Luck Is Still a Factor in Major League Success

Posted September 1, 2015 by Burly
Categories: San Francisco Giants, Minnesota Twins, Pittsburg Pirates

The recent major league performances of young Giants Kelby Tomlinson and Ehire Adrianza is a reminder of the degree to which luck still plays in role in determining who gets major league jobs/careers and who doesn’t.

Both Tomlinson and Adrianza are 25 year old middle infielders with very similar minor league numbers.  Tomlinson was the better “pure” hitter in the minors with a batting average 20 points higher, but their OBP/SLG numbers are almost the same: .345/.347 for Tomlinson and .338/.350 for Adrianza.  Adrianza is probably the better defensive player, at least at shortstop.

However, Adrianza looks completely over-matched by major league pitching, while Tomlinson has surprised everyone with a .328 batting average and .863 OPS through his first 24 major league games.

With Joe Panik still aways away from returning to the Giants line-up, the odds are good that Tomlinson will have cooled off by the time Panik gets back.  However, there’s certainly a chance that Tomlinson will keep hitting, while Adrianza will not.

If so, Tomlinson’s MLB future will look a whole lot brighter than Adrianza’s.  Part of being a major league player is establishing a reputation as a major league player.  Once a player has the major league rep, he’s going to get a lot more major league opportunities than a player who hasn’t, even if a much larger minor league data set suggests the two players, like Tomlinson and Adrianza, are roughly equivalent players.

Of course, in order to hold on to that major league job, one must play to the level of a major league bench player.  However, it’s a lot easier to hold that job than to get it in the first place.

In my mind, the recent poster boy for this fact is Garrett Jones.  Jones was a fairly pedestrian 4-A player who hadn’t impressed in a cup of coffee with the Minnesota Twins and wasn’t hitting especially well in AAA when destiny struck and he got a shot at age 28 with the 2009 Pittsburgh Pirates, a team in desperate need of a players who could hit even a little bit.  Jones got red hot after a July 1st call-up and rode his terrific half-season into a successful major league career, even though he never hit nearly as well again except in 2012.

In Jones’ defense, he could play right-field in a pinch, which gave him an edge over other left-handed hitting platoon 1Bmen.  Still, I don’t think there can be much dispute that if Jones hadn’t had the good fortune to get hot at exactly the right time (July 2009), he’d have been out of MLB for good in a couple of years.

The Giants’ Joaquin Arias is a more recent guy who was able to hold onto a bench role for the Giants another 2.5 seasons after playing well as a back-up in 2012 at age 27.  It’s just a whole lot easier to hold onto a major league job with marginally proficient play than it is to get the job in the first place.

Matt Cain Another Cautionary Tale of Overworking Young Pitchers

Posted September 1, 2015 by Burly
Categories: San Francisco Giants

With Matt Cain back on the disabled list and looking to be done for the 2015 season, he is starting to look an awful lot like another cautionary tale about the consequences of overworking your young pitchers.  He’ll be 31 next season, and it’s hard to imagine him ever again becoming the pitcher he was at any point between 2006 and 2012.

As a young pitcher, Cain was kind of the poster boy for what you wanted in terms of his big body size and his pitching mechanics.  He was routinely described as a “horse” who could throw more innings than most young pitchers, and he was, but only through his age 27 season.  Cain never looked like it strained him to throw hard, sort of like Madison Bumgarner now, so it was easy to believe could keep pitching well well into his 30’s.

In fact, Cain never really threw that many innings in any one season, topping out at 223.1 and 221.2 in 2010 and 2011.  However, what he did do was through a lot of pitches before his age 25 season.  In his seven years as a stud, Cain finished 14th, 11th, 2nd, 8th, 6th, 4th and 6th in the National League in pitches thrown.  That’s a lot of work through his age 27 season.

Working a young pitcher with Cain’s body-type as hard as the Giants did is a workable strategy if you are willing to let your young stud walk when he becomes a free agent.  Of course, most teams do not.  In Cain’s case, the Giants signed Cain to a long-term deal for which the team still owes him $49.5 million from the end of this season through 2017.  The only things positive about this deal going forward is that the Giants signed Cain to what now looks like a home-town discount, and the Giants can well afford the remaining contract after three World Series Championships in five seasons and likely sold out home games through at least the next two seasons.

I guess the question for Giants fans is whether I’ll be writing the same kind of post about MadBum in 2020. He’s also been worked awfully hard the last few years and he’s still only in his age 25 season.

Expecting Byung-ho Park to Be Playing in MLB Next Year

Posted August 18, 2015 by Burly
Categories: Baseball Abroad, Pittsburg Pirates

South Korean slugger Byung-ho Park is having another terrific year in the KBO, having slugged a league-leading 43 home runs so far, batting .348 (4th), 116 RBIs (1st), 101 runs scored (2nd) and an 1.163 OPS (2nd) with approximately 25 games left in the KBO regular season schedule.  If he does in fact finish as the 2015 KBO home run leader, it will be the fourth year in a row he’s done it, and he’s still be only 29 in 2016.

