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.
Why baseball lags other major sports in popularity

Sports programming during the current COVID-19 pandemic has convinced me even more than before that Major League Baseball plays second-fiddle to the NBA and NFL.  Football and basketball news have recently dominated the sports talk shows, except for what the MLB Network provides.  There has been little discussion about the impact of coronavirus on baseball and the eventual resumption of the season.  The clincher for me was the speculation that the NBA might consider altering its season schedule on a permanent basis that would make it overlap more with baseball than football.  The thinking was that baseball was less threatening to the NBA than football.  It’s indicative that baseball, once America’s favorite pastime, has lost ground in popularity to the other major sports that it may never recover.


MLB had already recognized that it must undergo some changes to maintain and ideally increase its fan base.  Rule changes addressing duration of games and pace of play have been the primary areas of focus in the past few years.  They have been only marginally effective so far, but they wouldn’t have been enough anyway.


I’ve identified four areas that are contributing to baseball taking a back seat to its major-league sports counterparts.


The Games

Baseball games are seen as too boring in comparison to its counterparts.  Overall game duration is not as big a problem as the need to significantly improve the pace of play.


The increase in home runs (enabled by the juiced baseball and baseball analytics) is on the right track to create more action during the game, but it comes with unintended consequences involving an ever-increasing number of walks and strikeouts which don’t put the ball in play.  Currently, one-third of major-league at-bats end in a home run, walk or strikeout.  Those types of results won’t typically keep fans packed in the ballparks, sitting on the edge of their seats.  By contrast, basketball has been liberated by the three-pointer, while football has become a pass-happy game; and fans seemed to have responded favorably to these offensive-intensive strategies.


The baseball season is too long.  Fewer games that have more relevance is warranted.  It’s hard to keep fans’ interest from April to September., especially if their team doesn’t play .500 ball and contend for the playoffs.  More teams eligible for the post-season would also help maintain interest throughout the season.


The Players

Baseball has a shortage of personalities who transcend the sport.  Babe Ruth was the pre-eminent celebrity in all of sports, but that was 100 hundred years ago.  Perhaps the last one in baseball was Mickey Mantle in the 1950s.  Derek Jeter, who was the face of MLB for a good portion of his career, was a private person off the field.


Big Papi was a recognizable face outside of baseball, but he still wasn’t close to the popularity of NBA players such as LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant or the NFL’s Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, and now Pat Mahomes.  The best player in the baseball now is Mike Trout, but his following is largely confined to just baseball fans.  Many of baseball’s other stars are Latin and Asian natives who don’t always get the same press coverage as the U.S. players and who aren’t seen as spokesmen for the sport.


The NBA and NFL have the advantage of its top prospects being able to play immediately in their leagues, and this creates an immediate fan-following within those sports.  Baseball players usually must invest three to four years in the minors before being able to crack a major-league lineup.  Few people outside hard-core baseball fans remember the first-round draft picks in MLB, while practically everyone was aware of Zion Williamson, who came into the NBA this season.  


The Fans

Baseball is not attracting new fans.  As baseball’s current fan base grows older, the sport is not replacing them with a younger audience at an equivalent rate.  In the past, a lot of baseball fans’ earliest experiences with major league players came through collecting baseball cards.  That avenue for becoming familiar with the game has been largely been curtailed.  Card collecting has evolved into primarily an adult activity, because of the relatively high price and limited availability of cards.


Minor league baseball has been a feeding ground for younger baseball fans. The family atmosphere at these games has helped foster the interest, especially in the smaller, less metropolitan cities.  However, MLB is now proposing to reduce the number of minor league teams in 2021 by 25%.  Possibly more in later years.  That’s going to have a big impact on cultivating new fans.


Baseball is noted for its long history of players and teams and the ability to analyze their performances across the decades.  Most fans who grew up with the game are aware of the history and the traditions and culture that evolved from it.  However, those same fans are also criticized for hanging on to the long-standing traditions and not viewed as being open to changes in the game.  Slowness to adopt change by MLB has curbed interest in the game by new fans, who don’t care to learn about all the history in order to enjoy the game.


With the reduction in the number of African American major league players in the past few years, the African American fan base has dwindled as well.  Those fans identify more with the NFL and NBA where most players are African American.  MLB is several years into a campaign to revive interest in baseball by young blacks in the major metropolitan areas, but it’s been a slow process penetrating the player population and the fan base.


SABRmetrics, as good as they have been for baseball analysts and advanced fans to analyze all the different dimensions of the game, are making the game more complicated for the average fan.  The casual fan can be intimidated or bored by all the new acronyms and jargon that have emanated from baseball analytics, and consequently they tend to shy away from watching games.


The League

MLB and their teams are viewed as stodgy organizations, mired down by its long-standing, conservative traditions.  Individual showmanship by its players is frowned upon.  For example, bat-flipping by batters hitting decisive home runs was initially considered inappropriate behavior by the sport.  Only recently has it become more acceptable and part of the game’s folklore.  The sport needs to release many of the cultural shackles it puts on itself.


When Cuban-born Yasiel Puig broke into the majors with the Dodgers in 2013, he brought on-the-field energy and antics that were criticized by baseball traditionalists, including some of the players and front offices, who thought he was trying to draw attention to himself or show-up his opponents.  He was an oddball—an unconventional player in a very conventional game.  In baseball that behavior is often seen as disrespecting the game.  In the NFL or NBA, it’s viewed as showmanship.


Here’s another example:  during several of the MLB exhibition games during Spring Training this year (before it was cancelled) a few of the players were outfitted with microphones while they were in the game, batting and playing in the field.  The broadcasters were able to communicate spontaneously with the players as action on the field was occurring.  It was entertaining, and it provided great insight into what the players were thinking as plays happened.  Yet there were many detractors who thought it was inappropriate for the sport--it wasn’t traditional.


MLB doesn’t always market itself and its players very well.  Its biggest event of the season, the World Series, just sort of happens a day or two after the League Championship Series, without a lot of lead time for a promotional buildup of the final two teams and their players.  MLB does a better job with its mid-season All-Star Game, but what about the annual amateur draft or the winter meetings when most of the off-season trade activity occurs?  I’ve always thought MLB should lobby hard to have its Opening Day being a national holiday.  Why not?


Don’t get me wrong.  There are a lot of good things about baseball.  But I worry about the future of the game.  There needs to be significant change in all the different aspects of the sport to keep it viable, not just a few minor changes in rules every few years.  If MLB is not careful, the once glorious game will continue to lose its popularity.  I’d hate to see its storied history fall by the wayside because its stewards failed to recognize it needed to adapt to changing times.

Gavin Lux looks to extend Dodgers' Rookie of the Year tradition

Who knows when the MLB season will start, but when it does, one thing fans can look forward to the play of Los Angeles Dodgers rookie second baseman Gavin Lux.  He was last year’s Minor League Player of the Year, which earned him a late-season callup and a spot on the Dodgers’ post-season roster.  With his rookie status still intact, he’ll be among the favorites this season to win National Rookie of the Year honors, which has been somewhat of a tradition in Dodgers’ history.


The Dodgers made a concerted effort over the winter to keep the 22-year-old Lux, who became a target for other major-league teams considering trades with the Dodgers.  Most notably, when the Dodgers made one of the biggest trades of the off-season to acquire superstar Mookie Betts from Boston, Lux was not part of the deal.  The Dodgers gave up its top outfield prospect Alex Verdugo instead.  It was rumored the Dodgers were more willing to give up its established young shortstop Corey Seager than part ways with Lux.  That’s how much they valued Lux.


Lux had been a first-round draft pick out of high school by the Dodgers in 2016.  Two year later he posted a slash line of .324/.399/.514, splitting the season across Class A and AA.  Last season, he improved to .347/.421/.607, along with 26 home runs and 76 RBIs at the Double-A and Triple-A levels.


He appeared in 23 games for the Dodgers in September, hitting a couple of home runs and knocking in nine runs.  The Dodgers had enough confidence in his initial showing to put him on their roster for the Division Series with the Washington Nationals.  He hit a pinch-hit home run in his first post-season at-bat.  


Lux was the Number 2 overall prospect in Major League Baseball coming into this spring.  The starting job at second base belonged to him and he was expected to be a big part of the Dodgers’ pursuit of their eighth consecutive NL West Division title.  But then the coronavirus put everything on hold.


The Dodgers franchise has a rich history with the Rookie of the Year Award.  The first time the award was given in 1947, infielder Jackie Robinson was the winner.  Recall this was the year Robinson broke the color barrier in the majors.  It should be noted there was a single award for both the National and American leagues for its first two years.


Between 1949 and 1953, Dodgers players captured the award three additional times:  pitcher Don Newcombe (1949), reliever Joe Black (1952), and infielder Jim Gilliam (1953).  Like Robinson, all three of these players had come from the Negro Leagues and helped Brooklyn become the dominant team in the National League.


The Dodgers ran off a string of four consecutive years of winning the award beginning in 1979 when pitcher Rick Sutcliffe captured the honors.  He was followed by pitcher Steve Howe in 1980, pitcher Fernando Valenzuela in 1981, and second baseman Steve Sax in 1982.


Ten years later, Dodgers’ first baseman Eric Karros won the award, setting off another remarkable streak of Dodger winners:  catcher Mike Piazza in 1993, outfielder Raul Mondesi in 1994, pitcher Hideo Nomo in 1995, and outfielder Todd Hollandsworth in 1996.


