Archive for March 2018

Take Two, They’re Small

March 31, 2018

That’s why they play the games.  Who would have expected the Giants to start the season with consecutive 1-0 victories over the Dodgers, each decided by a Joe Panik home run?  Very strange indeed.

Panik is 27 this year, and perhaps he’ll have a age 27 season to remember.  Of course, it’s only two games into the season, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

Also glad to see Hunter Strickland save another one.  It’s starting to look like the Gints got Mark Melancon just in time to get old.  If Strickland could fill the closer role, maybe Melancon returns to become the top set-up guy, and the Giants bullpen is better than it looked going into the season.

160 games to go, but at least the Giants are still in first place.

So Far, So Good

March 30, 2018

So said the man who jumped off a ten-story building as he passed a fifth floor window.

Anyway, the Ty Blach beat Clayton Kershaw today 1-0 to start the 2018 San Francisco.  The game’s only run came on a Joe Panik home run.  Go figure.

Well, with only 161 more games to go the Giants are in first place.  Better enjoy it now while it lasts, because things do no look incredibly promising for the 2018 Oldsters.

Aside from Blach’s five effective innings, the most promising sign was the strong efforts by four different relievers.  Hunter Strickland allowed a single to the first batter he faced in the 9th, and recorded three consecutive outs for the save.  A good nickname for Strickland coming out of Pike County, Georgia would be “Country Hardball.”

I have a lot more confidence in Strickland as the Giants’ early season closer than I do in Sam Dyson.  Hunter successfully converting his first save opportunity probably means he’ll get at least two more opportunities to close games before Bochy turns to Dyson.

Any time the Giants open the season by beating the Dodgers, it’s a time to celebrate.  Enjoy it now, because tomorrow who knows?

Dennis Sarfate May Now Be the Highest Paid Player in NPB History

March 28, 2018

The SoftBank Hawks of Japan’s NPB just reportedly signed their closer Dennis Sarfate to a three-year extension (2019-2021) for a possible 2 billion yen ($18.93 million).  If the reported amount is accurate (NPB teams don’t report salaries) and all guaranteed, this would likely be the highest annual salary (and certainly the highest annual salary for a contract of more than one season) in NPB history.  Two billion yen contracts for NPB’s best free agents who elect to remain in NPB are not exactly rare, but all previous such deals have been for four seasons.

The reported signing is interesting for several reasons.  First, it’s an awfully generous offer for a pitcher’s age 38 through 40 seasons.  It’s hard to imagine any other team anywhere giving Sarfate that much money for these seasons.  Most likely, SoftBank trying to head off competition from the Yomiuri Giants with this deal.

Second, it shows how under NPB’s distorted salary system, top closers are as highly valued as top starters and position players.  NPB has a unwritten salary cap of around 600 million yen per season, which has been pretty effectively enforced — I am aware of only three players topping this amount on single year contracts in NPB’s history previously. One of these three was closer Kazuhiro Sasaki when he returned to NPB after four very successful seasons in MLB (129 MLB saves).

Sarfate is the most successful foreign closer in NPB history, and he’s the best closer in NPB entering the 2018 season.  Most of Softbank’s Japanese stars are relatively underpaid due to NPB’s salary system and late free agency eligibility (nine full seasons to be a true free agent), so the Hawks can afford to pay what is a truly enormous amount by NPB standards to keep their super-star closer.

As a younger man in MLB, Sarfate had MLB stuff but not MLB command.  In Japan, his command has almost certainly approved, and the wider strike zone and lower level of hitting talent has probably made Sarfate far more confident and effective.  He can challenge NPB hitters more often with his big fastball than he could MLB hitters, and he can get away with more mistakes out over the plate than he could in MLB.

Is it bittersweet to be a $6 million dollar man in Japan?  There’s no way for any sane person not to be thrilled to receive a contract like this, but very few people in the U.S. know anything about Sarfate’s career or pitching abilities.  In a way, it’s good that he’s older now that he’s getting a contract like this.  With a little perspective brought on by maturity, it should be hard for Sarfate to have any regrets about being a huge star in a baseball-mad country, even if it isn’t his own.

Yovani Gallardo?

March 27, 2018

It’s no secret the San Francisco Giants need starting pitching help.  Today the team designated former 2nd round pick Jarrett Parker for assignment in order to create a space on the 40-man roster for Derek Holland.

Even with Holland, the Gints have only four starters to open the season.  There is talk that the team will go with four starters as long as they can, taking advantage of open dates early in the season.

MLB Trade Rumors suggested a couple of days ago that the Giants weren’t likely to make a trade or sign anyone still on the free agent market, as the team is already up against the salary cap this season.  MLBTR also seemed to think that the team isn’t interested in “dumpster diving,” i.e., signing someone released late in Spring Training.

