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.
Derek Jeter puts on different face as Marlins executive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Search for Baseball's Relatives Continues

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

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

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

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

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

     

     

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

     

     

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Hot Topics for the Hot Stove Season

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

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

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

 

Where will Giancarlo Stanton land?

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

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

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

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

 

Who will the Yankees hire to replace Girardi?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie Morton is Unsung Hero Among Astros' Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how did the Yankees manage to rebuild so quickly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Twinkies Surprise Themselves with Playoff Spot

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

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

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

So what happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt Harvey: From Dark Knight to Fallen Knight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Didier's Passing Recalls Prominence of Louisiana Baseball Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mel died at age 90 in Phoenix, Arizona.

Monday's Miscellaneous Musings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giancarlo's HR Quest Puts Spotlight on Key Baseball Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Language of Baseball Has Evolved with the Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hometown Heroes: Turning Back the Clock to 1952

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

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

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

Major League Players

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

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

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

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

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

 

Minor League Players

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Look at Family Ties Through the Cardboard Hobby

Baseball players with relatives in the game have been around since the beginning of the professional sport.  If you count the National Association as the first major-league, brothers Doug and Art Allison and George and Harry Wright played in the inaugural season in 1871.  The first son of a major-leaguer to also play in the majors was Jack Doscher in 1903.  His father, Herm, had been a big-leaguer from 1872 to 1882.

Fast-forwarding to the beginning of the 2017 season, there had been almost 500 brother combinations and nearly 250 father-son combinations to have appeared in the majors.  The number of players who are uncles, nephews, cousins, and in-laws of other major-leaguers is prevalent as well.

Throughout the years, baseball cards have contributed to the recording of baseball history, which includes many of the occurrences of family ties in the sport.

However, early baseball cards didn’t typically feature more than one player per card.  So while there were numerous instances of family ties in the early days of the sport, they weren’t depicted together on a single card.  Furthermore, the individual player cards in those early years didn’t contain textual biographical information (like today) that might identify players as having a brother in baseball.

The 1872 Warren Studio Boston Red Stocking Cabinets set included individual cards of George and Harry Wright of the champions of the premier season.  The Old Judge (N172) set issued by Goodwin & Co. during 1887-1890 was the largest among the early sets, with over 500 different players.  It included individual player cards of several of the early major-league brothers, including Ed and Con Daley, Pat (Tom) and John Deasley, Buck and John Ewing, Art and John Irwin, Dave and Jack Rowe, Orator and Taylor Shafer, Bill and John Sowders, and Gus and John Weyhing.

Jack and Mike O’Neill cards are included in the extremely rare 1904 Allegheny Card Co. set, which is believed to have only been produced as a prototype and never distributed.  The 1922 American Caramel (E120) series contains cards of brothers Jimmy and Doc Johnston and Bob and Emil (Irish) Meusel.

The 1935 Goudey 4-in-1 (R321) set contained colored portraits of four players, usually on the same team, on a single 2-3/8” x 2-7/8” card.  The set was unique in that card backs form nine different puzzles.  Wes and Rick Ferrell (appearing with Fritz Ostermueller and Bill Werber), Paul and Lloyd Waner (appearing with Guy Bush and Waite Hoyt) exist in this 36-card, unnumbered set.

Among the first sets to produce cards with brothers appearing on the same card in a single photo include the 1936 National Chicle Co. Pen Premiums (R313), a 3-¼” x 5-3/8” blank-backed, unnumbered set that illustrated facsimile autographs.  It’s not purely coincidental that this set pictured Wes and Rick Ferrell and Paul and Lloyd Waner, since they were among the first sets of major-league brothers to both be star-quality players.  The Ferrells formed a brother battery for the Boston Red Sox, while the Waners roamed the outfield as teammates for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  The smallish Waners are posed in a comical shot on the shoulders of 6-foot-6 teammate Jim Weaver.

The 1941 Double Play (R330) set would have been the perfect set to show Joe and Dom DiMaggio on the same card, since the set was designed to feature two players on a single card with consecutive card numbers on each card.  But that didn’t happen.  Instead the DiMaggios were pictured separately on two cards, Joe with Yankee teammate Charley Keller and Dom with Red Sox teammate Frank Pytlak.

One of the most recognized cards with brothers appearing on the same card is in the popular 1954 Topps set.  A card with twin brothers Ed and John O’Brien of the Pittsburgh Pirates is included in the set, which was the first to feature two player photos (a portrait and an action photo) on a card.  The O’Briens, who formed the middle infield combo for the Pirates, are one of only eight sets of twins to ever play in the major-leagues.  They are shown together on the card in a kneeling pose with a bat on their shoulder, minus the action photo.

Bowman came up with a neat concept for its 1955 card design, its last as an independent card producer.  Players were portrayed in color photos arranged inside a television set.  Brothers Bobby and Billy Shantz, then playing for the Kansas City A’s, were included on a single card.  An interesting circumstance in that card set involved brothers Frank and Milt Bolling, who were included on separate cards, but the backs of their cards incorrectly contained their brother’s biographical information.  Their cards were later corrected, creating a variation for collectors.

The 1961 Topps set included a single card of Larry and Norm Sherry, battery-mates for the Los Angeles Dodgers.  For the next fifteen or so years, except for a few occasional years when brothers appeared together on Topps league leader cards (for example, Felipe and Matty Alou in the Topps 1966 and 1968 sets) and in reprint sets, cards showing family relationships were absent from sets.

The first major set to duly recognize players with relatives was the 1976 Topps issue.  Five consecutively-numbered cards comprised a subset captioned “Father & Son – Big Leaguers.”  The father-son combos included Gus and Buddy Bell, Ray and Bob Boone, Joe and Joe Coleman, Jim and Mike Hegan, and Roy Sr. and Roy Jr. Smalley.  Each card contained a photo from a previous Topps issue for the father and a photo from the current issue for the son.  Interestingly, three of these family combinations (Bells, Boones, and Colemans) would eventually have a third generation play in the major leagues.

Topps followed up in 1977 with another relatives subset titled “Big League Brothers.”  It contained four consecutively-numbered cards that included George and Ken Brett, Bob and Ken Forsch, Lee and Carlos May, and Paul and Rick Reuschel.

The baseball card craze kicked into high gear in the mid-to-late 1980s when new card companies like Donruss, Fleer, and Upper Deck came onto the hobby scene.  They each contributed a few relatives combo cards involving such families as the Niekros, Ripkens and Alomars.  Topps produced its largest family ties subset with thirteen consecutively-numbered cards captioned “Father-Son,” as part of its 1985 base set.  The father-son combos appeared on a single card, with the fathers being pictured in one of their former Topps cards as a player.  A few of the combos were Yogi and Dale Berra, Tito and Terry Francona, Vern and Vance Law, and Dizzy and Steve Trout.

As part of its 1992 base set, Upper Deck issued a subset captioned “Bloodlines Set.” It had seven consecutively-numbered cards that included major-league cousins (Keith and Kevin Mitchell, Gary Sheffield and Dwight Gooden) in addition to several brothers, fathers and sons.  One would expect Ken Griffey Jr. and his father to be in this set, but Upper Deck threw in an extra twist by also including brother/son Craig Griffey, who was in only his second minor-league season.

Bowman followed the next year with a four-card subset called “Father and Son,” in which current players Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, Moises Alou, and Brian McRae were depicted with their fathers on the same card, while in the same team uniform.  The fathers were shown in a larger photo while the sons were pictured in a smaller action shot insert.

In 1994 The Sporting News, in conjunction with MegaCards, did an admirable job of producing a 330-card series featuring photos taken by legendary sports photographer Charles Conlon.  Similar series were produced in the three prior years.  Included in the 1994 series were a dozen cards showing major-league brothers, who had played during 1900 to 1945, on a single card.  For some of the players, it was the only baseball card ever produced with their image.  Cards for Dizzy and Daffy Dean, Wes and Rick Farrell, and Bubbles and Pinky Hargrave contained a single Conlon photo of the players posed together, while the other cards contained separate Conlon images of the brothers.  Some of the lesser known big-league brothers who were depicted in the subset included Andy and Hugh High, Wade and Bill Killefer, and Al and Ivey Wingo.  A burgundy-bordered parallel set was also produced for the 1994 series.

The proliferation of parallel sets contributed to variations of cards showing major-league relatives.  For example, brothers Bengie and Jose Molina were depicted together on several 2005 Topps-produced sets, including Base, 1st Edition, Chrome, Chrome Refractor and Chrome Black Refractor.

Similar to the 1992 Upper Deck set with Craig Griffey, the 2003 the Topps Heritage set included a single card of Joe Mauer and his brother, Jake, who was in the minors at the time. 

The 2016 Topps Archives set included a subset of seven cards, containing family relationships on a single card, in the same format as the 1985 Topps version of the Father-Son subset.  Ray and Bob Boone appeared in the 1985 set, while the 2016 set include Bob and Bret Boone.  Tito and Terry Francona are carried over from the 1985 set, but with different retro card images.  Recent major-leaguer Dee Gordon and his father, Tom, are also included.

Fortunately for collectors, the majority of cards depicting players with their relatives are very much available and still affordable, except for the older cards prior to 1960.  My checklist of baseball cards with multiple relatives can be viewed at https://baseballrelatives.wordpress.com/baseball-cards/.

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The cards described above primarily address the occurrences of players and their relatives on a single card.  Of course, the majority of cards with family ties show the individual players by themselves.

For a couple of years now, I have corresponded periodically with a card collector, Scott, who has a special interest in baseball cards of major-leaguers that had a family member that also played in the majors.  Scott’s initial collecting activities go back to when he was eight years old in the late 1970s.  In the mid-1990s his focus on baseball families began to take shape, as he collected cards of some of the more noteworthy families such as the Boones, Bells and Alous.  His collection extends beyond just the multi-player family cards described above.  It also includes single-player cards of fathers, sons and brothers, as well.

Scott says about five years ago he got serious in his attempt to collect a card of every MLB family combination since 1957, the first year Topps standardized on the current card size.  It’s an activity he shares with his son.  They have meticulously arranged their collection in a book organized by family  Families with more than two members are in front, and then the book is organized into Fathers-Sons and then Brothers.  Scott especially favors the cards that show close-up shots (versus action shots), so that he can compare the resemblances of father-son and brother combinations.  For example, Scott says Aaron Boone looks remarkably similar to card images of his grandfather, Ray, at the same age.

Scott even goes so far as to make up his own baseball cards of family members, when a player doesn’t have an official card printed by one of the major card companies, usually because the player’s major-league career consisted of only a few games.  To do this, Scott finds a photo image of the player on the internet and prints them on card stock.  He’s currently on a quest to find rare MLB images of Stu Pederson (father of current major-leaguer Joc Pederson) and Mike Glavine (brother of Hall of Fame player Tom Glavine) that can be used for home-made cards in his collection.

I’m betting there are quite a few more collectors like Scott who are using baseball cards to learn more about baseball’s many family relationships.

Picking Good Italian Restaurants Easier than Predicting Hall of Famers

Today the National Baseball Hall of Fame inducted three well-deserving players, Jeff Bagwell, Ivan Rodriguez, and Tim Raines.  Raines squeaked in on his last year of eligibility, while Bagwell and Rodriguez overcame any suspicions of PED use to enter the hallowed Hall in Cooperstown.  30-35 years ago, when these players first started out, would anyone have predicted they would eventually be recognized among the immortals in baseball?

My son Lee and I will be making our annual trek to major-league cities this week.  We’ll catch games at Chicago’s Wrigley Field and Guaranteed Rate Field (which sounds more like a hockey arena), as well as at Milwaukee’s Miller Park.  Three days.  Three games.  Three different parks.  Six different teams.  You gotta love it!

So, what does this have to do with Italian food and Hall of Fame predictions?

In addition to finding good, authentic Italian food in our destination cities, one of our favorite things each trip is to predict which players we see play will wind up in the Hall of Fame.  There’s a tendency to overrate players, particularly the up-and-coming stars who have yet to fully prove themselves over an adequate period.  On the other hand, longevity tends to allow for high career stat accumulation, which are not necessarily good indicators of a player’s actual value.  Furthermore, a player’s popularity can often skew objectivity.  We try to be unbiased in our prognostications, but admittedly we have relied on our hearts, more than our heads, a few times to make our predictions, especially when we are watching our favorite teams.

This year we’ll get to see the White Sox vs. Blue Jays, Cubs vs. Diamondbacks, and Brewers vs. Cardinals on our short trip.  I’ll preview some of the players we’ll get to see, with an eye toward who the potential Hall of Famers from these teams might be.

As I wrote in last week’s blog post, the White Sox have unloaded practically all of its star players in a rebuilding initiative.  The best player left on that team is first baseman Jose Abreu, who is in his fourth major-league season.  He has a Rookie of the Year Award in his trophy case and is well on his way to his fourth 100-RBI season.  He has a career 140 for OPS+ and his career batting average is near .300.  The biggest potential drawback for Abreu ultimately being a viable HOF candidate is that he is already 30 years old, and he would have to maintain or exceed his current performance well into his late 30s to have enough years of peak performance for strong HOF consideration.

22-year-old White Sox rookie second baseman Yoan Mondada was the top-rated prospect in all of baseball coming into this season.  He recently got a call-up to the White Sox after their recent fire sale.  Of course, he is still unproven in the big-leagues, but he’s one to keep on the watch list.

After his first five full major-league seasons, I would have bet heavily that Blue Jays shortstop Troy Tulowitski would be a Hall of Fame selection.  However, injuries have curtailed his playing time in several years such that he has averaged only about 120 games during the ten seasons after his debut year.  Nevertheless, he has still put up over 225 career home runs and has a career .361 OBP.  Tulowitski has the second highest all-time fielding percentage for shortstops, although that stat is no longer considered by most analysts as a meaningful measure.

Another Blue Jay who has stood out from the rest of the pack is Josh Donaldson.  From 2013 to 2016, the third baseman has been among the top finishers for MVP, claiming the title in 2015.  He is currently 31st among active players in WAR.  Like Abreu, he is already at an age (31), where he must continue producing at a high level well into his late 30s for HOF consideration.  The Texas Rangers’ Adrian Beltre is proving that is not impossible.

The Chicago Cubs have several potential Hall of Famers on the current roster.  Jon Lester has finished in the top four for the Cy Young Award in three seasons.  He has won World Series with the Red Sox in 2007 and 2013 and one with the Cubs last season.  Lester has posted a sterling 2.63 ERA in 22 post-season games.  At age 33, he is already among the top 100 pitchers of all time in several advanced metrics.

Cubs infielder Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are young players who have already made an impact, and if they stay healthy during the remainder of their careers, should have reasonable chances for HOF induction.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon has two pennants and a World Series championship under his belt after 11 seasons in Tampa and Chicago.  Considered one of the top analytical managers, if he and the Cubs can get on a team dynasty path, including a couple more World Series championships, he will get strong consideration for the Hall of Fame.

Similar to the Cubs’ Rizzo and Bryant, Paul Goldschmidt of the Arizona Diamondbacks is another younger player who has been among the game’s top current stars.  He has demonstrated a good combination of hitting and fielding talents, but doesn’t get as much ink because he plays for a small-market team.

The D’backs’ Zack Grienke makes his case for the Hall of Fame by getting high marks in several of the advanced metrics for pitchers, including Walks and Hits per Innings Pitched (WHIP), ERA+, and Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP).  He has been a Cy Young Award finalist in four seasons, claiming the award in 2009.  His career won-lost record was 155-100 through 2016.

Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun would be in the Hall of Fame discussion today if he hadn’t been suspended for violation of MLB’s drug policy and his linkage to the Biogenesis Scandal in 2013.  Considered a five-tool player, he has one MVP award and five Silver Slugger awards under his belt, while finishing in the top 10 for Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in four seasons.

St. Louis Cardinals backstop Yadier Molina doesn’t have the gaudy offensive stats of previous HOF catchers like Berra, Bench and Piazza, but he certainly ranks among the best defensive catchers of all time.  He has twice finished in the top four for the MVP Award.  He is one of the primary reasons the Cardinals have appeared in four World Series since 2004, including two championships.

The Baseball Hall of Fame is truly an elite group; only the best of the best get their image on a bronze plaque.  In all likelihood, only one or two of the players mentioned above will ultimately gain membership.  If I had to pick only one from this group, I’d have to give the nod to Molina.

In any case, it’s fun to think about who the candidates are.  Some of the players we’ve been fortunate enough to see on our baseball journeys in recent years include Adrian Beltre, Omar Vizquel, Carlos Beltran, and David Ortiz.  They’ve all got reasonably good chances to be inducted.

Getting back to the Italian food, Lee and I have had good success in identifying some outstanding restaurants on our trips.  Unlike picking future Hall of Famers, we’ve had very little trouble gauging the best eateries—with neither heads nor hearts, but with our stomachs.

A few restaurants that make our “Culinary Hall of Fame” include Amicci’s in Baltimore’s Little Italy, Primanti Bros. in Pittsburgh, Lorenzo’s in South Philadelphia’s Italian Market, and Mama Anna’s in Boston’s North End.  They represent a good mixture of your traditional and more eclectic Italian dishes, as well as tasty pizzas, sandwiches and subs.

We’re looking forward to experiencing Chicago’s Little Italy in the Near West Side area, but aren’t expecting too much in Milwaukee.  Got some good recommendations from one of Lee’s co-workers who lived in the area and from my “coolinary” friends, Carol and Ed, who used to frequent the Windy City when their daughter and son-in-law lived there.

White Sox are Latest to Hold Fire Sale

What drives major-league teams to unload their best players?  When a team is struggling to be in contention, it seems the last thing to do is trade away its established players.  Surely it’s a frustrating situation for fans when they see their favorite players walk out the door.  Baseball’s trade deadline at the end of July often creates those situations as teams assess whether they are buyers or sellers—to try to make a run at the impending playoffs or cash in their chips for the longer term.

The Chicago White Sox is the latest club to decide a make-over of the team is essential to becoming a relevant team for post-season play.  They are currently mired in their fifth consecutive season in fourth or fifth place in the AL Central Division.  The last time they had a division-winning team was in 2008.

The fire sale actually started over the winter when the White Sox traded ace pitcher Chris Sale, one of the best in the majors, to the Boston Red Sox for several top prospects.  They also traded their best outfielder, Adam Eaton, to the Washington Nationals in order to stock their farm system with additional prospects.

The White Sox resumed discarding players during the past ten days when they traded Carlos Quintana, their top of the rotation pitcher, to the cross-town Chicago Cubs in exchange for four prospects.  What’s odd about that deal is Quintana was still under contract control for the next three years at a team-friendly salary of $30+ million during that timeframe.

A couple of days later, they dumped all-star third baseman Todd Frazier and closer David Robertson to the New York Yankees for three more prospects and reliever Tyler Clippard.  The rumor mill has it that ChiSox outfielder Melky Cabrera will also be on the trading block this coming week.

This dramatic change in strategy by White Sox ownership came only two years after an attempt by the team to buy its way into division contention.  In 2015 they had added Robertson, Cabrera, and Adam LaRoche through free agency and Jeff Samardzija via trade.  In 2016 they add missing pieces in the lineup with the acquisition of Frazier and Brett Lawrie through trades.

Their starting pitching staff during 2015 and 2016 seemed to be solid with Sale, John Danks, Quintana, Samardzija, and rookie Carlos Rodon.  They even traded for veteran James Shields during the middle of last season.  On paper they looked like one of the best staffs in the league.  However, the team finished a disappointing fourth in the division in both years.  Plus, their payroll had ballooned over 35% from 2014 to 2016.

The White Sox are certainly not the first to turn its franchise on its ear.  Like the Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves and San Diego Padres during the past 5-6 years, the White Sox believe their best path to future success is to practically start over in the composition of the team, while shedding big salaries, and then rebuild through the acquisition of top prospects.  The approach is tough to stomach, since it means losing their most popular players and continuing to suffer through dismal seasons for a few more years.  However, the Cubs, Astros, and Yankees are currently shining examples that the strategy can work if properly executed.

As a result of the deals going back to the winter, the White Sox farm system is stacked for the future.  They now have 7 of the top 50 prospects and 10 of the top 68 in all of baseball.  In fact, the overall Number 1 prospect in baseball, Yoan Moncada, who was acquired in the Sale trade with Boston, is being promoted to the big-league club now.  If club officials and fans can show some patience for three or four years, then perhaps the White Sox can end up in a good place like the Cubs or Astros.

5 Things You Should Know About the MLB All-Star Game

Baseball’s mid-summer All-Star Game classic is one of sport’s highlights each season.  It’s a chance for baseball fans to vote for their favorite players to fill out the game’s starting lineups.  The event also generates a lot of excitement with it Futures Game featuring baseball’s top prospects and the ever-popular Home Run Derby.  This year’s contest in Miami was the 88th occurrence of the exhibition game, providing another chapter in the long history of the event.

Below are five facts about some of the history of the popular event.

  1. The American League’s 2-1 win over the National League last Tuesday marked the 5th straight win for the junior league.  The classic is no stranger to experiencing winning streaks.  The American League won 13 straight from 1997 to 2009.  The National League won 11 consecutive games from 1972 to 1982 and held another winning streak of 8 games from 1963 to 1970.  Despite these streaks, however, the overall record for all years is currently a dead-even tie, 43-43 and two tied games.

  2. Baseball’s first All-Star Game was held in 1933, spear-headed by Chicago sportswriter and promoter Arch Ward.  He suggested the concept of all-star teams representing the National and American leagues to play in an exhibition game to support the players’ pension fund.  Also, since the time was during the Great Depression, Ward felt the sport needed to show “it was not in a state of decadence.”  Before a crowd of over 47,000 fans in Comiskey Park, Babe Ruth appropriately hit the first home run in the game and powered the American League to a 4-2 win.

