Archive for August 2013

San Francisco Giants Pay Up

August 30, 2013

Lest we forget just what tightwads major league teams can sometimes be, the Giants paid out nearly $545,000 in unpaid back wages and penalties to 74 clubhouse and administrative employees, who when all of their hours actually worked were calculated had been paid less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, to settle claims filed by the federal Department of Labor (“DOL”).  Here’s an article from espn.com about it.

This payout may not be the Giants’ last — those employees working in California, which one would have to assume is most of them since the major league team and two of its minor league teams play there, likely will get a further payout since the minimum wage in California is currently $8.00 an hour, a little more than the federal minimum, if similar claims have been filed with the California Department of Industrial Relations Division of Labor Standards Enforcement.

Needless to say, the owners pay multi-million dollar annual salaries to star players only because they have to.  The players have an extremely strong union which has gradually negotiated over the last 47 or 48 years all of the rights and benefits players enjoy today.  Obviously, the clubhouse and administrative employees who apparently filed claims with the U.S. DOL are not unionized, and the team for at least the last three years has paid them less than federal or state law requires.

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Wladimir Balentien Approaches Japanese Single Season Home Run Record

August 28, 2013

Wladimir Balentien hit another home run earlier today giving him 51 HRs with 32 games remaining in his team’s (the Yakult Swallows) schedule.  56 HRs would set the all-time NPB single-season record.

Balentien was once a hot prospect in the U.S., but he didn’t make enough contact in 559 major league plate appearances between the ages of 22 and 24. Wladimir then went to Japan’s NPB at the still relatively young age of 26, and it’s paid off in a big way for him.

Balentien hit with power from the get-go in Japan, but with the introduction of new, more resilient baseballs in NPB this year he’s having a season for the ages.  While everyone is hitting a lot better in NPB than the previous two seasons, Balentien is still way ahead in this year’s home run race.  Former NPB home run leader Tony Blanco is second with 33 dingers, and Shinnosuke Abe, who was far and away the best all-around hitter in NPB last year, is third with 30.

The question now is not whether Balentien can break the single-season home run record; instead, it’s whether NPB will actually let him do it.  Since Sadaharu Oh set the NPB single-season HR record with 55 in 1964, a number of foreign players have threatened to break Oh’s record.  However, whenever they got close, NPB pitchers simply stopped throwing them strikes.

In 1985, Randy Bass [Bass’ NPB stats are about 3/4 of the way down the page] had reached 54 HRs with one game to play in the NPB season.  In the last game which Bass’ Hanshin Tigers played against the Yomiuri Giants (the team Oh had played for and was then managing), Bass was walked intentionally all four times he came to the plate to prevent him from tying or breaking the record.  Another source says that the Giants tried to walk Bass every time he came to bat during the three game series, but that Bass got a single hit by throwing his bat at the ball on one of the pitch-out attempts.

Bass got even in 1986, sort of, by setting NPB’s all-time single season batting record at .389.  Ichiro [NPB stats about 1/4 down page] came close in 1994 (.385) and 2000 (.387), but Bass’ record still stands.

In 2001, Tuffy Rhodes [Rhodes’ NPB stats about 1/3 down the page] reached 55 HRs for the Kintetsu Buffaloes with numerous games left in the season.  While Rhodes had at least a few opportunities to set the record, he was intentionally walked every time came to bat in a late-season three-game series against Fukuoka Hawks, a team managed by Oh.  Another Hawks’ coach claimed responsibility, saying he didn’t want a foreigner to break Oh’s record; however, the events speak for themselves.

Despite criticism from NPB’s commissioner over the failure to pitch to Rhodes, the very next season essentially the same thing happened yet again, this time involving slugger Alex Cabrera.  Cabrera reached 55 HRs with five games left in the season, when his team, the Seibu Lions, again playing against Oh’s Hawks.  Oh claimed to have instructed his pitchers not to walk Cabrera, but most of the Hawks pitchers nonetheless threw Cabrera nothing but balls well off the plate.

