Archive for February 2012

Steve Bellan and the Origins of Cuban Baseball

February 25, 2012

Here’s another tidbit from John Thorn’s Baseball in the Garden of Eden (Simon & Schuster 2011).

I had always though baseball caught on in Cuba in the 1890’s around the time of the Spanish American War, which was also a time when barnstorming teams were making heralded Caribbean trips.  According to Thorn, baseball reach Cuba at least 20 years earlier.

It was apparently common well before the Spanish American War and possibly as far back at the 18th century for wealthy and upper middle class Cubans to send their children to the U.S. for higher education and to make life-long business contacts.  One of these young Cubans was Esteban “Steve” Bellan who came to New York from Havana at age 13 to attend Fordham University’s Rose Hill preparatory school.

Despite the relatively late start to take up baseball, Bellan quickly established himself on the diamond, so much so that he eventually became the first Cuban ever to play in a U.S. professional baseball league.  He played in the National Association’s first three seasons from 1871 through 1873, the first two years for the Troy Haymakers and then briefly in ’73 for the New York Mutuals.  His best season was 1872 when he hit .278 in 23 games (Troy played only 25 league games that season), roughly splitting his time between shortstop and third base.

After seven games for the Mutuals in 1873 in which he hit only .189, Bellan returned to Cuba at age 23 and quickly set about organizing a baseball team there, presumably largely consisting of other young Cubans who had been educated in the U.S. and developed a passion for baseball too.  Thorn writes that in 1874 Bellan’s Club Havana defeated Club Matanzas in the first organized, or at least documented, baseball game played in that country.  Thorn also notes that each team played with 10 men in that first game, with the second baseman playing on or near the bag and a “right shortstop” playing between second and first.

Baseball must have caught on like wildfire in Cuba, because under Bellan’s direction the Professional Baseball League of Cuba was formed in 1878 and continued without interruption until 1961, after the Cuban Revolution, when Castro abolished professional baseball and replaced the Cuban League with an “amateur” national system, the highest level of which, the Cuban National Series, was, of course, “amateur” in name only and continues to this day.

In the winter of 1879, a group of American players who would play for the NL’s Worchester Ruby Legs in 1880 made a barnstorming tour of Cuba.  In addition, two players who played for the NL’s Syracuse Stars in 1879, Hick Carpenter and Jimmy Macullar, actually played in the Cuban League that winter for the Colon Club, starting the tradition of American players playing in the Caribbean winter leagues which survives to this day.

Those of you who regularly read mlbtraderumors.com know we have been hearing all winter long about Cuban defectors Yoenis Cespedes, who just signed a four year $36 million contract with the Oakland A’s, and Jorge Soler, who is also expected to sign an eight-figure contract soon.  Now you know it all started with Steve Bellan back in the 1870’s.

[Post Script:  one final thing I learned from Thorn’s book is a better understanding of a statement from Bill James’ Historical Baseball Abstract that the early National League didn’t necessarily contain the nation’s best professional teams.

National League founder William Hulbert ran the league with an iron fist until his death in 1881.  Hulbert threw out the New York Mutuals and Philadelphia Athletics after the the 1876 season when they had refused to make their final western road trip; the Louisville Greys dropped out after the game fixing scandal of 1877 as did the St. Louis Browns after signing fixers Jimmy Devlin and George Hall for the 1878 season in spite of Hulbert’s ban on these players; and Hulbert expelled the Cincinnati Red Stockings after the 1880 season for selling beer and liquor at their games in violation of league rules.

Hulbert was forced to replace these big market clubs with professional teams from smaller markets such as Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Providence, Buffalo, Syracuse, Troy and Worchester.  Meanwhile, the expelled big market clubs didn’t cease to exist.  Instead, they continued to play games outside of a league structure.  This was not as difficult as it sounds today, because even the league teams in the 1870’s played far more games against non-league opponents — professional, semi-pro and amateur — than they did against league members each year.

As such, the big market teams could still afford top talent whether or not they were members of a league.

Evidence that the NL teams were not all the best teams in the country are demonstrated by the following examples.  The Providence Grays joined the NL in 1878 with a line-up few of whom had played in the NL the year before and finished a strong 3rd in a six-team league.  The Buffalo Bisons did the same thing in 1879, finishing a strong 3rd in an eight-team league.