  3. The All-Star Game was cancelled in 1945 due to war-time travel restrictions in the Unites States during World War II.  Before the season, it was agreed by league officials that there would be no All-Star Game, but instead cities with two major league clubs (New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and St. Louis) would host inter-league exhibition games as charity events to minimize travel.  After Germany surrendered on May 7, there was a proposal by the Army Special Services on Entertainment to play an all-star game in Nuremberg Stadium Germany featuring overseas major-league players, but that plan was ultimately nixed by major-league officials.

  4. From 1959 to 1962, there were two all-star games played each season. Major League Baseball broke from tradition in 1959 by playing two games, on July 7 in Pittsburgh and August 3 in Los Angeles, in an attempt to increase the coffers of the players’ pension fund.  One of the more memorable games during this timeframe occurred in 1961 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.  In a stadium known for its extreme windy conditions, National League pitcher Stu Miller, a smallish player at only 165 pounds, reportedly was blown off the mound during one of his windups and a balk was called on him.  The National League won the game in the 10th inning when Roberto Clemente hit a walk-off single to score Willie Mays.

  5. This year’s game no longer had significance for determining the home-field advantage for the World Series, a practice started in 2003 by Commissioner Bud Selig after the 2002 game ended in a tie after 11 innings.  Selig wanted to assure the game maintained its relevance, but many baseball officials and analysts were critical of this approach because it bore no relation to the regular season results of the teams playing in the World Series.  Of the 13 World Series to have home-field determined by the outcome of the All-Star Game, the home team won 10 of them.  These results illustrate the significance of the home-field advantage in the Fall Classic.  One of new baseball commissioner Rob Manfred’s changes was to eliminate the use of the All-Star Game as the mechanism for deciding which World Series participant holds the home-field advantage. Now, the All-Star Game determines only bragging rights for the winning league.

Mid-Season Report Card: Pretty Good on Division Leader Picks, Terrible on Wild Cards

With the mid-season All-Star break coming up this week, it’s time to assess how I’m doing with respect to my pre-season picks back in April.  For 2017, I predicted the two World Series teams from the 2016 season, the Cubs and Indians, would again repeat as league champions, something that rarely ever happens.

Here’s a recap of my 2017 pre-season picks:

AL East – Red Sox; AL Central – Indians; AL West – Astros; Wild Cards – Blue Jays and Mariners

AL pennant winner -- Indians

NL East – Nationals; NL Central – Cubs; NL West – Dodgers; Wild Cards – Giants, Pirates

NL pennant winner – Cubs

World Series winner -- Indians

Well, so far the both the Cubs and Indians aren’t exactly shoo-ins to repeat, but they are still within striking distance of their division titles.  However, they have both been getting stiff competition from teams posting surprise performances this year—the Brewers and Twins. 

On the other hand, my other picks for the six division winners are currently spot on, except for the Cubs.  The Indians have a slim lead over the Twins, while the Red Sox, Astros, Nationals and Dodgers are doing quite well right now as division leaders.

My picks for the wild-card spots are another story, though.  None of my four pre-season picks—Blue Jays, Mariners, Giants or Pirates--are in contention for a playoff berth at this point.

The Astros appear to be the runaway winner of the AL West, as they are 16 games ahead of the Los Angeles Angels.  It’s hard to imagine them losing this lead, but stranger things have happened.  For example, the 1914 “Miracle” Boston Braves went from last place in the National League on July 4th to win the pennant by 10 ½ games.  The Angels, Rangers and Mariners are in a fight for second place in the West, but all are playing under .500.

The AL East-leading Red Sox are in a relatively tight race with several teams.  The Yankees held the lead for quite a while before hitting a seven-game losing streak in mid-June, but are currently in second place.  The Rays are running third, as the Orioles and Blue Jays haven’t fulfilled pre-season expectations, largely because of their starting pitching woes.  The Red Sox’s free-agent signing of pitcher Chris Sales was their best decision of the off-season, especially since David Price has missed most of the first-half of the season.  The Yankees have been riding the bats of rookie outfielder Aaron Judge and second-year catcher Gary Sanchez, while their starting pitching has over-performed; but it’s questionable whether they will hold up for the balance of the season and gain a wild-card berth.

In an even tighter race, the Indians currently lead the AL Central, but have yet to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.  Their pitching leads the American League in almost every important statistic.  The Twins, currently second in the division, have been the surprise team in the American League, holding the division lead for almost four weeks during mid-May to mid-June.  Yet it’s hard to explain why they have been in contention, since their run differential (runs scored vs. run allowed) is negative 54, as compared to the Indians positive 76.  The Royals had a fantastic June with a 17-9 record and are currently neck-and-neck in the run with the Twins for second place.

The Dodgers are one of the hottest teams in the National League at the moment, as they currently lead the West Division, ahead of the Arizona Diamondbacks.  The Dodgers’ rookie first baseman, Cody Bellinger, has been a huge spark on offense, and ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw has been the typical Kershaw of past years—still at the top of his game.  The D’backs’ Zach Greinke returned to his form from 2016 after a poor showing last year, while Paul Goldschmidt continues to make his case for being the best first baseman in the league.  Consequently, Arizona is making a strong case for one of the NL wild-card positions.  The Giants seem to have fallen off the map when their ace, Madison Bumgarner, went on the disabled list early in the season.

The Brewers are the biggest surprise team in baseball so far, leading the NL Central.  While they have been re-making their team the past couple of years with a slew of younger players, they weren’t expected to peak this year.  The past several years have seen the Cubs, Cardinals and Pirates battling it out for the division title, but they are struggling to stay above .500 this season.  If the Brewers happen to run out of gas during the second half, there will be a scramble among the four teams to claim the title.  Many people are not yet counting out Joe Maddon’s Cubs to make a rebound, especially if they make an acquisition for a top-flight pitcher at the trade deadline.

The Nationals don’t have much stiff competition this year in the NL East.  The highly-touted Mets’ pitching staff, which spring-boarded them to the playoffs the past two seasons, has faltered this season, largely due to injuries.  The Braves are currently in second place, although they won’t likely challenge the Nats during the second half.  The Nationals are winning despite not having an effective closer on the team.  It probably won’t seriously impact them until they get to the playoffs.

The wild card situation is where most of the suspense will be during the balance of the season.  It is shaping up for a crap-shoot, but at this point I would bet on the Yankees and Royals in the American League and the Cubs and Diamondbacks in the National League.

The odds for my prediction for an Indians-Cubs repeat in the World Series look pretty slim right now.  But, as they say, there are still a lot of games to be played.

Tebow Promotion Raises Possibility of September MLB Call-up

Tim Tebow was promoted last week from a Low-A to a High-A level in the New York Mets’ minor-league organization, raising the question of whether the prospective outfielder was really progressing in his unusual pro baseball career or if this was just another part of the Mets’ publicity campaign involving the former football star.

When it was announced last fall that Tebow would be signing a contract to play for the Mets, there was a lot of conjecture that this was just another gimmick by the former Heisman Trophy winner and ex-NFL quarter back to keep his name in the headlines, since he has been out of the football spotlight.  After all, the 29-year-old popular figure hadn’t played baseball competitively since high school.  If he had been any other amateur player at that age, with virtually no experience, he wouldn’t have been considered by a professional team to take up a roster spot.

However, because of his athleticism, work ethic, and prior success in football, the Mets decided to give Tebow a look in the Arizona Fall League last November, a league normally designated for Major League Baseball’s top prospects.  He struggled in his first professional stint, hitting only .194 in 19 games.  Many thought his weak performance would trigger the end of his pursuit of a baseball career.

Yet the Mets extended their interest in Tebow by inviting him to spring training earlier this year.  The gimmick speculation shifted to the Mets, who were being accused of taking advantage of Tebow’s novelty in baseball.  Tebow baseball jerseys became one of the most popular sellers in the sports memorabilia market.  During Mets spring training in Florida, where he gained his popularity during his outstanding college career at the University of Florida, Tebow developed a baseball following for the first time and consequently helped the Mets sell more seats for their exhibition games.

Tebow broke spring training camp to join the Columbia Fireflies in the Low-A South Atlantic League.  He continued to pack the grandstands at his games.  Not surprisingly though, he continued to struggle at the plate, hitting .220 with three home runs and 23 RBI in 64 games.  He had trouble hitting left-handed pitching and struck out in over 25 percent of his plate appearances.

Yet the Mets organization recently saw fit to give Tebow a promotion to St. Lucie in the High-A Florida State League.  Their rationale?  The Sporting News reported that Mets front office brass said the promotion was more than just about the numbers.  They said they saw improvements in some of the less obvious performance indicators such as the exit velocity of the ball coming off his bat.

Perhaps the reality is the Mets organization wants to continue to capitalize on Tebow’s popularity.  Are they really prepping Tebow for a call-up to the big-league Mets in September, when major-league clubs are allowed to expand their active roster?  Would this just be another gimmick to pack the seats at Citi Field and maybe deflect attention away from an under-performing Mets team?  That’s not out of the realm of possibility.

In any case, major-league teams are no strangers to using stunts to promote the game.

St. Louis Browns maverick owner Bill Veeck used 3-foot 7-inch midget Eddie Gaedel to take an official at-bat in a major-league game in 1951.  Gaedel, who wore uniform number “1/8”, drew a walk in his pinch-hit appearance against the Detroit Tigers.

In 1980 the Chicago White Sox allowed 54-year-old Minnie Minoso to take at-bats in their last two games of the season, as a tribute to his career as an all-star outfielder for the ChiSox in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Actor Billy Crystal and singer Garth Brooks, both huge baseball enthusiasts, were allowed to take at-bats during actual major-league spring training games.

If Tebow was to actually play for the Mets, he would join a small list of elite athletes to have appeared in two major-league sports.  A few of the more prominent ones include Dave DeBusschere, Deion Sanders, and Bo Jackson.  DeBusschere played baseball for the Chicago White Sox and the NBA Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks.  Sanders played baseball for the Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees, while also playing for the NFL Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys, and San Francisco 49ers.  Jackson played baseball for the Kansas City Royals and Chicago White Sox and the NFL Oakland Raiders.  Like Tebow, baseball was the secondary sport for these exceptional athletes, but they at least had the advantage of having played at the college level prior to their professional diamond pursuits.

Whether Tebow eventually plays in a major-league game or not, just the discussion about him has already drawn considerable attention to the sport.  Baseball is often criticized for not having enough nationally-known stars like Derek Jeter and David Ortiz.  Tebow will never come close to achieving their status in baseball; but he does have a lot of people talking about it and pulling for him, and that’s valuable publicity for the sport.

NBA star Michael Jordan tried professional baseball in 1994 as an interlude to his Hall of Fame basketball career.  Then age 31, Jordan hit a meager .202 for Double-A Birmingham in the White Sox organization and wound up ending his pursuit by returning to his former NBA Chicago Bulls teammates.

Despite his lack of bona fide prospect status, don’t be surprised if Tebow is promoted again to the Double-A level and then ultimately called up by the Mets for a “cup of coffee” in September.  After all, he already has more minor-league home runs than Jordan (4 compared to 3).  And then he’ll get his own Topps baseball card that will forever memorialize his brief baseball journey.

Family Ties Prominent Again in this Year's MLB Draft

In the MLB Draft in June each year, there are typically a number of drafted amateur players who have a relative in professional baseball.  38 players fit this criteria in 2017.  They represent the latest crop of relatives that are expected to infuse baseball rosters with players who have baseball in their blood lines.

The first occurrences of baseball brothers date back to the sport’s professional beginnings in the 1870s.  The first son of a former major-leaguer made his big-league debut in 1903.

Each year there are typically a number of drafted players with intriguing backgrounds that involve family relationships.  This year is no exception.  Here’s a review of some of the highlights of this year’s players with family ties in baseball.

Professional baseball is experiencing more and more players with multiple generations in their bloodlines.  In the long history of Major League Baseball, there have been only four occurrences of three-generation families.  Several grandsons of major-league ballplayers top the list of players drafted this year and thus offer new opportunities to expand the “three generation” club and possibly initiate a “four generation” list.

Jake Boone, the son of former major-leaguer Bret Boone, was drafted in the 38th round by the Washington Nationals.  If Jake were to eventually reach the major-leagues, he would represent the fourth generation of Boones to play in the big-leagues, the first time that will have ever occurred.  Bret was a three-time All-Star during his 14-year MLB career.  Jake’s grandfather, Bob, was a four-time All-Star during his 19 years, while Jake’s great-grandfather, Ray, made the All-Star team twice during his 13-year career.  Jake’s uncle, Aaron was an infielder in the majors from 1997 to 2009.

Trei Cruz was selected in the 35th round by the Houston Astros, his grandfather Jose Cruz’s old team.  Trei is a third-generation player, since his father, Jose Cruz Jr., was also a major-leaguer.  Trei’s two great-uncles, Tommy and Hector, were former major-leaguers, as well.

Justin Morhardt is the grandson of Moe Morhardt, a major leaguer with the Chicago Cubs in 1960 and 1961.  Justin’s father, Greg, played in the minors and is currently a scout in the Atlanta Braves organization.  Justin was drafted by Braves in the 22nd round.

Riley O’Brien is the grandson of Johnny O’Brien.  Johnny and his brother Eddie made history in the 1950s by becoming only one of nine sets of twin brother to ever play in the majors. They formed the double-play combo for the 1953 Pittsburgh Pirates.  A pitcher from the College of Idaho, Riley was the 8th round pick of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Buddy Kennedy is the grandson of Don Money, who played third base with the Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers from 1968 to 1993.  Buddy, also a third baseman, was drafted out of high school in the 5th round by the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Multiple-brother families in the game continue to flourish, as well.  The record for most major-league brothers are the Delahantys, who numbered five (Ed, Jim, Tom, Frank, and Joe) in the late 1880s and early 1900s.  Three Alou brothers (Felipe, Matty and Jesus) made history by playing in the same game for the San Francisco Giants in 1963.  Here are a few newly drafted brothers from last week’s draft.

Nick Valaika is the fourth brother in his family to be drafted by a major-league team.  Brothers Chris and Pat have previously reached the major-league level, while Matt played one season in the minors.  Nick was drafted out of UCLA in the 24th round by the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Kacy Clemens is the third brother in his family to be drafted.  Kacy, Koby and Kody are the sons of seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens.  Kacy most recently played for the University of Texas and was selected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 8th round.  Brother Koby played in the minors for eight seasons, while Kody (drafted in 2015) is currently at the University of Texas.

Cole Bellinger is the second son of Clay Bellinger to be drafted.  Cole’s brother, Cody, is currently a hard-hitting rookie with the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Cole was selected by the San Diego Padres in the 15th round.  Father Clay played on two World Series teams with the New York Yankees in 2000 and 2001.

Jordan Wren is the second son of Boston Red Sox executive Frank Wren to be drafted.  The outfielder was selected out of Georgia Southern University by the Red Sox in the 10th round.  Jordan’s brother, Kyle, is currently playing at the Triple-A level for the Milwaukee Brewers.

Other drafted players whose kin have very familiar names include the following.

Darren Baker, the son of Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker, was drafted out of high school by the Nationals in the 27th round.  Darren made the sports news headlines during the 2002 World Series when, as a batboy for his father’s San Francisco Giants team, he was swept up at home plate (as he was attempting to retrieve a bat) by Giants player J. T. Snow to avoid a collision at home plate with a Giants runner coming into score.

Peyton Glavine is the son of Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine, who played 22 years in the majors and won two Cy Young Awards.  Peyton was drafted out of high school by the Los Angeles Angels in the 37th round.  If he doesn’t sign, he will likely attend the University of Auburn next year where he had previously committed to play.

Joe Dunand, a shortstop from North Carolina State University, was drafted in the second round by the Miami Marlins.  He is the nephew of former major-leaguer Alex Rodriguez, who hit 696 career home runs and claimed three American League MVP Awards.

Every year there are usually a handful of noteworthy major-league draftees whose bloodlines don’t include a baseball background.

This year’s list includes outfielder Zach Jarrett.  If that last name sounds familiar, yes, he is from the NASCAR racing family of Jarretts.  Zach, the son of Ned and grandson of Dale, was the 28th round pick of the Baltimore Orioles.  However, Zach has some baseball in his bloodlines, too, since his other grandfather, Jasper Spears, played in the Dodgers organization from 1949 to 1959.

LSU shortstop Kramer Robertson is the son of Kim Mulkey, the highly successful women’s basketball coach at Baylor University.  Robertson was selected in the 4th round by the St. Louis Cardinals

Several current NFL players had relatives drafted by major-league teams this year.  Jake Cousins, 20th round pick of the Washington Nationals, is the cousin of Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins.  Colby Bortles, the 22nd round pick of the Detroit Tigers, is the brother of Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles.  Demetrius Sims, the 14th round pick of the Miami Marlins, is the brother of Chicago Bears tight end Dion Sims.

Riley Crean is the son of former Indiana University basketball coach Tom Crean.  Riley is also the nephew of Jim Harbaugh, the head football coach at the University of Michigan, and John Harbaugh, the head coach for the NFL Baltimore Ravens.  Riley was drafted out of high school by the Chicago White Sox in the 35th round.

A full list of the players from the 2017 MLB Draft with relatives in professional baseball can be viewed at the Baseball’s Relatives website .

These Dads Were Ballplayers, Too

It’s one thing for a dad to have his son make it to the major-leagues, but it’s even more special when the dad was also a former major-leaguer.  The number of big-league father-son combinations is pretty rare.  Less than 500, out of almost 19,000 major leaguers to have played since 1876, are a father or son.

When former major-leaguer Pete Rose was shopping around for a new team in the free agent marketplace, one of his considerations was that the team would allow his son to practically have everyday access to the team’s clubhouse.  Many major-league sons like Pete Jr. have their interests in baseball as youngsters fueled by hanging out with their dads in the clubhouse or shagging fly balls during batting practice before their dads’ games.  Consequently, the sons have a unique opportunity to rub shoulders with big-league players and to begin learning the ropes of what it takes to be a successful professional ballplayer. 

Ironically, the fathers probably didn’t get too many chances to see their sons develop their own skills while growing up on the playgrounds, since the dads were off playing in big-league cities across the country.  For example, Pete Rose said he attended fewer than ten of his son’s games during his childhood.  When Ken Griffey Jr. was playing in his first pro season in an instructional league, it was the first time in five years his major-league father had seen him play.

In honor of Father’s Day, below is a group of major league dads from the past, whose sons are currently playing in the big-leagues.  The dads are organized into a Fathers Fantasy Team.

1B -- Andy Van Slyke, father of Scott Van Slyke (Los Angeles Dodgers).  Andy was a three-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner during 1983 to 1995.  Most of his career was spent with the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates as an outfielder, but he occasionally played first base as well.

2B – Delino DeShields, father of Delino DeShields Jr. (Texas Rangers).  The elder DeShields was the first-round draft selection of the Montreal Expos in 1987.  Three years later he was runner-up for National League Rookie of the Year honors.  He then went on to 13-year career in which he batted .268.

SS – Ivan de Jesus, father of Ivan de Jesus Jr. (Milwaukee Brewers).  Ivan Sr. was a slick-fielding shortstop for the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies.  He was the shortstop on the 1983 Phillies World Series team whose infield included Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Mike Schmidt.

3B – Clay Bellinger, father of Cody Bellinger (Los Angeles Dodgers).  Clay appeared in the World Series in 2001 and 2002 with the New York Yankees, earning a championship ring in 2001.  Primarily a utility player, he played every position with the Yankees except pitcher and catcher in 2000.

OF -- Kevin Romine, father of Andrew Romine (Detroit Tigers) and Austin Romine (New York Yankees).  Kevin was a 2nd-round pick of the Boston Red Sox in 1982 and played with them during 1985 to 1991.  He had one post-season appearance with the Red Sox in 1988.

OF – Eric Young, father of Eric Young Jr. (Los Angeles Angels).  Eric Sr. played fifteen seasons in the big-leagues with seven different teams as a second baseman and outfielder.  During his career he compiled a .283 batting average and 465 stolen bases, currently 48th on the all-time stolen base list.  He was an All-Star in 1996 with Colorado as a second baseman.

OF – Raul R. Mondesi, father of Raul A. Mondesi (Kansas City Royals).  The elder Mondesi was National League Rookie of the Year in 1994 with the Los Angeles Dodgers and wound up playing seven seasons with them, including two post-seasons appearances.  He played a total of 13 seasons in the majors, compiling 271 home runs.

C – Sal Butera, father of Drew Butera (Kansas City Royals).  Sal was a backup catcher for five different major-league clubs during 1980 to 1988.  He was a member of the 1987 World Series champion Minnesota Twins.

SP – Tom Gordon, father of Dee Gordon (Miami Marlins).  Nicknamed “Flash,” Tom first started his pro career as a starting pitcher, but later switched to the bullpen.  He was runner-up in the voting for the American League Rookie of the Year in 1989 while with the Kansas City Royals.  He won 97 games as a starter during his first 10 seasons.  He led the led the American League in saves in 1998 with the Boston Red Sox.  Altogether he recorded 158 career saves.  He was a three-time All-Star selection.

RP – Steve Bedrosian, father of Cam Bedrosian (Los Angeles Angels).  Steve compiled a 76-79 record and 184 saves over 14 seasons during 1981 to 1985.  He was the National League’s Cy Young Award winner in 1987 with the Philadelphia Phillies, a relatively uncommon feat for a relief pitcher.  He was a member of the 1991 World Series champion Minnesota Twins.

