Kenso Nushida

Posted March 22, 2018 by Burly
Categories: Baseball History, Minor Leagues

Larry Kwong, the first Asian Canadian to play in the NHL, died today.  That naturally got me thinking about the first Asian American to play in MLB.

The answer  is Ryan Kurosaki who pitched in seven games for the 1975 Cardinals, and not Lenny Sakata who came up with the Brewers in 1977 and is sometimes incorrectly given credit as being the first. I can see making a mistake with Sakata, since he had a long MLB career, but I was kind of annoyed when I googled the question to see that most of the top listed websites were about Masanori Murakami, who was not an American.

The good news is that I found about Kenso Nushida.  Nushida was a Nisei from Hawaii who was the first Asian American player to play in the Pacific Coast League, when he pitched for the Sacramento Senators (later the Solons) in 1932.  Here is a University of Hawaii article on Nushida, which was the most informative and likely most accurate article on the internet I was able to find.  I’m taking most of my facts from this article.

In 1932, it was unclear whether players of East Asian descent could play in the major leagues because of the color line.  Like most things involving bigotry, however, there wasn’t much rhyme or reason in how these unwritten rules worked in practice.

In 1932, the Sacramento team in Pacific Coast League was looking for a Japanese American pitcher to appeal to all the Japanese American baseball fans in the Central Valley.  Some background here: baseball was hugely popular in the large Nisei communities of Hawaii and California by the late 1920’s and produced strong semi-pro teams in both states.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to appeal to a local audience, particularly when it gives a player an opportunity he might not otherwise have had.  In 1932, at the worst of the Great Depression, teams had to do whatever they could to get the turnstiles clicking.

Nushida was already 31 in 1932 and past his prime by his own admission.  The University of Hawaii article says he was only 5’1″ and 110 lbs.  If those measurements were reasonably close to the truth, it’s safe to say that he wasn’t blowing fastballs past PCL hitters.  It’s instead virtually certain he was a junk ball pitcher who pitched to contact and had pin-point control.

The University of Hawaii article states: “News accounts say Nushida pitched good games but the Senators were weak in fielding and gave him poor support.”  That sure rings true: junk ballers who pitch to contact need good defense behind them to be successful, and every pitcher needs run support to win games.

Nushida went 2-4 for the 1932 Senators in eleven starts and recorded a 4.97 ERA, the highest of the ten Senators’ pitchers who pitched more than 11 innings that year.  He wasn’t invited back for 1933.  The PCL was country’s best league after the two majors, so performance was mandatory.  Still, Nushida stuck around long enough to prove he was more than just a novelty.

Nushida was also popular in the Senators’ clubhouse, playing the ukulele and singing Japanese and Hawaiian songs.  Anyone who saw the recent PBS series American Epic should know that Hawaiian music was surprisingly popular with a wide American audience in the early 1930’s.

One of the highlights of Nushida’s brief PCL career was pitching against Lee Gun (Gum?) Hong, a 21 year old Chinese American pitcher signed by the Oakland Oaks probably for the specific purpose of pitching against Nushida and bringing out even more paying Asian American baseball fans to the ballpark.

Hong made two starts for the Oaks that season and posted a 4.38 ERA in 12.1 innings pitched.  However, his other numbers weren’t impressive.  I do not know if Hong’s second start was also against Nushida.  Like Nushida, Hong didn’t pitch in minor leagues after 1932.

Here’s a SABR timeline on Asian American baseball.  A number of Japanese American players played in the then Class C (only Class D was lower) California League between 1946 and 1955, for the Central Valley’s Stockton Ports and Modesto Nuts.


Baltimore Orioles to Sign Alex Cobb for a Reported $57 Million

Posted March 21, 2018 by Burly
Categories: Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, Kansas City Royals, Milwaukee Brewers, New York Yankees, San Diego Padres, Tampa Bay Rays

In a deal that I find shocking given everything that came before in this off-season, the Orioles signed Alex Cobb at the last minute for four years at a total guarantee of $57M.  There is apparently a lot of deferred money in the contract, but even so it’s a lot of money for a lot of years this late into Spring Training.

The signing invites the question if Baltimore was willing to shell out this much, why did it take so long to get this deal done?  Wouldn’t Cobb have accepted a $57M guarantee on March 1st or February 1st or January 1st this off-season once the obvious down market trend had been set?  Did Baltimore think that Cobb’s price was going to come down eventually and finally just caved in completely when it became apparent that Cobb would not sign unless he got top dollar and the season was about to start with Baltimore still in need of pitching?

For the life of me, I can’t imagine what the circumstances could have been that caused a deal this big to happen this soon before the real 2018 games start.  Maybe the O’s just decided at the last minute that with many of their best players becoming free agents next off-season, they’d have to make one last push for the post-season in 2018.  Still, they’re going to have a hard time keeping up with the Yankees and Red Sox, Alex Cobb or no.