Cabrera was later linked to steroids in the Mitchell Report, and it’s entirely possible that Rhodes in 2001 or Wladimir Balentien this year could have used steroids, given that they played or are still playing in the steroids era.  Even so, there is something extremely off-putting about denying players the opportunity to break single-season records based solely on the fact that they are foreigners.

The upshot is that we’ll have to wait and see whether Balentien is given a fair shot to break the record.  Certainly, the history does not inspire confidence that he’ll be given that fair shot.

 

Pittsburgh Pirates Get Marlon Byrd and John Buck

August 28, 2013

Well, it’s good to see the Pirates make this kind of a trade after so many years of trading away veterans for prospects late in the season.  The move makes a great deal of sense for a team almost certain to make the play-offs (the Bucs are presently eight games ahead of the Diamondbacks for the second wild card spot), but currently a game and a half back of the division lead behind the Cardinals.  Five weeks of Marlon Byrd in right field and John Buck as a back-up catcher isn’t much, but it could certainly be enough to allow the Pirates to catch and pass the Cardinals and avoid the one-game, do-or-die wild card play-off that’s likely to take place between whichever too teams finish second and third in the NL Central.

Byrd represents a significant improvement for the Bucks in right field both offensively and defensively.  I don’t see that John Buck provides a significant improvement over current back-up catcher Tony Sanchez, but Buck at least provides a veteran presence, flexibility at catcher and a right-handed hitting power bat off the bench, although unfortunately Buck doesn’t hit lefties much better than righties.

I definitely buy into the idea that at some level at least, this kind of trade sends a strong message to both the team’s current players and its fan base that the Pirates are serious about winning now that an opportunity at last presents itself and thus is more likely than not to give the team a significant boost going into the stretch drive.  Obviously, though, Marlon Byrd will have to keep hitting the way he did for the Mets to really make the Bucs a better team than they are now.

The Bucs certainly had to give up something valuable in 2B prospect Dilson Herrera and a player to be named later who sources say will be a “solid” prospect.  Herrera is playing well this year in the Class A Sally League at the tender age of 19, which definitely makes him a prospect, although MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo apparently only ranks him as the Pirates’ 11th best prospect at the moment.  Herrera was ranked by Baseball America as the team’s 20th best prospect before the start of the 2013 season.

Herrera was potentially blocked in Pittsburgh by Neil Walker.  However, by the time Herrera is ready for the Show, Walker may well be long gone from the Pirates.

Still, you have to give up something to get something, and it’s nice to see the Pirates finally trying to win now.

Last Start of Barry Zito’s San Francisco Giants Career?

August 27, 2013

Actually, I was surprised Barry Zito got tonight’s start at all.  After giving up six earned runs in 3.2 IP against Boston at home, I was thinking (hoping) there wouldn’t be another one.

Barry allowed five earned runs in 4.0 IP against the Rockies tonight on nine hits and two HRs.  That’s an improvement over the previous start, but it’s late enough in the season for some (any) minor leaguer to get the opportunity to start at the major league level no matter how bad he might pitch.  Giving a few more starts to Michael Kickham and Yusmeiro Petit or better yet to Eric Surkamp, who is 7-1 with a 2.54 ERA in ten starts at AAA Fresno and apparently all the way back from his Tommy John surgery in late July 2012, can’t possibly be less useful to the Giants’ 2014 and beyond, than starting Barry Zito again this year.

As for Barry Zito as he wraps up his Giants career, all I can say is, “Thanks for the 2012 memories!”  He may have cost a pile, but we’ll always recall his 2012 post-season first whenever his name is mentioned.

At 15.5 games back of the second wildcard, let alone what they need to catch up to the Dodgers in the NL West, in the last days of August it’s time to play every remaining game with an eye to what helps the team most next year.  That can’t possibly involve anything but Zito as the guy who comes in during blow-outs or in extra innings, when someone else needs a rest.  That doesn’t doesn’t happen much after the rosters expand on September 1st.

