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.
Bregman and Nola Headline LSU

LSU head coach Paul Mainieri continued to lead one of the best college baseball programs in the country during 2010-2019. During that stretch, the team made appearances in nine NCAA Regional tournaments, six Super Regional tournaments, and three College World Series.  They won three regular-season SEC championships and four SEC Tournament titles.  All of these accomplishments occurred in what is generally acknowledged as the toughest baseball conference in the NCAA.

 

Mainieri’s teams featured some of the best players in the SEC.  Several were also recognized at the national level.  Two of the more notable Tiger alums during the decade included Alex Bregman and Aaron Nola, both of whom have gone on to achieve all-star status in Major League Baseball.  Many other Tigers in the 2010s were prominent in the annual MLB drafts and played professionally.

 

In looking back at the LSU squads over the past ten seasons, here’s my All-Decade Team representing the best players (who finished their careers in the 2010s) at each position.

 

First Base – Mason Katz (2010-13).  Katz was a first team All-American and All-SEC in his senior season, as he led the SEC in home runs and RBI.  A career .341 hitter, he was selected by the St. Louis Cardinals in the fourth round of the 2013 MLB Draft.  Honorable mention: Chris Chinea (2013-15).

 

Second Base – Jacoby Jones (2011-13).  Jones was name to the All-SEC Second Team in 2013.  He was a second round draft choice of the Detroit Tigers in the 2013 MLB Draft.  Honorable mention: Cole Freeman (2016-17).

 

Shortstop – Alex Bregman (2013-15).  Bregman was the SEC and National Freshman Player of the Year in 2013 and a first-team All-American in 2013 and 2015.  He was a second-team selection in 2014.  Bregman was the second overall pick of the 2015 MLB Draft by the Houston Astros.  Honorable mention: Kramer Robertson (2014-17).

 

Third Base – Tyler Hanover (2009-12). Hanover was a mainstay in the LSU infield for four seasons, when he batted .321, 332, .311, and .281.  He was a 33rd round pick of the Detroit Tigers in the 2012 MLB Draft.  Honorable mention: Christian Ibarra (2013-14) and Conner Hale (2014-15).

 

Catcher – Micah Gibbs (2008-10).  Gibbs was a three-year starter for the Tigers, becoming a first-team All-SEC selection in 2010, when he hit .388 with 10 HR and 60 RBI.  He was named to two nationally recognized All-American second teams.  Gibbs was a third-round pick of the Chicago Cubs in the 2010 MLB Draft.  Honorable mention: Kade Scivicque (2014-15).

 

Outfielder – Mikie Mahtook (2009-11). In 2010, he led the Tigers in slugging percentage and stolen bases.  Mahtook led the SEC in batting average in 2011 and was name to the All-SEC first-team and several nationally-recognized All-American teams.  Mahtook was a first-round selection of the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2011 MLB Draft. Honorable mention:  Andrew Stevenson (2013-15).

 

Outfielder -- Antoine Duplantis (2016-19). The durable Duplantis started all but two games for LSU during his four seasons.  He is the all-time hits leader for LSU, breaking Eddy Furniss’s record of 352.  In 2016 he was named to several nationally recognized All-American teams.  He was a member of the 2017 College World Series All-Tournament team.  Duplantis was a 12th-round selection of the New York Mets in the 2019 MLB Draft.  Honorable mention: Jake Fraley (2014-16) and Zach Watson (2017-19).

 

Outfielder -- Raph Rhymes (2011-13). Rhymes led the SEC and the nation in batting average (.431) in 2012.  He was named the 2012 SEC Player of the Year, only the seventh player in Tiger history to receive the honor.  He batted .360 and .331 in his other two seasons and struck out only 62 times in 700 career at-bats.  Rhymes was selected by the Detroit Tigers in the 15th round of the 2013 MLB Draft.  Honorable mention:  Greg Deichmann (2015-17).

 

Designated Hitter – Blake Dean (2007-10). Dean was an All-SEC selection as DH in 2009 and selected to the SEC All-Tournament team in 2009 and 2010.  He was a career .331 hitter with 56 HR and 260 RBI.  In addition to his role as a DH, Dean also played as an outfielder and first baseman during his career.  Dean was picked in the eighth round of the 2010 MLB Draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Honorable mention: Sean McMullen (2013-14).

 

Right-Handed Starting Pitcher – Aaron Nola (2012-14).  Nola had a career record of 30-6 with a 2.09 ERA.  He was a first team Freshman All-American in 2012 and was the SEC Pitcher of the Year and a first team All-American in 2013 and 2014.  Nola was a first-round selection of the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2014 MLB Draft.  Honorable mention: Alex Lange (2015-17).

 

Left-Handed Starting Pitcher – Jared Poche (2014-17).  Poche was a workhorse for the Tigers during his four seasons, averaging 18 starts per season.  He is LSU’s career leader in wins (39).  He was selected to the SEC All-Tournament team in 2014.  Poche was picked by the Oakland A’s in the seventh round of the 2017MLB Draft.  Honorable mention: Cody Glenn (2012-14).

 

Relief Pitcher – Matty Ott (2009-11).  Ott is the all-time leader in career saves (33) for LSU. He was the SEC Freshman Player of the Year and a second team All-American in 2009.  He posted ERAs of 2.68 and 2.60 in two of his seasons.  Ott was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 13th round of the 2011 MLB Draft.  Honorable mention:  Hunter Newman (2013-17).

 

Bregman finished as the runner-up for the American League MVP Award in 2019, while Nola was third in the National League Cy Young Award voting in 2018.  Mahtook and Jones were teammates for the Detroit Tigers in 2019.  Duplantis and Poche were still active in the minors last season.  Dean is currently the head baseball coach for the University of New Orleans.

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Inaugural All-MLB Team: Best of Both Leagues

Major League Baseball has instituted the selection of an All-MLB Team for the 2019 season.  While the official MLB All-Stars are selected at mid-season, this elite team of superstars representing both leagues will take into account the entire regular season.  The inaugural team will be announced on December 10 in conjunction with baseball’s annual Winter Meetings in San Diego.

The voting results for the all-star members will come 50% from fans and 50% from a panel of baseball experts.  Fans are eligible to vote via the internet each day between November 25 and December3.

A first and second team will be named, each consisting of five starting pitchers, two relief pitchers, one selection at each position, and a designated hitter.  The three outfielders are not required to represent specific outfield positions.  60 position players and 30 pitchers were pre-selected by MLB as candidates for the all-star team.

No specific criteria were identified for voters to consider.  Hence, it seems the team could wind up being the result of a popularity contest among the candidates, especially with fans being able to cast multiple votes.  The likely purpose of the contest is a way for MLB to continue to engage fans during the off-season.

Here are my selections for the team.

First Base – Freddie Freeman (Braves) captured his first Silver Slugger Award, while finishing eighth in the NL MVP voting.  He had a career year in HR (38) and RBI (121).  He’s been a good glove man, too.  Freeman was selected over Pete Alonso (NL Rookie of the Year) and Matt Olson (NL Gold Glove winner).

Second Base – D.J. LeMahieu (Yankees) was given up on by the Rockies over the winter, and it wasn’t clear where he would fit in with the Yankees at the start of the season. But when they had a rash of injuries, LeMahieu stepped up and was the one constant throughout the season.  He won the AL Silver Slugger Award and finished fourth in the AL MVP voting.  LeMahieu beat out Jose Altuve, who had another fine season.

Shortstop – Xander Bogaerts (Red Sox) had a career year with a .309/.384/.555 slash line and highs of 33 HR and 117 RBI.  He was a Silver Slugger Award winner and finished fifth in the AL MVP Award voting.  He edged out Oakland’s Marcus Semien, who had a breakout year by finishing third in the AL MVP voting.

Third Base – Alex Bregman (Astros) is my pick in the tightest race among all the positions.  In many respects, it was hard to differentiate his performance from that of Anthony Rendon, Nolan Arenado, Rafael Devers, Josh Donaldson, and Eugenio Suarez.  Bregman collected a Silver Slugger Award and was second in the AL MVP voting.  He had a career-high 41 HR and 112 RBI.  His on-base percentage was an outstanding .423, aided by AL-leading 119 walks.

Catcher – J.T. Realmuto (Phillies) was the easiest pick of all the positions.  His post-season hardware included both a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Award.  He was everything the Phillies wanted when they acquired him over the winter.  Yasmani Grandal was a distant second.

Outfielders – Mike Trout (Angels), Christian Yelich (Brewers), and Cody Bellinger (Dodgers).  Trout maintained his “best in baseball” label with his third AL MVP Award this year.  Yelich missed the last three weeks of the season, but still put together the best season of his career (which included a NL MVP Award last year).  He led the NL in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging, but finished second (probably influenced by his injury) to Cody Bellinger for the NL MVP title.  Bellinger smacked 47 HR to go along with 115 RBI.  These three players were picked over Ronald Acuna Jr., who was also a Silver Slugger Award winner and led the league in runs scored and stolen bases; and Mookie Betts, who had a down year compared to 2018 when he was the AL MVP, but still logged an all-star season.

Designated Hitter – Nelson Cruz (Twins) seems to be getting better with age.  At 38-years-old, he posted a slash line of .311/.392/.639, with 41 HR and 108 RBI, and captured the Silver Slugger Award as he led the Twins to a first-place finish in the AL Central Division.  He beat out veteran J.D. Martinez and Jordan Alvarez, the AL Rookie of the Year, who played in 87 games after being called up to the Astros in early June, but still managed to hit 24 HR and 71 RBI.

Starting Pitchers – Gerrit Cole (Astros), Justin Verlander (Astros), Jacob DeGrom (Mets), Hyun-Jim Ryu, (Dodgers), and Charlie Morton (Rays).  There’s no need to provide more justification for Cole, Verlander and DeGrom.  They were the cream of the crop in both leagues.  Ryu and Morton are not as well-known, but turned in better seasons than several other more notable pitchers.  Ryu led the NL in ERA (2.32) and posted a 1.007 WHIP.  He finished second in the NL Cy Young voting.  Morton led the Tampa staff after coming over from Houston in the off-season.  He finished third in the AL Cy Young voting.  These five pitchers beat out several others with fine seasons: veterans Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, and Zack Grienke; and relative newcomers Shane Bieber, and Jack Flaherty.

Relief Pitchers – Kirby Yates (Padres) and Josh Hader (Brewers) top the list of reliever candidates.  Their strikeouts per 9 innings are the highest among the candidates at 15.0 and 16.4, respectively, while their WHIPs are 0.89 and 0.81, respectively.  Yates was the only relief pitcher to receive NL Cy Young Award votes.  These two beat out Aroldis Chapman, Roberto Osuna, and Will Smith.

There are no big surprises in my selections.  With the exception of Cruz, all of these players were named to the mid-season All-Star Game tyhoueams.

If you had some different thoughts on the team's selections, I'd like to hear from you.

Stealing signs is an age-old dirty trick

There’s been a lot of commotion since the World Series about the allegations that the Houston Astros used electronic means to steal other teams’ signs in 2017 on their way to winning their first-ever World Series.  It’s bad for the reputation of the Astros and Major League Baseball in general.  However, if we look back in time, what some people are characterizing as the latest scourge in baseball is actually nothing new.

Stealing opponents’ signs between the pitcher and catcher has been one of those under-publicized things in the game for a long time.  Everyone figures it’s going on, but no one talks about it much.  It’s kind of like the days when pitchers were throwing spitballs and scuffing up the baseball; and batters were using corked bats.  Some players were always looking to gain even the slightest edge.  Their opponents generally knew it was happening but most considered it “part of the game.”

Throughout history, the most common way teams stole signs was for runners on second base to read the catcher’s signals and then tip-off batters as to what pitch was coming.

One of the more famous occurrences of sign stealing happened during the 1951 season, but it reportedly used “high technology” for the times.  The New York Giants were the culprits, using a high-powered telescope behind a window in Manager Leo Durocher’s office in the center-field clubhouse of the Polo Grounds and a buzzer system connected to the Giants’ dugout and right-field bullpen.  Many believe the elaborate system contributed to the Giants’ 16 consecutive wins after having been13 games behind the first-place Brooklyn Dodgers on August 11.  The two teams ended the season in a tie, creating a best-of-three playoff series.

It’s been long rumored that Bobby Thomson benefitted from his teammates’ sign stealing when he hit his famous “shot heard ‘round the world” home run in Game 3 of the playoffs.