I was thinking that at this point, Cobb was holding out for two years and $25M.  He even beat the four years and $48M that predicted.  My goodness!

As mlb trade rumors points out, the O’s back out of more deals at the last minute than most teams if they see anything questionable in the player’s pre-signing physical exam.  Cobb better hopes he looks good to the doctors in that exam.

Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and apparently now Alex Cobb were big free agent winners this off-season.  There weren’t many others.  At least it gives next off-season’s class of free agents hope that a few more of them will pull rabbits out of their free agent hats even if the market has changed for the worse overall.

Atlanta Braves Send Ronald Acuna to Minor League Camp

Posted March 20, 2018 by Burly
Categories: Atlanta Braves

The Braves sent down 20 year old phenom Ronald Acuna to minor league camp today in what is almost certainly a move to gain another season of control for obvious reasons.

After 52 plate appearances this Spring, Acuna was slashing .432/.519/.727.  Yes, he only played in 54 AAA games last year, but he slashed .344/.393/.548, good enough for 2nd/5th/4th in the International League among players with at least 200 plate appearances.  He also slashed .325/.414/.639 in 99 Arizona Fall League plate appearances after that, as if it even needed to be said.  He’s ready right now on the talent side of it.

The Braves are sending him down to minor league camp so they can claim with a straight face they always intended to send him to the minor leagues to start this season.  But we all know the real reason — that additional year of control.

I miss the old days of baseball when a prospect of Acuna’s talent could make the team after a huge Spring Training and get started on learning how to be a major league player as soon as he was obviously ready.  Holding Acuna back another 15 or 20 games at AAA Gwinett means the Braves getting Acuna’s age 26 season, and it’s hard to argue with the fact that it’s worth a whole lot more than 15 or 20 extra games for the 2018 Braves.

It’s just that not rewarding player performance is a sword that cuts both ways.  If they stick it too him now, the Braves are that much more likely not to get Acuna’s age 27 to 33 seasons, at least if they hope to sign him for those seasons at less than the then prevailing free agent wage.  There are lot a reasons to think that if he stays healthy, Acuna’s age 27 to 33 seasons are going to be worth a whole lot.

It also sends a message to the players that there are considerations other performance at play.  Players know it’s a business, but the players also know which teams are a little more generous and which are not.  Teams are made up of very highly talented young men who as a group will be a lot more sympathetic to decisions made based on performance than anything else.

I’m Glad Jose Altuve Is Getting Paid

Posted March 20, 2018 by Burly
Categories: Houston Astros

I’m a big fan of Jose Altuve, not least because I was once a small 2Bman like he is.  He was a bargain-basement prospect who made good, and he gave the Astros one of the great sweetheart contract extensions of recent memory.  He should obviously stay in Houston and get paid to do it.

His contract has become such a sweetheart deal for the team that the $151M contract extension comes with $21 million in bonuses paid over the next two seasons.  In other words, Altuve will be paid much closer to what he’s actually worth the next two seasons, and then the Astros get five seasons at an average of $26M per.  This is entirely reasonable for the team in today’s market, and it’s hard to imagine Altuve in particular  not being overjoyed with a $151M guarantee.

Altuve’s family back in Venezuela will probably be among an increasingly small minority in that country who are eating well, although their risk of kidnappings certainly goes up with the additional attention the contract is sure to bring, particularly so soon after his World Series Champion fame.

I love it when teams do the right thing and reward performance, even though but especially when it’s the obvious thing to do.  Altuve is the team’s most popular player, because his enthusiasm in infectious.  You certainly get the idea that Altuve is doing what he loves to do.

Texas Rangers Claim Tommy Joseph off Waivers and CTE

Posted March 20, 2018 by Burly
Categories: American League, Baseball History, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Minor Leagues, Montreal Expos, New York Mets, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburg Pirates, San Francisco Giants, Texas Rangers

The Rangers claimed former SF Giants prospect Tommy Joseph off waivers today from the Phillies.  I had wondered whether another team would claim him or wait until he passed through waivers when he would have likely elected free agency as a veteran major league player.

Joseph was originally the Giants’ second round pick (55th overall) in 2009.  He was extremely promising as a catcher on both sides of the ball, but was eventually quite literally knocked out of the position by concussions.

I’m predicting that we start to hear about more former major league baseball catchers developing CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) in the not too distant future.  Ryan Freel is still the only former MLBer diagnosed after death with CTE that I am aware of, but with many more catchers’ careers ending now because of concussions (pitchers throw harder and batters swing harder than ever before), it’s just a matter of time.  More on this thought later.