With the success of Jung-ho Kang this year for the Pirates, I feel reasonably certain at least one MLB team will make a serious effort to sign Park this coming off-season.  Park won’t be hitting 50 home runs a year in MLB, but a right-handed hitter who can reasonably hit 25 HRs playing every day in MLB has value, at least so long as his on-base percentage is over .320.

The only really negative things that can be said about Park as a hitter are that he does strike out a lot and he’s only the second best hitter in the KBO this season.  However, he also draws a lot of walks, and the best hitter in the KBO this season, Eric Thames, is also a fine player who is probably playing better baseball at this moment than some MLB regulars.

Thames played 181 MLB games in his age 24 and 25 seasons and posted a very respectable career .727 OPS in 684 plate appearances.  He’s exactly the kind of player who, like Tuffy Rhodes and Randy Bass in years past, has major league talent, but somehow couldn’t establish himself in MLB and instead blossomed in Asia where the competition isn’t quite as good.

In fact, I expect that Thames will move on to Japan’s NPB next season, where he’ll make more money, after the two tremendous KBO seasons he’s had.  In NPB, he could be the Ty Woods, a minor league slugger who turned success in the KBO into even more success in NPB.  Thames will also be 29 next year, and he’s already had his major league shot, so I think NPB is his most likely landing spot next year.

Recent Goings-On in Japan’s NPB

Posted August 12, 2015 by Burly
Categories: Baseball Abroad, Pittsburg Pirates, Texas Rangers

Here are notes on a few events that have happened recently in Japan’s NPB:

Slugger Takeya Nakamura hit his 16th career grand slam, moving him out of a tie with the immortal Sadaharu Oh into 1st place all-time on the NPB list.  Nakamura is a burly slugger whose power would drop significantly in MLB, doesn’t have impressive on-base percentages, and doesn’t have any defensive value, so we’ll never see him in MLB.  However, he’s a fine player, and one of many, like Yoshio Itoi and Toshiya Suguichi, who will probably never play in the Show, but keep NPB the second best professional baseball league in the world.

Seung-Hwan Oh recently became the first foreign pitcher in NPB history to record 30 or more saves in his first two seasons.  Fellow South Korean Dae-Ho Lee is also having a tremendous season.  These are signs, along with the MLB success of Jung-ho Kang, that South Korea’s KBO is rapidly improving and that we’ll see more South Koreans playing in Japan in the future.  However, we probably won’t see a lot more, because former KBO stars are much more expensive for NPB teams to sign than 4-A players coming out of the MLB system or the Mexican League.

Former MLBer Ryota Igarashi recently surrendered a home run to Alfredo Despaigne ending a streak of 557 batters faced without allowing a long-ball.  Despaigne is widely regarded one of the world’s best hitter not playing in MLB.  However, his second season in NPB isn’t as impressive as his first.  While he still has an .831 OPS as I write this, that’s a huge drop from last year’s 1.001, albeit in fewer games played.

I have doubts about whether Despaigne would have succeeded in MLB had he chosen to defect a few years ago.  He isn’t a patient enough hitter, which I think is a major reason his batting average has dropped so dramatically this season.  However, another explanation might be that Despaigne is now playing baseball year ’round with little opportunity to rest injuries, because NPB’s and Cuba’s Serie Nacional’s schedules overlapp on both ends.  Needless to say, both leagues want as much of Despaigne’s playing time as they can get.

Motonobu Tanishige set a new all-time NPB record by playing in his 3,018 career game.  What is truly amazing about this feat is that Tanishige is a catcher who has played an astounding 2,841 NPB games at the position (at least according to Baseball Reference).  By way of comparison, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez holds the MLB record with 2,427 games and a total of only four other catchers have played 2,000 MLB games at the position.

While Tanishige is largely unknown in the U.S., he was indeed a fine player during his long peak from 1996 to 2006 (his age 25 to 35 seasons).  He didn’t typically hit for a high average, but he had power and drew lots of walks, making him a valuable offensive, as well as defensive, player.  Baseball Reference lists him as 5’10” and 180 lbs, while NPB’s website lists him as 5’9″ and 178 lbs.  That’s a great size for a long career as a catcher.

Now that MLB no longer allows catchers to block home plate, I expect that we will see more smaller-sized catchers rather than the behemoths we have gotten used to.  The small ones certainly don’t put a much pressure on their knees, ankles and backs as the big boys do, making longer careers more likely.

Mike Hessman Sets U.S. Minor League Home Run Record

Posted August 5, 2015 by Burly
Categories: Detroit Tigers, Minor Leagues

Mike Hessman hit his 433rd U.S. minor league home run on August 3, 2015 moving him past Buzz Arlett into first place all-time for home runs hit in the regular season U.S. minor leagues.  Including the majors and Japan’s NPB, Mike Hessman has now hit 453 summer time professional home runs, also topping Arlett’s 450.