A few other current major-leaguers with fathers who also played at the major-league level include Steve Lombardozzi (Marlins), Lance McCullers Jr. (Astros), Jason Grilli (Blue Jays), and Travis Shaw (Brewers).

Scooter Gennett an Unlikely Player to Hit Four Homers in a Game

Major League Baseball players named “Scooter” don’t have a reputation for being home run hitters.  Yet Scooter Gennett accomplished one of the most rare single-game performances that can occur in baseball--more infrequent than a perfect game (23 in history) and hitting for the cycle (307 in history).  On June 6, the 5-foot-10 outfielder hit four home runs in a game for the Cincinnati Reds against the St. Louis Cardinals, becoming only the 17th player to do so in the sport’s 142 year history.  The last player to accomplish this feat was Texas Ranger Josh Hamilton in 2012.

With his historic outing, Gennett has set himself apart from the other two “Scooters” who have appeared in the big leagues.  Hall of Famer Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto hit only 38 career home runs in 13 seasons and 1,661 games, while Eddie “Scooter” Tucker hit only one dinger in a three-year career, although he appeared in only 51 games.

On the other hand, Gennett is definitely not in the same league as several of his “4-homer” club companions when it comes to power production.  Players such as Lou Gehrig, Willie Mays, Mike Schmidt, Gil Hodges, Josh Hamilton, Joe Adcock, Matt Williams and Rocky Colavito are prominent sluggers on the list.  Gennett’s four homers last week gave him a season total of 7 home runs and a career total of 42 in a little over 500 games.  His career-high 14 home runs in 2016 was a bit of an aberration, since he averaged only seven per year prior to that.

Gennett produced a 5-for-5 day at the plate when he slammed his four home runs.  His first hit came on an RBI single in the 1st inning.  Then he hit a grand slam in the 3rd inning, a two-run home run in the 4th, a solo home run in the 6th, and another two-run shot in the 8th.  He generated a total of 10 RBI for the game, and his home runs came against three different Cardinals pitchers.  The Reds won the game, 13-1.

The 27-year-old Gennett was the 16th-round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers in 2009 and then made his major-league debut with the Brewers in 2013.  After four major-league seasons with the Brewers, he was selected off waivers by the Reds in March 2017.  He has split time between second base and the outfield with the Reds this year.

Holliday Delivers Just What the Yankees Ordered

No, Matt Holliday isn’t delivering pizzas to the Yankees’ clubhouse.  At least not yet.  But he sure is making the Yankees’ front office look good by getting off to a fantastic start this season, after being acquired as a free agent over the winter.

Over the last couple of years, the Yankees have engineered a make-over of its team, shedding big-dollar contracts of older veterans and infusing the roster with some of its upstarts from their farm system.  In fact, they’ve now become known as the “Baby Bombers” for the offensive breakout by several of the young players.

Among the players displaced from the team over the winter were Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann, long-time, well-respected veterans of the big-leagues, who were able to provide the newcomers with leadership required in the clubhouse.  Beltran and McCann became expendable because the Yankees didn’t want to extend the contracts of the aging players at the salaries they would command.

Recognizing the leadership void this would create in the clubhouse, Yankee GM Brian Cashman pursued Holliday, whom the St. Louis Cardinals released to free agency for the same economic reasons.

Just a few years ago, Holliday had been a premier outfielder, an all-star selection in seven seasons.  However, the Yankees took somewhat of a gamble on the 37-year-old because he had been plagued with injuries over the previous two seasons with St. Louis and saw a drop in offensive production.  An outfielder practically all of his career, his skills were diminishing there, too.  Yet Cashman signed him to a one-year deal for $13M, which would limit the Yankees’ commitment and liability if he didn’t work out.

Well, Holliday hasn’t disappointed the Yankee brass or their fans.  Used primarily as the team’s designated hitter, he’s responded better than expected with 12 home runs, 35 RBI, and a .363 on-base percentage as of June 3. His power numbers on the team rank only behind Aaron Judge, one of those new rookie upstarts with the Yankees.  Holliday has provided some flexibility in the Yankees’ lineup by also serving as an occasional first-baseman.  If needed, he could also be pressed into service in the outfield, as well.

During the off-season the list of high-profile free agents didn’t include Holliday.  Edwin Encarnacion, Mark Trumbo, and Jose Bautista got most the attention and the big bucks.  But Holliday has been as productive this season as any of those guys.

His impact on the Yankees has been immense.  They are currently 10 games above .500.  They’ve been in first-place of the American League East Division for over half of the season.  They’ve been one of the biggest surprises of the year in Major League Baseball so far, and Holliday has been a significant contributor to that, along with Judge and the better-than-expected pitching staff.

Holliday’s presence in the clubhouse has been equally noticeable as it has been on the field.  The veteran’s locker was purposefully located next to Judge’s who consults with him every day about the hitting plan for the day’s opposing pitcher.  They discuss mechanics, approach, and philosophy.  Holliday has been a resource for the other young hitters, as well.  Yankee manager Joe Girardi practically has another coach on the team in Holliday.

 After 7 ½ seasons with the Cardinals, they had decided after last season it was time to move on without Holliday.  But now with the Yankees he’s an integral part of the team.  He’s demonstrating the type of clutch competitor he’s been in the past, and the rest of the team is feeding off that.

If the Yankees continue their winning ways and indeed make the post-season playoffs, Holliday will be a good guy to have around.  He’s no stranger to the post-season, having played in three different World Series—one with Colorado Rockies and two the Cardinals, claiming one World Series ring.  He has 13 home runs and 37 RBI in seven years of post-season competition.

Holliday seems to have re-energized his career and in turn energized the Yankees by his addition to the team.  At his age, who knows how long it will last.  But for now, he’ll be the one ordering the pizzas, not delivering them.

LSU Provides Its Share of Active Major Leaguers

LSU is largely known for the large number of football players it provides to the National Football League.  But they are no slouch in also sending its baseball players to Major League Baseball.  LSU has one of the premier baseball programs in the nation, a tradition that dates back to the mid-1980s.  In 2016 three more baseball alumni from LSU made their major-league debuts.  They are among eleven former Tigers who are currently active in the majors this season and part of a group of 85 former Tigers who have donned major-league uniforms dating back to the early 1900s.  Among SEC schools, LSU has the most number of active major leaguers so far this season.

Below is a brief overview of the players making their debuts in 2016.

Alex Bregman made the biggest splash among last year’s Tiger rookies, when he was called up to the Houston Astros in late July, after less than year of minor-league experience.  Despite a rough start in his first 10 games, he went on to demonstrate why he was the second overall pick in the 2015 Major League Draft.  He had only five hitless games during his last 39 games of the season, while accumulating 8 home runs and 34 RBI.  Bregman was a member of Team USA in the recent 2017 World Baseball Classic.

Ryan Schimpf had a credible first season in 2016 as well. He smacked 20 home runs (3rd most on the team) and 51 RBI in 89 games for the San Diego Padres.  The infielder had been the fifth-round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2009 and was signed as a free agent by the Padres following the 2015 season. 13 of his 24 hits so far in 2017 have been home runs, and he leads the Padres in that offensive category.

JaCoby Jones was a late-season call-up of the Detroit Tigers in 2016, getting two hits in his debut game.  A former infielder with LSU, he appeared in 13 games, with seven of them in starts in the outfield.   Jones was the third-round selection of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2013 and was traded to the Tigers in mid-season 2015.  Jones began the 2017 season as the Tigers’ starting centerfielder.

Other former LSU players in the majors in 2016, who are still active this year, include the following.

DJ LaMahieu turned in the best performance of all former Tigers in 2016 by leading the National League in batting average.  In his sixth major-league season, LaMahieu bested his 2015 average by 47 points to .348 in 2016.  He was second in the league with a .416 On-Base Percentage.  He had previously been an All-Star and Gold Glove Award winner at second base.

Will Harris was one of the top middle relievers in the majors in 2016.   Pitching with the Houston Astros, he posted a 2.25 ERA and 1.047 WHIP in 66 games.  The ninth-round pick of the Colorado Rockies in the 2006 MLB Draft, Harris was selected to the American League All-Star team in 2016.

Aaron Nola was the first-round pick of the Philadelphia Phillies in 2014 and moved into their starting rotation by July 2015.  The pitcher’s 2016 season was cut short at the end of July when he suffered an elbow injury.  He finished the season with a 6-9 record and 4.78 ERA.  He averaged almost 10 strikeouts per nine innings.  Nola was back in the rotation at the start of the 2017 season.

Kevin Gausman pitched in his fourth major-league season in 2016 with the Baltimore Orioles.  The right-handed pitcher was the first-round draft selection of the Orioles and fourth overall pick in 2012, he finished the season with a 9-12 record and 3.61 ERA.  He was the Orioles’ Opening Day starter in 2017.

Mikie Mahtook played in his second major-league season last year with the Tampa Bay Rays, who selected him in the first-round of the 2011 MLB Draft.  In 65 games for the Rays he batted .195 with 3 home runs and 11 RBI.  Mahtook was traded to the Detroit Tigers during the winter, where he joins fellow Tiger Jacoby Jones in the outfield.

Nick Goody appeared in his second major-league season last year with the New York Yankees as a relief pitcher.  He had been selected by the Yankees in the sixth-round of the 2012 MLB Draft.  The right-hander was traded to the Cleveland Indians during the off-season and is currently on the Indians roster.

Aaron Hill is the dean of the active Tiger baseball alumni.  He is in his 13th major-league season, having made his debut in 2005.  He is currently on the San Francisco Giants roster as a utility infielder. The former two-time Silver Slugger Award winner has played the majority of his career with Toronto and Arizona.  Hill was the first-round pick (13th overall) of the Blue Jays in the 2003 MLB Draft.

Jason Vargas is another long-time major leaguer with the Kansas City Royals.  The 12-year veteran missed most of the 2015 and 2016 seasons due to injury, but appears to have rebounded this year with a 6-3 record and 2.39 ERA.  Vargas was the second-round pick of the Florida Marlins in 2003.

Matt Clark and Louis Coleman are former Tigers who have prior major-league experience, but are currently playing in the in the minors.

Who are the most likely former LSU players to next join the ranks of the big leagues?  Below are three candidates.

Austin Nola, Aaron’s older brother, played second base at Triple-A New Orleans in 2016.  However, he has converted to the catcher position over the winter and is working his way back up the ranks with Double-A Jacksonville in the Miami Marlins organization.  Nola was a 2011 draftee of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Ryan Eades is currently playing for Double-A Chattanooga in the Minnesota Twins organization.  The right-handed pitcher was the second-round pick of the Twins in 2013.

Joe Broussard is currently pitching for Triple-A Oklahoma City in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.  The right-handed relief pitcher was the 15th-round pick of the Dodgers in 2014.

At Yankee Stadium They're Chanting "Here Comes the Judge"

The New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge has been stirring up a lot of interest in the Bronx with his home-run-hitting prowess and his role in the team’s resurgence to division leadership in the American League East.  So far, he’s slammed 14 home runs, some of them mammoth shots.

When the 6-foot-7, 280-pound Judge lumbers to the plate, Yankee Stadium fans can be heard chanting, “Here comes the judge,” as a take-off of a comical song recorded in 1968 by Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham, one of the first rappers in the music industry.  The song was actually a parody of the justice system, but there is nothing to be made fun of regarding the performance of the Yankee slugger.

Judge is one of the relatively new Baby Bombers that have arrived in Yankee Stadium over the past few seasons.  These kids are making baseball fans recall Yankee history when the team was referred to as the “Bronx Bombers” for their prodigious power-hitting that yielded numerous World Series titles.  In reality, it’s way too early for this current version of the Yankees to be compared to the teams that had Ruth, Gehrig, Meusel, Combs, Dickey, Koenig, and Lazzeri.  But it’s been exciting for Yankee fans to envision the possibilities of a return to prominence.

Judge is joined by the Yankees’ rookie sensation of last season, catcher Gary Sanchez, and young first baseman Greg Bird, who is currently on the disabled list.  Tyler Austin is another up-and-coming Yankee stud, although he has recently had a difficult time finding a regular outfield spot, since veterans Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury are healthy and playing quite well at the moment.

Monstrous home runs have become Judge’s trademark.  He hit a 460-foot home run at Yankee Stadium in April.  During a recent batting practice session, he shattered a TV monitor in dead centerfield, estimated to be 480 feet away.  He became the youngest player in history to hit 13 home runs in his first 26 games of the season.  Judge was selected the American League’s Rookie of the Month for April.

Last year Judge showed a sampling of his power during his late-season call-up, but his strikeout rate (40%) was a concern.  This year he appears to have somewhat addressed the strikeout problem, since his whiffs have dropped to 25% of his plate appearances.

Judge wears uniform number 99, another symbol of his large presence on the roster.  Yankee tradition used to be that Yankee players with single-digit numbers were among the most revered in the team’s history, e. g., Martin—1, Jeter—2, Ruth—3, Gehrig—4, DiMaggio—5, Mantle—7, Berra—8, and Maris—9.  Judge just may be starting a new Yankee trend that the higher uniform numbers will now carry significance.

Judge’s physical size is reminiscent of outsized players from yesteryear, such as Frank Howard (6-foot-7, 255 pounds) and Dave Kingman (6-foot-6, 210 pounds), who were also well-known for their moon shots.  Howard amassed 382 career home runs, while “Kong” Kingman put up 442.  Judge would do well to wind up in their company at the end of his career.

Largely due to Judge’s performance, viewership of Yankee telecasts on the YES Network in New York is the highest since Derek Jeter’s last game as a Yankee in 2014.  In addition to following the resurgence of a winning Yankee team, fans are tuning in to see the next big home run by Judge.  Judge Judy is no longer the most popular judge on TV in New York City.

Billy Hamilton Has Skill That is Fading Away

Cincinnati Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton is currently the run-away leader in stolen bases in the National League with 19.  He is on a pace to accumulate 80 for the season.  He has finished in second place in the National League in this offensive category for the past three seasons.  However, while he has been a valuable asset for the Reds with his legs, his impressive capability has largely become a de-valued skill by many major-league clubs because of the emphasis on power hitting.

A look at the number of stolen bases over the past four decades shows a general decline in the use of the stolen base as an offensive tool.  In 1980 the average number of stolen bases by National League teams was 153.  The number dropped slightly to 149 per team in 1990.  Then in 2000 there was nearly a 33% decrease, to 102 stolen bases per team.  2010 saw another 10% drop.  In 2016 the average stolen bases by National League teams was 93.  The Baltimore Orioles, with 19, had the least of all major-league teams during the entire 2016 season.

Hamilton caught the attention of the baseball world when he stole 109 bases in his third pro season in 2011.  Then in the next season his tally jumped to 165, the most ever in organized baseball.  To put these two seasons into context, the only major-leaguers to attain the 100+ stolen base club were Maury Wills (104 in 1962), Lou Brock (118 in 1974), Rickey Henderson (130 in 1982, his third such season with 100 or more), and Vince Coleman, who accumulated 100+ stolen bases in three seasons during 1985-1987.

To illustrate the emphasis one major-league team put on the running game in the past, the Oakland A’s once had a player, Herb Washington, whose sole role on the team was as a pinch-runner.  A former world-class sprinter from Michigan State, he was hired by A’s maverick owner Charlie Finley to utilize his speed to strictly steal bases and score runs.  He appeared in 92 games in 1974, but never had a plate appearance.  He did wind up with 29 steals for the season, although he was caught stealing in one-third of his total attempts. He managed to score in nearly one-third of his games played.

Most major-league teams have forsaken the strategy of playing “small ball,” by scratching out a few runs with singles, advancing runners with bunts and sacrifice hits, and stealing bases.  Major-league clubs almost exclusively rely in the “long ball” for their offensive approach.  Now, each major-league team has only one or two players who can steal any substantial number of bases.  Besides the Reds’ Hamilton, Dee Gordon, Jonathan Villar, Jose Altuve, and Starling Marte are a few other prodigious base-stealers in today’s game.

However, Cincinnati Reds manager Bryan Price certainly recognizes the dangerous threat to opposing teams he has in Hamilton, "It's an impact on our offense when he's on base, no doubt about it. He's a distraction to the pitcher -- not just at first base, but at second base as well. It opens up holes for our offense due to the need to keep the middle infielders close to the bag at second base to keep him close."

While Hamilton’s best weapon is currently his speed on the bases and as an outfielder, he’s potentially at risk of maintaining his roster spot down the road when the 26-year-old’s legs begin to wear.  He’s not a high-batting average player, with a career average of .248, and his career on-base percentage is only .299.  Yet he makes the most of the opportunities when he does get on base, and right now he is helping the Cincinnati Reds to a surprising second place in the National League Central standings.

Reflections on the First Month of the Baseball Season

With the first month of the Major League Baseball season in the record books, it’s a good time to take an initial accounting of which players and teams are getting the headlines so far.

How often do we see clubs exceed pre-season expectations coming out of the gate, providing some early surprises in the division races?  Then there are the teams and players who fail to measure up to their projections and you wonder if it’s just a bad stretch they are going through, or if there is something more systemic behind their shortfall.  There’s the old adage, “you can’t win a pennant in April, but you can sure lose one then.”  The teams that are severely lumping already are hoping that saying doesn’t apply to them.

Then you have players who are burst onto the big-league scene for the first time, catching all the baseball analysts and fans by surprise.  And then there are the major disappointments of the established players who just can’t seem to get untracked.

The big question is whether the initial results of the first few weeks will be indicative of how the rest of their seasons will go.

Here’s a look at some of the headliners – good and bad – from the first month.

Eric Thames of the Milwaukee Brewers is the Trevor Story of the 2016 season.  Recall that Story got an unsuspecting big break to start the season with Colorado last year and came out swinging, hitting 7 home runs during the first 6 games.  Indeed, he became the “story” of the young season.  Now Thames is making news for his breakout performance this year.  Having most recently played professionally in Korea prior to this season, he literally came out of nowhere to hit 11 home runs in the first 20 games of the season, including 8 against the Cincinnati Reds.

Unlike Thames, outfielder Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees was well-publicized as one of the up-and-coming stars of the team being labeled the “Baby Bombers.”  However, few expected he would break into the “star” category this quickly.  In his brief debut last year, he struck out in over 40% of his plate appearances.  He has cut down on the whiffs this season and managed to slug 10 home runs during April.  At six-feet-seven and 280 pounds, he is reminiscent of a slugger from yesteryear, Frank Howard.

One player who won’t be slugging anything for the first 80 games is Starling Marte.  The Pittsburgh Pirates’ star was suspended by MLB for testing positive for PED use.  This situation reminds us that while baseball has cleaned up its act with respect to performance enhancing drugs, there are still a few bad actors trying to beat the system.

There are a number of other players missing games, too, but not because of PEDs.  It seems like there’s a rising epidemic among major-league pitchers—an epidemic of arm injuries.  The majors have become dominated by hard throwers, but they don’t seem to stay healthy very long.  Several teams started the season without their top-of-the-rotation pitchers, including David Price (Red Sox), Sonny Gray (A‘s); and Alex Reyes (Cardinals), and in-season injuries have already occurred to top-flight starters Shelby Miller (D’backs), Noah Syndergaard (Mets), Felix Hernandez (Mariners), and Madison Bumgarner (Giants).  After his near-perfect season last year, Orioles reliever Zach Britton has been on the DL twice already.  Major League managers are really having to earn their keep with some clever juggling their pitching staffs.

Dallas Keuchel of the Houston Astros is one hurler that’s not having any arm trouble this year.  He’s already won five games so far for the first-place Astros.  After having an off year last season, he’s proving his Cy Young Award season of 2015 was no fluke, and he’s one of the major reasons the Astros have gotten off to a record start for the franchise.

The Orioles have been somewhat of an enigma with their near-first place standing in the American League East.  Their starting rotation hasn’t been very impressive and they’ve been without closer Zach Britton for a good part of the early season, but yet they are winning games despite having a minor differential (runs scored vs. runs allowed) as a team.

Yankees starting pitching staff had been somewhat suspect going into the season, but has turned out to be pleasantly surprising, at least for Yankee fans.  The Yankees are putting up big offensive numbers and that’s been without the benefit of their new-found hitting star from last year, Gary Sanchez, who has been on the disabled list for most of the season.

In the National League, Arizona and Colorado have been surprise teams, with both of them currently ahead of Los Angeles and San Francisco, who were pre-season favorites in the West Division.  The big question for these newfound leaders is whether they can maintain their current pace and keep the Dodgers and Giants at bay.

There have been several outstanding hitting performances so far this season.  Carlos Gomez (Rangers), Trea Turner (Nationals), and Wil Myers (Padres) have each hit for the cycle, while Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon went 6-for-6 and banged out 10 RBI in a game.

On the pitching side, the Twins’ Ervin Santana turned in a gem with a complete-game one-hitter against the White Sox.  Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale has recorded six consecutive games with double-digit strikeouts.

Toronto may be one of these teams who may have lost the pennant in April.  Their starting pitching staff was touted as one of the best in the league going into the season, but they are currently struggling.  And their highly-touted offense from last year has fizzled so far, too.  They are digging themselves a deep hole by already being 10 games out of first place in a very competitive division.  Is it too early for them to say, “wait ‘til next year?”

The Chicago Cubs are currently tied for first place in their division with a surprising Cincinnati Reds team.  However, all of the teams in that division are currently playing around .500, with the last place Pittsburgh Pirates only two games out of first place.  It will be interesting to see if the Cubs can separate themselves from the rest of the pack again as they did for most of last year.  However, if the Cubs are still battling the Reds for first-place near the end of the season, it will have been an unusually bad year for the Central Division.