Why not? The Brewers just released Yovani Gallardo, for example.  I don’t see the harm in the Giants signing Gallardo or somebody like Gallardo to a minor league contract.  Give Gallardo or whoever two or three starts at AAA Sacramento — If he’s any good, bring him up when the team needs a fifth starter; if he isn’t, release him and let him find another landing spot.

At this moment it seems likely Gallardo could be signed to a deal that pays him as little as $1M for major league service time.  Also, if this season goes south fast, the Giants can try to dump some salaries at the trade deadline.

The Giants had an all-in strategy this off-season.  It seems way too early to suddenly give up when there might be inexpensive cast-offs who might possibly help the team compete until the big guns get back.

Injury Bug Bites the San Francisco Oldsters Already

March 24, 2018

The 2018 San Francisco Giants were built to have their post-season hopes dashed by injuries, but I was hoping that the season would at least begin first.  In nearly the worst possible news the team could receive, Madison Bumgarner will miss at least the first eight to ten weeks of the season with a broken pinkie on his pitching hand.

The Giants were already going to start the regular season with Jeff Samardzija on the disabled list with a pectoral muscle strain, and health concerns have limited Johnny Cueto to only three starts and 9.1 innings pitched so far this spring.  The Giants’ starting pitching isn’t deep, and with all three of the Big Three looking doubtful or worse to start the season, it could be a long season.

Tyler Beede or Andrew Suarez now looks poised to start the season in the Giants’ rotation, and neither currently inspires much confidence.  I guess I’d go with Suarez if the choice had to be made today, because he pitched better at AAA last year and was less awful this spring.  I imagine both Beede and Suarez will be back in major league camp tomorrow and that both will get more than one opportunity between now and the start of the regular season to prove that he’s the guy to start the season in San Francisco.

Kenso Nushida

March 22, 2018

Larry Kwong, the first Asian Canadian to play in the NHL, died today.  That naturally got me thinking about the first Asian American to play in MLB.

The answer  is Ryan Kurosaki who pitched in seven games for the 1975 Cardinals, and not Lenny Sakata who came up with the Brewers in 1977 and is sometimes incorrectly given credit as being the first. I can see making a mistake with Sakata, since he had a long MLB career, but I was kind of annoyed when I googled the question to see that most of the top listed websites were about Masanori Murakami, who was not an American.

The good news is that I found about Kenso Nushida.  Nushida was a Nisei from Hawaii who was the first Asian American player to play in the Pacific Coast League, when he pitched for the Sacramento Senators (later the Solons) in 1932.  Here is a University of Hawaii article on Nushida, which was the most informative and likely most accurate article on the internet I was able to find.  I’m taking most of my facts from this article.

In 1932, it was unclear whether players of East Asian descent could play in the major leagues because of the color line.  Like most things involving bigotry, however, there wasn’t much rhyme or reason in how these unwritten rules worked in practice.

In 1932, the Sacramento team in Pacific Coast League was looking for a Japanese American pitcher to appeal to all the Japanese American baseball fans in the Central Valley.  Some background here: baseball was hugely popular in the large Nisei communities of Hawaii and California by the late 1920’s and produced strong semi-pro teams in both states.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to appeal to a local audience, particularly when it gives a player an opportunity he might not otherwise have had.  In 1932, at the worst of the Great Depression, teams had to do whatever they could to get the turnstiles clicking.

Nushida was already 31 in 1932 and past his prime by his own admission.  The University of Hawaii article says he was only 5’1″ and 110 lbs.  If those measurements were reasonably close to the truth, it’s safe to say that he wasn’t blowing fastballs past PCL hitters.  It’s instead virtually certain he was a junk ball pitcher who pitched to contact and had pin-point control.

The University of Hawaii article states: “News accounts say Nushida pitched good games but the Senators were weak in fielding and gave him poor support.”  That sure rings true: junk ballers who pitch to contact need good defense behind them to be successful, and every pitcher needs run support to win games.

Nushida went 2-4 for the 1932 Senators in eleven starts and recorded a 4.97 ERA, the highest of the ten Senators’ pitchers who pitched more than 11 innings that year.  He wasn’t invited back for 1933.  The PCL was country’s best league after the two majors, so performance was mandatory.  Still, Nushida stuck around long enough to prove he was more than just a novelty.

Nushida was also popular in the Senators’ clubhouse, playing the ukulele and singing Japanese and Hawaiian songs.  Anyone who saw the recent PBS series American Epic should know that Hawaiian music was surprisingly popular with a wide American audience in the early 1930’s.

One of the highlights of Nushida’s brief PCL career was pitching against Lee Gun (Gum?) Hong, a 21 year old Chinese American pitcher signed by the Oakland Oaks probably for the specific purpose of pitching against Nushida and bringing out even more paying Asian American baseball fans to the ballpark.

