Archive for January 2017

The KBO Is All in for 2017

January 24, 2017

South Korea’s KBO teams have been spending dramatically more money on free agents and foreign players this off-season than they did even a year ago.  I suspect the surge in investment is connected directly to the 2017 World Baseball Classic to be played in March, some of which games will be played in Seoul, South Korea.

Professional baseball in South Korea is heavily dependent on the national team’s showing in the World Baseball Classic to generate future attendance increases.  In 2009, South Korea surprised the world with a strong second place finish in that year’s WBC, and KBO attendance surged starting with the 2009 regular season.

In 2013, South Korea was surprisingly knocked out of the WBC in the first round (three of the four teams in their initial pool went 2-1 with the South Korean team having the worst runs scored/runs allowed differential and thus failing to move on the second round).  KBO attendance dropped dramatically in 2013, and has only just in 2016 caught up to where it was before the national team’s ignominious 2013 WBC performance.

With Pool A’s games being played in South Korea, the South Korean baseball world is expecting the home team to have an advantage.  If the national team makes the final game again, I would expect KBO attendance to surge in 2017.  Anything less than a top four finish, however, it’s likely that KBO 2017 attendance will be down from 2016.

Right now, it’s looking like some of South Korea’s best players won’t be playing in this year’s WBC.  Jung-ho Kang is off the national team after being arrested recently on his third drunk driving charge.  Shin-soo Choo will miss the WBC because of injury concerns of his MLB team, the Texas Rangers.  Top starter Kwang-hyun Kim had or is going to have elbow surgery this month.

Needless to say, every national team has to deal with injuries to one degree or another.  However, with as much as the KBO has riding on this WBC, not to mention South Korea in general, the loss of any of South Korea’s top players has to be cause for consternation.

Japanese baseball fandom also puts a great deal of weight on their national team’s performance in international events.  I expect that a Championship performance, or, conversely, a disappointing performance in the WBC has a discernable effect on NPB attendance.  However, I very much doubt that the effect is anywhere near as dramatic as in the KBO.

NPB has roughly 50 years of history on the KBO, which only started play in 1982.  I, therefore, suspect both that NPB teams have solid fan bases and fans sophisticated enough to realize that performance in as small a sample size as the WBC doesn’t really prove much of anything, at least when Japan’s team doesn’t win.

Meanwhile, here in the U.S., the average baseball fan doesn’t spend much time thinking about the World Baseball Classic one way or another.  We have MLB, the undisputed world’s best baseball league, and most MLB stars don’t even play in the WBC because their major teams don’t want their players getting hurt in what MLB considers mere exhibition games.

As a die-hard baseball fan, I find the WBC interesting in terms of which teams perform well each go ’round, and I’m sure it would be interesting to attend individual games, particularly if you can see Asian stars we don’t see much of in the U.S.  However, I don’t put much stock in what amounts to a series of one-game series to determine the alleged “world’s best” national team.

Dae Ho Lee Signs Record-Breaking Deal with KBO’s Lotte Giants

January 24, 2017

Dae ho Lee has reportedly signed a 15 billion won ($12.9 million) four-year deal with the Lotte Giants of South Korea’s KBO.  While a $12.9 million contract is hardly a big deal by MLB standards, it completely blows up the salary expectations for KBO free agents, in that the deal is a full 50% more than the then record-setting 10 billion won four-year deal Hyung woo Choi signed earlier this off-season.

I would think that other KBO teams are likely very unhappy that Lotte spent this much money on Lee.  To some degree, Lee is a special case in that he’s an extremely marketable star who has proven his abilities in MLB, Japan’s NPB and, of course, the KBO.  Lee is also from Busan, the city in which Lotte plays.

The Lotte Giants had offered a likely $8 million over four years (as in NPB, four years are the longest free agent contracts KBO teams will sign) to Jae-gyun Hwang, who elected to sign with MLB’s San Francisco Giants instead, so the team had the money to spend and was itching to make big move to replace Hwang.  Also, Lee had other options, as he likely could have gotten guaranteed deals in some amount from both MLB and NPB teams.

Even so, in a couple of years from now some other KBO free agent will be a position to say he is special case and the 15 won deal Lee got will be the new standard for this future contract, not the now paltry 10 billion won deal Choi inked earlier this off-season.  I have to think that the cost of the top KBO free agents each off-season has just gone up dramatically.

The deal is certainly a risk for Lotte at this price.  I have no doubt that Lee’s talents are such that he will return to the KBO as one of the league’s best hitters, because I have to think that the years he spent playing in better leagues will serve him well upon his KBO return.