Not until the American Association formed in 1882 and declared itself a major league and attendance throughout baseball exploded, in large part due to the fact that the AA and the NL moved teams back into the big markets previously abandoned by the NL, and also the fact that AA teams sold beer and played games on Sundays at cheaper ticket prices, did the major leagues really begin to have the resources to gather up all of the top talent.]

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Baseball’s Secret History

February 25, 2012

I recently finished reading John Thorn’s Baseball in the Garden of EdenThe Secret History of the Early Game (Simon & Schuster 2011), which my father gave me for Christmas.  (I don’t get to read as much as I’d like, and I’m a slow reader.)

I definitely recommend it.  Thorn tells his history in a less linear style than I would perhaps prefer, but that’s my only knock.  I learned a lot I didn’t know, and I’ve read a lot about baseball.

Here are the facts I consider most worth repeating.

The 1845 New York Knickerbockers were not the first club to play the New York game of baseball, the version that eventually took over nationally and evolved into the modern game of baseball.  Instead, they were merely the best at documenting what they were doing and maintaining their club records for posterity.

Preceding the Knickerbockers were the New York Ball Club, the Gotham, the Eagle, the Magnolia Ball Club, all of New York City (Manhatten) and the Brooklyn Base Ball Club (Brooklyn didn’t become a part of New York City until 1896).  While most of these clubs were made up of young upper middle class men who had enough leisure time to play ball, the Magnolia Ball Club was made of successful, but much more earthy, working men — saloon keepers, billiard hall operators and brothel owners, among others.  Thorn contends that the Magnolia Ball Club was written out of history due to the less than sterling backgrounds of its members.

As Thorn points out, history records that the Knickerbockers got pounded by the New York Ball Club 23-1 in their first match game, strong evidence that the Knicks were the baseball newbies.

Another piece of largely forgotten history worth mentioning is one of baseball’s first really big series which occurred in the summer of 1858 when a team of all-stars from Manhattan played three matches against a team of all-stars from Brooklyn at the Fashion Race Course on Long Island not far from where Shea Stadium is today.

Ten cents admission was charged for the games, with higher fees for transportation and livery costs (you had to come by horse and carriage or train).  One newspaper contemporaneously reported the paid attendance for the first game of the series at 7,800.

The New York team won the first and third games, with the Brooklyns taking only the second, with each game played about a month apart.  Stars on the New York team included Joe Gelston of the Eagles, Charles DeBost of the Knickerbockers, Joe Pinckney of the Unions and Louis F. Wadsworth of the Gotham, while the best Brooklyn players were generally considered to be Frank Pidgeon and Johnny Grum of the Eckfords, Joe Leggett of the Excelciors and the brothers Matty and Pete O’Brien of the Atlantics, although the line-ups changed considerably for each game.  Dickey Pearce, who would later star in the National Association, the first professional baseball league in the early 1870’s, also played shortstop in at least game for Brooklyn.

Some of these players were probably already being paid to play under the table, since a number of them already had reputations as “revolvers,” i.e. players who regularly revolved from one team to another for undeclared reasons.  In fact, the National Association of Base Ball Players formed in 1858 (then really only the New York Association of Base Ball Players, but they had aspirations), passed a ban on professional players in 1859, again strong evidence that the best players were already being paid by teams that wanted to win not only as a matter of prestige but also because large sums of money were already being bet on the top teams’ matches.

In fact, famed chronicle of the early game Henry Chadwick wrote an article fifteen years later in 1873 about how in the first game of the series, Brooklyn second baseman John Holder won a $75 bet that he would hit a home run in his next at-bat, which would be equivalent to about $2,000 today.  It was the game’s only home run.

At the time these all-star games were played, called strikes had only been introduced that season, and balls were still not called.  Up to that point, pitchers were expected to pitch the ball underhanded with a straight arm up to the bat, with the fielders being entirely responsible for defense.  That would soon change as pitchers began to bend the rules, by bending their arms and wrists, to make pitched balls harder to hit.

The success of this first big series also inspired a number of entrepreneurs to build enclosed ball fields where admissions could be charged on a regular basis.

Ryan Braun PED Suspension Overturned

February 24, 2012

Wow!  Ryan Braun’s looming 50 game suspension for testing positive for elevated and artificial testosterone levels has been overturned by arbitrator Shyam Das.

All signs before the hearing suggested that it is extremely difficult to overturn a positive test and that Braun’s chances of escaping the mandatory suspension were slim to none.

Das did not submit a written opinion and still has 30 days to do so.  The ruling was a long time coming with several reports over the last few weeks that a decision was only a day or two away.  This strongly suggests the decision was a close one for Das and he had to pour over the evidence carefully.