Back to Joseph — Tommy hit well enough that he was able to convert to 1B and reach the majors solely on his abilities as a hitter.  He was good in his 2016 rookie season, posting an .813 OPS in 347 major league plate appearances.

In 2017, Tommy Joseph had his sophomore jinx season.  He still hit with power (22 HRs), but his .721 OPS in 533 plate appearances with an ugly .289 on-base percentage isn’t going to cut it anywhere as a 1Bman.

Joseph is an old 26 in 2018 (he turns 27 on July 16th and he looks older than 26 in his baseball reference photo), but any kind of 26 is good for a righted-hitter with power who already has almost 900 career plate appearances.  He seemed to me like he was an obvious candidate for an American League team that could use a better right-handed hitter with power on the bench, and I feel gratified that at least one AL team agreed with me.

The Rangers are clearly that team.  Joseph shouldn’t play first base in any more games than are needed to rest Joey Gallo, who is a younger, better version of Tommy Joseph.  However, Gallo is a lefty swinger and so is 35-year old DH Shin-soo Choo, so there’s an obvious fit for Joseph.  Choo isn’t likely to play 149 games as he did last year, and he may well continue to spend time in the corner outfield positions as needed.  Joseph is also insurance if either Gallo or Choo gets hurt.

The one thing standing Joseph’s way is that he hasn’t had much of a platoon split in his MLB career.  He has a career .781 OPS against lefties and a .748 OPS against righties.  He better improve his hitting against lefties in 2018 if he wants to re-establish himself as a full-time major leaguer going forward, because right now his role is as right-handed power bat off the bench.

Back to CTE in a roundabout way — earlier today I happened to look up catchers who hold the records for most games caught in a season.  Randy Hundley is still the only MLB player to have caught more than 155 games in a season when he played a whooping 160 games behind the dish in 1968.

Playing 150 games a season as a catcher has been accomplished only 27 times in MLB history.  The first such iron man was George Gibson for the World Champion 1909 Pittsburgh Pirates.  He caught at least 140 games in each of 1908 and 1910, and then the injuries set in as he had also reached the age of 30.

There are only two eras in major league history when catching a 150 games in a season wasn’t rare — the expansion era generation from 1962-1983 (17 such seasons) and the last two years of World War II 1944-1945 (four times).  In the expansion era more games were played in a season and catching talent was thinly spread.  In the late War years, there was a real lack of major league caliber catchers, even at the lower wartime level of play, such that some of the good ones who were available had to work double duty.

I would guess that in the days of the old Pacific Coast League when seasons were routinely 180 to 200 a season, it wasn’t rare for a catcher to catch 150 games in a season.  However, two of the greatest catchers in PCL history, Billy Raimondi and Truck Hannah, appear to have accomplished the feat a total of only three times between them during their combined 37 PCL seasons.  Of course, the fact that they weren’t overworked may be part of why they had such long professional careers.

78 times has a catcher caught at least 145 games in a major league season.  Here is a list of the only eight catchers (by my count) who wore the tools of ignorance that many times in three or more different seasons: (5 times) Jim Sundberg, Jason Kendall; (4) Randy Hundley, Gary Carter; and (3) Yogi Berra, Bob Boone, Jody Davis and Tony Pena.  Needless to say, most of these seasons happened early in these catchers’ careers.

My point, I guess, is that there are a lot of retired catchers who caught a whole of games in their major league (and professional) careers who are reaching the age when we should start to hear more about CTE in former major league catchers.

The Contractual Reasons Why Free Agent Contracts Are Down This Off-Season

Posted March 15, 2018 by Burly
Categories: Baltimore Orioles, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees

I had read earlier this off-season that the owners had pantsed the players’ union in the latest collective bargaining agreement (CBA) on terms affecting free agency, but I didn’t actually look at the CBA to see for myself until two days ago.  There are certainly reasons to think that the new contract terms have an awful lot to do with this off-season’s disappointing free agent signing period, at least as far as the free agents and their agents are concerned.

The current CBA punishes free agents in a less direct way than the old free agent compensation system, but by separating the compensation paid from the actual free agent signed, it may be boosting owners’ resolve in refusing to sign sign free agents, at least if it means going over the salary cap to do so.

The new rules much more steeply punish teams for going over the team luxury tax thresholds (i.e., a soft salary cap).  Under the system that started with the 2017 season, penalties are much steeper if a team goes over the luxury tax, particularly if they are over the base luxury tax amount ($197 million in 2018) three years in a row.  Plus, the penalties increase by the amount over the luxury tax threshold, up to a 95% on the payroll amount over $237 million (the third luxury tax threshold) in 2018 if  the team has been over the $197M base luxury tax threshold for the third year in row.