If Lux were to win the award this season, it would be the second in three seasons for the Dodgers. First baseman Cody Bellinger put up big offensive numbers in 2017 to win the award.  And the Dodgers system is still deep with other top-rated prospects that could also become future winners following Lux.


Interestingly, Lux has a New Orleans connection.  He is the nephew of Augie Schmidt, who was college baseball’s Golden Spikes winner in 1982 when he was an All-American shortstop at the University of New Orleans.

Coronavirus delays 2020 MLB season; interruptions part of league

We are in unchartered waters with the suspension, delay, or cancellation of all the major professional and collegiate sports across the country due to concern for the spread of coronavirus.  Within a matter of a couple of days, the sports world was rocked like never before, as virtually all sporting events have come to a screeching halt.  Major League Baseball was no exception.  While never as severe as what we are experiencing now, MLB had to deal with all types of interruptions in its gloried past.


Even though MLB faced the gravity of non-baseball events like World War II, the 9/11 terrorist strike, hurricanes, and earthquakes, none of them materially affected the game like the novel coronavirus is expected to do.


On the other hand, work stoppages involving several player-strikes and owners-lockouts, as a result of expiring baseball labor contracts, did interrupt major league schedules on three occasions.  Two of them had significant impacts on season outcomes.  While is it too early to tell the full effect of coronavirus, it appears there will be at least a two-week impact.


Following a call on Wednesday with the thirty major-league clubs, and after consultation with the Major League Baseball Players Association, Commissioner Rob Manfred announced that MLB had decided to suspend spring training games and to delay the start of the 2020 regular season by at least two weeks due to the national emergency created by the coronavirus pandemic.


One would think the United States’ involvement in World War II would have caused an interruption to major-league baseball.  However, prior to the 1942 season, President Roosevelt issued the “Green Light” letter to MLB Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Landis encouraging the league and baseball’s owners to continue play during the war.  His rationale was that the country needed a diversion from the everyday worries about the fighting overseas.  This theme would re-occur several times in later years, especially following natural disasters in the country.


In the case of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center towers in 2001, Commissioner Bud Selig suspended play for a week, while players and fans, especially those in New York City, dealt with the emotional aftermath of the terrorist strikes.  The end of the season was pushed back a week to accommodate a full 162-game schedule.  One of the most historic games in baseball involved the Yankees and Mets in the resumption of the season’s schedule.  In the game which honored 9/11 first responders, President Bush threw out the first pitch amid a highly charged, patriotic crowd.


The 1989 World Series between the Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants was interrupted by an earthquake in the Bay Area of San Francisco.  While the teams were warming up for Game 3 on October 17, a magnitude 6.9 earthquake shook Candlestick Park, and the game was postponed due to safety concerns, as well as the fact that power was lost to the stadium.  After considerations for ending the Series after only two games, as well as resuming the Series in another city, Commissioner Fay Vincent decided to wait until Candlestick could be checked for safety to resume the Series.  Vincent felt the communities in the Bay Area would see the remaining games as a partial relief for the loss of lives and the destruction caused by the quake.  Games 3 and 4 were played on October 27-28, as the A’s swept the Giants.


In the wake of Hurricane Ike in mid-September 2008 affecting the Houston metropolitan area, MLB moved two Astros home games with the Chicago Cubs to Milwaukee, because it was believed the Astros shouldn’t play at home given the devastation and loss of power in the area that affected many of its fans.  Chicago won both of those games, with Carlos Zambrano throwing a no-hitter in the first one.  The Astros, who were trying to make up ground in a race with the Cubs for the division title, were furious about the move which effectively became home games for the Cubs.


The Astros’ schedule was again interrupted by a hurricane in 2017.  Hurricane Harvey caused massive flooding in the area, thus necessitating the move of a three-game home series against the Texas Rangers to a neutral site in Tampa.  When the Astros returned to Houston a few days later to play the Mets, it helped the city return to a sense of normalcy following the devastation which took the lives of 40 people.


More significant impacts to major-league play have occurred because of labor disputes between the player and ownership.


The first MLB strike ensued during April 1-13, 1972, over issues of player pensions and binding arbitration.  86 games were missed during the two weeks.  1985 saw a work stoppage of only two days in August over issues of salary arbitration, although the games were made up later in the season.


The 1981 season was the second that experienced games being missed without being re-scheduled, except it was more significant.  A work stoppage occurred during June 12 and July 31 due to issues involving free-agent compensation.  A total of 712 games were missed, causing MLB to go to an unprecedent split-season format.  The season resumed on August 9 with the All-Star Game, which had originally been scheduled for July 14.  The winners of the two halves of the season for each division met in the post-season playoffs.


A black eye for Major League Baseball occurred in 1994 when the season was cancelled on August 12, because the owners and players couldn’t agree on issues of salary cap and revenue sharing.  It was the first year since 1904 that a World Series wasn’t played.  With players still on strike at the beginning of the 1995 season, owners used replacement players (referred to as scabs) to begin spring training.  A district court judge’s ruling finally resolved the dispute, ending the strike on March 31.  After a hurried spring training for the players, the regular season began on April 25.  A total of 938 games were missed over the two seasons.


The best-case scenario today would be a two-week delay, but it’s not improbable the delay will be longer.  In any case, it will be interesting to see whether the league will adjust the schedule going forward.  Will they resume with the original schedule, or attempt to adjust in some way so that each team gets an equal number of home games?  Would the regular season be extended past the normal October 1 end date?  If the post-season occurs later than usual, getting into extreme cold weather situations, will neutral sites be used?  These are all questions that will likely become the topic of conversation in the coming days, in lieu of talking about the rest of spring training and Opening Day.  


It’s ironic that the game of baseball has often been the respite for fans who have experienced some sort of disruption or tragedy in their lives.  Now, the sport itself is in trouble, too, with the uncertainty of the pandemic.

Legendary USC Baseball Coach Rod Dedeaux Had New Orleans Roots

Raoul “Rod” Dedeaux was the winningest coach in college baseball at the time of his retirement in 1986.  Born in New Orleans in 1914, his family moved to the West Coast when he was a youngster, and he eventually became the head coach at the University of Southern California, where his teams won 11 College World Series championships.  The baseball program he established at USC became the standard for modern-day college programs.  He was named “Coach of the Century” in 1999 by national baseball publications.


Dedeaux first made his name in baseball as an all-city selection for Hollywood High School in Los Angeles.  He played three years for USC, serving as team captain during his senior season.  As a result of having had workouts with Casey Stengel during high school, Dedeaux was signed out of college by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1935 on Stengel’s recommendation. 


After playing most of the 1935 season for Class C Hazelton, Dedeaux received a September call-up to the Dodgers, who were managed by Stengel.  He made his major-league debut on September 28 when he appeared as a late-inning defensive replacement.  The next day Dedeaux got a start at shortstop and went 1-for-4, hitting an RBI-single.  Those would be the only two games of his major-league career.


He returned to the minors the next season but suffered a back injury that forced him to quit.  Returning to Los Angeles, he invested $500 remaining from his signing bonus to form a trucking company that eventually grew into a million-dollar firm (DART Entities) specializing in world-wide distribution.  Dedeaux would remain as the company’s president, involved in its daily activities until his death.


Dedeaux attempted a comeback in pro baseball when he played for several West Coast minor-league teams in 1938 and 1939 but ultimately wound up playing for and managing semi-pro teams in the Los Angeles area.  USC was one of the teams against which Dedeaux’s squad would frequently play practice games.


When USC baseball coach Sam Barry was called into military service in 1942 during World War II, Dedeaux was named interim head coach.  After Barry returned in 1946, Dedeaux was retained as the co-head coach through the 1950 season, although he was responsible for all the major decisions involving the team.  USC defeated Yale in the second-ever College World Series in 1948.


Ten years later, USC returned to the College World Series to defeat Missouri after coming out of the loser’s bracket.  Three more championships followed in the 1960s, as the program became a regular source of major-league players.  Dedeaux’s Trojans captured a still-unbroken record of five consecutive national championships during 1970 to 1974, including wins over other prominent national programs such as Arizona State, Miami, and Florida State.


His 1978 club defeated Arizona State in the CWS for the third time in the decade. He still holds the record with 11 College World Series championships as a coach.  Dedeaux ended his 45-year tenure in 1986. He amassed a record of 1,332-571-11 (.699), making him the then-winningest coach in collegiate baseball history.

Dedeaux remained actively involved in his business during his coaching tenure at USC. During baseball season, he worked in the company’s office in the mornings and then carried out his coaching duties in the afternoons. It was often joked that Dedeaux coached a baseball team in his spare time.


He was responsible for building the USC program into a national power, as well as helping to elevate college baseball across the entire country. Before Dedeaux developed his program at USC, major-league organizations didn’t typically look to collegiate baseball as a major source of amateur players. That changed with Dedeaux, who sent nearly 60 Trojans to the major leagues. Among the more successful players were Ron Fairly, Don Buford, Tom Seaver, Dave Kingman, Fred Lynn, Roy Smalley, Steve Kemp, Mark McGwire, Steve Busby, and Randy Johnson. Altogether, he sent nearly 200 players to professional baseball careers.

