Archive for September 2016

So Much for Matt Reynolds

September 29, 2016

The San Francisco Giants designated LHP Matt Reynolds for assignment to clear a space on the 40-man roster for recent addition Gordon Beckham.  I’m sorry to see Reynolds go, because his story this season was one of the best under-reported stories of the year.

Reynolds had pitched his way out of the MLB system, starting the 2016 season in the Independent-A Atlantic League.  He pitched great there and was signed into the Giants’ system.  He then ran off a streak of scoreless appearances which got him a major league cup of coffee in late July and a promotion when rosters expanded September 1st.

Reynolds pitched better than his ugly 7.50 ERA suggests, in that he allowed runs in only two of his eight appearances.  However, his scoreless inning streak ended on September 4th in a game in which he took the loss, and on his final appearance on September 23rd, he allowed four earned runs without recording an out.

Where Reynolds ends up in 2017 remains to be seen.  He will be 32 next year and should consider pitching in Asia in light of the fact that he’s only appeared in 26 major league games over the last two seasons after missing all of 2014 to Tommy John surgery.  On the other hand, almost every MLB team could use another left-handed short man, and based on his minor league performance in 2016, he’d be a great piece of pitching depth to have stashed at AAA to start the 2017 even if he can’t make the major league club out of Spring Training.

Some Notes on Asian Players in the U.S. and Vice Versa

September 26, 2016

Jung-ho Kang and Hyun-Soo Kim were both in the news today for very different reasons.

Kang made a play on Bryce Harper today that is probably acceptable in South Korea’s KBO, but that doesn’t fly in MLB, to say the least.  Harper hit a ball into the right field corner and legged it out for a triple.  The relay throw was well off line and threatened to disappear somewhere up the left-field foul grounds, and Kang faked a tag on Harper, forcing Harper to slide and thus likely preventing Harper from scoring on the play.

The TV announcer’s comments pretty much said it all: [I’m paraphrasing] “You don’t make that play in MLB, or anywhere in [American] baseball because you might cause the base runner to hurt himself thinking he has to slide at the last minute.”  In fact, that’s exactly what happened.  Harper hurt his thumb on the play, the same thumb he had operated on in 2014.  He stayed in long enough to score the run later in the half-inning, but then came out for a defensive replacement.

The next time Kang came up to bat, the Nationals pitcher threw a pitch well behind him and was promptly ejected.  The fans were then treated to classic baseball “brawl” with players pouring out of the dugouts and a lot of pushing and shoving and bear-hugs and not many, if any, punches thrown.

It’s worth noting that Kang was seriously injured last year on a take-out slide at second base, a play no less dangerous and probably much more dangerous than Kang’s fake tag.  After the game, Kang said he was simply trying to prevent Harper from scoring on the play.

In short, absent playing in the U.S. from the start of your professional career or someone telling you not to do it, there is no way for an Asian player to know what dangerous plays are permissible under the MLB “Code” and which ones are not.  That said, I will not be surprised if a Nationals’ pitcher succeeds in plunking Kang next season in the first series the two teams play against each other, particularly if Harper’s injury impacts his play-off performance.  It’s well recognized in MLB that you protect (and take vengeance on behalf of) your teammates.

As for Kim, he was in the news for slugging a two-run homer that proved to the difference in a 2-1 Orioles’ victory.

Kim has become a remarkably successful platoon player for the O’s.  He is a dreadful 0-for-18 against left-handed pitchers this season, but has an on-base percentage just shy of .400 against righties.  The O’s have been remarkably successful at making sure Kim does not bat against lefties while still getting him more than 300 plate appearances against righties.

This is a big advantage Asian players playing in MLB have compared to former MLB players playing in the top Asian leagues.  Given the relative salary structures of the different leagues, Asian players can have success in MLB as relievers or platoon players and still make as much or more money than they can make in Asia.

Kim got a two-year $7 million contract from the Orioles, which is the same amount he’d have received over four years to remain in South Korea’s KBO.  He probably could have made the same money in two years playing in Japan’s NPB.