Das has a tremendous record as a baseball arbitrator.  In a system involving a three man panel, where the MLB selected panel member always votes for the team, league or MLB and the union selected panel member always votes for the player or union, Das has been one of the few arbitrators both sides trust enough to keep going back to.

By way of comparison, Peter Seitz, the arbitrator who rightfully (it was the only reasonable decision under the law of contract) struck down the reserve clause in 1976, was summarily canned by MLB. Where both sides have to agree to the arbitrator, being right isn’t enough if the decision really disappoints one of the sides.

The early reports from espn.com suggest that the decision was made on the basis of chain of custody — that is, MLB couldn’t show that the blood sample that was tested came out of Ryan Braun’s arm — reportedly due to the tester or a courier not transmitting the sample immediately to Federal Express for shipment to the lab were the sample would be tested.

I’ll wait to read the report from Shyam Das.  Everything I’ve ever heard is that Das is a smart and capable arbitrator, and I’ll wait to see what he has to say in writing before I pass any judgment of my own.  People who pass judgment without actually reading the opinion will likely be guided by their own prejudices rather than the facts.

Perform Or You’re Gone

February 3, 2012

I was looking at NPB Tracker today, and saw that Alex Ramirez will be playing for the Yokohama Bay Stars in 2012.

For those of you who are not familiar with Alex Ramirez, he is one of the greatest foreign players who has ever played in Japan’s NPB.  After eleven seasons in NPB, he has hit 359 HRs and has a career batting average of .303.  (The knocks on Alex are poor 1B defense and he doesn’t walk much.)  In 2010, he broke Sadaharu Oh’s record by driving in 100 or more runs for the eighth consecutive season.

Ramirez was 36 years old in 2011, and he had a bad year by his standards.  Only, it really wasn’t that bad.

After a 2010 in which he hit .304 and set career highs with 49 HRs and 129 RBIs, he hit only .277 with 23 HRs and 73 RBIs.  However, there was so little offense in NPB in 2011, these numbers were actually pretty good when you compare him to what all the other hitters were doing.

His .277 batting average was still good for 9th in the Central League, his 23 HRs were tied for second, his RBI total was 5th best and his slugging percentage was still 4th best.  Pretty good rankings for a player his age.

Not for the Yomiuri Giants.  Alex will be playing for the Bay Stars in 2012.  Going from Yomiuri to Yokohama is the equivalent of going from the Yankees to the Royals.

There is at least some method to Yomiuri’s madness.  Alex was paid around $6.5 million in 2011 (the information I have says he was paid a total of two billion yen for the four seasons from 2008 through 2011), which is more than Yomiuri is apparently willing to pay for merely well above average performance.  By comparison, the information I found suggests that Ramirez signed a two-year deal with the Bay Stars that will pay him around $1.05 million per year.

Ramirez also wanted guarantees on playing time, and although he’s making a lot less with Yokohama, given the Bay Stars’ financial constraints, his $2.1 million over two years means he’ll be given every opportunity to play.

This could be a great deal or a complete bust for the Bay Stars.  On the one hand, Ramirez is only one season removed from arguably his best season.  On the other hand, he’s 37 now and his performance could deteriorate rapidly.

My guess is that Ramirez will perform better in 2012 than he did in 2011, which means he’ll probably give the Bay Stars their money’s worth in this season alone.  In 2o13, I expect his performance will be at his 2011 level or below.

The moral of the story is that the moment a highly-paid foreign player hits a bump in the road, NPB teams are looking for the exit and for someone new.

In some ways, it makes a great deal of sense.  Players as a group get old in a hurry, and teams are more often wiser dumping a player a year too soon rather than a year too late.

On the other hand, foreign players like Ramirez who adapt completely to the Japanese game are hard to find.  Yomiuri will be hoping for peak performance from Ramirez’s replacement John Bowker.  Bowker is a lot cheaper and lot younger than Ramirez, but experience suggests the odds are only about 50-50 he’ll make the necessary adjustments and develop into an NPB superstar.

The Korean Baseball Organization

February 2, 2012

I noticed a post on mlbtraderumors.com to the effect that the Korean Baseball Organization, or KBO, is upset about the Orioles signing 17 year old pitcher Seong-Min Kim and may complain to MLB’s commissioner’s office.  This is obviously nothing more than resentment at MLB coming in and poaching Korean talent which the KBO feels it should have first and exclusive crack at.