Among the many honors Dedeaux garnered during his career were “Coach of the Century” in 1999 by Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball. As part of the 50th anniversary of the College World Series in 1996, Dedeaux was named the head coach of the All-Time CWS team by a panel of former World Series coaches, media, and college baseball officials. Dedeaux was named Coach of the Year six times by the American Baseball Coaches Association and was inducted into the organization’s Hall of Fame in 1970.  USC’s baseball field bears his name and a bronze statue of him ushers fans into the stadium.


Dedeaux died at age 91 in 2006.  He never had any baseball ties to New Orleans.  He has distant relatives still living in the area.

Yanks hope Giancarlo Stanton doesn't become the new Jacoby Ellsbury

It was disappointing to see that Giancarlo Stanton will not start the season for the New York Yankees because of a strained calf.  Stanton says he’s frustrated with his latest condition.  Guess what, Giancarlo, Yankees fans are frustrated with you, too.


Last season, he was one of the 30 Yankees to go on the injured list last year.  He played only 18 regular season games due to bicep, knee, and calf problems and was finally re-activated for post-season play against the Twins and Astros.  Altogether he got paid $26 million for 77 at bats and four home runs.  His disappointing year came after his first season with the Yankees in 2018, in which he had satisfied Yankees fans with 38 home runs and 100 RBIs, setting the stage for bigger expectations to follow.


But now there is concern Stanton‘s situation is becoming reminiscent of Jacoby Ellsbury’s tenure with the Yankees.  Ellsbury had been a key cog in the Red Sox’s World Championship seasons in 2007 and 2013.  As a free agent after the 2013 season, he defected to the New York Yankees who drastically overpaid to sign him.   At seven-years and $153 million, then-30-year-old Ellsbury’s deal at the time was the third richest in history by an outfielder (following only Manny Ramirez and Matt Kemp).


At the end of the day, the Yankees got stung by the Ellsbury contract.  He never delivered an all-star-type season and suffered injuries that kept him out of baseball for the entire 2018 and 2019 seasons.  He also missed 50 games in both the 2015 and 2017 campaigns.  (Maybe the Yankees should have taken more notice that he had missed most of the 2010 and 2012 seasons with Boston.)  The Yankees wound up releasing Ellsbury from his contract in 2020 (while still shelling out $21 million) and buying out his option for 2021 for $5 million.  In the four seasons he played for the Yankees, his production fell way short of his compensation, as he posted an unimpressive slash line of .264/.330/.386, while producing only 39 home runs and 198 RBIs.


When the Yankees acquired Stanton prior to the 2018 season, they inherited his mega-deal with the Miami Marlins that was inked after the 2014 season, eclipsing all previous sports contracts.  The slugger had signed for $325 million over 13 years.  Including 2020, the Yankees are still on the hook for nine seasons worth $259 million, although the Marlins have agreed to pick up some of his remaining salary in later years.


The Yankees set a franchise record for home runs last year without Stanton.  Because they aren’t desperate to replace him in the lineup, the team says it will give Stanton time to fully heal from the calf injury before trying to put him back on the field.  Who knows how long that will take?


Recent chatter on radio talk shows has mentioned that the Yankees should consider look at unloading Stanton now and not take a chance on his medical condition down the road.  But there aren’t many teams able to absorb his current contract.  Stanton can opt-out of the contract after the 2020 season; however, if his time on the field winds up being limited because of continued health issues, his value on the open market after the season won’t increase over his current contract.


Will the Yankees get stung again with the Stanton contract?  Maybe.  They always seem to manage to recover though.  Yet I wonder if they will ever learn to stop tying up so much salary with one player (remember A-Rod’s deal?).  Perhaps not.  They just did another one with Gerrit Cole.

Is the 2020 LA Dodgers roster the best in franchise history?

The website asserted last week that the 2020 Los Angeles Dodgers roster might be the best in the franchise’s history.  With the addition of megastar Mookie Betts, as well as former Cy Young Award winner David Price to a lesser degree, to a team that won its seventh consecutive division title last year, a plausible case can be made.  However, we need to look back almost 70 years ago to find the 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers roster that can hold its own, not just within Dodgers history, but across all major-league organizations.


Betts is currently one of the top five players in the majors, and he certainly makes a very good Dodgers team even better.  They had an impressive 106-56 record last year and pretty much return the same roster as last season.  Teaming Betts with Cody Bellinger, the 2019 NL MVP, creates one of the best-hitting combos in all of baseball.  But the existing cast around Bellinger was pretty good too, as he was one of four Dodgers players to collect 30 or more home runs last year.  The team led the National League in home runs.


Gavin Lux, who was called up late last season, may wind up being the next in a long line of Dodgers players who have won Rookie of the Year honors.  He was the Minor League Player of the Year last season, and the Dodgers took great care not to surrender to offers from other teams in trades.


The Dodgers had a whopping Run Differential of 273 in 2019.  This meant Dodgers pitching was pretty good, too.  They led the league in ERA, WHIP and SO/W.  Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw will headline the starting rotation again.  Hyun-Jin Ryu, who finished second in the Cy Young Award voting, is gone this year, but that’s where Price fits in.  If 34-year-old Price returns to his performance level of a few years ago, the Dodgers won’t miss Ryu.


Another valuable, but less publicized, feature of the current Dodgers is their corps of utility players who provide a lot of flexibility on their roster.  Enrique Hernandez, Chris Taylor, and Matt Beatty can play multiple positions and bat anywhere in the lineup when called on.


The Brooklyn Dodgers organization from 1947 to 1956 had an analogous run of winning teams as the current era of Dodgers.  During that timeframe, Brooklyn won six pennants (when there were only eight teams in the National League) and had three second-place finishes. 


The 1953 team had a 105-49 record, the best in franchise history until the 2019 season.  It is one of the top 15 MLB season records of all time, when the schedules consisted of 154 games.  There were four Hall of Famers on that squad:  Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, and Duke Snider.  Furthermore, many people believe first baseman Gil Hodges should be in the Hall.  Outfielder Carl Furillo was the sixth all-star on the roster that season.


The 1953 Dodgers scored 69 more runs than the 2019 Dodgers, while playing eight fewer games.  Their Run Differential (266) was equally as impressive.  The 1953 team’s slash line was .285/.366/.474, slightly better than the 2019 Dodgers’ .257/.338/.472.


On the pitching side, the Dodgers’ starting pitcher staff didn’t have the type of league-leading stats as the 2019 team, but the combination of Carl Erskine, Preacher Roe, Russ Meyer, Billy Loes, and Johnny Podres was still formidable.


The question for the 2020 season is whether newcomers Betts, Lux, and Price can put together seasons that will make the dominant 2019 team even better.  That’s a pretty tall order, even for this group of talented players.  This year’s version of the Dodgers is desperate to win a World Series title that has eluded the franchise since 1988.  If they succeed, they’ll outdo the 1953 team which wound up losing the World Series to the New York Yankees.


The Dodgers are betting on Betts.  He already had one World Series ring with the Red Sox.  He’ll be due a contract extension after this season.  Another ring with the Dodgers would put him in a position to get the largest contract ever, whether it’s with the Dodgers or someone else.

I liked baseball more, before it became more of a science

We are currently debating who’s responsible for the sign-stealing scandal, when we should be talking about where Mookie Betts will hit in the Dodgers’ lineup and whether Gerrit Cole will get the Yankees to the World Series again.


We have evolved to a situation where technology has outdone itself in baseball for the average fan.  The cameras used to steal signs were a relatively basic deployment of technology, especially when you consider that it was combined with the “high-tech” garbage can banging used to signal the batters what pitch was coming.


But there are more prevalent technology implementations now that involve the use of massive databases supporting advanced data analytics, pitching sleeves to measure stress on a pitcher’s arm, STATCAST to capture virtually every motion on the playing field, “smart bats” that break down body mechanics of batters, and soon there will be robo-umps calling balls and strikes.


Fans are subjected to discussions involving terms such as launch angle, exit velocity, defensive shifts, defensive runs saved, runs created, and fielding independent pitching.  It helps to have a degree in physics or mathematics to fully comprehend some of these.


The reality is baseball has evolved into more of a science.


Major-league clubhouses now include cubicles where data scientists are providing real-time information to the coaches and players.  Major-league coaching staffs now include a person responsible for interfacing between the front office and the manager, translating and presenting complex information to field personnel for implementation of game strategies. Some coaches have even gone so far as to learn database languages so they can sift through available information for themselves.


As a result, the technology and the people who promote it have taken some of the passion out of the game.  And it has flowed over to the people who analyze and report on the game, which has gradually flowed over to fans.  I believe all this is contributing to a decline in interest in the sport by the average fan.  A lot of the simplicity of the game has been lost.


We don’t hear as much about the long, storied history of the game and its players from years past.  (The MLB Network would lead you to believe that baseball history began at the same time as the network launched about 11 years ago.)  Off-the-field transgressions of current players are often talked about more than the latest hitting streak or string of scoreless innings pitched.  We’re talking about players who might have worn buzzers and Excel spreadsheets that have “code breaker” logic for stealing signs.  The metrics we grew up with--batting average, earned run average, and fielding percentage—could be calculated in our heads.  Have you seen the arithmetic expression for WAR (Wins Above Replacement)?  By the way, what is WAR anyway?


When I was growing up sixty-something years ago, baseball was a great game for a kid.  It was simple and unsophisticated.  You really didn’t have to know much about the game in order to play.  If you could hit, catch, and throw, that was all that was important.


If you could play baseball at the playground, you could easily watch a major-league game and know what was going on.  Sure, there were more rules to be aware of, but you could still follow what was happening on the field.


