Somebody Should Sign Telvin Nash

Posted May 27, 2016 by Burly
Categories: Houston Astros, Minor Leagues

Telvin Nash is a 25-year old slugger playing for the York Revolution of the Atlantic League, the best of the Independent-A leagues.  His 1.047 OPS leads the league by a bunch.  The next closest player with at least 100 plate appearances 34 games into the 2016 season is at an even .900.

Nash spent seven seasons in the Houston Astros organization, where he showed a lot of power.  He hit 29 home runs for the Lancaster JetHawks in the Class A+ California League at age 21, and he hit 22 HRs for the Corpus Christi Hooks of the AA Texas League in 2014 at age 23.

The problem is Nash didn’t hit for much of an average, and he strikes out an enormous amount, 198 times in 449 plate appearance in 2012 and 112 times in 321 plate appearances in 2014, the two years he hit all those home runs.  Still, his career minor league slash line of .241/.336/.479, suggests that Nash had some potential as a hitter.

Nash didn’t improve in 2015 back at Corpus Christi, batting .228, but with a .774 OPS, and the Astros cut him after he had played in 30 games.  Nash also appears either to have missed a lot of time with injury, or he was being platooned in several of his minor league seasons.  I also have to assume that his defense is not very good.

Nash hit well in 64 games for the Revolution last season after getting cut by the Astros.  However, he’s hitting a lot better this year more than 30 games into the 2016 season.

Nash is still young enough to have an MLB future, and his power is very real.  Somebody should sign him soon and give him another shot at AA ball, the sooner the better.

Jarrett Parker Back and Still Swinging for the Fences

Posted May 25, 2016 by Burly
Categories: San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres

The San Francisco Giants promoted Jarrett Parker again to replace the injured Angel Pagan, and Parker was quick to leave his mark, hitting a two-run homer to center in last night’s game against the Padres.  After Parker’s torrid September last season, a lot of people have been eager to see him get more opportunities at the highest level.

Parker got off to a slow start at AAA Sacramento this year after a fairly strong Spring Training, but he has been hitting more lately, now tied for the Pacific Coast League lead with 13 home runs and a slash line of .281/.366/.615.

After last night’s game, Parker’s major league slash line this season is .250/.400./.625 in ten plate appearances.  In my mind, this is pretty much exactly what the Giants can hope for if things go right for Parker.  He strikes out too much to be likely to maintain a batting average much above .250 in regular major league play, but he’ll take a walk, and his power is very real.

Parker was a tools draft pick, and it has taken him a long time to develop.  He’s now 27, but he runs well, and he’s got that power, so there is still a reasonable chance for him to have an MLB career if he can take advantage of his opportunities this season.  If he doesn’t, there’s a good chance he’ll end up in Asia in a couple of years.

The Golden Age of the Bean Ball

Posted May 24, 2016 by Burly
Categories: Baseball History, Uncategorized

One of the tropes you commonly hear about major league baseball is how tough the players were back in the olden days and how quick pitchers once were to throw at hitters in a way they aren’t in these more civilized days.  I’m sure you’ve heard how Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, etc. would automatically throw at any hitter who had the temerity to dig in, crowd the plate, etc.

As any of this actually true?  Probably not.  Today I looked at all 232 seasons in which a pitcher hit at least 18 batters in a season.

The Golden Age of the Bean Ball was between 1884 and 1910, when the vast majority of these seasons occurred.  This was an era of dirty baseballs, late afternoon games, far more innings pitched by starters, and many rule changes regarding the manor in which the pitcher pitched and then threw the ball toward the plate.