Meanwhile, each time a team gets itself under the luxury tax threshold in a year, it resets the taxes at the lowest rates the next time the team goes over any of the three luxury tax thresholds.  Plus, starting with the current season, any team going over the third luxury tax threshold ($237M in 2018) (it’s called the Second Surcharge threshold in the CBA for confusion’s sake) has its top pick in the next Rule 4 amateur draft automatically dropped ten places.  Everyone reading this should know that a team’s first pick in any draft is far more likely to result in a major league regular player than any subsequent draft pick that year.

In sum, the new penalties are steep this offf-season if a team goes over the $237M amount or goes over the $197M amount for the third season in a row.  At the same time, the wealthiest teams can reset the monetary penalties every third season by dipping under the currently $197M amount.

These are powerful incentives for the wealthiest teams (the teams which drive free agent contract amounts as a whole) to keep their annual payrolls within range of the currently $197M base threshold amount so that they can dip below it at least every third season.  It’s also an incentive for the wealthiest teams to shorten free agent contract lengths to three seasons or less, so that they will have the flexibility to try to dip below the first luxury tax threshold (base threshold amount) every third season.

I think the owners also accurately predicted that separating penalties from the actual free agents signed would make teams less likely to spend than under the old system.  Under the old system, a team signing a free agent who received a qualifying offer lost its first round draft pick, so long as the pick was not in the top 10 or 15 overall.  Thus, a team could directly compare the value in the immediately following seasons of the free agent they hoped to sign with the value of the first draft pick they would lose by the signing.

Now the incentive is to keep overall team salaries below the soft but increasingly stern salary caps.  Now teams no longer lose that first round pick by signing any particular free agent, but are instead punished if they go over the third luxury tax threshold.  Because the penalty is now more divorced from any particular player the team hopes to sign, I suspect the psychological effect has made teams more unlikely to sign free agents that will put them over the salary caps.

I had wondered why teams had been willing to negotiate away first round draft pick compensation for signing elite free agents, which looked like a huge win for the players’ union.  Now I understand it — the owners with their tougher salary cap penalties have apparently gotten back even more than they gave up.

However, I also suspect that the typically high-spending Yankees and Dodgers are trying to get under the $197M base threshold this off-season because they want to spend big next off-season.  The Dodgers want flexibility to re-sign Clayton Kershaw, this generation’s Sandy Koufax, if he has a 2018 season in line with his career averages and opts out of his current contract; and the Yankees want flexibility to throw money at Manny Machado next off-season.

Philadelphia Phillies To Sign Jake Arrieta for Three Years at $75 Million

Posted March 12, 2018 by Burly
Categories: Chicago Cubs, Kansas City Royals, Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies and Jake Arrieta have reportedly reached a deal that guarantees Arrieta $75 million over three seasons.  This is perhaps the contract for Arrieta that could have been predicted much earlier this off-season, as teams showed a strong preference for shelling out big bucks but for fewer seasons during the first half of this free agency period.  Arrietta receives well less than expected, but he certainly didn’t take a beating like Mike Moustakas.

Aside from the term and the guarantee, Arietta’s contract is interesting and full of the kind of crafty, creative terms we’ve come to expect from Steve Boras.  The deal is heavily front loaded, with Arietta receiving $30M in 2018, $25M in 2019 and $20M in 2020.  More evidence of many teams’ new preference for paying players the most when they reasonably predict the player’s performance value will be highest and paying less for the anticipated decline seasons.  This makes budgeting in future seasons easier, but loses the time value of money of the traditional back-loaded multi-year deals.

After two seasons, Arrieta has an opt-out, except that the Phils can void the opt-out by guaranteeing two additional years (2021-2022) at $20 million per.  The $20M per can be elevated up to $25M per based on games started or up to $30M per based on Cy Young Award finishes in 2018-2019, meaning, I suppose, that Arrieta could earn as much as $60M or $70M more than the $75M guarantee if he wins the Cy Young Award in either 2018 or 2019.

Arrieta and Boras didn’t get what they were expecting, but it’s still hard to have much sympathy for either.  Arrieta is still guaranteed a pile of money, which could nearly double if Arrieta is as good going forward as Boras claims he will be.

For a team that lost 96 games last off-season, the Phillies sure spent a lot of money on free agents this off-season.  None of the deals is longer than three years, so the Phillies must think they can be competitive by 2019, or the deals don’t appear to make much sense.

However, the Phillies play in a big and potentially lucrative market, and I definitely think it’s easier to develop young players on a good team than a terrible one.  It’s nice to see at least one MLB team this off-season — and you also have to give credit to both the Twins and the Brewers for doing the same — really trying to make itself better for 2018 this off-season.