It seems we have evolved away from those days.  The recent technology innovations have been primarily designed to help front offices, coaches, and instructors develop higher performing players, which ideally translates to winning more games.  I get that.  But perhaps an unintended consequence is the game has become more complex and less enjoyable.  Or maybe it just says something about my age and tolerance for change.

An MLB All-Star Team with Negro Leagues Heritage

February is Black History Month and therefore it is a good time to review some of the history of Major League Baseball involving significant African American contributions. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Negro Leagues.


When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947, he had previously played for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues.  He ushered into the majors other African American players whose careers started in the Negro Leagues.  Several of them became all-stars, winners of MVP and Cy Young Awards, and Hall of Famers.  They helped pave the way for many black players, managers, and coaches who followed in their footsteps.


The Negro Leagues experienced a significant decline after several of its stars in their prime years pursued careers in the majors beginning in 1948.  With a few exceptions, most of its legendary stars were past their prime and the dream of eventually playing in the majors had passed them by.  However, a younger group of black players seized the opportunity to leverage their talents and set out to prove themselves in the big leagues.


Here’s a mythical all-star team of major-leaguers whose careers began in the Negro Leagues.


First Base – Luke Easter played for the Homestead Grays in 1947 and 1948, winning the Negro League World Series in 1947.  He played in six seasons for the Cleveland Indians, beginning in 1949 at age 33.  His best season with the Indians was 1950 when he had a slash line of .280/.373/.487, with 28 HRs and 107 RBIs.  He finished second in the AL in home runs (31) in 1952.


Second Base -- Jackie Robinson played only one season with the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945 (.414/.460/.569) before signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1946.  He made his major-league debut in 1947, becoming the first Negro player in the modern era.  He was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1947 and won the NL MVP Award in 1949.  A six-time all-star, he helped the Dodgers get to the World Series six times between 1947 and 1956, winning in 1955.  He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.  His Number 42 has been retired by every current major-league team.


Shortstop – Gene Baker played one season for the Kansas City Monarchs at age 23 in 1948 and then went straight into Organized Baseball at the Triple-a level in the Chicago Cubs organization.  He and Ernie Banks were the first black players for the Cubs in 1953.  He was a versatile infielder, holding down a full-time job with the Cubs from 1954-1956.  He finished his major-league career with Pittsburgh in 1962.  His slash line was .265/.321./.385 with 39 home runs and 227 RBIs.  Baker is the least well-known player on this mythical all-star team but was a trailblazer for blacks in other aspects of the game.  He eventually become the first black manager in Organized Baseball and the second black coach in the majors.


Third Base – Jim Gilliam began playing in the Negro Leagues at age 17 in 1946.  He played sparingly with the Baltimore Elite Giants for five years before being signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951.  After two impressive seasons with Triple-A Montreal, he got a promotion to the big leagues in 1953.  He was the National League Rookie of the Year and remained a regular with the Dodgers, contributing to seven World Series, until his retirement in 1966.  His slash line was .265/.360/.355.  He was an All-Star in 1956 and 1959 and finished in the Top 5 of the MVP voting in 1956.


Outfield – Monte Irvin was a celebrated multi-sport amateur player in New Jersey before signing with the Newark Eagles in the Negro Leagues in 1938 at age 19.  He became one of the league’s stars leading Newark to a Negro League World Series title in 1946.  He signed with the New York Giants in 1949 when he was thirty years old; but by then segregation had robbed him of his prime years.  However, in his first full season in 1951 showed how good of a player he was, when he hit .312, 24 homers, and 121 RBIs.  He was with the Giants when they won the 1954 World Series.  He retired in 1957 and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Negro League Committee in 1973.


Outfield – Larry Doby began his professional career as a shortstop with the Newark Eagles at age 18 in 1942.  He was a teammate of Monte Irvin’s in 1946 when they won the Negro League World Series.  He became the first black player in the American League in 1947, shortly after Jackie Robinson broke in with the Dodgers.  He went on to become a seven-time All-Star as an outfielder.  He led the America League with 32 HRs and 126 RBI in 1954, when he finished second in the MVP voting and helped the Cleveland Indians to the AL pennant.  He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998 by the Veterans Committee.


Outfield – Willie Mays played the 1948 season with the Birmingham Black Barons before signing with the New York Giants organization in 1950.  After hitting .477 in 35 games with Minneapolis in 1951, he earned a promotion to the Giants, with whom he hit 20 home runs and captured National League Rookie of the Year honors.  He went on to log 22 major-league seasons that included a slash line of .302./.384/.557 to go along with 660 home runs and 1,903 RBIs.  He was a two-time NL MVP and a 20-time All-Star.  He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979.


Catcher – Roy Campanella first played in the Negro Leagues at age 15 with the Washington Elite Giants in 1937.  In 1946, the same year Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers, Campanella was also signed by them, but played at the Class B level.  He made his major-league debut in 1948 and established himself as one of the best catchers in the 1950s.  He was a three-time NL MVP before retiring in 1957.  He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969.


Starting Pitcher – Don Newcombe played for the Newark Eagles in 1944 and 1945 before signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers as a 20-year old in 1946, when he was a teammate of Roy Campanella.  Newcombe won 52 games in the minors before being promoted to the big-league Dodgers in 1949.  He won 17 games on his way to winning the National League Rookie of the Year.  He was a 20-game winner in 1955, and in 1956 he won both the Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards, when he finished with a 27-7 record and 3.06 ERA.  He was the third black pitcher in the majors behind Dan Bankhead and Satchel Paige.


Relief Pitcher – Satchel Paige was a rare Negro League player who made his major-league debut well after his prime playing days.  He had played 18 seasons in the Negro Leagues when he was signed by the Cleveland Indians in 1948 at age 41.  Remarkably he still managed to play five seasons as a reliever with the Indians and St. Louis Browns, including two All-Star seasons at age 45 and 46.  He was 58 years old when he pitched for the Kansas City A’s in a promotional stunt.  Paige was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971 by the Negro League Committee.


Utility – Minnie Minoso was a Cuban-born player who played for the New York Cubans in the Negro Leagues in 1946-1948.  He made his major-league debut with the Cleveland Indians in 1948 and later became the first black player for the Chicago White Sox in 1951, when he was runner-up for Rookie of the Year.  He was a seven-time All-Star and finished fourth in the AL MVP voting in four seasons.  He played all the outfield positions as well as third base during his career.  Minoso made two pinch-hit appearances as a 54-year-old for the Chicago White Sox in 1980.  In 2003 as a 78-year-old, he made a batting appearance for the independent St. Paul Saints.


Manager – Larry Doby has two spots on this mythical all-star team.  In addition to his Hall of Fame playing career, he managed the Chicago White Sox for part of the 1978 season. He took over for Bob Lemon after 74 games, and the team finished 37-50 under him.  Doby was the second black manager in the majors (not in an interim status), following Frank Robinson with the Cleveland Indians in 1975-1977.


Coach – Elston Howard was an all-star major-leaguer before becoming a coach for the New York Yankees.  He began his professional playing career with the Kansas City Monarchs in 1948 as a 19-year-old, before signing with the Yankees organization in 1950.  When he made his major-league debut in 1955, he was the first black player for the Yankees.  He was an American League All-Star for nine seasons and league MVP in 1963.  He served as a coach for the Yankees from 1969 to 1979 and was the first black coach in the American League.


Coach – Buck O’Neil was the first black coach in majors with the Chicago Cubs in 1962.  He had a long career in the Negro League from 1937 to 1950, primarily with the Kansas City Monarchs.  He later served as manager of the Monarchs.  By the time baseball was being integrated, he was well past his prime to play Organized Baseball.

Are the Astros taking a step back with Dusty Baker?

My good friend and baseball buddy Jim in Houston texted me when it was announced Dusty Baker was in the process of finalizing a deal for the manager’s job with the Astros.  His reaction was, “Really?”


70-year-old Dusty Baker signed a one-year deal with the Astros, with a club option for a second year.  He fills the vacancy created when A. J. Hinch was suspended for a year by Major League Baseball for his involvement in the sign-stealing scandal by the Astros.  Hinch ultimately stepped down as manager of the team, along with President and General Manager Jeff Luhnow, by mutual agreement with owner Jim Crane.


Baker’s most recent managerial job had been with the Washington Nationals in 2017.  His Nats won division titles in 2016 and 2017 but couldn’t advance in the post-season.  Prior to that, he had stints with the San Francisco Giants, Cincinnati Reds, and Chicago Cubs.  Altogether he has 22 seasons under his belt.


The Houston Astros have the reputation of being one of the most forward-thinking major-league clubs, after beginning the makeover of the team in 2014.  They are considered one of the leaders in player acquisition and development and in the use of technology and baseball analytics.  Their manager, A.J. Hinch, was one of the more progressive managers in translating analytical data into effective to game strategies and decision-making.  Under Hinch, the Astros won 100 or more games for the past three seasons that have included two World Series appearances and one championship.  The Astros’ approach was working.


But perhaps their reputation was also instrumental in their sign-stealing scandal that ultimately led to the dismissal of Hinch and Luhnow.  The Astros stretched the envelope with what they could do with technology and wound up breaking the rules.  As a result, the luster of the Astros’ model franchise has faded somewhat, and their integrity has been called into question.