 

Alfredo Despaigne Fails to Impress in Mexico

August 27, 2013

About two months ago, I wrote a post about Cuban slugger Alfredo Despaigne, whom the Cuban government allowed to play in the Mexican League this summer despite the obvious risk that Despaigne might use the opportunity to defect so he could make the big money playing in the U.S.

Despaigne didn’t defect, although he says he was approached in Mexico by people who wanted him to.  He played 33 games for the Campeche Pirates, before apparently returning to Cuba to prepare for the Cuban National Serie, which plays during the winter months.  Either that, or he’s currently injured since he hasn’t played in Mexico since August 3rd.

Frankly, I don’t think Despaigne did a whole lot in Mexico to convince major league teams to give him a big signing bonus even if he does intend to defect at some time in the future.  While his .338 batting average and .928 OPS look great, they are not impressive numbers in a league with as much offense as the Mexican League.  His batting average would rank him only 18th among qualifiers, and his OPS wasn’t as high as any of the top 20 qualifiers.

Granted, Despaigne only played 33 games, so maybe he would have hit better if he played a full season or two in Mexico once he had adjusted to the Mexican League style of play. However, Despaigne is already 27 years old, so he should be in his prime and not getting any younger for purposes of major league interest.  Also, the Mexican League just isn’t that good a league for purposes of a player who is supposed to be one of the three or four best hitters in the world not playing in the majors.

Also, Despaigne’s other numbers were worse.  He struck out nearly seven times for each time he walked, and he grounded into more double plays (6) than he drew walks (4).  His outfield defense doesn’t appear to have been particularly impressive either, with only one assist while mostly playing right field.

Assuming that Despaigne is back in Cuba and won’t defect at the earliest, if ever, until next summer, it’s unlikely that he would be able to play in the majors until 2015, the year he turns 29, given his need to establish residency in some other country and sign a contract with an MLB organization.  That’s really pushing it as far as the likelihood of his having future major league success.

Max Scherzer and the Law of Averages

August 25, 2013

After last night’s game, Max Scherzer is now 19-1, which means that if the season ended today, he would have the highest single-season winning percentage in baseball history at .950.  Wow, is he ever due for the law of averages to kick him in the behind!

There are 33 games left in the Tigers’ schedule, which should translate into six more starts for Scherzer.  He’s almost a lock on a 20-win season, and no pitcher in the 130+ years of the history of major league baseball has ever won 20 while losing fewer than three games.  As such, the smart money has to be on Scherzer being credited with at least two more losses between now and the end of the regular season.

That being said, records are made to be broken and just about every record will, in fact, be broken given enough time.  There’s so much luck involved in a pitcher’s single-season winning percentage that anything is possible in any given season.  Aside from that, it just feels like this year is as good as any for a new record to be set in this regard.

Looking at the current single season leaders in single-season winning percentage, you have Elroy Face at .947 (18-1) for the 1959 Pirates, Johnny Allen at .938 (15-1) for the 1937 Indians, Greg Maddux at .905 (19-2) for the 1995 Braves and Randy Johnson at an even .900 (18-2) for the 1995 Mariners.  [I’m not counting Perry “Moose” Werden‘s .923 (12-1) for the 1884 Union Association’s St. Louis Maroons.  The UA wasn’t a major league in terms of talent, and its status as a “major league” is more a mistake of history than anything else.  The 1884 Maroons were the only team in the league with “major league” talent — they went a ridiculous 94-19 and won the UA’s only pennant by a whopping 21 full games.  In 1885, the Maroons jumped to the National League, and with pretty much the same roster finished dead last with a dreadful 36-72 record.  Nothing about these facts suggest the UA was anywhere close to a major league.]