Hong made two starts for the Oaks that season and posted a 4.38 ERA in 12.1 innings pitched.  However, his other numbers weren’t impressive.  I do not know if Hong’s second start was also against Nushida.  Like Nushida, Hong didn’t pitch in minor leagues after 1932.

Here’s a SABR timeline on Asian American baseball.  A number of Japanese American players played in the then Class C (only Class D was lower) California League between 1946 and 1955, for the Central Valley’s Stockton Ports and Modesto Nuts.

Baltimore Orioles to Sign Alex Cobb for a Reported $57 Million

March 21, 2018

In a deal that I find shocking given everything that came before in this off-season, the Orioles signed Alex Cobb at the last minute for four years at a total guarantee of $57M.  There is apparently a lot of deferred money in the contract, but even so it’s a lot of money for a lot of years this late into Spring Training.

The signing invites the question if Baltimore was willing to shell out this much, why did it take so long to get this deal done?  Wouldn’t Cobb have accepted a $57M guarantee on March 1st or February 1st or January 1st this off-season once the obvious down market trend had been set?  Did Baltimore think that Cobb’s price was going to come down eventually and finally just caved in completely when it became apparent that Cobb would not sign unless he got top dollar and the season was about to start with Baltimore still in need of pitching?

For the life of me, I can’t imagine what the circumstances could have been that caused a deal this big to happen this soon before the real 2018 games start.  Maybe the O’s just decided at the last minute that with many of their best players becoming free agents next off-season, they’d have to make one last push for the post-season in 2018.  Still, they’re going to have a hard time keeping up with the Yankees and Red Sox, Alex Cobb or no.

I was thinking that at this point, Cobb was holding out for two years and $25M.  He even beat the four years and $48M that predicted.  My goodness!

As mlb trade rumors points out, the O’s back out of more deals at the last minute than most teams if they see anything questionable in the player’s pre-signing physical exam.  Cobb better hopes he looks good to the doctors in that exam.

Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and apparently now Alex Cobb were big free agent winners this off-season.  There weren’t many others.  At least it gives next off-season’s class of free agents hope that a few more of them will pull rabbits out of their free agent hats even if the market has changed for the worse overall.

Atlanta Braves Send Ronald Acuna to Minor League Camp

March 20, 2018

The Braves sent down 20 year old phenom Ronald Acuna to minor league camp today in what is almost certainly a move to gain another season of control for obvious reasons.

After 52 plate appearances this Spring, Acuna was slashing .432/.519/.727.  Yes, he only played in 54 AAA games last year, but he slashed .344/.393/.548, good enough for 2nd/5th/4th in the International League among players with at least 200 plate appearances.  He also slashed .325/.414/.639 in 99 Arizona Fall League plate appearances after that, as if it even needed to be said.  He’s ready right now on the talent side of it.

The Braves are sending him down to minor league camp so they can claim with a straight face they always intended to send him to the minor leagues to start this season.  But we all know the real reason — that additional year of control.

I miss the old days of baseball when a prospect of Acuna’s talent could make the team after a huge Spring Training and get started on learning how to be a major league player as soon as he was obviously ready.  Holding Acuna back another 15 or 20 games at AAA Gwinett means the Braves getting Acuna’s age 26 season, and it’s hard to argue with the fact that it’s worth a whole lot more than 15 or 20 extra games for the 2018 Braves.

It’s just that not rewarding player performance is a sword that cuts both ways.  If they stick it too him now, the Braves are that much more likely not to get Acuna’s age 27 to 33 seasons, at least if they hope to sign him for those seasons at less than the then prevailing free agent wage.  There are lot a reasons to think that if he stays healthy, Acuna’s age 27 to 33 seasons are going to be worth a whole lot.

It also sends a message to the players that there are considerations other performance at play.  Players know it’s a business, but the players also know which teams are a little more generous and which are not.  Teams are made up of very highly talented young men who as a group will be a lot more sympathetic to decisions made based on performance than anything else.

I’m Glad Jose Altuve Is Getting Paid

March 20, 2018

I’m a big fan of Jose Altuve, not least because I was once a small 2Bman like he is.  He was a bargain-basement prospect who made good, and he gave the Astros one of the great sweetheart contract extensions of recent memory.  He should obviously stay in Houston and get paid to do it.

His contract has become such a sweetheart deal for the team that the $151M contract extension comes with $21 million in bonuses paid over the next two seasons.  In other words, Altuve will be paid much closer to what he’s actually worth the next two seasons, and then the Astros get five seasons at an average of $26M per.  This is entirely reasonable for the team in today’s market, and it’s hard to imagine Altuve in particular  not being overjoyed with a $151M guarantee.