The Dodgers were leading 4-1 going into the ninth inning.  After Whitey Lockman doubled in Alvin Dark to make the score 4-2, Thomson came up with the tying runs on base.  Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen brought in Ralph Branca to replace Don Newcombe.  Branca was hoping to set up Thomson for a curveball, knowing that Thomson had homered earlier in the series on a fastball.  His first pitch was a fastball that Thomson took.  His next pitch was a fastball, up and in, and Thomson created one of the most famous moments in baseball history with a walk-off home run that gave the Giants the pennant.

Thomson always denied that he knew a fastball was coming.  He said, “I was proud of that swing.”  However, years later his teammates revealed the Giants’ were frequently taking advantage of their “system” of stealth in the last months of the regular season.

Branca acknowledged that he later became aware of the strong possibility Thomson was tipped off on the upcoming pitch, but never said anything.  Branca said, “I didn’t want to cry over spilled milk.  I became friendly with Bobby and I didn’t want to demean his home run.  I didn’t want to cheapen a legendary moment in baseball.”  He added, “I wasn’t going to bring it up to Bobby.  To me, it was a forbidden subject.”

A lot has been made about the use of new technology to facilitate the current-day covert activity.  For example, in 2017 the Boston Red Sox were caught using an Apple Watch in the dugout to facilitate stealing signs from the New York Yankees.  A member of Boston’s replay team was communicating with a trainer wearing the watch in the dugout, who was sharing the information with the batters.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has authorized an investigation into the allegations about the Astros’ use of electronic sign stealing, and it will look into 2018 and 2019 as well.  Ken Rosenthal suggested last week in The Athletic that the investigation shouldn’t stop with the just the Astros, implying the problem may be more pervasive throughout the league.

All Major League clubs have recently employed the use of new technologies to measure and track games and players in ways that have fundamentally changed the professional sport.  It appears the nefarious sign-stealing activities are one more area that technology has been leveraged.

 

Aaron Boone should feel like he got robbed

Yankees manager Aaron Boone was narrowly defeated by Twins manager Rocco Baldelli in the voting for American League Manager of the Year, 106 to 96.  Having remarkably won 103 games with a lineup that practically changed every day due to a barrage of injuries throughout the year, Boone has a good case for claiming “I wuz robbed.”

Boone is in his second season with New York, while Baldelli was in his first season at the helm of Minnesota.  Both of them represent the new-style of major-league manager that has no prior managerial experience at any level.  Yet despite their relative inexperience, there’s no doubt they are already making a big impact with their teams

The Yankees finished first in the East Division for the first time since 2012.  They won 100 games last year in Boone’s rookie season, when they finished second behind World Series champion Boston.  There are some managers who’ve never won 100 games in even one season during their entire careers.

The deck was stacked against Boone from the very start of this season because of injuries.  His Opening Day lineup consisting of Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Gleyber Torres, Troy Tulowitzki, Miguel Andujar, Brett Gardner, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Luke Voit collectively missed 55% of their games during the season.  And that’s not counting Didi Gregorius and Aaron Hicks who began the season on the injured list and played only 141 games between them.  Thank goodness for newly acquired DJ LeMehieu and a host of no-name Yankees (Gio Urshela, Mike Tauchman, Mike Ford, Tyler Wade, Clint Frazier, and Austin Romine) who stepped in and admirably filled in the gaps every day.

To top that off, Boone was without his top-of-the-rotation pitcher Luis Severino and one of his top relievers, Dellin Betances, for all but four games during the season.  Domingo German, who had pitched in 28 major-league games before this season, was pressed into full-time service as a starter and thankfully contributed 18 wins.

In all, 30 different Yankees players were on the injured list during the season.  Yes, that’s right, THIRTY!

To win 103 games with those types of conditions is practically unheard of in the big leagues.  Boone had to become the master magician in order to piece together a viable lineup each day.  Fortunately LeMahieu, Torres, Urshela, and Gardner wound up having career years.  Admittedly, Boone did have the benefit of one of the best bullpens in the league, which contributed tremendously to their overall results.  But he still had to make tough decisions every day on which strings to pull with the relief staff.

And yet the Yankees still set a franchise record for most home runs in a season (306), finishing second in the league to Minnesota with 307.  And they finished with a run differential of 204 for the season, second only to Houston.

There’s no denying that Baldelli had a fine season.  The telltale sign of his influence was that Minnesota won 23 more games that they did last year.  That’s a huge turnaround in one season.  However, his detractors say that the division was the least competitive this year, and they were only 9-10 against division runner-up Cleveland.

As an inexperienced rookie manager of a sub-.500 team from last year, Baldelli was one of the more improbable candidates for the award coming into the season.  In the past though, voters for the award have placed a high value on first-time managers who get into the playoffs.  Baldelli was the “shiny new rock” among the league’s managers this year, and many of the voters may have been swayed by that situation. 

If the voting had occurred after the post-season, the results would likely have swayed toward Boone.  Baldelli got out-managed in the American League Division Series by Boone, as the Yankees swept the Twins, who scored only seven runs in the series.

Boone has good reason to be upset with the outcome of the voting.  Arguably he had the best talent in the league going into the season.  They were expected to win a lot of games.  But after a practical overhaul of the roster as the season unfolded, his team still won a lot of games. 103, in fact.

"Sir Didi" Served the Yankees Well

The New York Yankees announced last week that they would not be making shortstop Didi Gregorius a qualifying offer to retain his services for 2020.  It’s understandable why the Yankees made this decision, as they have become log-jammed with infielder options and didn’t want to shell out the one-year $17.8 million tender.  Gregorius played only half of this season due to Tommy John surgery in October 2018, and didn’t return to his prior form.  So there is also some concern about his future health status.

But his release doesn’t mean Gregorius wasn’t a valuable contributor to the team since arriving in 2015.  He had the insurmountable task of replacing the immortal Derek Jeter, who had held the Yankees shortstop position for 20 seasons, ending in 2014.  Jeter ranks right up there with Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, and Berra as one of the all-time Yankee icons.  He was a tough act to follow.

In fact, no one could have filled Jeter’s shoes, but Gregorius didn’t disappoint Yankees management and fans with his performance throughout his tenure.  Yankees GM Brian Cashman gets credit for seeing something in Gregorius beyond what he demonstrated in his first three major league seasons with Cincinnati and Arizona.

A relatively inexperienced major leaguer, Gregorius had only one full season in the majors before he was acquired by the Yankees in 2015.  His athleticism was a plus, and he proved to be a serviceable shortstop, improving in all offensive categories as he appeared in 155 games in his first year with them. 

As the Yankees were doing a makeover of its team, moving from established veterans Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Texeira, Carlos Beltran, and Brian McCann to a younger roster, Didi fit right in.  He was a key factor in the acceleration of the Yankees’ roster re-build that didn’t miss a beat in making the playoffs.

He got even better during the next three years, when he hit for a .277 average and averaged 24 HR and 81 RBI.  He posted a career-high 4.2 WAR in 2018.  With right-handed sluggers like Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez in the lineup, it seemed a bit odd that Gregorius would hit fourth in the batting order.  But the left-handed hitter provided an effective cleanup bat in a lineup nicknamed the “Baby Bombers” for their home run prowess.

He returned from the injured list on June 7 this season, but his on-base percentage was a meager .276.  He still managed to hit 16 HR and 61 RBI.  While he was out, Gleyber Torres filled in and turned in an all-star season; he will likely be the full-time shortstop in 2019.

Gregorius will be one of the top picks in a weak free-agent group of shortstops this offseason.  It is reported the Cincinnati Reds are interested in signing him, but he’ll likely have several suitors.

It wasn’t an easy decision by the Yankees to let Gregorius go.  If nothing else, he’ll be remembered for his unique nickname, which resulted from his being knighted in his native country, The Netherlands, after the Dutch team upset Cuba in the 2011 Baseball World Cup.

6 Teams That Need Gerrit Cole

It’s no secret Houston Astros pitcher Gerrit Cole is the hottest thing in free agency this off-season.  In reality, every MLB team could use Cole.  However, in reality most teams will not be able to afford signing him, so his pursuit will likely be narrowed to six or eight teams. 

Cole’s new contract is expected to be the richest deal ever signed by a major-league pitcher.  According to MLB. com, Stephen Strasburg made the most of any pitcher this year at $38.2 million.  David Price signed the largest valued contract for a pitcher (7 years, $217 million) back in 2016.  With Cole at 29 years of age next season, it’s not out of the question that he can command a seven or eight-year contract worth $35-40 million per year.

He will be most heavily recruited by teams that figure they are one pitcher (of Cole’s caliber) short of getting to the World Series in the next year or two.  That’s largely the mentality of baseball ownership these days when looking at making huge investments in players like Cole.

Here’s my rundown on the feasible teams that need Cole in order to compete for a World Series ring next year.

Yankees – The Yankees should have upgraded their starting pitching this season at the trade deadline, but didn’t pull the trigger. They lack a bonafide ace at this point.  Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, and Domingo German, even assuming they are injury-free, are not their answer.  With CC Sabathia retiring and Dellin Betances possibly looking to free agency, the Yankees could shed existing payroll that would help offset the high price for Cole.  He was originally drafted out of high school by the Yankees in the first round of 2008 draft, but he chose to attend UCLA.  He’s been quoted in the past as saying he has always wanted to play for the Yankees.  The Yankees’ bullpen and offense carried the team in 2019.  Cole could be their answer to shore up their rotation next year and beyond.

Red Sox – Starting pitching was an Achilles heel this year, after winning the World Series in 2018.  None of their three former Cy Young Award winners (David Price, Rick Porcello, and Chris Sale) had a good year.  Injuries contributed somewhat to that situation, but none of them are the same as they were just a few years ago.  There is concern that Sale has already flamed out at 30 years old.  With their potent offense, an ace like Cole can put them back into contention for a pennant next season.  The Red Sox are accustomed to paying the luxury tax on payroll, so Cole’s high price shouldn’t be a hindrance.

Dodgers – At first blush, the Dodgers would seem to be a questionable suitor for Cole.  After all, their main need is in the bullpen, while their starters were among the best in the league in ERA and WHIP.  However, Rich Hill (age 40) and Hyun-Jin Ryu (age 32) won’t likely be retained as they enter free agency.  (Their combined salary of $36 million in 2019 could pay for Cole.)  As we saw in the playoffs, Clayton Kershaw appeared to have run out of gas after the regular season.  He’s already been displaced by Walker Buehler as the ace of the staff.  Thus, help will be needed in the rotation, and the addition of Cole with Buehler could make for a combo that compares favorably with any others (Strasburg/Scherzer or Verlander/Greinke) in baseball.  With Cole, the Dodgers would be a shoo-in to win their eighth consecutive division title.

Angels – The same observation (about being a questionable suitor) can be made about the Angels, but for a different reason.  After finishing with the worst record in the league in 2019 with one of the worst pitching staffs, they are several years away from being a contender for the post-season with their current roster.  Joe Maddon has been brought on as manager with the expectation he will turn around their program within a few years, like he did with the Rays and Cubs.  The acquisition of Cole and a few other pieces of supporting staff could jump-start their renewal.  The Angels have an urgent need to take advantage of superstar Mike Trout’s prime years. (He has played in only one post-season during his nine years.)  They can’t wait more than a couple of years to be relevant, and Cole would greatly accelerate the process.  There are indications Cole would like to play near his home town on the West Coast.  The Angels would be glad to make that happen.  Like they did with Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols, the Angels won’t hesitate to spend the necessary money to get him.

Phillies – They spent big bucks last winter to boost their offense with the addition of Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, JT Realmuto, and Jean Segura.  As a result, they had expectations of getting to the playoffs, and for a while (through the middle of June) it looked like they might do it.  However, their pitching staff was well below average.  Aaron Nola wasn’t as good as he was in 2018, when he was a Top 3 finalist for the Cy Young Award, while 33-year-old Jake Arrieta was able to pitch only 140 innings.  The Braves and Nationals are likely to be very competitive again, so the Phillies have to do something dramatic to stay in the mix.  The addition of Cole could be a difference-maker in their outlook for 2020.

Cubs – Chicago had the oldest pitching staff in the National League last season, so they have to be thinking about how they will rejuvenate their starting rotation.  Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, and Cole Hamels, all previous top-of-the-rotation pitchers, can’t be expected to continue being the workhorses.  In order for the Cubs to remain competitive with the Cardinals and Brewers, who made the playoffs with first and second-place finishes in 2019, they will need an upgrade like Cole.