So, what did the Astros do?  They hired “old school” Dusty Baker whose managerial experience has mostly preceded the development of new models for the “new age” manager.  He doesn’t seem to be a logical fit for the job given the Astros’ recent organizational history and the trend happening across Major League Baseball where managers are frequently being hired with virtually no experience in the dugout as a coach or manager.  It appears the Astros organization has taken a step back.


Even though he’s a well-respected, seasoned skipper, Baker doesn’t have extensive managerial experience in the analytics world that has come to dominate the game.  It was one of the reasons why the Nationals chose to go in a new direction despite his two division titles.  They brought in Dave Martinez, who was considered a disciple of modern analytics, and sure enough the Nationals won a World Series in his second season at the helm.


Another characteristic of the new style of managers is that they are more collaborative with their front office in developing strategies for game-time decisions involving lineup construction, pitcher utilization and matchups, and defensive shifts.  That hasn’t been Baker’s previous style of running a team.  He has instead relied on his relationships with the players, applying the “eye test” to evaluate players, and using his baseball instincts for making game decisions.


A concern is that Baker will be obstinate about fully accepting the direct inputs he will undoubtedly receive from front office baseball research and data analytics staff who have never set foot on the baseball diamond.  This can result in a friction that will be obvious to the players and put them in a quandary about whose direction to follow.  Furthermore, players who have readily adopted the use of analytics could see this as a regression.  Assuredly this issue was discussed in Baker’s job interview with Astros ownership, and Baker said all the right words to assure them he would be on board with the front office staff.  But as everyone knows, it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.


With a one-year contract, Baker could very well be a transition or interim manager for the Astros.  Baker would help them get past a publicity nightmare in the short-term. The Astros would also buy more time to hire a longer-term guy who better fits the mold they have established with Hinch.


On the other hand, here’s another theory.  Maybe the Astros are trying a new approach for its manager.  Recall that MLB Network host Brian Kenny suggested several years ago in his book Inside the Curve that teams will evolve to the point where the big-league manager’s job is de-emphasized, and a team of coaches, in conjunction with the front office, will collaborate to run the team. 


In this model, Baker’s nominal role as manager would be the face of the clubhouse, leveraging his experience to help the team restore its credibility, handle the media, and manage player relationships.  He’s capable of leading the team through the period of turmoil that is expected to heighten when the players will have to get in front of the media every day and answer tough questions about their involvement in the sign-stealing in 2017.  In the background, the field coaches would be attuned to inputs and directions from the front office staff to make in-game decisions and be responsible for ensuring the players are buying in and using the information.  Crazier things have happened.


Baker may not be the right guy, but one thing is for sure.  He wants to get back to the Fall Classic.  A World Series ring has eluded him in his previous 22 years as manager, and this is the 70-year-old’s last chance to get it.  The Astros would love nothing better.  And Jim, too.

You read it here first: Tom Brady to pursue diamond career

There’s been a lot of speculation about whether free agent qurterback Tom Brady will re-sign with the Patriots or strike out with a new team for next season.  Well, what if I told you Brady was considering a career in baseball instead?  After all, he’s achieved everything a player can accomplish in the NFL.  6 Super Bowls wins. 3-time league MVP. GOAT.  Why should Brady put himself through another grueling season (with any team) getting knocked around on the gridiron?  He is a sure-fire lock for a bronze statue in Canton.  The voters won’t even have to go through the motions to fill out a ballot for him.


It’s not too well-known Brady was a left-handed hitting catcher for Junipero Sierra High School in Mateo, California.  He was good enough for the Montreal Expos to draft him in the 18th round of the 1995 MLB Draft.  He was selected ahead of seven catchers who eventually reached the majors, including 15-year MLB veteran David Ross.  It’s not out of the question he could have been a viable professional player.


Fortunately for the NFL, Brady opted not to sign a pro baseball contract, instead attending the University of Michigan to play quarterback.  Five years later he signed with the Patriots after being drafted in the sixth round.  And the rest is history.


By now, you should have figured out my prediction about Brady’s pursuit of a baseball career is fake news at its best.  The 42-year-old isn’t going to take the route of former NFL QB Tim Tebow, who will enter his fourth season in 2020 attempting to reach the majors.


Tebow is an anomaly by playing baseball after his football career.  However, the NFL is full of history with QBs who played baseball before settling on a football career.  Three are currently on NFL rosters.

Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson played two seasons as a second baseman in minor-league baseball while still in college playing football.  He was drafted by MLB teams twice:  out of high school in the 41st round of the 2007 draft by the Baltimore Orioles and in 2010 in the 4th round by the Colorado Rockies while attending North Carolina State.  His pro career slash line of .229/.354/.356 with the Rockies organization likely influenced his decision toward a pro football career.


Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes is being touted as the future Tom Brady of the NFL, displaying potential to be one of the all-time great quarterbacks after only his third NFL season.  Mahomes’s pedigree includes baseball, since his father Pat was a major-league pitcher for 11 seasons, posting a career win-loss record of 42-39 and 5.47 ERA. Everyone assumed young Mahomes would follow in his father’s footsteps as he grew up.  He was drafted out of high school by the Detroit Tigers in 2014 in the 37th round but chose to attend Texas Tech where he played play both sports.  He appeared in few baseball games during his freshman year.  However, when Mahomes threw for over 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns during his junior season in 2016, it cinched his decision to pursue a pro football career.  He was selected by the Chiefs in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft.


Arizona Cardinals QB Kyler Murray was the first athlete to be selected in the first rounds of both MLB and NFL drafts.  A two-sport star at Allen High School in Dallas, he initially committed to Texas A&M to play football but then transferred after his freshman season to the University of Oklahoma in 2017, where he played both football and baseball during his sophomore and junior seasons.  He attracted the attention of major-league scouts with his .296/.398/.556 slash line, 10 home runs, and 47 RBIs in 2018.  The Oakland A’s selected the outfielder in the first round (9th overall pick) of the 2018 draft, and he signed a contract that included a $4.7 million bonus.  As the favorite to succeed Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield as the Sooners’ QB in the fall of 2018, he decided to play at the collegiate level again.  He turned in a Heisman-worthy season and became the first overall pick of the 2019 NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals.  He passed for over 3,700 yards and 20 touchdowns in his rookie season.


Reaching back in time, Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway played minor-league baseball in 1982 in the Yankees organization (having been drafted in the second round in 1981) while playing quarterback for Stanford University.  Yankees owner George Steinbrenner reportedly told Elway he could be the starting right fielder for the Yankees by 1985.  Elway used his baseball experience as leverage in the 1983 NFL Draft when the Baltimore Colts drafted him as the first overall pick.  He didn’t want to sign with the Colts and play for Coach Frank Kush; and after threatening to play pro baseball instead of football for the Colts, they ultimately traded him to Denver, where he had a 16-year career.


Archie Manning had been a baseball phenom since he was eight years old on the Drew, Mississippi, Little League team.  He was eventually drafted on four different occasions by MLB teams.  The first time was in 1967 when he was selected out of high school by the Atlanta Braves in the 43rd round, but he chose to attend Ole Miss where football coach Johnny Vaught agreed to let Manning also play baseball.  He played shortstop for the Ole Miss team that made a College World Series appearance in 1969.  Manning was drafted by the Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals while in college.  However, by his junior season it was obvious he would play pro football.  He was drafted again by the White Sox after he had graduated from Ole Miss in 1971.  Manning became the NFL’s second overall pick of the New Orleans Saints with whom he played for 11 seasons.  He also played for Houston and Minnesota before retiring in 1984.


Heisman Trophy winner and NFL QB Chris Weinke played six seasons in the minors in the Toronto Blue Jays organization before embarking on his football career.  He signed out of high school in 1990 with the Blue Jays who drafted him in the second round.  He reached the Triple-A level before quitting baseball.  He then enrolled at Florida State University at age 26 to play football and led the Seminoles to a national championship in 1999.  He was the Heisman winner in 2000.  Weinke was drafted by the Carolina Panthers with whom he played for four seasons, mostly as a backup.  He retired from football after his 2007 season with San Francisco.


The common characteristic among all these multi-sport athletes is their superior athleticism.  It’s clear they all made the right choice for a career on the gridiron.  Brady has said he wants to play football until he is 45 years old, but no one would blame him for stepping away right now.  If his need for competition is still there, I’m sure he could find a softball team that needs a good catcher.

Former Astros Pitcher Mike Fiers: Hero or Tattletale?

The results of Major League Baseball’s investigation into the Houston Astros’ illegal use of technology to steal signs during the 2017 season reverberated throughout the baseball community last week.  Most people were surprised by the harsh penalties levied on the Astros organization by MLB.  The end-result was the dismissal of GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A. J. Hinch by the Astros, after they had been suspended by MLB.  Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora and New York Mets manager Carlos Beltran were released by mutual agreement with their respective teams.  Cora had been employed as a coach by the Astros during 2017, while Beltran was a player on the team; they were both named in the investigation report as being ringleaders of the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme.


The stunning impact of the investigation is being compared to the 2007 Mitchell Report in which 89 major-league players were alleged to have used steroids or other PEDs.  Arguably, it also rivals the fallout of the 1920 investigation surrounding the Black Sox Scandal.


While most of the spotlight has rightfully been on the accountability of Luhnow, Hinch, Cora, and Beltran in breaking MLB’s rules related to the use of technology to steal signs, the role of former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers is also worth noting.  As a pitcher, he didn’t have any involvement in the wrongdoing. Instead, he likely provided the trigger for MLB to launch its full investigation into the Astros organization.