On the other hand, MLB platoon players going to Asia are at a distinct disadvantage because they are being paid to play every day in Asia.  If they are good enough or lucky enough, they can hit enough against lefties to keep them in the line-up so they can chew up right-handed pitchers.  Often, however, they have just as much trouble with Asian lefties as they did with port-siders States-side, and their Asian baseball careers are short-lived.

Jose Fernandez Dies in Boating Accident

September 25, 2016

In devastating news for baseball fans everywhere, Jose Fernandez died last night in a boating accident somewhere off South Florida.  Reportedly, the small boat he was in was moving at top speed when it ran into a rock jetty, flipping the vessel and killing all three people aboard.

I am old enough to remember well the boating accident that killed Steve Olin and Tim Crews back in the early Spring of 1993, also in Florida.  That’s the first thing that came to my mind when I woke up and read the news on the internet this morning.  No word yet if last night’s boating accident involved drinking, as the 1993 tragedy did.

Plenty of players have died during their playing careers in baseball’s long history, but it is difficult for me to recall any that involved a player this young of this proven talent level.  Austin McHenry, Ray Chapman and Lyman Bostock are probably the most comparable major league players, based on this list from wikipedia and what they could reasonably have been expected to accomplish had they lived on past the age of 40.

The one player in baseball history most comparable to Jose Fernandez is probably a pitcher who is remembered by few modern baseball fans indeed, because he pitched before the days of professional baseball.    Jim Creighton is recognized as baseball’s first great star by baseball historians like John Thorn.

From the age of 19 to 21, Creighton dominated the baseball world’s attention, such as it was from 1860-1862.  Not surprisingly, Creighton was from Brooklyn, as New York City was then the center of what would become the national pastime.

At the time Creighton entered New York City’s elite amateur game, pitchers were still required to “pitch” the ball underhand without bending the wrist or the elbow.  Creighton’s innovation was adding a largely unnoticeable wrist flip which enabled him to throw the ball harder and with more movement than anyone had before.  Creighton was so in demand as a pitcher that he may well have become the first truly professional player when he joined the Brooklyn Excelsiors in 1860.

Creighton was also one of the best hitters of his day and one of America’s best cricket players, at a time when most baseball players were still also regularly playing the English game.  It was his batting technique that may have played a role in his untimely death.

In 1861 Creighton and his Excelsior teammate Asa Brainard, who went on to greater fame as the pitcher for the undefeated 1869 Cincinnati Reds, baseball’s first openly all-professional team, jumped to another great Brooklyn team, the Atlantics, presumably for more money than the Excelsiors had been paying them.

Creighton’s batting stroke involved a great deal of torque through his torso, which gave him more power than most players of his day.  In a game on October 14, 1862, he hit four doubles in his first four at-bats, playing the field while Brainard pitched the first five innings.  Creighton went in to pitch in the 6th inning and in the bottom half, he slugged a home run.

As he crossed the plate, Creighton commented to another player that he thought he must have snapped his belt.  Instead, he had apparently snapped something inside his body, and he died a few days later, possibly of an inguinal hernia.  He was only 21 years old.

At least, that is the legend.  Other sources say he died playing cricket, and medical treatment and diagnosis in the early 1860’s were not what they are today.

It is no surprise that Creighton is not well remembered today.  His death came during the Civil War, when a lot of young men were dying for reasons more significant than playing baseball.  In fact, it was the Civil War that turned baseball from New York City’s pastime to the National pastime, as the New York rules, as opposed to those used in other East Coast cities, most notably Boston, became the rules in general use across the North by the end of the war.  It is worth noting that the draft into the Union Army didn’t start until 1863, which is the reason why a young man of Creighton’s obvious physical health and strength was able to continue playing baseball as thousands of other young men were busy fighting and dying in battle or of disease in military camps.

Kenta Maeda’s Interesting First Year as a Dodger

September 22, 2016

After Kenta Maeda‘s win against the San Francisco Giants last night, he is now 16-9.  With the injury to Clayton Kershaw this season, it is hard to dispute the claim that Maeda has been the ace of the 2016 Los Angeles Dodgers’ pitching staff.