So, what about the Astros?  Are they completely out of the picture on Cole?  It seems so, given their current salary situation.  They have eight players tying up $150 million next year, not including impending raises for Carlos Correa, George Springer and Roberto Osuna.  The Astros acquired Zach Greinke, not only to bolster the rotation for this year’s playoff run, but as a hedge if Cole did not return in 2020.  They also have Lance McCullers Jr. returning from Tommy John surgery next year, so a rotation of Verlander, Greinke, McCullers, and Jose Urquidy could be sufficient to win the division title again in 2020.  They also have 2016 first-round draft pick Forrest Whitley in the minors being groomed for a rotation spot.

Stephen Straburg declined his option to re-sign with the Nationals.  You can’t blame him for wanting to test the market after the sterling post-season performances he turned in.  It’s possible he could still wind up with the Nats, but the suitors for Cole will also be looking at Strasburg as an alternative.

Cole proved during the playoffs, as well as the regular season, the type of impact a big-time pitcher can have on a team.  That’s why the teams, with near-term windows of opportunity to claim a World Series ring, are willing to shell out the bucks Cole will command.

Can Joe Maddon revive the Los Angeles Angels?

There have been eight managerial vacancies created after the end of this season.  Several long-time skippers have lost their jobs or retired, which will once again cause a major change in the managerial landscape.  One of those veteran managers, former Cubs skipper Joe Maddon, has been named the new manager of the Los Angeles Angels, a team with whom he previously worked in various capacities.  He gets another shot at running a club, when in the past few years most teams have been hiring the new style of managers who bring a heavy reliance on sabermetrics but have little to no prior managerial experience.

Maddon was once considered the new-style manager--a “players’ manager,” a master motivator in the clubhouse, an early disciple of advanced analytics.  When he got his first job with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2006 and then as he moved to the Chicago Cubs in 2015, his style of leadership became more likened to that of a cult leader than the traditional baseball man in the dugout and clubhouse.

The Angels fired Brad Ausmus after his only season as manager to make room for Maddon.  In one sense it didn’t seem fair to Ausmus, but the team lost eight more games than they did the year before, when they were only .500.  Apparently Maddon’s prior connection with the team overrode any sense of fairness to Ausmus.  His hiring was the second time he uprooted an incumbent manager after only one season—in 2014, the Cubs fired one-year manager Rick Renteria.

What is it about Maddon that causes teams to make decisions like that?  Let’s take a look back in history with Maddon.

When Maddon was hired into his first permanent managerial position with Tampa Bay in 2006, the Rays had the worst record in both leagues, winning only 61 games.  They weren’t much better in 2007 with 66 wins.  But 2008 was a completely different story.  The Rays won 21 more games than the prior year, capturing their first-ever division championship and going all the way to the World Series.  It was a classic “last-to-first” accomplishment for a small-market team with one of the lowest payrolls in the game.

Admittedly, the Cubs had just completed their roster overhaul when they hired Maddon in 2015, but the Cubs won 24 more games that year than they did with Renteria at the helm.  Then in the following season the Cubs won their first World Series since 1910.

Maddon’s results with the Rays and Cubs are why a team like the Angels want him.  Their past relationship may be desirable, but the team really needs Maddon’s experience and leadership to break out of the funk they’ve been in since 2014, the last year they went to the playoffs.  The last year the Angels won a playoff game was 2009.  The franchise needs desperately to revert to the winning days of the first ten seasons of the new millennium, when they went to the playoffs six times, including winning a World Series championship in 2002.

The Angels have the best player in baseball in Mike Trout; but he’s hasn’t had much of a supporting cast and thus has had only one appearance in the playoffs during his nine seasons.  One of Maddon’s biggest challenges will be working with a roster of relatively weak talent outside of Trout, Shohei Ohtani, and Kole Calhoun.  The Angels’ pitching staff is one of the worst in the league, recording the lowest WAR and the second-lowest Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP).  The team didn’t have an ace, or even a legitimate No. 2 or 3 starter in the rotation after Tyler Skaggs died of a drug overdose at mid-season.  No Angels pitcher started more than 18 games.  Only Trevor Cahill pitched more than 100 innings.

The Angels organization has several young minor-league players who put up some big power numbers last year, but it remains to be seen whether their performance will translate well to the big leagues in the near-term. Twenty-year-old outfielder Jo Adell is their top prospect in the farm system, but he is still probably a year or two away from a permanent roster spot.  Their pitching at the Triple-A level was atrocious, as they posted a 6.78 ERA and 1.752 WHIP as a team.  Don’t look for any immediate help there.

A good thing about Maddon is that he’s familiar with working with a young roster. He likes having versatility among his position players so that he can juggle his lineup as needed.  Unfortunately for Maddon, Albert Pujols still has two more years on his contract worth $59 million, and Justin Upton has three more years at $72 million, so he’s stuck with two aging veterans that are providing marginal value and not much flexibility.

The offseason for the Angels has to address pitching as its first priority, both the starting rotation and the bullpen. (They need to be in the hunt for Gerrit Cole's services.)  Ohtani could provide an upgrade to the staff if his arm is healthy next season.  They’ll need to settle their catching position, as they used five different ones last year.  They could use more power from their infield positions.  And they’ll need Trout and Ohtani to stay healthy.

The Angels aren’t noted for their use of advanced analytics, but this is another strength of Maddon.  He was among the first managers doing innovative things with baseball data as far back as his tenure with Tampa.  If there’s value to be gotten from utilizing the numbers for lineup and game strategy, Maddon will find a way to leverage it.  With his prior experience, Maddon might be giving directions to the Angels’ front-office analytics staff, instead of vice versa.

It will be interesting to see if Maddon will continue to use whacky teambuilding tactics like having the players wear pajamas on travel days or dressing up in the clubhouse like theme characters of the latest animation movies.  It’s been part of his approach to building the cult-like following with his previous teams and gaining a reputation as being a manager the players like to play for.

I don’t expect great things from Maddon for the next couple of years, due to the lack of player talent.  But I think Maddon’s relationship with the Angels’ ownership and front office will come into play.  They’ll give him some slack during those first few seasons, while they re-position the roster; and they’ll trust him to get the most out of what is available and to start to build a winning culture in the meantime.

Don’t be surprised after a couple of years to see the Angels as a relevant team again—just like when Maddon was with the Rays and Cubs.  That’s what the Angels ownership is counting on.

More post-season reflections

Last week I focused on the Los Angeles Dodgers’ latest failure in the post-season, suffering a disappointing ending to one of the best regular seasons in baseball history.

 

I’m continuing to reflect on the post-season this week, but commenting on some of the other playoff teams’ successes and failures and looking forward to the World Series between the Astros and Nationals.

 

Cardinals must have lost their bats between NLDS and NLCS

After an impressive series beating Atlanta in the NLDS, the Cardinals offense was surprisingly woeful in the League Championship Series against Washington.  Sure, the Nationals had an impressive battery of starting pitchers, but the Cards managed only 16 hits, including only three extra-base hits, in the four-game sweep. (Three Cardinals batters accounted for 11 of their hits.)  It made you wonder if the Cards’ bats somehow got misplaced on the trip between the two series, and they wound up having to use Whiffle Ball bats in the NLCS.

 

Bryce Who?

The Washington Nationals’ defeat of the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS has put them in the World Series for the first time in franchise history.  Their sweep of the Redbirds came after a come-from-behind defeat of Milwaukee in the wild-card game and a surprising win over a favored Los Angeles Dodgers squad in the NLDS.  And the Nats accomplished this without their former standout player, Bryce Harper, who had been the face of the franchise since his Rookie-of-the-Year season in 2012.  Harper apparently didn’t want to continue playing for the Nats, who offered him $30 million per year.  Instead Harper wound up signing a 13-year, $330 million mega-deal with the Philadelphia Phillies at the start of spring training.  While the loss of Harper was considered by many to be disastrous for the Nats’ future, the rest of the team, led by MVP candidate Anthony Rendon and 20-year-old phenom Juan Soto, stepped up big time to offset his absence.  How soon Nats fans forgot about Harper.

 

Nats’ Anibal Sanchez doesn’t fit the mold, but he still wins

In the era of flame-throwing pitchers who routinely hit 97 mph or better, Anibal Sanchez is somewhat of an anomaly.  Unlike his hard-throwing counterparts in the Nationals’ starting rotation, he’s more of a finesse pitcher, never reaching more than the low 90s at best.  He carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning of NLCS Game 1 against the Cardinals, something that would have been expected of one of the other headliner starters.  He stayed on the corners with his four primary pitches (four-seam fastball, cutter, sinker, and splitter) that he used almost equally throughout the game, while throwing in a few curveballs and changeups for good measure.  However, Sanchez is a much-welcomed throwback on the staff.

 

So long, CC.  See ya in Cooperstown.

Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia made a painful exit in Game 4 of the ALCS Game.  He had entered the game in relief in the 8th inning, in an effort to keep the Astros from adding to their 7-4 lead; but the 38-year-old had to be taken out he threw his arm out of his socket.  It was his last appearance in a major-league game, after pitching for 19 big league seasons.  It was a sad ending to what has been a Hall of Fame career for the left-hander.  In these days of re-defining the use of starting pitching, his 251 career wins may make him the last pitcher to register that many victories.  His first four years with the Yankees (2009-2012) marked the best stretch of his career, although he had previously won a Cy Young Award with the Cleveland Indians in 2007.  Always a fan favorite, Sabathia is a good bet to get a bronze plaque in Cooperstown.

 

DJ LeMahieu: all he did was hit

He’s not your prototypical-looking leadoff hitter at 6-foot-4, but this guy can get on base with the best of them.  He was one of the few Yankee constants during the regular season in which a record 30 players went on the Injured List.  He was in the lineup practically every day, playing 40 or more games in three different positions, and he led the team in Batting Average and On-Base Percentage.  He’s the Yankees’ MVP for the season in my book, even though Gleyber Torres put up some big power numbers this year.  When most of the rest of the Yankees offense went stale in the playoffs, LeMahieu was still in there cranking out the hits, including three timely home runs.

 

Yanks and Astros pitchers may have done better hitting for themselves

Who said the Designated Hitter provided more excitement in American League games?  Well, not in the ALCS.  The Yankees’ Edwin Encarnacion (1-for-18) and the Astros’ Yordan Alvarez (1-for-22) turned in dismal performances as their respective team’s DH.  There wasn’t much room for the teams’ pitchers to have done worse.  Both DHs had lost their stroke, looked completely out of synch at the plate, and ultimately did nothing to help their teams.  A career .225 hitter, Zack Greinke should be scheduled to pitch at Nationals Park where he can take his own turns at the plate in the World Series.

 

In the “Year of the Home Run,” homers haven’t been the dominant theme in the playoffs.

Major League teams broke the record for most home runs in a season by over 600.  Eight of the ten teams in the playoffs made up the top eight home run-hitting clubs from both leagues, led by Minnesota and New York that broke the previous record for homers with over 300 apiece.  But we didn’t see a barrage of home runs in the playoffs.  Tampa Bay, which was one of the playoff teams not in the Top 8, was the only one that hit more than three homers in a game (four in their wild card game against Oakland and in Game 3 of the ALDS against Houston).  The Twins hit only four in their entire series against the Yankees.  When the Cardinals scored 10 runs in the top of the first of Game 5 of the NLDS against the Braves, none came from home runs.  Of course the biggest dinger of the playoffs so far was Jose Altuve’s dramatic ninth-inning walk-off to defeat the Yankees in Game 6 of the ALCS.  Perhaps the upcoming World Series will be a different story, but it’s not likely with the quality of starting pitching of each team.

 

Detroit Tigers fans are kicking themselves

No, the Tigers weren’t in the playoffs.  In fact, they were the team farthest away from making the post-season, since they lost more games (115) than anyone in baseball this season.  But there are three former Tigers pitchers who are currently headed for the World Series.  When the Tigers last appeared in the World Series in 2012, they had Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez in their starting rotation.  If we combine the 43 wins of these three pitchers in 2019 with the Tigers’ 47 wins, they would have come within only a few game of being an American League wild card team this year.  Unfortunately for Tigers fans, they won’t be seeing another home-team playoff contender for quite a few years.

 

What will happen when good pitching meets good pitching?

We’ve heard the old adage “good pitching beats good hitting.”  Well, what happens when good pitching meets good pitching?  That’s what we’ll see in the World Series when the Astros and Nationals face off.  Both teams have top-of-the line starters in the first three slots of their respective rotations.  It’s Verlander/Cole/Greinke vs. Scherzer/Strasberg/Corbin.  So, what should we expect in the World Series?

