Archive for June 2014

They Still Work Their Aces Hard in Japan

June 30, 2014

Hanshin Tigers’ ace Randy Messenger threw 145 pitches in his last start a few days against the Chunichi Dragons.  It was the fourth time he’d thrown at least 145 pitches in a game since May 23rd of last year.

This isn’t simply a case of the Tigers’ working a highly paid foreigner as hard as they can while they can.  The Tigers signed Messenger to a big three-year deal last off-season (most likely, $10 million guaranteed with another $5 million in incentives), so they have every reason to try to keep him healthy.

A few things to be said about the heavy workloads, however.  Messenger, who is currently listed as 6’6″ and 266 lbs, is certainly built to be a horse.  Also, he hasn’t shown any ill effects of the work so far — he’s pitching as well as he ever has.  Finally, NPB starters only pitch about once a week, due to more off days and rain-outs in NPB than MLB.

In MLB, it’s a big deal if a pitcher throws 145 pitches in a game and usually happens only if a pitcher is trying to throw a no-hitter or it’s a really big late-season game.

Eric Surkamp Sighting

June 30, 2014

Eric Surkamp was recently promoted by the Chicago White Sox, the team that claimed him last December when the Giants put him waivers to free up roster space for the Michael Morse signing.  Surkamp has made four relief appearances for the Pale Hose and has a 3.38 ERA so far.

As I wrote last December, I was kind of sorry to see Surkamp leave, because I had hopes he might amount to something as a Giant.  Hate to see the Giants give up somebody like that for the waiver price.

The White Sox have had good success the past two seasons with Giants’ cast-offs.  At age 26, Conor Gillaspie has established himself as the ChiSox starting 3Bman.  Losing Gillaspie doesn’t bother me much, though, because he was never going to replace Pablo Sandoval at 3B in San Francisco, and I’m still not really sold on Gillaspie as an every-day 3Bman.  He played last year only because the White Sox had no one better.

Anyway, I’m hoping that Surkamp has some success in the Windy City.  I don’t think he’ll be the next Dan Otero, another former late-round draft choice the Giants clearly undervalued, but you never know.

Also, it cut both ways.  Just as the Giants have given up on quite a few players too soon, they’ve salvaged off the scrap heap plenty of young pitchers given up on by other teams that came on to have success in San Francisco.  Major league teams cycle through so many young players and the margin of skill between a AAA player and a bottom of the roster major league player is so slim that many players are going to eventually find success after getting dumped by one or more other organizations.

Promote SS Matt Duffy to AAA Fresno

June 28, 2014

As we approach the 2014 All-Star Break, one player I’m hoping the Giants will promote is their current AA shortstop Matt Duffy.  Duffy is presently hitting .336 with a .397 on-base percentage for the Eastern League’s Richmond Flying Squirrels.  His batting average and OBP are fifth and seventh best in the Eastern League, respectively, as I write this, no small feat for a middle infielder playing in this home park.

Duffy is currently 23 years old and a former 18th round Draft pick out of Long Beach State.  Duffy had a very similar start at Class A Augusta last year, and the Giants, to their credit, promoted him after 78 games to Class A+ San Jose, where Duffy hit just as well and set himself for a promotion to AA ball this season.  Duffy has now played 72 games at the AA level, so another eight to 13 games there before his promotion to AAA seems about right in my mind.

My great fear is that the Giants will do to Matt Duffy what they did recently to Brock Bond, another low-round Draft pick out of college (24th round out of Mizzou in 2007).  The Giants seemingly just couldn’t accept the fact that Bond was more than just a late-round roster-filler even after he put up one good year in the minors after another.  The Giants like toolsy prospects (i.e., those players with high ceilings based on their raw physical abilities), and I have to think that neither Duffy nor Bond are particularly toolsy if they got drafted so late out of college.