In 1995 both Maddux and Johnson were far and away the best pitchers in their respective leagues.  Maddux had a 1.63 ERA that year — no other qualifying Senior Circuit pitcher had an ERA below 2.50.  Johnson led the Junior Circuit with a 2.48 ERA — Tim Wakefield at 2.95 was the only other qualifying AL hurler with an ERA under 3.00.  Johnson also struck out an astounding 294 batters in only 214.1 IP, the fifth highest rate by a qualifier in baseball history, although only the third best season of Johnson’s Hall of Fame career.

Roy Face and Johnny Allen were simply a lot more lucky.  Face was a relief ace with a good, but not great, 2.70 ERA that year (Face’s ERA was better than the top NL qualifier, but four pitchers who threw more innings than Face that season had better ERAs, some much better) who just happened to win almost all the close games that year.  Johnny Allen’s 2.55 ERA was third best in the AL in 1937, and injuries apparently limited him to 24 games pitched and 20 starts.  Max Scherzer’s 2.73 ERA is currently fifth best in the AL.

It’s also worth noting that except for Maddux’s 1995 Braves who went 90-54 (.625 winning percentage), none of the teams on which these pitchers played was especially good or as good as the 2013 Tigers so far (77-53, .592 pct.).  Faces’ 1959 Pirates just beat .500 at 78-76, Allen’s 1937 Indians were a little better at 83-71 (.539) and Johnson’s 1995 Mariners were just a little better still at 79-66 (.545).

The upshot of all of this, I guess, is that Max Scherzer has as good a shot as any pitcher since at least 1995 to set a single-season winning percentage record, whether all-time or by a 20-game winner, if his good luck and good pitching holds up for six more starts.

 

Carlos Villanueva Throws Eephus Pitch (Sort of)

August 23, 2013

I saw a piece on yahoo.com on a 57 mph bloop pitch that the Cubs’ Carlos Villanueva threw the Nationals’ Jason Werth yesterday.  The pitch is described as an “eephus” pitch, but it looks more like a real slow 12-to-6 curve ball in the video provided.  At any rate, it was good enough to steal a strike from Werth.

The yahoo article also contains footage of Dave LaRoche‘s “LaLob”, the last real eephus pitch thrown in the majors on a regular basis.  The article also links to footage of Randy Wolf throwing a 49 mph pitch in 2012, but the video is no longer available.  You can see it here.  Not a true eephus pitch in my book.

The pitcher to first make the eephus pitch famous, of course, was Rip Sewell.  He was extremely successful with it for a few years, although he’s most famous today for the home run he gave up to Ted Williams on the pitch in the 1946 All-Star Game.  Here’s the footage (starting at 1:39).

A number of pitchers have tried out the eephus pitch over the years.  Here’s footage of Steve Hamilton‘s “Folly Floater” around 1970.  Japanese pitcher Kaz Tadano, who pitched briefly for the Indians, threw a good eephus.  Here’s footage on him throwing one in the AAA Pacific Coast League in 2007.

Vicente Padilla and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez are other recent pitchers credited with throwing an eephus pitch, although theirs were more of the Villanueva/Wolf variety than the true eephus.

The true, high-arcing eephus isn’t a common pitch for fairly obvious reasons.  First, it is a true “trick” pitch which relies almost entirely on surprising the hitter.  With even an eephus thrown as high as Rip Sewell’s or Dave LaRoche’s, hitters will be able to time the pitch if they see it regularly.

Second, it is very difficult to throw the pitch consistently for strikes, much like the overhand curveball.  Not only is it tough to get into today’s short strike zone, but the pitch often fools the umpire as much as the batter.

The key to dealing with the pitch as a hitter is generally not to swing at it.  You can see in the LaRoche video that he gets Gorman Thomas out with it mainly because Thomas is willing to chase the soft toss well out of the strike zone.

The lower arching floaters of Padilla and El Duque are easier to command, but also can’t be thrown with any regularity.  Here is footage of a young Alex Rodriguez hitting it long when Hernandez throws one too many during an at-bat — ARod double-clutches, but thanks in part to Vitamin S perhaps, he hits it a long way.  The standard change-up is a much more effective pitch, simply because it looks like a fastball coming out of the pitcher’s hand.