 

Pete Thomassie Once Drew Comparison to Fellow West Banker Mel Ott

Former Gretna, Louisiana, resident Pete Thomassie’s baseball career in the early 1940s was on a soaring trajectory such that he acquired the label “Mel Ott of the Southern Association” by The Sporting News. It was an especially flattering comparison since Ott, a native of Gretna, had a Hall of Fame career as one of the all-time great major-league players.

Not only did they share West Bank roots, but Thomassie had a similar diminutive size (5’ 7” and 145 pounds) as Ott (5’ 9” and 170 pounds), and they both batted from the left side. Thomassie could hit, too, as he led the Southern Association in batting average for the better part of the 1945 season and posted four other seasons with batting averages of .300 or better.

However, Thomassie’s career development ultimately hit a brick wall after a near-major-league opportunity, and he never realized the full potential he exhibited in his first several professional seasons.  He played parts of 13 seasons in the minors from 1939 to 1953, never reaching the major-league level.

Pershing “Pete” Thomassie was born in 1921 in Waggaman, Louisiana, a small town on the west bank of the Mississippi River in the New Orleans metropolitan area.  He attended Marrero High School, where he was named to the 1938 Class B All-Prep baseball team selected by The Times-Picayune New Orleans States newspaper.  He attracted the attention of Claude Dietrich, a local scout for the minor-league Atlanta Crackers, and Thomassie inked a contract with them in 1938, along with several other high school and American Legion players from the area.  New Orleans was in its heyday for professional baseball then. A Times-Picayune article in April 1939 reported that Thomassie was among approximately 100 players from New Orleans in professional baseball that year.

In 1939, Thomassie was assigned to play with Waycross of the Class D Georgia-Florida League, which had a working agreement with Atlanta. He immediately excelled as a hitter in his two seasons with Waycross, hitting .315 and .339.  He was also considered one of the fastest players in the minors, stealing 33 and 34 bases, respectively, in his first two seasons.  Acquiring the nicknames of “Little General” and “Pocket Battleship,” the speedy outfielder was voted the most valuable player of the league in 1940.  Noted for his colorful nature, the fans in Waycross bought him a $100 watch in recognition of his honor.

New Orleans played baseball year-round back in those days. Semi-pro leagues were prevalent, where professional players, including major-leaguers, would continue to play after their regular seasons ended in September.  At age 21, Thomassie was playing alongside some of New Orleans’ best players: Howie Pollet, Al Jurisich, Al Flair, and Charlie Gilbert. The Times-Picayune reported a charity benefit game on October 4, 1940, in which Thomassie even played in the same outfield with legendary Ott.

His play in 1940 earned him an opportunity to play the next season for Atlanta in the Southern Association, where he hit .299 in 44 games.  However, he was sent to Class B Savannah for more seasoning, where he batted .336 in 86 games.

Thomassie again signed a contract with Atlanta, but not before he had sent back three earlier proposed contracts unsigned.  The Associated Press reported the fourth contract sent by special delivery to Atlanta contained assurances he “would do his best to be a worthwhile member of the Crackers.”

By 1942, many pro baseball players began entering the military service during World War II. Atlanta’s loss of players to the armed forces allowed Thomassie to claim an outfield spot at the start the season.  However, on June 20, Atlanta traded Thomassie to the Memphis Chicks for Marshall Mauldin.

Thomassie was inducted into the Army in February 1943 and was sent to Camp Wolters in Texas, where he was able to continue to play ball on the service team called the “Doughboys.”. He was the only pro outfielder on the team.  While playing against former major-league pitchers in the service, Thomassie learned to hit with more power, despite his small size.  He received a medical discharge at Fort McPherson, Georgia, on December 1, 1944.

Returning to Memphis for the 1945 season, Thomassie replaced Pete Gray, the one-armed centerfielder who had amazed the baseball world during the 1944 season with his .333 batting average. An outfield spot opened up when Gray was sold to the St. Louis Browns for the 1945 season and became the first amputee to play in the major-leagues.

Thomassie was a unanimous selection to the Southern Association all-star team. Leading the league in hitting at the time, a feature article in The Sporting News labeled Thomassie the “Mel Ott of the Southern Association,” calling him “a bundle of dynamite that looks small on the surface but has tremendous explosive power.” During May of the 1945 season, he hit safely in twelve consecutive at-bats, breaking the previous Southern Association record of ten hits by Oris Hockett. However, he left the Memphis team unexpectedly before the season ended.  News accounts of his leaving didn’t explain the reason, but he returned to New Orleans and played in a local semi-pro league that fall. He had compiled a career-high .365 average with Memphis, although Gil Coan of Chattanooga ultimately surpassed him for the batting title.

The Sporting News reported in November 1945 that Thomassie was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the minor-league draft, one of only ten players selected by major-league clubs. He reached an agreement with the White Sox on February 22, 1946.

Thomassie went to spring camp in 1946 with the big-league White Sox. According to The Sporting News, however, his training was interrupted by his need to accompany his wife during their 16-month-old daughter’s illness. By then, most major-league players had returned from military service and secured their old jobs with major-league teams. Consequently, he started the season with the Milwaukee Brewers, the Triple-A affiliate of the White Sox. That would be the closest Thomassie would ever get to appearing in the major-leagues, since he was optioned to Nashville in May after playing only 13 games with Milwaukee.

With Nashville, he batted .283 for the season, including a career-high ten home runs. On June 15, he went 5-for-5 in a game that was part of a string of eight consecutive hits in as many plate appearances. On July 8, he hit the first of three consecutive home runs on three consecutive pitches against Little Rock pitcher Bob Raney.  Cy Block and Bill Manning hit the other two home runs.

The Milwaukee Brewers sold Thomassie to the Little Rock Travelers before the 1947 season, but he never appeared in a game for them. He wound up with Class D Houma of the Evangeline League, where he hit .288 in 61 games.

For the next three seasons, Thomassie played sparingly (never a full season) in the low minors, while continuing to compete in New Orleans’ local semi-pro leagues and the annual charity baseball events.

Thomassie appeared to have a resurgence in 1951 when he played a full season with the Thibodaux Giants of the Class C Evangeline League. The 30-year-old hit .351, as the Giants finished in first-place during the regular season. At one point during the season, he hadn’t struck out during a streak of 238 official at-bats.

In the minor-league draft following the 1951 season, Thomassie was selected from Thibodaux by the St. Petersburg Saints of the Florida International League, but he appeared in only 22 games for the Class B team. His 1952 season with the Lafayette Bulls of the Evangeline League was his last professional season.

As late as 1966, Thomassie was still playing baseball in local semi-pro leagues, softball leagues, and old-timers’ games.

Nolan Vicknair, a former West Bank baseball player whose career partially overlapped Thomassie’s, recalls about him, “Pete was a natural athlete, but he rarely took conditioning seriously.” Vicknair, currently 92 years old and a former minor-league player himself, remembers that Thomassie exhibited a relaxed attitude about the game, which ultimately contributed to his professional career being stymied.

In a 1995 article of The Time-Picayune about Thomassie, Louisiana’s official baseball historian Arthur Schott noted about Thomassie, “He was an excellent fielder and a good ball player. He had a good fielding arm and was good at throwing men out at bases.” Vicknair confirms that assessment saying, “Pete could make leaping catches of deep fly balls near the outfield fence, similar to what we see a lot on television nowadays.”

Thomassie’s professional career never actually approached Mel Ott’s Hall of Fame career, but he is remembered by old-timers, such as Vicknair, as one of the best ballplayers ever from the West Bank. Thomassie was elected to the New Orleans Diamond Club Hall of Fame in 1976. He died on September 17, 1979.

UNO's Baseball Legacy Includes Players-Turned-Managers and Coaches

The University of New Orleans has supplied it share of Major League Baseball players.  Yet what may not be as well-known is the school has also been a good source of professional and college baseball managers and coaches, many of them with ties to its long-time head coach, Ron Maestri.

Randy Bush, Roger Erickson, Wally Whitehurst, Ted Wood, Brian Traxler, Joe Slusarski, Jim Bullinger, and most recently Johnny Giavotella are among the UNO baseball alums who reached “The Show” after honing their skills at the Lakefront university. The school has a rich history of baseball which began in 1970 under the leadership of Maestri and includes a College World Series appearance in 1984.

There’s also a fraternity of former UNO players who have extended their careers as field generals and coaches, including jobs at the college, minor-league, and major-league levels.

When Brian Snitker was named the interim manager of the Atlanta Braves in May 2016, he became the second former UNO player to become a major-league manager, following Mike Quade.  Snitker was named the full-time manager of the Braves in October 2016.

Snitker had previously held several major-league roles with the Braves, including bullpen coach and base coach.  He has been in the Braves organization as a player, coach, and manager since 1977.  He played for UNO in 1976 and 1977.

Quade became interim manager of the Chicago Cubs in August 2010 following Lou Piniella’s sudden retirement.  He was named the permanent manager for the 2011 season, but was let go after only one full season when Theo Epstein came over from Boston as the Cubs president.

After playing for UNO from 1976 to 1979, Quade played in the minors from 1979 to 1983 for the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.  He then served as a minor league coach and manager before being promoted to the Oakland A’s major-league coaching staff in 2000.  He was a base coach for the Cubs from 2007 until the time he was named Cubs’ interim manager.  Quade is currently the manager of the Triple-A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins.

A former Privateers infielder from 1987-1988, Rouglas Odor is currently the hitting coach for the Triple-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians.  He has previous experience as a manager in the Indians’ organization.  A native of Venezuela, Odor played in the minors for the Indians and Milwaukee Brewers organizations from 1988 to 1995.  His nephew, Rougned Odor, is currently the outstanding second baseman for the big-league Indians.

Eric Rasmussen was a pitching standout for UNO in 1973, when he won 11 games and posted a 0.90 ERA.  He went on to pitch in the majors from 1975 to 1983 for the St. Louis Cardinals, San Diego Padres, and Kansas City Royals.  He began his career as pitching coach in 1988 in the Cleveland Indians organization and has been in the Minnesota Twins organization since 1991.  He is currently the minor-league pitching coordinator in the Twins organization.

J. P. Martinez is currently the pitching coach for Class A Cedar Rapids in the Twins organization, where he has been a minor-league coach since 2014.  He was the ninth-round draft choice of Twins in 2004 and played in the minors from 2004 to 2008.  Martinez pitched for UNO in 2003 and 2004, after prepping at Newman High School in New Orleans.

While not currently active in professional baseball, there have been other former minor-league coaches who played their college careers for UNO.

Roger Erickson pitched for UNO in 1976 and 1977 and then was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the third round of the 1977 MLB Draft.  His best major-league season occurred in his rookie year in 1978 with the Twins, when he posted a 14-11 record that included 14 complete games and 121 strikeouts.  His major-league career ended in 1983 with the New York Yankees.  Erickson served as a coach for Springfield, IL in the St. Louis Cardinals organization in 1990 and 1991.

Joe Slusarski posted a 26-7 record for UNO in 1987 and 1988 as they advanced to the NCAA Regionals in both seasons.  He was drafted by the Oakland A’s in the second round of the 1988 MLB Draft and then played in seven major-league seasons ending in 2001.  He served as pitching coach for UNO in 2002, followed by minor-league coaching stints in 2003-2006 for the Houston Astros organization.

Wally Whitehurst pitched for UNO from 1983 to 1985 when he won 37 games, most in team history.  He was the third-round selection of the Oakland A’s in 1985 and played in seven major-league seasons for the New York Mets, San Diego Padres, and New York Yankees.  He spent the 1998-2001 seasons as pitching coach for the Privateers, and then served as minor-league pitching coach for several organizations from 2004 to 2011.

Several former UNO players have also excelled at the college level as head coaches.

A former UNO outfielder in 1979, Randy Bush was UNO’s head coach from 2000 to 2005.  His team had a NCAA tournament appearance in 2000.  Bush was the second-round draft pick of the Minnesota Twins, where he helped them win two World Series championships in 1987 and 1991.  Overall, he played 12 seasons in the majors.  Bush was also a major-league scout for the Chicago Cubs and is currently Assistant GM with them.

Paul Maineri has been the head coach for LSU since 2007, where his teams have won over 650 games, including a College World Series title in 2009.  Before that, he was head baseball coach at Notre Dame, Air Force, and St. Thomas University.  Maineri played for UNO from 1978 to 1979, when the team won two Sun Belt Conference titles.

Tim Jamieson was a catcher for UNO from 1978 to 1981, before becoming an assistant coach under Maestri.  His coaching career then led him to the University of Missouri, first as an assistant and currently as the head coach in his 23rd season.

While playing shortstop for UNO, Augie Schmidt was the 1982 recipient of the Golden Spikes Award, which recognizes the nation’s top amateur player.  He was the MLB Draft’s overall Number 2 selection of the Toronto Blue Jays in 1982 and played minor-league ball from 1982 to 1986.  He has been the head coach at Carthage College in Wisconsin since 1988, where his teams have won over 860 games for a .689 winning percentage.

There’s an exciting resurgence of the UNO baseball program going on right now.  As part of that, the university can draw on its legacy of past successful teams, as well as its former players who have made significant impacts in the sport beyond their playing days.

Times Have Really Changed for Baseball's Salaries

In 1930 Babe Ruth was demanding a yearly salary of $80,000 from the New York Yankees, by far the highest ever in Major League Baseball at the time.  When a reporter objected that Ruth’s demand was more than that of U. S. President Herbert Hoover’s ($75,000), Ruth replied, “I know, but I had a better year than Hoover.”

Ruth’s salary seemed exorbitant, but then ne never met Clayton Kershaw, current pitcher of the Los Angeles Dodgers who leads all major-league players with an annual salary of $33M.  As a contrast to the huge difference, Ruth’s $80K salary would be equivalent to $1.1M today.  Admittedly, the economics of the game are much different today where free agency and a market-based system have led to what seem to be outrageous salaries.

USA Today Sports Weekly recently published its report of Major League Baseball’s 2017 salaries for the active 25-man rosters of each team.  It shows that the minimum salary amount for major-league players is $535,000, while the average salary for all players in 2017 is $4.47M.  Of all the current gripes about the state of baseball, player salaries aren’t one of them, certainly not by the players themselves.

Kershaw and all of the current major-league players owe the current salary situation to a former player named Curt Flood, who challenged the MLB’s reserve clause system in 1970 that eventually led to free agency for players after their contract term ended.

Pitcher Andy Messersmith is credited with signing baseball’s first free-agent contract after the 1975 season, when he inked a three-year $1M deal with the Atlanta Braves after the Los Angeles Dodgers refused to give him a no-trade clause for the 1975 season.  Prior to Messersmith’s landmark contract, baseball salaries were relatively paltry compared to today’s standards.

In 1980 Nolan Ryan became the first $1M per year player.  That set off a rash of multi-million dollar player contracts, with each one outdoing the previous signings, and it continues today.  Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton signed the richest contract in baseball history, $325M over 13 years.

The salary report shows that the Los Angeles Dodgers are now what the Yankees used to be in terms of total team payroll.  The Dodgers’ ownership has deep pockets and are shelling out $187M in 2017.  Yankees GM Brian Cashman has been on a mission during the past few years to curb team payroll, but his team is still within the top eight teams with a team payroll of $170M.  However, this is significantly less than the $200M the team had been accustomed to spending.

The Dodgers are still waiting for the results of their big payouts, since they have finished in first place in their division for the past four seasons, but have yet to bring home National League pennants or World Series titles.

The San Diego Padres bring up the rear with a team payroll of $34.5M, only slightly ahead of Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw’s $33M by himself.  However, because baseball salaries are guaranteed, the Padres are paying more for players that aren’t on their current roster than their entire current 25-man roster, as a result of a spending spree by the Padres in 2015 that turned sour.  James Shields and Melvin Upton Jr. were among players acquired in multi-year deals by the Padres prior to the 2015 season, but were dealt away after playing only a partial season with the Padres in 2016.  Without a winning team on the horizon for the next few years, the Padres ownership has significantly scaled back how much they are willing to spend.

Average player salaries by teams are led by the Tigers ($6.9M), Giants ($6.3M), Cubs ($6.5M), Nationals ($6.3), Yankees ($6.3M), and Dodgers ($6M).  All of these teams expect to be in the playoff hunt and contenders for a league pennant.  By contrast, the Padres ($1.1M), Rays ($2.2M), A’s ($2.4M), Brewers ($2.3M), and Reds ($2.7M) have low probabilities of reaching the playoffs in 2017.  The situation demonstrates that teams are shelling out the big bucks to significantly improve their chances to be competitive each year.

Besides Kershaw, other top-salaried players are pitchers Zack Greinke ($31.9M), David Price ($30M), and Justin Verlander ($28M), while first baseman Miguel Cabrera commands $28M.  They are considered the critical components of their respective team’s success.

On the other hand, outfielder Jason Heyward, acquired by the Chicago Cubs in 2016 at an annual salary of $26M, was vastly overpaid for what he contributed to their World Series championship.  He was actually benched at times by manager Joe Maddon during the playoffs because of his inability to hit.  That’s a pretty steep pay for a bench-warmer.  When you consider that his teammate Kris Bryant, the National League MVP last year, made only $1.05M, the Cubs didn’t get a positive return on their investment in Heyward.  This just goes to show that winning covers up for a lot of mistakes.

Albert Pujols, CC Sabathia, Joe Mauer, Prince Fielder, and Jayson Werth signed long-term, big-dollar deals years ago that are still strapping those teams after their prime years have passed.  Looking back, the soundness of these investments have been debated many times.  For example, Mauer ($23M in 2017), a former three-time batting champ, last had more than 66 RBI in 2012.

However, not all teams are making those mistakes. As an example, the St. Louis Cardinals refused to extend Pujols’ contract with a long-term deal after the 2011 season.  Pujols wound up signing a 10-year contract with the Angels.  The Cardinals were heavily criticized because Pujols was the best player in the game back then.  Now the Angels are being criticized for having to continue to keep Pujols, who has suffered through several injury-plagued seasons.

After last season, the Toronto Blue Jays decided not to offer 36-year-old hitting star Jose Bautista a multi-year extension, fearing a future situation like Pujols or Werth’s deal with the Washington Nationals.  Bautista wound up having to settle for a one-year $19M deal with the Blue Jays for 2017, when he didn’t attract multi-year offers from other teams.

Just a few years ago, the Houston Astros were where the Padres are now, holding salaries dramatically low while re-building its team.  However, the Astros’ younger players delivered ahead of schedule with a playoff appearance in 2015.  And now the Astros need veteran help to augment the youngsters and consequently are paying $46M this year, increasing their annual payroll by almost 50%, for veterans Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Josh Reddick who were acquired over the winter.  The Astros figure their window of opportunity to get to a World Series is immediate and are now willing to pay handsomely for the additional help.

Teams in the middle of the team salary pack, who are relatively efficient with their dollars, include the Cleveland Indians, Houston Astros, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Kansas City Royals.  These mostly small-market teams have payrolls in the $94M to $132M range and have reasonable expectations of reaching the playoffs, particularly the Indians who narrowly missed defeating the Cubs in the World Series last year.

The Pirates will face the situation of having to shell out a huge sum of money after this season to retain their player who has become the face of the franchise, Andrew McCutchen.  He’s presently a bargain at $14M in his final year of his contract.  The Pirates actually shopped him around to other teams over the winter in the hopes of obtaining some top young talent in return, but a deal never happened.  However, the 30-year-old star will likely be put on the market again during this season if the Pirates are out of playoff contention early.

McCutchen is indeed worthy of the money he will command, as he has been one of the best all-around players in the game.  But to illustrate the irrationality of some of the other salaries being shelled out for players not nearly as talented, there is Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles.  Because the O’s put top value on the home run hitting prowess of Davis, he is their top paid player at $21.2M.  Yet nearly half of his plate appearances last year resulted in a strikeout (leading the league with 219) or a walk.  Even if Davis slams 40 home runs this year, it will be at a rate of over $500K per homer.  That’s pretty steep.

Miguel Montero is making $14M this year with the Chicago Cubs.  He lost his starting job last year to the younger Willson Contreras, who became one of the new stars of the Cubs.  Under the first full year of his contract, Contreras will make a little above the minimum MLB salary this year.

The Astros’ Yulieski Gurriel will earn $14M this year after playing only 51 professional games in the United States last year.  A defector from Cuba in early 2016, the 33-year-old he had been an elite player in his home country.  The Astros were willing to take a chance on him, thinking he could immediately help the club.  Yet the budding all-star shortstop they drafted as the overall Number 1 pick of the 2012 MLB Draft, Carlos Correa, currently makes the lowest salary ($535K) on the team.

Joe DiMaggio reached a payroll milestone in 1949 when he became the first six-figure baseball player at $100,000 for the Yankees.  That was a big deal at the time.  Mickey Mantle nearly doubled his salary in 1957, from $32,000 to $60,000 after his historic Triple Crown season of 1956, but then took a $10K pay-cut in 1960 after he had a down year (yes, he only hit 31 HR and 75 RBI) as the Yankees failed to reach the World Series in 1959.

To further demonstrate how times have changed, some fifty-five years after Mantle, the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez still received nearly $3M of his salary even though he sat out the season due to a PED suspension.  The Yankees still owe Rodriguez $21M in 2017 after releasing him late last year.  “The Mick” is probably turning over in his grave.

One of baseball’s pre-eminent pitchers, Nolan Ryan, made $3,600 in his first big-league season in 1966, which preceded free agency.  He received baseball’s first million dollar salary in 1980, on his way to earning an estimated $27M during his entire 27-year career ending in 1993.  Now, guys like Kershaw, Price and Grienke are making more than that in a single year.