In 2009, after shooting through the low minors with stellar performances, Bond hit .333 with a .429 on-base percentage, both figures leading the Eastern League that year, as a 23 year old 2Bman playing half his games in a park (at Norwich, Connecticut) every bit as bad for hitters as Richmond is now.  The next season he was putting up similar numbers at AAA Fresno and was even one of only two Grizzlies invited to play in the 2010 Pacific Coast League All-Star Game, when he went into a deep slump that dropped him down to a still very respectable .285 batting average and .397 OBP.  What did the Giants do?  They demoted him back down to AA Richmond!

Adding injury to insult, Bond got hurt in 2011 and missed most of the season.  He came back in 2012 at age 26 and hit .332 with a .422 OBP (6th and 3rd best in the Pacific Coast League that year) in 106 games for the Fresno Grizzlies.  Did the Giants reward him with a spot on the major league roster in 2013?  No, they sent him down to Class A+ San Jose to start the season and kept him there!  Now, that’s rewarding performance…

Bond has no power, but as a 2Bman that doesn’t really matter.  My understanding is that the Giants believed his second base defense was poor.  It probably was.  However, he has turned 232 double plays in 385 minor league games at 2B, or 90 DPs per 150 games, which is a pretty good rate for the minor leagues.

Brock Bond has just started to play for the Winnipeg Goldeyes, the perennial power in the independent-A American Association.  He’s still only 28 years old, so there’s still time for him to go the Independent-A/Mexican League route to professional baseball success in Asia.  Still, there’s no way to get around the fact that the Giants never gave him the opportunities his performances at the plate deserved.

Now the Giants have had Matt Duffy fall into their laps, an 18th round pick without great tools who has done nothing but hit in the minors.  Have they learned their lesson?  I kind of doubt it.

Duffy’s minor league defensive numbers suggest he’s got a shortstop’s arm, but not a shortstop’s range.  If he can spend some time learning to play second and third, as well as shortstop, he could be a valuable back-up infielder at the major league level, if he continues to hit as he advances the way he has the last year and a half.  At any rate, the Giants should reward his exceptional performance at AA Richmond with a promotion to AAA Fresno in the near future.

Finally, the Giants should also promote outfielder Jarrett Parker from AA Richmond to AAA Fresno soon.  He’s the polar opposite of Duffy and Bond — a toolsy guy the Giants selected in the 2nd round of 2010 Draft whose performance on the field has never caught up to his tools.  Still, he’s hitting .269./.365/446 in his second season at Richmond, and at age 25 this year, it’s time for him to get a shot at AAA Fresno so they can find out if he has any chance of being anything other than another of the Giants’ many wasted second round draft picks.

A Suggestion for More Foreign Players in Japan’s NPB

June 28, 2014

Since 1998, there has been a limit of only four foreign players on the roster of each NPB baseball team, with (since 2002) no more than three pitchers or three position players on the roster at a time.  I’ve long been writing that these rules ought to be changed to allow more foreign players in NPB, primarily because it would mean a better product on the baseball field for NPB fans.

The main arguments, as I understand them, against allowing more foreign players on NPB teams are as follows.  First, it is sometimes suggested that Japanese baseball fans don’t want more foreign players on NPB rosters because they want to see mainly Japanese players play (or at least NPB owners are afraid the fans feel this way) and that if an unlimited number of foreign players were allowed, NPB would quickly be overwhelmingly made up of foreign players.  I don’t think either of these contentions has much merit.

The suggestion that Japanese baseball fans are essentially too racist to pay to see potentially better baseball if that baseball is played by a higher percentage of foreigners doesn’t seem to me to be very likely.  Fans want to see the best players possible, and major Japanese cities like Tokyo and Osake/Kyoto/Kobe, where seven of the league’s 12 teams play, are major cosmopolitan cities where people are used to seeing and dealing with foreigners.

The idea that the NPB game would become dominated by foreigners doesn’t seem likely either.  There simply aren’t enough good foreign players in the NPB’s price range to take jobs away from highly talented and less expensive Japanese players.  There are only so many 4-A and marginal major league players good enough to play in NPB.