At any rate, it got me thinking about the KBO again.  I wrote about Korean ace Yoon Suk Min a couple of months ago (although I now realize we would call him Suk Min Yoon here in the U.S., Yoon being his family name), but I have more to say about the KBO, so here goes.

The eight team KBO is rapidly growing and getting better in terms of the baseball its playing.  As I mentioned in the post on Yoon, former major leaguer Dustin Nippert was the KBO’s second best pitcher in 2011, which is not surprising given that Nippert was an established major league pitcher still near the peak of his career at the time he went to Korea.

Each KBO team can have two foreign players on its roster at any given time, and those roster spots are in fact all filled with foreigners.  KBO teams prefer foreign pitchers — 19 of the 22 foreigners who played all or part of the 2011 season in the KBO were hurlers.

Most of these guys are AAA pitchers with taste of the major leagues, like former Giants Ryan Sadowski and Travis Blackley.  However, major leaguers Denny Bautista and Justin Germano pitched in Korea in 2011, and Anthony Lerew and Scott Proctor will be playing there is 2012.

In other words, the foreign players now playing in Korea are only a hair below those being recruited to play in Japan’s NPB.  Although they generally have a higher probability of success in the KBO, compared to NPB, they aren’t exactly dominating the league, aside from Nippert and Bautista, who pitched great last year in a relief role.

KBO teams don’t have more foreign players almost certainly because they can’t afford to.  While four of the eight KBO teams drew between 998,000 and 1,358,322 fans last season, none of the bottom four teams drew as many as 600,000 or even averaged as many as 9,000 fans a game.

Even so, KBO attendance was up 15% in 2011 compared to the year before, which means the professional sport is still growing rapidly there, which is not entirely surprising when you remember that the league has only been in existence since 1982.

The best two hitters in the KBO last year (by a wide margin) were Dae-Ho (“Big Boy”) Lee of the Lotte Giants and Hyung-woo Choi of the Samsung Lions (as in Japan, KBO teams are owned and sponsored by major corporations who see them as good advertising as much as profit-making ventures in and of themselves.

Lee is called “Big Boy” because baseball reference lists him as 6’4″ and 286 lbs.  Choi is listed as 5’10” and 190 lbs, but he looks heavier in the pictures I’ve seen.

Lee hit .357 (1st) with 27 HRs (2nd) and a 1.011 OPS (2nd), while Choi hit .340 (2nd) with 30 HRs (1st) and a 1.044 OPS (1st).  They finished second and third in the MVP voting behind Yoon.

Big Boy Lee won the KBO’s MVP award in 2010 and failed to win the award in 2006 despite being only the second triple crown winner in KBO history, due to the fact that pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu won the pitcher’s triple crown that year. (KBO MVP voters are relatively more likely to give the award to pitchers than MLB MVP voters are: 12 of 30 KBO MVPs have been pitchers.)  Hyung-woo Choi was the KBO’s Rookie of the Year in 2008.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see either Lee or Choi playing in the U.S.  Lee will be 30 next June, and he just signed a two-year 760 million yen ($9.97 million at current exchange rates) contract to play for the Orix Buffaloes.  Choi is already 28 years old, and he is still under the control of his KBO team for at least a few more years because his professional career got started a little late.

In one piece of good news for KBO fans upset about Big Boy Lee’s departure is the fact that KBO’s greatest star Seung-Yeop Lee is returning to the KBO after eight seasons playing in Japan.  In nine KBO seasons between 1995 and 2003, Seung-Yeop won five MVP Awards.  That’s right, five.

In Japan, S. Y. Lee was nearly as good, at least at first.  He hit at least 30 HRs three years in a row, peaking in 2006, the middle year of the run, when he hit .323 with 41 HRs with 101 runs scored and 108 RBIs for the Yomiuri Giants.  Since 2008, however, injuries and advancing age have slowed him down dramatically.

A couple of final thoughts about the KBO.  First, KBO teams played a 133 game schedule last year, which means that each of the eight teams played every other team 19 times.  This is the only instance I’ve ever heard of a professional baseball team intentionally playing an odd numbered schedule where teams don’t play the same number of games against each other home and away.

Second, Tyrone Woods, the best player (almost) no one in America has ever heard of.  Woods spent ten years playing in the American minor leagues without ever getting even so much as a cup of coffee at the major league level.  In fact, Woods didn’t even receive enough opportunities at the AAA level to prove himself a 4-A player of the type that often succeeds in the Far East.

