.

Now that the Angels have acquired international star Shohei Ohtani from Japan, this single move positions them to become more relevant in the American League West Division, where the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros have led the pack for the past three years.

Ohtani’s popularity in Japan came about because he excelled as both a pitcher and a hitter at the same time.  Many question whether that’s a practical situation the Major League Baseball.  The closest to that situation recently has been a good-hitting pitcher (for example, the Giants Madison Bumgarner) who is occasionally used as a pinch-hitter on days he’s not scheduled to pitch.  Babe Ruth is really the only former big-league player to regularly play as a pitcher and position player in the same season—and that was nearly 100 years ago.

Most assuredly, the Angels were primarily interested in Ohtani as a pitcher, since their starting rotation has been decimated over the past couple of years due to injury.  But he will also get some chances to be used as an occasional designated hitter, too, if for no reason other than keeping his novel appeal high with fans.

But the Angels didn’t stop with just wooing Ohtani to Anaheim.  They were pro-active in re-signing free agent Justin Upton, whom they picked up late last year from Detroit.  The well-traveled outfielder still puts up big offensive numbers.  The Angels also bolstered its infield with free-agent acquisitions Ian Kinsler and Zack Cosart.  Cosart, who will likely play third base, reinvented himself offensively last season with Cincinnati, adopting a new approach at the plate that upped his power numbers.

The Angels were one of the best defensive teams in the league in 2017, featuring Andrelton Simmons the best-fielding shortstop in the league who led all AL players in Defensive WAR (4.2) last year; and Kole Calhoun with the highest range factor in the league for right-fielders.

37-year-old Albert Pujols delivered 100 RBI’s for the 14th time in his career, as he has transitioned from playing first base to primarily being the DH.

Trout’s performance since he came into the league has been nothing short of extra-terrestrial.  He was first or second in the MVP voting in his first five full seasons (winning in 2014 and 2015).  He had to settle for fourth-place in the voting last season, as he missed over a fourth of the games due to injury.

Pitching is the biggest open question for the Angels in the upcoming season.  Ohtani is expected to bring some stability to the starting rotation of the Angels, which has been plagued with injuries over the past few years.  One would think former major-league pitcher Tommy John was playing for the Angels, given the number of references to “Tommy John surgery” associated with their pitching staff.

Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano are coming off this surgery, having missed all of 2017.  Tyler Skaggs missed the 2015 season due to the surgery and has been able to start only 26 games during the past two seasons.  Their No. 1 starter, Garrett Richards, last pitched 60+ innings in 2016 and opted to have a newer biometrics surgery instead of Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ligament in his pitching elbow.  Richards is expected to be ready for 2018.

Matt Shoemaker required emergency brain surgery late in the 2016 season after being hit in the head by a batted ball and made only 14 starts in 2017, although he pitched well.  J. C. Ramirez will be coming off UCL surgery he had late in 2017.

Newcomer Parker Bridwell was the lone bright spot for the Angels rotation last season, as he finished with a 10-3 record and 3.64 ERA.

With an indefinite list of healthy starting pitchers for 2018, besides Ohtani and Bridwell, the Angels are likely to make some additional acquisitions before the season begins.  Now that Josh Hamilton’s expensive long-term contract is no longer on the Angels’ books, there is room to invest in some contingency pitchers.

The Angels had only a +1 run differential in 2017.  They’ll have to improve that considerably to be relevant next season.  However, even with an Angels’ improvement, the Houston Astros remain a formidable team after winning the World Series.  Their roster will largely be intact from last season.  Seattle has been on the verge of becoming a contending team, but always seems to have a breakdown, whether it’s due to injuries or just under-performance.

It should be an exciting year for Angels fans.  Ohtani will bring a lot of attention and expectations to a team that has struggled to break into the next level.  But this just may be the year.

New Yankees Manager Boone Gets Unexpected Christmas Present

Aaron Boone was an unconventional selection as the new manager of the New York Yankees week before last.  Without any prior managerial or coaching experience, many observers think he is going to need all the help he could get.  But then his job just got a lot easier last week with an early Christmas present.

Expectations are high for Boone in 2018.  Anything short of a World Series appearance in Boone’s first season won’t be acceptable to the Yankees ownership.  After all, prior Yankees manager Joe Girardi wasn’t retained after leading the Yankees to within one game of reaching the World Series in 2017.  Even if Boone’s Yankees were to win 90 games (normally considered a successful campaign) but fail to win the American League pennant, it won’t be viewed as a good season for him.  Unfortunately, Boone won’t get a grace period as the new manager in the Bronx.

The second big surprise of the Yankees’ offseason occurred a week after Boone assumed his new role.  Santa Claus came early for Boone, when the Yankees secured Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton, 2017 season AL MVP with 59 home runs, in an unforseen trade.  Stanton had previously received offers from the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals, but wound up rejecting both, since he had a full no-trade clause in his contract with the Miami Marlins.

Boone now has the latest version of the “Twin Towers” in 6-foot-6 Stanton and 6-foot-7 Aaron Judge, who wasn’t too shabby himself with his rookie record of 52 home runs in 2017.  The potential for these two young players evokes the memory of past slugger duos of the Bronx Bombers – Ruth-Gehrig and Mantle-Maris.  Adding catcher Gary Sanchez to the mix then conjures up thoughts of Ruth-Gehrig-Dickey and Mantle-Maris-Berra.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

The Yankees had been heavy suitors of international free agent Shohei Ohtani.  Most people thought they would be the favorite to attract the Japanese star Ohtani to the biggest stage in baseball, until he declined any interest in going to the Yankees.  They quickly rebounded from Ohtani shunning them and pursued Stanton even though it was thought he wanted to land with a West Coast team.  The move by the Yankees to acquire Stanton just goes to show that they should never be counted out.

Just when we think the Yankees have expended all their available resources for next year on Stanton, don’t be surprised if they also find a way to get Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado on their squad, too.  The Orioles’ front office has curiously been entertaining offers for their franchise player even though has one more year left on his contract with them.  Machado has been quoted in the past as saying he would love to eventually play for the Yankees.  Guess what?  The Yankees would love that, also, even if he is just a one-year rental.  The main question is what will the Yankees have to give up for the mega-star?

Another reported interest of the Yankees is pitcher Gerrit Cole of the Pittsburgh Pirates.  He’s the No. 1 starter in the Pirates’ rotation, and his acquisition would help solidify the Yankees’ staff which already has Luis Severino, Matsuhiro Tanaka, Sonny Gray, and aging CC Sabathia.  The Yankees’ top prospect outfielder Clint Frazier has been mentioned in the trade for Gerritt, since he will not likely get a chance at a starting job in 2018 now that Stanton is on board.

If one or both of those additional transactions came to fruition, Boone would think Santa was really working overtime for him.  Heck, Boone probably wouldn’t even have to show up in the dugout every day; he could just text his lineup from his house on most days and watch the game on TV from home. Yeah, right!

Derek Jeter puts on different face as Marlins executive

During much of his playing career, New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter was the face of Major League Baseball.  Besides being a pretty darn good shortstop on some really good Yankees teams, he was the good-looking, likable guy who always represented the sport and himself well with fans and the media.  He always said the right things and never got in trouble off the field.  He was a great poster boy for Major League Baseball.

Jeter is now part (4%) of an ownership group that culminated its purchase of the Miami Marlins shortly after the regular season finished in September.  In additional to being a financial investor, is directly involved in running the organization as Chief Executive Officer.

Early impressions of Jeter from public interactions as an executive in the front office are that he is a different person than he was as the admirable player.

New Marlins ownership took over with a strategy that called for fielding a lean payroll team which requires replacing some of the higher-paid players with more cost-effective players and building the club from within their farm system.  This will likely require 3-5 years to accomplish, as the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs organizations have recently experienced.

Thus, Jeter’s first major decision from the front office could wind up being the most significant of his career in his new role—what to do with its highly-paid star player, Giancarlo Stanton, who represents a major financial strain on a franchise wanting to reduce its payroll dramatically.  Stanton currently saddles the club with $285 million left to be paid over the next ten years from a mega-contract executed by former Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria prior to the 2015 season.

Jeter let it be known early that he was willing to part with 27-year-old Giancarlo in order to shed payroll and pick up some top prospects.  For Miami fans, this wasn’t a popular stance.  After all, Stanton had just finished the 2017 season leading the National League with 59 home runs and was voted the league’s MVP.  On a team that has never had a winning record during his stint with the team, Stanton is undeniably the face of the Marlins.  Even with the popular Stanton, the Marlins were last in attendance among the National League teams.  Moving Stanton out will significantly challenge the new ownership with filling seats.  After all, Jeter won’t be suiting up there.

Jeter came under scrutiny when there were reports that Jeter had not even talked to Stanton before taking his position on the player’s future.  In fact, when some of Stanton’s teammates were questioned by reporters of their interactions with new management, they similarly indicated there had been no contact.

As further evidence of the Marlins’ cost-cutting movement, Jeter decided he didn’t need special assistant positions in the front office occupied by former Marlins players and managers in Jack McKeon, Andre Dawson, Tony Perez, and Jeff Conine, all of whom were part of the Marlins’ identity.

That decision could be expected since it’s not uncommon for new ownership and management to bring in its own selections for key staff and consulting positions.  But then it was reported Jeter asked the Marlins’ outgoing president, David Samson, to inform these individuals of his decision to terminate them, not taking on the task himself.  Jeter again drew criticism for his seemingly callous approach.  It later came out that Jeter had offered to retain some of these individuals, but at significantly reduced salaries.  Still, the reaction to Jeter by the public and the press wasn’t much different.

In another personnel move, it was reported that Marty Scott, a veteran scout for the Marlins for the past eight years, was fired by the Marlins as he lay in a hospital bed recovering from a surgery involving cancer.  Another heartless action.

Transitions like the one the Marlins are going through are always tough jobs.  There are surely unpopular decisions that must be made as the new Marlins ownership charts its course.  But it seems Jeter’s management style and relationship-building ability leave a lot to be desired.  Indeed, he is building his new persona with these initial decisions and actions.  But it appears he’s already tarnished his reputation somewhat.  His early image as an owner-executive will be hard to erase, especially when it’s likely the Marlins will suffer through more losing seasons in the early years of re-tooling the roster,  Jeter would likely wind up taking the brunt of the fans’ disillusionment.  This will be unchartered waters for Jeter.

Is Jeter just naïve in his role as CEO or is this the new Jeter we will be seeing, someone who will strictly look at the business aspect of the club and not worry too much about how he treats the staff, players, and the fans?  As a Yankees player whose team was never out of contention for a playoff berth, he’s not used to losing and dealing with unpopular situations.  How is he going to react when the Marlins finish in last place in the division?

We learned on Saturday that the Marlins have come to an agreement with the Yankees to trade Stanton for Starlin Castro and two Yankees prospects.  The deal is subject to Stanton’s agreement to waive the no-trade clause and his passing a physical with the Yankees.  Assuming the deal goes through, Jeter will then focus on the rest of the club.

He had already traded second baseman Dee Gordon to Seattle.  It’s reported he will do some additional roster slashing, including star outfielders Christian Yelich and Marcel Ozuna, in order to shed even more of the $110 million payroll they had in 2017.  The Miami market is among the worst in Major League Baseball to start with.  With his best players gone to other teams, Jeter’s going to have an even tougher time filling seats in the coming season.

For Jeter, who was largely the “golden boy” of baseball for his twenty years as a player, it’s going to be a whole different ballgame now as an executive.

Yankees select Aaron "Bleeping" Boone as it's new manager

It took the Yankees front office about five weeks to select its replacement for manager Joe Girardi who was let go shortly after the Yankees came within one game of getting back to the World Series.  But on Saturday they finally named Aaron Boone as the 35th manager in Yankee history.  Yes, this is the same Aaron Boone who hit the dramatic walk-off home run in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series to defeat the Boston Red Sox for the pennant.  Many Red Sox fans consider this game one of the worst losses in Red Sox history.  It was then that Boone acquired an expletive-based middle name (for which “Bleeping” is a printable substitute).