Most players from the Americas good enough to spend the majority of each season on a major league roster generally are not interested in playing in Japan, even if they could potentially make more money as big stars there.  For those not quite good enough to spend significant time on a major league roster each season, few are good enough to succeed in Japan.  While we see new 4-A and marginal major league players of a certain age (usually 28 to 31, when they’re future major league prospects have dimmed) succeed in NPB every year, we also see many fail.

The same goes for other sources of talent.  South Korea’s KBO is now giving Korean free agents multi-million dollar deals, which means that only the very best like Dae Ho Lee and Seung-hwan Oh are good enough to justify the salaries it takes to get them to leave South Korea.  Further, expensive foreigners simply aren’t going to displace similarly talented, less expensive Japanese players on the bottom 15 slots of each NPB roster.

The most likely real reason for limiting the number of foreign players is that teams simply don’t want to spend money on them.  It’s usually suggested that more foreign players would ruin competitive balance because only the three or four wealthiest teams (Yomiuri Giants, Hanshin Tigers, Softbank Hawks and Chunichi Dragons) would be able to afford additional foreign players on their rosters.

However, there isn’t any competitive balance under the current foreign player limits.  If a poor NPB team develops a major foreign star, that star usually jumps to one of the rich teams after a couple of seasons, since foreign players aren’t bound by the eight- and nine-year free agency requirements that apply to Japanese players.  Meanwhile, the wealthier NPB teams are now stock-piling foreigners on their minor league rosters, where there are no limits, so that if a foreigner doesn’t perform on the major league club, the team can quickly call up a replacement for that roster spot.

I think I have a solution that would both allow for more foreign players and also improve competitive balance.  For each foreign player on a team’s roster above the currently allowed four players, the team would pay a fee into a pool, say, for example $3,000 per player per game.  These pooled funds would be split at the end of the season based on shares earned for each game during the season in which a team had no more than four foreign players on its roster.  Further, any money received by a team from the pool would have to be spent on foreign player salaries.

So, for example, if the Yomiuri Giants, Hanshin Tigers and Softbank Hawks each kept six foreign players on their major league rosters throughout the season, each team would pay $864,000 into the pool [(6-4) x $3,000 x 144 games = $864,000].  If the league’s nine other teams each maintained only four foreign players on their major league rosters, each team would receive $288,000 which they would then have to spend on foreign players, which would both enable them to sign better foreign players in the first place and make it easier to hold onto the best foreign players they develop.

Obviously, the amount of the pool payments would be subject to negotiation between the league’s teams.  Also, I expect that almost immediately teams would keep different numbers of foreign players on their major league rosters as each season progresses based on their needs at the moment.

Opposition to such a scheme would most likely come from the richest rather than the poorest teams, because it is the rich teams that would be the ones who would see overall team salaries (plus pool payments) rise if they elect to sign more foreign players.  However, the rich Japanese teams, particularly the Yomiuri Giants, have never had a problem maintaining fiscal discipline when they choose to do so.  The Giants are the one team in NPB that has the revenues to pay salaries commensurate with MLB teams, but the Giants simply elect not to do so.

In the long run, however, I think that further internationalizing Japanese baseball and putting a better product on the field means greater future revenues for NPB.  While the relative sizes of the Japanese and U.S. economies mean that it’s highly unlikely NPB will ever be quite as good as MLB, NPB can get a lot closer than it is now and thus share in what is becoming an ever more international sports market.

Francisco Caraballo, Another Unknown Minor League Star

June 27, 2014

Those of you who regularly read this blog know that I love to write about obscure minor league stars playing great baseball in the remotest parts of the professional baseball universe.  My latest discovery is Francisco Caraballo, who for the last season and a half has been the best player in Japan’s Baseball Challenge League (“BCE”).