Fiers, now a pitcher with the Oakland A’s, revealed to the press in November that the Astros’ routinely employed a practice of using video feeds to the dugout to aid in stealing signs from opposing teams during the 2017 season.  After he left the Astros following their World Series season, Fiers said he alerted his teams (Detroit Tigers and A’s) of the Astros’ stealth practices so his teammates could take measures to prevent any advantage for Astros hitters.


MLB didn’t initiate its investigation until they decided Fiers’ story warranted additional review.  It’s possible there wouldn’t have been an investigation had Fiers stayed silent on the subject when probed by a reporter back in November.  The question now is whether Fiers should be hailed as a hero for standing up for the integrity of the game or viewed as an outcast for snitching on his former teammates and employer.


There is a fraternity among players that discourages publicly divulging their team’s inner workings that might be viewed as taking unfair advantage of opponents.  Examples include excessive use of pine tar by batters, use of illegal substances by pitchers, and pitchers intentionally targeting hitters with brushback pitches.  Players (especially the younger, less-established ones) refrain from exposing their teams and teammates in these situations because they don’t want to rock the boat.  They “look the other way” for fear of being blackballed as a tattletale.


Many believe Fiers crossed the line by publicly exposing the Astros’ sign-stealing methods.  The immediate reaction was that he was a snitch, someone who betrayed his former teammates.  It remains to be seen, but he could be ostracized by some players and teams, including prospective employers, because he stood up and admitted to what was happening behind the scenes with Astros.


Fiers’ detractors point to the fact he didn’t speak out during the 2017 season when he was personally benefitting from the Astros’ sign-stealing since he was part of a World Series championship team and collected a nice post-season check.


However, Fiers, a 34-year-old veteran pitcher, apparently wasn’t intimated by the prospect of being blackballed.  He felt the integrity of the game has been compromised.  In fact, he was standing up for the fraternity of pitchers, many of whom took his side in exposing the Astros’ tactics.  That’s because pitchers naturally see illegal sign-stealing as detrimental to their success on the mound and can potentially affect their livelihood.


Fiers had the guts to speak up, when other players who also disagreed with the Astros’ tactics chose silence.  In that regard he should ultimately be applauded for causing Major League Baseball to address a serious problem, which many believe has been pervasive throughout all 30 big league teams.  It points out that MLB should have a process for players to anonymously report illegal activities, including PED use.


The entire situation has left a huge black mark on Major League Baseball with respect to the integrity of its competition on the field.  The careers of well-respected men in the game have been tainted.  With the investigation of the Boston Red Sox still underway, it’s possible there will be more negative fallout, especially if specific players are called out and punished.  (Astros players were exempted from punishment in the investigation of their organization in exchange for their cooperation.)


After the dust settles on the scandal, it will be interesting to see how Fiers is viewed.  Although he has pitched two no-hitters in his career, he will most likely be remembered, good or bad, for his role in “Astrogate.”

2020 a pivotal year for Hall of Fame voting

Last year we saw the first unanimously elected player, Mariano Rivera, voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  Every BBWAA voter acknowledged the Yankees relief specialist was the best-ever at his position.

We will likely see another unanimous selection this year, Derek Jeter, one of Rivera’s teammates on the Yankee dynasty teams of 1996-2003.  By the time he had finished his superb 20-year career, Jeter achieved the status of Yankee legend along with Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, and Berra.  Unlike Rivera, Jeter wasn’t necessarily the best shortstop ever to play in the majors, but his career numbers and role in attaining five World Series rings certainly match up with the best of all-time.

The big question in this year’s Hall election is whether Jeter will be the only selection, or some of the other players under the shroud of the PED era will finally get over the hump in receiving the required minimum 75% of the votes.

Aside from Jeter, the remainder of the newcomers on this year’s ballot don’t measure up to traditional Hall standards.  The best of the rest includes Jason Giambi, Bobby Abreu, Paul Konerko, Alfonso Soriano, and Cliff Lee, but none of them would even make the “Hall of Very Good” in my book. 

When you add the fact that the 2021 class will be completely void of Hall-worthy candidates (very good, but not great, players Tim Hudson, Mark Buehrle, and Torii Hunter top the list), voters will have difficulty filling out their entire ballot with 10 votes, unless they include players like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, and Gary Sheffield, all of whom have been previously tainted by suspicion of PED use.  And there’s also Manny Ramirez who tested positively for PEDs.

Hall voters will be further tested on their position around treatment of players with PED use, when superstars Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz come up on the ballot for the first time in 2022.  Unlike Bonds and Clemens, there is little mystery about A-Rod and Big Papi, since both tested positive for PEDs.

Many voters have already changed their initial stance on Bonds and Clemens, evidenced by their percentages have risen in the past few years.  They are both currently shy of 60%.  With the shortage of other truly worthwhile candidates, the situation could provide the impetus for additional voters to get them to the required 75%.

If Clemens and/or Bonds are finally elected this year, I believe it will open the door wider for others (including those under suspicion, testing positive, and admitting to use) to get in.  That’s why this year’s results could be a real indicator in determining the future of Hall membership with respect to acceptance of PED users.

I’ve use my blog in past year to cast my own votes for the Hall of Fame, even though they are actually inconsequential in the grand scheme.

Re-visiting my votes in 2019, I included Rivera, Edgar Martinez, Roy Halladay, and Mike Mussina, all of whom got elected by the BBWAA voters.  I also voted for Bonds, Clemens, Curt Schilling, Larry Walker, Todd Helton, and Gary Sheffield.  I realize I’m in the minority by continuing to vote for Sheffield, who garnered only 16.5% in his fifth year of eligibility.  However, if Harold Baines and Ted Simmons are Hall of Famers (with whom I disagree), so is Sheffield.

This year I’m sticking with my six carryovers and adding Jeter, Manny Ramirez, Omar Vizquel, and Jeff Kent.  Yes, I’m crossing another threshold by including Ramirez, who tested positive for PED use.

I’ve been sitting on the fence in past years regarding voting for players with the PED halo.  I drew the line with players who actually tested positive; hence that justified (at least in my mind) my vote for Bonds and Clemens.

However, I’m crossing that line this year with Ramirez.  Here’s why.

The complaint against PED users has always been that those players “cheated” in order to gain an advantage.  When PEDs were first being used in 1998, highlighted by the home run craze generated by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and then later by Barry Bonds, it created much-needed renewed interest in the game.  Major League Baseball initially turned a blind eye to the situation, until the Mitchell Report exposed widespread use.  It was only after public awareness of the situation that MLB was forced to take action with drug-testing and penalties.

More recently, MLB admitted to using a different baseball for the 2019 season, which contributed to the record number of home runs.  Again, it was good for boosting interest in the game, but didn’t it create a disadvantage for pitchers?  In my opinion, the situation amounted to a form of cheating by hitters, except in this case it was done on a planned league-wide basis, versus an individual choice basis like PED use.  But does that make it more acceptable?  Won’t the individual performance of players in this new “livelier ball” era skew comparisons with players from the past?  That was supposedly one of the complaints of the PED era.

What I’ve come to realize (and accept) is that the game evolves and goes through changes (planned and unplanned) that affect how the game is played.  The PED era was unfortunate in that MLB didn’t fully admit to and address it sooner.  But in looking back, it was just another period of change.  (Remember when cortisone shots were frequently taken by pitchers to overcome arm and elbow pain so that they could get their next start in the rotation?  Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax was famous for that.)

So, I am casting my vote for Ramirez now and will be voting for A-Rod and Big Papi when they become eligible in two years.  And 20 years down the road, if I’m still kicking, I’ll be voting for Cody Bellinger and Pete Alonso for the huge number of home runs they’re hitting now with the livelier, “juiced” baseball.

2019: A Review of My Work

2019 was a busy year for me with respect to my baseball research and writing.  I’m fortunate to have several outlets to deliver my work, allowing me flexibility to cover a wide range of topics.


As a member of Society for American Baseball Research, I’ve become immersed in the SABR Biography and Games projects, writing biographies of MLB players and accounts of historical games.  The editors, fact-checkers, and copy editors I work with are fantastic, and the books (collaborative efforts of multiple SABR members) they turn out are first-class.  The website provides searchable access to the all the published biographies and games.


I also write about local New Orleans baseball through the Crescent City Sports website that is owned and managed by Ken Trahan and Jude Young.  They do a tremendous job covering all sports in the New Orleans area.


One of my special interests continues to be the discovery and cataloging of professional baseball players who have family ties in baseball.  My Baseball’s Relatives website is where I present outputs of my extensive database, which now has over 7,500 players representing over 11,000 relationships.  I also use this website to provide links to recent stories about players with relatives in the sport.


My website The Tenth Inning hosts my weekly blogs where I often blend current events with related looks back in history.  The site also serves as single reference point for all my other work.


Here is a recap of my published work in 2019.  Links are provided to websites hosting the articles and book reviews.  Check them out if you haven’t previously seen them.