The real risk is that Lee is going into his age 35 season, and he’s known as the Pig Tiger and Big Boy for a reason.  Players his size don’t age well, and it is notable how healthy he’s been carrying 250+ pounds on his 6’4″ frame through his last five seasons.

In short, it sure seems likely that the law of averages will catch up with him in the next couple of seasons.

 

Can He Play Left Field?

January 23, 2017

The San Francisco Giants are reportedly on the verge of signing South Korean Jae-gyun Hwang to a minor league deal that would pay Hwang $1.5 million if he makes the major league team, plus an as yet unannounced amount of incentives.  If accurate, Hwang likely walked away from considerably more money (a likely four-year $8 million offer by his KBO team the Lotte Giants) to make his MLB dream come true.

Hwang played 3B and SS in South Korea’s KBO, but the Giants are already relatively deep at those positions.  The question in my mind is could Hwang be the right-handed power bat who could help if he can play left field also?

In any event, it’s low cost move that could have some upside.  However, despite the MLB interest this off-season, I haven’t seen much in Hwang’s KBO numbers that made me think he’s going to be the next Jung ho Kang.

Hwang’s 2016 season at age 28 was clearly his best in the KBO.  However, his .970 OPS was still only 12th best in a hit-happy league, and he wasn’t in the top 20 in either 2014 or 2015.

Thus, if he hits in MLB, he’s likely to hit enough for a 3Bman or back-up shortstop, but not for a corner outfielder.  The SF Giants still look into the possibility of signing Rickie Weeks as a potential fifth outfielder, if he can be signed cheaply.

Who’s Left?

January 21, 2017

In my mind the last piece the 2017 San Francisco Giants need is a right-handed power hitting outfielder.  Right now, the team’s likely third through fifth outfielders are Mac Williamson, Jarrett Parker and Gyorkis Hernandez.  All are reasonably young and talented, but none has significant major league experience, something the Giants typically value highly.

The team has signed Michael Morse and Justin Ruggiano, both of whom you will note are right-handed hitters, to minor league deals, but neither looks like a particularly realistic shot to make the team out of Spring Training.

I scanned mlbtraderumors.com’s free agent tracker yesterday, and Ryan Raburn and Rickie Weeks look like the best two right-handed hitting outfielders still available.  Both could be signed to minor league deals for 2017, or in Weeks’ case a relatively inexpensive major league deal, it well appears.

Of the two, I like Weeks better, because he’s two years younger, has more power, has had a much better career, and all in all had a better 2016 season with the bat than Raburn did.  Fangraphs says that Weeks’ outfield defense is brutally bad, but Weeks has played only 55 games in his lengthy major league career in the outfield, all of them in the last two seasons.  Weeks still appears to run fairly well, and I would have to think that he’d get better as an outfielder as he gets more experience after a long major league career through age 31 spent exclusively at 2B.

Another player I like is Jabari Blash, who was just designated for assignment by the Padres.  He isn’t going to hit for average, but he’s blasted an astounding 45 home runs in 646 AAA plate appearances, about one full season at that level.  He’ll only be 27 in 2017, and his on-base percentages are high too.

The main knock on Blash is that he’s got no more major league experience than Williamson, Parker or Hernandez.  However, on the subject of finding the next Brandon Moss, Blash has to be right at the top of the list.

Rooting for Dellin Betances in Arbitration

January 20, 2017

The New York Yankees and Dellin Betances are going to arbitration.  Betances is asking for $5 million; the Yankees are offering $3 million.  I’m rooting for Betances.

This is nothing new in that my allegances are usually with the players: the players, not ownership, put the cans in the seats.   However, in this case, reading that the Bombers renewed Betances’ 2016 contract at the major league minimum strikes me as just wrong.

There is obviously something more to the story.  Even the cheapest, small market teams usually give tiny raises to young players before they become arbitration eligible.

However, many teams, if the player will not accept the raise the team unilaterally elects to give, whatever that might be, choose to punish the player by renewing him at the minimum for not accepting the unilaterally imposed small raise.  I have to think that is why Betances got a $5,000 raise in 2015 which was probably the amount of the rise in the major league minimum and got no raise at all in 2016, when presumably the national cost of living index did not rise and the major league minimum did not go up.

In my mind, it is just so short-sighted.  The Yankees are the wealthiest team in baseball, and even if Betances wasn’t willing to accept the raise the Yankees wanted to give him when the Yankees could set whatever raise they wanted, it is just dumb not to give him that raise.  Instead, the Yankees elected to punish him to save, what, $50,000 or $100,000?  Chump-change in terms of the team’s $225 million plus player payroll, thereby guaranteeing that Betances will never ever give the Yankees one plug nickel when the time comes that Betances is the one with the leverage.