Yesterday, I wrote my annual update on female knuckleballer Eri Yoshida, who is pitching this season for the Ishikawa Million Stars, a team in the BCE, which is basically a Japanese independent-A league.  That got me looking at the BCE league leaders, and, viola, I found Carabello.

This season, Caraballo leads the BCE with a .437 batting average (59 for 135) and 20 home runs.  The next bests in the league are a .382 batting average and 11 HRs.  Last season, Caraballo finished second with a .366 batting average (league leader Chad Nading hit .370 in far fewer games played), and Caraballo’s 24 HRs led the BCE by 14.

Caraballo is a 30 year old OF/1B from Venezuela who originally played in the Houston Astros’ organization.  At age 21 he had an .852 OPS in the Class A Sally League.  However, while he continued to hit with power, his batting averages weren’t great the next two seasons, and he was released after an age 23 season in the AA Texas League in which he batted .256 with a .741 OPS.

If I had to guess, I’d say his defense must have been pretty bad, because it’s otherwise hard to understand why a player that young would get released after a season in which he hit reasonably well at the AA level and then no other major league organization would pick him up.  The other possibility is that MLB organizations cycle through so many young players that some guys just fall through the cracks when a team decides to give another young player the opportunity instead.

In 2008 at age 24, Caraballo wound up on the Worchester Tornadoes of the independent-A Canadian American (Can-Am) League.  This team also featured Chris Colabello, an independent-A league star who made news last year and early this season by finally making it to the bigs with the Minnesota Twins and having a little bit of success.  Aside from having similar names and being the same age, Caraballo and Colabello had similar seasons (the former had a .970 OPS while the latter had a .974 OPS that year).

Interestingly, Francisco’s big 2008 season in the Can-Am League apparently got him a better offer to play baseball for the BCE’s Gunma Diamond Pegasus (the team he curently stars for) in 2009.  After big seasons there in 2009 and the first half of 2010, he became the first player signed by an NPB team from a Japanese independent-A team mid-season.  The Orix Buffaloes signed him for 5 million yen (about $50,000 — hopefully it wasn’t pro-rated) on July 9, 2010.

For the Buffaloes in 2010, Francisco batted .257 with an .806 OPS in 125 plate appearances.  Despite what appears to be valuable performance at a fire-sale price, even by NPB standards, the Buffaloes cut Caraballo after a 1-for-11 start in all of four games at the start of the 2011 season.  Caraballo then hit .271 with a .768 in 19 games for the Buffaloes’ farm team before he was released outright.

Again, you’d have to think there’s just something about him that teams don’t like (his defense? his personality?) in spite of the way he hits.  His outfield defensive numbers don’t look great, or even good, but they’re not so bad that he couldn’t be at least a useful bench player in a top-level league.  In fact, he may simply be a victim of the tight roster limits on foreign players that apply to NPB and KBO teams, which effectively render it impossible for teams to keep foreigners as bench players.

Caraballo returned to the Can-Am League in 2012, had another big year (.314 batting average, .913 OPS) and then returned to the BCE in 2013.  By NPB standards, Caraballo is still not at all too old for an NPB team to give him another look.  Whether they will remains to be seen.  It certainly looks like he could help an NPB team with his bat.

Congratulations to Adam Duvall

June 27, 2014

Tonight Adam Duvall became the eleventh San Francisco Giant to hit a home run in his first major league game.  It was an impressive one, if not for the distance the ball traveled, then for the pitch he hit.

After making out in his first two at-bats, Duvall was down 0-2 to Mike Leake.  The next pitch was a low and away slider.  You could blame Leake for throwing a strike with an 0-2 count, but the pitch wasn’t a mistake.  It was on the outside part of the plate at the knees, and Duvall had to reach down to get it and somehow drive it out.

The home run was a testament to Duvall’s power stroke, and it helps to explain why he’s presently leading the AAA Pacific Coast League in home runs with 23.  Duvall also made the last out of the game, a line shot to the 3Bman on a breaking pitch by Aroldis Chapman.  An out, but he hit it right on the screws, only right at a defender.