Since 1920 and the advent of the live-ball era, the current generation (1998-2015) contains far and away the most pitchers to plunk at least 18 batters in a season.  Don’t take my word for it — here are the numbers by season:

1922:  Howard Ehmke 23

1923:  Howard Ehmke 20; Walter Johnson 20

1959:  Don Drysdale 18

1960: Frank Lary 19

1961: Don Drysdale 19

1962:  Jim Kaat 18

1966: Jim Bunning 19

1967: Jim Lonborg 19

1992: Randy Johnson 18

1998: Rolando Arroyo 19

2000: Jamie Wright 18

2001: Jamie Wright 20, Chan-ho Park 20, Randy Johnson 18, Tim Wakefield 18

2003:  Kerry Wood 21

2004: Bronson Arroyo 20, Carlos Zambrano 20

2005: Casey Fossum 18, Jeff Weaver 18

2006: Dontrelle Willis 19,Ramon Ortiz 18, Dave Bush 18

2007: Justin Verlander 18

2008: Daniel Cabrera 18

2010: A.J. Burnett 19

2011: John Lackey 19

2014: Charlie Morton 19

In short, there have been almost twice as many times that a pitcher has plunked at least 18 batters in a season in the last 18 full seasons (19 times) as there were in the previous 78 seasons (10 times).  There was an HBP surge in the 1960’s, led by Don Drysdale and Jim Bunning, two hard-throwers who are both in the top 20 all-time for career plunkings, which is probably where this era gets it reputation for toughness.

However, these numbers suggest that pitchers today are every bit as willing, if not more so, to pitch inside in order to control the strike zone and prevent hitters from feeling too comfortable at the dish.  In terms of career HBP totals, there isn’t much to suggest that pitchers were once willing to throw at or near hitters any more than they are today, at least once one takes into account the far fewer innings pitched that today’s starters throw than in years past.

 

Intentional Walks

Posted May 22, 2016 by Burly
Categories: American League, Baseball History, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants, Toronto Blue Jays, Washington Nationals

Someone recently wrote a dumb article arguing that the intentional walks should be discouraged by advancing base runners even when there are bases open, essentially turning the intentional walk into a single.  The impetus for this article was the May 8 game in which the Cubs walked Bryce Harper six times and hit him with a pitch in seven plate appearances.  The Cubs won the game in 13 innings 4-3.

The basic argument of the article was that fans don’t want to see the game’s best hitters pitched around.  That makes a certain amount of sense.  However, there are a couple of obvious flaws with the argument.

First, it’s a little late in the day for this change.  Pitchers and teams have been pitching around the game’s best hitters at least since the days of Babe Ruth and the rise of home runs in 1920, and probably since the heavy hitting days of the 1890’s.

Second, baseball is supposed to be a team game.  An intentional walk is almost always a failed strategy if the next batter reaches base safely.  If a team has one great hitter in the heart of its line-up, but no one else that can hit, why shouldn’t the opposing team be able to take advantage of that fact by pitching around the team’s only strong hitter?

That’s exactly what the Cubs did in all four games of that series against the Nationals, which the Cubs swept.  The Cubs won all four games by no more than three runs, and Harper scored only three runs in spite of reaching base 14 times without hitting safely, so obviously the strategy worked.  Why shouldn’t the onus be on the Nats to find somebody who can hit behind Harper to make other teams pay for employing this tactic?

Finally, and most importantly, I don’t see any way to for the plate umpire to determine whether or not a pitcher is intentionally trying to walk a batter if the intentional walk is eliminated and pitchers simply elect to throw four pitches out of the strike zone without the catcher stepping out from behind the plate.  Presumably, in the early days of baseball, pitchers simply threw four pitches out of the strike zone when they didn’t want a certain hitter to have an opportunity to hit, and at some point, teams did away with the pretense of trying to look like the pitcher was pitching to the hitter in good faith but not throwing strikes.

Pitchers pitch to the game’s best hitters very carefully anyway.  Making the plate umpire decide whether or not a pitcher is missing the strike zone intentionally would lead to a lot of arbitrary decisions or would simply be ignored.

An analogous comparison is allowing umpires to deny the batter a base after the batter is hit by a pitch if the umpire thinks the batter didn’t try to get out of the way.  This rule is almost always ignored, even for batters who every one knows don’t try to get out of the way (Don Baylor) or who appear to be moving out of the way but are actually moving into the pitch (Ron Hunt).  As a result, the rare instances when the rule is enforced, for example during Don Drysdale‘s scoreless innings pitched streak when his plunking of Dick Dietz wasn’t called, allowing the streak to continue, always seem arbitrary and capricious.

