Who’s Left?

Posted January 21, 2017 by Burly
Categories: Arizona Diamond Backs, Denver Rockies, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants

In my mind the last piece the 2017 San Francisco Giants need is a right-handed power hitting outfielder.  Right now, the team’s likely third through fifth outfielders are Mac Williamson, Jarrett Parker and Gyorkis Hernandez.  All are reasonably young and talented, but none has significant major league experience, something the Giants typically value highly.

The team has signed Michael Morse and Justin Ruggiano, both of whom you will note are right-handed hitters, to minor league deals, but neither looks like a particularly realistic shot to make the team out of Spring Training.

I scanned mlbtraderumors.com’s free agent tracker yesterday, and Ryan Raburn and Rickie Weeks look like the best two right-handed hitting outfielders still available.  Both could be signed to minor league deals for 2017, or in Weeks’ case a relatively inexpensive major league deal, it well appears.

Of the two, I like Weeks better, because he’s two years younger, has more power, has had a much better career, and all in all had a better 2016 season with the bat than Raburn did.  Fangraphs says that Weeks’ outfield defense is brutally bad, but Weeks has played only 55 games in his lengthy major league career in the outfield, all of them in the last two seasons.  Weeks still appears to run fairly well, and I would have to think that he’d get better as an outfielder as he gets more experience after a long major league career through age 31 spent exclusively at 2B.

Another player I like is Jabari Blash, who was just designated for assignment by the Padres.  He isn’t going to hit for average, but he’s blasted an astounding 45 home runs in 646 AAA plate appearances, about one full season at that level.  He’ll only be 27 in 2017, and his on-base percentages are high too.

The main knock on Blash is that he’s got no more major league experience than Williamson, Parker or Hernandez.  However, on the subject of finding the next Brandon Moss, Blash has to be right at the top of the list.

Rooting for Dellin Betances in Arbitration

Posted January 20, 2017 by Burly
Categories: New York Mets, New York Yankees, Uncategorized

The New York Yankees and Dellin Betances are going to arbitration.  Betances is asking for $5 million; the Yankees are offering $3 million.  I’m rooting for Betances.

This is nothing new in that my allegances are usually with the players: the players, not ownership, put the cans in the seats.   However, in this case, reading that the Bombers renewed Betances’ 2016 contract at the major league minimum strikes me as just wrong.

There is obviously something more to the story.  Even the cheapest, small market teams usually give tiny raises to young players before they become arbitration eligible.

However, many teams, if the player will not accept the raise the team unilaterally elects to give, whatever that might be, choose to punish the player by renewing him at the minimum for not accepting the unilaterally imposed small raise.  I have to think that is why Betances got a $5,000 raise in 2015 which was probably the amount of the rise in the major league minimum and got no raise at all in 2016, when presumably the national cost of living index did not rise and the major league minimum did not go up.

In my mind, it is just so short-sighted.  The Yankees are the wealthiest team in baseball, and even if Betances wasn’t willing to accept the raise the Yankees wanted to give him when the Yankees could set whatever raise they wanted, it is just dumb not to give him that raise.  Instead, the Yankees elected to punish him to save, what, $50,000 or $100,000?  Chump-change in terms of the team’s $225 million plus player payroll, thereby guaranteeing that Betances will never ever give the Yankees one plug nickel when the time comes that Betances is the one with the leverage.

Another element of this story is that Betances is old relative to his major league service time and performance, which will have some impact on his future earning ability.  Betances is one in a long line of storied major league pitchers who always had great stuff, but who took a long time to develop command (some of these guys obviously never do).

Betances finally found his command in his age 26 season, and his performance has been other-worldly since then.  Still, he sees younger guys making more money because they reached the Show sooner, even if they now aren’t as good.  Add to that the fact that the Yankees are so good that despite his tremendous performance over the last three years, he’s notched only 22 saves, because the Yankees always had somebody at least as good with more experience who got the saves opportunities.

In short, Betances feels he deserves to get paid, and the Yankees probably assume that, since they are the rich, rich Yankees, players will always demand top money regardless.   Even so, it’s doubtful that taking Betances to arbitration serves the Yankees in the long run.

Maybe the situation with Betances is soured already.  However, the Yankees are also sending a message to every other player in the organization that each player ought to stick it to the Yankees or the team will stick it to them.

