Archive for March 2017

Byung-ho Park to Start 2017 Season at AAA Rochester

March 31, 2017

I saw that Byung-ho Park didn’t make the Minnesota Twins out of Spring Training and will instead be starting the season at AAA Rochester.  For most of the off-season, I thought that the best thing for Park would probably be to spend 40 to 60 games to start this season in AAA, where he could play every day and quite literally get up to speed on MLB system baseball.  Now, I’m not quite so sure.

In Spring Training, Park hit six home runs and posted a 1.159 OPS, which was the best for any Twins player with at least 25 plate appearances, and Park had more than twice that many.  I’m a strong believer that players who have great Spring Trainings should be rewarded with a roster spot, particularly if they are players who are already damned close to being major league players.

I’ve also heard that the new management team the Twins hired this off-season aren’t particularly enamored with Park and see his signing as a mistake made by the old administration.  To me, that makes no sense, since the commitment to Park at this point ($9.25 million guaranteed over the next three seasons, plus a very affordable $6.5 million option for 2020) is such a bargain in today’s game, particularly for a guy who showed so much power potential (22 HRs in 372 at-bats at the major league and AAA level) in an otherwise forgettable season.

Maybe Park has finally gotten up to speed and is now ready to have a reasonably successful major league career.  That said, in the greater scheme of things 40 to 60 AAA games isn’t a big deal so long as Park doesn’t get discouraged or hurt.  If Park hits well at AAA Rochester, it’s fairly certain that someone in Minneapolis will get hurt or won’t hit on what looks fairly certain to be another well below .500 Twins’ ballclub.

Park’s power is very real, and I’m still convinced he could be a productive player relative to the financial commitment the Twins made to him.  What I would hate to see is Park not get every reasonable opportunity to prove he can be a major league player because the Twins’ new management sees him as a holdover mistake by the management team they replaced.

Since the money has already been spent, why not at least see if you can get something out of your investment no matter how much you might now see the original signing as a mistake?  Even if you don’t like Park’s overall game, if he can prove himself a major league hitter, you might be able to trade him and his affordable contract off for somebody you really want next off-season.

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The Best Hitting Pitchers in MLB Baseball 2017

March 28, 2017

As everyone knows, contemporary pitchers as a group can’t hit a lick.  The rise of the designated hitter, not only in the American League, but also it’s widespread use in the minors and in the college game, is perhaps the biggest factor for the demise of pitchers who can hit, but it’s hardly the only one.

Pitchers simply don’t get as many opportunities to hit today because of the steady trend of using more and more relievers throwing more and more innings, which means starting pitchers get fewer opportunities to hit, and there are more opportunities for professional hitters to be used as pinch hitters.

Also, no matter what the old-timers might say, the level of major league play has gradually and steadily improved since the professional game started in the 1870′s, which means that pitchers, who make the major leagues solely based on their ability to pitch (this has been the overwhelming norm since at least the early 1880’s, and probably a lot earlier) have undergone a slow but steady decline as hitters by virtue of the relative improvement of pitchers (as pitchers), fielders and professional hitters, in spite of the fact that most major league pitchers were great hitters in high school and many were fine college hitters.

A final point to make is that MLB teams now almost always decide at the moment an amateur player is drafted whether he will be developed as a pitcher or a hitter.  As a result, if a player is designated as a pitcher, he won’t get many opportunities to hit in the minors even if he was an outstanding college hitter, like for example, Mica Owings.  Coming up in today’s game, Babe Ruth much more likely than not would remain a pitcher throughout his major league career.

Nevertheless, there are always a few pitchers in any era who can hit.  This 2017 update ranks current pitchers with at least 100 career major league at-bats, in order to weed out the pitchers who just haven’t had enough at-bats for their career hitting stats to mean anything one way or another.

By today’s standards, a good-hitting pitcher is any pitcher with a career batting average at or above .160 or a career OPS at or over .400.  That’s really pretty terrible as hitters go, and it shows just how hard it is even for professional athletes who have played baseball their entire lives to hit major league pitching if the players have not been selected for the major leagues based their ability to hit.

1.  Madison Bumgarner (.183 career batting average and .542 career OPS).  For the third year in a row, fangraphs rates big-swinging MadBum as the most productive pitcher as a hitter in MLB.