In 1998, the first year in which the KBO allowed foreign players, Woods signed with the Doosan Bears and immediately won the league’s MVP award in his first season there.  He put in four more outstanding years in the KBO before the Yokohama Bay Stars of the NPB came calling.

In six seasons in Japan, Woods never hit fewer than 35 HRs in a season, reaching 47 in 2006 and 45 in 2004.  He retired after the 2008 season at the age of 39 with 240 NPB home runs, averaging an even 40 HRs per year.  Woods was also a tough customer famed for decking pitchers who threw at him in both Korea and Japan.

A final shout out goes to mykbo.net from which much, but not all, of the information for this post was found.

Whither the Knuckleball?

February 1, 2012

My last post on Tim Wakefield got me thinking about the seeming decline in knuckleball pitchers in recent years and wondering if the universal adoption of five-man pitching rotations and more regimentation of relievers has had an adverse effect on knuckleball pitchers.

Specifically, the thing about the knuckleball pitcher is that he runs counter to the vast majority of major league pitchers.  Throwing knucklers takes very little out of a pitcher’s arm because they aren’t thrown hard and don’t involve any significant arm torque.  A knuckle ball pitcher can throw inning after inning with no ill effects.

On the other hand, throwing the knuckler is all about “feel” and consistency — being able to make the ball knuckle every single time — a knuckleball that doesn’t knuckle is about as fat a pitch as any professional hitter will ever see, not even as fast as a batting practice fastball.

It takes a great deal of practice to master the knuckler, and knuckleball pitchers may be hurt by the fact they don’t get as many game repetitions as they did in the days of four-man starting rotations and the best relief pitchers routinely pitching well more than 100 innings a year.

On the other hand, times are different from the days of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four (the 1969 season), when Bouton wrote about the trouble he had finding bullpen catchers to give him the practice he needed to master his knuckleball.

Catchers hate catching the knuckleball, because it is the most dangerous pitch for them to catch.  This seems counter-intuitive since the knuckleball is thrown so slowly.  However, a good knuckleball breaks so sharply and unpredictably that knucklers routinely hit the catcher’s glove wrong, bruising the hand and cracking the small bones.  Also, catching the knuckleball means taking a lot more balls off the legs as the knuckleball jumps away from the target.

Nowadays, one would think that teams could afford to have extra bullpen catchers for this kind of duty.

I found this great website which lists all the knuckleballers the creator could find.  Going over it, I realize that the number of knuckleballers now might not be historically low.  Instead, I am remembering an era (from approximately 1960 to 1990) when great knuckleballers were especially numerous.

The Niekro brothers, Hoyt Wilhelm, Wilbur Wood, Charlie Hough and Eddie Fisher to name the top six of that era. That’s a lot of great knuckleball pitchers for one 30 year period.

Looking more closely at what may well be Tim Wakefield’s final career numbers, I note that they look a lot like Charlie Hough’s and Wilbur Wood’s (I don’t think a lot of people remember or have ever known what a great pitcher Wood was between 1967 and his getting hurt in early 1976 when a line drive off the bat of Ron LeFlore (the star center fielder and base stealer Billy Martin discovered in the Michigan state penitentiary) shattered his knee cap.)  Or, for that matter, the career numbers of Emil “Dutch” Leonard or Ted Lyons.

My perception of Wakefield’s career is perhaps a bit jaundiced, as for many years I hoped that he would develop into the next Phil Neikro.  In hindsight, that was probably never very realistic.

If Wakefield’s career is in fact now over, the great erratic hope is most certainly R. A. Dickey, who has stealthily established himself as a fine starter in his mid-30’s while playing under the very noses of the New York media.

Dickey was aided in this by going only 8-13 last year.  However, he pitched a lot better than that, posting a 3.28 ERA and setting career highs in innings pitched (208.1), Ks (134) and K/BB ratio (2.48/1).  It was his second fine year as a starter for the Metropolitans.

The beauty of a knuckleballer like Dickey is the same as for all major leaguers facing the start of a new season, only more so.  At age 37 this coming season, the odds are about as good of Dickey running off five more seasons as one of the NLs better starters as they are of him flaming out before the 2012 season is over never to return again.

Let’s hope it’s the former, as the big leagues always need at least one great knuckleballer frustrating the hell out of the world’s best hitters with his assortment of slow and slower dipsy-does.