The Glorious Beaneaters of the 1890s (SABR book)

April 27, 1891: Kid Nichols Shuts Out Phillies in Beaneaters’ Home Opener


October 1, 1891: Beaneaters Clinch Pennant Amid League Controversy


October 2, 1891: Beaneaters Win 18th Consecutive Game in Pennant Run



The Babe (SABR book)

October 9, 1928: The Sultan of Swat Smacks Three Homers to Sink the Cardinals



The Base Ball Palace of the World: Comiskey Park (SABR book)

September 25, 1946: Kansas City Monarchs Gain Edge in Game 5 of Negro World Series


September 26, 1947: Few Notice as the Negro League World Series Visits Chicago


October 1, 1950: Gus Zernial’s Three Homers Provide Preview of Rest of Decade


August 13, 1954: “16” is Magic Number Again for Jack Harshman in Shutout Duel


July 15, 1963: Patient Gary Peters Registers Near-Perfect Game



Kansas City Royals: A Royal Tradition (SABR book)

August 19, 1986: Frank White’s Seven RBIs Overcome Rangers in Wild 11-Inning Game


August 1, 2016: Duffy’s Sweet Sixteen a Royal Masterpiece



San Diego Padres: The First Half Century (SABR book)

October 1, 1989: Tony Gwynn Edges Will Clark on Last Day for Batting Crown


May 25, 2008: Padres Win in 18th Inning on Gonzalez’s Walk-Off Home Run



Wrigley Field: The Friendly Confines at Clark and Addison (SABR book)

August 28, 1950: Hank Sauer Slams Three Home Runs


June 11, 1952: Hank Sauer Gets Second HR “Hat Trick”


April 17, 1976: Schmidt Brings Phillies Back from the Dead with 4 HRs



1995 Cleveland Indians: The Sleeping Giant Awakes (SABR book)

Eddie “Scooter” Tucker Bio


May 7, 1995: Indians and Twins Both Make Team History in 17-Inning Marathon


July 21, 1995: Dennis Martinez Defies Age, Gets 9th Consecutive Win



Crescent City Sports

2/18/2019:  Will Clark inducted into Mississippi State baseball ring of honor


2/24/2019:  Superdome hosted rare prep baseball doubleheader in 1977


4/21/2019:  2018 John Curtis baseball team helps fill college ranks


6/9/2019:  Slidell native Ryan Eades makes major-league debut with Minnesota


6/22/2019:  Turn Back the Clock: "New" Pelicans lose 1977 home opener in Superdome


7/21/2019:  Former LSU standout DJ LeMahieu indispensable for title-hunting Bronx Bombers


9/6/2019:  Former Baby Cakes pitcher Brian Moran has historic family matchup in MLB debut


9/22/2019:  Eastbank Little League still basking in the glory of World Series triumph


12/7/2019:  Bregman and Nola headline LSU's All-Decade baseball team



SABR Games Project

October 9, 1946: Boo Ferriss extends his unbeaten string at Fenway with Game 3 win


April 8, 1986: Will Clark produces thrill in major-league debut


October 4, 1989: Giants' Will Clark has 'helluva week' in 1989 NLCS opener



Baseball’s Relatives

6/2/2019:  Baseball's bloodlines are booming


6/9/2019:  MLB draft keeps family ties pipeline filled


6/14/2019:  Ranking the best father-son combos in history


9/3/2019:  Taylor and Tyler Rogers: rare set of MLB twins


9/3/2019:  It's good to have another Yastrzemski in baseball


2019 Family Ties Database Update



The Tenth Inning

4/21/2019:  Metro New Orleans Area Player Database V20


12/4/2019:  Metro New Orleans Area Player Database V20.1


Weekly Blog Posts


A Look Back at 2019: Ten Memorable MLB Games

Reflecting on the 2019 baseball season, there was no shortage of unforgettable games.  It was a record season for home runs, both at the team and individual levels.  Pitchers continued to pile up dominating performances.  MLB took games overseas on two occasions.  Players with family legacies in baseball made their big-league debuts.  Numerous career milestones were reached.  Four teams won 100 or more games.  A whacky World Series saw neither team win at home.


Putting the historic post-season aside, here are ten of the most memorable games during the regular season.


March 28: Dodgers set the tone on Opening Day

The Dodgers set the tone for the entire major-league season by hitting eight home runs on Opening Day of 2019, as the Dodgers defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks, 12-5.  Ultimately, a new record for most home runs in a major-league season (6,776) was established.  The Twins set the single-season record for most home runs by a team (307).  14 teams set franchise home run records.  The New York Yankees hit home runs in 31 consecutive games.


May 17: Kris Bryant puts up late-game surge with homers in three successive innings

For the second time in his career, Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant hit three home runs in the game against the Washington Nationals.  However, this time his “hat trick” came in the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings of the game.  The Cubs wound up winning, 14-6, and Bryant accounted for five RBIs.  He was only the 12th player in history to hit homers in three consecutive innings and only the second to accomplish it in the final three innings of a game.


May 19: “Prince Albert” posts 2,000th career RBI

Albert Pujols has been on the downside of his historic career for several years and is sometimes forgotten in terms of how impactful he has been over the course of his 19 seasons.  However, it was hard to overlook his 2,000th career RBI on his 639th career home run in the game against Detroit.  He is only the third player in history to reach this milestone, surpassed by only Hank Aaron and Alex Rodriguez.  During the preceding month, he had passed Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Barry Bonds on the all-time RBI list.  That’s some legendary company.


June 18: Max Kepler delivers three dramatic hits in 17-inning game

Kepler produced three clutch hits for the Minnesota Twins during a marathon game against the Boston Red Sox, in which he wasn’t in the starting lineup.  He first entered the game in the sixth inning as a pinch-hitter and then stayed in to play left field.  He tied the game in the bottom of the eighth inning on an RBI single.  Then in the 13th, his solo home run evened the score again.  He hit a walk-off single in the bottom of the 17th to win the game, 4-3.  The victory gave the Twins the best record in both leagues at the time.  They would go on to capture the AL Central Division title, winning 23 games more games than in 2018.


June 29: Major League Baseball goes to England

In its continuing effort to expand the international interest in U.S. baseball, Major League Baseball took the game to London for a two-game series between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.  MLB had previously hosted regular-season games in Japan, Mexico, Cuba, and Puerto Rico.  The game in London Stadium with almost 60,000 fans in attendance was the first regular-season contest in Europe.  The Europeans saw a good sampling of the offensive shows that have become commonplace in the majors, as the Yankees won 17-13.  DJ LeMahieu was the hitting star for the Bronx Bombers, getting four hits and five RBIs.  Boston’s Michael Chavis hit two homers and knocked in six runs.


July 9: Shane Bieber strikes out the side in All-Star Game before home crowd

In only his second major-league season, Cleveland Indians pitcher Shane Bieber was named to the all-star team as a late addition replacing Mike Minor.  He was the fifth pitcher for the American League, entering the game in the fifth inning with his team leading 2-0.  Pitching in his home-town ballpark, he proceeded to strike out Wilson Contreras, Ketel Marte, and Ronald Acuna Jr. in succession.  His shut-down performance earned him the MVP Award for the game.  Bieber went on to win 15 games and finished fourth in the AL Cy Young Award voting.


July 12: Angels hurlers combine for no-hitter on night honoring former teammate Tyler Skaggs

Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs was found dead in his hotel room on July 1.  The popular player’s tragic death was devastating to the team and its players.  On July 12 in their first home appearance since his death, the Angels dedicated the game against the Seattle Mariners to Skaggs.  Taylor Cole and Felix Pena combined to throw the 11th no-hitter in Angels history.   Mike Trout, who was in the same draft class with Skaggs in 2009, went 3-for-4 with a homer and six RBIs.  All the Angels players honored their teammate by wearing his Number 45 jersey.  (It was later determined Skaggs’s death was drug related.)


September 1: Justin Verlander hurls third career no-hitter

36-year-old Verlander seems to get better with age. He struck out 14 in a no-hitter against the Toronto Blue Jays.  It was the third no-no of his career, with his first two coming with Detroit.  He is one of only eight pitchers in history to throw no-hitters for multiple teams.  Verlander wound up winning the AL Cy Young Award, as he led the league in wins (21), games started (34), and WHIP (0.803).  He also struck out 300 batters for the first time in his 15-year career.


September 17: Mike Yastrzemski hits home run at Fenway with HOF grandfather in attendance

With his Hall of Fame grandfather at the game, San Francisco Giants outfielder Mike Yastrzemski hit a nostalgic home run in Fenway Park, where grandad Carl hit a bunch of home runs and became one of the all-time greats in Boston Red Sox history.  The younger “Yaz” had made his major-league debut on May 25, and his home run was his 18th of the season.


September 28: Pete Alonso smashes rookie record for home runs

It wasn’t a certainty New York Mets first baseman Pete Alonso would stick with the team after breaking spring training camp this year.  Yet all he did was set a new single-season record for home runs (53) by a rookie.  He passed Aaron Judge who previously set the record with 52 in 2017.  Alonso was voted the NL Rookie of the Year and selected to the first-ever All-MLB first team.

Family Ties Flourishing in Baseball: New York Yankees

Baseball has more family relationships than any other professional sport.  They existed in the earliest days of the sport in the 1870s, and they are abundant in today’s game, perhaps more so than ever before.  Baseball has been called a “generational” sport for several reasons.  One is that multiple generations of families have been active in the game--grandfathers, fathers, sons, and brothers.  And now even some great-grandsons are starting to show up on rosters.  Uncles, nephews, cousins and in-laws are part of the extended family of baseball relatives, too.

Baseball bloodlines aren’t limited to just the players.  Family trees with a baseball background have commonly included managers, coaches, scouts, owners, executives, front office personnel, umpires, and broadcasters.