On paper, Jake Arrieta‘s 2016 slash line of .262/.304/.415 is much more impressive than Bumgarner’s .186/.268/.360.  I expect that park factors play a big role in fangraphs’ ratings.

In the last three seasons, MadBum has slugged 12 HRs in 229 at-bats and driven in 33 RBIs.  There isn’t a team in the National League who couldn’t use that batting performance from a starter.  He’s also the only major league hitter since the start of the 2015 season to homer twice off MLB’s best starter Clayton Kershaw.  ‘Nuff said.

2.  Zack Greinke  (.219 BA, .580 OPS).   One thing I’ve noticed about good hitting pitchers, writing about them as I have for some years now, is that there doesn’t seem to be a particularly strong correlation between a pitcher’s ability to hit and his having spent his minor league time or the vast majority of his MLB career with a National League team, even though this would presumably mean that the pitcher got a lot more opportunities to hit.  After spending his minor league career and his first seven major league seasons with the Royals, Greinke established himself as a fine hitter by his second National League season.

If I had to guess, I would say that the ability to hit the fastball (and lay off breaking pitches) is probably the most important factor in a pitcher’s ability to hit.  Pitchers hate to walk the opposing pitcher, so any time the pitcher-as-hitter is ahead in the count, fastballs for strikes are likely to follow.

Greinke’s 2016 was his weakest offensive performance in four seasons.  Still, he hit .212 with a .476 OPS, which is great for a contemporary pitcher.

3.   Mike Leake (.203, .522).  Mike Leake has disappointed me as a hitting pitcher.  He hit a ton his first three major league seasons (2010-2012), but since then he’s just been a better than average major league average hitting pitcher.

I bet this has something to do with making adjustments.  By the 2013, major league pitchers realized that Leake could really hit and they’d have to pitch to him like a real hitter, and they’d figured out his weaknesses.  Leake doesn’t seem to have made the necessary counter-adjustments, and now he’s just a better than average hitting pitcher.

4.  Yovani Gallardo (.200, .562).  Gallardo hasn’t played in the NL in two years, but he’s 4 for 8 the last two seasons in the AL. His 33 extra base hits in 424 at-bats is what makes him a threat at the dish.

5. Adam Wainwright (.199 BA, .529 OPS).  With well over 500 career at-bats, Wainwright has well proven his abilities as a hitting pitcher.

6.  Noah Syndergaard (.198 BA, .613 OPS).  Syndergaard passed the 100 career at-bat threshold in 2016, and his combination of power (three HRs in 2016) and willingness to take a walk (seven in 67 plate appearances) made him a real threat at the plate this past season.

I’ve been writing versions of this post long enough now that I’ve noticed that pitchers who hit well through their first 100 major league at-bats tend to regress in subsequent years to towards the pitchers-as-hitters mean.  That’s why I’m ranking him low until he proves he can keep doing it.

7.  Daniel Hudson (.226, .567) & CC Sabathia (.217, .546).  These two deserve to be ranked together because their career numbers are very similar and they both just barely clear the 100 at-bat threshold.  They would rank higher based on the raw numbers except: (1) Hudson is now a relief pitcher, and despite 70 relief appearances, the 2016 Diamondbacks didn’t give him even one plate appearance in spite of the fact that he had his one big season at the plate in 2011 as a D’Back (no wonder the 2016 D’Backs lost 93 games); and (2) Sabathia hasn’t gotten on base since 2010 (CC’s 0-for-18 over that span).

Sabathia has only played one-half of one season in the National League in his long MLB career.   As an American League hurler, he only gets to hit about one or two games a year (roughly two to five plate appearances a year) during inter-league play, but he’s still gotten enough hits over his career to make this list.

Sabathia is tall and heavy set, which doesn’t sound like a recipe for a good-hitting pitcher (although that certainly describes an older Babe Ruth and Buzz Arlett), but obviously he’s just a great all-around baseball player.  I’ve long wondered what kind of batting numbers he would put up playing three or four full seasons in a row in the NL.  His career is now winding down, so we’ll never know.

9.  Tyler Chatwood (.232, .526).  Chatwood was a starter again last year and made it over the 100 at-bat threshold in 2016.  He’s a fine hitting pitcher who probably benefits as a hitter from making half his starts at Coors Field.  Needless to say, Coors Field doesn’t do much for him as a pitcher.