 

Lots of strikeouts.  Nationals pitchers struck out 11 or more batters in eight of their nine post-season games, including games with 14, 15, 16, and 17 punchouts.  The Astros struck out their opposition 10 or more times in nine of their 11 post-season games, including a game with 17.

 

Low-scoring games.  Even when pitchers like Verlander, Cole, and Scherzer get behind early in games, they are usually able to recover quickly and hold their opposition from running away.  Astros pitchers gave up three or less earned runs in six of their nine playoff games.  Nationals pitchers yielded three or less earned runs in seven of their nine playoff games.

 

Game-winning home runs.  Each team will hit less than 10 home runs in the Series, but several of them will be game-winners coming at the expense of the bullpens.

 

Who wins the 2019 Fall Classic?

My money’s on the Astros.  I expect Alex Bregman to be more of a factor in the World Series.

Where do the LA Dodgers go from here?

In my September 16 blog post, I was asking which Dodgers team would show up in the post-season.  The one that lost the World Series in 2017 and 2018, or the powerhouse team that won 106 regular season games on their way to easily winning their seventh straight division title?

Well, the Dodgers, who were favored to get to the World Series again this year, answered that question last week, but it wasn’t in the Fall Classic this time.  They allowed the Washington Nationals to force a Game 5 in the Division Series and then collapsed in the late innings when the Nationals came from behind, hitting three home runs to tie and then win the deciding game in extra innings.

Now the discussion around the Dodgers is: where do they go from here?  Are they just a victim of bad luck?  Did they just get beat by a better Nationals team? Or is there something more fundamental in their post-season failures over the past few years?  Who gets the blame for their disappointing ending?

If we go back and look at the 2019 regular season performance of the Dodgers, there are a few revealing numbers that might explain why this year’s fateful ending shouldn’t be so surprising.

The Dodgers beat up on weak West Division competition, getting 51 of their 107 wins (against only 25 losses).  On the other hand, in facing tougher regular season competition against American and National League teams that are in the post-season, the Dodgers were only 18-16.  They were only a .500 team (10-10) in all interleague games.

The Dodgers’ powerful bats were a huge part of their regular season success.  They were overwhelming winners of blowout games (decided by five or more runs) with a 41-12 record.  They had the most walk-off wins of any National League team with 12.  Yet they were only 27-22 in one-run games.

The Dodgers’ insufferable defeat could be blamed on several fronts.  Roberts didn’t have any confidence in his bullpen and thus he made some questionable pitching decisions.  Clayton Kershaw curiously faltered again in the post-season.  Several key Dodgers’ hitters, including MVP candidate Cody Bellinger, were absent in the offense.

The Dodgers were exactly where they wanted to be after seven innings in Game 5.  Buehler did his job holding the Nationals to only one run in 6 2/3 innings.  With two runners on base, it was a good decision to bring in Kershaw to shut down the Nationals.  It’s been a familiar move made by several post-season managers to call on their aces in critical shut-down relief situations.

However, Roberts was uncomfortable using relievers Kenta Maeda and Adam Kolarek, or even closer Kenley Jansen, to start the eighth inning, and he went with Kershaw again.  That turned out to be a big mistake, as Kershaw gave up two home runs to tie the game.  Ironically, Maeda struck out the side after relieving Kershaw in the eighth..

The Nationals’ Howie Kendrick then delivered the final blow with a grand slam in the 10th inning to send the Dodgers packing for the rest of the playoffs.

Roberts admirably took full responsibility for the Dodgers’ devastating defeat.  His inability to deliver a World Series title over the past three years, with some very talented teams, initially drew speculation that he may not get a chance to finish out his contract.  However, the Dodgers’ front office squelched any conjecture a few days after the series by announcing Roberts would return for 2020.  But keep in mind managers Joe Girardi, John Farrell, and Dusty Baker were fired immediately after winning division titles.

With Kershaw’s inability to come up with big performances in crucial games in the post-season, did Roberts decide with his heart (versus the stats) to put the left-hander back out for the eighth inning?  Was he trying to give Kershaw an opportunity to re-gain his confidence?  It’s baffling that Kershaw’s post-season performances don’t come close to matching his regular season records when he has been the best pitcher in baseball since Sandy Koufax.  I wonder if the three-time Cy Young Award winner (and two-time runner-up) just runs out of gas at the end of the regular season and has nothing left in the tank for the playoffs.  As the Dodgers look ahead at their roster’s needs, perhaps they will be tempted to off-load the 31-year-old in favor of a younger, cheaper alternative.  After all, they already have Walker Buehler as Kershaw’s heir apparent as the ace of the staff.

Keeping Kershaw wouldn’t be the end of the world for the Dodgers, but keeping the same bullpen would definitely be catastrophic.  When the blame game is played, the Dodgers’ front office has to take responsibility for not acquiring much-needed bullpen help at the trade deadline this year.  Their bullpen weaknesses during the regular season were masked by a terrific offense and a stellar starting rotation.  I don’t see them making that mistake again.  Expect the Dodgers to go out and buy the best bullpen components available during the off-season.

The Dodgers seem well-situated for the future with their position players.  They are a young team (Justin Turner is the grizzled veteran at 34 years old) with most of their better players under team control for the next few years.  Their farm system has recently produced Alex Verdugo, Will Smith, Gavin Lux (2019 Minor League Player of the Year), and Matt Beatty, all of whom figure to be part of their starting lineup of the future.  If anything, the Dodgers might look to add a veteran player who can help bring along the youngsters (like the Astros used Carlos Beltran in 2017), especially in post-season situations.

Based on this season’s results with their divisional competition, the Dodgers would have to be favored at this time to finish as division champions yet again next year.  So what else is new?  The big question will remain though:  which team will show up in the post-season?

 

A "Family Ties" All-Rookie Team

One of baseball’s oldest traditions has included the selection of “all-rookie” teams at the end of the season to highlight the best performances by the newest players.   Topps Chewing Gum and Baseball Digest were among baseball’s long-standing institutions that named their team of rookies with the best performances of the season.

If you’ve kept up with my blogs this summer, you’ll know I’ve written several times about the extraordinary class of rookies in Major League Baseball this year.  I’ve also touted the prevalence of new players who have relatives that also played in the majors.

This week I’ve combined those two topics to come up with a 2019 all-rookie team of players with baseball in their bloodlines.  There are some pretty big names on my list—not just one-year-wonders, but players I think will be around for a while.  Several are third-generation baseball professionals and a few players have Hall of Famers in their family trees.

First base – Kevin Cron (.211/.269/.521, 6 HR, 16 RBI).  His numbers don’t jump out at you because he played in only 39 games for the Arizona Diamondbacks, but he did hit 38 HR in only 82 games at Triple-A Reno.  He is the brother of Twins first baseman C.J. Cron and son of Diamondbacks coach Chris Cron.

Second base Cavan Biggio (.234/.364/.429, 16 HR, 48 RBI, 14 SB).  He got an early season call-up with Toronto and didn’t relinquish his starting job for the remainder of the season.  Perhaps one of the best indicators of the gritty play of Biggio was his bunt against an extreme defensive shift with four outfielders that he turned into a double.  He is the son of another former gritty player, Hall of Famer Craig Biggio.

Third base Vlad Guerrero Jr. (.272/.339/.433, 15 HR, 69 RBI).  This 20-year-old came into the league with the most fanfare of a rookie since Ken Griffey Jr., because of his comparison with his Hall of Fame father Vlad Guerrero Sr.  He has a flair for dramatic hits.  In late July the Blue Jays third baseman hit two grand slams in 10 days.  Like his father, Vlad Jr. showed he could smash unhittable pitches, too.

Shortstop – Fernando Tatis Jr. (.317/.379/.590, 22 HR, 53 RBI, 16 SB).  Despite missing half the season due to injuries, he will get legitimate consideration for the National League’s Rookie of the Year.  He earned the San Diego Padres’ starting shortstop job coming out of spring training and hit a home run in his first major-league at-bat.  He had the most home runs by a rookie under age 21 before season-ending surgery for a broken thumb.  He is the son of former 11-year major-leaguer Fernando Tatis, who once hit 34 HR and 107 RBI for St. Louis, while his grandfather played in the Houston Astros minor-league system in the 1970s.  His 17-year-old brother, Eijah, signed a pro contract with the Chicago White Sox late in the season.

Outfield – Mike Yastrzemski (.272/.334/.518, 21 HR, 55 RBI, 64 R).  He got a relatively late start of his major-league career at 28 years old with the San Francisco Giants, but he hasn’t let down the family name in any manner.  He is the grandson of Boston Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski.  A left-handed hitter like his grandfather, he hit three home runs in a game on August 16 against the D’backs.  He hit a sentimental home run in Fenway Park on September 17 with his grandfather in attendance.  His father, Mike, played in the minors for five seasons, reaching the Triple-A level in the White Sox organization.

Outfield --Josh Naylor (.249/.315/.403, 8 HR, 32 RBI).  The 22-year-old Canadian is an integral part of the youth movement going on in San Diego.  He was hitting .314 with 10 home runs with Triple-A El Paso when he got his promotion in late May.  His brother, Bo, is a prospect in the Cleveland Indians organization.

Outfield – Kyle Tucker (.269/.319/.537, 4 HR, 11 RBI).  He made his major-league debut last year, but still maintained his rookie status into this season.  On this all-rookie team, he had the least amount of time on a major-league roster this year, having only been brought up at the trade deadline.  However, he may wind up having have one of the highest ceilings as a player.  His older brother, Preston, played for the Astros in 2015-16, but now is in the Atlanta Braves organization.

Catcher – Austin Nola (.269/.342/.454, 10 HR, 31 RBI).  He is another late-blooming rookie at 29-years-old.  He had previously never hit more than six home runs in a season; but with his seven in the minors this year in addition to his 10 big-league dingers, it’s been a banner year for him.  The older brother of Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola, he’s proved to be a versatile player at catcher, outfielder, first base, and second base.

Pitcher – Zach Plesac (8 W, 6 L, 3.81 ERA, WHIP 1.228).  In his third professional season, he got 21 starts for the Cleveland Indians’ rotation which suffered major injuries throughout the season.  His best outing was a 4-hit shutout against the Los Angeles Angels on September 10.  He is the nephew of former 18-year major league pitcher Dan Plesac and the son of former minor leaguer Joe Plesac.

Designated Hitter – Bo Bichette (.311/.358/.571. 11 HR, 21 RBI).  He filled out the trio of Toronto Blue Jays rookies (with Biggio and Guerrero) in the starting lineup every day, after he made his debut on July 29.  He tied a major-league record held by Ted Williams, when he hit a double in his ninth consecutive game.  Overall for the season, he had 18 doubles out his 62 total hits.  He usually played shortstop for the Blue Jays, but for this all-rookie team, he’s filling the spot as DH.  He is the son of former four-time all-star Dante Bichette.

Manager – David Bell (75 W, 87 L, NL Central 4th place).  In his rookie season as a major-league manager of the Cincinnati Reds, the team won its most games since 2014.  He had the Reds only 3½ games out of first place on July 4, but they ultimately fell back of the division lead by 16 games in a very competitive division.  He is the son of Buddy Bell, who was a major-league manager for nine seasons with the Detroit, Colorado, and Kansas City.  He is the grandson of Gus Bell and the brother of Mike Bell, both former big-league players.  The Bells are one of only four families in major-league history with three generations of players.

It wasn't a good year for my MLB predictions

If you’ve kept up with my blog for the past few years, you know that I make predictions before the regular season starts for the MLB division winners and the wild card teams that will advance to the post-season.

You also probably know I usually do a post-regular season report card on my predictions.  Well, this year’s results are pretty bad and pretty sad.

The only division winner I successfully picked was the Houston Astros.  I guess that one would have been hard to miss, since they finished with the best record (107-55) of all the 30 major-league teams.

In addition to the Astros, I had picked the Red Sox and Indians in the AL as division winners, while going with the Rockies, Phillies, and Cubs in the NL.  I had a bit more success with the wild card picks, successfully picking three of the four teams--the Nationals, Brewers, and A’s.  I had also picked the Yankees as a wild card.

Here’s a recap of what transpired with my picks and how the division races ended.

My biggest gaffes occurred in the NL West where the Dodgers were the runaway winners, finishing with the best record in the National League, while the Rockies finished dead last.

I had forecasted that the Rockies from 2018 (losing a tie-breaker game with the Dodgers for the division title) were on the verge of becoming a break-out team and would win their first-ever division title this year.  The Rockies’ offense, led by Nolan Arenado again, held up its end of the team’s performance from last year, by finishing fourth in the NL in runs scored and second in slugging percentage.  However, their pitching was dismal, finishing last in the NL in ERA, WHIP, and home runs allowed.