One thing that has to be remembered is that even as rich as the Yankees are, there are some players who might sign for a little less than absolute top dollar because they want to remain with the franchise that developed them or gave them their first big league opportunity or because they want to play in New York.  Some players, like most recently Yoenis Cespedes, really seem to thrive under the brightest lights, or the cultural or life-style options the Big Apple provides.  If you’re a player from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Japan, South Korea or a lot of other places, NYC has a lot to offer.

Whether Betances wins or loses the upcoming arbitration hearing, the best revenge will be staying healthy and continuing to strike out more than 11 batters per nine innings pitched.  That way, Betances will eventually get the big money from the Yanks or someone else.

Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.  Every pitcher would remain healthy and effective forever if it was solely a matter of hard work and will power.  In the meantime, Aroldis Chapman will continue to get the save opportunities, and the Yankees will continue to work Betances hard as a set-up man, since they know they won’t get any team-friendly contract extensions from Betances and his agents any time soon.

Unless, of course, team and player agree to a multi-year extension before the arbitration hearing.

Mark Trumbo Finally Signs

Posted January 20, 2017 by Burly
Categories: Baltimore Orioles, Oakland A's, Seattle Mariners, St. Louis Cardinals, Toronto Blue Jays

With Jose Bautista and now Mark Trumbo finally signed to new contracts, the dam might finally have burst on all the lead-footed sluggers still on the free agent market.

I wasn’t surprised at the fact that Bautista ultimately received only a one-year deal.  He is going into his age 36 season and coming off a down year, so the multi-year nine-figure contract he and his agent were making noises about before the season ended always seemed more like trying to goose up the market than anything else.  At the end of the day, he still beat the $17.2 million qualifying offer, and he can’t be QOed again next off-season.

Trumbo’s contract, however, surprises me.  Not necessarily the fact it’s only three years, but definitely the fact that it’s only about $37.5 million.  Trumbo is going into his age 31 season, and he led all of MLB with his 47 dingers.  I really thought he’d get something closer to the four-year $57 million deal Nelson Cruz got two off-seasons ago, at least $43M or 44M for three seasons.

Trumbo was probably hurt by the fact that there are cheaper similar options still out there.  Even so, Nelson Cruz has made the Mariners look like geniuses as he has continued to pound the ball the last two seasons.

Dave Schoenfeld of espn.com wrote a post a few days ago suggesting that teams are less willing to sign aging one-dimensional sluggers like Brandon Moss, because teams are now looking for the next Brandon Moss.  I thought it was kind of a dumb article, because while poor teams like the A’s, who specialize in finding the next Brandon Mosses, will look to sign undervalued 4-A players, other teams will always be on the look-out for proven sluggers at the right price.

The problem with finding the next Brandon Moss in the minor leagues is that it is an incredibly uncertain proposition in terms of any one player (or even two or three) you might put your money on.  Somebody will become the next Brandon Moss, but a majority of candidates for the role sure as hell won’t.

Brandon Moss’s value as a major league player over the last three seasons, working backward, has been $ 11.2M, $3.8M and $19.7M according to fangraphs.  You would have to reasonably expect that his value will be somewhere between $3.8M and $11.2M in 2017.  He’ll be 33 next season, so the lower figure is certainly the safer bet.

What I am trying to say is that the reason Moss hasn’t yet signed is because his current ask as a free agent is too high, rather than because teams are looking for an undervalued 4-A player they can pay the major league minimum.  Once Moss’s ask comes down to $3 or 4 million on a one-year deal, at least one team that needs a left-handed power bat and whose in-house analytics value Moss’ likely 2017 performance similar to fangraphs will sign him for that amount.

Although all 30 major league teams as a whole don’t always act rationally, they do most of the time.  If there are even two team for whom Moss would fill a need, who estimate Moss’ likely 2017 performance at $4 million or more, and who can afford to pay $4 million, he’ll get a one year deal for right around $4 million.  Most teams would rather pay $4 million for a relatively sure thing than the minimum for a guy who is less likely than not to become the next Brandon Moss, if they can afford to pay the $4 million.

It’s bottom feeders like the A’s who keep looking for the next Brandon Moss, because they have to.  And you can only find these guys consistently if your analytics are better than just about everyone else’s.