10.  Travis Wood.  (.182 BA, .522 OPS) Wood hit poorly in 2015, was moved to the bullpen in 2016, and signed this off-season with the AL’s Kansas City Royals for the next two seasons, so he won’t have many more opportunities to improve his career batting numbers anytime soon.

11.  Tyson Ross (.201, .482).  Ross is coming back from a major injury and pitching for an AL team, the Rangers, this year, but he sure hit in 2015 for the Padres.

Young Hitting Pitchers to Watch.  Michael Lorenzen (.244, .628).  Lorenzen can hit, but he has to establish himself as a starting pitcher if he ever hopes to reach the 100 at-bat cut-off.  He pitched exclusively in relief last year, but was used as a pinch hitter or allowed to hit five times in which he hit slugged a homer for his only hit.

Shohei Otani will be one of MLB’s best hitting pitchers as soon as he signs with an MLB team some years from now.  I’m hoping an NL team signs him for this reason.

The top two prospects in this year’s amateur draft, Hunter Greene and Brendan McKay, are two-way players, who will most likely be developed as pitchers.  Thus, the odds are good that one day at least one of these two will make a future year’s version of this post.

As final notes, the best hitting major league pitchers get pretty bad as major league hitters almost immediately.  Also, since I started writing these posts about five years ago, I’ve noticed a steady deterioration in the best-hitting major league pitchers just in that short time.  If this trend continues, I would expect the National League to adopt the designated hitter by 2030.

Remembering Jonathan Sanchez

March 21, 2017

According to mlbtraderumors.com, the Royals just released Jonathan Sanchez as he attempted what will almost certainly be his last MLB comeback attempt.  The thought of Sanchez brings back at least some fond memories.

Giants’ fans will remember a largely frustrating career — great stuff, not enough command — that culminated in one fine year in which the Giants just happened to win their first World Series since 1954. That, and his 2009 no-hitter.

2010, when Sanchez went 13-9 with a 3.07 ERA, was his one full season to remember.  His command still wasn’t great that year, but his stuff was so good that he allowed only 142 hits in 193.1 innings pitched, and he struck out 205.

Sanchez last pitched in the majors in 2013.  Injuries set in quickly in quickly after the 2010 season, and his career was straight downhill from that point.

He pitched well in the Puerto Rican Winter League in post 2015, but this past Winter League season he pitched only two innings in one start in which he gave up only one hit, but walked four while striking out three.  If his arm is healthy, he could get a shot pitching in the Puerto Rican Winter league next off-season, but that’s about it, unless he’s willing to pitch in Mexico this summer.

In today’s game, it’s hard to feel sorry for Sanchez.  His career may not have been what he and the SF Giants hoped for, but he made more than $15 million playing professional baseball, and he’s earned a substantial major league pension, which will go far indeed if he spends any significant part of each year in Puerto Rico.

It’s tough to be an MLB player this generation, but those who can have any kind of career are now well compensated.

MLB Teams Should Develop Two-Way Stars

March 18, 2017

Baseball America recently published its list of its top ten prospects for the 2017 Amateur Draft.  The top two players, high school star Hunter Greene and Louisville 1B/P Brendan McKay are described as two-way stars (offense and defense) who the drafting teams will probably develop as pitchers.

I wish MLB teams and the players themselves would be more willing to develop the players as two-way stars, like Japan’s Shohei Otani.  There is a certain logic to what I am saying, at least so far as those prospects who are developed as pitchers in pro baseball.  Because pitchers are so susceptible to arm injuries, developing the player at least in part as a position player is basically a kind of insurance policy, since if he blows out his arm, he could still prove to be a major league hitter.

In the case of Greene and McKay, their talent levels as baseball players are probably so high that they could potentially develop into stars either as pitchers or afield.  If the player quickly proves in the low minors that the player’s professional potential is as one or the other, you haven’t lost much but committing a minor league season or two to doing double duty.

MLB teams and amateur players don’t typically do so for a number of reasons.  The teams quickly decide how they like the youngster better and train him toward that narrow goal.  That’s what they based their 1st round draft pick on.

Also, each MLB team ideally wants to be developing one player at each position on each minor league team, because in most cases those are the guys who are one day going to contribute at the major league level. Developing a player as a two-way star means some degree of platooning somewhere, as I explain below.

The amateur player’s primary concern is getting as big a signing bonus as possible.  Since the team almost always considers their value at the moment of selection as either or, the player’s financial incentive is clearly with doing what the team wants the player to do.