Another element of this story is that Betances is old relative to his major league service time and performance, which will have some impact on his future earning ability.  Betances is one in a long line of storied major league pitchers who always had great stuff, but who took a long time to develop command (some of these guys obviously never do).

Betances finally found his command in his age 26 season, and his performance has been other-worldly since then.  Still, he sees younger guys making more money because they reached the Show sooner, even if they now aren’t as good.  Add to that the fact that the Yankees are so good that despite his tremendous performance over the last three years, he’s notched only 22 saves, because the Yankees always had somebody at least as good with more experience who got the saves opportunities.

In short, Betances feels he deserves to get paid, and the Yankees probably assume that, since they are the rich, rich Yankees, players will always demand top money regardless.   Even so, it’s doubtful that taking Betances to arbitration serves the Yankees in the long run.

Maybe the situation with Betances is soured already.  However, the Yankees are also sending a message to every other player in the organization that each player ought to stick it to the Yankees or the team will stick it to them.

One thing that has to be remembered is that even as rich as the Yankees are, there are some players who might sign for a little less than absolute top dollar because they want to remain with the franchise that developed them or gave them their first big league opportunity or because they want to play in New York.  Some players, like most recently Yoenis Cespedes, really seem to thrive under the brightest lights, or the cultural or life-style options the Big Apple provides.  If you’re a player from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Japan, South Korea or a lot of other places, NYC has a lot to offer.

Whether Betances wins or loses the upcoming arbitration hearing, the best revenge will be staying healthy and continuing to strike out more than 11 batters per nine innings pitched.  That way, Betances will eventually get the big money from the Yanks or someone else.

Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.  Every pitcher would remain healthy and effective forever if it was solely a matter of hard work and will power.  In the meantime, Aroldis Chapman will continue to get the save opportunities, and the Yankees will continue to work Betances hard as a set-up man, since they know they won’t get any team-friendly contract extensions from Betances and his agents any time soon.

Unless, of course, team and player agree to a multi-year extension before the arbitration hearing.

Mark Trumbo Finally Signs

January 20, 2017

With Jose Bautista and now Mark Trumbo finally signed to new contracts, the dam might finally have burst on all the lead-footed sluggers still on the free agent market.

I wasn’t surprised at the fact that Bautista ultimately received only a one-year deal.  He is going into his age 36 season and coming off a down year, so the multi-year nine-figure contract he and his agent were making noises about before the season ended always seemed more like trying to goose up the market than anything else.  At the end of the day, he still beat the $17.2 million qualifying offer, and he can’t be QOed again next off-season.

Trumbo’s contract, however, surprises me.  Not necessarily the fact it’s only three years, but definitely the fact that it’s only about $37.5 million.  Trumbo is going into his age 31 season, and he led all of MLB with his 47 dingers.  I really thought he’d get something closer to the four-year $57 million deal Nelson Cruz got two off-seasons ago, at least $43M or 44M for three seasons.

Trumbo was probably hurt by the fact that there are cheaper similar options still out there.  Even so, Nelson Cruz has made the Mariners look like geniuses as he has continued to pound the ball the last two seasons.

Dave Schoenfeld of espn.com wrote a post a few days ago suggesting that teams are less willing to sign aging one-dimensional sluggers like Brandon Moss, because teams are now looking for the next Brandon Moss.  I thought it was kind of a dumb article, because while poor teams like the A’s, who specialize in finding the next Brandon Mosses, will look to sign undervalued 4-A players, other teams will always be on the look-out for proven sluggers at the right price.

The problem with finding the next Brandon Moss in the minor leagues is that it is an incredibly uncertain proposition in terms of any one player (or even two or three) you might put your money on.  Somebody will become the next Brandon Moss, but a majority of candidates for the role sure as hell won’t.

Brandon Moss’s value as a major league player over the last three seasons, working backward, has been $ 11.2M, $3.8M and $19.7M according to fangraphs.  You would have to reasonably expect that his value will be somewhere between $3.8M and $11.2M in 2017.  He’ll be 33 next season, so the lower figure is certainly the safer bet.

What I am trying to say is that the reason Moss hasn’t yet signed is because his current ask as a free agent is too high, rather than because teams are looking for an undervalued 4-A player they can pay the major league minimum.  Once Moss’s ask comes down to $3 or 4 million on a one-year deal, at least one team that needs a left-handed power bat and whose in-house analytics value Moss’ likely 2017 performance similar to fangraphs will sign him for that amount.