Slugging It Out in Japan: A Listing of Top Foreign Hitters in Japan’s NPB

Posted January 18, 2017 by Burly
Categories: Uncategorized

In the past couple of years, I’ve written a couple of posts on the all-time leaders among foreign hitters in the history of Japan’s NPB.  The articles have met with a positive response, so I will update them whenever new or more complete information comes to me.  This iteration adds stolen base leaders.

BATTING AVERAGE (4,000 ABs)

1.  Leron Lee .320

2.  Boomer Wells .317

3.  Wally Yomamine .311

4.  Leon Lee .308

5.  Alex Cabrera .303

6.  Alex Ramirez .301

BATTING AVERAGE (3,000 ABs)

1.  Bobby Rose .325

2.  Matt Murton .310

3.  George Altman .309

Leron Lee was not, as his wikipedia page suggests, the first American player to go to Japan during the prime of his professional career.  However, he was the first first major leaguer of his ability and past MLB success to go to Japan before his age 30 season.  Lee is not just the best career hitter among North American players, he has the highest NPB batting average of any player with at least 4,000 at-bats, and he had almost 5,000 NPB at-bats, so it was no fluke based on a small data set.

Leon Lee was Leron’s little brother and the father of former MLBer Derrek Lee.  Pops never played in MLB, but he was nearly as great an NPB player as his big brother, and that’s saying something.

Wally Yonamine, a Nisei (Japanese American) from Hawaii, was the first foreign player to play in NPB after the Second World War, breaking in with the Yomuiri Giants, far and away NPB’s most popular team, in 1951.  Yonamine was sort of the poster boy for a class of Japanese American athletes during the era between about 1920 and 1950 who were famed on the West Coast and Hawaii for their abilities on both the baseball diamond and the gridiron in semi-pro leagues.

Yonamine was really an exceptional athlete.  He was 5’9″ and 180 lbs, fast and tough.  He was the first Asian American to play pro football that I am aware of, playing for the San Francisco 49ers in 1947, the team’s second season in the All-American Football Conference.  He played in 12 of the team’s 14 games that year and started three times.  He ran for 74 yards on 19 carries, caught three passes for 40 yards, ran back an interception for 20 yards and returned a total of nine punts and kick-offs.  He quit football after injuring himself playing baseball the next summer.

In his only season of minor league baseball, he hit .335 as a catcher in the Class C Pioneer League at age 25 in 1950.  At that age, his MLB chances were slim, so he went to Japan in 1951, where he mostly played outfield.  He had a major impact on NPB, bringing his tougher, more aggressive American style of base running.  He is one of only three only foreign player in the NPB Hall of Fame (NPB’s first 300 game winner Victor Starfin was born in Russia but grew up in Japan after his family fled the Russian Revolution), something I’ll comment on below.

HITS

1.  Alex Ramirez 2,017

2. In-cheon Paek 1,831

3. Tuffy Rhodes 1,792

4. Leron Lee 1,579

5.  Leon Lee 1,436

6.  Bobby Marcano 1,418

7.  Boomer Wells 1,413

8.  Alex Cabrera 1,368

9.  Wally Yonamine 1,337

10.  Shosei Go 1,326

11.  Jose Fernandez 1,286

12.  Bobby Rose 1,275

13.  John Sipin 1,124

14.  Roberto Barbon 1,123

15.  Ta-Feng Chen (Yasuaki Taiho) 1,089.

16.  Matt Murton, 1020.

Before I wrote the original piece in 2014, I’d never heard of Bobby Marcano, John Sipin or Roberto Barbon (or if I have I’ve long since forgotten).  Marcano hit .317 with an .857 OPS in the AAA Pacific Coast League at the age of 23, but elected to sign with an NPB team the next season.  I don’t know anything about his story, but it was apparently a good move, as he had a very successful 11 career in Japan playing mostly 2B.

John Sipin got into 68 games for the expansion San Diego Padres in 1969.  A couple of big years in the Pacific Coast League at ages 23 and 24, and off he went to Japan for a nine year NPB career.  He also mostly played 2B.  Both Marcano and Sipin played most of their NPB careers in the 1970’s.