It makes you wonder what will those young Cubs stars will be making ten years from now!

Red Sox Have Their Own Version of the Killer Bs

In the late 1990s and early 2000s the Houston Astros had players like Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman leading a successful franchise, after previous years of mediocrity.  Baseball fans and the media gave them the moniker “Killer B’s” for the offensive punch they delivered day in and day out.  Now, the Boston Red Sox have a core group of young players making a name for themselves with their bats.  They could well become known as the second coming of the Killer Bs, since they all happen to have last names that start with the letter “B”.

Outfielders Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Andrew Benintendi and shortstop Xander Bogaerts are at the core of a Red Sox team that appears will be relevant for the next 3-4 years while they are under contract control by Boston.  They are coming at a good time, since long-time Red Sox slugger David Ortiz passed the torch as the team’s offensive leader after his retirement at the end of last season.  The Red Sox finished at the top of the American League East Division last year, after finishing in last place the two previous seasons.

Bogaerts has been the starting shortstop since 2014, and it took only one full season before he became a standout at the position.  After hitting .320 in 2015, he followed up last year with 21 HR, 89 RBI, 115 runs scored, while still hitting a hefty .294 in his first all-star season.  The major leagues are currently flush with impressive young shortstops, with Bogaerts near the top of the heap.

Jackie Bradley Jr. had a breakout year last season.  He struggled offensively during his first two full seasons with the Red Sox and then came to life in 2016 with 30 doubles, 7 triples, 26 HR and 87 RBI.  He was also an all-star selection last year.

After last year’s near MVP season, Mookie Betts is considered one of the best overall position players in the majors, right up there with Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Kris Bryant.  Betts hits for average (214 hits, .318 batting average), has power (31 HR, 113 RBI), runs well (26 stolen bases), and fields well (Gold Glove).  His 9.5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) was second only to Mike Trout, who also edged him out for the American League MVP Award.

The latest arrival of the Red Sox’ Killer Bs is Andrew Benintendi. He made his major-league debut on August 2nd of last season, hitting .295 in 34 games and earning a starting job in the post-season.  He has also won a starting outfield job this year.

The trio of outfielders has already captured the hearts of Red Sox fans with a playful victory dance routine after games.  If the Red Sox front office management is smart, they’ll find a way to keep all four of these players around beyond their initial contract years, which would ensure there’ll be a bunch of future victory dances.

Bagwell and Biggio from the Astros’ Killer Bs ultimately became Baseball Hall of Fame selections.

Back in the 1940s and 1950s, the Red Sox had another core of players that formed the backbone of the team that included Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Dom DiMaggio and Bobby Doerr.  Williams and Doerr wound up being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, while DiMaggio and Pesky enjoyed all-star seasons.  However, those Red Sox teams won only one American League pennant during their tenure.

The current-day Red Sox have their sights set on being frequent World Series participants with the aid of their version of the Killer Bs.

2017 Preseason MLB Picks: It's Like Deja Vu All Over Again

Last year’s MLB season ended in dramatic fashion, when the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians faced off against each other in the World Series that came down to the tenth inning in Game 7.  Both the Cubs and the Indians had been among the most World Series-starved teams in the history of the Fall Classic, with the Cubs not having won the championship since 1908 and the Indians since 1948.  The tables could have easily been turned in favor of the Indians, who held a 3-1 advantage after four games.

Well, I’m predicting Yogi Berra’s legendary quip, “It’s like déjà vu all over again,” will apply to the 2017 World Series.

Yeah, I’m picking the Cubs and Indians to make return trips to the World Series.  I just don’t see anybody in either league who has a better all-around team than both of these clubs.  The Cubs lost two key members from last year’s club, outfielder Dexter Fowler and reliever Aroldis Chapman, but have able replacements in Kyle Schwarber and Wade Davis.  The Indians improved their roster in the offseason with the acquisition of slugging first-baseman Edwin Encarnacion from Toronto, plus they get back outfielder Michael Brantley and catcher Yan Gomes from injuries.  However, I think both clubs’ pitching staffs and their astute managers will be the main reasons for their returns.

So, what are the odds of the same two opponents repeating World Series appearances in consecutive seasons?  The last time occurred in 1977 and 1978, when the New York Yankees defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in both Series.

And what are the chances the Cubs can repeat as World Series champion in 2017?  The last time a team won back-to-back World Series was the New York Yankees who defeated the San Diego Padres in 1998, the Atlanta Braves in 1999, and the New York Mets in 2000.

There have been other recent instances of a single team going to the World Series in back-to-back years, such as the Kansas City Royals in 2014, losing to the San Francisco Giants, and in 2015, when they defeated to the New York Mets.  Prior to that, the Texas Rangers appeared in consecutive World Series in 2010 and 2011, losing both to San Francisco and the St. Louis Cardinals, respectively.  So a repeat by either club wouldn’t be a huge surprise.

I don’t think there any real “sleepers” in the upcoming season division races.  Sure, there are some sentimental favorites that I might personally like to see challenge the Cubs and Indians, but the reality is each division seems to have one or two clear-cut favorites and the rest of the teams are generally not in the same ballpark to be contenders.

 

American League East (2016 order of final standings: Red Sox, Orioles, Blue Jays, Yankees, Rays)

The East Division remains the toughest of all—in both leagues.  The other 25 major-league teams are thankful they don’t have to play in this division.

The Boston Red Sox will be the only real challenger to the Cleveland Indians returning to the World Series this year—even without the retired popular and productive David Ortiz.  Outfielder Mookie Betts is a real challenger to Mike Trout and Kris Bryant as the best player in the majors.  Chris Sale will be even better in the Red Sox environment than he was with the Chicago White Sox, which is hard to believe.  David Price’s arm situation is a bit worrisome, so the Red Sox will need another stellar season from Rick Porcello.  The Red Sox didn’t even bother to try to upgrade their catcher position because they don’t need the bat in the starting lineup.  While perhaps not as outwardly vocal and visible as Ortiz, veteran Dustin Pedroia is the unquestionable leader in the clubhouse.

Toronto will edge out the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees for runner-up in the division.  Even though the Blue Jays lost one of its top hitters, Edwin Encarnacion, to free agency, they still have enough offensive punch to go along with a solid starting rotation that flies under the radar because it lacks the big-name ace.  But a lot of other clubs would love to have Estrada, Stroman, Happ, and Sanchez on their roster.

Toronto gets the nod over the Orioles and Yankees because these two teams don’t have the dependable starting pitching like the Blue Jays.  Sure, the Orioles have the best overall record in the division for the last 4-5 years and led the league in home runs last year, but that will only be good enough to possibly get them a wild-card spot like last year.  The Yankees have a revitalized, young squad now, but did nothing in the off-season to improve their starting pitching.  Maybe they thought they didn’t need to address this because they got back one of the best closers in Aroldis Chapman, whom they essentially rented to the Cubs last fall.  The Tampa Bay Rays wish the “good fairy” would magically move them to another division, because they’re destined for last place yet again.

 

American League Central (2016 order of final standings: Indians, Tigers, Royals, White Sox, Twins)

The Indians will repeat as Central Division champs because of their pitching staff, both starters and relievers.  Corey Kluber and Andrew Miller, who showed the world just how good they were during the World Series last year, will lead a quality staff again this year.  Then the Indians acquired Edwin Encarnacion big bat during the off-season.  Manager Terry Francona had this club clicking on all cylinders last year despite the significant absences of outfielder Michael Brantley and Yan Gomes and some injured pitchers late in the season.  Francona came within a few innings of winning it all last year in the dramatic World Series.  He’ll have his team hungry to get another shot.

The Detroit Tigers have gotten the label of “aging team” similar to what the Yankees experienced for the last few years.  Many analysts are questioning how much longer pitcher Justin Verlander, first-baseman Miguel Cabrera, and DH Victor Martinez can carry the team.  That may indeed be an issue at some point, but these guys still figure to be significant contributors in 2017.  The Tigers will again finish as runner-up to the Indians in the division, but the question remains whether they can win enough games to snatch a wild-card spot.

A couple of years ago, I was calling the Kansas City Royals the “new” New York Yankees when they had back-to-back World Series appearances, including a championship in 2015.  They appeared then to be set with a core of good players for the next several years.  But they finished at .500 last year and figure to be a middle-of-the pack team again.  The tragic death of starting pitcher Yordano Ventura to an offseason automobile accident and the loss of closer Wade Davis to free agency will hamper this team.  But they will still be better than the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox.

 

American League West (2016 order of final standings: Rangers, Mariners, Astros, Angels, A’s)

The Houston Astros were one of the most active teams during the off-season, with the acquisition of veterans Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and Josh Reddick to complement a team with some of the best youngsters in the league—Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Alex Bregman.  However, their starting pitching staff needs to return to 2015 form.  In any case, the Astros will move past the Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners this year to win their first division title since 2001.  They have depth and versatility on the roster that will be a huge advantage for manager A. J. Hinch during the season.

The Mariners and Rangers will duke it out for second place.  The Mariners get the edge because they have Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Jean Segura, and Kyle Seager powering their offense, although they didn’t get much help from their outfielders.  Last year pitcher Felix Hernandez had an off-year for him.  Look for him to rebound and pair off well with Hisashi Iwakuma at the top of the rotation.

Although the Rangers get ace pitcher Yu Darvish for a full season in 2017, they will fall back to a third-place finish this year.  They have one of the best second basemen in Rougned Odor, but will be lacking in overall power in order to put up a lot of runs.  Future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre seems to be ageless, but expect him to start slowing down.  Having catcher Jonathan Lucroy, acquired at the trade deadline last year, for a full season will be a big improvement at the catching position.

The Los Angeles Angels, despite having the best player in baseball in Mike Trout, can’t seem to find a consistent direction as a team.  Along with the Oakland A’s, who are in a perpetual re-building mode, they will drag up at the bottom of the division.

 

National League East (2016 order of final standings: Nationals, Mets, Marlins, Phillies, Braves)

Dusty Baker was just what the Washington Nationals front office ordered for a new manager last year, when he captured the division title and turned around the attitude of the team.  Outfielder Bryce Harper had an uncharacteristically down season and they still won 95 games to win the division.  The Nationals have another rising superstar on the horizon in Trea Turner, who will play at his natural shortstop position this year.  Two big off-season acquisitions, Adam Eaton and Matt Weiters, strengthen an already good lineup.  Daniel Murphy had a near-MVP season last year; if he can repeat that, along with a revived Harper, the Nationals will be unstoppable on offense.  The Nats have one of the best starting pitching staffs in the league, but they will have an untested closer to start the season.  In any case, they will win 95-96 games again this year to win the division by 6-8 games.

Like the Nationals, the New York Mets are strong in pitching, too.  They feature several young flamethrowers, but the injury bug has bitten a few of them.  Steven Matz is not medically ready to begin the season, while Matt Harvey is coming off a shortened season last year due to surgery for a condition called thoracic outlet syndrome.  Zach Wheeler hasn’t pitched since 2014, because of Tommy John surgery.  So the main question for the Mets will be who will be healthy and available throughout the season.  However, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob DeGrom still anchor the top of the rotation, and they are both big-time pitchers.  Yoenes Cespedes remains the Mets’ best hitter, and two years ago he showed he could practically carry the offense on his back.  He could well do it again.  The Mets will finish in second place, but may not be able to claim a wild-card spot again.

The Miami Marlins were on a seemingly rising path, but the tragic death from a boating accident by its pitching ace and fan-favorite, Jose Fernandez, at the end of last season will take a lot of steam out the club.  Outfielders Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich are excellent offensive players, but they aren’t enough by themselves.  Still, the Marlins will likely finish ahead of the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies, both of whom are 3-4 years into their re-building plans.  Maybe next year one or both of them could be more of a contender, but not now.

 

National League Central (2016 order of final standings: Cubs, Cardinals Pirates, Brewers, Reds)

The Cubs’ organization plan put in place in 2012 by club president Theo Epstein paid off last year with their first World Series championship in 108 years.  Because their team from last year has largely stayed intact, they are favorites to win the NL Central Division and get to their second straight World Series.  Their starting pitching staff headed by John Lester, Jake Arrieta, and Kyle Hendricks will be a key component in their expected success.  Wade Davis, who was brought in over the winter to replace free-agent Aroldis Chapman, along with Hector Rendon, Koji Uehara, and Mike Montgomery, give them good depth in the bullpen.  The offense is led by sluggers Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, who have a supporting cast of young aggressive hitters.  Super utility player Ben Zobrist provides them many options in the lineup.  Unless the Cubs get struck by injuries to a number of their players, they will be hard to beat in 2017.  Manager Joe Maddon will find ways to keep the team loose to avoid any major meltdowns.

There will be a close race for second place in the division between the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals. But the Pirates will finally finish ahead of the Cards by a couple of games, but behind the Cubs by at least 10 games.  With outfielder Andrew McCutchen on the trading block over the winter, it wasn’t clear the Pirates were “all in” for making a run for a playoff spot this year.  They have the best outfield in the game with McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco.  The Bucs have a young home-grown pitching corps, led by Gerrit Cole, which is finally coming into its own.  Their main weakness could be in the bullpen, where they lost Mark Melancon, one of the best closers in the game.  However, they did acquire A. J. Ramos from the Marlins (40 saves in 2016) to offset that loss.  If the Pirates should fall out of contention early in the year, look for McCutchen to be traded during the season.

Last year the Cardinals failed to get into the post-season playoffs for the first time since 2010.  Noted for developing players within their highly-touted farm system, the Cardinals continue to field a team largely comprised of home-grown players.  However, one deficiency is the overall lack of power hitters and run producers.  Catcher Yadier Molina is still one of the best game-callers in the business, but his starting pitching staff presents some uncertainty, with the exception of Carlos Martinez, who assumed the role of ace last year when Adam Wainwright struggled with his control.  Lance Lynn missed the entire season in 2017, while Michael Wacha pitched only 138 innings for the year.

The Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers will again finish far behind the rest of the pack.  The Brewers appear to be assembling a team that could be more competitive in a couple of years.

 

National League West (2016 order of final standings: Dodgers, Giants, Rockies, Diamondbacks, Padres)

The Los Angeles Dodgers will win their fifth consecutive division title this year.  Their biggest off-season deals were the re-signing of relief pitcher Kenley Jansen and Justin Turner, keeping the roster intact from last season.  They did also add Tampa Bay second baseman Logan Forsythe who will play every day and allow aging veteran Chase Utley to become a role player off the bench.  Pitcher Kershaw is still the best pitcher on the planet, and has the same cast as last year surrounding him on the hill.  Corey Seager, the NL Rookie of the Year in 2016, is quickly making his way to become the best shortstop on the planet, too.  The main question for the Dodgers is whether they can ever win a pennant, but that isn’t in the cards for them in 2017 either.

After starting last season as though they were headed toward their usual even-numbered year World Series (having previously won titles in 2010, 2012, and 2014), the San Francisco Giants suffered a meltdown during the second half of the season, losing a lot of late-inning games.  They solved their closer problem with the acquisition of Mark Melancon.  Their starting rotation is the same as last year, headlined by Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto at the top.  They will put up more than their share of wins, but the guys filling the 3rd, 4th, and 5th slots have seen their better days.  The Giants’ offense doesn’t have much power, and that will hurt them in the end.  They may get close to the Dodgers for the division title, but ultimately will fall short again.

The Arizona Diamondbacks were one of the most disappointing teams in baseball last year.  After having such high expectations generated by the acquisition of pitcher Zach Greinke and Shelby Miller, they fell flat on their faces.  A season-long injury to outfielder A. J. Pollack didn’t help much either.  The D’backs’ front office had a big turnover during the off-season, and they have first-time manager Torey Lovullo at the helm this year.  So, despite having some very good talent like first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and Pollack, expectations this year should be tempered.  Their breakthrough to being a strong contender for the division title will be delayed for at least another year.

There’s a lot of noise coming out of Colorado that suggests the Rockies might be a “sleeper” this year.  They did make some improvements in their roster over the winter, but it still won’t be enough.  However, they will finish ahead of the lackluster San Diego Padres.

 

To recap my projections for the 2017 playoff situation, it’s going to look a lot like last year.  Déjà vu, Yogi.

AL East – Red Sox; AL Central – Indians; AL West – Astros; Wild Cards – Blue Jays and Mariners

AL pennant winner -- Indians

NL East – Nationals; NL Central – Cubs; NL West – Dodgers; Wild Cards – Giants, Pirates

NL pennant winner – Cubs

World Series winner -- Indians

 

Mike Trout is the new Mickey Mantle

There hasn’t been a start of a Major League Baseball career like Mike Trout’s since Albert Pujols’ debut in 2001.  After Pujols’ first few seasons, he was being compared to legendary New York Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig.  Based on Trout’s first six seasons, the 24-year-old is now drawing comparisons to another Yankee legend, Mickey Mantle.

With both players roaming centerfield, Trout and Mantle are strikingly similar in their athleticism, power, and speed.  They were both 19 years old when they made their debuts.  However, one difference is Mantle was a switch-hitter, maybe the best of all-time.

Trout, who plays for the Los Angeles Angels, has amazingly finished in the top two of the American League MVP voting in each of his first five full seasons, including first-place finishes in 2014 and 2016.  No one has ever done that before.  Trout just keeps getting better each season, showing no signs of approaching his peak yet.  MLB Network analyst Ron Darling may have best described him when he said, “Trout makes the MLB look like Little League.”

Trout is able to beat teams in many ways.  His versatility is evidenced by his leading the American League in numerous offensive categories over his brief career.  These include the leader in runs scored for four seasons, as well as leading the American League in stolen bases (49) in 2012, while averaging 34 a season.  He has led the league circuit in RBI (111) in 2014, while averaging 99 per season.  He has averaged 30 HR per season and has an on-base percentage of .405 for his career.  Plus, he’s one of the best defenders in centerfield.

Trout has become the poster child for the recently popular WAR (Wins Above Replacement) metric, where he has been the overall leader in the American League for five seasons.  One recent WAR analysis has Trout on a trajectory to eventually surpass Babe Ruth, the current all-time record-holder in that statistic.

Mantle played his first major-league season in 1951 and immediately became the heir apparent for the centerfield job of the Yankees, following another Yankee immortal, Joe DiMaggio.

“The Mick” had the luxury of playing for some proficient Yankee teams that won the American League pennant every year during the 1950s, except in 1954 and 1959.  Of course, Mantle was one of the main reasons for their success in winning five World Series during that decade.  Among his accomplishments were two MVP Awards in 1956 and 1957 and a Triple Crown in 1956 which included 52 HR, 130 RBI, and a .353 batting average.  Except for his first season, he was named to the American League All-Star team every season during the decade.

Mantle had four additional stellar seasons during the first half of the 1960s, which included another MVP Award honor, three years as the runner-up for the award, and two more Yankees World Series titles.  He was then beset with a variety of injuries that hampered him the rest of his career that ended at age 36 in 1968.  Mantle was voted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1974.

Trout hasn’t been as fortunate as Mantle in terms of playing for post-season teams.  He has appeared in only one playoff series with the Los Angeles Angels who won the AL West Division in 2014, but the team has finished in either 3rd or 4th place in Trout’s other full seasons.

He is in the second year of a five-year deal worth over $138 million, with each of his last three years bringing him a healthy $34M.  Since he will still only be 28 years old in his last contract year, there’s a good chance he could see a change in scenery at that point, particularly if the Angels remain non-competitive in their division.

If Trout can remain healthy for the better part of his career, he could wind up being one of the all-time greats in the game and take his rightful place alongside Mantle in the hallowed Hall in Cooperstown. 

Should MLB Adopt the International Rules for Extra-Inning Games?

If you’ve been watching the World Baseball Classic, you may have seen a couple of games where extra-inning games were played under different rules than Major League Baseball uses during its regular season.

 

Here’s an excerpt of the WBC rule from the MLB website:

 

Extra Innings: For any inning beginning with the 11th inning, the team at bat shall begin the inning with runners on first and second base. The batter who leads off an inning shall continue to be the batter who would lead off the inning in the absence of this extra-innings rule. The runner on first base shall be the player (or a substitute for such player) in the batting order immediately preceding the batter who leads off the inning. The runner on second base shall be the player (or a substitute for such player) in the batting order immediately preceding the runner on first base.

 

 

The idea for the rule is that it will increase the chances the game will be ended sooner than normal, by creating higher probability run-scoring situations beginning with the 11th inning.  It’s really not a new concept though, since a modified form of this rule has been in place since 2009 in the WBC (although never used) and also has already been instituted in some international baseball leagues.

 

In addition to prescribed pitch count limits for pitchers, the primary purpose of this extra-innings rule for the WBC is to prevent the over-use of pitchers during the tournament, in a time of the year when major-league pitchers representing the various countries are still trying to get in shape for the regular season.

 

However, it has been suggested Major League Baseball consider adopting a similar rule as a way to speed up games or improve the pace of play in games, which has been a recent emphasis of the MLB Commissioner’s Office.

 

But just how much would this rule actually be used and would it make much of real difference?  Last year, there were 185 extra-inning games, and 110 of those went eleven innings or more.  That’s out of 2,428 total games played during the regular season.  On average, each team played seven games of eleven innings or more during the season.  The Arizona Diamondbacks and Houston Astros had the most occurrences with fourteen each.

 

That doesn’t sound like a lot of affected games, so while it may be a useful on a game-by-game basis for  managers to save some pitchers’ arms, it won’t significantly alter the overall perception by fans that games are shorter or that the speed of the game is increased.