MLB has only been keeping track of intentional walks since 1955.  What is interesting about the stats is except for when Barry Bonds was juicing hard between 2001 and 2004 and hitting like Babe Ruth‘s big brother, the record for intentional walks for a season is Willie McCovey‘s 45 in 1969.

Since the end of the Steroids Era, it’s not at all clear that intentional walks are much more common now than they were before the Steroids Era.  It’s also worth noting that the intentional walk appears to be much more of a National League strategy, perhaps because of the DH in the AL, with the top 17 single season intentional walks totals recorded in the Senior Circuit.  Further, walking Barry Bonds as much as teams did between 2001 and 2004 does not appear to have been particularly effective, as the Giants won more than 100 games more than they lost during those four seasons.

Good time for a trivia question — who holds the American League single season record for intentional walks?  Answer below.

Anyway, what got me thinking about this issue again is that MLB is reportedly discussing a rule to make the intentional walk automatic, meaning that the defensive team could simply advise the umpire of its intent to issue an intentional walk without the need for four wide pitches.  Presumably, the purpose of the new rule, if formally approved, is to speed up the game.

MLB is also discussing reducing the strike zone from the bottom of the knees to the top of the knees.  If enacted and enforced by the umpires, this is anticipated to boost offense.  More offense means more intentional walks, as the cost of the intentional walk (a free base) is less when the league’s best hitters become more productive offensively.

The American League record for intentional walks in a season is 33, set my Ted Williams in 1957 and matched by John Olerud in 1993.

What Foreign Players Are Most Likely to Succeed in Japan’s NPB?

Posted May 17, 2016 by Burly
Categories: Baseball Abroad

I’ve been following Japanese baseball for the last 20 years, and I still don’t have an extremely clear idea on which foreign players will succeed in NPB and which will not.  I have a few ideas on the subject, but I can name exceptions to just about all of them.

The single most important factor is talent level.  Players who should be MLB stars, based on their minor league performance, but for some reason weren’t able to establish themselves in MLB; and position players who can hit at the major league level but don’t have enough power for the positions at which they can provide adequate MLB defense, tend to do well in NPB.  So do late-bloomers who establish themselves as major league caliber hitters in AAA in their age 26 or 27 seasons.

However, NPB teams are extremely good at identifying and signing these players, but they don’t all succeed fast enough in NPB to stick around more than one season.  Meanwhile, Tony Blanco established himself as a major NPB star, despite not accomplishing all that much in many years in the MLB system (injuries appear to have played a role).

In my mind, the ideal age for a North American player to start his NPB career is his age 27 or 28 season, at least in terms of having a long NPB career.  Players younger than 27 usually either aren’t willing to give up their MLB dream just yet, and if they are, it is typically a reflection of the fact that their talent level isn’t quite high enough.

Even so, many players who are the right age don’t last in NPB, because they don’t perform at a high enough level immediately.  NPB wants its foreign players to be stars immediately and are rarely willing to develop highly paid foreigners who show promise but not enough actual production in their first NPB seasons.

Two good examples of this are Dan Johnson and Matt Clark.  Dan Johnson, a proven MLB hitter and high 4-A talent, hit only .215, but with 24 HRs and a .791 OPS, in his age 29 season for the 2009 Yokohama Bay Stars.  However, he had signed a roughly $1 million contract with the Bay Stars based on his MLB track record, and the Bay Stars weren’t willing to bring him back for a second season.

Matt Clark hit .238, but with 25 HRs and a .785 OPS, in his age 26 season for the 2013 Chunichi Dragons.  Given his age and fact that his reported deal only cost the team about $450,000, the Dragons’ decision not to bring him back in 2014 struck me as extremely short-sighted.

