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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Bryce Harper's signing means

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Superdome hosted rare prep baseball doubleheader in 1977

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frank Robinson: Baseball's Pioneer as First Black Manager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Saints lost a season, Galarraga lost immortality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Current free-agent market a repeat of last year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Brewers need to pull the trigger again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Table 1 – Selected Analytics Stats

Name

Years Played

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS+

WAR

WAR7

Group 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oliver, Al

1969-1985

0.303

0.344

0.451

121

43.7

28.1

Murphy, Dale

1976-1993

0.265

0.346

0.469

121

46.6

41.2

Hernandez, Keith

1975-1990

0.296

0.384

0.436

128

60.4

41.3

Mattingly, Don

1982-1995

0.307

0.358

0.471

127

42.4

35.7

Williams, Bernie

1991-2006

0.297

0.381

0.477

125

49.6

37.6

Parker, Dave

1973-1991

0.290

0.339

0.471

121

40.1

37.4

Grace, Mark

1988-2003

0.303

0.383

0.442

119

46.4

29.7

Garvey, Steve

1969-1987

0.294

0.329

0.446

117

38.1

28.8

Clark, Will

1986-2000

0.303

0.384

0.497

137

56.5

36.1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Group 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baines, Harold

1980-2001

0.289

0.356

0.465

121

38.7

21.4

Biggio, Craig

1988-2007

0.281

0.363

0.433

112

65.5

41.7

Bagwell, Jeff

1991-2005

0.297

0.408

0.540

149

79.9

48.3

Piazza, Mike

1992-2007

0.308

0.377

0.545

142

59.6

43.1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Group 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carlos Beltran

1998-2017

0.279

0.350

0.486

119

69.8

44.4

Adrian Beltre

1998-2018

0.286

0.339

0.480

116

95.7

49.3

Ortiz, David

1997-2016

0.286

0.380

0.552

141

55.3

35.2

Jeter, Derek

1995-2014

0.310

0.377

0.440

115

72.4

42.4

 

Table 2 – Traditional Stats

Name

BA

H

HR

RBI

Awards

Group 1

 

 

 

 

 

Oliver, Al

0.303

2743

219

1326

7 AS, Bat Title, 3  MVP10

Murphy, Dale

0.265

2111

398

1266

7 AS,  2 MVP, 4  MVP10, 5 GG

Hernandez, Keith

0.296

2182

162

1071

5 AS,  1 MVP, 4 MVP10, 11 GG

Mattingly, Don

0.307

2153

222

1099

6 AS, 1 MVP, 4 MVP10, 9 GG

Williams, Bernie

0.297

2336

287

1257

5 AS,  1 MVP10, 4 GG, Bat Title

Parker, Dave

0.290

2712

339

1493

7 AS,  1 MVP, 6 MVP10, 3 GG

Grace, Mark

0.303

2445

173

1146

3 AS, 4 GG

Garvey, Steve

0.294

2599

272

1308

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

Clark, Will

0.303

2176

284

1205

6 AS, 4 MVP10, 1 GG

 

 

 

 

 

 

Group 2

 

 

 

 

 

Baines, Harold

0.289

2866

384

1628

6 AS, 2 MVP10,

Biggio, Craig

0.281

3060

291

1175

7 AS, 3 MVP10, 4 GG

Bagwell, Jeff

0.297 

 2314

449 

1529 

 4 AS, 1 MVP, 6 MVP10, 1 GG

Piazza, Mike

0.308

2127

427

1335

12 AS, 7 MVP10,

 

 

 

 

 

 

Group 3

 

 

 

 

 

Carlos Beltran

0.279

2725

435

1587

9 AS, 2 MVP10, 3 GG

Adrian Beltre

0.286

3166

477

1707

4 AS, 6 MVP10, 5 GG

Ortiz, David

0.286

2472

541

1768

10 AS, 7 MVP10,

Jeter, Derek

0.310

3465

260

1311

14 AS, 8 MVP10, 5 GG

 

Casting my mythical 2019 Hall of Fame ballot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All-time baseball team featuring Christmas holiday names

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas to all.

MLB Thinking About Outlawing Defensive Shifts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe those darned baseball geeks are just getting too smart.

Five Reasons Why Kyler Murray Will Choose Football

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Next-Gen MLB Family Ties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Making Sense of Mega Deals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trio of Franco Brothers Playing for Rare Place in History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Cora: Luck or Genius?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Was Aaron Boone's First Managerial Job a Success?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buehler to be Heir Apparent to Kershaw as Dodgers Ace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tight Competition for MLB Post-Season Awards Expected

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

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

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

American League MVP

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

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

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

American League Cy Young

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

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

American League Rookie of the Year

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

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

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

National League MVP

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

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

National League Cy Young

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

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

National League Rookie of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The "W" is Effectively Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cubs Capitalizing on the Maturation of Javier Baez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cardinals' Mike Shildt Another Example of Bold Managerial Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Team Nobody's Talking About

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dodgers Desperate for World Series Ring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.