I would love to see a young player like Greene or McKay say, “I’m willing to sign for $1M under slot if you will agree to play me at least X number of games in the field.  I’m good enough to do both, and I just might add a great deal of value if I can prove it.

In 2016’s NPB season, Shohei Otani went 10-4 as a pitcher with a 1.86 ERA and 174 Ks in 140 innings pitched.  As mainly a DH, he slashed .322/.416/.588 in 104 games and 382 plate appearances.  Otani would have led the Pacific League in OPS if he’d had only 61 more plate appearances.  Oh, and by the way, his team the Nippon Ham Fighters won the 2016 Nippon Series.

You can’t tell me that the way the Fighters used Otani in 2016 didn’t have a lot to do with the team’s success, since while he could have potentially pitched exclusively for the same overall value, he would have had to throw a truly unhealthy number of innings to do so.  Otani, who is still only 22 years old, could be better, on both sides of the ball, in any of the next few years than he was in 2016.

Developing a two-way player requires a team to be willing to platoon, at least at the DH position, since a two-way player is going to miss games recovering from his pitching efforts.  Also, teams willing to do so don’t typically get to select the two-way player before the team that most highly values him as a pitching prospect.

On the other hand, MLB organizations realistically expect only a couple of players at any level below AA ball to eventually make the Show.  Platooning to develop a true MLB prospect on both sides of the ball is not overly burdensome, since it’s unlikely that any one MLB team will have more than one of these players in its minor league system at any one time.

I’d don’t think it’s any surprise that the very best of the best amateur players feature real two-way prospects.  Youngsters with great physical talent who really understand the game at a physical level are going to be able to hit, pitch and field.

That said, I will admit that it’s either to find the next Shohei Otani in NPB than it is in MLB.  Since MLB is the better league, you have to be better on both sides of the ball to be either a pitching ace or an hitting star, let alone both.

At the end of the day, it’s probably going to take Greene saying, “I’m willing to take only $5.4M or $6.4M in order to play both ways,” or Brendan McKay saying, “I’m willing to accept $5.0M or $5.85M to play both ways,” in order for MLB to develop a true two-way player.

I’m sure we haven’t seen the last two-way player in MLB, but it’s sure unlikely to be any more common in the future MLB than in its been in MLB past, for the reasons suggested above.

Remember Rotator Cuff Injuries?

March 17, 2017

Today, the injury every pitcher dreads is the torn ulnar collateral ligament.  When I was young, it was the torn rotator cuff.

A couple days ago I wrote about Ed Hobaugh, a pitcher who basically had one real year in the Show and then quickly faded off into oblivion.  Probably my favorite player fitting this description is Bill Dailey.  His career progression was almost identical to Hobaugh, except that Dailey’s one full season was truly a tremendous year.

Dailey was the closer for the Minnesota Twins in 1963.  The Twins finished 3rd in 1963 (91-71) in a ten-team league, in large part due to Dailey’s one out-sized season.  Dailey went 6-3 with 21 saves and 1.99 ERA while throwing 108.2 innings.  His save total was 3rd best in the league, tied with  Hoyt Wilhelm, but behind Stu Miller (27) and Dick Radatz (23).  The Monster was the Junior Circuit’s best closer that year, but Dailey was an impressive second.

Dailey was 28 in 1963.  I’d guess he mastered command of a sharp curveball shortly before that season.  He only stuck out 72 batters in 1963, but he still had a K/BB ratio of 3.8 and a WHIP well under 1.0.

In 1964 Dailey tore his rotator cuff, and his professional career was over at age 29.  That made him the Mark Fidrych of his day, only without the Bird’s youthful promise.  Wayne Garland is another pitcher from Fidrych’s era with the same basic story.

San Francisco Giants’ broadcaster Mike Krukow had a riff about how when he entered professional baseball, teams’ pitching coaches would ask youngsters whether they wanted their shoulders to hurt or their elbows to hurt.  If the former, the pitcher was taught to throw the curveball, and if the latter the slider.

The curveball was a much more popular pitch in the 1960’s and 1970’s than it is now when the slider is the dominant off-speed pitch.  That may in part be due to the fact that pitchers as a group come back better from Tommy John surgery than from rotator cuff surgery, which is now often referred to as the labrum.  Shoulder injuries more often involve cartilage than tendons, which is probably why they are harder to come back from than elbow injuries.

