Archive for October 2014

An Embarrassment of Riches

October 30, 2014

Maybe Madison Bumgarner really is that good.  His performance will go down in history, if not as the best all-time, then the best of the modern era of five-man rotations and pitch counts.  Three wins in one World Series just doesn’t happen anymore, at least for starting pitchers.  Unbelievable!

In a way, I’m happier about the Giants winning three in five years than I would be if they had won three in a row.  I was already over 40 when this run started, so I feel like I’ve got nothing but time as far as the Giants are concerned, and it’s been easy to enjoy each of these seasons all the more because they didn’t make it the year before.  Each Championship was its own little miracle that didn’t get diluted by the previous championship or the one to come next.  The 32 years of futility between 1978 and 2009 make it easy to see the big picture.

Now that the Giants have won again, I hope the team spends the money to bring back Pablo Sandoval.  The Giants can afford to overpay him now, and he’s a part of the team it would be hard to let go.  The Giants have a core of guys who obviously have what it takes to win, and the Panda is a big part of that.  The fans love him in a way that makes him deserve the $90 million five-year deal that Pence got and Pablo’s been asking for.

Presumably, Yusmeiro Petit enters 2015 as an odds-on favorite to make the rotation, and Ryan Vogelsong takes a pay cut or moves on.  Left field will need some decision-making also.

Still, it’s too early to worry about 2015.  The Giants are World Champions once again.  I wouldnta believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself.  Go Giants! Go Giants! Go Giants!

All Knotted at Three

October 29, 2014

Tonight’s game was an ugly one for the G-Men, but perhaps it can be seen as pay-back for the pastings the Giants handed the Royals the previous two games.  With the final game at home, the Royals definitely now have the advantage, although it’s obviously going to come down to which team plays better tomorrow.

At present, I’m not feeling especially worried.  It’s one thing for a young stud like Yordano Ventura to stifle the Giants twice in a series, it’s something else entirely for Jeremy Guthrie to do it.  I’ll admit that once you balance out the league and park factors, Tim Hudson had a pretty similar season to Guthrie’s, but Hudson was once an ace, something Guthrie has never been.

That said, anything can happen in the World Series, so I certainly won’t count my chickens.  Still, if I had to bet on either of Tim Hudson or Jeremy Guthrie to have a big game tomorrow night, I’d put my money on Hudson.

I’m also kind of hoping that Tim Lincecum gets to pitch tomorrow in a game situation that actually means something. He’s pitched too well in too many post-season games to write him off.

A Big Night for More Than Just Bumgarner

October 27, 2014

Madison Bumgarner‘s performance tonight was tremendous, but there isn’t much I can say about that you won’t in a million other places tonight and tomorrow, except perhaps for one thing.  When Bumgarner was asked after the game what he owed his incredible post-season success, he was modest and honest enough to say that he had been very lucky in his post-season games.

Of course, Madison is extremely talented, but no one is really as good as he’s pitched in his four career World Series starts to date.  Clearly, he’s better than many at staying focused in the big games.  However, at this level many major league players are capable of maintaining their focus in the World Series and, if everything breaks right for them, having great success.

By the same token, many great players have poor World Series performances one year but have sensational performances at some other time in their careers. Gil Hodges went 0-for-21 in the 1952 World Series, but hit .364 in the 1953 Series and .391 in the 1959 Series.  Hodges was essentially the same player all along, but in one short series he was stupendously bad and in a couple of others he was a major star.  Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra, all legendary World Series performers, each had at least one World Series in which they stunk.  Reggie Jackson never had a bad World Series at the plate, but had a couple of League Championship Series in which he didn’t hit a lick.

It tends to even out over time, but very few players get to play in enough post-seasons for that to happen.

One thing to say for Bumgarner, however, is that he is obviously great at keeping an even keel.  He stays humble, works hard and doesn’t over-think his on-field performance.  It certainly makes it easy to root for him when his hard work pays off.