 

However, Major League Baseball has plans to implement the new extra-innings rule on an experimental basis in the low minors this year.

 

Many baseball purists will argue that extra-inning games are some of the most exciting a fan can attend, despite the additional length of the game.  There becomes a sort of “sudden death” mentality at that point in the game—it’s a do-or-die 9th inning situation being repeated until a team prevails with a winning run.  When extra innings are involved, managers are often forced to employ different strategies to make lasting use of their bullpens and bench players.  On occasion when those strategies don’t go as planned, a position player gets called on to pitch an inning or two in desperation, and that usually makes for an interesting story.

 

Some of the most memorable games in baseball history went into extra-innings.

 

In the 2005 World Series between the Houston Astros and Chicago White Sox, Game 3 lasted 14 innings, with the White Sox eventually prevailing, 7-5.  The game, which lasted 5 hours and 41 minutes, was won on Geoff Blum’s dramatic home run and a bases-loaded walk in the top of the 14th inning.

 

The longest major-league game ever played took 8 hours, 6 minutes in a 25-inning contest between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Chicago White Sox in 1984.  The game was actually suspended after 17 innings due to an American League curfew rule that didn’t allow an inning to start after 12:59am.  The game was resumed the next day and completed when the White Sox’ Harold Baines hit a home run to end the extended game with a score of 7-6.

 

However the record for most innings ever played in a single professional game is 33, when the minor-league Pawtucket Red Sox and Rochester Red Wings played on June 22-23, 1981. The game lasted over eight hours, although all but 18 minutes were played on the first day.  Pawtucket eventually won, 3-2.  Two future Hall of Fame players, Cal Ripken Jr. (Rochester) and Wade Boggs (Pawtucket), played in the historic game.

 

Another out-of-the-box idea has been bandied about for settling extra-inning games in a timely fashion, as well as adding more excitement to the game.  It involves the use of a home run derby contest after the ninth inning of a tie game, where each team puts up one or two players to slug out a win-loss decision for the game.  Just think, if that were done, baseball statisticians might be headed toward yet another sabermetric--number of derby home runs per extra inning (note the sarcasm).

 

It’s not clear that any change in rules for extra-inning games would be viewed as a real improvement, but it is clear that Major League Baseball is intent on trying to spice up the game for the next generation of fans.

1936 Jesuit HS Baseball Team a Talented Bunch

In 2003 The Times-Picayune ranked the best high school baseball teams of all time from the New Orleans area and selected the 1936 Jesuit Blue Jays as Number 1.  Taking a detailed look at the make-up of the team revealed that eleven (eight on the 1st team, three on the 2nd team) of the Blue Jays’ ballplayers made the All-Prep Team selected by the newspaper in 1936 for its annual recognition of the best high school players in New Orleans.  Furthermore, seven of the players eventually took up professional baseball careers, including three who reached the major-league level.

Jesuit won the Louisiana state baseball championship in 1936, their fifth of what would become seven consecutive titles.  After going undefeated during their eight regular season games that year, Jesuit also swept their opponents in the playoffs, holding teams from Byrd, Warren Easton, and Ouachita scoreless.

By almost any standard, whether it be one of yesteryear or today, the number of highly talented players from a single high school team like this Blue Jay squad is rather extraordinary.

The baseball landscape in the 1930s and 1940s was indeed very different when compared to today.  Back then, a combination of factors created a higher level of interest by players from the local ranks to pursue professional baseball.  An expanding minor-league system by Organized Baseball, a shortage of professional players during WWII years, and the popularity of the New Orleans Pelicans minor-league team all contributed to the situation.  With its semi-pro leagues also playing ball during typically mild winters, New Orleans was a city of year-round baseball.

In an article in The Times-Picayune on April 9, 1939, it was reported that nearly one hundred of New Orleans’ native sons were playing pro baseball throughout the country.  The Crescent City had become a hotbed for baseball that would last for many years.

Jesuit dominated the city’s prep all-star team in 1936 by supplying eight of the fourteen members named to the first team.  So this collection of players was indeed very special.  In addition to Jesuit, several of the local high schools during that timeframe, including Warren Easton, S. J. Peters, Fortier, and St. Aloysius, were also turning out baseball players capable of playing at the professional level.

Here’s a run-down of the entire 1936 Blue Jay roster and their accomplishments in amateur and professional careers.

Gernon Brown, the Jesuit baseball coach, was in his sixth season at the helm of the club.  Like many of his players, he received All-Prep team honors as “coach of the year.”  During Brown’s tenure as baseball coach with Jesuit from 1931 to 1953, his teams captured thirteen state championship titles.

First baseman Jerry Burke was an All-Prep selection in 1936 as well as the previous year.

Second baseman Billy Hodgins was also an All-Prep selection in 1935 and 1936 and went on to play in the minor-leagues from 1937 to 1941.  His first pro season included a stint with Opelousas of the Evangeline League.  He had three seasons with batting averages over .300, while playing in the Indians, Reds and Dodgers organizations.

Shortstop Martin Scaffidi was named to the All-Prep teams in 1935 and 1936.

Third baseman Russell Gildig was an All-Prep selection in 1935, 1936, and 1937.  He played in the St. Louis Cardinals organization in 1938 and 1939, when he batted .301 for Mobile and Caruthersville.  After a four-year absence from baseball, he attempted a comeback with the New Orleans Pelicans in 1944, hitting .278 in 27 games.

Left-fielder Connie Ryan was a sophomore on the 1936 Blue Jay team and was named to the All-Prep teams that year and in 1937 as a shortstop.  He was the first athlete to receive a full baseball scholarship at LSU, where he played his freshman season before signing a professional contract in 1940 with the Atlanta Crackers.  The infielder made his major-league debut with the New York Giants in 1942 and went on to a 12-year major-league career that ended in 1954.  He made the National League all-star team in 1944 with the Boston Braves and appeared in the 1948 World Series with them.  Ryan later coached in the majors for several teams and served as an interim manager for the Atlanta Braves and Texas Rangers.  Ryan’s full biography can be viewed at http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/991f2a43.

Center-fielder Charlie Gilbert was selected to the 1936 All-Prep team, his third of four years achieving the honor.  He was the son of Larry Gilbert Sr., former major-league player and manager of the New Orleans Pelicans from 1923 to 1938.  Young Gilbert’s professional debut occurred with Nashville in 1939, where his father was then the manager.  He was touted as the greatest 20-year-old outfielder the Southern Association had ever produced.  However, his major-league career didn’t live up to his billing as a prospect.  He made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1940, when he hit .246 in 57 games.  He spent parts of the next three seasons as a backup player with the Chicago Cubs, before joining the Navy during World War II.  He played two more seasons after the war, split between the Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies, and then played his last pro season with Nashville in 1948, when he hit 42 home runs and batted .362.  His two brothers, Larry Jr. and Tookie, also played baseball for Jesuit and had professional careers.

Right-fielder George Digby made the All-Prep teams in 1935 and 1936.  He was a high school baseball coach in New Orleans when the Boston Red Sox signed his star pitcher Dick Callahan in 1944.  The Red Sox then offered Digby a job as a professional scout, and he continued in that role for 50 years, followed by a stint as a baseball consultant for another 14 years.  He is credited with signing 53 major- league ballplayers, the most notable one being Hall of Famer Wade Boggs.  Digby was inducted into the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2008, and the organization’s annual scouting award is named after him.

Catcher John “Fats” Dantonio was an All-Prep selection in 1935 and 1936.  He was initially signed to a pro contract by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1938 and was a teammate of future Hall of Famer Stan Musial in Springfield, MO in 1940.  He and Musial would develop a life-long friendship from that experience.  Dantonio was promoted to the New Orleans Pelicans in 1942, when he batted .256, and then he .hit 299 for them 1943, although his play was limited to part-time duty (only playing in home games) because he was also holding a defense-related job in the New Orleans shipyards.  He made his major-league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1944, but appeared in only three games with them that year.  He returned to the Dodgers in 1945, hitting .250 in 47 games, but ultimately lost his major-league roster spot.  He played three more minor-league seasons, including one in New Orleans.  Dantonio’s full biography can be viewed at http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/65a7919c.

Pitcher Dave Hecker was an All-Prep selection in 1936 and 1937.

Pitcher Malcolm Plaeger was an All-Prep selection in 1936 and 1937.

Pitcher Jesse Danna was an All-Prep selection in 1935 and 1936.  He was the winning pitcher for the Blue Jays against Ouachita in the 1936 state title game.  He played at LSU before signing a pro contract in 1942.  Danna pitched four full seasons with the New Orleans Pelicans during 1942 and 1946, when he won a total of 65 games.  He finished his minor-league career in 1949 with a total of 114 victories, but never played in the major leagues.

Allen Heidingsfelder was a member of the 1937 All-Prep team as an outfielder.

Harold Burke played in 1935 and 1936.

Larry Stumpf played in 1936 and was an All-Prep selection in 1937 as a first-baseman.

Gustave “Shorty” Heintz rounded out the squad in 1936.

Lloyd “Hap” Glaudi was team manager of the Jesuit baseball squad from 1932 to 1936.  He is better remembered for his long career as a sportswriter and a radio/TV sportscaster in New Orleans.

An extensive list of New Orleans area high school players who went on to play at the college and professional levels can be viewed at http://www.neworleansbaseball.com/articles/richardcuicchi.html.

Family Ties Flourishing in Baseball: Washington Nationals

This is the seventh in a series of reviews that will take a look at family relationships in each of the thirty major-league organizations.

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 of them 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, as well.

The heritage of the Washington Nationals started with the Montreal Expos, its predecessor prior to the franchise’s move to Washington for the 2005 season.  The Expos were filled with examples of players and non-players that had relatives in baseball.  Some of the more noteworthy ones include:

Andre Dawson is arguably the best player in the Expos’ history.  In his eleven seasons with them, he compiled 225 home runs, 838 RBI, and 253 stolen bases, while hitting .280.  He was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1977.  In 1987 with the Chicago Cubs, he led the National League in home runs and RBI as the league’s MVP.  Dawson was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010.  He is currently a special assistant with the Miami Marlins.  He is the nephew of Theodore Taylor, who played one minor league season in 1950.

Delino DeShields Sr., a speedy infielder, got his major league start with the Expos in 1990 when he was runner-up as the league’s Rookie of the Year.  In his 13-year career, he stole 464 bases and collected over 1,500 hits.  His son, Delino Jr., was the first-round pick of the Houston Astros in 2010 and completed his second major-league season with the Texas Rangers last year as an outfielder.

Vladimir Guerrero played eight seasons with the Expos from 1996 to 2003.  He had a career batting average of .323 with the Expos, while hitting 234 home runs and 702 RBI.  Over the course of his 16-year career, the outfielder hit .318 to go along with 449 home runs and 1,496 RBI.  Guerrero was nearly elected the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2017, when he garnered 71.7% of the votes.  Guerrero’s brother, Wilton, played alongside his brother at Montreal from 1998 to 2000 and went on to have an eight-year career, compiling a .282 batting average.  Another brother, Julio, played in the Red Sox minor-league system from 1998 to 2001.  Vladimir’s son, also named Vladimir, made his professional debut as a 17-year-old with the Toronto Blue Jays organization last year.  His nephew, Gabriel, reached the Triple-A level in the Diamondbacks organization last year.

Joe Kerrigan pitched two of his four major-league seasons as a relief pitcher with the Expos.  He went on to have a long career as a pitching coach for five major-league seasons.  Kerrigan managed the Boston Red Sox for part of the 2001 season.  Joe’s son, Joe, was infielder in the Red Sox minor-leagues from 1999 to 2001, followed by two seasons in the independent leagues.  Joe’s brother, Thomas, played in the Philadelphia Phillies organization from 1963 to 1964.

Tim Raines had a Baseball Hall of Fame career that included thirteen seasons with the Expos.  He led the National League in stolen bases in four consecutive seasons while playing with the Expos.  Raines currently ranks 5th on the all-time stolen base leaders.  During his 23-year major-league career, the outfielder batted .294 and was named to seven all-star teams.  Tim’s son, Tim Jr., played parts of three major-league seasons with the Baltimore Orioles.  In 2001, the Raines father-son combo became the second in history to play on the same major-league team.  Tim’s brother, Ned, played in the minors from 1978 to 1980.

Tim Wallach was one of the longest-tenured Expos players, logging thirteen seasons from 1980 to 1992.  With the Expos, he hit 204 home runs and 905 RBI.  He was a five-time all-star and three-time Gold Glove winner as a third baseman.  Tim was the bench coach for the Miami Marlins in 2016.  Tim has three sons who pursued professional baseball careers: Chad is currently in the Cincinnati Reds organization; Brett last played in 2015 in the independent leagues; and Matt last played in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization in 2013.

Fast-forwarding to more recent times, below are some highlights of baseball relatives in the Nationals organization during 2016.

Stephen Drew played as a backup infielder with the Nationals last season, his 11th in the majors.  The shortstop is one of three brothers to be drafted in the first round of the MLB Draft.  Stephen was the 2004 pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks.  His brother, J. D., was twice drafted in the first round, in 1997 by the Philadelphia Phillies and 1998 by the St. Louis Cardinals.  J. D. was a member of the 2007 World Series champion Boston Red Sox and wound up playing in fourteen major-league seasons as an outfielder.  Stephen’s brother, Tim, was the first-round pick of the Cleveland Indians in 1997.  He pitched in parts of five seasons with three different teams.

Bryce Harper was one of the most highly-touted prospects ever to enter the major leagues.  As a 19-year-old, he made his major-league debut with the Nationals in 2012 and won National League Rookie of the Year honors.  He was voted the NL MVP in 2015 and already has four all-star selections under his belt.  His brother, Bryan, is a relief pitcher in the Nationals organization, splitting last season between Triple-A Syracuse and Double-A Harrisburg.

Daniel Murphy turned in the best season of his career in his first year with the Nationals in 2016.  He was runner-up in the National League MVP Award voting based on his 25 home runs, 104 RBI, and .347 batting average.  He had an historic post-season in 2015 with seven home runs in helping the New York Mets to the World Series.  Daniel’s brother, John, was an outfielder in the Twins organization from 2012 to 2014.

Wilson Ramos had career highs in his seventh season with the Nationals last year.  He hit 22 home runs, 80 RBI and .307 average.is seventh with the team.  He was selected to the all-star team and collected the Silver Slugger Award for National League catchers.  However, Wilson tore his ACL in September. He was granted free agency and signed with Tampa Bay Rays over the winter.  Wilson’s brother, David, is a relief pitcher in the Nationals farm system, while his brother, Natanael, is a catcher in the Mets organization.

Joe Ross finished with a 7-4 record in 19 starts with the Nationals last year.  The 23-year-old right-hander had been a first-round draft pick of the San Diego Padres in 2011.  His brother, Tyson, missed practically all of the 2016 season with the San Diego Padres due to shoulder problems, after having been their best pitcher the two previous seasons.  Tyson was signed by the Texas Rangers as a free agent during the offseason.

Jayson Werth was in this sixth year of a seven-year contract with the Nationals last year, when he hit 21 home runs and 69 RBI.  He part of a three-generation family of ballplayers from his mother’s side of the family.  His grandfather, Dick “Ducky” Schofield, was a major-league utility infielder from 1953 to 1971, primarily with the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals.  Jayson’s uncle, Dick Schofield, was a 14-year major-league shortstop, with twelve of his seasons playing for the California Angels.  He is the stepson of Dennis Werth, a first baseman who played parts of four major-league seasons from 1979 to 1982 with the New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals.  Jayson’s father, Jeff Gowan, played a minor league season in the St. Louis Cardinals organization in 1978.

The Nationals’ pipeline of baseball relatives includes several top minor league prospects whose relatives played professionally, several of them with famous last names in baseball.

Cody Dent, in his fourth seasons with the Nationals farm system, is the son of Bucky Dent, who hit the dramatic three-run home run for the New York Yankees in the 1978 American League East tie-breaker win against the Boston Red Sox.

Cutter Dykstra, an outfielder with Washington’s Double-A Harrisburg affiliate last year, is the son of Lenny Dykstra, the scrappy outfielder of the 1986 World Series champion New York Mets and a three-time all-star, and the brother of Luke Dykstra, an infielder currently in the Atlanta Braves organization.

Carter Kieboom, the Nationals’ first-round draft pick last year, is the brother of Spencer Kieboom who made his major-league debut with the Nats in 2016.

Jaron Long, a pitcher at the Triple-A level for the Nationals last season, is the son of Kevin Long, who is the hitting coach for the New York Mets.

Ryan Ripken, who completed his third minor-league season with the Nationals in 2016, is the son of Cal Ripken Jr., the Hall of Fame shortstop of the Baltimore Orioles.  He is the nephew of Billy Ripken, former major league infielder from 1987 to 1998 and the grandson of former Orioles coach and manager, Cal Ripken Sr.

Mariano Rivera III was the fourth-round pick of the Nationals in 2015.  Last year he pitched in 39 games for Single-A Hagerstown, recording five wins and eight saves.  He is the son of Mariano Rivera, the legendary relief pitcher of the New York Yankees who retired in 2013.

Matt Skole was an infielder with the Nationals’ Triple-A affiliate Syracuse in 2016, when he hit 24 home runs and 78 RBI.  He is the brother of Jake Skole, an outfielder in the New York Yankees farm system, and the grandson of Tom Skole, who played in the St. Louis Browns organization in 1951-1952.

The 2016 Nationals had their share of baseball relatives in the dugout and front office, too.

Dusty Baker spent his first year as the Nationals manager last season, after twenty years of managing the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, and Cincinnati Reds.  He also played nineteen seasons in the majors.  While managing the Giants during the 2002 World Series, Dusty’s son, Darren, was a batboy who was swept up by the Giants’ J. T. Snow to avoid a collision at home plate where another Giants base-runner was in the process of scoring.  Darren is now playing baseball at the University of California.

Bob Boone is a senior advisor to the Nationals’ general manager Mike Rizzo.  He was a major-league catcher for nineteen years (1972-1990), including four all-star and seven Gold Glove Award seasons.  Bob managed in the majors for six seasons, splitting his time between the Kansas City Royals and Cincinnati Reds.  Two of Bob’s sons, Bret and Aaron, had lengthy major league careers as infielders which included all-star seasons, while another son, Matt, played seven seasons in the minors.  Bob’s father, Ray, was a major league infielder from 1948 to 1960, including all-star seasons in 1954 and 1956.

Billy Gardner Jr. was the manager of the Nationals’ Triple-A affiliate Syracuse in 2016.  He has been a minor-league coach and manager since 1990 with numerous organizations.  His father, Billy Gardner Sr., was a major-league player for ten seasons and a manager for six seasons, primarily with the Minnesota Twins.

Mike Maddux was in his first season as the Nationals pitching coach last year, after seven years in the same capacity with the Texas Rangers.  He had a 15-year career as a pitcher with nine different teams.  He is the brother of Greg Maddux, the Hall of Fame pitcher who won 355 career games and four Cy Young awards.

Kasey McKeon was the Nationals’ director of player procurement last season.  He previously played in the minors from 1989 to 1991 and held positions in scouting and player development for several major-league organizations.  His father is former major-league manager and executive Jack McKeon.  At age 72, he managed the Florida Marlins to a World Series title in 2003.  Kasey’s brother-in-law is former major-league pitcher Greg Booker.  Kasey is the nephew of Bill McKeon, former minor league player and a major-league scout.  He is the uncle of Zach Booker, a minor-league player from 2007 to 2011.

Calvin Minasian was the minor-league clubhouse and equipment manager for the Nationals last year.  His father, Zach Sr. had been the equipment manager in the Texas Rangers organization for over twenty years.  His brother, Zach Jr. is a scouting executive in the Milwaukee Brewers organization, while brother Perry was a scouting executive in the Toronto Blue Jays organization.  Altogether, the Minasian family has over 90 years of service in professional baseball.

Sam Narron was a minor league coach in the Nationals organization last year, and he comes from a family with an extensive background in baseball.  His father, Samuel “Rooster” Narron, played in the minors in 1967 and 1969 with the New York Mets and Baltimore Orioles organizations.  His grandfather, Sam, played briefly for the St. Louis Cardinals in parts of three seasons between 1935 and 1943.  His uncle, Milton, played in the New York Giants’ farm system from 1946 to 1951.  Sam’s cousin, Jerry, was a major league player, coach, and manager in over forty years in the game.  His cousin, Johnny, is currently a minor league coordinator in the Los Angeles Angels organization, having previously been a major-league coach for Cincinnati, Texas, and Milwaukee.  His cousin, Connor, was a fifth-round pick of the Baltimore Orioles in 2010 and played five seasons in the Orioles and Brewers organizations.

Mike Rizzo is currently the General Manager and President of Baseball Operations for the Nationals.  He has had a long career in scouting, as has his father, Phillip, who is currently a special advisor to Mike. Mike’s grandfather, Vito, also had a background in baseball scouting.

Chris Speier was the bench coach for the Nationals last year.  He played in the infield for five major-league teams during 1971 to 1989 and was selected an all-star three times.  His son, Justin, was a major-league middle relief pitcher from 1998 to 2009.  His nephew, Gabe, is currently a pitcher in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization.

 

Baseball’s Relatives Website

The entire list of 2016 active major and minor league players and non-players can be retrieved at:

https://baseballrelatives.wordpress.com/2016-family-ties/

 

Hoping for a Yankee Resurgence, Again

For the last four seasons, I’ve gone into spring training hoping the New York Yankees have shored up their lineup enough to contend for the division title.  But the last four seasons only resulted in major disappointments.  Guess what?  I’m right back there hoping again this year.