The Dodgers blew away the league in both batting and pitching, leading in practically every major category in both.  Their league-leading 106 wins were highlighted by 12 walk-off wins and 18 shutouts.

After making the biggest splash during last off-season with the addition of key players like Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, David Robertson, Jean Segura, and Andrew McCutchen, it looked like I had made a good prediction with the Phillies, as they held first-place in the NL East until June 11.  But then the Braves overtook them and virtually clinched the division with eight-game and nine-game winning streaks in August and early September.  Then the Nationals also passed the Phillies in early July.  Some were questioning down the stretch whether Phillies’ second-year manager Gabe Kapler was the right guy for the team.  The Phils’ hiring of their former manager, Charlie Manuel, out of retirement as a coach late in the season seemed to re-inforce that feeling by the franchise’s ownership.  But the reality was their starting pitching under-performed.

The Braves were another team I didn’t have in the post-season picture.  Yet they finished with the second-best record in the National League behind the Dodgers.  Last year’s Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuna Jr. and veteran Freddie Freeman led the team offensively.  Acuna narrowly missed becoming a rare 40-40 player in home runs and steals, while Josh Donaldson had a resurgence in his career with his most home runs (37) since 2016.  21-year-old Mike Soroka became the ace of the staff.

The second-place Nationals finished right where I thought they would, except it was behind the Phillies instead of the Braves.  Their loss of Bryce Harper to division-rival Phillies didn’t devastate the team as many thought it would.  Anthony Rendon put together an MVP season, and second-year player Juan Soto (still only 20 years old) proved he was no fluke last year.  The team was also propelled by a top-of-the-line starting rotation of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin.

In the closest division race all year, the NL Central has practically been up for grabs for most of the season.  Even the fifth-place Reds were within striking distance of the division lead shortly before the All-Star Game break.  Again, my Cubs pick initially looked like a good one, as they held the division led for most of the season prior to the trade deadline.  However, they were a Jekyll and Hyde team—a record of 32-18 in blowout games, but 19-27 in one-run games.  But then the Cardinals had an 18-9 record for the month of August, and the Brewers had the best record (20-7) in baseball in September despite losing Christian Yelich to injury for the remainder of the season.  When the Cardinals swept the Cubs at Wrigley Field last week (for the first time since 1921), it took any remaining wind out of the Cubs’ sail and put them out of contention for post-season play.  The Cubs ultimately suffered a collapse like last year.  Manager Joe Maddon, once the darling of the Cubs’ clubhouse, will be gone after this season.

The Red Sox were the most under-achieving team for me this year.  After having one of the best seasons in MLB history (108 wins) and beating the Dodgers in five games in the World Series, it was hard to imagine they would not repeat this year.  The team from last year stayed intact, except for the losses of Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly in the bullpen.  From the beginning of the season, however, they never got out of the gate in the division race.  Injuries to their starting rotation hurt them severely, and they never did get a suitable closer; but they had the fourth best offense in the league.  They will barely break .500 this year.

On the other hand, you’d have to say the Yankees were the biggest over-achievers this season.  I had picked them to finish behind the Red Sox, but predicted they would still claim a wild card spot.  They were beset with injuries since Opening Day.  The Yankees’ medical staff earned their keep this year, as the team had an MLB-record 30 players go on the Injured List this year.  Yet, somehow Aaron Boone managed to come up with lineups that ultimately won over 100 games again this year, deploying replacement players that didn’t have the typical Yankee pedigree.

The Twins were the most pleasantly surprising team in the American League, as they won the most games in franchise history since 1965 and captured their first division title since 2010.  First-year Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, the latest of the new wave of big-league managers without prior managerial experience, had the luxury of seeing his team become the first in history to hit 300 home runs in a season.  But I had picked the Indians to prevail in the AL Central for the fourth consecutive season.

The Indians trailed the Twins for most of the season, but after the All-Star break, they were never more than 6 ½ games out of first place, despite having lost their ace Corey Kluber early in the season and starter Carlos Carrasco for three months in the middle of the season due to cancer treatments.  When the Indians traded No. 2 Trevor Bauer (6th in the Cy Young Award voting last year) to Cincinnati at the July 31 trade deadline, many thought the team had packed their bags and checked out for the rest of the season.  However, second-year pitcher Shane Beiber picked up a big part of the workload, and they managed to stay close enough to contend for a wild card spot until the last week of the season.  Despite their starting rotation woes, the Indans’ bullpen was outstanding, and overall the team gave up the fewest runs of any AL club.

The A’s and Rays edged out the Indians for the two wild card spots.  I had picked the A’s, who had a terrific second-half of the season.  During that period, they wound up losing only two more games than the division-leading Astros, who had the best overall record in the American League.  The A’s were led by Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, and Marcus Semien, who each had 33+ home runs and 90+ RBIs.  34-year-old Mike Fiers led the pitching staff with a 15-4 record.

I didn’t’ have the Rays in the playoff picture at all in my pre-season picks.  They will be playing in their first post-season since 2013.  They didn’t get a lot of attention in the homer-crazy season, since they had only one player, Austin Meadows, with more than 30 home runs.  Pitcher Charlie Morton, who came over from the Astros over the winter, had a Cy Young-type year and led a solid pitching staff.  He helped offset the limited action of Blake Snell, last year’s Cy Young Award winner, who missed two months of the season on the Injured List.

The Astros took over first place in late April and never relinquished its lead.  They battled their own set of injuries throughout the year, with Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer missing significant time.  But they compensated with the best No. 1 and No. 2 starters in baseball in Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, who both posted 300 strikeouts.  Then Wade Miley had his best season since his rookie campaign in 2012.  The Astros also had the best rookie surprise of the season in Yordan Alvarez, who will be the runaway winner for Rookie of the Year with a slash line of .317/.415/.663, 27 home runs, and 78 RBIs in only 86 games.  The addition of another No. 1 starter, Zach Greinke, at the trade deadline has the Astros well-positioned for the post-season.

 

Eastbank Little League still basking in glory of World Series triumph

It’s been almost a month since the River Ridge-based Eastbank team won the Little League Baseball World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and the euphoria of their victory over Curacao in the international finals still hasn’t worn off.  The team has been the toast of the New Orleans area, as well as the entire state of Louisiana, as its accomplishment has been recognized at all sorts of public events.  The players and coaches have had little time for their achievement to really sink in.

To put the LLWS championship into perspective, it’s similar to winning the World Soccer Cup or the World Baseball Classic, where teams from across the globe compete for a title.  The popularity of the 72-year-old competition rivals those other events, especially since it is held annually.  While the participants of the LLWS are much younger, they are no less competitive than their professional counterparts.

The Eastbank team of 12-year-olds went on a winning streak that included a sweep of the state tournament in Lafayette, LA and the regional competition in Waco, TX.  Representing the Southwest Region, they became the first team from the Greater New Orleans area to reach Williamsport.  After losing its first game in the World Series to Hawaii, they rebounded by winning six games in eight days (including a win against Hawaii) to become the first team from Louisiana to claim the overall title.  They were the first team since 2000 to lose its first game in the tournament and then capture the championship.  Eastbank was the last team standing out of over 7,000 across the world that played Little League Baseball this year.

Kevin Johnson, one of the Eastbank coaches, said, “Even now, I still haven’t fully processed what this team’s done.  It’s been all so surreal.  It’s like I had walked on the moon.” The 44-year-old, who’s been coaching since he was 19, added. “I’ve followed the Little League World Series since I was a little kid, so I was aware of the magnitude of the competition.”

Johnson, who assisted head coach Scott Frazier along with Don Abadie, was impressed by the baseball IQ of the team.  “Their capabilities had already been well-honed by their travel ball coaches.  Plus, we couldn’t have asked for a better attitude by the kids.  We just had to prepare them for the grind of tournament play.”  Johnson said the coaches’ mantra for the team became “don’t take anything for granted; don’t leave anything on the field.”  Apparently, that advice worked well for the youngsters who bounced back from their loss in the first game.

Since the players already had the requisite athletic skills, he said the coaching staff emphasized the mental side of the game.  He credits Frazier with instilling in the players what was termed PMA—positive mental attitude.  When play got tough for the team, the boys were reminded to forget about the last bad pitch or the last misplay.  For example, in one of the televised games, Frazier was heard admonishing a struggling pitcher to correct his body language and focus only on the next pitch.

The team displayed a good combination of hitting and pitching throughout the tournament.  Reece Roussel set a LLWS record with 17 hits during the tournament, while Marshall Louque pitched a no-hitter against the Virginia-based Southeast Region team.  Ethan Prather shut down a talented Curacao squad on only two hits in the finals.  Johnson was complimentary of all the players, saying one of their key success factors was that each them knew his role.  The substitutes knew they could count on seeing action, and they also delivered in key situations.  With pitch counts determining how long pitchers could stay in a game, Johnson said Eastbank had the advantage of having many players who had pitched prior to the World Series and thus they were able to share the workload.

Baseball doesn’t get very much press in the New Orleans area.  But the Eastbank team was talk of the town for two weeks during the tournament.  Furthermore, their LLWS title just might be the biggest sports story of the year in Louisiana, unless perhaps LSU beats Alabama in football or the Saints rebound from Drew Brees’s injury to win the Super Bowl.

The Eastbank team has continued to be the center of attention at many venues since their return home.  For the past few weeks, it’s been a whirlwind period for the team.  They were treated to a parade in Harahan and made appearances at New Orleans Baby Cakes and New Orleans Saints games.  They took a trip to visit the Governor’s Mansion in Baton Rouge and did a walk-through at the Saints’ football facility.  Johnson said they have upcoming appearances at an LSU football game and with the Houston Astros.  They’ve been invited by President Trump to visit the White House and are slated to ride in Mardi Gras parades with the krewes of Bacchus and Centurions in February.

For Johnson, helping to coach the team wasn’t the only thrill for him during Eastbank’s run.  His daughter, Paige, gave birth to his first grandchild, Jaxton, just prior to the LLWS.  He says he’d love nothing better than to eventually coach his grandson in baseball.  Maybe even in the World Series.

Which Dodgers team will show up in the post-season?

The Dodgers clinched the National League West Division this past Tuesday in their 146th game of the season.  According to the Elias Sports Bureau only five teams since the Wild Card era had won their division title faster.  It’s the Dodgers’ seventh consecutive division title, reminiscent of the Atlanta Braves’ 11 straight championships from 1995 to 2005 and the New York Yankees’ string of nine from 1998-to 2006.  Despite their recent dominance, the Dodgers haven’t been able to bring home their first World Series ring since 1988.

The Dodgers have made two World Series appearances in the last two seasons.  They came close to a title in 2017 by going to the seventh game before bowing out against the Houston Astros, and then got blown out by the Boston Red Sox last season.

Los Angeles has been in first place in their division for practically this entire season.  In the “Year of the Home Run” in which all kinds of individual and team records have been set in the majors, the Dodgers have has been in the thick of the homer surge across both leagues.

They started their home run record-setting season with a record eight four-baggers on Opening Day.

Outfielder Cody Bellinger has been at the forefront of the Dodgers’ dominance in the National League for most home runs.  In his first eight games, he had six home runs and 16 RBI, tying Alex Rodriguez and Eddie Mathews for the most to start a season.  His 14th dinger before May 1 tied a record with Christian Yelich, Albert Pujols and A-Rod.  Bellinger had more home runs by the All-Star break than any Dodgers player before him, passing legendary players Duke Snider and Gil Hodges.  He was the first player in the majors to reach 40 homers.  He’s making a strong case for the league’s MVP Award.

In August, infielder Max Muncy had five consecutive games with a home run.  He’s on a pace to equal his 35 home runs last year.

In late April the Dodgers broke the major-league record for most consecutive games with a home run in their home ballpark (starting back in 2018).  By September 1 the Dodgers had broken their franchise record for home runs in a season.

Dodgers pitching has been equally as good this year.  Hyun-Jin Ryu stepped up his game in a big way after having a shortened season last year.  He leads the National League with an impressive 2.45 ERA, in a season in which the overall league average is 4.42.  Clayton Kershaw is putting in his usual type of regular season (14-5, 3.05 ERA, 1.052 WHIP) at age 31, while Walker Buehler has continued his emergence from last year as Kershaw’s eventual replacement as the ace of the staff.