Roberto Barbon was a light-hitting (.241 career NPB batting average) middle infielder from Cuba who played 11 seasons in Japan starting in 1955 at the age of 22.  His defense was probably very good for him to last so long, and his 308 career NPB stolen bases is the record for Gaijin players, at least according to some sources.  Here is a NY Times article about Barbon, who still lives in Japan and is involved in baseball.

HOME RUNS

1.  Tuffy Rhodes 464

2. Alex Ramirez 380

3. Alex Cabrera 357

4.  Leron Lee 283

5.  Boomer Wells 277

5.  Ta-Feng Chen (Yasuaki Taiho) 277

7.  Leon Lee 268

8.  Ralph Bryant 259

NPB teams pay their relatively high-priced foreign position players to hit home runs, so it isn’t particularly surprising that eight foreign players have topped 250 career home runs in NPB.  Ralph Bryant hit a lot of home runs and also set strike out records, striking out 204 times in 127 games played in 1993, in his eight year NPB career.

RBIs

1.  Alex Ramirez 1,272

2.  Tuffy Rhodes 1,269

3.  Alex Cabrera 949

4. Leron Lee 912

5.  Boomer Wells 901

6.  Leon Lee 884

7.  Bobby Marcano 817

8.  Bobby Rose 808

RUNS

1.  Tuffy Rhodes 1,100

2.  Shosei Go 880

3.  Alex Ramirez 866

4. In-cheon Paek 801

5.  Leron Lee 786

6.  Alex Cabrera 754

NPB teams pay foreign hitters to drive in runs rather than score them, which is why the RBI totals are so much more impressive than the runs scored totals.

STOLEN BASES

1.  Shosei Go  381

2.  Roberto Barbon 308

3.  In-cheon Paek 212

4.  Wally Yonamine  163

5.  Larry Raines 114

As I’ve written before, it is no small task to determine who is “foreign” for NPB purposes and who isn’t.  At the time Shosei Go joined Japanese professional ranks in 1937, Taiwan was a Japanese colony, so Go was not considered a “foreign” player during his playing career.  However, as an ethnic Taiwanese born and raised in Taiwan (he attended high school there), he seems more “foreign” to me than Victor Starrfin, who lived in Japan since before his second or third birthday.  Go also seems more foreign than Hiroshi Ohshita, an ethnic Japanese who was probably born in Kobe, Japan but spent part of his childhood, including high school, in colonial Taiwan, but then attended Meiji University, one of Japan’s big six college baseball programs.

Another thing my original research in compiling these lists pointed out is just how much of a fungible commodity NPB teams apparently consider foreign players to be.  A total of fewer than 20 players made any of my six lists.  There are easily more than four times this many foreign players who were great in NPB from between three to seven seasons who didn’t stick around long enough to make my lists.

Since most foreign players are at least 26 to 28 years old in their first NPB season and often quite a bit older, a lot of them simply didn’t have much left by the time they reached their mid-30’s.  However, it’s just as true that in a majority of cases it only took one bad year, even after many good ones, for a foreign player to be sent packing.

Given the fact that NPB teams have become exceptionally good at picking out the most promising foreign players available (usually what we call 4-A players: guys who hit like major leaguers in AAA but have become too old to contend for major league starting jobs), but that even among these players only about half succeed quickly, long and consistently enough to stick around more than a year or two in NPB, its something of a shock how quickly NPB teams give up on foreign players with a proven track record.  This is so much the case that I’m always shocked on those rare occasions when a foreign hitter sticks around as long as three NPB seasons if he’s never had a single season OPS higher than about .815.

In fact, some of the best available foreign players are probably never considered by NPB teams, since their value is in their gloves rather than their bats.  In NPB, all the glove-tree guys are Japanese.

The best Gaijin hitter in NPB history has to be Tuffy Rhodes.  While he wasn’t a .300 hitter, his power and his ability to draw walks account for his exceptional RBI and Runs Scored totals, aside from the fact that he was once tied for the single season NPB home run record with the legendary Sadaharu Oh.