Yankee GM Brian Cashman accomplished a rather dramatic makeover of the team last year.  Gone are aging veterans Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixiera, Carlos Beltran, and Brian McCann, each of whom were among the best in the game in his heyday.  They were among the last remnants of the days when the Yankees would routinely go out and spend whatever money they needed to in order to acquire the best available free agents.  Perhaps more importantly for Cashman, also gone are the big dollars the Yankees were paying them.

Cashman’s moves also unloaded two of the game’s top relievers, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman, both of whom were instrumental in their respective team’s drive to the World Series last fall.  Those deals had a lot of Yankee fans scratching their heads.  When Miller and Chapman were combined with Dellin Betances in the Yankees bullpen, the trio of flamethrowers was truly a “lights out” staff, able to cover up the weaknesses in the Yankees’ starting rotation.

So, what’s the basis for my excitement again this spring?

The Yanks have a new corps of young players who have the potential to get the Yankees back into being perennial contenders for the division title.  The Yankees’ farm system has been criticized for rarely producing new stars since the mid-1990s with their “Core Four” consisting of Jeter, Rivera, Posada, and Pettitte.  But recently their player development organization has produced a number of newcomers who have shown what the future may hold for the Yankees.  Additionally, in trading away the big-name players last year, they picked up a bevy of prospects from other teams, perhaps not major-league ready yet, but on the cusp of making the jump to the big leagues.

Catcher Gary Sanchez leads the way for the Yankees’ optimism Yankees.  He put together one of the most exciting rookie seasons in the history of the game last year.  In only 53 games last season, Sanchez banged out 20 home runs and 42 RBI, while compiling a .299 batting average.  He finished second in the voting for the Rookie of the Year Award.  After the trade deadline last season, when many people thought the Yankees had cashed in their chips for the year, Sanchez almost single-handedly kept them in contention for a wild-card spot, before losing six of their last seven games.  The big question for 2017 is whether Sanchez can continue his success over a full season.  Will pitchers figure him out and make adjustments to pitch around his strengths?

In addition to Sanchez, home-grown youngsters Greg Bird, Aaron Judge, and Tyler Austin will be competing for starting jobs.  Bird missed all of last season due to injury; but if his 2015 season (11 HR, 31 RBI in 46 games) is any indication, he could very well be the regular first baseman. 

Judge, a big 6-foot-7, 275 pound outfielder, made a big splash in his major-league debut last year, getting seven hits in his first five games, including two towering home runs.  His physique and power is reminiscent of a major leaguer from the 1960s and 1970s, Frank Howard, who also put up some big power numbers.  Judge wears uniform Number 99, and Yankee fans are hoping his RBI numbers in 2017 will approach the number on the back of his jersey.

Austin could wind up being a valuable utility player at first base, in the outfield, and as a designated hitter.  Like Sanchez and Judge, he showed some power in his brief stint on the major-league roster last year.

The Yankees have “veterans” Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro anchoring the middle of the infield.  In fact, both were still only 26 years old last year, but now have five and seven major-league years, respectively, under their belts.  In coming to the Yankees from Arizona in 2015, Gregorius faced the risk of being a major disappointment as Derek Jeter’s replacement at shortstop.  But he has responded well and been a steadying presence in the lineup.  Plus, he did his part with the offense last season with an uncharacteristic (for him) 20 homers and 70 RBI.  Castro had been a three-time all-star with the Chicago Cubs before coming to the Yankees last year.  He also didn’t disappoint fans with his 20 home runs and 71 RBI in 2016.

The true veterans in the Yankee lineup will be outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner, both 33 years old this year.  Ellsbury’s performance really hasn’t measured up to the big-dollar, long-term contract he signed with the Yankees after the 2013 season, as he hasn’t been as effective in getting on base and stealing bases with the Yankees as he did with his former Boston Red Sox team.  Gardner has been a serviceable player during his career with the Yankees.  If the outfield becomes crowded with the blossoming youngsters, Gardner could become expendable and be put on the trading block later in the season.

Cashman’s re-signing of Chapman for 2017 automatically puts the Yanks’ bullpen back into the elite category again, even without Miller.  If Yankee starting pitchers can get the team six innings of solid pitching with a lead, there will generally be a good chance Chapman and Betances can shut the door on their opponents in the late innings.

But there’s the rub; that’s a big “if” with respect to the Yankee starting pitchers.  The starting rotation could likely wind up being the Achilles heel of the team.  It was last year, and the Yankees’ front office did nothing during the off-season to change it for the start of 2017.

There’s no question Masahiro Tanaka is a legitimate ace.  He finished with a 14-3 record and 3.07 ERA, but his strikeouts per nine innings are almost two less than his rookie season in 2014.  He suffered arm problems in the second half of 2014, but elected not to have surgery.  Consequently, his innings pitched have been limited to compensate.  The Yankees desperately need him to stay healthy.  Sixteen-year veteran CC Sabathia, once the ace of the staff, has struggled in the last three seasons, since he’s lost significant velocity on his pitches.  However, during his last six outings last year, he seemed to have figured out how to pitch effectively at lower speeds, as his ERA dropped by almost half of the previous months.

Right-handed starter Michael Pineda took a step backwards last year.  He typically gave up too many runs early in his games and put the Yankees in a frequent position to have to play catch-up ball.  He’s an intimidating hard-thrower (averaged 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings), but he needs to pitch further into his games.  Luis Severino is one of the Yankees’ top home-grown pitchers, but after he lost his first six decisions last year he was sent back to the minors.  When he returned for the last two months of the season as both a starter and reliever, he showed improvement.  The question for Severino is whether he has matured enough to take the Number 4 slot in the rotation.  Chad Green and Adam Warren will fight for the fifth slot.  However, the overall depth of the starters will be a problem.  It’s puzzling that the Yankees didn’t go to the free-agent market over the winter to add some depth.  It’s not apparent there is another arm from the farm system ready to step into a big league role.

On the free-agent front, the Yankees did add two pieces.  Former St. Louis Cardinal Matt Holliday was signed to a one-year deal.  He’s a good pickup, since he brings some veteran leadership, and if healthy will add some more pop in the lineup. 

But when the Yankees also signed free-agent slugger Chris Carter right before spring training, it was perplexing why he was added.  It appeared they already had enough versatility among their current position players, and it didn’t look like they would have a power shortage.  However, Carter was a 40-home run guy last year, but he also brings a ton of strikeouts (led the American League with 206).  Presumably, he will be used primarily as designated hitter.  Perhaps GM Cashman is using him as a hedge against one of the younger players not living up to expectations or as a contingency in case of injuries.  The only saving grace is that the Yankees didn’t have to pay much for him ($3.5 million).  Maybe Cashman will use him as trade bait for another pitcher later into the season when another club is looking to add some home runs.

Cashman made some great decisions last year in the make-over of his club.  Yankees fans will have a different experience with this younger club.  They’ll have to show some patience, but they should also be excited about the prospects of a contending team now and into the future.  In the 1920s and 1930s, the Yankees were referred to as the “Bronx Bombers,” with the likes of Ruth, Gehrig, and rest of the cast of powerful hitters.  We could be looking at the “Baby Bombers” over the next few seasons.  I surely hope so.

Black History Month: Impactful African-Americans in Baseball

Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey deservedly get most of the credit for overcoming the obstacles that prevented African-American players from participating in Major League Baseball.  Robinson’s story is well-chronicled with regard to the trials and hardships he endured on his route to breaking the color barrier in the sport in 1947.  In addition to Robinson, however, there have been a number of other key African-American individuals who played critical roles throughout the history of baseball.

In observance of February as Black History Month, following is a review of several notable African-American figures, including players, executives, managers, and umpires, who made a lasting impact on the game.

While Robinson changed who was allowed to play professional baseball, it was Curt Flood who significantly changed the game from a business perspective, affecting both owners and players.  Flood challenged the fairness of baseball’s reserve clause by refusing to be traded by his team in 1969.  He took his position to court and was ultimately unsuccessful after a final ruling by the U. S. Supreme Court.  However, his cause became a rallying point for other players that eventually led to free agency for players after they had fulfilled their contracts with their teams.  Flood was black-balled by major-league owners after the court ruling, and it effectively ended his career.  He had been a productive player, a three-time all-star and winner of five Gold Glove Awards.  But his legacy will primarily be remembered for his actions off the field.  Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine professional baseball without player free agency.

Rube Foster was instrumental in forming the Negro National League in 1920.  In fact, Jackie Robinson first played in the Negro Leagues before integrating the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Most of the early blacks who followed Robinson into the big leagues also got their start in the Negro Leagues.  Based on his pioneering career as a player, manager, and executive, Foster became known as the “father of Black Baseball.  His contributions were recognized by his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981.

Satchel Paige was a legendary player in the Negro Leagues from 1927 to 1947, winning over 160 games as a pitcher.  Before he was eligible to play in the majors, he often competed in exhibition games with black teams against all-star teams comprised of all-white major league players—and his teams frequently won.  He finally got his chance to play in the big leagues in 1948 at age 41, including an appearance in the World Series with Cleveland.  He was still playing in the majors at age 46.  Paige was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971, only the second African-American after Robinson.  His election effectively gave credence to the other black ballplayers who starred in the Negro Leagues, and numerous players from the Negro Leagues subsequently followed him with inductions into the Hall.

Willie Mays made his major-league debut in 1951 with the New York Giants, capturing Rookie of the Year honors.  After missing nearly two seasons due to military service, he rivalled for the attention of New York City fans with Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees and Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers, until the Giants’ and Dodgers’ franchises moved to California.  The three players were often compared to each other, since they were in their early-to-mid 20s.  They all played centerfield, and all three were among the best offensive players at the time.  Mays, the only African-American of the trio, developed into a popular star, on par with the other two, despite the fact that integration had still not fully penetrated the big leagues.  Mays’ infectious personality and zest for the game would serve him well in being one of the most popular players in the history of the sport.  Mays went on to have a Hall of Fame career that included 20 all-star seasons and two MVP awards.

Pumpsie Green was thirteen years old when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.  Green took his place in baseball history by becoming the first African-American to play for the Boston Red Sox, an astonishing twelve years after Jackie Robinson’s historic debut in 1947.  Boston was the last major-league team to integrate, as its owner, Tom Yawkey, had a questionable record on race relations at the time.  Green had been to spring training with the Red Sox in his debut season and he was required to stay in different hotels than his teammates when they travelled in the South.  Green wound up playing a total of thirteen pro seasons, five of them in the majors.

Hank Aaron eclipsed Babe Ruth’s long-standing career record of 714 home runs in early 1974.  Amid the fanfare of his approaching the historic record, the event did not come without Aaron having to endure hate mail, including threats to his life, because of bigotry towards his African-American ethnicity.  Even though he and his family were understandably troubled by the situation, Aaron was commended for handling it in a quiet, professional manner.  Many journalists and celebrities, including Babe Ruth’s widow, provided public support for him.  Aaron played 23 seasons and still holds the all-time record for RBI and total bases.  He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on his first time on the ballot in 1982.

Frank Robinson became Major League Baseball’s first black manager in 1975 when he was still playing for the Cleveland Indians.  He went on to manage in the big leagues for 16 years with four different teams.  He paved the way for future black managers such as Cito Gaston, Dusty Baker, Don Baylor, Cecil Cooper, Willie Randolph, and Ron Washington.  Robinson had a Hall of Fame career as a player, which included a MVP Award in both leagues and a Triple Crown title in 1966 with the Baltimore Orioles.  Robinson has long been well-respected within the baseball community and is considered one of Major League Baseball’s foremost ambassadors.

Emmett Ashford was the pioneer for African-American umpires by becoming the first black in Organized Baseball in 1951.  However, it took fifteen more seasons before he broke the color barrier for umpires in the major-leagues.  The 5-foot-7 arbiter, noted for his karate-like chop behind the plate to signal strikes, was popular among fans.  Following his retirement as an umpire in 1970, he worked in public relations for the MLB Commissioner’s Office.

Bill Lucas was the first African-American executive to hold general manager duties in Major League Baseball for the Atlanta Braves.  After a six-year minor-league playing career in the Braves organization, he went to work in their front office, starting out in sales and promotions and eventually working his way into the job as vice president of player development in 1977.  However, after forty years, major-league front offices remain an area in the baseball industry where African-Americans have yet to receive significant opportunities to make an impact.

Each of these gentlemen made historic accomplishments in baseball, paving the way for other blacks to follow them in their respective roles.  Many of these accomplishments can be traced back to Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in the major leagues.  His impact is probably best exemplified by the fact that every team has retired his uniform Number 42.  Furthermore, all major-league teams honor Robinson each April by having every player, manager, coach and umpire wear his uniform number on the anniversary date of his major-league debut.

Looking Ahead to the New Baseball Season

Baseball’s Hot Stove season officially comes to an end when pitchers and catchers report to major league spring training camps in Florida and Arizona this week.  Looking back to 2016, it’s hard to imagine there will be a more dramatic World Series this year.  We’ll miss Big Papi and Vince Scully who provided baseball fans tons of thrills over the years.  We saw newly-minted stars like Cory Seager and Gary Sanchez emerge in the game.  What will the 2017 season hold for us?  Here are a few things to watch for.

During the off-season, several key players found new homes.  It will be interesting to see how they impact their new teams.  Will Edwin Encarnacion be the big bat the Cleveland Indians were missing last year?  Will the Red Sox’s addition of Chris Sales to their pitching staff, which by the way already includes two Cy Young Award winners, make them unbeatable?  The Yankees essentially rented out closer Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs last year, and he helped them gain World Series championship rings.  As he returns to the Yankees this season, can he do it again?

Several teams made changes in managers over the winter in the hopes of moving their teams in a new direction.  Tory Lovullo gets his first shot at the helm of the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team whose enormous potential for 2016 went unrealized.  Bud Black returns in a managerial role with the Colorado Rockies, after having been the skipper of the San Diego Padres from 2007 to 2015.  Rick Renteria takes over the reins of the Chicago White Sox, who traded several of their veterans for a new crop of prospects.  None of these teams are likely to be relevant in 2017, but can these managers set a new course for the future?

The latest crop of rookies offer some hope for a few struggling teams.  Outfielder Hunter Renfroe is somewhat of a sleeper for the San Diego Padres.  He was a late bloomer coming out of college, but had a breakout year in the minors last season.  If his eleven games in a late-season call-up is any indication (4 homers and 11 RBI), he will be someone to watch.  Philadelphia Phillies shortstop J. P. Crawford, unlike Renfroe, has been on top prospects lists since he got out of high school.  A very athletic player, he will get a shot on a team that still needs a lot of help rebuilding its roster.  In dealing away several of its veterans, the White Sox picked up two of the top pitching prospects in the game, Lucas Giolito and Michael Kopech.  Don’t be surprised to find them in the White Sox starting rotation sometime during the season.  In his brief stint in 2016, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Alex Reyes demonstrated he will find a spot in an already crowded rotation.

The Miami Marlins and Kansas City Royals suffered severe setbacks to their pitching staffs with the tragic deaths of Jose Fernandez in a boating accident late last season and Yordany Ventura in an automobile accident over the winter.  Both teams will be hard-pressed to replace them in the short-term, affecting their ability to be playoff contenders.

The Atlanta Braves began re-building their team of the future a couple of years ago, to coincide with their move into their new stadium in 2017.  They stocked up on prospects, particularly their pitching, but it’s not looking like they will actually be competitive for another couple more years.  However, their rookie shortstop Dansby Swanson appears to be major-league ready now, and figures to be the face of the franchise.

Several of the top major-league players had disappointing or injury-plagued seasons in 2016.  Their ability to effectively rebound this season could be the difference in their teams being a contender.  Tops on the list is Bryce Harper.  After his MVP season in 2015, his offensive production was considerably down for him.  Thanks to newcomer Daniel Murphy the Washington Nationals still managed to win the East Division, but didn’t advance past the first round of the playoffs.

Similarly, Dallas Keuchel was the Cy Young Award winner in 2015 for the Houston Astros, but a shoulder problem kept him from turning another good season last year.  He is key to the Astros being able to return to the playoffs.  Michael Brantley of the Cleveland Indians missed the entire season except for eleven games, due to shoulder surgery.  Even though the Indians acquired Encarnacion to bolster the lineup, the Indians will also need Brantley back on the field to repeat as division champs.

The Mets’ Matt Harvey was affected by a health condition called thoracic outlet syndrome, which contributed to his losing four of his fourteen decisions.  Surgery caused him to miss the rest of the season after July 4.  The Mets need him to have rebound year in order to compete with the Nationals for the division title.  Other players looking for comeback seasons include the Diamondbacks’ Shelby Miller, the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig, the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen, and Oakland’s Sonny Gray.

Gary Sanchez had one of the most remarkable seasons ever for a rookie in 2016.  In only 53 games, mostly during the last two months of the year for the Yankees, Sanchez slammed 20 home runs and drove in 42 runs.  A lot of baseball folks are wondering if he is the real deal or just another flash in the pan.  The Yankees have a long legacy of outstanding catchers, including Dickey, Berra, Howard, Munson and Posada.  Yankees fans are hoping Sanchez is the next in the line of backstops to lead the Yankees to World Series titles.

The ageless Bartolo Colon, pitching in a staff of twenty-something-year-olds, was instrumental in the New York Mets’s resurgence in the past two seasons.  Now in his twentieth major league season, Colon (actually 44 years old this season) is now pitching for the Atlanta Braves, hoping to bring the same magic there.

Ryan Braun, Brian Dozier, and Andrew McCutchen were among a handful of players who were the subject of trade talks during the winter, but nothing ever happened.  Don’t be surprised to see them on the trading block sometime during the season.  Each of them could be just the player a prospective team is looking for to keep them in contention.

Which teams are going to be the new contenders for the World Series this year?  I’ll provide my picks for division winners and wild card teams as spring training draws to a close in March.  Stay tuned.

Former Jesuit and UNO Star Giavotella to Play for Italy in WBC

Johnny Giavotella has played at all levels of baseball in his young 29 years, and he will soon add one more to the list.  The New Orleans area native has committed to play for Team Italy in the upcoming World Baseball Classic, in what will be the fourth year of the international competition.

Giavotella prepped at Jesuit High School in New Orleans, where he was a member of a Louisiana 5A State Championship team.  He then went on to star for the University of New Orleans.  In his sophomore year, he was named the Most Outstanding Player of the 2007 Sun Belt Conference Tournament won by UNO.  As a junior he hit .354 with 12 home runs, 56 RBI and 19 stolen bases.

He was the second-round draft choice of the Kansas City Royals in 2008, making his major-league debut with the Royals three years later.  For four years, he split time between the Royals and their Omaha Triple-A affiliate.  The second baseman was the recipient of the 2011 George Brett Award as the Royals organization’s top hitter and was named Omaha’s Player of the Year.  In his most active season with the Royals in 2012, he appeared in 53 games. After the 2014 season, Giavotella was traded to the Los Angeles Angels.

Giavotella played for the Angels as their regular second baseman, but then lost his starting job late last season, due to his declining offensive production.  The Angels then decided to go in a different direction at second base, and he was granted free agency after the season.  He recently signed a minor league contract with the Baltimore Orioles.

Giavotella is eligible to play for Team Italy by virtue of his Italian heritage.  In addition to native-born players, the countries participating in the WBC are allowed to augment their rosters with non-resident players who are descendants of immigrants from those countries.

He is hoping to extend the improvement Team Italy enjoyed in the last WBC competition in 2013, when they finally got out of the first round pool play for the first time with a surprising defeat of Mexico.  In the two previous WBC tournaments in 2006 and 2009, Team Italy was able to win only a single game in the first rounds.

Giavotella will join fellow major leaguers on the Italian team, including a couple of veterans of WBC competition, Francisco Cervelli of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Drew Butera of the Kansas City Royals.

Other major leaguers who have already committed to play this year for Team Italy are Chris Colabello (Indians), Brandon Nimmo (Mets) and Daniel Descalso (Cardinals).  Team Italy organizers are also hoping to sign up additional players like Andrew Benintendi (Red Sox), Joey Gallo (Rangers) and Alex Liddi (Mexican League), although the rosters won’t be finalized for a couple more weeks.

The manager of Team Italy is Marco Mazzieri.  He has been the manager of several Italian national teams since 2007, including their entry in the 2013 WBC.  Hall of Famer Mike Piazza has been designated as a coach on the team.  Piazza actually played for Italy in the inaugural WBC tournament in 2006.

The 2017 WBC starts first-round pool play on March 9.  Italy will compete in Pool D in Jalisco, Mexico, where other participants will include Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

Three other first-round pools will be played in Miami (Pool C), Tokyo (Pool B) and Seoul (Pool A). The teams that advance out of the first-round will play semi-final elimination games in San Diego (hosting winners from Pools C and D) and Toyko (hosting winners from Pools A and B).  The final championship round will be played in Los Angeles.  Team USA will be competing in Pool C.

Francisco Cervelli credits his participation in the 2009 WBC for Italy with opening the door for him to secure a major league roster spot with the New York Yankees.  Perhaps a solid showing by Giavotella in this year’s installment of the international competition can help him land on the big-league roster with the Orioles this season.

Family Ties Flourishing in Baseball: New York Yankees

This is the first of a series of reviews that will take a look at family relationships in each major league organization.

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 of them 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, as well.

Indeed, families with a heritage of baseball are similar to 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.”

https://baseballrelatives.wordpress.com/2016/02/16/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 2016.