As endearing as Boone is to the Yankees fans for his historic home run, he was one of the most unlikely and unconventional of the six candidates Yankee GM Brian Cashman interviewed.  A 12-year veteran of the major-leagues who retired in 2009, Boone hasn’t set foot on the field as a coach or manager or been employed in the front office of a major-league or minor-league organization since then.  He was hired by ESPN in early 2010 as an analyst, and he’s been prominent in broadcast booths for nationally televised games since then.

So, what makes Boone qualified for this job which many consider the least secure in baseball?  The job is thought to be one of the toughest because of the historically high expectations set by the team’s ownership and front office, the city’s fans, and local sportswriters.  After all, released manager Girardi never had a losing season in his ten-year stint with the Yankees.  His teams went to the playoffs in six of those seasons, including winning the franchise’s 27th World Series championship in 2009.  There are probably 25 out of the 30 major-league clubs who would have given up all their amateur draft picks for a year to have had that kind of results.

In addition to his own career as a player, Boone has a strong family heritage in baseball.  His father, Bob Boone, was a major-league catcher for 19 seasons (1972-1990) that included four years as an all-star and five as a Gold Glove Award winner.  Bob was also a big-league manager for six seasons with the Kansas City Royals and Cincinnati Reds and currently works in the front office for the Washington Nationals.  Aaron was a clubhouse “rat” from a very early age.  He and his brother Bret would often be found in the clubhouse of his father’s teams, running around with other children of his father’s teammates.

Furthermore, Aaron’s grandfather, Ray Boone, was a major-league infielder from 1948 to 1960, including two years as an all-star.  Bret was a three-time all-star during his major-league career from 1992 to 2005.  Brother Matt Boone played seven minor-league seasons in the Detroit Tigers and Cincinnati Reds organizations. The Boone family is one of only four instances of three-generation families in Major League Baseball history.

Calling games from the broadcast booth is not exactly comparable to coaching or managing on the field, but in his current job Boone has certainly been in tune with recent baseball trends and strategies that have become mainstream in the game today.  His job as an analyst has kept him in touch with the strengths and weaknesses of major-league teams and players, as well as the new-style baseball analytics used by front offices to influence team and individual performance.

The critical experience Boone doesn’t directly have is the relationship aspect of managing—being a “player’s manager” that often involves stroking the egos of 25 players in the clubhouse; keeping them loose during the bad spells but also holding them accountable; and covering their backs after the tough losses.  Furthermore, there are also the relationships with the media, particularly when the team is going through losing spells.  Sportswriters can put as much pressure on a manager as the competition in his division.

However, Boone won’t be the first major-league manager with little or no prior managerial or coaching experience.  In fact, it seems to be a growing trend of big-league clubs to hire former players without that experience, although in a few cases they have front-office experience instead.  Examples include Mike Matheny (St. Louis Cardinals), Walt Weiss (Colorado Rockies), Robin Ventura (Chicago White Sox), Brad Ausmus (Detroit Tigers). Craig Counsell (Milwaukee Brewers), Scott Servais (Seattle Mariners), and Gabe Kapler (recently hired by the Philadelphia Phillies) who secured their managerial jobs in 2012 or later.  That approach hasn’t always been successful though, as Weiss, Ventura, and Ausmus had losing records and have already been replaced.

In addition to Boone, Cashman also brought in more traditional candidates during the interview process.  They included an in-house aspirant, Rob Thomson, who was a coach with the Yankees during Girardi’s tenure; Hensley Meulens, current coach with the San Francisco Giants who won three World Series during his tenure; Eric Wedge, former manager of the Cleveland Indians and Seattle Mariners; and Chris Woodward, current third base coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Recently retired Carlos Beltran, a former Yankees player from 2014 to 2016 who was popular with his teammates, was also interviewed.

Perhaps the safer bet for a new manager would have been Thomson or Muelens.  But in the end, it was probably Boone’s potential to bring a fresh approach to the manager’s role that won him the job.

Boone will have the advantage of a Yankees team that doesn’t require a lot of change in its roster to be competitive again in 2018.  In fact, they have positioned themselves to be relevant for the next few years, since they had already turned over their aging roster and their farm system is stocked with top prospects waiting in the wings to fill new vacancies.  However, Boone has the tall task of competing in the ever-tough American League East Division.

Boone’s career with the Yankees was very brief, as he appeared in only 54 regular season games with the Yankees in 2003.  He managed to get only nine hits in 17 post-season games that year.

But he became a lasting Yankee hero when one of those nine hits propelled the Yankees past the Red Sox for the American League pennant.  Boone inherited his expletive-based middle name from another former Yankee player, Bucky “Bleeping” Dent, who similarly hit a dramatic home run against the Red Sox in the 7th inning of a 1978 regular-season tie-breaker game to give the Yankees a lead.

It will be interesting to see whether Boone’s “Bleeping” middle name will continue to be used by Yankee followers as a term of endearment or in a disparaging way like Red Sox fans, after his first year as the skipper of the Yankees.

The Search for Baseball's Relatives Continues

Some of you already know one of my special interests in baseball research is identifying all the professional baseball players, managers, coaches, scouts, executives, broadcasters, owners, front office personnel, umpires, and clubhouse staff who have a relative that was also in some capacity in pro baseball.  I just completed my annual compilation and have posted the results on my Baseball Relatives website https://baseballrelatives.wordpress.com/family-ties-2017-season/.

The process involved in the compilation activity requires arduous and time-consuming research.  But I believe it results in one of the most comprehensive databases of baseball relatives information that I’m aware of.  My sources of information are primarily based on the major league team media guides, Major League Baseball websites, selected baseball magazines, and searches of the internet for current articles in newspapers and posts on blogs and websites.

My entire database now has over 7,400 individuals (all years) representing over 12,000 relationships.  That’s more than double the number I had initially identified in my Family Ties book through the 2011 season.  The increase stems from the six additional seasons since the book was published, as well as the inclusion of additional minor league players and major league non-players I have discovered since then.

Some of the more noteworthy relatives from the 2017 season include the following:

  • Jake Boone was drafted out of high school in the 38th round of the 2017 MLB Draft by the Washington Nationals.  If he were to eventually make it to the majors, he would become part of the first four-generation family of major leaguers.  His family tree includes great-grandfather Ray Boone, grandfather Bob Boone, and father Bret Boone.  His uncle, Aaron Boone, was also a major-leaguer.

     

     

  • Trei Cruz was drafted out of high school in the 35th round of the draft by the Houston Astros, the team his grandfather (Jose) and father (Jose Jr.) previously played for.  Two of his grandfather’s brothers, Hector and Tommy, also played in the majors.

     

     

  • Several Hall of Famers have relatives coming up through the ranks.  Carl Yastrzemski’s grandson, Mike Yastrzemski, is playing at the Triple-A level in the Baltimore Orioles organization.  Harmon Killebrew’s grandsons, Chad and Grant, are both pitchers in the low minors.  Cal Ripken Jr.’s son, Ryan, is a first baseman now playing in the Orioles organization where his father starred.  Tom Glavine’s son, Peyton, was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels, but will attend college instead of signing a pro contract.

 

 

  • During the recent World Series between the Astros and Dodgers, two sons of former major leaguers were on center stage.  Dodgers first baseman, Cody Bellinger, is the son of Clay Bellinger, who played on two World Series teams with the New York Yankees.  Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. is the son of Lance McCullers Sr., who pitched for seven seasons in the majors.

 

 

  • This season’s Toronto Blue Jays minor league team Dunedin in the Class A Florida State League featured the sons of three former major-league stars.  Third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s father was a 16-year major leaguer, American League MVP in 2004.  Shortstop Bo Bichette’s father, Dante Bichette, was a four-time all-star with the Colorado Rockies.  Second baseman Cavan Biggio is the son of Hall of Famer Craig Biggio.  Additionally, Dunedin outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s father was a star player and manager in Cuban professional leagues, while his brother currently plays for the Houston Astros.

 

 

  • Kacy Clemens, the son of seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens, made his professional debut in the Toronto Blue Jays organization this year.  He is Clemens’ third son to be drafted by a major-league team.  Koby played in the minors and independent leagues for ten seasons.  Kody was drafted by the Astros out of high school in 2015 and currently plays at the University of Texas.  Note the first names of Clemens’ sons all begin with “K”, the significance being his second-place ranking on the list of all-time strikeout leaders.

 

 

  • Luke Farrell, the son of Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell, made his major-league debut as a pitcher with the Kansas City Royals.  John later took a day off from the Red Sox during the season in order to watch his son pitch in a big-league game.

 

 

  • Satchel McElroy, an outfielder in the Cincinnati Reds organization, is the son of former major-league pitcher Chuck McElroy.  He is named after Hall of Famer Satchel Paige, who was a Negro League teammate of his grandfather Sylvester Cooper.  Satchel’s brother C. J. is an outfielder in the St. Louis Cardinals organization.  The brothers are the nephews of Cecil Cooper, former major-league player and manager.

 

 

  • Patrick Valaika is in his second big-league season with the Colorado Rockies.  He has three brothers (Matt, Chris, and Nick) who also played professionally, with Chris having also played in the majors from 2010 to 2014.

 

 

  • Stephen Drew, who played for the Washington Nationals in 2017, and brothers J.D. and Tim were all former first-round draft picks in the MLB Draft—Stephen (2004), J.D. (1997 and 1998), and Tim (1997).

 

 

  • Zach Garrett was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in 2017 and made his pro debut with Aberdeen in the Orioles minor league system.  His baseball lineage includes grandfather Jasper Spears, who was an infielder in the Dodgers organization from 1949 to 1959.  However, Zach’s more notable family members include NASCAR race drivers who happen to be grandfather Dale Jarrett and father Ned Jarrett.

 

 

  • 94-year-old Red Schoendienst still works for the St. Louis Cardinals organization as a special assistant.  His major-league career has included time as a player, coach, manager and front office consultant with the Cardinals, starting in 1945.  Schoendienst has five brothers who played professionally in the 1940s.  His son, Kevin, was also a minor-leaguer for two seasons in the Cubs organization.

I’m always on the hunt for new entries in my Family Ties database.  Of course, the newer, up-and-coming players aren’t as hard to find because so much information is now available on the internet.  Finding the older players is more challenging, but every once in a while I’ll discover a new instance, for example, when doing research in old newspapers and magazines for my SABR book projects.  For me, it’s sort of like finding that rare silver dime in a huge pile of coins.

The Tall and Short of It: Altuve Slams Judge in AL MVP Voting

It was David versus Goliath in the American League Most Valuable Award this past week.  5-foot-6 second baseman Jose Altuve against 6-foot-7 outfielder Aaron Judge.  But it was the diminutive Altuve who brought down Judge in the voting for what was really a two-man race.  Altuve was thought to have a slight edge leading up to the award announcement on Thursday.  In addition to his impressive stats, he was the sentimental favorite of many because he proved that one doesn’t have to be a big-muscled slugger to have a huge impact for his team.

But it was a bit of a surprise when Altuve won the award by a substantial margin, 405 points to 279.  Was he really that much more dominant than Judge?

Altuve garnered 27 of the 30 first-place votes of the Baseball Writers Association of Baseball.  That’s a pretty definitive statement of how the writers felt.  If the balloting had considered the games they both played in the playoffs, it’s understandable why Altuve might have been the runaway winner, as he was a key figure in the Astros’ first-ever World Series title.  However, the award considers only regular season play, and the voting takes place before the playoffs begin so that there is no possibility of post-season bias.

So let’s take a look at the objective details of how each these all-stars performed during the regular season.

Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is a metric that attempts to encapsulate a player’s all-around performance into a single number, considering hitting, running, and defense for position players. (Pitchers have different components for the WAR calculation.)  Altuve’s WAR was 8.3, while Judge’s was 8.1.  Because the metric is an approximation, there is virtually no difference in their overall performance in this regard.

Not surprisingly, the two players had very different seasons when considering the traditional individual cumulative stats.