The player in today’s game I’m most excited for, though, is Giants’ bench-player Juan Perez.  Like Travis Ishikawa in the NLCS, Perez has paid his professional dues, and, quite frankly, isn’t likely to have even as successful a major league career as Ishikawa has had.  He’s more likely to be next Al Gionfriddo or Brian Doyle, than he is to be playing in the major leagues five years from now.  However, like Gionfriddo and Doyle, he’s now had his one shining World Series moment where he broke open a close game with a drive that came about three inches short of a home run against the pitcher who was probably the best reliever in the American League this year.  Now, he’ll be able to tell his grandchildren about what he did as a major league player, although one of the little snot-noses will probably ask him why he didn’t hit the ball out for a home run.

One of the most significant moments in tonight’s game was Brandon Belt’s bunt single against the shift in the second inning.  It was the first bunt hit of Belt’s major league career.  However, with the new emphasis on dramatic shifts against many hitters in the last couple of seasons, we are going to see a lot more players start to bunt against the shift.

In the case of Belt’s bunt tonight, it was absolutely the right play, because even without the bunt resulting in a hit, it would have moved Hunter Pence into scoring position with only one out in what was expected to be a pitchers’ duel.  There are many, many situations in the course of a season when all but the most lead-footed sluggers should bunt in order to beat the shift.  In fact, unlike a lot of other baseball skills, which take a lifetime to develop, bunting is something that most players can practice and become adequate at in a relatively short period of time.

All Tied at Two

October 26, 2014

I was certainly expecting the worst when the Giants fell behind 4-1 in tonight’s game.  In the Royals’ four-run third, the Giants looked like a team that weren’t going to have the balls bounce their way tonight, and I was already fearing the Herrera-Davis-Holland bullpen closing out the Giants again if they could make it into the sixth inning with a lead.

Instead, the Giants put on their hitting shoes, chased Vargas early and got into the part of the Royals’ bullpen that isn’t nearly so good.  Vargas isn’t the kind of pitcher who strikes fear in anyone’s heart, but sometimes the Giants have a lot of problems with control pitchers, as they did with Jeremy Guthrie the night before.

Until the game turned into a blow-out in the seventh inning, it was a pretty exciting game.  So far, it’s been a pretty even and entertaining series, although three of the four games so far were blow-outs.  There is even a little bit of controversy, as the Giants have been accused of (and almost certainly have been) watering down their infield to keep the Royals’ greyhounds from running the G-men ragged.

Reportedly, the TV ratings for the series so far have been bad, although some of this may simply be the fact that viewers have so many more choices than they once did.  Also, there isn’t a lot of novelty in a Giants World Series these days, and not a lot of interest on the East Coast, Texas or in Southern California for the Kansas City Royals.

Each team’s ace goes again tomorrow, and I expect a closer game than Game 1.  The Royals have now seen Madison Bumgarner, and I have to think that James Shields will pitch better than he did last time out.

No predictions from this corner.  However, the game is more important for the Giants to win, since the Series then heads back to K.C. for the final two games.

Giants Win Game 1

October 22, 2014

Like a lot of baseball fans, I’m a lot more superstitious than I’d like to admit.  I usually don’t write much about the Giants while the post-season series are going on out of fear that any irrational exuberance will cause it to be just that.  Still, tonight’s win in the first game of the World Series feels too significant not to write about it.

Taking the Royals to the woodshed in Game 1 in Kansas City is important because it breaks the Royals’ post-season winning streak.  The Royals are a young team with no prior post-season experience.  They needed to be cooled down in the first game of this series, or they might have continued straight on with their roll.

Again, superstition makes me feel the need to remind myself and you, gentle reader, that the first game of the World Series is only one game, and the Royals certainly aren’t going to go down without a fight having made it this far. I’m certainly not suggesting that the World Series has been decided after only one game.

However, the team to win Game 1 of all six of the post-season series to go more than one game this year have gone on to win the series.  Last year the Tigers were the only team in seven to lose a multi-game post-season series after winning the first game.  Clearly, winning Game 1 is a big deal.

Game 2 is crucial for the Royals for the obvious reason that if they lose they’ll have to travel to San Francisco down 0-2, and the odds will be against them making it back to K.C.  There will be a great deal of pressure on 23-year old rookie Yordano Ventura tomorrow to shut the Giants down.  We’ll see how he handles it.

Even so, there are no safe predictions in the post-season, so I certainly won’t make any.  Go Giants!

Some Thoughts on NPB’s Post-Season So Far

October 21, 2014

The Hanshin Tigers will be facing off against the SoftBank Hawks in the Japan Series this year, after the Tigers upset the Yomuiri Giants and the Hawks held off the Nippon Ham Fighters in a taught six-game series.