Brian McCann completed his third season as the Yankees catcher, after seven all-star seasons with the Atlanta Braves during 2005-2013.  He was traded to the Houston Astros during the off-season.  His brother, Brad, was a minor league first baseman in the Florida Marlins and Kansas City Royals organizations during 2004-2007.  McCann’s father, Howard, was drafted (8th round) by the Minnesota Twins in 1974, but did not sign.  He later played one season in the independent leagues.

Austin Romine got the most playing time in his five-year career with the Yankees in 2016, serving as a backup to Brian McCann.  But now that Gary Sanchez has taken over the starting catcher’s job, Romine will likely continue as a reserve.  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, was perhaps the ultimate utility player last season for the Detroit Tigers, as he played every position except catcher.

Mason Williams is a 24-year-old outfielder who played sparingly in his second season with the Yankees.  He doesn’t hit for much power, but uses his speed well on the bases and in the outfield.  He is the grandson of Walt Williams, who played in the outfield from 1964 to 1975, primarily with the Chicago White Sox.  Nicknamed “No Neck”, he made his major-league debut as a 20-year-old with the Houston Colt .45s.  He was a career .270 hitter, and logged two seasons with the Yankees before wrapping up his career.

Dustin Ackley was starting his second year with the Yankees in 2016, but his season was cut short in late May due to injury.  The outfielder/first baseman had been a regular with the Seattle Mariners after being a first-round draft pick (second overall) in 2009.  He is the son of John Ackley, a third-round draft pick of the Boston Red Sox in 1979, who never made it out of the minors.

Aaron Hicks played his first season with the Yankees in 2016 after three seasons with the Minnesota Twins.  Hicks was primarily a starter in the outfield alongside Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner.  He batted a meager .217 with 8 HR and 31 RBI.  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.

Kirby Yates.  Yates was acquired by the Yankees before the 2016 season to fill a middle relief role in their bullpen.  In his third major league season, he made 41 appearances while averaging almost 11 strikeouts per nine innings.  However, he posted an ineffective 5.23 ERA and WHIP of 1.452.  Yates signed with the Los Angeles Angels for the 2017 season.  His brother, Tyler, was a major-league relief pitcher for five seasons during 2004-2009.  He had a career 12-17 record with the Braves, Mets, and Pirates.

Chasen Shreve.  He was another middle relief pitcher for the Yankees who struggled in 2016, after posting a fine season the year before, including a 6-2 record and 3.09 ERA.  He has a brother, Colby, who pitched in the Philadelphia Phillies organization from 2010 to 2013.  Both of the brothers were drafted from College of Southern Nevada.

Several other Yankee players, who briefly appeared on the major-league roster during 2016, had relatives that played in the major leagues:  Eric Young Jr. (son of Eric Young Sr.), Donovan Solano (brother of Jhonatan Solano), and Ike Davis (son of Ron Davis, a former Yankee)

The Yankees’ pipeline of baseball relatives includes several top prospects whose relatives were former major-league all-stars:  Dante Bichette Jr. (son of Dante Bichette Sr.), Jose Mesa Jr. (son of Jose Mesa Sr.), and Michael O’Neill (nephew of Paul O’Neill).

The Yankees had a number of personnel filling non-playing roles in the organization during 2016.

Brothers Hal and Hank Steinbrenner are the principal owners of the Yankees, having taken over for their legendary father, George Steinbrenner, following his death in 2010.

Tony Pena completed his 11th season as coach for the Yankees, having served as both a base coach and bench coach under managers Joe Torre and Joe Girardi.  Pena was manager of the Kansas City Royals during 2002-2005.  He also had an 18-year major league career that included five all-star seasons.  He has two sons that have played in the majors:  Tony Francisco Pena was a shortstop who played from 2006 to 2009 in the Atlanta Braves and Kansas City Royals organizations; and Francisco Antonio Pena is currently a catcher in the Baltimore Orioles organization.  Pena also had a brother, Ramon, who pitched briefly with the Detroit Tigers in 1989.

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.

Kyle Arnsberg is a coach in the Yankees’ minor league system.  He is the son of former Yankees major league player Brad Arnsberg, who is now a minor league coordinator in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization.

Mark Littlefield is a trainer 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.

 

Baseball’s Relatives Website

The entire list of 2016 active major and minor league players and non-players can be retrieved at:

https://baseballrelatives.wordpress.com/2016-family-ties/

 

Team USA Expecting Different Results in World Baseball Classic

The baseball community is starting to hear a buzz and excitement about the upcoming World Baseball Classic in early March.  The tournament of 16 international teams usually gets a lot of attention, particularly from the Latin American countries, but this year’s Team USA roster has got many observers thinking the American baseballers can finally break through to the championship round.  There appears to be a renewed mindset by major-league players to put a top-notch team on the field.

Team USA has yet to get out of the semifinal round of the tournament in the three years (2006, 2009 and 2013) of the tournament.  For the past two tournaments, there was a general perception the American team was not putting its best players on the roster.  While Major League Baseball has been a strong supporter of the event, it has left the decision of filling roster spots to the individual players.  However, the owners and agents often discouraged their star players from participating, for fear of their not being fully prepared to start the regular season in April or, in the worst case, suffering a season-ending injury during the WBC games.

The preliminary roster being assembled for Team USA has many folks feeling different about the team’s prospect for getting into the championship round this year.  Head-liners who have already committed include All-Star and MVP-caliber players such as Buster Posey, Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, Ian Kinsler, Daniel Murphy, Adam Jones, Andrew McCutchen and Christian Yelich.  The pitching staff will include Marcus Stroman, Chris Archer, Tanner Roark and Andrew Miller.  Max Scherzer had been previously committed, before deciding to withdraw due to a stress fracture on his ring finger, but now there are reports of Clayton Kershaw and David Price being added to the staff.

The WBC was originally conceived to be a comparable event to the World Cup for soccer and the Olympics for track and field, swimming, and gymnastics, bringing the world’s best teams and athletes together for head-to-head, tournament-style competition, where nationalism would be a huge factor in the competitive spirit among the teams.  However, the WBC tournament has yet to actually achieve the equivalent status and reputation as those other international events.  Some of the shortfall has been due to the way the United States has disregarded the role of the international play to decide a world champion.  After all, baseball has historically been thought of as America’s game, and it’s had its own “World Series” for over 100 years, despite the absence of representative teams from other countries.

Another significant issue in the USA’s reluctance to fully embrace the tournament has been its timing.  The spring season is not really the best time because of interference with players’ normal training preparation for the regular season.  A fall season tournament, following the World Series, draws concerns for ample suitable weather for the three weeks of the tournament and the players’ reluctance to extend their already long seasons.

Stiff completion for Team USA will come from historically strong teams from Japan, Venezuela, and Dominican Republic, whose teams combine the best of their national players with major leaguers from their countries.  The USA will play in the Pool C first-round against Dominican Republic, Canada and Columbia.  Dominican Republic, the defending WBC champion, will again feature such high-powered major-league hitters as Robinson Cano, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Nelson Cruz and Adrian Beltre.  Canada will be led by major-leaguers Joey Votto, Freddie Freeman and Russell Martin, who has said he wants to play shortstop, versus his usual catcher position.  Retired pitchers Ryan Dempster and Eric Gagne have indicated a desire to be named to the Canadian team, although they have not pitched professionally since 2013 and 2008, respectively.  So it’s not clear how serious of a contender they will be.  Columbia is projected to be the weakest team in the pool, since the current number of major leaguers from the country is relatively small.  Major league pitcher Jose Quintana will be the best player on its team.

Pool C games start on March 9 in Miami.  The other three first-round pools will be played in Seoul, Korea (A), Tokyo (B), and Jalisco, Mexico (D).  The second-round games will be played in Tokyo and San Diego beginning March 12, with the final championship round being played in Los Angeles starting March 20.

Team USA’s manager this year is Jim Leyland, the former major league manager with the Pirates, Marlins, Rockies and Tigers.  He will have a star-studded lineup to work with, one that should draw renewed interest of American fans.  Perhaps this is the year the American team ends its championship drought in WBC competition, reclaims its dominance on the international stage, and provides a boost to the popularity and appeal of the tournament.

Rangers' Adrian Beltre Quietly Going About Hall of Fame Career

As I read more about the pros and cons of the current candidates for the upcoming 2017 class of the Baseball Hall of Fame, I got to thinking about some of the Hall’s future aspirants who will be eligible a few years down the road.  One name that popped up was current Texas Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre.  He doesn’t generally come to the top of mind when thinking about the game’s stellar third basemen, but a careful study of his career shows he has been quietly putting up strong numbers warranting serious consideration for his future induction to the hallowed hall in Cooperstown.

Beltre, who turns 38 years of age in April, is entering his twentieth season as a major leaguer.  Yes, doing the quick math, it means he got an early start on his career at age 19 in 1998.  Now, when most veteran ballplayers are on the down-side of their careers at his age, Beltre keeps hacking away, compiling career numbers that put him among the top players in history in several categories.

Beltre was a relatively late-bloomer as a star player, and consequently he didn’t garner as much attention during the first half of his career.  Also, as a native of Dominican Republic, he didn’t get many opportunities to become a high-profile player with the national media.  Consequently, he’s primarily been playing in the shadows of other big-name teammates and opponents.

Beltre is only 58 hits from reaching the sure-fire Hall of Fame standard of 3,000 career hits.  He’s 55 home runs away from 500 career home runs.  The only players in history to have achieved both of these milestones can be counted on one hand:  Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Eddie Murray, Alex Rodriguez, and Rafael Palmeiro.  Some people might be thinking, “I don’t remember Beltre putting up those kinds of numbers.”  Well, he just quietly went about his business.

In more contemporary measures, his Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is 90.2, which is second only to Albert Pujols among active players and currently ranks him 65th on the all-time list.  Defensively, he still dazzles as a third baseman, capturing his fifth Gold Glove Award last year.

His best year during his first twelve seasons occurred when he put up an MVP-type season in 2004 with the Los Angeles Dodgers.  He slammed a league-leading 48 home runs and drove in 128 runs, while posting a .334 batting average.  He finished as a runner-up to Barry Bonds in the MVP Award voting.

The Texas Rangers had won their first AL pennant in 2010, but lost to the San Francisco Giants in five games.  They signed 32-year-old Beltre to a five-year contract before the 2011 season, when he helped put them back into the 2012 Series in which they came within one pitch of winning the championship.  Since joining the Rangers, he has been the cornerstone of the team’s offense and has been in the Top 7 of the American League MVP voting four times.  In a time when major league general managers are shying away from long-term contracts with players in their 30s, Beltre is a prime example of one that has actually paid off for the team.

About the only thing Beltre is missing in his career is a World Series ring.

On a Rangers roster whose average age is almost ten years younger than his, Beltre doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.  Last year he led a power-laden team with 32 home runs and 104 RBI.  He still ranks among the top third basemen, trailing only a few young studs like Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson.  The World Series ring is still not out of the question, since the Rangers are expected to be among the best teams again.

 If Beltre were to play until age 40, which is entirely possible, he would become eligible for the Hall of Fame ballot in 2024.  Even without specifically knowing who else would be first-time eligible players that year, he will almost surely be at the top of the list for induction.  Then he won’t be in anyone’s shadow any more.

Bud Selig's Election to the Hall of Fame Could Impact Future Voting

Something significant happened in December that could start to affect the voting for candidates on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot.  Former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig was elected by the Today’s Game Era Committee as a member of the 2017 class of Hall of Fame inductees. So, why would his election have an impact?

The issue of how baseball writers who cast Hall of Fame ballots should deal with player candidates that are admitted or suspected PED users is as controversial as ever.  Neither Major League Baseball nor the Baseball Hall of Fame has given any guidance to the voters on how they should treat these players.  Consequently, there’s been a mixed bag of results to date.

Let’s take a look back at how Hall of Fame voters have dealt with the issue up until now.

Mark McGwire (after 10 years) and Rafael Palmeiro (after four years) have completely fallen off the ballot after not being able to garner the required number of votes.  It was evident voters were absolutely influenced by McGwire ultimately admitting to his PED use, while Palmeiro actually tested positive during his last season as a player after denying before a congressional investigative committee that he had never used PEDs.

However, in the past few years there appears to be some softening of the opinions of the baseball writers, as well as the baseball analyst community in general.

Suspected PED users Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens have gradually increased their votes such that they each received votes on 44-45% of the ballots in 2016.  Although never failing a drug test, the cloud of suspected PED use affected Mike Piazza votes, until he was finally elected last year on his fourth ballot.  Jeff Bagwell, who has been similarly affected by the suspicion of PED use, appears to be poised for election this year, as he came extremely close last year with 71% of the votes (75% is the minimum).  Presumably, the difference in these four players and McGwire/Palmeiro is that there was never any definitive proof or admission of their use.

Bud Selig’s recent election to the Hall may be another signal that players in the PED era will get increased consideration in the future.  Some observers maintain that actual or implied PED users on the ballot shouldn’t be excluded any further, since the PED era occurred under Selig’s watch as commissioner.  They argue that the view of Selig shouldn’t be separated from the view of any players on this issue.  Of course, hard-liners on the PED issue counter that Selig shouldn’t have been elected in any case.  While Selig has publicly made statements that he was not aware of the prevalence of players using PEDs prior to drug testing being instituted, it’s hard to imagine that he was innocently out of touch with what was happening during that time.

Two new entrants on the ballot this year may be the next test of how the Hall’s official voters will treat the PED issue going forward and whether Selig’s election has done anything that would alter their stance toward actual or implied PED users.  Manny Ramirez and Ivan Rodriguez are appearing on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in 2017, and both carry some PED baggage.

Ramirez failed drug tests twice in the waning years of his career, while Rodriguez falls into the category of suspected user by being linked to Jose Canseco, who wrote a tell-all book about his experience with steroid use.  Both players certainly have enough credentials to be elected, if not on the first ballot, then soon afterwards.

So what’s my “fantasy” Hall of Fame ballot going to look like this year?

To recap last year, I voted for Ken Griffey Jr., Piazza, Bagwell, Bonds, Clemens, Lee Smith, Trevor Hoffman, Tim Raines, Gary Sheffield, and Curt Schilling. 

With Griffey and Piazza gaining induction last year, that opens up two more slots for new players on my ballot.  I’m going to stick with my remaining eight carryovers from 2016.  Even though Lee Smith (34.1%) and Gary Sheffield (11.6%) lagged behind other players in the voting last year, I’m staying the course with them.

Lee Smith doesn’t get the attention he deserves because he didn’t have significant post-season appearances, plus relief pitchers generally seem to draw the short straw in the voting when compared to other position players.  However, he finished in the Top 5 for the Cy Young Award in three seasons and he’s third on the all-time saves list.  2017 is Lee Smith’s final year of eligibility.

Gary Sheffield probably suffers from not being identified with one specific team during his career. In fact, he played for eight different clubs during his 22 seasons.  But it didn’t seem to matter what team he played for, since he was in the Top 10 for the MVP Award in six seasons.  He was a 12-time All-Star and captured five Silver Slugger awards.

It appears that Bagwell (71.6%), Hoffman (67.3%) and Raines (69.8%) have a good chance to be elected in 2017, based on last year’s results.

For my two new open slots, I’m voting for Ivan Rodriguez and another first-time player on the ballot, Vladimir Guerrero.

So, why Rodriguez and not Manny Ramirez?  I have drawn the line personally on the PED issue that “suspected” use is not sufficient enough reason for excluding a player (Rodriguez’s case) and that failing a drug test is sufficient reason (Ramirez’s case).

Furthermore, I take the position that before Major League Baseball instituted drug testing for PEDs, there should be no reason to automatically exclude players for consideration.  Hence, Bonds and Clemens still have my votes.  We should recall that amphetamine pills and cortisone shots were never on baseball’s “illegal use” list, yet were actually “performance enhancing” because their use contributed to many players being able to minimize the effects of pain and wear and tear on the body, so that they could play every day.  Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax was a prime example during the last few years of his career in the 1960s.

I like Rodriguez because he was a solid, all-around player as a hitter and a fielder.  The 1999 American League MVP collected 2,844 hits while compiling a .296 career average. He hit 311 home runs and 1,332 RBI.  He earned a record 13 Gold Gloves during his 21 seasons.  He appeared in more games (2,427) as a catcher than anyone in history.

Guerrero was a feared hitter during a 16-year career that included a .318 batting average, 449 home runs and 1,496 RBI.  The outfielder posted ten seasons with at least 100 RBI.  The 2004 American League MVP was in the Top 6 of MVP voting in five additional seasons.  He was noted for his strong throwing arm from right field.

Jorge Posada is another key first-timer on the ballot this year, but I put both Rodriguez and Guerrero records well ahead of the former Yankee catcher’s.

The Hall of Fame Class of 2017 will be announced on January 18.  Stay tuned to see how the baseball writers will react on this year’s ballots.

New Orleanian Rusty Staub Part of Historic Lineup in 1963

Baseball fans were generally amazed when the Chicago Cubs’ lineup included a bunch of twenty-something-year-old players in their historic run for the World Series title during this past post-season.  Indeed Major League Baseball has become a young man’s game, but the Houston Colt .45s took this to an extreme back in 1963 when they fielded a youthful, all-rookie team on September 27, 1963.  New Orleans native Rusty Staub, only a year removed from Jesuit High School, was part of that momentous lineup.

A combination of factors, which would probably never happen in today’s environment, contributed to the odd occurrence then.  Nonetheless it was one of the most unique games in baseball history.  The players in today’s game of baseball seem to be getting younger and younger each year.  But that Houston team in 1963 fielded the youngest lineup of all time.  The Colt .45s, Houston’s nickname before they became the Astros in 1965, inserted a rookie at each of the nine starting positions in the lineup.

In only their second season of existence in the National League, Houston was a struggling franchise on and off the field.  They were playing their home games in a small stadium in an area of Houston where humidity and mosquitos prevailed during most of its night games.  Attendance at their home games for the month of September had been hovering around four thousand fans, so the team’s front office management decided to deploy this unique lineup as a promotional ploy to boost attendance.

Houston was able to pull off this feat by taking advantage of late-season player call-ups when major league rosters could be expanded beyond the normal twenty-five player limit after September 1.  The Colt .45s were going nowhere anyway, since they were a whopping 35 games out of first place.  Although it was a dismal season, they were actually not in last place in the National League—that was reserved for the New York Mets, another league expansion team in 1962, who were 49 games behind the league-leading Los Angeles Dodgers.

During most of the season, the regular lineup of the Colt .45s had included of a number of “also-rans” who had been acquired by Houston in the National League expansion draft before their inaugural season in 1962.  Aging Colt .45s players like Bob Lillis, Pete Runnels, Johnny Logan, and Don McMahon had been pretty decent players earlier in their careers, but they were well past their prime in 1963.

Here’s a run-down of Houston’s starting lineup of rookies on that historic day in September.

1B – Rusty Staub was 19 years old, only one year out of Jesuit High School where he was a schoolboy phenom in baseball.  After being recruited out of high school by all sixteen major league clubs, Staub eventually signed for a $100,000 bonus with the expansion Houston club.  He had made his major league debut in April and thus had put in a full season with the Colt .45s which qualified him as the “veteran” of this bunch.

2B – Joe Morgan was 19 years old in his first pro season.  He was promoted from Single-A to the major league club.

SS – Sonny Jackson was 18 years old, making his major league debut on September 27.  Like Morgan, he had been advanced from the Single-A level.

3B – Glenn Vaughan was 19 year old.  1963 turned out to be his only major league campaign, and he was out of baseball altogether after the 1964 season.

LF – Brock Davis was 19 years old in only his first pro season. He had started the 1963 season with the Colt .45s in April, but was later demoted at the end of June.

CF – Jimmy Wynn, at 21 years old, was the elder statesman of this lineup, in terms of age.  He had made his major league debut with the Colt .45s on July 10.

RF – Aaron Pointer was 21 years old (only a month younger than Wynn), but he was actually playing in his third pro season in the minors before being called up.

C – Jerry Grote was 20 years old, playing in his first pro season after attending Trinity University for a years.

P – Jay Dahl was the real “newbie” of the bunch at only 17 years old.  His starting assignment on September 27 turned out to be his only major league appearance of his career.  He pitched in only one more pro season before being out of baseball altogether.

This lineup had collectively played in a total of 261 major league games prior to the game on September 27, with Staub and Wynn claiming 214 of those.  In all, the Colt .45s fielded fifteen rookies in the game.  Ernie Fazio was the first non-rookie to appear in the game for the Colt .45s when he entered as a defensive replacement in the top of the 6th inning.

The Colt .45s wound up losing the game to the New York Mets, 10-3.  Dahl pitched only 2 2/3 innings before being yanked.  He yielded seven runs to the sixteen batters he faced.  Morgan, Staub, Wynn, and Vaughan accounted for eight of Houston’s eleven hits in the game.  Morgan’s triple was the only extra-base hit for the Colt .45s.  The last-place Mets banged out fifteen hits against five Houston pitchers that included three additional rookies besides Dahl.  Despite the marketing objective of the game, only 5,802 fans were in attendance.

Several of those young Houston players went on to have noteworthy major league careers.  Morgan made his mark as part of Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” in the 1970s and was eventually elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame.  Staub collected 2,716 career hits, including over 500 at each of four different teams.  Staub was an all-star in six of his 23 years.  Wynn, who later became popularly known as “The Toy Cannon,” slammed 291 home runs during his 15-year career which included three all-star seasons.

Although younger players largely dominate big league baseball today, we won’t likely see this type of exploit of a team’s lineup again, even if there is a future major league franchise expansion.  Furthermore, current league rules regarding free agency eligibility discourage major league clubs from promoting rookies before they are truly major-league-ready.

However, for this one day in Houston in 1963, youth reigned like never before and probably never will again.