Judge was the power hitter, setting an American League record for most homers by a rookie with 52 and drove in 114 runs.  While Altuve showed exceptional power for such a small player, with 24 home runs and 81 RBI, he is generally viewed as more of a high-average hitter with speed on the bases.

Altuve led the American League in hitting, batting .346 with 204 hits.  It was the fourth time in his career collecting over 200 hits.  After hitting over .300 for much of the season, Judge finished at .284 with 154 hits.

Judge led the league in runs scored with 128, compared with Altuve’s 112, while Altuve stole 32 bases to Judge’s 9.  Judge struck out a league-leading 208 times, while Altuve whiffed 84 times.

Another method of comparing individual performance considers their “slash lines,” which normalize their hitting performance regardless of the type of hitter they are.  The slash lines include the derived metrics On-Base Percentage/Slugging Percentage/On-Base Plus Slugging Percentage.  Judge outpaced Altuve in all of these categories:  .422/.627/1.049 compared with .410/.547.957.  Judge led Altuve in Runs Created, 149 to 133.

While Judge often gets dinged for his high strikeout rate, in fact he got on base more times than Altuve.  Judge was able to accomplish that by leading the league in walks with 127.

Both players are very athletic and play their respective positions well.  However, with regard to defensive performance, neither player stood out above the other.  Defensive WAR was not a significant factor in either of their overall WAR numbers.

Thus, it would seem Judge was at least equal to Altuve and arguably a little better over the entire season.  So what was in the voters’ minds, such that 90% of them gave the edge over Judge in first-place votes?

Here are some other factors that likely came into consideration to favor Altuve.

Judge had a tremendous first half of a season, but then struggled during July and August with only 10 HR and 20 RBI, before rebounding in September.

Altuve was more consistent throughout the entire season, including the month of July when he had an outlandish .523 On-Base Percentage.

Altuve was third in the American League in stolen bases with 32 (only two shy of the leader) which brought an additional dimension to the Astros’ offense.

In one of the measures of clutch hitting, Altuve’s Batting Average was .441 and his On Base Percentage was .529 in 62 “late and close” games, while Judge’s Batting Average was .215 and On Base Percentage was .380 in 69 “late and close” games.

Judge carries the perception that he is a one-dimensional hitter--that he either hits a home run or he strikes out, while Altuve combines hitting for average, hitting for power, and speed on the bases.

Although it’s argued nowadays that team results shouldn’t factor into the MVP voting, it’s hard to argue Altuve wasn’t the main driver in the Astros being the runaway winner of the AL West Division by 21 games, while Judge’s Yankees finished second in the AL East Division.

The National League MVP Award results were a different story.  Miami slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who led the major-leagues with 59 HR, barely squeaked out a win over the Reds’ Joey Votto.  Both received 10 first-place votes, but Stanton only outdistanced him 302 to 300 in total points.

5 Hot Topics for the Hot Stove Season

Baseball is the only major professional sport to have a name for its off-season, the Hot Stove Season, named for the era when people gathered daily around a stove at the barber shop or general store during the winter to re-hash the baseball season just completed and speculate on what is going to happen next season.

Nowadays the sports talk radio and TV shows are full of conversations and debates about free agent signings, player trades, upcoming Hall of Fame voting, and who’s going to contend for next year.  There’s a lot of re-living the highlights or the lowlights, as the case might be, of your favorite team and their heated rivals.

Below are five topics that are getting a lot of attention as the Hot Stove Season gets into full gear.

 

Where will Giancarlo Stanton land?

Stanton was baseball’s biggest slugger in 2017, with 59 dingers, in a year in which the Major League Baseball set a new record for most home runs in a season.  In 2014, Stanton signed a mega deal with the Miami Marlins involving $325 million for 13 years.  That was then-owner Jeffrey Loria’s commitment to the Miami fans that he wanted Stanton around for a long time.

Now, the new Marlins’ ownership led by former New York Yankee star Derek Jeter is going in a different direction.  They don’t have the financial wherewithal to maintain Stanton’s contract and thus have let it be known Stanton is on the market.  In addition to lowering payroll, the Marlins are looking for prospects and low-cost, high-value contributors that can become the core of a new team.

Despite his high price, there are surely several suitors for Stanton, with the Cardinals, Giants, and Phillies being talked about the most.  Fans of those teams and others are fantasizing right now about how Stanton could impact their teams.  But the fact is Stanton has a no-trade contract with the Marlins, meaning he can decline a trade to a team he doesn’t want to play for.  So he’s in control of his destiny and unfortunately for some of the suitors, he ultimately won’t figure into their plans.

Stanton’s a West Coast guy, having grown up in Sherman Oaks, California.  It will be no surprise if his preference for a new team is the Dodgers or Angels, but they already have some big stars with high salaries.  It’s no secret the other West Coast teams (Padres, Giants, and A’s) could use definitely Stanton, but will he want to bank his career on franchises that are currently struggling?

 

Who will the Yankees hire to replace Girardi?

It’s been said the managerial job of the New York Yankees is the one of the least secure jobs in baseball, but since 1996, there have been only two – Joe Torre and Joe Girardi.  Now that the Yankees have dismissed Girardi as his contract ended this season, who are the likely candidates as his successor?

Apparently the Yankees’ front office had become uncomfortable with how their relationship with Girardi had evolved over ten years at the helm, despite his taking the team to six post-season appearances, including a World Series championship team in 2009.  So what are the expectations of the Yankees going forward?  Yankees GM Brian Cashman indicated he wanted someone who would have more connectivity with the players and front office.

The trend nowadays for MLB teams is to hire managers without prior managerial experience, including stints in the minors as managers.  It’s as though that prior experience somehow automatically casts the person as entrenched in old-school ways that aren’t adaptable to today’s game and players.  The other major criteria is the person’s proclivity to embrace analytics as a way to implement evolving game strategies.  Furthermore, front office exposure of the candidates is a plus, because of the preferred teaming relationship between the front office and the field manager to implement the newer analytics.  An example is the Phillies’ recent hire of Gabe Kapler.

One would think the Yankees have a couple of viable in-house candidates for Girardi’s successor, both currently on the Yankees’ coaching staff.  Bench coach Rob Thomson, who has been in the Yankees organization for 28 years, has already been interviewed.  He has only one year as a minor-league manager, but has been on Girardi’s major-league staff for ten years.  He has a lot of familiarity with the front office and the players.  First-base coach Tony Pena was the manager of the Kansas City Royals during 2002 and 2005 before coming to the Yankees during Joe Torre’s tenure.  But it’s not clear Thomson or Pena have a leg up on other candidates.

Former major-league players Aaron Boone and Raul Ibanez are reportedly candidates for the job, as both fit more of the criteria to bring fresh blood to the team.  Boone has been a TV analyst since retiring as a player in 2009.  As a Yankee player in 2003, he is best remembered for hitting one of the most dramatic home runs in their history, an extra-winning shot in Game 7 of the ALCS against Boston.  Although not a formal role, Ibanez was a “player-coach” for the last few teams he played for.  He seemed to develop sound connections with his teammates and was a steadying influence during the playoffs.

Last week the Yankees interviewed Eric Wedge, a former manager of the Cleveland Indians and Seattle Mariners.  He was somewhat of a surprise candidate, since his teams mostly had mediocre finishes and he doesn’t have a reputation of necessarily being a good “player’s manager.”

There will likely be other candidates we don’t even know about yet. Heck, even A-Rod might be a candidate..just kidding.  Cashman has ample time to make a decision.  Whoever the new manager is, he will be walking into an enviable situation with the Yankee’s current core of young players and a farm system loaded with top prospects.

 

Will “bullpenning” gain more traction in the upcoming regular season?

The 2017 playoffs gave us more insights into how the evolving bullpenning strategy could be used more extensively in major-league baseball.

The concept of having starting pitching go through the opponent’s lineup only once and then yielding to relief pitchers who go multiple innings, including the closer, has previously been used by a few teams during the regular season.  This year’s playoff teams seemed to be well-positioned to employ it more extensively, and it became a major factor in the outcome of several games.

However, the strategy exposed several factors that will be the subject of debate as to its continued viability by more teams and whether it can be used effectively during the regular season.  During the playoffs, several starters who got through the first three to four innings without any trouble were automatically lifted for less effective relievers, calling to question whether the managers should stick by what their analytics tell the, or use their gut intuition to stick with the starters for another one or two innings.  Relief pitchers seem to tire more as the teams got deeper in to the playoffs, as they had less down time between appearances.  Managers lost confidence in some of their relievers and didn’t use them, further exacerbating the workload issues of the other relievers.  Trying to leverage the relief staff early in games for traditional lefty-righty matchups between pitchers and batters tended to use up the staff faster.  A few pitchers were bridged between starting and relieving roles with a fair amount of success.

In the post- World Series analysis, staunch advocates of bullpenning said the playoffs proved that it can be effective and should be utilized more.  Doubters of the approach said the playoffs were not necessarily a good indicator of how well it will work during the long 162-game season.

Stay tuned.  The debates will continue and it will be interesting to see whether the strategy gains more traction in the upcoming season.

 

Will Shohei Otani be the first two-way player since Babe Ruth?

Shohei Otani is the latest Asian player to indicate a desire to play in Major League Baseball in the United States in 2018.  The 23-year-old is an outstanding pitcher and hitter, as two seasons ago he captured the Pacific League MVP Award of Japanese Professional Baseball playing both ways.

In his five seasons in Japan, he went 42-15 with a 2.52 ERA and 624 strikeouts in 543 innings.  He batted .286 with 48 home runs and 166 RBI in 1,035 at-bats as a designated hitter and outfielder.

Otani will enter the posting process agreed to by MLB and the Japanese league where Japanese clubs are compensated with a percentage of the player’s guaranteed contract when MLB teams sign their players.

He has been compared to legendary slugger Babe Ruth because of his dual baseball skills.  In 1918 and 1919, Ruth both pitched and played in the outfield for the Boston Red Sox, before being traded to the Yankees in 1920 when they wanted him in their lineup because of his bat.  Ruth went on to become the most prodigious home run hitter in history.

Otani would like to leverage both his pitching and hitting skills in the majors, but there’s a question about whether the major-league club Otani signs with will actually allow him to play both ways.  It hasn’t been done on any significant basis since Ruth.  However, don’t count out the possibility until Otani gets a chance to prove himself.  It may be the next new twist to roster construction by major-league front offices.

 

Who will be the next break-through team in in the majors?

The Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros are the poster children for how major-league clubs can do complete make-overs of their clubs and ultimately climb their way back to prominence to win World Series championships.  Unfortunately, the organizational plans implemented by their respective front offices meant their fans would be forced to endure several paltry seasons in the process.  But in the end, those plans paid off with long-awaited World Series rings.

Following the Astros’ and Cubs’ blueprints, several other major-league clubs have embarked on similar paths and are aiming to be the next franchise to get themselves in a position to be completive.

The Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies are well into their plans for about three years now, while the Chicago White Sox just began its journey before the 2017 season.  Each of these teams essentially started over in their roster makeup, which called for dumping high-priced veteran players and acquiring young prospects they can get under contract control for several years.

To a lesser extent, the New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, and Milwaukee Brewers have made significant changes in their rosters, but without the complete overhauls as some of the other clubs.

The Yankees appear to be ahead of their schedule in getting back into prominence, as they forced the Astros into a Game 7 in this year’s League Championship Series before bowing out.  The new core of the Yankees team has exceeded everyone’s expectations, and the club appears to have even more young talent poised to assume big league jobs.  Unlike the Cubs and Astros, the Yankees didn’t suffer miserable seasons to get to their current status.

The Twins surprised everyone by making it as a wild-card team in the playoffs this year after losing over 100 games in 2016.  The Brewers led their division for the first part of 2017 when the Cubs were slow to get out of the gate and went down to the wire before dropping out as a play-off contender.  One other team we don’t hear a lot about is the Oakland A’s.  Their roster has been notorious for being in a constant state of flux, but they now appear to have accumulated some players we need to start to watch.

