Archive for the ‘Atlanta Braves’ category

MLB’s Race Problem

August 2, 2018

I read this article today by Jeff Pearlman, which captures some of the feelings I have about the recent news of Josh Hader‘s, Trea Turner‘s and Sean Newcomb‘s high school homophobic and/or racist tweets.  Baseball has become primarily a white pastime in the U.S., and the revelations about Hader, Turner and Newcomb, and now possibly Sonny Gray, certainly isn’t going to convince many Americans of color that baseball is still their game too.

Sure, all of Hader, Turner and Newcomb were young and dumb when they posted their offensive tweets, but the age thing cuts both ways.  None of the three of them is over the age of 25, so they’re part of a generation that really should know better and be more tolerant of diversity.

Pearlman claims that major league club houses are “almost without fail” segregated in racial or ethnic groups, with white players hanging out with whites, Latinos with Latinos, and Asians with Asians.  Pearlman would certainly know better than I, as I have never been inside a major league clubhouse except by virtue of television.

If baseball really is becoming a whites-only sport among young domestic players and the fan base which pays the freight, which has been reported for some time, then MLB is in trouble.  Maybe not as much trouble as football with its brain injury crisis, but big trouble nonetheless.

Growth rates among non-hispanic white Americans is slowing down toward zero, with something like 26 states now reporting more deaths than births among non-hispanic whites.  There also aren’t a whole lot of Europeans looking to immigrate to the U.S. like their once were, as most poorer Eastern Europeans would prefer to emigrate to or within the E.U.

Little or no growth in the fan base means little or no long-term growth for MLB.  I noticed yesterday that the Miami Marlins are averaging only 9,800 fans a game in attendance this year.  Miami is large metro area with plenty of wealth and with a large Latino population with ancestry mostly from countries where baseball is extremely popular.  Yet the Marlins can’t draw flies.

Some of the Marlins’ attendance problems have to do with a terrible team and a history of unpopular owners.  However, it also seems like greater Miami has decided it can take or leave major league baseball.

In that vein, MLB isn’t helping itself in terms of maximizing fan bases and revenues.  The power plays of the wealthy teams in New York and Los Angeles and the San Francisco Giants, which are preventing third teams from playing in the Inland Empire, northern New Jersey or the A’s from moving to San Jose, is just pure stupidity in the long term.  Major league teams need to be playing where the fans are and will be in the future, particularly if MLB’s national fan base isn’t expanding at the same rate as the other major American team sports.

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The 10 Best Major League Players Who Started Their Pro Careers in the Independent-A Leagues

July 31, 2018

I’ve been following the Independent-A Leagues closely the last few years, and I recently wondered who the best major league players were who started their pro careers in an Indy-A League.  I couldn’t find a decent list, so I decided I’d make one.

One of the things I learned in compiling this list is just how incredibly difficult it is to have a major league career amounting to more than a couple of brief cups of coffee for players who don’t start their professional careers in the MLB-system.  MLB hoovers up just about every player with any shot of ever having a major league career that anyone besides the players themselves would typically remember.  Only a tiny number of players gets overlooked.

That said, it is within the realm of possibility that a player can start his pro career in an Indy-A league and still amount to a successful major league player.  That’s what keeps the dream alive.

Without further ado, here’s the list of the 11 best major league players who started their pro careers in an independent-A league.  Be sure to let me know if I’ve missed anyone who should be included.

1.  J.D. Drew.  J.D. Drew is really an Independent-A league ringer.  He was drafted with the second overall pick of the 1997 Draft by the Phillies.  Before the Draft, Drew and his agent Scott Boras let if be known that Drew was demanding a $10 million signing bonus.  The Phillies called Drew’s bluff, drafted him and offered him $2.6M.

Drew wasn’t bluffing.  When the Phillies refused to come up significantly from their initial offer, Drew refused to sign.  Instead, he spent parts of two seasons thumping the ball for the St. Paul Saints of the Northern League (now the American Association).

I haven’t always been a fan of Boras inspired holdouts, but it sure worked for Drew.  The Cardinals drafted Drew with the 5th overall pick in 1998 and signed him for $7 million.  Refusing to sign in 1997 did not significantly delay Drew’s career, as the Cardinals gave him a cup of coffee at the end of the 1998 season, and he was in the majors for good (except for injury rehab assignments) by 1999.

Drew would not be the last early round draft pick to elect to start his career in the Indy-A’s when he couldn’t reach an agreement with his drafting team, as you will see below.  A couple of Cuban defectors, Ariel Prieto and Eddy Oropesa, used the Indy-A Leagues as a means to boost their draft stock — one can argue whether Cuba’s Serie Nacional is an amateur or pro league, but it is effectively amateur in name only, since the players are essentially professionals who are compensated for their performance, although perhaps not in cash.

2.  Kevin Millar.  Millar is in my opinion the best undrafted, unsigned player independent-A league product in major league history.  Every year, many undrafted players are nevertheless signed by major league organizations.  As I understand it, each major league team makes a list shortly before Draft Day of the 500 or 600 players who the team believes are the best amatuer players available.  Each team’s scouts and front offices grade the nation of prospects differently, and every team has at least a few players who aren’t on any other team’s list.  If any of those players go undrafted, then the team that had the player listed will typically sign them up.