Indeed, families with a heritage of baseball are like those with military, medical, jurisprudence, and agricultural backgrounds.  Their professions are often passed down from one generation to the next.  Likewise, professional baseball fathers generally want their sons to follow in their footsteps.  Brothers grow up pushing each other to excel on the diamond.  Once one brother gets drafted by a major league team, then it’s often the case his brother will try to follow.


A look back in history shows many fascinating stories about baseball families.  For example:

the Hairston family, which included a major league father (Sam), three sons (two in the majors—John and Jerry Sr.), and five grandsons (two in the majors—Jerry Jr. and Scott), collectively had professional careers that spanned from 1945 to 2014.

three Alou brothers (Felipe, Matty, and Jesus) played for the San Francisco Giants in the same game in 1963.  The trio had two cousins who followed them in the big leagues, and one of the trio, Felipe, also had four sons to play professionally.

the Boyer brood included seven brothers that played professionally, including three major leaguers (Cloyd, Ken, and Clete).  They then produced three sons who played in the minors.


Numerous players of the 1960s New York Yankees teams had offspring who wound up playing professional baseball.  Follow the link below to an article entitled “Sons of the 1960s Bronx Bombers Had Big Shoes to Fill.”


Fast-forwarding to more recent times, here are some highlights of baseball relatives in the New York Yankees organization during 2019.


Gary Sanchez was an all-star selection in 2019.  He had the most home runs in his career (34) despite spending several stints on the injured list.  He had been the runner-up for the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 2016 when he hit 20 home runs in only 53 games.  Gary’s brother Miguel had played in the Seattle Mariners organization for six seasons (2009-2014) as a catcher and pitcher.


Austin Romine had one of his best years with the Yankees with a slash line of .281/.310/.439, with 8 home runs and 35 RBIs.  He filled in very capably when regular catcher Gary Sanchez was on the injured list.  Romine is in one of those rare families that had a father and a brother in major-league baseball.  His father Kevin was a major-league outfielder in the Red Sox organization from 1985 to 1991, when he was also a backup player to regulars like Jim Rice, Dwight Evans, and Mike Greenwell.  His brother Andrew is a nine-year major-league veteran who played at the Triple-A level with the Philadelphia Phillies last season.


Aaron Hicks was in his fourth season with the Yankees but was one of several regulars who spent most of the season on the injured list.  In 59 games he hit 12 home runs and 36 RBIs.  He had signed a seven-year contract extension worth $70 million before the season began.  Hicks is the son of Joseph Hicks, who reached the Double-A level with the San Diego Padres and Kansas City Royals organizations before retiring in 1981.


Luis Severino missed all the 2019 season except one game in September due to a rotator cuff injury.  His disappointing season came after he led the Yankees in wins (19) in 2018.  His younger brother Rafael is also a pitcher, signed as an international free agent from the Dominican Republic and assigned to the Yankees’ academy there.


Zach Britton was one of the stalwarts in the Yankees’ bullpen in his first full season with them last season. In 66 appearances, he posted a 1.91 ERA.  He didn’t yield any runs in five relief appearances against Houston in the ALCS.  He is the brother of Buck Britton who played nine seasons in the minors before becoming a manager in the Baltimore Orioles farm system.


The Yankees’ pipeline of baseball relatives includes several prospects whose relatives were former major-league all-stars:  Jose Mesa Jr. (son of Jose Mesa Sr.), and Michael O’Neill (nephew of Paul O’Neill), Ryan Lidge (brother of Brad Lidge), LJ Mazzilli (son of Lee Mazzilli), and Isiah Gilliam, (grandson of Jim Gilliam).


The Yankees had numerous personnel filling non-playing roles in the organization during 2019.  Some of them include:


Hal Steinbrenner is the managing general partner of the Yankees, having taken over for their legendary father, George Steinbrenner, following his death in 2010.  His siblings, Hank, Jennifer, and Jessica are general partners.


Aaron Boone was in his second year as manager of the Yankees.  His teams have won a hundred or more games in each season.  He played 12 seasons in the majors, including a stint with the Yankees.  Boone is part of a three-generation major-league family (one of only four in MLB history), including his grandfather Ray, father, Bob, and brother Bret.


Phil Nevin is in his second season as the Yankees’ third base coach.  He was the first overall pick of the 1992 MLB draft by the Houston Astros.  Nevin played 12 seasons in the majors, including an all-star season in 2001 with San Diego.  Nevin’s son Tyler was a first-round selection of the Colorado Rockies in 2015 and played at the Double-A level in 2019.


Brothers Lou and Rob Cucuzza have been long-time clubhouse and equipment managers at Yankee Stadium.  They previously served with their father, Lou Sr., who also had an extensive career in similar capacities with the Yankees.


Mark Littlefield is a medical coordinator in the Yankees organization.  He is the brother of David Littlefield, currently an executive in the Detroit Tigers organization, and Scott Littlefield, currently a scout in the Texas Rangers organization.


Ken Singleton is currently a broadcaster for the Yankees.  He previously had a 15-year major-league playing career with the Montreal Expos and Baltimore Orioles.  His son, Justin, played for six seasons in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, reaching the Triple-A level.


Donny Rowland, Yankees’ Director of International Scouting, is the father of Shane Rowland, who played two seasons in the Cleveland Indians organization.  The following Yankees scouts have relatives in baseball: Troy Afenir (father of Audie Afenir, 2019 independent league), Jeff Patterson (brother of Jim Patterson, former Yankees scout), Cory Melvin (son of Doug Melvin, former front office executive with several teams).

Was the Yankees' signing of Cole a good decision or not?

I cringe when major league teams sign these expensive, long-term deals for pitchers.  But when it’s my favorite team, I’m especially nervous.  When the Yankees signed Gerrit Cole, my initial reaction was euphoria; but then as I thought about it more, I was sobered up by thoughts of other questionable deals involving David Price, Yu Darvish, and Barry Zito (remember him?).  Often, these mega-deals don’t pan out.

Yankees’ owner-chairman Harold Steinbrenner reportedly told GM Brian Cashman to spend whatever it took to get Cole, who was the top free agent pitcher on the market based on his sterling performance with the Houston Astros for the past two seasons.  When I heard that, it made me think ole George Steinbrenner was still alive somewhere in the bowels of Yankee Stadium.  Cashman took his boss at his word, as he proceeded to shell out $324 million in a nine-year deal. 

Cashman was determined not to not to strike out on Cole this go-around.  The Yankees selected him out of high school in the first round of the 2008 MLB Draft, but he decided to attend UCLA instead.  Then over the winter following the 2017 season when the Pirates put Cole on the trading block, Cashman attempted again to acquire him, but lost out to Houston.

Cole’s deal set new marks for total contract value for a pitcher on the free-agent market and for highest average annual value for a free agent ($36 million).  Cole will be able to opt out of the contract after the fifth year.

Cole is in the prime of his career at 29 years old, so there is a good chance the Yankees will get at least 4-5 years from him, assuming he stays healthy.  Getting nine years of superior performance would be a stretch unless he is able to adjust his approach from primarily being a strikeout pitcher to one that incorporates more finesse in his repertoire.  Verlander is a good example of having done that.

However, that’s still a lot of dough being shelled out for one player.  When Cole’s salary is combined with Giancarlo Stanton’s mega-deal after the 2017 season, the Yankees will have salaries nearly $70 million per year tied up between them for the next nine years.  That could come back to haunt the Yankees later when contracts for their younger stars (Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres, Gary Sanchez, and Luis Severino) come up for renewal.

Not since 2012, when CC Sabathia was still at the top of his game, have the Yankees had a true ace at the top of their rotation.  Since then, Matsuhiro Tanaka and Luis Severino have produced decent performances when they had their turns in the role, but they really weren’t true No. 1 starters.  Both have also dealt with injuries that hampered them. 

The Yankees were in real need of an ace.  They largely relied on their deep bullpen last year, after their starters put in their usual five innings.  That formula obviously worked, as the Yankees won 103 games, although they also benefitted from having one of the best offenses in the league.

Cole was considered the No. 2 guy on the Astros behind veteran Justin Verlander who narrowly won the American League Cy Young Award over Cole.  But make no mistake about it.  Cole could realistically be the ace of any other team in either league.  His 2019 numbers included a league-leading 2.50 ERA and 326 strikeouts.  Beginning May 27, he won 16 consecutive decisions through the end of the season.  With a total of 20 wins for the season, he barely missed out on the Triple Crown for pitchers (Verlander had 21 wins).

The Yankees would still be a playoff contender in 2020 with an additional starter of lesser talent than Cole, but his presence now makes them the favorite for the American League pennant.  They haven’t won a World Series since 2009.  That’s seems like an eternity for the Yankees’ ownership and its fans.  I think Cashman saw a window of opportunity to significantly enhance his team’s chances to immediately get back to a World Series with a pitcher like Cole or Stephen Strasberg, who re-signed with the Nationals a few days earlier.

George Steinbrenner was famous (although many would say infamous) for spending tons of money on free agents during the 1980s and early 1990s that got abysmal returns for the Yankees franchise.  Then there was Alex Rodriguez, who was released from his Yankees contract for the last 2+ years of his historic (now regrettable) long-term deal.  His production had fizzled out at age 35, when his contract term was supposed to take him through age 41.

Of course, I’m hoping Cole’s career with the Yanks ultimately ends up like Verlander’s, not A-Rod’s.

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.


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

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


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  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