Duvall is a former 11th round draft pick, and he turns 26 in early September.  As such, the Giants haven’t done him any favors.  However, he’s hit with so much power in the minors since 2011, the Giants finally had to give him a major league shot once enough guys on the major league roster got hurt.

I don’t know what kind of major league career Duvall will have given his age and the fact that the only position he can really play at the major league level (except in a pinch) is 1B.  That said, he was playing so well at AAA Fresno that it has long since been time for the Giants to finally call him up and give him a shot.

If Duvall could learn to play left field on the fly, he could potentially help the Giants this year even once Brandon Belt returns from his broken thumb.  Certainly not to my surprise, Tyler Colvin has stopped hitting after a hot start in early-mid-May, and Duvall could fill the role of fifth outfielder if Colvin doesn’t get his hitting stroke back.  Of course, Colvin is left-handed hitter, while Duvall is a righty, but it would be nice to keep Duvall’s power bat around, even if he’s mostly used off the bench.

Eri Yoshida Update: Is the End Near for Japan’s Knuckle Princess?

June 26, 2014

Every year I like to write one or two posts informing the world of the status of Eri Yoshida‘s professional baseball career.  As the most successful female pro pitcher of the last half century, she’s a great story and with her youth and specialty pitch, there was at least a chance that she could develop into something more than a novelty act.

I had a hard time finding any recent reports of Yoshida’s professional goings-on.  The main reason, I think, is that her pro career isn’t going well.

She’s still pitching for the Ishakawa Million Stars, a team in Japan’s Baseball Challenge League, essentially a Japanese Independent-A League, which she joined last fall after pitching for the Maui Na Koa Ikaika, an Hawaiian independent-A team she had pitched for, on and off, since 2011, but which apparently won’t be playing in 2014.

For the Million Stars in 2014, she currently has a 13.03 ERA, having allowed 14 earned runs in 9.2 innings pitched over six appearances.  Last year for the Million Stars, she had a 10.43 ERA, allowing 17 earned runs in 14.2 IP over four appearances.

Eri’s photograph is prominently displayed on the Million Stars’ website, so she is obviously still a major gate attraction.  However, she has pitched very sparingly for the obvious reason that, even at the independent-A level, winning is what brings in the most fans.

I don’t have a clear idea how good the Baseball Challenge League is.  On the one hand, with only one minor league club per NPB major league team (NPB teams have 70 players on their roster, all but about 25 of whom are assigned to the minor league club), there must certainly be a lot of good Japanese professional baseball players not playing in the NPB system.

On the other hand, Japan also has very highly developed industrial leagues, of the type that existed in the U.S. about 100 years ago.  All the NPB teams are owned by corporations which use their baseball teams for publicity, and many, many Japanese corporations not involved in NPB have semi-professional teams of their own playing in long-established leagues.

However, industrial league players are treated as “amateurs” because they are employees of their teams’ corporate owner, and not strictly paid players.  Needless to say, I doubt that any players on the better industrial league teams perform any significant amount of work during the playing season other than playing and training to play baseball.  Here’s an NPB Tracker post on the Industrial Leagues.

I do not know whether players can return to the industrial leagues after washing out of the NPB system because they are no longer “amateurs.”  If they cannot return, there would be a lot of good players around to fill up the rosters of an independent professional league.  If they can return to the industrial leagues, I would think it would be hard to find talent to fill Baseball Challenge League rosters.

At any rate, the Baseball Challenge League supplements its Japanese talent base with a healthy sprinkling of foreign talent, apparently as many as four per roster.  These players include many former U.S. independent-A league, MLB minor league and Mexican League players and also former NPB superstar Alex Ramirez, who is hanging on at age 39 and hoping to earn a shot at resuming his NPB career.

Whatever the talent level of the Baseball Challenge League it appears to be too challenging for Eri Yoshida, who looks to be holding her roster spot solely for publicity purposes.