Foreign hitters who should eventually join Wally Yonamine in the NPB Hall of Fame are Rhodes, Alex Ramirez and Leron Lee.  Whether they will is another matter.  Apparently it takes a longer period of retirement before former players become eligible, and NPB’s Hall of Fame seems relatively more exclusive than MLB’s Hall of Fame, at least in terms of players.  The NPB Hall is particularly heavily stacked with non-players — for example, Lefty O’Doul is in Japan’s Hall of Fame for his goodwill tours to Japan in the 1930’s which increased the game’s popularity there, even though he isn’t in the MLB Hall of Fame despite an accomplished lifetime in the U.S. professional game.

Will Tuffy Rhodes Eventually Be Elected to Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame?

Posted January 17, 2017 by Burly
Categories: Baseball Abroad

Tuffy Rhodes was the greatest foreign hitter in the history of Japan’s NPB, at least in my opinion and as far as I have been able to identify NPB’s best all-time foreign hitters.  He hit 464 HRs in 13 NPB seasons, good for 13th best in NPB history, including a then single-season record-tying 55 HRs in 2001 (NPB pitchers stopped pitching to him after he tied Sadaharu Oh‘s 1964 record).  Rhodes also drove in 1,269 runs and scored 1,100.

I was therefore a little taken aback when I saw that he received only 122 votes out of a necessary 250 votes needed for election to Japan’s baseball Hall of Fame in his third year of eligibility.  Only 36.6% of electors voted for him this year.

Rhodes’ poor showing once again raised some troubling questions about whether a player must be Japanese to make Japan’s Hall of Fame, no matter what the player may have done in Japan’s top professional league. However, after delving into the matter a bit more deeply, I am pleased to say that Rhodes is probably where he should be to have a reasonable likelihood of being elected before his initial 15 years of eligibility expire.

Japan’s Hall of Fame generally makes players wait to be elected.  Rhodes received 85 votes in his first year of eligibility two years ago.  The last three players elected to Japan’s Hall of Fame, Kimiyasu Kudo (2016), Masaki Sato (2016) and Tsutomu Ito (2017) during there initial 15 year period of eligibility, were elected in their second, tenth and ninth years of eligibility, respectively.  Further, all three of the players who received fewer votes than Rhodes in 2015 but more votes than Rhodes in 2017 have fewer years of initial eligibility left.

In other words, it is probably going to be some years before we know whether Japan’s Hall of Fame electors do the right thing by Rhodes.  Needless to say, with a 75% requirement and the fact that Rhodes’ NPB career was relatively short at 13 seasons, it only takes a relatively small percentage who won’t vote for a foreign player to keep Rhodes out.

For what it’s worth, LeRon Lee hasn’t been on the “expert” ballot for players who have been retired at least 21 years (what MLB’s Hall of Fame calls the “Veterans’ Committee” selections) since 2014, suggesting that he now has little chance of ever being elected to Japan’s Hall of Fame.  Lee played 11 seasons in NPB, and his .320 career batting average is highest of any NPB player with at least 4,000 at-bats (he had 4,934 at bats in Japan, so he didn’t just barely break this barrier).  He hit over .300 with power for ten consecutive seasons and really deserves to be in Japan’s Hall of Fame.

Former San Francisco Giants Prospect Edwin Escobar Heading to Japan’s NPB

Posted January 11, 2017 by Burly
Categories: Baseball Abroad, Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, San Francisco Giants, Uncategorized

Former Giants prospect Edwin Escobar is heading to the Nippon Ham Fighters of Japan’s NPB on a 90 million yen ($780,000) deal for the 2017 season.  What makes this deal relatively interesting is that Escobar will be only 25 in 2017, the second pitcher after Elvis Araujo, who signed with the Chunichi Dragons earlier this off-season, who will be only 25 in 2017 and expected to star immediately in NPB’s major leagues.

Escobar was one of the Giants top starting pitcher prospects in 2014, when they traded him at the trade deadline to the Boston Red Sox along with Heath Hembree for Jake Peavy.  At the time, Escobar who was only 22 years old then and pitching with promise at AAA, was the prospect who seemed to have more upside.  As it turned out Hembree has become a useful bullpen piece for the BoSox, while Escobar is moving on to Japan, because he had injury problems in 2015 and didn’t return strong in 2016.