It’s an amazing accomplishment, and one I don’t expect we will see broken again in our lifetimes.  Arlett’s record has stood for 79 years, and it’s hard to imagine another U.S. professional baseball player last so long in the minors and playing at a level high enough to keep his AAA job, but not spend significant time in the majors.

Hessman’s level of play was ideal for his accomplishment.  He didn’t hit for much of an average and he struck out too much even at AAA, but his power kept him around for years.  He probably deserved more major league playing time, but he developed late, didn’t get many real major league opportunities and didn’t get hot often enough when he did.  He last played in the majors in 2010.

Hessman is now 37 years old, and I expect that 2015 will be his last season in the MLB system.  He’s currently hitting .217 and his OPS is .764.  It’s hard to imagine him sticking around another season at AAA with those numbers.

Hessman still trails Mexican League sluggers Hector Espino (484 HR) and Andres Mora (444 HR) as the North American minor league home run kings.  Mora also hit 27 major league HRs.  Hessman could play in Mexico or the Independent-A Atlantic League next year if he wants to continue playing baseball after the MLB system finally puts him out to pasture.  More likely, however, he will go into coaching when he is released by the Tigers organization for whom he is currently playing.  It would be nice to see the Tigers give Hessman one last September call-up in recognition of his contributions to professional baseball.

Los Angeles Dodgers Prospect Julio Urias

Posted July 29, 2015 by Burly
Categories: Los Angeles Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies

A season and a half ago I wrote a piece on Dodger pitching prospect Julio Urias, who dominated the full-season Class A Midwest League at age 16.  That’s right — age 16.

I read a post on today stating that the Dodgers are trying hard to put together a package for Cole Hamels, but aren’t willing to include either of the two top prospects, Urias and Corey Seager.  With three days left before the end of the trade deadline, that doesn’t mean much.

Anyway, I was reminded of Urias, probably for the first time since my March 2014 article.  He’s still looking like a tremendous prospect, although he missed a month this season for eye surgery to correct a congenital defect that prevented him from opening his left eye more than a crack.  A one-eyed pitcher who dominates his leagues in his teens — Urias is really something!

Missing a month of the 2015 season is probably the best thing that could have happened to Julio.  I don’t know how you develop a pitcher who’s this good this young, and I don’t think the Dodgers really know either.

In the minor leagues, you can limit his starts to four or five innings and limit him to 25 starts a year.  Once he hits the Show, however, the realities of roster space and a pitcher with this talent means he’s going to get over-worked by his second MLB season at the latest.

The best place for Urias, when he’s 20 years old and ready to crack the Dodgers’ roster, would probably be as a set-up man out of the bullpen with a role like that of Sergio Romo a few years ago, when the Giants were really careful about how many innings their small right-hander threw and received really tremendous results as a result of his carefully limited use.

That will work only as long as the Dodgers keep Urias in such a role and can’t be counted on if Urias continues to pitch as well as he has so far.  There’s always a risk that a pitcher this young this good will end up as the next David Clyde, rather than as a true star, because it’s so hard to resist overworking him once he reaches the major league level.

Rockies Trade Troy Tulowizski to the Blue Jays for Jose Reyes

Posted July 28, 2015 by Burly
Categories: Denver Rockies, Toronto Blue Jays

In a transaction describes as “stunning,” the Rockies today traded Troy Tulowitzki and LaTroy Hawkins to the Blue Jays for Jose Reyes, minor league pitchers Jeff Hoffman and Miguel Castro and a player to be named later.

On paper the deal makes sense for both teams, but has high risk for both teams.  The Rockies are trading away the current face of the franchise for a guy who has underwhelmed the last couple of seasons and is two years older than Tulo.  Jose Reyes could (seemingly) regain his youth playing in the thin air 0f Denver, or he could continue to underwhelm under the withering gaze of fans who aren’t happy to see their hero traded away.

I suspect that this is the moment we find out what Jose Reyes is truly made of, at least in terms of being a professional ball player.  If Reyes handles the initial hostility and has enough left in the tank to take advantage of Coors Field as the offensive wonderland it is, the fans will forget Tulo soon enough, at least if the Rocks start winning a majority of their games.

Miguel Castro seems to be the most valuable piece of the deal for the Rocks.  Jeff Hoffman is a former 9th overall draft pick who had Tommy John surgery and has pitched well at Class A+ and AA this season.  However, his strikeouts per innings pitched rate hasn’t been as impressive as one would like, and I don’t think we’ll know until well into the 2016 whether he just needed some time to adjust to professional baseball or he hasn’t come back from elbow surgery with the same stuff he had before.

This is a bold move for the Blue Jays, and one has to wonder if it isn’t an overreach for a team currently at an even .500.  Playing in the AL East, a team with the financial resources of the Jays needs to build a winning team out of young players obtained through the draft and through trades of veteran players during uncompetitive seasons.  Trading away top pitching prospects when the team is still playing .500 ball seems like a stretch.

At the end of the day, the deal has a faint stink of desperation emanating from both franchises.


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