NPB teams often sign over age 30 players with proven MLB track records precisely in the hopes that they will get immediate performance.  These players tend to be expensive, and while they succeed often enough to keep NPB teams signing these types of players, most are on the downside of their careers and either can’t make the adjustments to Japanese baseball or can’t stay healthy.  This year, for example, Jonny Gomes has already washed out of NPB in less than two months, and Garrett Jones is now struggling (.224 batting average, .747 OPS) in spite of a fast start.

In the case of Jones and Gomes, I tend to think that former major leaguers who held their MLB roster spots because of their dramatic platoon differentials don’t tend to do well in NPB, where they are paid to play every day but typically find they can’t hit NPB pitchers when they don’t have the platoon advantage.  However, Dayan Viciedo, who had a big platoon differential in almost 1,800 career MLB plate appearances, is thumping the ball so far in his NPB rookie season (.314 batting average, 1.030 OPS).  Of course, Viciedo is still only 27 years old this season.

On the other hand, Brad Eldred, a 4-A player who didn’t join NPB until his age 31 season (he turned 32 in July of his rookie NPB year), has gradually and despite frequent injuries, established himself as a big NPB star.  He’s the second best hitter in NPB so far this year in terms of OPS (1.116) even though he turns 36 in a couple of months.

Among pitchers, guys with major league stuff but not quite major league command often have success.  Marc Kroon and Denis Sarfate are good examples. However, long-time project Erik Cordier (he has a 100 mph fastball), hasn’t shown adequate command at the NPB level this year either.

Also, guys who are bottom the bullpen MLB pitchers have recently had success moving on to a bigger role in NPB.  Randy Messenger, Logan Ondrusek and Marcos Mateo are examples.

Others, however, are fairly standard 4-A types who happened to make it in Japanese baseball, like Rick van den Hurk, Jason Standridge and Brandon Dickson.  van den Hurk used South Korea’s KBO to work his way up to NPB.

The Time for Long-Term Extensions

Posted May 15, 2016 by Burly
Categories: Houston Astros

Jose Altuve is off to a tremendous start this year, even if the Astros are not, and it’s got me thinking about the almost embarrassingly team friendly long-term contract he signed with the ‘Stros a few years ago.

As everyone knows, the Astros have been at the forefront in trying to lock up their young stars with long-term team-friendly deals.  There was far more screaming from other players and the players’ association when the team signed Jon Singleton to a five-year $10 million deal even before Singleton had played a day in the majors, in order to lock in Singleton to three more seasons at relatively reasonable team options, than there was about Altuve’s contract.

If you will recall, people complained that the deal was “black mail” because the Astros had kept George Springer in the minors just long enough to ensure that the team would get an extra year of control after Springer refused to sign a team-friendly long-term deal the previous September.  Also, people complained that Singleton should have “bet on himself” and his baseball future, rather than sign this deal.

Well, as it has turned out, the deal Singleton signed looks like its going to be better for him than for the team.  He hasn’t established himself as a major league player and isn’t playing particularly well so far at AAA in 2016, the third year of the deal.

In fact, the whole purpose of this deal was give Singleton an upfront guarantee in order to lock in one or two free agent seasons at a bargain price.  However, even if the Astros exercise all three options, Singleton won’t become a free agent until the contract is over and done with.

Don’t feel too sorry for the Astros, though.  The $10 million committed to Singleton isn’t a particularly big hit in light of current team salary amounts, even if Singleton never plays another game in the majors.

In fact, even if Altuve gets hit by a bus tomorrow, the Astros may already have saved $10M simply by virtue of the fact that Altuve couldn’t  take advantage of salary arbitration after his terrific 2014 and 2015 seasons.  If Altuve stays healthy, the deal only gets better as the Astros won’t be paying him more than $6.5 million per year through the 2019 season.

(Don’t feel too sorry for George Springer, either.  He’s healthy, playing well, and the Astros called him up early enough in 2014 to ensure that he will be a super-two and eligible for salary arbitration after this season.  I very much doubt that Springer will be giving the Astros any discounts anytime soon.)