For pitcher after his age of 30 season, shoulder injuries pretty much spell the ends of their careers.  A 30+ year old with a strong enough arm can still come back from an elbow tear, at least so long as the doctors can find a good elbow tendon transplant.

San Francisco Giants Outfield Situation Looks Promising

March 16, 2017

We’re only half-way through the 2017 Spring Training, but even if things still have to be taken with a grain of salt, the Giants are looking prescient in keeping relatively still on their left field situation this off-season.

The Giants were hoping that Jarrett Parker and Mac Williamson could hold down left field in 2017, either as a platoon, or more likely, by one of two stepping forward in Spring Training and the early season and proving that he can be an every day player, at least in 2017.

So far looks good — after 13 games played, Jarrett Parker is slashing .313/.450/.625; and after 11 games, Mac Williamson is slashing .324/.378/.559.  Sure, 11 or 13 games don’t mean s*&%, but with almost 80 plate appearances between the two of them, it’s better than hitting a buck-85 with no power and no walks.

Mike Morse, to my great surprise, looks like he has a real chance to be the Giants 5th outfielder on Opening Day, particularly with Gorkys Hernandez in a deep, deep slump so far this spring.  I thought the Morse signing was a classic example of wishful thinking, but he’s slashing .304/.407/.609, and could potentially be that right-handed power bat the Giants sorely need off the bench.

With half of Spring Training still to come, there is plenty of time for Parker, Williamson and Morse to get cold.  It’s a good sign that Parker and Williamson in particular are off to fast starts, since they both know what is at stake, are feeling the pressure, and are nevertheless doing what they need to do to prove they’re ready.  Let’s hope they keep it up.

Ed Hobaugh — Here’s to You!

March 15, 2017

This weekend I saw one of my oldest friends for the first time since January.  While he is not a baseball fan like me, he’s the kind of guy who still goes to the occasional comic book/baseball card convention, and he had gone to one at Stonestown recently.

He bought some sports cards, all but one baseball (49er receiver Gene Washington).  He offered to give me one, and looking through them, mostly early 1970’s cards, there was a good chance I had most of them in my childhood collection, now buried away in a closet somewhere.

One card I’m sure I didn’t have was a 1962 topps Ed Hobaugh card.  I don’t think I’d ever heard of him before, but he went 7-9 with a 4.42 ERA for the expansion 1961 Washington Senators and pitched 126 innings that year.

I love players (and baseball cards) like this.  1961 was Hobaugh’s one great MLB hurrah.  He pitched pretty well in 26 games, mostly in relief, for the Senators in 1962, pitched ineffectively in nine MLB games in 1963, and that was the end of his major league career, although he continued to pitch in AAA until the 1969 season.

Hobauch was a college pitcher at Michigan State who didn’t pitch professionally until his age 22 season after finishing school and being signed by the White Sox organization.  He went 11-4 in the Three-I League in 1956 and threw a no-hitter, but he missed all of the 1957 and 1958 seasons, most likely because of military service.

Hobaugh was a good, but by no means great, AAA pitcher in the American Association in 1959 and the Pacific Coast League in 1960, going a combined 24-18.  Hobaugh appears to have been a pitcher without major league stuff who knew how to pitch, maybe comparable to some  of the pitchers who find success in the East Asian leagues after failing to make it in MLB today.  Pat Misch springs to mind.

At the time of the 1960 American League expansion draft, Hobaugh was still reasonably young, had pitched reasonably well in AAA and hadn’t been protected by the team that originally signed him.  But for expansion, Hobaugh probably would have received one or two major league cups of coffee at most.  However, the new Senators needed players, and Hobaugh turned out to be probably the team’s fifth best pitcher in their expansion year.

Hobaugh is pretty typical of the players who fill expansion team rosters and who prevent said expansion team from losing 120 games their first season in the Show, but who aren’t good enough to prevent the team from losing 100.  For every Jeff Conine that an expansion team finds among the available 27+ year olds, there are probably ten Ed Hobaughs who got their one real chance to be a major leaguer in that first expansion year and then quickly receded as the expansion teams tried to develop younger, potentially more talented players.

At the end of the day, Hobaugh proved he was a real major league, even if was only for a couple of seasons with an expansion team.  Ed Hobaugh — here’s to you!