The Dodgers currently lead the National League in ERA, WHIP, and ERA+ and are second in strikeouts per nine innings.  If there’s an Achilles heel on the team, it’s their relief pitching that has been prone to giving up leads in late innings.  Kenley Jansen, who’s been a lights-out closer in previous years, seems to have lost the magic of his cutter, previously his most successful pitch.  His effectiveness as the closer has been called into question, but manager Dave Roberts has been reluctant to take him out of the role.  Baseball analysts were puzzled when the Dodgers didn’t pull the trigger on acquiring bullpen help bullpen at the July 31 trade deadline.

Of course, Los Angeles didn’t have much competition in their division this year.  They’ve been in first place since April 16, unlike last year when they had to go to Game 163 with the Colorado Rockies before claiming the division title.

With two weeks left in the regular season, it looks like the Dodgers’ competition in the National League playoffs will be the Braves, Cardinals, Cubs, and Nationals.  The pitching of the Nationals and Cardinals pose the biggest threat to the Dodgers getting back to the World Series.

The Dodgers’ chances of winning the World Series are currently ranked higher than the American League’s two current favorites (Houston and New York), as rated by Baseball-Reference.com.

Despite their favorable odds, the question remains as to which Dodgers team will show up in the post-season.  They’ve suffered a drought in the last six seasons with respect to getting a World Series ring.  They went seven games to defeat the Brewers in the NLCS last year, and then won only one game against Boston in the World Series.

The Dodgers hit a paltry .180 against some really good Red Sox pitching led by David Price, Joe Kelly, and Nathan Eovaldi.  Bellinger’s 1-for-16 performance at the plate in the Series followed another lackluster performance in the NLCS.  Late-season pick-up Manny Machado wasn’t much help either.

Clayton Kershaw’s mediocrity in the playoffs throughout his career has miserably continued in his two starts against the Red Sox last season.  The Dodgers’ bullpen couldn’t contain Boston’s offense in two sterling starts by Walker Buehler and Rich Hill.

One of the strengths of the current team is their versatility in creating various lineups to fit the competition.  Several of their players play multiple positions.  The team has also been able to bring up several rookies (Matt Beaty, Alex Verdugo, Will Smith, and Gavin Lux) who have been productive in filling in as injury replacements throughout the season.  An illustration of the lineup options they have occurred in a game this past week against the Orioles when only two Dodgers players were in the same position they were in on Opening Day.  They have the luxury of using the last two weeks of the season to get players healthy, give their regulars some rest, and figure out the roster that will give them the best chance in the post-season.

Can the Dodgers avoid a drop-off during this post-season? Can they steer clear of becoming known as the Buffalo Bills of Major League Baseball?  (Recall the Bills lost four straight Super Bowls in the early ‘90s.)

As a Yankees fan, I would personally like to see a renewal of the Yankees-Dodgers rivalry in the Fall Classic.  They competed in some legendary matchups during the late 1940s and early 1950s.  The last time they faced each other was in 1981, when the Dodgers defeated the Yankees after a strike-shortened regular season.  The time for Yankees revenge is long overdue.

Justin Verlander has found the 'fountain of youth'

At 36 years old, most major-league pitchers have begun looking toward retirement, as they start to lose velocity and battle nagging injuries that have resulted from logging many innings in their career.  Pitching into their mid-30s usually means they’ve been taking the mound for up to 15 seasons, while most major-league pitchers don’t last more than a handful of years.

However, Justin Verlander is one of those 36-year-olds who doesn’t appear to be thinking about his retirement any time soon.  He was never better than when he pitched his third career no-hitter on September 1.  He’s the only major leaguer in history to hurl a no-hitter, while also striking out 14 and allowing one baserunner.

There are only five other starters 36 years of age or older in the majors this year.  CC Sabathia, Adam Wainwright, and Rich Hill are older than Verlander, but each of them are on the down side of their careers.  On the other hand, Verlander seems to have found the proverbial fountain of youth and is getting better with age.  That’s saying a lot, considering the auspicious start of his major-league career.

During his first eight seasons with the Detroit Tigers, Velander emerged on a Hall of Fame path that included the AL Rookie of the Year award in his first full season in 2006.  He followed that with a rare combination of the American League MVP and Cy Young Award honors in 2011, when he finished the season with pitching’s Triple Crown, as the leader in wins, ERA, and strikeouts.  He finished among the top seven of the Cy Young Award in four other seasons during that timeframe.  As a power pitcher, he was used to logging 200-plus strikeouts each year.  He took pride in the fact that he could still deliver 97 and 98-mph fastballs as he went into the late innings of his outings.

By the end of the 2014 season though, Verlander had lost the zip on his fastball, averaging less than 93 miles per hour.  His ERA ballooned to 4.54, almost two full points over his 2012 number.  He recorded less than 200 strikeouts for the first time in six seasons.  At age 31, it looked like his career was declining, his arm flamed out from all the power-pitching that had defined his career to that point.

After missing a dozen starts in 2015 due to a lateral tear and for the first time in his career failing to pick up double-digit wins, he rebounded in 2016 with the Tigers.  He finished as runner-up for the Cy Young Award.

With the Houston Astros running away with their division in 2017, they surprised the baseball world by making a deal for Verlander for the last month of the season.  He had sterling performances in his five starts in September, wowing everyone with a 1.01 ERA and 0.647 WHIP.  He defeated the Boston Red Sox twice and the New York Yankees twice in the playoffs leading up to the World Series.  He gave up only five hits in his two starts against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Series, although he took the loss in Game 6.

The 2018 season was evidence that he was back and stronger than ever.  He led the American League in starts (34), strikeouts (career-high 290), and WHIP (0.902).  He finished second in the voting for the Cy Young Award for the third time in his career.  Currently he’s favored to win the award in 2019.

However, as good as Verlander has been, he’s not immune to the home run spree that has consumed the majors.  Over half of his earned runs allowed this season have come from home runs.  But with a league-leading 2.52 ERA, the home runs haven’t affected his overall effectiveness.  And while a pitcher’s wins aren’t considered a relevant stat anymore, he also happens to lead the league with 18.

The Astros are one of the more advanced teams in the big leagues in the deployment of technology and analytics.  Verlander has embraced their use, re-engineered his pitching approach, and consequently has attained another peak in his career.  It’s a peak that could extend for a while.  He’s healthy and back to 97 mph fastballs and a renewed changeup that he had practically abandoned when he was struggling a few years ago.  In fact, Verlander is talking about pitching into his forties.

That’s entirely possible.  Two of baseball’s legendary flame-throwers apparently also drank from the fountain of youth.  Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan pitched until age 46, while seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens finished his career at age 44.

Verlander’s no-hitter put him the conversation as one of the elite pitchers in history.  Only six pitchers have thrown three or more no-hitters in their careers, including Nolan Ryan (7), Sandy Koufax (4), Cy Young (3), Bob Feller (3), and Larry Corcoran (3), a less familiar name from the 1880s.

He just may have more performances like that in his toolkit.  With the way he is currently pitching, age doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a factor.

Taylor and Tyler Rogers: rare set of MLB twins

There have been over 19,600 major-league ballplayers in the history of the game.  Only twenty of them have the distinction of being a member of a set of twins.  When Tyler Rogers made his major-league debut on August 27 in a relief appearance for the San Francisco Giants, he joined his brother Taylor as the tenth set of twins to play in the big leagues.  Taylor had previously reached the majors in 2016 with the Minnesota Twins and has been a strength in their bullpen since then.  Taylor picked up his 21st save on the same night as Tyler’s debut.


The rare twins are among a total of 395 sets of brothers to wear major-league uniforms.  The Rogers pair are the first set to play in the majors since Damon and Ryan Minor in 2000.


After playing together for Chatwood High School in Lincoln, Colorado, the Rogers brothers took separate paths in their professional careers.  Tyler went on to play for Austin Peay University while Taylor played for the University of Kentucky, although he had been selected out of high school By Baltimore in the 37th round of the 2009 MLB Draft.  Taylor signed with the Twins after being drafted again in 2012 in the 11th round.  Tyler was selected and signed by the Giants in the next year’s draft.


Although the Rogers twins are identical, Taylor is a southpaw who averages over ten strikeouts per nine innings, while Tyler is a right-handed submarine-style pitcher relying more on pitching to contact to get batters out.


Here’s a quick rundown of the other major-league twins.


The first pair of twins to play in the majors were Bill and George Hunter between 1909 and 1912.  They were followed by Joe and Red Shannon, who played as 18-year-olds on the same team in Joe’s only major league season in 1915.


Ray and Roy Grimes made their major-league debuts in 1920, the only season Roy would play.  A third Grimes brother, Kenneth, played in three minor-league seasons, while Ray’s son, Oscar, would also play in the majors from 1939 to 1946.


Claude and Bubber Jonnard appeared in the majors in the early 1920s.  It would be another 30 years before the next set of twins would reach the majors, when 22-year-old Eddie and Johnny O’Brien formed the double-play combination for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1953.


Mike and Marshall Edwards had brief careers during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.  They also had a younger brother, Dave, who also played five major-league seasons.


Stan and Stew Cliburn both played for the California Angels during the 1980s, but not at the same time.  After their playing days, the pair held managerial and coaching positions together for several minor-league teams in the Minnesota Twins organization.


Jose Canseco is the most noteworthy of all the major-league twins.  He was American League Rookie of the Year in 1986, the AL MVP in 1988, and a six-time all-star who amassed 462 career home runs.  His lesser-known brother, Ozzie, played only 24 major-league games spread over three seasons, never hitting a home run.


Ryan Minor is most remembered for having taken Cal Ripken’s spot in the lineup when Ripken ended his streak in 1998 for most consecutive games played.  Minor played four seasons with Baltimore and Montreal, while his twin Damon played four seasons with San Francisco.


Possibly following the Rogers brothers with distinction as the next major-league twins are brothers Luis Alejandro Basabe (Diamondbacks organization) and Luis Alexander Basabe (White Sox organization).  The native-born Venezuelans are active this year, working their way through the minors.


Boston’s current all-star shortstop Xander Bogaerts is a twin whose brother, Jair, played in the minors at 17 and 18-years-old, but never made it out the Dominican rookie leagues.


Over the years, there have been numerous former major-leaguers with twin brothers that also couldn’t get past the minors, including Vern Law (1950-1967), Russ Nixon (1957-1968), Brian Doyle (1978-1981), Tony Fernandez (1983-2001), and Mike Mimbs (1995-1997).


Twin brothers have never pitched against each other in the majors.  Maybe one day soon we’ll see the Rogers twins taking their turns on the hill for opposing teams.


It's good to have another Yastrzemski in baseball

Carl Yastrzemski had one of the best nicknames in baseball.  Yaz.  In between the careers of Ted Williams and David Ortiz, he was the most popular player in Boston.  He delighted the Red Sox Nation for 23 seasons.  He was a Triple Crown winner, an MVP, a three-time batting champion, and an 18-time all-star.  A first ballot Hall of Famer.


It’s been 36 years since Yaz donned the Red Sox uniform.  He didn’t have the controversy of Williams surrounding him or the flair of Ortiz’s relationship with the fans and media.  In his quiet sort of way, Yaz approached the game in a workman-like manner and produced big results.  All the same, he’s been missed.  He turned 80 years old last week.


But now there’s a new Yastrzemski in baseball, Yaz’s grandson Mike.  He was drafted out of high school by his grandpa’s team, but he chose to play baseball at Vanderbilt instead.  After being drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the 14th round in 2013, he floundered somewhat in the minors for six seasons.  He never really stood out, certainly not showing the potential of his grandfather.


The 28-year-old was traded to the San Francisco Giants during spring training this season.  After hitting 12 home runs in his first 40 games for Triple-A Sacramento, he made his major-league debut with the San Francisco Giants on May 25.  At the time, the Giants were seemingly on a path to repeat as the cellar dweller in the NL West, as they were nine games under .500.


Yastrzemski has responded with a break-out season and been a pleasant surprise in the Giants’ resurgence after the All-Star break.  They are currently battling Arizona for second place, one game under .500, albeit 21 games behind division-leading Los Angeles.


His slash line with the Giants was .272/.320/.541 as of Saturday.  He’s hit more home runs (17) in 73 games than he ever hit in a full season in the minors.  Three of those came in a game on August 16 in the Giants 10-9 victory against the Arizona Diamondbacks.  His grandfather’s only three-homer game during his lengthy career came in his 15th season, on May 19, 1976, at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium.