Although all 30 major league teams as a whole don’t always act rationally, they do most of the time.  If there are even two team for whom Moss would fill a need, who estimate Moss’ likely 2017 performance at $4 million or more, and who can afford to pay $4 million, he’ll get a one year deal for right around $4 million.  Most teams would rather pay $4 million for a relatively sure thing than the minimum for a guy who is less likely than not to become the next Brandon Moss, if they can afford to pay the $4 million.

It’s bottom feeders like the A’s who keep looking for the next Brandon Moss, because they have to.  And you can only find these guys consistently if your analytics are better than just about everyone else’s.

Slugging It Out in Japan: A Listing of Top Foreign Hitters in Japan’s NPB

January 18, 2017

In the past couple of years, I’ve written a couple of posts on the all-time leaders among foreign hitters in the history of Japan’s NPB.  The articles have met with a positive response, so I will update them whenever new or more complete information comes to me.  This iteration adds stolen base leaders.

BATTING AVERAGE (4,000 ABs)

1.  Leron Lee .320

2.  Boomer Wells .317

3.  Wally Yomamine .311

4.  Leon Lee .308

5.  Alex Cabrera .303

6.  Alex Ramirez .301

BATTING AVERAGE (3,000 ABs)

1.  Bobby Rose .325

2.  Matt Murton .310

3.  George Altman .309

Leron Lee was not, as his wikipedia page suggests, the first American player to go to Japan during the prime of his professional career.  However, he was the first first major leaguer of his ability and past MLB success to go to Japan before his age 30 season.  Lee is not just the best career hitter among North American players, he has the highest NPB batting average of any player with at least 4,000 at-bats, and he had almost 5,000 NPB at-bats, so it was no fluke based on a small data set.

Leon Lee was Leron’s little brother and the father of former MLBer Derrek Lee.  Pops never played in MLB, but he was nearly as great an NPB player as his big brother, and that’s saying something.

Wally Yonamine, a Nisei (Japanese American) from Hawaii, was the first foreign player to play in NPB after the Second World War, breaking in with the Yomuiri Giants, far and away NPB’s most popular team, in 1951.  Yonamine was sort of the poster boy for a class of Japanese American athletes during the era between about 1920 and 1950 who were famed on the West Coast and Hawaii for their abilities on both the baseball diamond and the gridiron in semi-pro leagues.

Yonamine was really an exceptional athlete.  He was 5’9″ and 180 lbs, fast and tough.  He was the first Asian American to play pro football that I am aware of, playing for the San Francisco 49ers in 1947, the team’s second season in the All-American Football Conference.  He played in 12 of the team’s 14 games that year and started three times.  He ran for 74 yards on 19 carries, caught three passes for 40 yards, ran back an interception for 20 yards and returned a total of nine punts and kick-offs.  He quit football after injuring himself playing baseball the next summer.

In his only season of minor league baseball, he hit .335 as a catcher in the Class C Pioneer League at age 25 in 1950.  At that age, his MLB chances were slim, so he went to Japan in 1951, where he mostly played outfield.  He had a major impact on NPB, bringing his tougher, more aggressive American style of base running.  He is one of only three only foreign player in the NPB Hall of Fame (NPB’s first 300 game winner Victor Starfin was born in Russia but grew up in Japan after his family fled the Russian Revolution), something I’ll comment on below.

HITS

1.  Alex Ramirez 2,017

2. In-cheon Paek 1,831

3. Tuffy Rhodes 1,792

4. Leron Lee 1,579

5.  Leon Lee 1,436

6.  Bobby Marcano 1,418

7.  Boomer Wells 1,413

8.  Alex Cabrera 1,368

9.  Wally Yonamine 1,337

10.  Shosei Go 1,326

11.  Jose Fernandez 1,286

12.  Bobby Rose 1,275

13.  John Sipin 1,124

14.  Roberto Barbon 1,123

15.  Ta-Feng Chen (Yasuaki Taiho) 1,089.

16.  Matt Murton, 1020.

Before I wrote the original piece in 2014, I’d never heard of Bobby Marcano, John Sipin or Roberto Barbon (or if I have I’ve long since forgotten).  Marcano hit .317 with an .857 OPS in the AAA Pacific Coast League at the age of 23, but elected to sign with an NPB team the next season.  I don’t know anything about his story, but it was apparently a good move, as he had a very successful 11 career in Japan playing mostly 2B.

John Sipin got into 68 games for the expansion San Diego Padres in 1969.  A couple of big years in the Pacific Coast League at ages 23 and 24, and off he went to Japan for a nine year NPB career.  He also mostly played 2B.  Both Marcano and Sipin played most of their NPB careers in the 1970’s.