The reasons why the Altuve deal worked out better for the team than the Singleton deal seem fairly obvious.  Altuve had almost two full years of major league service at the time he signed his extension, while Singleton had yet to play in the major leagues at all.

Also, as a player from Venezuela, he likely comes from a poor family, and the Astros had initially declined to sign him as an amateur because of his small stature.  He came back to try out again a year later and signed for a very modest $15,000 bonus.

In short [no pun intended], Altuve was likely particularly susceptible to a contract offering him immediate security, and I suspect the team fully took advantage of the player’s insecurities about his size and the fact that his status as a major league star was still somewhat up in the air.  Never mind that 50 years ago the Astros had another under-sized 2Bman who went on to become the greatest 2Bman ever.

When Altuve signed in July 2013, he was batting around .290, but his OPS was down from the year before, in a place where he might well have thought he was only one extended slump from being sent back to the minors.

The lesson to be learned from Altuve’s contract, perhaps, is that best time to offer a young player a long-term extension is during or immediately after his “sophomore slump” season, when the player’s value and self-confidence are temporarily down but are much more likely than not to rise again.

I would guess that more than half of young position players who establish themselves as major league regulars by their age 23 season have a down year in their second or third full major league seasons.  The conventional wisdom is that it takes the league’s players about a year to find the flaws in a young but talented player’s game, and then it takes about a year for the youngster to make the counter-adjustments necessary to eliminate or minimize those flaws.

If the “sophomore slump” season happens in or before the youngster’s age 24 season, I suspect that it is much more likely than not that the young player will go to bigger and better performance in his peak seasons from age 26 through 28 or 29 than he had in his first big seasons.  The Astros are a team that reportedly puts a lot of weight on analytics, so I am sure they were well aware of what the actual odds are when they made their offer to Altuve.  The lucky part for the ‘Stros was that they were dealing with a player who put a particularly high value on security at that age and stage in his career.

 

 

 

Former Prospect Matt Bush Finally Makes Majors

Posted May 13, 2016 by Burly
Categories: San Diego Padres, Texas Rangers, Uncategorized

2004 No. 1 overall draft pick Matt Bush was called up today from AA ball by the Texas Rangers.  It’s one hell of an improbable story, and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about.

For those who don’t know the story, Bush was an extremely talented shortstop coming out of high school in San Diego, who the Padres selected first overall because he was a local boy and the team wasn’t willing to shell out for a couple of other top prospects represented by Scott Boras.

As well as being extremely talented, Bush had an extremely big chip on his shoulder and sense of entitlement.  He got into a bar fight within weeks of being drafted and quickly became an alcoholic with a penchant for drinking and driving.

Bush couldn’t hit enough to move up as a SS, so he shifted to pitcher but quickly tore his elbow tendon and required Tommy John surgery.

Then during Spring Training in 2012, he borrowed his roommate’s truck, although Bush had long since lost his driver’s license to DUI convictions, got drunk again and ultimately ran over the head of a 72 year old motorcyclist, who survived because he was wearing a helmet.  Bush hit and ran but was quickly arrested a few miles down the road.

Bush pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 51 months in prison, ultimately serving about 3 1/2 years local jail and a Florida State Penitentiary.  Less than two months after getting out of stir, the Rangers signed him to a minor league contract because Bush can still throw a baseball 97 miles per hour.

On the one hand, I feel like Bush has done his time, and if he is finally able to succeed and turn his life around, that’s a good thing.  Besides, it’s a great story of an unlikely comeback.

My concern, however, is that if Bush finally makes good as a major league player, we, the baseball reading public, will be subjected to the usual BS stories by sportswriters about how Bush has turned his life around and what a great human being he now is.  In professional sports, just about everything is forgiven if on-field performance is sufficiently high — just ask Ray Lewis — and an athlete’s reported qualities as a great human being and a “leader” are far too often closely correlated to said performance level.

While Bush has done his time, it’s no sure thing that he is now a great human being no matter how his future major league career goes.


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