One thing that strikes me about the Japanese play-off system is just how lop-sided the playoff set-up is and just how bad for business it is.  Not only does the team with the better record automatically have to win one fewer game than their challenger, but the team with the better record also gets all the games played at home.

This didn’t stop the Tigers, who swept the Giants 4-0 (or 4-1 since the Giants automatically got a win by virtue of the Central League’s best record), and the Fighters made a go of it too, only losing the deciding Game Six and thus losing the Series 4-3.

However, playing all the games in one park is apparently not good for attendance, with the exception of the Yomiuri Giants who routinely sell out all their games.  In the Fighters/Hawks series, the Hawks sold only 28,000+ tickets to Game One and gradually improved to a 38,000+ sell-out only in Game 6.  (Even though the Hawks are the third-best attended team in NPB in 2014, it was only their 15th sell-out of the season.)

One would certainly think that the games would be better attended if they were split between two stadiums for the obvious reason that fewer games in any one park would create greater scarcity and excitement about the three (instead of six) play-off games.

Frankly, it’s striking sometimes how the otherwise-sophisticated corporations that own NPB’s teams don’t do more to maximize league revenues.  It’s always been explained that corporate owners treat the teams as advertizing vehicles and treat actual profits from the baseball operations as beside the point.  To me, that just makes no sense, unless there are some kind of tax incentives in play that allow the corporations to use baseball as a loss-leader.  Perhaps if they are treated primarily as a form of advertizing, there is a bigger tax write-off.  It’s just about the only thing that would make understandable the widespread failure to maximize team profits in fairly obvious ways.

In another note, some Japanese teams really don’t treat their foreign players well.  Tigers’ closer Seung-hwan Oh has now pitched in the team’s last 11 consecutive games.  He won the Climax Series MVP Award, but he was obviously suffering in the last game against the Giants, allowing three hits and two home runs in the last inning of the Tigers’ 8-4.

Did the Tigers really need to have Oh work the final inning of an 8-2 game?  Of course not — or at least not until about four guys in a row hit safely.  There have obviously been some off-days in among the 11 games, but it’s still crazy to make anyone pitch in that many consecutive games.

At least Oh has another year on his contract with the Tigers, so if the Tigers ruin him this post-season with overwork, at least it will hurt them in 2015.  Still, its hard to imagine an MLB team pitching any pitcher 11 games in a row under any circumstances.  If they did, the team would be buried under a mountain of criticism.

An Independent Path to Professional Baseball Success, an Update

October 19, 2014

Last June I wrote a post about how the Independent-A Leagues and foreign professional baseball leagues have created a path to professional baseball stardom and riches for a very select group of players who washed out of the MLB system early in their professional careers or were never drafted by an MLB organization in the first place.  I thought it would be fun do an update on some players I’ve been following as they try to use the Independent-A Leagues as a springboard to professional baseball success somewhere.

Paul Oseguera.  Paul was the best pitcher in the Atlantic League, the undisputed acme of the Independent-A Leagues, back in 2012.  He followed that fine season with an equally great season in the Mexican League in 2013, which got him a shot at the big money with the SoftBank Hawks of Japan’s NPB late in the 2013 season.

He went 3-1 with a 2.00 ERA in six starts from the Hawks late in the 2013 season, which earned him another year in NPB.  Unfortunately, his 2014 campaign was basically a disaster.  He went 0-2 with a 9.75 ERA in only three starts and 12 IP.  He pitched better in NPB’s minor league, going 4-3 with a 3.74 ERA in 67.1 IP.  However, NPB teams don’t pay American players to be better-than-average minor league pitchers.

The good news for Oseguera, if he wants to keep the dream alive, is that he’s still be only 31 in 2015.  A successful return to the Mexican League in 2015, and he could be pitching in South Korea’s KBO or, more likely, Taiwan’s CPBL in 2016.  I’ll always have a particular soft spot for Oseguera in part because the San Francisco Giants drafted him in the 16th round back in 2006.

Mike Loree.  Loree was the best pitcher in the Atlantic League in 2011.  Despite a poor season in the same league in 2012, he was able to hook on with a team in Taiwan’s CPBL, and he had a fine 2013 season there.