Roberto Barbon was a light-hitting (.241 career NPB batting average) middle infielder from Cuba who played 11 seasons in Japan starting in 1955 at the age of 22.  His defense was probably very good for him to last so long, and his 308 career NPB stolen bases is the record for Gaijin players, at least according to some sources.  Here is a NY Times article about Barbon, who still lives in Japan and is involved in baseball.

HOME RUNS

1.  Tuffy Rhodes 464

2. Alex Ramirez 380

3. Alex Cabrera 357

4.  Leron Lee 283

5.  Boomer Wells 277

5.  Ta-Feng Chen (Yasuaki Taiho) 277

7.  Leon Lee 268

8.  Ralph Bryant 259

NPB teams pay their relatively high-priced foreign position players to hit home runs, so it isn’t particularly surprising that eight foreign players have topped 250 career home runs in NPB.  Ralph Bryant hit a lot of home runs and also set strike out records, striking out 204 times in 127 games played in 1993, in his eight year NPB career.

RBIs

1.  Alex Ramirez 1,272

2.  Tuffy Rhodes 1,269

3.  Alex Cabrera 949

4. Leron Lee 912

5.  Boomer Wells 901

6.  Leon Lee 884

7.  Bobby Marcano 817

8.  Bobby Rose 808

RUNS

1.  Tuffy Rhodes 1,100

2.  Shosei Go 880

3.  Alex Ramirez 866

4. In-cheon Paek 801

5.  Leron Lee 786

6.  Alex Cabrera 754

NPB teams pay foreign hitters to drive in runs rather than score them, which is why the RBI totals are so much more impressive than the runs scored totals.

STOLEN BASES

1.  Shosei Go  381

2.  Roberto Barbon 308

3.  In-cheon Paek 212

4.  Wally Yonamine  163

5.  Larry Raines 114

As I’ve written before, it is no small task to determine who is “foreign” for NPB purposes and who isn’t.  At the time Shosei Go joined Japanese professional ranks in 1937, Taiwan was a Japanese colony, so Go was not considered a “foreign” player during his playing career.  However, as an ethnic Taiwanese born and raised in Taiwan (he attended high school there), he seems more “foreign” to me than Victor Starrfin, who lived in Japan since before his second or third birthday.  Go also seems more foreign than Hiroshi Ohshita, an ethnic Japanese who was probably born in Kobe, Japan but spent part of his childhood, including high school, in colonial Taiwan, but then attended Meiji University, one of Japan’s big six college baseball programs.

Another thing my original research in compiling these lists pointed out is just how much of a fungible commodity NPB teams apparently consider foreign players to be.  A total of fewer than 20 players made any of my six lists.  There are easily more than four times this many foreign players who were great in NPB from between three to seven seasons who didn’t stick around long enough to make my lists.

Since most foreign players are at least 26 to 28 years old in their first NPB season and often quite a bit older, a lot of them simply didn’t have much left by the time they reached their mid-30’s.  However, it’s just as true that in a majority of cases it only took one bad year, even after many good ones, for a foreign player to be sent packing.

Given the fact that NPB teams have become exceptionally good at picking out the most promising foreign players available (usually what we call 4-A players: guys who hit like major leaguers in AAA but have become too old to contend for major league starting jobs), but that even among these players only about half succeed quickly, long and consistently enough to stick around more than a year or two in NPB, its something of a shock how quickly NPB teams give up on foreign players with a proven track record.  This is so much the case that I’m always shocked on those rare occasions when a foreign hitter sticks around as long as three NPB seasons if he’s never had a single season OPS higher than about .815.

In fact, some of the best available foreign players are probably never considered by NPB teams, since their value is in their gloves rather than their bats.  In NPB, all the glove-tree guys are Japanese.

The best Gaijin hitter in NPB history has to be Tuffy Rhodes.  While he wasn’t a .300 hitter, his power and his ability to draw walks account for his exceptional RBI and Runs Scored totals, aside from the fact that he was once tied for the single season NPB home run record with the legendary Sadaharu Oh.

Foreign hitters who should eventually join Wally Yonamine in the NPB Hall of Fame are Rhodes, Alex Ramirez and Leron Lee.  Whether they will is another matter.  Apparently it takes a longer period of retirement before former players become eligible, and NPB’s Hall of Fame seems relatively more exclusive than MLB’s Hall of Fame, at least in terms of players.  The NPB Hall is particularly heavily stacked with non-players — for example, Lefty O’Doul is in Japan’s Hall of Fame for his goodwill tours to Japan in the 1930’s which increased the game’s popularity there, even though he isn’t in the MLB Hall of Fame despite an accomplished lifetime in the U.S. professional game.