Yastrzemski’s baseball bloodlines also includes his father, also named Mike, who was a secondary phase draft pick of the Atlanta Braves in January 1984.  His father spent five seasons in the minors, eventually reaching the Triple-A level with the Chicago White Sox organization but never getting a shot in the big leagues.  Grandpa Yastrzemski is quick to point out that he stayed in the background while his son was the one who helped young Mike learn the game.


Yastrzemski is one of five current players in the majors whose grandfather also played in the majors.  Others include Charlie Culberson (Leon Culberson), Rick Porcello (Sam Dente), Derek Dietrich (Steve Demeter), and Nolan Fontana (Lew Burdette).


Will he be as good as his grandfather?  Probably not, although Yaz’s career started out rather modestly too, with a 266/.324/.396 slash line in his rookie season in 1961.  It’s too early to tell though.  Perhaps Mike will be a late-bloomer.


In any case, it’s good to hear the Yastrzemski name being announced in the starting lineup in big league stadiums again.  We needed another Yaz.


New hitting records occurring practically every day

The offensive explosion occurring in the majors today gets more incredible every day.  Home runs are being hit at a record pace.  Games scores in double digits by both teams are more frequent.  Pitchers’ ERAs are ballooning at a higher rate.  One result of the hitting frenzy is that we are seemingly seeing new records being set every day, largely stemming from the increasing home run trend.


But the records are not related to the traditional batting milestones (such as 3,000 hits, 500 home runs, 1,500 RBIs) that take a full career to accumulate.  Instead they are mostly career-startup records by players relatively early in their careers who are leading the charge in the power surge.  There has been an emergence of young players in the majors who have wasted no time getting into the chase for home runs.  There is an open question regarding their ability to sustain these types of performances or whether they are just the latest sensations who will ultimately fizzle out.  (In other words, will they eventually become a Mike Trout or a Joe Charboneau, a one-year wonder in 1980?)


After hitting 28 home runs in the minors this season, Aristides Aquino got his call-up with the Cincinnati Reds and became the fastest (16 games) to hit eleven home runs to start a career.  His barrage included a game on August 10 against the Cubs in which he hit three homers in the first four innings of the game.


When the New York Mets broke spring camp, it wasn’t certain whether first baseman Pete Alonso had a fulltime job.  But when he started smacking home runs early, the job became his.  He gained notoriety when he broke Mark McGwire’s record for most home runs (19) for a rookie before June 1.  Winning the Home Run Derby during the pre-All-Star Game festivities solidified his national popularity and appeal.  On August 18, his 40th home run broke the National League record for rookies.  His 39th had been one of his five hits against the Braves.


Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Cody Bellinger previously set the NL rookie record for most home runs two years ago.  He started this year with a bang, setting the record for most RBI (37) before May 1.  He became the fastest Dodger to reach 100 career home runs.  By the All-Star break Bellinger had 30 home runs, breaking a Dodgers record set by Gil Hodges and Duke Snider.


Yordan Alvarez was called up to the Astros in early June as a temporary backfill for some team injuries.  However, he never left the lineup.  He hit a home run in each of first two major-league games, only the 23rd time it occurred since 1908.  On August 10, he hit three home runs against the Orioles and got his 51st RBI, the most of any player after first 45 career games.  In addition to his run production, his current slash line is an impressive .344/.426/.719 for a rookie.


As I wrote in last week’s blog, Bo Bichette is showing why he belongs in the big leagues.  The Toronto Blue Jays shortstop hit a double in nine consecutive games, tying a record by legendary Ted Williams.  He has a total of 12 doubles in his first 17 major-league games.


Yankees infielder Gleyber Torres has seven multi-homer games this season, passing Joe DiMaggio for the Yankees’ record for most by a player under the age of 23.  Remarkably, 13 of his 29 home runs this season have been against the Orioles.  (But then it seems everyone is having a feast on Orioles pitching which is on a pace to yield the most home runs in one season.)  Torres is the first player since Roger Maris (versus the White Sox in 1961) to accomplish this.


New technology in baseball, such as Statcast, is capturing and making available batting data that is helping to popularize the home run craze.  Exit velocity, launch angle, and distance are the new buzzwords that are utilized to quantify the monstrous home runs that are being hit.


On June 21 Texas Rangers outfielder Nomar Mazara hit the longest home run (505 feet) of the season, which tied him with Trevor Story for the longest ever hit in the Statcast era (beginning in 2015).  Mazara also has the third-longest this season at 482 feet.  Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber hit the longest grand slam (473 feet) tracked by Statcast.


Giancarlo Stanton has hit the home run with the highest exit velocity (120.6 mph) so far this season.  It’s his fourth consecutive season to lead in this stat.


As part of the home run onslaught, individual performances that used to be relatively infrequent are occurring with more regularity, including players hitting for the cycle and hitting three homers in a game.


Trea Turner hit for the cycle for the second time in his career on July 23.  He is the 26th player in history to have multiple cycle games.  Shohei Ohtani became the first Japanese-born player to hit for the cycle on June 13.  Jorge Polanco hit for the cycle while going 5-for-5 on April 5.  Other players that hit for the cycle include Jake Bauers and Jonathan Villar.  Twenty players have hit three home runs in a game this season.  Nelson Cruz did it twice within 12 days in July and August.  Rookie Mike Yastrzemski, grandson of Carl Yastrzemski, hit three on August 16.


In addition to the individual records being set, a number of franchise-related milestones are being passed.


During the Red Sox-Yankees series in London, the Yankees recorded a home run in their 31st consecutive game.  The Phillies and Diamondbacks set a major-league record on June 10 when they combined for 13 home runs in a game.  The Minnesota Twins are on a pace to hit the most home runs in a season.  They were the fastest team (103 games) to reach 200 on July 26.


There are six weeks left in the regular season.  There’s still a lot of baseball to be played.  Who knows what other new records we’ll see?


Bo knows hitting: may be best of exciting rookie class

Bo knows hitting.


No, this isn’t referring to Bo Jackson, the superhuman athlete from the ‘80s and ‘90s who was an all-star outfielder in Major League Baseball and a Pro Bowl running back in the National Football League at the same time.


This is the latest Bo, Bo Bichette, the Toronto Blue Jays’ rookie shortstop who’s become the latest rookie sensation after only fourteen games in the majors.  He’s already been mentioned with one of baseball’s most legendary hitters, Ted Williams.


The Blue Jays’ No. 1 prospect has some big shoes to fill.  Besides being the son of a former major-league all-star, his callup on July 29 comes after the debuts of a new crop of young stars who have already made an imprint on the league and figure to be around for quite a while.  That group was already being labeled the best rookie class of the past few years, and Bichette is on a path to be remembered as part of that lofty group.


A couple of these rookies are Bichette’s new teammates with the Toronto Blue Jays.  Like Bichette, they are the sons of former major leaguers.  Third baseman Vlad Guerrero Jr., the son of Hall of Famer Vlad Guerrero, was the pre-season overall No. 1 prospect in organized baseball, and he hasn’t disappointed anyone with his hitting.  He set a record for most home runs in the Home Run Derby at the All-Star break.  Second baseman Cavan Biggio is the son of Hall of Famer Craig Biggio.  With not as much raw talent as Guerrero, Biggio is developing into a better-than-average player.


Guerrero, Biggio, and Bichette are part of a youth movement in Toronto, along with second-year player Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (the brother of Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel).  Blue Jays fans are looking forward to the day when these youngsters will have Toronto back into the conversation as a contender in the AL East Division.


Other rookies in the majors have turned a lot of heads, too.


New York Mets first baseman Pete Alonso is among the league leaders in home runs.  He has already set records for most home runs by a rookie.  Fernando Tatis Jr. is an exciting all-around shortstop adept at hitting, fielding, and running the bases.  He is forecasted to lead a rejuvenated San Diego Padres team back into prominence.


The Houston Astros were already a highly-talented team when they promoted Yordan Alvarez to temporarily backfill some injured players.  Now they can’t keep him out of the lineup.  He’s been the AL Rookie of the Month for both June and July.  Atlanta’s Austin Riley made a big splash in his debut and wound up as May’s NL Rookie of the Month.  Boston Red Sox super utility player Michael Chavis manages to find a spot in the lineup each day due to his versatility.


Among the talented group of rookies, Bichette appears to be the best pure hitter.  He has a sweet swing and can hit to all fields.  Although he’s hit four home runs, his game is not solely dependent on hitting the long ball.  He’s had multiple hits in nine of his first 14 games.  He is currently batting .367 with an OPS of .424.


Bichette emerged in the limelight because he was the first player in MLB history with a doubles streak of nine games.  He is the first rookie since Ted Williams in 1939 to have an extra-base hit in nine straight games.


Bichette’s father, Dante, was a 14-year veteran of the majors.  A four-time all-star outfielder with the Colorado Rockies, he was runner-up for NL MVP in 1995, when he led the league with 40 HRs and 128 RBIs.  Bo’s brother, Dante Jr., was a first-round pick of the Yankees in 2011.  He played in the Washington Nationals organization this year.  The elder Bichette was known to wear a mullet haircut during his playing days.  Now his son sports a set of locks that flow freely out the back of his hat.


Bichette probably won’t wind up with American League Rookie of the Year honors this season because of his late start.  He has a lot of ground to make up in order to catch Alvarez’s impressive offensive numbers so far.  But don’t count Bichette out as being the best of this rookie class for the long term.  After all, he knows hitting.


Yankees get shut out at MLB trade deadline

The biggest surprise in the closing hour of the July 31 trade deadline was the Astros’ acquisition of superstar pitcher Zach Greinke.  Close behind that breaking story, came the shocking news that the Yankees didn’t make a deal for much-needed starting pitching.  Yankees fans are still reeling that GM Brian Cashman didn’t pull the trigger on getting help.  Sarcastically, some were even wondering if Cashman actually realized there was a deadline.


The last few weeks have highlighted the fact the Yankees needed to bolster their pitching, especially their starting rotation.  (In their two series against Minnesota and Boston during July 22-28, they had a team ERA of 9.86).  Everyone just assumed that Cashman would remedy the situation, as they have always managed to do over the years when they needed additional roster help.  Past history said the Yankees would be in the mix with the other teams vying for the top available starters on the market, doing whatever it took to make a deal.


However, the New York Mets threw a wrench into the starting pitching pursuit by several teams when they traded for Marcus Stroman several days before the deadline.  When everyone thought the Mets would be sellers, including unloading Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler, they charged out front as buyers.


The Mets ultimately retreated from moving Syndergaard and Wheeler anywhere.  Many thought the Mets especially didn’t want to move either one of them to their cross-town rival Yankees.


Top-of-the-rotation starters Madison Bumgarner and Greinke included the Yankees on their no-trade list, so Cashman likely didn’t even get a chance to bid for their services.


Even if the Yankees didn’t land the top prize among pitchers, it was thought they would minimally pursue a No.4 or No. 5 starter in the rotation that could eat innings and take some of the demand off their bullpen.


Seattle’s Mike Leake, Detroit’s Matt Boyd, Cleveland’s Trevor Bauer, Texas’ Mike Minor, and Arizona’s Robbie Ray were other starters thought to be available, but at the end of the day on July 31 only Leake and Bauer had been moved.  And not to the Yankees.


Perhaps the other teams wanted too much, in the way of prospects, for Cashman to agree to a deal.  He had let it be known he was unwilling to part with the Yankees’ top pitching prospect Deivi Garcia.


So the Yankees begin the remainder of the season with the rotation they started the season with.  Domingo German has been the unpredicted star of the staff with a 13-2 record.  Their No. 1 starter Masahiro Tanaka (7-6, 4.78 ERA, 1.279) has been in double-digit strikeouts only once this year.  James Paxton, whom they acquired over the winter to bolster the staff, hasn’t met expectations (5-6, 4.72 ERA, 1.506 WHIP).  J.A Happ (8-6) has the highest ERA (5.19) on the staff.  CC Sabathia (5-6, 4.78 ERA), who already announced his retirement at the end of this season, is generally available for only five innings per game.  Last year’s ace, Luis Severino, hasn’t pitched all year due to an inflamed rotator cuff.  The Yankees are still hopeful he will make a return in September.  Cashman may decide to call up Garcia in September to eat up some innings, too.


Of course after the trade deadline passed, the standard line by the Yankees’ front office, manager Aaron Boone, and the players became, “Well, we feel we can win it all with the staff we have now.”


Therefore, the Yankees’ pitching strategy for the remainder of the season will likely be similar to the first half—score a lot of runs, survive the early innings of games with the starters, and turn over the game to the bullpen.  It’s worked so far, as the Yankees are 30 games above .500.