For 2014, Loree signed with the KT Wiz, an expansion team that will begin play in South Korea’s KBO Champions League in 2015.  In 2014, the team played in KBO’s minor league (like NPB, KBO has a single minor league).  Apparently, the Wiz signed Loree with the hope that he’d pitch well in the minors in 2014 and would move up with the rest of the team to the top league in 2015.

Loree got off to a hot start and pitched well for the Wiz in 2014, but appears to have been injured at some time during the 2014 season.  He went 7-0 in 16 games with a 3.63 ERA, which led all Wiz starters, but he appears to have missed as many as seven or eight starts, I presume due to injury.  If Loree is healthy by the start of the 2015 season, he certainly deserves a shot at pitching for the Wiz in the Champions League.

Josh Lowey and Jon Velazquez.  Two of the best pitchers in the Atlantic League in 2013, Lowey went on to pitch in the Mexican League in 2014, and Velazquez returned to the MLB system, pitching for the Mets’ AA club in Binghamton, New York.

The Atlantic League’s top starter in 2013, Lowey made five starts in the Atlantic League in 2014 before moving on to the Mexican League, where he pitched pretty well.  His 4.11 ERA was only 20th best in the 16-team circuit, but his 100 Ks was tied for 9th best.  Lowey will be 30 in 2015, and if he can improve his performance in a second season in the Mexican League, he could move on to Asia and the real money.

Jon Velazquez had a 3.62 ERA in 44 relief appearances for the Binghampton Mets, but with only 45 hits and 13 walks allowed while striking out 49 batters in 54.1 innings pitched, he certainly deserves a promotion to AAA next season, when he’ll be 29 years old.  His chances of reaching the majors at his age aren’t fantastic, but at least the dream should still be alive in 2015.

Blake Gailen and Cyle Hankerd.  Two of the top hitters in the Atlantic League in 2013, both Gailen and Hankerd split the 2014 season between the Atlantic League and the Mexican League, as Josh Lowey did.  This is not at all uncommon, as the Atlantic League plays a longer season than the Mexican League by about 28 regular season games.  Thus, it’s not uncommon for players to start the season in the Atlantic League, go to the Mexican League and its slightly higher salaries when that season starts and then return to the Atlantic League for the last 15 or so games of the Atlantic League season.

At any rate, both Gailen and Hankerd played at least 115 games in 2014 at age 29.  Gailen was more successful, batting .350 with an 1.1o7 OPS in 66 Atlantic League games and .271 with a .922 OPS in 51 Mexican League games.  Hankerd hit .283 with an .832 OPS in 66 Atlantic League games and .286 with an .815 OPS in 49 Mexican League games.  I’m more excited by Gailen as a hitter than Hankerd; and Gailen, if not both, should get another shot at the Mexican League in 2015.  Again, a big season there could propel them to a shot at playing in Asia.

Drew Rucinski, Mike Recchia and Brandon Cunniff all had big seasons in AA ball at age 25 after starting the 2013 season in the Independent-A Frontier League.  Karl Galinas completed his eighth consecutive season as the ace of the Quebec Capitals of the Can-Am League.  He went 8-6 with a 3.48 ERA and led his league in strikeouts with 123.

Brock Bond.  One of my favorite minor league players, whom I feel the SF Giants didn’t give a fair shake when he was in their system, Bond continued his professional career with the Winnipeg Goldeyes, the strongest team of the Independent-A American Association who again led Indy-A baseball with average attendance of more than 5,600 per game.  Bond hit .326 with a .448 on-base percentage in 64 games, leading the league in the latter category.  He also hit .381 in five play-off games, although the Goldeyes lost in the first round the league’s two-round play-off system.

Bond will be 29 in 2015, but if he still wants to play, he should be able to move up to the Atlantic League, where I think his chances of leading the league in OBP again would be good.  Bond’s ability to get on base is at a major league level, but I doubt he has any other major league skills.

Giants Royals World Series Wahoo!

October 17, 2014

It’s taken 144 seasons of professional league baseball in the United Series to have a San Francisco/Kansas City Championship, and it will probably be another 144 seasons before it happens again.  Who will win?  Who knows?