Playing for small college Lamar in Texas, Millar went undrafted and unsigned, and thus started his pro career at age 21 with the St. Paul Saints in 1993, the Northern League’s maiden season.  Millar never made an All-Star team or received an MVP vote, but he was a star on the 2004 Boston Red Sox team that won the franchise’s first World Series in 86 years.  Millar was also never allowed to join the MLB Players’ Association, because he crossed the picket line during the 1994-1995 strike.

3-5.  George Sherrill, Joe Thatcher and Kerry Ligtenberg.  A trio of relief pitchers who all pitched in between 386 and 442 major league games.  George Sherrill was the Orioles’ closer in 2008 and the first four months of 2009 before being traded to the Dodgers.  He finished his career with a 3.77 ERA, 56 saves and 320 Ks in 324.1 IP.  He started his pro career with Evansville of the Frontier League in 1999.

Joe Thatcher had a nine year career as a left-handed relief specialist.  He was effective in the role, finishing his major league career with a 3.38 ERA and striking out 270 batters in 260.2 innings pitched.  Thatcher began his pro career with River City in the Frontier League in 2004.

Kerry Ligtenberg was the Braves’ closer in 1998 before hurting his arm.  He came back from it, but never pitched as well as he did in 1998.  He finished his major league career with a 3.82 ERA and 357 Ks in 390.2 IP.  He started his pro career in the short-lived North Central and Prairie Leagues in 1994 and 1995.

6.  David Peralta.∗  David Peralta gets an asterisk because he started his professional career as an 18 year old pitcher in the Cardinals’ organization.  He pitched ineffectively for two seasons in the Rookie Appalachian League and was unceremoniously dumped.  He came back four years later as a 23 year old outfielder for the Rio Grand Valley WhiteWings of the short-lived North American Baseball League, and gradually worked his way up the majors three years later in 2014.  He’s still active and having a solid season at age 30, so he could well move up this list in the future.

7.  Aaron Crow.  Another high first round draft pick who refused to sign a contract with the Nationals, Crow made four appearances (three starts) with the Ft. Worth Cats of the American Association in 2008 and 2009 in order to prove he was still worth a high 1st round draft pick by the Royals in 2009.

Crow had four strong seasons as a set-up man in the Royals bullpen from 2011-2014 before his arm gave out.  He compiled a 3.43 career major league ERA and struct out 208 batters in 233.2 IP while recording six saves.

Crow is attempting a comeback in the Mexican League this summer at age 31.  While he is pitching effectively (2.33 ERA in 19 relief appearances so far), his peripheral numbers don’t suggest he’ll make it back to the majors in the near future.

8.  Daniel Nava.  Nava started his professional career at the advanced age of 24 with the Chico Outlaws of the long since defunct Golden Baseball League.  He hit a grand slam in his first major league game in 2010 (as I recall, the outfielder may have actually tipped the ball over the wall with the end of his glove), and he was a star for the 2013 World Champion Red Sox when he slashed .303/.385/.445 as an every day outfielder who split his time between right field and left field.

Nava has managed to play parts of seven major league seasons, and at age 35 he’s still listed as part of the Pirates’ AAA team, although he has yet to play a game this season because of injury.

9.  Jeff Zimmerman.  Zimmerman finished his three year major league career as the closer for the Rangers before injuries, including two Tommy John surgeries, ruined his career.  He started with the Winnipeg Goldeyes of the Northern League in 1997.

10T.  Matt Miller and Chris Coste.  Miller was a relief pitcher who pitched in an even 100 major league games with a career 2.72 ERA with 95 Ks in 106 IP.  He was a 31 year old rookie for the Rockies in 2003, but enjoyed most of his major league success starting with the Indians in 2004.  His professional career began with Greenville of the short-lived Big South League in 1996.

Chris Coste was the Phillies’ primary back-up catcher for four seasons starting with his age 33 season in 2006.  He began his pro career in the North Central and Prairie Leagues in 1995 and then spent four seasons with his home town Fargo-Moorehead Red Hawks of the Northern League before being signed by the Indians’ organization.  The North Central and Prairie Leagues may not have lasted long, but in Coste and Kerry Ligtenberg, these leagues gave first shots to two young Minnesota ballplayers who eventually made the big time and proved they belonged there.

Other players who had more than brief major league cups of coffee who began their pro careers in the independent A leagues are Chris Colabello, Brian Tollberg, James Hoyt, Chris Jakubauskas, Scott Richmond, Brian Sweeney, Chris Martin, Trevor Richards and Bobby Hill.  Hoyt, Martin and Richards are all still active and have at least a reasonable shot at adding to their career major league numbers.