Charlie Morton is Unsung Hero Among Astros' Stars

George Springer, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and Justin Verlander are the acknowledged stars of the Houston Astros’ World Series championship team, but there was one other relatively unknown ‘Stros player who stood just as tall when critical post-season games were on the line.

Astros pitcher Charlie Morton came up big this post-season with outstanding performances in Game 7 of both the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees and the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.  He was the first pitcher in history to win two Game 7s in the same post-season.  Not too many outside the Astros organization saw that coming.

When Morton was signed as a free agent by the Houston Astros in November 2016, it raised a lot of eyebrows, since he had pitched in only four games during the 2016 season for the Philadelphia Phillies before tearing his left hamstring.  Before that, he had been beset by major injuries, including two hip surgeries and Tommy John surgery, and never posted a winning record in eight major-league seasons.  To further the mystery around Morton’s acquisition, Houston even offered a two-year contract for $14 million (higher than the market price), without any apparent competition from other teams.  Obviously the Astros front office saw something in the veteran right hander that no one else saw.

Morton’s career took a turn for the better in 2017 when he refined his pitching approach with the Astros.  He always had a decent curveball, but then the Astros helped him improve his mechanics with his fastball that allowed him to reach the mid-90s.  At 33 years old, he had never been more effective than he was during the 2017 regular season.

On an Astros pitching staff that primarily featured former Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander, another former Cy Young winner who was acquired at the trade deadline, Morton became a staple in the starting rotation.  In 25 regular season starts, he posted a 14-7 record and 3.62 ERA, leading the team with 163 strikeouts while averaging 10 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched.

After two wins by the Astros against the Yankees in the ALCS, Morton took the loss in Game 3.  Then with the series tied at three apiece, Morton got the starting nod in Game 7 at home in Minute Maid Park.  He turned in a masterful performance by holding the powerful Yankee lineup scoreless in his five innings pitched.  The Astros went on to win 4-0 for their second-ever National League pennant.

With the Astros leading 2-1 in the World Series, Morton got the start in Game 4.  He was effective again, pitching six scoreless innings before yielding a run in the top of the 7th inning.  But the Dodgers eventually won the game 6-2 on five runs scored in the top of the 9th.

Verlander was unable to shut down the Dodgers in Game 6 to propel the Astros to their first World Series championship.

Then in Game 7, even though the Astros jumped out to an early 5-0 lead, they were forced to go to their bullpen in the third inning, as starter Lance McCullers Jr. experienced control problems.  With Verlander and Keuchel available for work out of the pen, Astros manager A. J. Hinch instead called on Morton to keep the Dodgers in check.  Morton entered the game in the sixth inning and prevented the Dodgers offense from mounting any type of comeback.  He held the Dodgers to only one run on two hits in his four innings and was credited with the win for the Astros, as they finally claimed their long-awaited World Series title.

George Springer was deservedly named the MVP of the Series, based on his record-setting hitting performance of five home runs and 22 total bases.  Given that the Astros had big-time pitchers in Keuchel and Verlander, few people would have expected Morton to play such a crucial role for the pitching staff in the post-season.  Instead, he put his own personal history behind him and earned his place forever in history on baseball’s biggest stage.

 

Clayton Kershaw Struggles for Koufax-like Performance in Post-Season

It’s been said that Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw is the modern-day Sandy Koufax.

Both of the major-league pitchers are left-handed strikeout legends.  Kershaw is a multiple-time Cy Young Award winner (2011, 2013, 2014), just as Koufax was (1963, 1965, 1966).  Koufax was 30 years old when he retired in 1966, due to an elbow injury, but he was still voted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.  Kershaw could quit baseball today at age 29, and yet he’d still be a shoo-in for Hall of Fame induction, because of his dominance in his era.  It also happens they’ve both played for the Los Angeles Dodgers, which makes the similarity all the more compelling.

However, prior to this year Kershaw hadn’t matched Koufax in October post-season play and thus had drawn harsh criticism for not being the big-game pitcher like his predecessor.

Koufax was a very wild pitcher in his first few seasons with the Dodgers.  Yet by 1959, when he became a regular in the starting rotation, through his last season in 1966, the Dodgers won three World Series, and lost another.  Koufax was instrumental in two of the Dodgers’ Series titles in 1963 against the New York Yankees and in 1965 against the Minnesota Twins, as he was recognized as the World Series MVP in both years.  Overall, in eight World Series games during his career (prior to the divisional and league playoffs era), Koufax posted an ERA of .095, a WHIP of 0.925, while striking out almost 10 batter per nine innings.

Including 2017, the Dodgers have been to the playoffs seven times during Kershaw’s career that began at age 20 in 2008.  They won their fifth consecutive West Division championship this year.  Clearly, Kershaw has been a big reason for the Dodgers’ success during this timeframe, as he led the National League in ERA for five seasons and was the strikeout king for three seasons.

However, Kershaw was not the same pitcher in the post-season as he had been during the regular seasons.  In his eighteen post-season starts, he had never recorded an out past the seventh inning.  He had won only four of his eleven decisions, while his ERA was over 4.50.  The Dodgers had never advanced past the League Championship Series until this year.

Kershaw was hoping for a break-through performance in this year’s post-season.  His first two outings, in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Arizona Diamondbacks and in Game 1 of the NLCS against the Chicago Cubs weren’t particularly spectacular, but he pitched well enough to help the Dodgers to victories in both games.

Then in Game 5 of the NLCS, Kershaw dominated the Cubs by yielding only one run on three hits in six innings.  His performance enabled the Dodgers to claim their first National League pennant since 1988.

As the Game 1 starter in the World Series, Kershaw was again masterful in leading the Dodgers to a 3-1 win over the Houston Astros.  He gave up three hits and one unearned run in seven innings, while striking out eleven.

The pre-game buildup for his next start in Game 5 touted that Kershaw had perhaps overcome his prior years’ post-season legacy of not being able to win the big games.  TV broadcaster John Smoltz called Kershaw the “best pitcher on the planet” in his pre-game commentary.

But then in Game 5, it turned out Kershaw didn’t have his command, and his curveball and slider weren’t working.  He gave up a four-run lead on the eighth home run he surrendered in the post-season, a three-run shot by Astros first-baseman Yuli Gurriel in the fourth inning to tie the game.  After the Dodgers regained the lead 7-4 in the top of the fifth, Kershaw couldn’t finish the bottom of the inning after putting two runners on with walks.  Astros hero Jose Altuve tied the game again with a three-run home run off Dodgers reliever Kenta Maeda.

Well, Kershaw wasn’t the only pitcher (on both teams) to struggle in the game.  With records being set for the number of home runs in a World Series, the Astros finally won the five-hour see-saw slugfest in extra innings, 13-12.

Kershaw may indeed be the best pitcher on the planet, but he didn’t show it in the crucial Game 5 against the Astros.  Furthermore, he may be Koufax’s equal, as far as regular season performances goes, but he’s still got a ways to go to be in the same league as Koufax for playoff and World Series results.

"Might Mite" Jose Altuve Carries Astros on his Back to World Series

Astros pitcher Justin Verlander may have been the MVP of the National League Championship Series, but no one was bigger than 5-foot-6 second baseman Jose Altuve, who literally carried the team on his back during the playoffs.

In each of the Astros’ victories during the ALCS, the diminutive second-sacker played a key role in propelling the Astros to their first World Series appearance since 2005.  But it should come as no surprise, since Altuve has been coming up big all season.  He’s thought to be in a tight race for American League MVP during the regular season, where his main competition for the award is 6-foot-7 New York Yankee Aaron Judge.  Ironically, Altuve’s performance dwarfed Judge’s in the playoffs.  (Judge struck out 27 times in 52 plate appearances.)  If the MVP voting were to occur after the playoffs (the award does not include post-season games), Altuve would be a sure cinch to win.

Altuve’s playoff highlight reel began in the Division Series against the Boston Red Sox.  He gave a preview of his upcoming playoff performance in Game 1 against the Red Sox, when he smacked three home runs.  He joined the company of elite sluggers Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson who had previously accomplished this feat in post-season games.  In Game 2, he was intentionally walked twice by Red Sox hurlers, only to have them face clean-up hitter Carlos Correa.  As singer Aretha Franklin would say, that’s “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”  Altuve garnered 8 hits and 4 walks in 19 plate appearances for a slash line of .533/.632/1.133 during the four-game Series.

Against the Yankees in the ALCS, Altuve again managed to get 8 hits and 4 walks in 29 plate appearances.  In the first two wins by the Astros, he collected 5 hits.  In the Game 6 elimination game for the Astros, he hit another home run and drove in 3 of their 7 runs.  He added one more home run, an opposite-field blast, in the deciding Game 7.

Since the Astros’ ownership dismantled the team in 2011 and essentially started over in its roster make-up, Altuve has been an indispensable element of the club’s resurgence to prominence.  He led the way for the addition of other young newcomers, George Springer, Carlos Correa, Marwin Gonzalez, Alex Bregman, Dallas Keuchel, and Lance McCullers Jr., all of whom have made huge contributions.

Altuve is no stranger to collecting awards.  He won his third batting title in 2017, hitting a career-high .346.  In 2014, he led the league with a .341 average and hit .338 in last year.  He has collected over 200 hits in his last four seasons. An all-around player, he has led the American League in stolen bases twice and has one Gold Glove Award in his trophy case.

There’s no denying the Astros’ acquisition of veteran Justin Verlander at the trade deadline was the missing piece of their puzzle to get them playoff-ready.  His shutdown of the Yankees in two games of the ALCS was crucial to the Astros securing the World Series berth against the Los Angeles Dodgers.  A similar performance by Verlander will be needed against the Dodgers.

But it’s a pretty good bet that Clayton Kershaw and the rest of the Dodgers’ pitching staff will be most wary of the little guy wearing Number 27, who has a way of coming up big when it counts.

It's Not Too Early To Talk About a Yankee Resurgence

When the Yankees de-constructed its team during the 2016 season and started its path toward a youth movement, not too many people expected the results to come quickly.  However, it looks like they are at least one to two years ahead of their plan with their recent win over the Cleveland Indians in the League Division Series.  It’s true they’re currently two games down to the Houston Astros in the League Championship Series, but they shouldn’t be written off just yet this season.  In any case, they’ve proved they’re ready to be perennial contenders again.

So how did the Yankees manage to rebuild so quickly?

At the trade deadline in 2016, when the Yankees were largely out of contention for a playoff berth, they traded its top relief pitchers Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman to add to the bevy of top prospects in their farm system.  The Yankees brought up some of its home-grown players from their farm system to finish out the season with the big league club.  Catcher Gary Sanchez set records for home runs by a rookie, while rookies Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin hit some dramatic home runs in their first major-league appearances.

All of a sudden, they made fans recollect the “Bronx Bombers” from the Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig era, except now these new youngsters were being called the “Baby Bombers.”  The Yankees franchise that had previously won 27 World Series began to get a glimpse of what their future could look like, but the team was generally thought to be a few years away from contending for its 28th championship.

Then at the end of last season, the Yankees continued with its re-building plan when they dumped several of its aging players with large contracts.  Gone were Mark Texeira, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran, all of whom were granted free agency at the end of the season, and Alex Rodriguez, who was released from his contract towards the end of last season, even though he still had another year on his contract in 2017 worth $21 million.

The Yankees added veteran outfielder/first-baseman Matt Holliday and re-acquired Chapman through free agency over the winter.  Judge surprisingly won a starting job in right field out of spring training and immediately began to show that his home run prowess in late 2016 was no fluke.  Youngsters Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery became regulars in the starting rotation to complement veterans Matsuhiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia.  The bullpen of Chapman and Dellin Betances, along with the coming of age for relievers Chad Green and Adam Warren, were keeping the Yankees close in the late innings.  Infielder Ronald Torreyes filled in adequately while Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro were temporarily out of action with injuries.