The Yankees can still survive winning the division with mediocre pitching, but it’s in the post-season where lack of quality starters will hurt the most.  As good as it is, the bullpen won’t likely hold up if it gets overworked.


Houston supplanted the Yankees as the favorites in the American League to go the World Series.  Unlike the Yankees, the Astros did pull the trigger on the biggest deal of the trade deadline by acquiring Greinke from the Diamondbacks.  With top-of-the-line workhorses Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole already in the stable, the Astros appear to be unstoppable.  Plus, they added another quality starter, Aaron Sanchez from the Blue Jays (By the way he pitched six innings in a combined no-hitter for the Astros Saturday night).


Cashman reportedly admitted he didn’t get close to anything in a deal in the final days and hours.  If that’s true, then the Yankees got shut out by the other teams.  That would have never happened when George Steinbrenner was still running the team.


Prediction: We've seen the last of Hall of Fame relief pitchers

When Lee Smith and Mariano Rivera took the podium to deliver their Hall of Fame induction speeches, I believe we saw the last of major-league relievers to have a bronze plaque in Cooperstown.  With the way the reliever role, especially the closer, has evolved, we won’t likely see another dominant reliever who will make a significant impact on the game as pitchers such as Rivera, Smith, and 2018 electee Trevor Hoffman.


The population of relievers in the Hall is already scarce.  Only eight of 80 elected pitchers have been relievers.  Others include Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, and Dennis Eckersley.  Even Lee Smith, third all-time in saves, had difficulty getting elected; he failed to get in by vote of the baseball writers during his fifteen years of eligibility, instead being selected afterwards by the Hall of Fame Eras Committee (formerly called the Veterans’ Committee).  The current list of viable candidates for future consideration remains relatively small as well.


The reliever role, as a full-time job for a pitcher, didn’t become institutionalized until late 1950s.  The measure of relief pitcher effectiveness became the “saves” stat, which The Sporting News began reporting as an unofficial stat in 1960.  Saves became an official MLB statistic in 1969.  Fireman of the Year and Rolaids Relief Man of the Year awards were created by MLB’s commercial partners to recognize the top relievers in the game, since relief pitchers weren’t often considered for league MVP and Cy Young awards.


The distinction between starter and reliever roles has become blurred during the past couple of seasons.  This has particularly been revealed during post-season play. Teams are commonly using relief pitchers as “openers” to start games in place of traditional starters.  Relievers are now being used to pitch multiple innings, and the conventional closers are being brought into games before the ninth inning, depending on game situations.  Pitchers like Rivera, Hoffman, and Smith made their marks by coming into games in the ninth inning to close out games in which their teams held leads.


A consequence of the evolving use of relief pitchers is that they will eventually be perceived as commodity or utility players with little ability to distinguish themselves from one another and even with starters, as long as that distinction continues to exist.  Today’s middle-relief pitchers already suffer from that stigma, as compared to their “closer” counterparts who have more opportunities to rack up saves.


So what will Hall of Fame voters use in the future to evaluate the career performances of relief pitchers?


Popular thinking among many baseball analysts is that the saves statistic should be de-emphasized and even discontinued.  Keith Law, in his 2017 book Smart Baseball, makes the argument saves are irrelevant as a measure of individual performance, because “they give credit to certain relief appearances based solely on their context in the score, the inning and the end result.”  Law asserts pitchers might meet all the criteria for a save and still pitch poorly, thereby negating its importance.


Of course, stats such as ERA, WHIP, FIP, and SO/9 are still relevant, but how do you judge a pitcher who throws 180 innings per season against one who only throws 50-60 innings if they have similar results in these stats?  Starters with more innings pitched will naturally be seen as having more overall impact on the outcomes of games.  With no other measure to differentiate them, relief pitchers will have fewer chances to be evaluated for their contributions as potential Hall of Famers.


During the past twenty years, solid relief pitchers such as John Franco, Jesse Orosco, Robb Nen, John Wetteland, and Jeff Riordan have never garnered serious consideration for Hall of Fame election.  Billy Wagner, with his stellar performance numbers as a closer, has been on the ballot since 2016; and yet he is also having difficulty obtaining a substantial number of votes (his highest percentage was 16.7% in 2019).


All-star relievers Joe Nathan; Francisco Rodriguez, and Jonathan Papelbon will become Hall eligible soon, but they will likely suffer the same fate as Wagner.  The same may be true for the top relievers in the game for the past few years, including Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, and Kenley Jansen.


Unless a sentimental Eras Committee awards one of these relief pitchers with Hall of Fame honors after their ten years of eligibility, we won’t see another one in the hallowed Hall in Cooperstown.


Former LSU standout DJ LeMahieu indispensable for title-hunting Bronx Bombers

He’s not the typical home run basher for a Yankees player, but DJ LeMahieu is still getting the job done for the first-place New York Yankees.  In fact, he’s been the backbone of the lineup since Opening Day, and he will wind up as a strong American League MVP candidate at the end of the season.


Acquired by Yankees with the intent of using him as a super utility player, LeMahieu came to the Yankees along with Rockies teammates (shortstop) Troy Tulowitzki and (reliever) Adam Ottovino. 


The Yankees had been a solid team the year before, winning 100 games but still finishing behind the Boston Red Sox.  The latest version of the Bronx Bombers featured a lineup of big bats that included Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, Gary Sanchez, and Luke Voit.  That group powered the team to a league-leading 267 home runs in 2018.  They were expected to challenge World Series champion Boston for the AL East Division in 2019.


When the Yankees incurred a devastating number of injuries in the early part of the season (at the peak, 11 players on the roster were on the injured list), LeMahieu became indispensable.


Tulowitzki was supposed to be the backfill for injured shortstop Didi Gregorious, who was recovering from Tommy John surgery during the off-season.  However, Tulowitzki flamed out early in the season from injuries himself.  LeMahieu’s availability to play second base everyday allowed Gleyber Torres to then backfill Tulowitzki.


Yankees resorted to putting up a patchwork lineup practically every day, but LeMahieu was the one constant throughout the tumultuous period.  In addition to playing second, LeMahieu also played third and first in the field.  The Yankees didn’t fold, as many had anticipated because of all the injuries.  Instead, they remained close to first place early and then took over the top spot on May 19.  LeMahieu has been a big factor in their current standing.


LeMahieu has responded by leading the American League in batting average (.330), leading the Yankees in RBI (67), and leading the league in average with runners in scoring position.  His nickname in Yankee Stadium has become “LaMachine” for his reliable offensive production throughout the season.  He was voted to the All-Star team as the starting second baseman.


It’s not as though he hasn’t been a productive player before.  He previously won a batting title (.348 in 2016) and has been a Gold Glove winner three times.  He had become a perennial .300 hitter, although there were suspicions he was benefitting from playing at offense-friendly Coors Field.


However, in 2018 his batting average fell 34 points and his on-base percentage dropped 53 points from the year before.  He went on the injured list three times.  At 29-years-old, the Rockies gave up on him and granted him free agency when his contract expired at the end of the season.


Yankees GM Brian Cashman’s signing of LeMahieu turned out to be a brilliant move.  The way he is currently playing, the youngsters on the team have become the utility players.  Even though the Yankees’ power hitters have returned to the lineup, LeMahieu still maintains an important role on the team.  He has become entrenched as the Yankees’ leadoff batter, with a healthy .374 on-base percentage, and he leads the team in runs scored.  He’s also been a good presence in a clubhouse that has a lot of younger players.


LeMahieu played for LSU in 2008 and 2009.  He helped the Tigers win their sixth national championship in 2009, when he hit .444 and was named to the College World Series all-tournament team.  He was selected in the second round by the Chicago Cubs in the 2009 MLB Draft.  After making his major-league debut with the Cubs in 2011, he was traded to the Rockies before the 2012 season.


Mid-term report card: pre-season predictions off the mark

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


2019 rookie class may be unparalleled

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Let the balls fly out of the park!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ranking the best father-son combos in MLB history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bobby (57.9) and Barry (162.8) Bonds

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

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

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

Felipe (42.2) and Moises Alou (39.9)

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

Gus (15.4) and Buddy Bell (66.3)

Buddy Bell (66.3) and David Bell (15.3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yogi (59.8) and Dale (5.5) Berra

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

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

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

MLB draft keeps family ties pipeline filled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Baseball's bloodlines are booming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All-Star Team of Military Veterans

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

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

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

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

Here’s my All-Star team:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Edwin Jackson sets new mark for journeymen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joey Gallo: an extreme example of current-day batters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cody Bellinger's April performance a constant highlight reel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April's MLB Musings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018 John Curtis diamond team helps fill college ranks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baby Cakes roster evidence of increasing number of baseball relatives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who are these O's?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Bryce Harper's signing means

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Superdome hosted rare prep baseball doubleheader in 1977

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frank Robinson: Baseball's Pioneer as First Black Manager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Saints lost a season, Galarraga lost immortality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Current free-agent market a repeat of last year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Brewers need to pull the trigger again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Table 1 – Selected Analytics Stats

Name

Years Played

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS+

WAR

WAR7

Group 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oliver, Al

1969-1985

0.303

0.344

0.451

121

43.7

28.1

Murphy, Dale

1976-1993

0.265

0.346

0.469

121

46.6

41.2

Hernandez, Keith

1975-1990

0.296

0.384

0.436

128

60.4

41.3

Mattingly, Don

1982-1995

0.307

0.358

0.471

127

42.4

35.7

Williams, Bernie

1991-2006

0.297

0.381

0.477

125

49.6

37.6

Parker, Dave

1973-1991

0.290

0.339

0.471

121

40.1

37.4

Grace, Mark

1988-2003

0.303

0.383

0.442

119

46.4

29.7

Garvey, Steve

1969-1987

0.294

0.329

0.446

117

38.1

28.8

Clark, Will

1986-2000

0.303

0.384

0.497

137

56.5

36.1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Group 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baines, Harold

1980-2001

0.289

0.356

0.465

121

38.7

21.4

Biggio, Craig

1988-2007

0.281

0.363

0.433

112

65.5

41.7

Bagwell, Jeff

1991-2005

0.297

0.408

0.540

149

79.9

48.3

Piazza, Mike

1992-2007

0.308

0.377

0.545

142

59.6

43.1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Group 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carlos Beltran

1998-2017

0.279

0.350

0.486

119

69.8

44.4

Adrian Beltre

1998-2018

0.286

0.339

0.480

116

95.7

49.3

Ortiz, David

1997-2016

0.286

0.380

0.552

141

55.3

35.2

Jeter, Derek

1995-2014

0.310

0.377

0.440

115

72.4

42.4

 

Table 2 – Traditional Stats

Name

BA

H

HR

RBI

Awards

Group 1

 

 

 

 

 

Oliver, Al

0.303

2743

219

1326

7 AS, Bat Title, 3  MVP10

Murphy, Dale

0.265

2111

398

1266

7 AS,  2 MVP, 4  MVP10, 5 GG

Hernandez, Keith

0.296

2182

162

1071

5 AS,  1 MVP, 4 MVP10, 11 GG

Mattingly, Don

0.307

2153

222

1099

6 AS, 1 MVP, 4 MVP10, 9 GG

Williams, Bernie

0.297

2336

287

1257

5 AS,  1 MVP10, 4 GG, Bat Title

Parker, Dave

0.290

2712

339

1493

7 AS,  1 MVP, 6 MVP10, 3 GG

Grace, Mark

0.303

2445

173

1146

3 AS, 4 GG

Garvey, Steve

0.294

2599

272

1308

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

Clark, Will

0.303

2176

284

1205

6 AS, 4 MVP10, 1 GG

 

 

 

 

 

 

Group 2

 

 

 

 

 

Baines, Harold

0.289

2866

384

1628

6 AS, 2 MVP10,

Biggio, Craig

0.281

3060

291

1175

7 AS, 3 MVP10, 4 GG

Bagwell, Jeff

0.297 

 2314

449 

1529 

 4 AS, 1 MVP, 6 MVP10, 1 GG

Piazza, Mike

0.308

2127

427

1335

12 AS, 7 MVP10,

 

 

 

 

 

 

Group 3

 

 

 

 

 

Carlos Beltran

0.279

2725

435

1587

9 AS, 2 MVP10, 3 GG

Adrian Beltre

0.286

3166

477

1707

4 AS, 6 MVP10, 5 GG

Ortiz, David

0.286

2472

541

1768

10 AS, 7 MVP10,

Jeter, Derek

0.310

3465

260

1311

14 AS, 8 MVP10, 5 GG

 

Casting my mythical 2019 Hall of Fame ballot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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