The post-season bears essentially no relationship to the regular season except for the fact that only the 10 teams with the best regular season records get to play in the post-season.  Let .500 teams routinely play in the post-season, and we’d occasionally have .500 teams as World Champions.

No better example of this phenomenon is the success in the NLCS of Travis Ishikawa.  Ish is a good guy — a good teammate and a guy who understands his role.  He’s paid his dues, and he’s the kind of player you feel good about when good things happen to him.  What he is not is a great major league baseball player — at least until this week.  His 3-run homer in the bottom of the 9th inning sends the Giants to the World Series, and he had seven RBIs in the five-game NLCS, contributing significantly to three of the Giants’ four wins.  It has to be the moment of a lifetime for him and his family.

Two scrappy wild-card teams will be battling out for the World Championship.  It’s going to be fun to watch.

Japanese NPB Players Most Likely to Join MLB in 2015

October 17, 2014

With the two players most likely to join MLB in 2015 now out of the 2014 NPB post-season, it’s a good time for a post on the NPB players most likely to join MLB in 2015.

Not surprisingly, the two top prospects are both starting pitchers, Chihiro Kaneko and Kenta Maeda.  Both are small right-handers, which works heavily against them in the eyes of MLB scouts, but both have pitched too well in NPB for too long for at least one MLB team not to take a chance on each of them.

I’ve seen several posts on about MLB scouts scouting Kenta Maeda.  This makes a certain amount of sense, since Maeda is four years younger than Kaneko — Maeda will be 27 in 2015, while Kaneko will be 31.  However, as of the end of the 2014 season, I think Kaneko is the better pitcher.

In 2013, Chihiro Kaneko was pretty clearly the second best pitcher in NPB after Masahiro Tanaka, and with Tanaka pitching for the Yankees in 2014, Kaneko was pretty clearly the best pitcher in NPB this past season.  Kaneko is no Masahiro Tanaka, but he doesn’t have to be to be an effective and valuable No. 3 starter in MLB.

In 2014, Kaneko led NPB in ERA (1.98) and wins (16) and finished 3rd in strikeouts (199 Ks in 191 IP).  Some minor injuries caused him to miss a couple of starts, which was probably a good think since he led NPB in innings pitched in 2013 with 223.1, which is a lot when you consider that NPB starters rarely make 30 starts in a season due to a 144 game schedule.

Kaneko plays for a small-market team (the Orix Buffaloes) and has made noises suggesting that he wants to be posted this off-season.  He has more of an “American” attitude in that he thinks NPB pitchers throw too much between starts.  This is hardly a bad thing, as pitchers who chafed under the rigid NPB system, like Hideo Nomo and Hisashi Iwakuma, have gone on to considerable success in MLB.

Again, the major knocks on Kaneko are his size (NPB’s website lists him at 5’11” and 170 lbs) and his age.  His strengths appear to be command and a splitter/forkball pitch that is probably comparable to Koji Uehara‘s.  Maybe this means Kaneko ends up a reliever in MLB, but MLB could certainly use another Koji Uehara, and Kaneko’s NPB career was slightly more impressive than Uehara’s.

Kenta Maeda’s 2014 was good and well within the range he’d set the previous four seasons, but he wasn’t dominating in the way that Kaneko was, and dominating is something you look for in NPB-to-MLB transplants.  I was concerned about Maeda’s strikeout rate for much of the 2014 season, and while he was hot and cold in the final six weeks of the 2014 NPB season, his final K/IP rate of 7.7 matches his average over the previous four seasons.

Maeda has been coy so far about whether he wants to be posted this off-season, and I have to think that his team, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, would like to hold on to him for 2015, the last season before they have to post him or risk losing him to unfettered free agency after the 2016 season.  The Carp made the play-offs this year, before losing in the first round of the Challenge Series, and they also set an all-time attendance record with approximately 1.90 million fans, so they have a strong incentive to try to hold on to Maeda for one more season.

Ultimately, Maeda finished 5th in NPB in ERA (2.60) and sixth in strikeouts (161 in 187 IP).  He’s listed as 5’11.5″ and 178 lbs, so he isn’t significantly bigger than Kaneko.  As I suggest above, I’d rather have Kaneko at this moment, but at his age Maeda is also worth the risk.