After a month on the Disabled List near the beginning of 2017, Sanchez picked up where he left off in 2016 with his power stroke.  Outfielder Aaron Hicks was having the best season of his career even though he was sharing playing time with Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury.  When Hicks missed the month of July due to injuries, rookie Clint Frazier, the Cleveland Indians’ top prospect who had been acquired by the Yankees in the Andrew Miller trade of 2016, made a good showing.  To the surprise of most of the baseball world, the Yankees found themselves contending for first place in their division for the first half of the season with their young team.

After trailing the Red Sox for most of July, the Yankees were still found in contention as the trade deadline approached on July 31.  Yankee General Manager Brian Cashman figured the team needed a few more pieces to make a serious run for the playoffs, so to the delight of Yankee fans they became buyers, not sellers like the year before.

Cashman made some bold moves by adding Oakland’s ace Sonny Gray who had spent the first month of the season on the DL.  In a big trade with the Chicago White Sox, the Yankees used some of their stockpiled prospects to acquire reliever David Robertson, third baseman Todd Frazier and reliever Tommy Kahnle.  Each of them made key contributions during the final two months of the season.  The Yankees also added starting pitcher Jaime Garcia from Minnesota who contributed to a lesser degree.

First baseman Greg Bird, who had previously been at the top of the Yankees prospect list but had missed all of 2016 and most of 2017 due to injuries, finally got healthy during the final month of the season.

The Yankees couldn’t overtake the Red Sox for the division title, but comfortably secured one of the wild-card spots, thus accomplishing Cashman’s goal.  They handily defeated the Minnesota Twins in the American League wild-card game.

Down 2-0 in the American League Division Series against the favored Cleveland Indians, the Yankees defied the odds and showed some grit by coming back with three wins to take the series.  Their four victories in do-or-die situations in the playoffs have exceeded all expectations for the season.

The Yankees now feel like they are playing with house money in the American League Championship Series against the formidable Houston Atros.  They lost two close games on Friday and Saturday against superior Astros pitching led by Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander.  The Yanks will really have to defy huge odds again to come out the victor in the series, as they’ll need a few more timely hits and a lot fewer strikeouts.

Regardless of the ultimate outcome against the Astros this year, the Yankees have a bright near-term future to look forward to.  Unlike the Cubs and Astros who took 3-4 years for their team make-overs to materialize, the Yankees appear to have compressed the timeframe for their ascent back to prominence.

It looks like the Baby Bombers have already grown up, and the Yanks are back to being the Evil Empire.

Today's Baseball: It's Not Your Father's Game

Watching just a few of the MLB playoff games this past week has highlighted several of changes that have taken place in the pro sport during the last 10-15 years.  Surely, if players of the past, like Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth from the 1920s, were alive to watch today’s games, they would probably be befuddled by some of the strategies being employed on the diamond.  But you don’t even have to go back that long ago; the game your father grew up with is very different from what we’re seeing now.

The 2003 book Moneyball brought attention to a change in thinking about several aspects of the game that were starting to take place in major leagues front offices, although baseball statistician Bill James had been challenging many of the traditional ways of evaluating major-league players and teams as early as the 1980s.  Every major-league team now has numerous front-office staff dedicated to collecting and analyzing all types of information to help the manager and coaches gain every possible advantage on the field.

Perhaps the most notable changes being seen today are the number of home runs and strikeouts that are occurring.  Major League Baseball set new all-time highs in both categories this year.  Over 110 MLB players this year had 20 or more home runs.  It used to be that 20 home runs per season put you in consideration for “all-star” designation.  In what was referred to as the “deadball era” prior to 1920, the average number of home runs was one for every five games.  Nowadays, there are an average of about six home runs for every five games.  Furthermore, in that era the average number of strikeouts per team, per game was four (total of eight per game).  In 2016 the number had doubled.  That means 30% of the outs in a 9-inning game currently come from strikeouts.

However, strikeouts by batters are no longer frowned upon like they have traditionally been over the years, particularly for those hitters who put up big numbers for slugging percentage.  Babe Ruth was primarily known for his home run hitting prowess, but he also led the American League in strikeouts in five seasons, with a high of 93 in 1923.  The New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge, who set a new rookie record for home runs (52) this year, also led Major League Baseball with 208 strikeouts.

The once-popular strategy of “small ball” utilized by teams to eke out runs in low-scoring games has largely fallen by the wayside. The usual “small ball” scenario involved a leadoff batter drawing a walk, followed by a sacrifice bunt or a stolen base to move the runner over, and then requiring just a single to score the run.  Statistics now show that stolen bases and sacrifice bunts only marginally improve the chances of scoring runs.  In fact, a below-average runner caught stealing and a sacrifice bunt by a better-than-average hitter are viewed as giving up valuable outs.  This is much different thinking from the time when Rickey Henderson, who holds the major-league record for most stolen bases in a season (130 in 1982), was caught stealing in 42 (nearly 25%) of his attempts that season.  As a result of the current philosophy about the risk/reward of stolen bases, many clubs don’t bother trying to build a lineup with a running game based on stolen base capability.

All of the teams are now routinely using defensive infield shifts (usually three infielders on one side of second base) to play to the tendencies of individual batters to hit in certain areas of the field, based on historical data the teams have collected.  In 2016 nearly 28% of all balls in play featured some type of defensive shift.  That number has grown exponentially just since 2010.  Cleveland Indians manager Lou Boudreau put six fielders on the right side of second base in a shift against Ted Williams in 1946 to over-compensate for his habit of pulling the ball on the right side of the field.  At the time the defensive move was thought to be more of a gimmick, but perhaps Boudreau was actually ahead of his time.  Nowadays there’s a stat for runs saved due to utilizing defensive shifts.

Many teams are now putting their best hitters in the second slot in the batting order.  Whereas these players traditionally batted in the third, fourth, or fifth positions, data shows that hitting higher up in the order provided anywhere from 15 to 20 more at-bats over the course of a season, thus providing more opportunities for these hitters to impact games.  That’s why you’re seeing sluggers in the playoffs, like the Yankees’ Aaron Judge, the Cubs’ Kris Bryant, the Nationals’ Bryce Harper, and the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger, batting in the Number 2 hole.  In the “small ball” era, the job of the hitter in the second slot was usually to move the runner ahead of him, often at the “cost” of an out.

Several teams have been using a form of “bullpenning” for a few years.  The Kansas City Royals brought it to the forefront in the 2014 and 2015 World Series, when they went to their bullpen after the fifth or sixth inning to use a different reliever in each the last three innings of the game.  Currently, the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees are among the teams who have built their pitching staffs to use this strategy routinely.  It often means that starters aren’t expected ot go past the fifth or sixth inning, and traditional role of the bullpen closer is not just reserved for the three outs of the 9th inning. 

Several baseball analysts are now promoting the “bullpenning” concept to include the starting pitcher who would be scheduled to go through the opponent’s lineup only one time, followed by a series of relief pitchers as early as the third or fourth inning.  Hence over time, there would be little differentiation between the starter, middle reliever, and closer roles.  Whereas starters nowadays try to get in 180-200 innings per season and relievers typically put in 50-60 innings, we could see a day soon when all pitchers have evolved into a scheme wherein 90-125 innings are pitched in a season.  It will be interesting to see if that approach actually gets implemented.  Remember the day when pitchers like Gaylord Perry and Bob Gibson were expected to pitch 300 innings, including 20 complete games, as the aces of their team’s pitching rotations?  That seems like ancient history now.

The trend for relief pitchers has shifted to their predominantly being hard throwers, hitting well above 95 mph on most of their pitches.  Because of their brief appearances in games, they can usually afford to go all out on their fastballs, not worrying about holding something in reserve.  The best example of this is Yankee pitcher Aroldis Chapman, who routinely hits 100 mph several times in a game during his relief stints.  Contrast this with former fastball pitcher Nolan Ryan, who marveled the baseball world when he broke 100 mph just a few times during his 27-year career.  Also, recall the popular photo from the 1940s, before radar guns, in which Cleveland Indians fastball pitcher Bob Feller demonstrated he reached 99 mph, verified in a crude test using a motorcycle for a comparative speed.  Thus, Feller was deemed the fastest pitcher in the game.

New technology is allowing the game to be evaluated in ways that were inconceivable 25-30 years ago.  Terminology such as launch angle, exit velocity, spin rate, and route efficiency is rapidly becoming everyday lingo in following baseball.  Newer, more sophisticated SABR metrics are replacing older, outdated measurements of player and team performance.  Consequently, the information being gathered and analyzed by this technology is having a significant impact on how rosters are being constructed and evaluated, which is fundamentally influencing how the game is being played. 

It used to be that the box score of a game would tell you pretty much all you needed to know about a game.  Not so anymore.  I saw a recent factoid that said over eight gigabytes of data are now being captured for each MLB game.  One of our father’s favorite baseball books, the voluminous Encyclopedia of Baseball, which numbered over 3,000 pages in covering the career stats of every major-league player since 1871, wouldn’t take up eight gigabytes if were in digital format.

Oh, yeah, there’s one other noticeable change in the game that our fathers wouldn’t have seen in their day.  Each MLB team seemingly has a designated “wolf man,” a player who wears his hair really long, combined with long, scraggly facial hair that resembles actor Michael J. Fox in the movie “Teen Wolf.”  The Rockies’ Charlie Blackmon, the Nationals’ Jayson Werth, and the Dodgers’ Justin Turner have some of the more noteworthy unkempt looks in today’s game.  That’s a far cry from the days when the Yankees organization wouldn’t allow a player to have any facial hair.

If you’re interested in learning more about what’s driving how professional baseball is being changed, there are three books I’d recommend for educational reading:  Big Data Baseball (Travis Sawchik, author, Flatiron Books, publisher), Ahead of the Curve (Brian Kenny, author; Simon & Schuster, publisher), and Smart Baseball (Keith Law, author; HarperCollins, publisher).

 

Twinkies Surprise Themselves with Playoff Spot

The Minnesota Twins wrapped up an American League wild-card berth last week, after an absence from the playoffs since 2010.  However as recent as the end of July, the club hadn’t figured to be in this position.  You see, they were sellers at the trade deadline, getting rid of their closer and a recently acquired starter in the rotation, so they could better prepare for the 2018 season.  In retrospect, they miscalculated their chances of getting one of the coveted playoff spots this year.

It’s normal at the trade deadline for clubs on the margin of making the playoffs to decide if they will forgo the last two months of the season with regard to their free agents.  If a club thinks it doesn’t have a reasonable chance at the playoffs, it is usually a good time to get top prospects for players they are not planning to retain for the next season.

In Minnesota’s case, they were in third place in the American League Central Division behind the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals on July 31.  In terms of overall standing in the league, the Twins had the eighth-best record at 50-53, which meant there were four teams ahead of them for one of the league’s two wild-card spots.  Furthermore, the Twins were only ½ game ahead of the next three teams in the overall standings.  Consequently, the Twins’ management determined they would start planning for the next season with their two trades.  In fact, they even tried to trade their all-star second baseman, Brian Dozier, but their proposed deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers fell through in the final days.

So what happened?

Twins players didn’t give up on the season, even though their front office may have.  The young team’s offense managed to keep the club alive.  They currently rank second in the American League in OPS+ (On-Base Plus Slugging Percentage), behind the slugging Houston Astros.  They are third in Runs Scored.

The Twins had an outstanding August, winning 20 of 30 games and overtaking the Royals for second place.  It turned out their playoff chances also benefitted from mediocre records of the teams in their division, as well as the West Division.  The Los Angeles Angels mounted an effort to challenge the Twins for a wild-card spot, but wound up faltering in the last two weeks.

Eight Twins players have 10 or more home runs this year, led by Brian Dozier with 33.  Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario have also provided big bats during the season, although Sano has recently been on the disabled list with a shin fracture.  Fleet-footed Byron Buxton has proved to be one of the best outfielders in the league.  The veteran of the team, Joe Mauer, leads the team in hitting with a .305 average.

In contrast to their batting, Twins pitching has been below average in all of the key pitching metrics.  Ervin Santana is the best of the starting rotation.  He threw 5 complete games and 3 shutouts, while compiling a 16-8 record and 3.28 ERA.  It didn’t help that closer Brandon Kintzler was traded to the Washington Nationals on July 31.  In an act of desperation for additional pitching help, the Twins signed 44-year-old pitcher Bartolo Colon in early July, but he’s given up a lot of runs in his 14 starts.  Pitching will be the Twins’ weak spot if they advance past the wild-card game.