What I find interesting is the way the Dodgers have been using him.  Maeda hasn’t pitched more than 6.1 innings in a ball game since July 10th.  His limited use, at least in terms of being the team’s top starter, has been effective, however.  He hasn’t allowed more than three runs in a start since July 17th.

Clearly, the Dodgers feel that Maeda is a pitcher who is great the first two times through the line-up and then tires or gets figured out.  Maeda is small by major league standards, and I am almost certain that has something to do with manager Dave Roberts‘ perception about how long to leave Maeda in ball games.

It is no secret that the Dodgers, when they signed Maeda, were very concerned about how he would hold up pitching every five games in MLB.  There were concerns about his medical reports, and that was the reason that Maeda’s eight-year contract contained more incentives (based on starts and innings pitched) than actual salary.

However, I don’t believe those concerns have much to do with the way Roberts has been using Maeda in the second half.  The Dodgers are trying to win their division, and if they thought pitching Maeda routinely into the eighth inning gave them the best chance to win, they’d be doing it.  The way Roberts is using him is best for both Maeda and the Dodgers long term, but with the contract Maeda has, the Dodgers don’t loose much if they burn his arm out sooner rather than later.

The Dodgers’ use of Maeda is a testament to the fact that trend of using more and more relief pitchers to pitch more and more major league innings is continuing and has not yet reached an eventual peak based on the number of pitchers that can reasonably be carried on a 25 man roster.  I can’t remember the last time a team had a starter this good (and currently this healthy) who has pitched as little each start as Maeda has done this year.

After 30 starts starts, Maeda has pitched only 169 innings, well under six innings a start.  Of the 17 National League pitchers with at least 30 starts so far this year, six others have similar innings pitched totals, but all six have ERAs over 4.00.  Maeda’s ERA is now 3.20.

Any way you slice it, the Dodgers’ signing of Maeda was one of the best signings of the off-season.  Fangraphs values Maeda’s 2016 performance to date at $26.3 million, which is about the guarantee of Maeda’s contract (although he’s earned more this year by hitting performance incentives), and does not take into account the added value of Maeda’s performance being a major part of a play-off season.

By my calculation and including a pro-rated portion of the contract’s signing bonuse, Maeda will earn at most this year $12.275 million, assuming the Dodgers do not skip Maeda’s final start in order to keep him fresh for the start of the post-season.  While that is still a tremendous bargain for the Dodgers, it’s also more than twice as much as Maeda could reasonably have expected to make in 2016 had he remained in Japan’s NPB.

It’s an interesting question also what the Dodgers will decide to do with game 162 of their schedule.  Maeda is scheduled to make his 32nd start, earning him another $1.5 million bonus, but if I were Dodgers management, I would consider skipping Maeda’s 32nd start, give him the bonus anyway, and thereby keep him fresh to be the team’s second starter in the post.

However, that may not be necessary.  If Maeda makes the  Dodgers final regular season start on October 2nd, and Clayton Kershaw starts the Dodgers’ first play-off game on October 7th, Maeda would have sufficient rest to pitch the second play-off start on October 8th, particularly if he pitches no more than 3.0 to 5.0 innings on October 2nd.

South Korean Slugger Seung-Yuop Lee Blasts 600th Career Home Run

September 18, 2016

One of the best players never to play in MLB, South Korean slugger Seung-Yuop Lee, known as the Lion King, hit his 600th career home run earlier this week.  159 of them were hit in Japan’s NPB and 441 in South Korea’s KBO.  He’s the KBO’s all-time career home-run leader, in spite of spending eight years playing in Japan.

Lee turned 40 on August 18th, and his peak came well before MLB interest in KBO hitters developed in the last couple of years.  He was terrific his second through fourth seasons in Japan’s NPB, but after that injuries gradually derailed his NPB career.