After Kaneko and Maeda the pickings get pretty slim.  Players who aren’t elite talents are worth as much to their Japanese teams, where their performance is more valuable relative to what they could reasonably be expected to do in the States, as they are to MLB teams.  Also, NPB teams have little incentive to post their players until they have eight years of NPB service, unless they are so obviously great (like Tanaka and Yu Darvish) that the NPB team looks bad if it doesn’t let them move on to greener MLB pastures sooner.

Outfielder Yoshio Itoi and Takashi Toritani were terrific in 2014, as they have been for many years in NPB.  However, Toritani turns 34 in late June 2015, and Itoi turns 34 less than three weeks later.  They’re just not good bets for major league teams at their age.  Itoi has recently made noises about wanting to be posted, but his team the Orix Buffaloes has made it clear they are not eager to post their best position player after getting knocked out in the first round of the post-season this year.

Among relief pitchers, Ryota Igarashi had a fine season at age 35 (1.52 ERA and 71 Ks in 59.1 IP), but he’s old, and he washed out in his first attempt at MLB a few years ago.  Hard to see an MLB team laying out the money to bring him over for another shot in the U.S.

Two former major leaguers who could potentially return to MLB are Dennis Sarfate and Wily Mo Pena.  Sarfate had a terrific 2014 at age 33, posting a 1.06 ERA, 98 Ks in 68.1 IP and recording 37 saves for the Softbank Hawks.

Actually, Sarfate won’t be returning to the U.S. in 2015, as he signed a two-year deal with the Hawks last off-season.  Hanshin Tigers’ closer Seung-hwan Oh is also an MLB-caliber pitcher who won’t be coming to the U.S. in 2015, because he also signed a two-year deal this past off-season.  Oh, in particular, is an early favorite to come to MLB in 2016 when he’ll be 33 years old.

Wily Mo Pena is on record stating that he wants to return to MLB in 2015, but it’s unknown whether or not this is simply a negotiating ploy directed at his current team, the Orix Buffaloes, and other NPB teams in general.  Right now his 2014 season stats (.258 batting average, 32 HRs and .830 OPS) and his age (32 next season) suggest to me that he has a lot more value to an NPB team than an MLB team.

However, I felt the same way about Casey McGehee last off-season and he had a surprisingly successful 2014 campaign for the Miami Marlin.  However, a close reading of McGehee’s 2013 NPB stats suggest he was a better bet to return to MLB in 2014 than Pena will be in 2015.  I’m also expecting McGehee to lose his starting MLB job by the end of the 2015 season, since he’ll be 32 next year.

I haven’t seen a list yet of the NPB players who will be limited (eight seasons) or unlimited (nine seasons) free agents this off-season. usually publishes a list within about a week of the end of the Japan Series.  When I get a hold of the free agent list, I’ll write a follow-up of any players who might be reasonably good bets for MLB.

Byung-ho Park Becomes Third Player to hit 50 Home Runs in a KBO Season

October 15, 2014

Byung-ho Park became the third player in KBO history to hit 50 HRs in a season when he hit his 50th and 51st taters today. The other two to do it are Seung-Yuop Lee and Chong-soo Shim.

Lee is probably the best hitter in KBO history.  Aside from hitting 390 career HRs and counting in the KBO, he also hit 159 HRs in eight seasons in Japan’s NPB.  Shim hit 328 HRs in the KBO before his career was cut short at age 33 by back problems.

Just how good Byung-ho Park is is an open question.  He’s clearly got the most power of any player in the KBO, and he’s clearly good enough to move on to success in Japan’s NPB.  The question is whether he could play in MLB if the opportunity arose.

Offense was so extreme in KBO this year that I have to wonder whether his current 51 HR total, which leads the KBO by 13, is really that much better than his 2013 season when his 37 HRs led the league by eight, or for that matter 2012 when his 31 HRs led the league by 5.  Park’s 1.125 OPS is only second best in the league this year, some distance by teammate Jung-ho Kang‘s 1.181 OPS.

The Nexen Heroes clearly play in a great hitters’ park in what this year has been an extreme hitters’ league.  Aside from Park and Kang, the team also has Geon-chang Seo, whom I wrote about yesterday.  Yet, Nexen is not in first place, a game and a half of first place Samsung.

One thing is certain: Park has more raw power than any other player in his league by a significant margin.  That alone might merit an MLB team signing him to a contract should he become available.