They won’t be favored in their wild-card game against the New York Yankees.  They don’t have as deep of a team as the Baby Bombers, but in a one-game do-or-die situation, depth may not be a factor.  One late-inning home run could wind up being the difference.

Looking back in post-season history, the Yankees have been a nemesis of the Twins in several of their last playoff experiences.  The Yankees swept them in three games in both the 2009 and 2010 League Division Series.  In both 2003 and 2004, the Yankees defeated the Twins in the LDS in four games.

While the Twins’ playoff run may ultimately be cut short again by the Yankees this year, they will definitely have something to build off for seasons to come.  They have the second-youngest team in the American League, so their future will be bright.

However, don’t sell the Twinkies (their fans’ nickname for the team) short in the playoffs next week.  After all, they’ve already made history by being the first team to claim a playoff spot after losing 100 or more games in the previous season.  This team sure isn’t packing it in yet.

Matt Harvey: From Dark Knight to Fallen Knight

Fame can be fleeting.  Just ask former Detroit Tiger pitcher Mark “The Bird” Fidrych or “Super” Joe Charboneau, the former Cleveland Indians outfielder.  Both of these popular sensations are examples from the 1970s and 1980s, but there have been numerous players since then who emerged quickly in the major leagues to achieve national attention.  But then almost as quickly, they suffered a dramatic downfall to relative obscurity.

The latest major-league player that appears to be following this path of fallen heroes is New York Mets pitcher Matt Harvey.

Harvey made his major-league debut with the Mets in the second half of 2012, when he made 10 starts.  He gained initial attention because of his strikeout rate of 10.6 per nine innings.  However, he really began to make his mark during the 2013 season, when he won his first four starts.  By mid-season he had fashioned a 7-2 record and 2.27 ERA, was named to the all-star team, and was the starting pitcher in the All-Star Game at his home Citi Field.

He was packing stadiums with each start.  He was dubbed the nickname “Dark Knight” when he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in a reference to a Batman movie that came out about that time.  He was the most promising Mets pitcher since Dwight Gooden.  He became the leader of a young corps of hard-throwing pitchers the Mets had developed through their farm system.

However, he suffered an arm injury in late August 2013 that prematurely finished his season.  Overall, he made 26 starts for the Mets that year.  He had an ERA of 2.27 and WHIP of 0.983, while leading the National League in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) with 2.01

Harvey underwent Tommy John surgery on October 22, 2013, to repair a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament, and then missed the entire 2014 season recovering from the surgery.

His comeback in 2015 was successful, as he helped the Mets get to their first World Series since 2000.  He finished sixth in ERA (2.71) and seventh in WHIP (1.019). The general consensus was that he had overcome his injury.  For his performance, he was named The Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year.  The Right-hander won two games in the post-season, but also had two no-decisions in the World Series despite the club holding two ninth-inning leads.

However, his 2016 season got off to a shaky start, and he never rose above mediocre outings.  In 17 starts, he got past the sixth inning only twice.  His ERA ballooned to 4.86, while his WHIP increased to 1.468.  He won only 4 of his 14 decisions.  Twelve days after going the DL on July 6, he had surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition in which there is compression of the nerves, arteries and veins in the passageway from the lower neck to the armpit.  His season again ended prematurely.

Harvey’s 2017 season has been a disaster as well.  He’s had difficulty getting batters out, as he doesn’t have anything on his pitches.  He missed 2 ½ months due to nerve issues in his shoulder, raising questions that he might have become damaged goods.  To add to his physical woes, he was suspended by the Mets for three days in May for failure to show up on time for a game, leading to disenchantment by the club that he wasn’t fully committed to the team.

Harvey’s contract with the Mets ends this season, and he becomes eligible for salary arbitration.  It’s not clear the Mets will tender an offer, since his value to the club has declined significantly and the ill feelings that developed earlier in the season may be irreconcilable.  If the Mets wind up making an offer, it would probably be to use him out of the bullpen.  However, there will likely be other clubs interested in signing him at a reduced price, thus taking a chance he can regain his old form as a starter.

For such a highly touted, popular talent to be reduced to an also-ran who is just trying to hang on in the majors makes for a sad narrative.  It is reminiscent of another hard-luck story of a pitcher named “Boo” Ferriss, who attained a measure of national fame when he took the baseball world by surprise in 1945 and-1946 by winning 46 games in his first two major-league seasons (setting a modern-day American League record).  Like Harvey, Ferriss injured his arm during the next season, effectively ending his major-league career at age 25.  Ferriss tried unsuccessfully until 1952 to make a comeback.

Fidrych and Charboneau were both named American League Rookie of the Year in their respective debut seasons, yet they faded out of baseball within a couple of years.  They still hold a place in baseball history, as Matt Harvey probably will, too.

Didier's Passing Recalls Prominence of Louisiana Baseball Family

Mel Didier’s passing on September 11 is a reminder that few baseball families have had as big an impact on a specific area of the country as his family did in South Louisiana.

Didier, whose professional baseball career spanned nearly fifty years, made his mark in baseball as a well-regarded scout and front office executive for several major-league clubs.  Named after Mel Ott, he was involved in administrative posts at the start-up of three expansion franchises:  1969 Montreal Expos, 1977 Seattle Mariners, and 1997 Arizona Diamondbacks.  Up until the time of his death, he was a special assistant with the Toronto Blue Jays organization.

Mel’s father, Irby Didier, was the patriarch of the sports family, which included six sons (Pearce, Clyde, Robert, Mel, Raymond, and Gerald) who played, coached, managed, and scouted at various levels of high school, collegiate, and professional baseball.  Irby played semi-professionally (for Marksville), as did Pearce (an outfielder with Thibodaux and manager of the Homer Louisiana Oilers) and Clyde (a catcher for the Baton Rouge Red Sticks).

Robert Irby Didier Jr., was a minor-league catcher in 1940 with Greenville in the Cotton States League before going into military service during World War II.  He sustained wounds during his service that prevented him from continuing a pro baseball career, although he was later able to participate in semi-pro leagues in the Baton Rouge area.

Gerald Didier, was a second baseman in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization from 1952 to 1954, and then played a season in the Mexican League in 1955.  After a season in the South Atlantic League in 1956, he concluded his pro career with Baton Rouge in the Evangeline League in 1957, when he batted a career-high .327.

Raymond Didier played pro baseball with Port Arthur of the Evangeline League in 1940 before becoming the head baseball and football coach at Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now University of Louisiana Lafayette) in the 1950s.  From 1957 to 1963, he was the head baseball coach at LSU, claiming an SEC baseball championship in 1961.  Raymond was an assistant coach for the football team during that time period as well.  He then served as the head baseball coach and athletic director at Nicholls State University from 1963 to 1978.  The baseball field at Nicholls State is named in his honor.

Mel’s son, Bob “Hiya” Didier, was a major-league catcher from 1969 to 1974 for the Atlanta Braves, Boston Red Sox, and Detroit Tigers.  He was selected by the Braves in the fourth round of the 1967 MLB Draft out of Glenn Oaks (LA) High School and reached the majors with the Braves at age 20.  After his playing career ended in 1976, he got he first job as a minor-league manager in the Braves organization at age 28.  Over his career, he managed in the minors for 15 seasons, including stints at the Triple-A level in the Astros and Blue Jays organizations.  Bob served on the big-league coaching staffs of the Oakland A’s (1984-1986) and Seattle Mariners (1989-1990), as well as scouted in the New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs organizations.

Beau Didier, son of Bob Didier and the family’s fourth-generation ballplayer, was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 40th round of the 2008 MLB Draft, out of Bellarmine High School in Tacoma, Washington.  However, the catcher/infielder committed to LSU, where he lettered in three seasons (2010-2012).

Mel earned letters in football (1944-1945) and baseball (1947) at LSU before beginning his professional baseball career as a player in 1948 and 1949.  However, he soon turned to coaching at the high school level, where his 1953 Baton Rouge Catholic High team captured their first state championship baseball title.  That team, which Didier dubbed “one of the greatest high school teams in American history,” featured four players who went on to sign pro contracts and seven who accepted college scholarships to play baseball. 

He served as a scout in the Detroit Tigers, Milwaukee Braves, Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers, Cleveland Indians, and Baltimore Orioles organizations.  He was involved in player development roles for the Montreal Expos, Seattle Mariners, and Arizona Diamondbacks organizations, as these franchises were getting off the ground.  Some of the major-league players whose careers he influenced included Hall of Famers Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, Mike Piazza, and Eddie Murray.

At the college level, Didier was the LSU freshman team football coach in 1967 and 1968, head baseball coach at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now ULL) in 1981-1982, and athletic director at USL in 1982.

Mel received the “Legends in Scouting” Award in 2009, presented by the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation.  He authored “Podnuh, Let Me Tell You a Story,” a book about his baseball life.

Mel died at age 90 in Phoenix, Arizona.

Monday's Miscellaneous Musings

I didn’t pick a single topic to write about this week.  Instead, I thought I’d touch on a few assorted subjects of interest in major-league baseball.  The month of September usually offers the most drama of the long regular season for several reasons.  For example, we get to see the second-tier teams scrambling for a wild-card berth, a chance to get into the post-season playoffs, and possibly a shot at a World Series ring.  We get to see how the players who were acquired at the trade deadline fare with their new teams.  And the last month of the season always seems to bring out the best in team and individual player performances.

So, here’s a rundown of some of the recent topics that have caught my attention.

Tim Tebow didn’t get a late-season call-up to the New York Mets as we thought he might when he got a promotion to High-A classification a couple of months ago.  I figured the Mets would bring him up to the big-league club when the rosters were expanded in September, even if it was for just a promotional appearance.  The Mets took a low-risk gamble on him last fall and again during spring training.  He hadn’t played baseball since high school, so he was really rough around the edges for a professional baseball player.  He demonstrated occasional flashes of promise this season, but it became apparent he wouldn’t have gotten the chance to play in the minors if it were not for his earlier popularity as a football player.  I can’t see him coming back to baseball next year.  So long, Tim.  Good try.

Justin Verlander appears to be just what the Astros ordered in making the trade for him on September 1.  They needed another top-of-the-line starting pitcher in their rotation if they are going to advance in the upcoming playoffs.  Verlander appears to still have a lot of gas in the tank and brings experience in post-season play.  Perhaps more than anything, the veteran’s mere presence will provide the rest of the ball club with confidence and swagger going into the post-season, after experiencing a fall-off (11 wins, 17 losses) during August.

I wrote about Miami Marlin slugger Giancarlo Stanton’s “home run watch” in last week’s blog post, and he currently sits at 54, with still a good chance to pass Roger Maris’s record of 61 set in 1961.  The final days of Maris’s quest to break Babe Ruth’s record in 1961 were well-documented as being an extremely harried time for the Yankee slugger, including having his hair fall out.  I suspect the closer Stanton gets to the milestone, he’ll face similar stressful moments.

Detroit outfielder Mikie Mahtook pulled a “Jose Canseco-like blunder” about a week ago.  LSU baseball fans know Mahtook as one of the best outfielders in the school’s history.  However, he had an embarrassing moment in a game with the Cleveland Indians on September 3, when a fly ball hit toward him in the outfield bounced off the top of the fence, back in play; and in his attempt to catch it, he accidentally bobbled it over the fence into the bullpen for a home run.  Mahtook’s unfortunate play was reminiscent of outfielder Jose Canseco, infamous for his aiding an opponent’s home run, when a batted ball bounced off his head into the stands for a home run.  Ironically, a few days after Mahtook’s “assist,” he was robbed of a home run by Kansas City Royals outfielder Alex Gordon in practically the same spot on the field at Detroit’s Comerica Park.

Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Rhys Hoskins is the latest unexpected player to put on a home run show.  During a 15-game stretch in mid-to-late August, the rookie accumulated 11 HR, 24 RBI and OPS of 1.453.  Through last Saturday, he now has a total of 14 home runs in only 127 at-bats.  Trevor Story of the Colorado Rockies and Gary Sanchez of the New York Yankees had momentous stretches of home run success last year.  Early this season, the Milwaukee Brewers’ Eric Thames had a similar run.

Veteran J.D. Martinez tied a major-league record on September 4, by hitting four home runs in a game.  He is only the 18th player in history to accomplish this and joins the likes of Lou Gehrig, Willie Mays, Gil Hodges, and Mike Schmidt as members of the elite club.  In 2015 Martinez came close to accomplishing this feat with a 3-homer game.  He has been a huge addition to the Arizona Diamondbacks (19 HR, 43 RBI, .669 SLG, and 1.008 OPS in 44 games) this year, who acquired him on July 19 from the Detroit Tigers. 

The latest “scandal” in Major League Baseball involves the New York Yankees catching rival Boston Red Sox using an electronic device (an Apple watch) to steal signals of the Yankee catcher.  Red Sox management and players are scoffing at the accusation as “just a part of the game.”  But the MLB Commissioner’s Office will likely be taking a more serious attitude toward the cheating offense which is prohibited by MLB rules.  Significant fines or loss of draft picks could likely be the reparation paid by the Red Sox organization.  Some critics are asking, tongue in cheek, if Red Sox president Dave Dombrowski has been hanging out with football coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, who’s been previously caught and punished for NFL cheating offenses.

New York Mets pitcher Matt Harvey looks like he’s done as far as being a top-fight pitcher.  Just a few years ago, he was being touted as the best pitcher since Cy Young.  He was the toast of New York City for a while, packing the ballpark in each of his outings.  But multiple injuries have now affected his ability to get batters out.  To complicate matters further, he and Mets management had an off-the-field fallout earlier in the season.  The Mets are likely to dump him after this season.  This just goes to show us that stardom can sometimes be fleeting.

The Cleveland Indians and Arizona Diamondbacks have each had incredible winning streaks at an opportune time in the season.  The Indians are currently on an 18-game winning straight and are now in a tight race with Houston for the best record in the American League, while the D’backs captured 13 consecutive wins and seem to be locking in a wild card spot in the National League.  It’s the first time in history two major-league teams have had simultaneous winning streaks of 13 or more games.  The Indians’ streak is the second longest in the expansion era of MLB which began in 1961.

Three weeks ago the Los Angeles Dodgers were being touted as one of the best teams ever, with a record of 91-36 as of August 25.  It looked like this would finally be the year they would go for all the marbles, a World Series ring (see my blog post on August 13).  However, they have now lost 15 of their last 16 games through Sunday.  They will still likely win the NL West Division, but they seem to have lost their focus.  Can they turn it around in the next three weeks, or have they already peaked?  Are they now fighting a sense of panic in living up to earlier expectations?  The Washington Nationals, who clinched the East Division on Sunday, are now in contention with the Dodgers for the best record going into the playoffs.

If I had a vote for Most Valuable Player, Houston’s Jose Altuve would get mine in the American League.  This mighty-mite of a player, at 5-foot-6 and 165 pounds, actually stands pretty tall in the league when it comes to Batting Average (1st in the league), OBP (2nd), and OPS (3rd).  Plus he’s leading the league in Stolen Bases and Wins Above Replacement.  A key cog in the Astros’ impressive resurgence as a franchise since 2015, it’s difficult to argue there is a better all-around player than Altuve in 2017.  He exemplifies one of the great things about the game of baseball—a little guy can be as impactful as the larger, more muscular players.

Giancarlo's HR Quest Puts Spotlight on Key Baseball Issues

Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton has put on one of the best power displays in history for a single month.  In 29 games in August, he belted 18 HR and 37 RBI, while compiling a .349 Batting Average.  His 18 home runs tied the National League record for most homers in the month of August set by Rudy York.  The rest of his slash line includes an outrageous .433 On Base Percentage and .899 Slugging Percentage.  With a total of 51 home runs through the end of August, he’s now on the “watch list” for potentially reaching Roger Maris’s 61 home run milestone for a season, set in 1961.  After 131 games, Stanton is approximating the pace set by Sammy Sosa (51) and Mark McGwire 53) when they surpassed Maris in 1998.

While Stanton is clearly at the top of this year’s class for home runs, he has a lot of company in the home runs department.  In fact, this season has been tagged as the “Year of the Home Run,” because the players in Major League Baseball are collectively on a pace to hit more than 6,000 homers for the entire season, something that has never been done before.  New records are being set for the average number of home runs per game and the number of home runs as a percentage of runs scored.

If we look back at the time of the All-Star break in mid-July, we were talking about New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge being in the position Stanton finds himself in now.  Judge took the baseball world by storm when he got off to a torrid start in the home run category by compiling 30 dingers by July 9.  However, he has cooled off considerably since then (currently has 37), while Stanton has made a meteoric rise.

This isn’t the first season Stanton has put up big numbers, but his career has been marred by injuries that have prevented him from playing full seasons in five of his eight major-league campaigns.  When he has been healthy he has twice hit 37 home runs in a season.  He has also led the league in Slugging Percentage in two seasons.  If you take the total number of career games he’s played and divide by 162 games (the number of regular season games), his “average per 162 games” (removing the injury factor) is an astonishing 44 home runs.  That’s a number in Babe Ruth’s stratosphere.

The attention being paid to Stanton has raised a number of related issues, some old and some new, being debated now.

What is the real home run record Stanton is chasing?  Sosa and McGwire first broke Maris’s 1961 single-season record of 61 home runs in 1998 with 66 and 70, respectively.  Then Barry Bonds shattered all their numbers with 73 home runs in 2001.  However, all of those performances are tainted by the PED era.  Many baseball enthusiasts feel that Maris’s record is still the only legitimate number; and if Stanton were to eclipse that number this season, he will hold a more special place in baseball history than Bonds, McGwire or Sosa.  Stanton has publicly stated he believes Maris’s 61 is the genuine record, in effect spurning those other guys’ efforts.

What’s contributing to this “Year of the Home Run?” Are the baseballs now being used in MLB juiced instead of the players being juiced, as in the PED era,  There has been increasing speculation in recent years that the construction of and the materials used in baseballs today are different and are contributing to the surge in home runs across the board.  According to a recent article in the Daily News, more and more pitchers and coaches are hopping on the bandwagon of the belief that baseballs are “being altered to become bouncier and to create more flight, thus allowing normal fly ball outs to carry into the stands.”  The MLB Commissioner’s Office denies these accusations, but otherwise can’t explain why the rise is occurring.  Some baseball analysts believe the recent emphasis on hitting approaches that leverage the launch angle and exit velocity by hitters, as well as the general disregard by teams for the negative aspects of strikeouts, are big contributing factors for the increase.  Whatever the reason, the game is fundamentally being changed from a hitting perspective.

Will the new Miami Marlins ownership try to leverage Stanton’s value after this season by trading him for several top prospects with which they can put their own thumbprint on the club?  Right out of the gate, their decision to trade him or keep him at the end of this season may be the toughest one they will ever make.  The Marlins need Stanton from a marketing perspective, but on the other hand there is probably no better time to unload him after this potentially historic season.  Furthermore, the Marlins will owe Stanton a boatload of money ($295M) for the next ten seasons, although he can opt out after the 2020 season.  If they could find another club willing to pick up his contract now, perhaps they should take the opportunity to exit this massive financial commitment, thereby reducing overall payroll, and to get some prospects with which they can improve the overall club for the future.  Or does ownership, which includes former Yankee standout shortstop Derek Jeter, simply try to re-structure the club around Stanton for the long-term?  The Marlins are currently riding on the back of Stanton for a potential wild card berth this season, so they may be thinking they aren’t far away from being relevant and just need to make a few key tweaks in the roster.  The Marlins’ fan base, which has been disillusioned for several years with former owner Jeffrey Loria, would favor seeing Stanton kept around to lead the club’s turnaround.  Trading him now might make them even more disillusioned, another factor with which the new ownership has to come to grips.

Stanton stands above the rest of the sluggers in this “Year of the Home Run.”  He makes hitting home runs in actual games look as easy as hitting a bunch of homers in a video game.  It will be fun to see how he holds up during the rest of September.  Perhaps by the end of the month, we’ll be saying, “Move over, Roger.  Make room for Giancarlo.”

The Language of Baseball Has Evolved with the Times

“Mr. Bates had already poled two bingles, but here was a time of need and he did not rest on laurels already won.  His sharp drive to center field wafted the speeder across the rubber and the game was as good as won.”

If you saw this sentence in an article of a newspaper’s sports section today, you might be wondering what sport it was describing.  The word “center field” might be the only clue that it was baseball, but you still might be scratching your head over what the author was actually describing.

In my research activities for some SABR-related writing projects, I’ve been poring over many pages of newspaper archives, searching for details of players and games I have been writing about.  It’s been pretty interesting reading accounts of games, like the one above from 1912, where the writing style and language are very different from what we are familiar with today.

I’m not sure in what time period journalists became dedicated to full-time coverage of baseball.  However, reading the rest of this article from 1912 seemed to indicate that its writer might have also been employed to write for the society pages of the news.  The game account used flowery language and contained a limited amount of baseball terminology.  It was almost like he was describing a social event, including how the fans were dressed and which dignitaries were attending the game.

Going back even further to one of the games I was researching in 1891, the game account described the fans’ reaction to a baserunner who wound up scoring after his stolen base attempt that involved multiple errors as “a delightful exhibition thoroughly appreciated by the spectators.”  The team that was error-prone in this game was characterized as having “very bum fielding.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised about the written portrayal of the sport many years ago.  I guess it’s really not dissimilar to reading some of unfamiliar language William Shakespeare expressed in his legendary plays four hundred years ago.

One of the other things I’ve noticed over the years of reading about baseball history is the use of demonstrative words and phrases to describe different facets of the game.  But we don’t hear them very much anymore.

Players were often referred to as flychaser, first sacker, backstop, stopper, and battery mates to mean outfielder, first baseman, catcher, closer, and the pitcher/catcher combination, respectively.  Umpires were referred to as arbiters, and managers were called skippers.

Heavy hitters who were likely to hit the long ball were often called big boppers or sluggers.  On the other hand, a “six o’clock hitter” was one who batted well during batting practice but not during the game that followed.  Players adept at stealing bases were called base thiefs, while pitchers were often referred to as hurlers and twirlers.

Pill was a term used for a baseball.  Lumber referred to bats.  Gloves were often called mitts.  A sack was a base.  “Tools of ignorance” collectively referred to a catcher’s face mask, chest protector and shin guards

Different pitches acquired some unique monikers over the years, but they have largely been eliminated from the current jargon.  Inshoot and outshoot were some of the earliest names for breaking pitches.  “Uncle Charlie” was a nickname for curveball.  A heater was a fastball.  (Recall the Charlie Sheen baseball movie Major League, where the crusty old manager admonishes his pitcher Sheen, “Forget the curveball, Ricky; throw him the heater.”)  A flutterball was a type of knuckleball.  A “change of pace” is now just a change-up.  The pitched called forkball evolved into a split-fingered fastball, but we really don’t hear the latter term anymore either.  A scroogie was another name for a screwball pitch.

Batted balls also had their share of imaginative names.  Bloop single and Texas League single were terms used for poorly hit fly balls that barely cleared the infielders’ reach.  A Sunday-hopper was a ground ball that takes only one bounce before being caught.  A high fly ball that allows a defensive player to stand under the ball and easily catch it was called a “can of corn.”  A skimmer was a batted ball that skims across the grass.

Areas of the baseball diamond had descriptive names like hill and bump (pitcher’s mound), hot corner (third base), dish (home plate), and garden (outfield).

While the language of baseball was highly colorful in earlier days, now it seems the language has evolved to be more technically-based.

Nowadays new technologies, such as STATCAST, PitchFX, BAM, and Blast Motion, are changing how the game is played.  They have become integral in the new lingo of baseball today, as they are introducing new terms like launch angle, exit velocity, spin rate, and pitch framing.