Past history suggests that the ideal age for a North American player to start an Asian career is their age 27 season, and a majority of the North American players who head off to Asia are older than that when they go.  In the last year or so, however, we have started to see more players under age 27 trying their luck in Asia, as the immediate rewards (next year’s salary) are greater in NPB or South Korea’s KBO, and North American players are beginning to feel that success in Asia can also be used as a spring-board to return to the MLB-system at some later date.

It will be interesting to see how Escobar and Araujo do in NPB in 2017.  I would think that Araujo’s chances are better, as he has far more proven MLB experience and success.  NPB is a good enough league, and the adjustments necessary to play NPB’s style of baseball and live in Japan are such, that foreign players as young as Escobar and Araujo have a hard time getting off to the fast start needed to stick in Asian baseball.  I tend to think that players who are at least 27 as NPB or KBO rookies tend to do better in part because they are more experienced in professional baseball and more mature.

Still, Escobar’s and Araujo’s talent level appears to be high by the standards of North American players who go to play in Asia, and the experience of pitching in NPB, unless a total disaster, will probably be beneficial to their careers even if they return to the MLB system in 2018.  Playing in a league that is roughly intermediate between AAA and the MLB majors is clearly more advantageous to a player’s development than another season spent almost entirely at AAA.

More typical of the North American players who go to Asia is the 33 year old Alexi Ogando, who just signed a $1.8 million deal with the KBO’s Hanwha Eagles.  Ogando has the proven MLB track record that earned him what is to date the second highest contract amount for a foreign player in the KBO’s history (Esmil Rodgers signed a $1.9M contract before the 2016 season).  Howwever, I think that the Eagles overpaid for Ogando by at least $300,000, as Ogando’s 2016 performance in MLB and at AAA strongly suggest a pitcher with not a lot left in the tank and with very little chance indeed of receiving a major league contract for 2017.

Ogando will almost certainly be used as a starter in the KBO, since KBO teams don’t pay this kind of money for relievers.  We’ll have to wait and see how he does.

Remembering Dave Nicholson, A Man Before His Time

Posted January 9, 2017 by Burly
Categories: Baltimore Orioles, Baseball History, Chicago White Sox, Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers

With each league’s leading home run hitter in 2016 (Mark Trumbo and Chris Carter) still waiting to receive a 2017 contract, it got me thinking about slugger Dave Nicholson.  If Nicholson is remembered at all today, it is for setting the single season strikeout record of 175 in 1963, which lasted until Bobby Bonds (187) set the new record in 1969.

Nicholson had a brief major league career, mainly because everything was stacked against him.  He was probably as good a player as today’s Mark Reynolds, a player who has earned more than $27 million in his major league career.

Nicholson played at a time when players with great power, but low batting averages and high strikeout totals, were not valued for their actual contributions on offense.  Add to that the facts that the mid- and late 1960’s when Nicholson played were a terrible time for major league hitters and also that Nicholson played his prime years for two teams, the Chicago White Sox and the Houston Astros, that played in ballparks terrible for power hitters, and it’s easy to understand why Nicholson was drummed out of MLB after only seven seasons and 1,662 major league plate appearances.

Nicholson had only three seasons in which he managed more than 300 plate appearances, but he was better in each of those three seasons than anyone at the time realized.  For the 1963 and 1964 White Sox, teams that finished second each season behind the New York Yankees with records of 94-68 and 98-64, Nicholson’s .738 and .693 OPS numbers don’t seem too impressive.  However, this was good enough for 3rd out of eight White Sox players with at least 300 plate appearances in 1963 and 4th out of ten players with that many plate appearances in 1964.

In 1966 for the Houston Astros, a team that went 72-90, and, raw numbers to the contrary, had much better hitting than pitching, his .767 OPS was third best out of nine players with at least 300 plate appearances, behind Hall-of-Famer Joe Morgan and catcher John Bateman, but ahead of Jim Wynn, Rusty Staub and Lee Maye, the former two of whom were long recognized as major league stars.  Lee Maye had a much more successful major league career than Nicholson, as the kind of player (he hit for average but didn’t have much power or walk much) who was much more valued in his day than today.  Playing today, Nicholson’s and Maye’s career plate appearances would probably be reversed.

As the game and the popular understanding of the game change over time, different skills are more or less valued.  There are some players, most notably Gavvy Cravath, who would have been Hall of Famers if they had just been born a generation earlier or later than they actually were.