Lee returned to the KBO in 2012 and better health, along with a lower level of league play, returned him to All-Star status.  He isn’t the hitter he once was, but he’s been remarkably consistent the last five seasons, at least for a player his age, hitting better than .300 and hitting between 21 and 32 home runs in four of the five seasons, including 2016.

The KBO opened a Hall of Fame in Busan in 2016, and Lee will surely one day be a member.

South Korea’s KBO Sets New Attendance Record

September 13, 2016

The KBO set a new single season attendance record this year, drawing 7.365 million fans with 85 games left in the 2016 regular season.  All ten teams’ attendance is up this year, and, of course, the KBO has added two teams in recent years, making league-wide attendance records easy to break.

Nevertheless, it’s a significant development in the world of baseball, since more fans at the games means more revenues to spend on players to put a better product on the field.  The KBO is still subject to fluctuations based on how the South Korean team performs in international competitions, but it does seem clear that the KBO is developing a growing domestic fan base that sees paying to watch Korea’s best baseball players, and a few increasingly well-paid and thus talented foreign players, as a worthwhile entertainment investment.

The KBO’s attendance, at about 11,500 per game average, is still well behind Japan’s NPB, which has also seen attendance growth in recent years.  However, KBO teams have been somewhat more willing to spend money on foreign players, at least relative to their likely revenue streams, than NPB teams have been, I assume in order to build up the perceived quality of KBO league play and thus keep interest in professional baseball growing domestically.

Unfortunately, the KBO is still quite aways off from the next likely increase in the number of foreign players on each roster from the current limit of three, because the revenues aren’t likely there yet for more highly-paid foreign players.  Ten or 15 years from now is probably the next time we will see the roster spaces for foreign players on KBO teams increase to the four allowed on NPB teams’ active rosters, assuming that attendance continues to grow at recent rates.

It is worth noting that while NPB teams have now been at four foreign players per active roster for some years now and league finances could likely support an increase to five or even six foreign players per active roster, the wealthier NPB teams have taken to stashing extra foreign players, sometimes as many as four or five per team, at the minor league level, so that the team is never without four foreign players on the active roster in spite of injuries or failure of performance.  Needless to say, the foreign players relegated to play in NPB’s minor league aren’t as well paid as major league players, which impacts the talent level of the players signed.

New York Mets Sign Tim Tebow in Obvious PR Move

September 8, 2016

The New York Mets signed the now 29 year old Tim Tebow to a minor league contract today.  I don’t care what kind of an athlete Tebow is, the chances that he will become a major league player or even a legitimate AAA player starting his professional career at his current age are effectively nil.  There is a reason why MLB teams never, ever sign unknown amateur baseball players older than 23 or 24.

The Independent A leagues have created an avenue for a select few players who haven’t been signed by a major league organization by their age 23 seasons to eventually make the majors.  However, the Independent-A leagues are professional baseball, typically playing between 96 and 140 games per season.

There is also a hierarchy of Indy-A Leagues, allowing players to move up to better leagues with better competition as their skills develop.  A player who has played in the Atlantic League, the American Association or the CanAm League and succeeded there at least has a reasonable chance to succeed at the AA or A+ level when signed into the MLB system.

The one thing I have never understood about Tim Tebow’s football career is why, when it turned out he was too scatter-armed to be a successful NFL quarterback, he didn’t move to another back field position like fullback or halfback.  His talents as a running back were always obvious and he was certainly big enough to take the pounding running backs take.

Professional football players with some regularity are moved to other positions than the ones they played in college when they reach the pro ranks, based on where the professional team thinks the player has the best chance of becoming a successful professional player or where the pro team has an unmet need.  For example, Bruce Miller, recently released by the San Francisco 49ers for a drunken off-field assault, was a former 7th round draft pick who had played linebacker and defensive line in college, but played his first four years as a pro exclusively at fullback and was slated to play at tight end this upcoming season.

The fact that Tebow, given his obvious athletic and football abilities, did not move to another position to continue his pro career has long made me wonder whether Tebow wasn’t more interested in building his brand and his celebrity than in playing pro football.  His turn as a professional baseball player at age 29 doesn’t do anything to erase my suspicion.