SABRmetrics have also become a major influence on the game over the past decade or so and have had a definite impact on the language of baseball with terms like Wins Above Replacement, Fielding Independent Pitching, Runs Created, and Defensive Runs Saved.

Baseball fans from a hundred years ago would definitely be scratching their heads if they read a present-day game account that contained this type of technical terminology.

A hundred years from now, what will followers of baseball think of today’s descriptions of the game?

Hometown Heroes: Turning Back the Clock to 1952

Crescent City Sports, a New Orleans all-sports website, features a weekly post about current performances of professional baseball players from Louisiana high schools and colleges.  It’s interesting to follow the current major leaguers, as well as the progression of ballplayers through the minor league levels, trying to figure out who might be the next Rusty Staub or Will Clark.

New Orleans has a rich history of high school, college, and professional baseball, going all the way back to 1874 when New Orleans native Johnny Peters played for the Chicago White Stockings of the National Association, one of the first recognized major-league organizations.  So, who were some of the hometown heroes of yesteryear?  If we could turn back the clock to 1952, for example, who would we have been following then from the New Orleans area?

Here’s a look at some of those players that were active in professional baseball 65 years ago.

Major League Players

Howie Pollet had one of the worst seasons of his 14-year major-league career in 1952 from a won-lost perspective.  He posted a 7-16 record for the last-place Pittsburgh Pirates, who won only 42 games that year.  Pollet had signed out of Fortier High School with the St. Louis Cardinals, and by age 20 he was pitching in the big-leagues.  The lefty was one of the top two pitchers in the National League in 1946 (leading the league in wins and ERA) when he helped lead the Cardinals to a World Series championship.

Connie Ryan played in every game of the 1952 season with the Philadelphia Phillies, compiling a .241 batting average, 12 HR and 49 RBI.  After graduating from Jesuit High School in 1938 and attending LSU for a year, the infielder signed his first professional contract in 1940.  He made his major-league debut with the New York Giants in 1942.  A National League all-star selection in 1944, Ryan played in 12 major-league seasons, followed by an extensive career as a major-league coach in the Braves and Rangers organizations.

Ralph “Putsy” Caballero was a backup infielder with the Philadelphia Phillies in his last major-league season in 1952.  He first gained national attention when he played with the big-league Phillies as a 16-year-old in 1944.  The graduate of Jesuit High School got this unique opportunity when many major-league players had been called into military service during World War II, and replacement players were being sought from non-traditional sources.  Caballero was a member of the 1950 Philadelphia “Whiz Kids” team that won the National League pennant.

Mel Parnell was in this sixth major-league season with the Boston Red Sox in 1952, when he compiled a 12-12 record and 3.62 ERA.  The graduate of S. J. Peters High School first signed with the Red Sox organization in 1941.  He recorded one of the best seasons in baseball history as a pitcher in 1949 when he led the American League in Wins (25), ERA (2.77), and Complete Games (27).  Parnell still holds several Red Sox team records for left-handed pitchers and his a member of the Red Sox Hall of Fame.

George Strickland split the 1952 season between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians, hitting a combined .188, with 6 HR and 30 RBI.  He was the starting shortstop for the 1954 Cleveland Indians team that won the American League pennant with a 111-43 record.  He made his professional debut as a 17-year-old in three games with the New Orleans Pelicans in 1943 after finishing high school at S. J. Peters.  Strickland managed the Cleveland Indians for parts of the 1964 and 1966 seasons.

 

Minor League Players

Jack Kramer was on his way out of professional baseball in 1952, appearing with Dallas in the Texas League in only six games.  The right-handed pitcher had originally signed with the St. Louis Browns organization out of S. J. Peters High School in 1936.  One of his best seasons came in 1944 when he recorded 17 victories for the American League pennant-winning St. Louis Browns.  In 1948 he posted an 18-5 record with the Boston Red Sox.

Harold “Tookie” Gilbert was an outfielder for Oakland in the Pacific Coast League in 1952, putting up 31 HR and 118 RBI in 177 games (at a time when the PCL played an elongated season).  He had been one of the top amateur prospects in the nation when he graduated from Jesuit High School.  In a time before the major-league draft, Gilbert was courted heavily by six major-league organizations, ultimately signing with the New York Giants for $50,000 in 1947.  He made his big-league debut with them in 1950, but by age 24 he was out of baseball until he attempted a comeback with the New Orleans Pelicans in 1959.  His father, Larry Sr., was the legendary player-manager for the New Orleans Pelicans, while his brother, Charlie, also had a brief major-league career.

Lou Klein played for San Diego in the Pacific Coast League in 1952, when he posted a .280 batting average, 4 HR and 44 RBI.  A graduate of S. J. Peters High School, he made his major-league debut with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1943.  Altogether he played in five major-league seasons as part of his 17 professional years.  In 1961 and 1962, he became a member of the ill-fated “College of Coaches,” a highly criticized concept used by Chicago Cubs ownership to share the team’s managerial responsibilities among a committee of eight coaches.

Lenny Yochim was a hometown pitcher in 1952 that local fans were able to see as a member of the New Orleans Pelicans.  His season with the Pels, then a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate, included an 11-8 won-lost record and a 5.09 ERA.  A graduate of Holy Cross High School, his first pro season in 1947 was with New Iberia of the Louisiana-based Evangeline League.  He made his major-league debut with the Pirates in 1951 and also played in a few games with them in 1954.  He later became a major-league scout and front office executive in the Pirates organization from 1966 to 2004.

Ray Yochim, Lenny’s brother, split the 1952 season between Texarkana of the Class B Big State League and Little Rock of the Southern Association.  He had a combined record of 4 wins and 9 losses that year.  The national baseball publication, The Sporting News, had erroneously reported his death during his overseas military service during World War II.  Originally signed by the St. Louis Cardinals out of Holy Cross High School in 1941, he pitched briefly in two major-league seasons in 1948 and 1949

Charles LaCoste, a St. Aloysius graduate, was in his second pro season in 1952 when he played with Thibodaux in the Evangeline League and Blackwell in the Kansas-Missouri-Oklahoma League, part of the Chicago Cubs farm system.  With Blackwell, he batted .284 in 59 games.  LaCoste played in the low minors through 1956.

Mike Trapani had a stellar season in his first pro campaign in 1952, when he hit .320 for Hamilton in the PONY League.  He helped the Cardinals’ farm team win their first league title since joining the circuit thirteen years prior.  Trapani had attended Redemptorist High School and Tulane before becoming a professional.  The outfielder played two more seasons after 1952 before his career ended.

Tony Roig was in the military service during 1952, but had been playing in the minors since 1948 when he signed with the Detroit Tigers organization.  A graduate of Fortier High School, the infielder made his major-league debut with the Washington Senators in 1953.  He appeared with the Senators in parts of two other seasons during his 13-year pro career.  He then played professionally in Japan from 1963 to 1968.

Floyd Fogg started out the 1952 season with the New Orleans Pelicans and was then dealt to Memphis in the Chicago White Sox organization.  The outfielder from Slidell made his professional debut in 1945 as a 19-year-old with Nashville, where New Orleans-native Larry Gilbert Sr. was the manager.  Ending his pro career in 1954, Fogg spent a total of 10 seasons in the minors.

Pete Modica pitched for Nashville in 1952, when he posted a 13-9 record and 3.84 ERA.  A product of S. J. Peters High School, Modica started his professional career in 1942 with the St. Louis Cardinals organization.  During his 12-year career, he pitched for the New Orleans Pelicans for six seasons and reached the Triple-A level in the Red Sox, Pirates, and Giants organizations.

Melvin Rue signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1943 out of S. J. Peters High School and played his first season with Class D Olean in the PONY League where he batted .235 in 53 games.  In 1944 the infielder moved to the New Orleans Pelicans, then a Dodgers affiliate, and continued with them through 1949.  He remained in the minors until 1954, bouncing around with several organizations.

An extensive list of New Orleans metro area players who went on to college and professional careers can be viewed at http://www.thetenthinning.com/articles.html.

Is This the Year the Dodgers Finally Win all the Marbles?

The Los Angeles Dodgers are having one of the best major-league stretches in history.  They are the first team in over 100 years to go 43-7 in a stretch.  They currently hold an 18-game lead over the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL West Division.  But they’ve won the division title for the last four seasons, yet haven’t been able to win a National League pennant and advance to a World Series.

In fact the Dodgers are going through their second-longest World Series drought (19 years) in their history.  Their longest previous spell occurred from 1921 to 1940.  However, it’s not because they haven’t been trying.  The Dodgers have made the playoffs in nine of the last fourteen seasons, but can’t seem to win the big games to advance to the Fall Classic.

Is this year the Dodgers finally break through and win it all?

The team has been outstanding all season long.  Perhaps the biggest statement made by the Dodgers that they are putting all the marbles on the table this year was the acquisition of Yu Darvish before the July 31 trade deadline.  In Darvish they are getting another top-of-the-rotation ace to complement their own ace for the past eight seasons, Clayton Kershaw.  With Darvish and some additional bullpen help they acquired, the Dodgers are looking beyond the regular season and preparing to enhance their post-season chances as well.

All parts of the Dodgers’ game are hitting on all cylinders this year.  The team has a Run Differential (runs scored minus runs allowed) of over 200, which outpaces everyone in the league.  Four players (Corey Seager, Clay Bellinger, Justin Turner, and Chris Tayler have On Base Plus Slugging Percentage (OPS) over .900.  Dodger pitching leads the league in Earned Run Average (ERA), Walks and Hits Per Innings Pitched (WHIP) and Strikeouts Per Nine Innings (SO/9).  From a defensive perspective, the Dodgers lead the league in Defensive Runs Saved Above Average (DRA).

Third baseman Justin Turner is having an MVP-type season with a .347 Batting Average and OPS of 1.001.  The Dodgers have a reputation of coming up with top-flight rookies each year, and this season it’s Cody Bellinger.  He didn’t initially figure into the Dodgers plan for 2017, but took an advantage of an opportunity to get into the starting lineup when first baseman Adrian Gonzalez went on the DL.  He’s responded by being the Dodgers’ best slugger this year with 33 HR and 78 RBI.  Right-fielder Yasiel Puig, who was terribly inconsistent during the past two seasons, seems to have finally settled into his game and has been in the starting lineup practically every day.  There was a point during this past off-season when it was thought the Dodgers’ front office had given up on him.  Corey Seager is proving his Rookie of the Year season last year was no fluke.

On the pitching end, Clayton Kershaw has been logging another great season we’ve come to expect every year, although he’s recently been on the Disabled List.  Alex Wood, who was acquired during the off-season, has been the surprise of the season in the rotation, having won 14 of his 15 decisions and posting a 2.37 ERA.  The rest of the rotation is solid, too.  Darvish adds even further credence to the rotation and perhaps will take some of the pressure off Kershaw at the top.  Kenly Jansen has been the top closer in the league this year, but the Dodgers also added depth in the bullpen with the acquisitions of middle relievers Tony Cingrani and Tony Watson at the trade deadline.

45-year-old Dodgers manager Dave Roberts is certainly enjoying the history-making season the Dodgers are having.  In one recent game, he sprinted onto the field to join the team’s dog-pile celebration after a walk-off hit by one of his players.  With such a talented team, it may appear as though his job is really easy this year, but he’ll likely take Manager of the Year honors for making it all come together.

Not to be under-rated is 38-year-old Chase Utley’s veteran leadership on the team.  He’s primarily been a backup at second base for Logan Forsythe, but his real value to the team has been in the clubhouse where he has set the tone for the club.  The younger players look to him for how to approach the game.  They appreciate that he’s been through the wars of long seasons and come out on the winning end with pennant-winning teams.

The Dodgers could lose every game for the remainder of the season (45 as of Sunday) and still finish two games over .500.  But they’re not just looking for another winning season.  They’re not just looking to wind up with the best record in National League history.  They’re looking to take home all the marbles (World Series trophy) this year.