Altuve’s family back in Venezuela will probably be among an increasingly small minority in that country who are eating well, although their risk of kidnappings certainly goes up with the additional attention the contract is sure to bring, particularly so soon after his World Series Champion fame.

I love it when teams do the right thing and reward performance, even though but especially when it’s the obvious thing to do.  Altuve is the team’s most popular player, because his enthusiasm in infectious.  You certainly get the idea that Altuve is doing what he loves to do.

Texas Rangers Claim Tommy Joseph off Waivers and CTE

March 20, 2018

The Rangers claimed former SF Giants prospect Tommy Joseph off waivers today from the Phillies.  I had wondered whether another team would claim him or wait until he passed through waivers when he would have likely elected free agency as a veteran major league player.

Joseph was originally the Giants’ second round pick (55th overall) in 2009.  He was extremely promising as a catcher on both sides of the ball, but was eventually quite literally knocked out of the position by concussions.

I’m predicting that we start to hear about more former major league baseball catchers developing CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) in the not too distant future.  Ryan Freel is still the only former MLBer diagnosed after death with CTE that I am aware of, but with many more catchers’ careers ending now because of concussions (pitchers throw harder and batters swing harder than ever before), it’s just a matter of time.  More on this thought later.

Back to Joseph — Tommy hit well enough that he was able to convert to 1B and reach the majors solely on his abilities as a hitter.  He was good in his 2016 rookie season, posting an .813 OPS in 347 major league plate appearances.

In 2017, Tommy Joseph had his sophomore jinx season.  He still hit with power (22 HRs), but his .721 OPS in 533 plate appearances with an ugly .289 on-base percentage isn’t going to cut it anywhere as a 1Bman.

Joseph is an old 26 in 2018 (he turns 27 on July 16th and he looks older than 26 in his baseball reference photo), but any kind of 26 is good for a righted-hitter with power who already has almost 900 career plate appearances.  He seemed to me like he was an obvious candidate for an American League team that could use a better right-handed hitter with power on the bench, and I feel gratified that at least one AL team agreed with me.

The Rangers are clearly that team.  Joseph shouldn’t play first base in any more games than are needed to rest Joey Gallo, who is a younger, better version of Tommy Joseph.  However, Gallo is a lefty swinger and so is 35-year old DH Shin-soo Choo, so there’s an obvious fit for Joseph.  Choo isn’t likely to play 149 games as he did last year, and he may well continue to spend time in the corner outfield positions as needed.  Joseph is also insurance if either Gallo or Choo gets hurt.

The one thing standing Joseph’s way is that he hasn’t had much of a platoon split in his MLB career.  He has a career .781 OPS against lefties and a .748 OPS against righties.  He better improve his hitting against lefties in 2018 if he wants to re-establish himself as a full-time major leaguer going forward, because right now his role is as right-handed power bat off the bench.

Back to CTE in a roundabout way — earlier today I happened to look up catchers who hold the records for most games caught in a season.  Randy Hundley is still the only MLB player to have caught more than 155 games in a season when he played a whooping 160 games behind the dish in 1968.

Playing 150 games a season as a catcher has been accomplished only 27 times in MLB history.  The first such iron man was George Gibson for the World Champion 1909 Pittsburgh Pirates.  He caught at least 140 games in each of 1908 and 1910, and then the injuries set in as he had also reached the age of 30.

There are only two eras in major league history when catching a 150 games in a season wasn’t rare — the expansion era generation from 1962-1983 (17 such seasons) and the last two years of World War II 1944-1945 (four times).  In the expansion era more games were played in a season and catching talent was thinly spread.  In the late War years, there was a real lack of major league caliber catchers, even at the lower wartime level of play, such that some of the good ones who were available had to work double duty.

I would guess that in the days of the old Pacific Coast League when seasons were routinely 180 to 200 a season, it wasn’t rare for a catcher to catch 150 games in a season.  However, two of the greatest catchers in PCL history, Billy Raimondi and Truck Hannah, appear to have accomplished the feat a total of only three times between them during their combined 37 PCL seasons.  Of course, the fact that they weren’t overworked may be part of why they had such long professional careers.

78 times has a catcher caught at least 145 games in a major league season.  Here is a list of the only eight catchers (by my count) who wore the tools of ignorance that many times in three or more different seasons: (5 times) Jim Sundberg, Jason Kendall; (4) Randy Hundley, Gary Carter; and (3) Yogi Berra, Bob Boone, Jody Davis and Tony Pena.  Needless to say, most of these seasons happened early in these catchers’ careers.

My point, I guess, is that there are a lot of retired catchers who caught a whole of games in their major league (and professional) careers who are reaching the age when we should start to hear more about CTE in former major league catchers.