Bobby Hill was drafted in the second round in consecutive seasons and presumably started his career in the Atlantic League in 2000 because he refused to sign after the White Sox drafted him the year before.  Scott Richmond started his professional career in the Northern League in 2005 at the age of 25, which makes him the oldest rookie professional baseball player I found to eventually make the majors after starting in the Indy-A leagues (MLB organizations never or almost never sign any amateur over the age of 23).

Two More 1st Round Draft Picks Fail to Sign

July 7, 2018

Two more First Round Draft picks failed to get signed and will instead by pitching in college next year.  The Atlanta Braves failed to sign 8th overall pick Carter Stewart, and the Arizona Diamondbacks failed to sign 25th overall pick Matt McLain.  Add to those two, the Pittsburgh Pirates failed to sign 36th overall pick Gunnar Hogland.  For what it’s worth, all three unsigned 1st rounders and Hogland are high school right handed pitchers.

The 8th overall pick came with a $4.9807M slot value, but medical tests after Stewart was selected raised issues for the Brave, and according to MLB.com’s Jim Callis, the Braves’ final offer came “a lot closer” to the 40% of the slot amount ($1.992M+) the Braves had to offer to get the 9th overall pick in 2019 than the full slot amount.

Assuming that the Braves offered something around $2.5M, Stewart should have signed, but I can at least understand why he elected to attend Mississippi State with J.T. Ginn, the Dodgers’ unsigned first round selection.  It has to be disappointing to be selected this high and not receive an offer close to the slot amount when you have the leverage of being able to elect college.

On the other hand, the D’backs are reported to have offered McLain the full $2.6364M slot amount even though none of Baseball America, MLB.com, ESPN, or fangraphs had him ranked in the top 50 of this year’s prospects.  McLain should have took the money.

Hoglund is another prospect who didn’t make any of the major raters’ top 50 (fangraphs had him at 55th), but didn’t sign.  However, mlbtraderumors.com doesn’t report any rumors as to what the Pirates offered him.

The four unsigned prospects is probably a single season Draft record.  Factors that may be contributing to the failed signings is that a four scholarship at a major university is now worth $200,000+.  College players at major programs get to be campus heroes and probably receive all kinds of perqs like personal tutors.  College athletes also make all kinds of connections that can help them in business after their playing careers are over.

Another factor is that MLB teams have shown that top pitching prospects can blow out their elbow tendons and still be first round draft picks.  Brady Aiken and Jeff Hoffman are two recent prospects who were drafted in the 1st round after having Tommy John surgery.  (It’s worth noting, though, that neither Aiken or Hoffman has done much yet to justify their high draft positions.)  That makes it a lot less risky for high school pitchers to elect to go to college rather than accept a $2M+ signing bonus to start their professional careers.

Today Was a Big Day for the Atlanta Braves’ Future

April 27, 2018

In his second major league game, 20 year old Ronald Acuna hit a home run and a double.  21 year old Ozzie Albies also hit a home run and a double.  The tender-aged pair combined for five RBIs in a 7-4 victory.

Meanwhile, 24 year old lefty and former 1st round pick Sean Newcomb threw six innings.

Obviously, these are the guys who Braves’ fans have their hopes on as the team tries to become a perennial contender again.  You definitely hope to build your team around 1st round draft picks and youngsters good enough to start their major league careers at the age of 20.  Braves fans should have fun watching these likely future superstars develop.  There’s nothing like hope.

 

Arenado Charges Perdomo

April 12, 2018

Nolan Arenado charged Luis Perdomo today after Luis threw a fastball behind Nolan’s back.  Then, it wasn’t just young men enjoying a game of baseball anymore.

I don’t know if I’ve gotten meaner as I get older, I have no problem with Arenado going after Perdomo.  Perhaps I always felt this way.  I still think Arenado should get the standard suspension, but Perdomo has to know there are consequences for throwing a high pitch Arenado had to think was intended to hit him.

Perdomo wimpily threw his mitt and was able to mostly toreador Arenado’s first assault.  Arenado went after Perdomo again and caught him, but only just as the scrum collapsed upon them.  I hope Perdomo gets at least a five-game suspension, for whatever Arenado ends up getting.

A not-too-long suspension and Arenado and the Rockies may have no regrets.  Arenado has just sent a message throughout MLB that he won’t tolerate pitches like that above the waste.

With Arenado as the team’s best player, if I were a Rockies fan, I’d be glad Arenado went after him.  It might fire up the team, and Arenado needs to protect himself.

That reminds me of a Giants’ story.  Mike Krukow was one of the team’s enforcers when it came to not letting the other team get away with anything.  In this game, I think it was this one,  Krukow plunked Braves pitcher Kevin Coffman after the young and wild Coffman threw too many pitches at or behind Giants’ hitters.

Coffman wasn’t trying to hit the batters, and he didn’t actually any of them, his pitches looked like attempted curveballs that didn’t break.  It was probably Duane Kuiper, who was already doing TV announcing in 1988, who suggested that Krukow’s pitch, which hit Coffman squarely in the center of the back and looked like it hurt based on location and the way Coffman winced even though it didn’t look like Krukow threw it as hard as he could, was intended as a message that the young Braves pitcher find his command around the Giants hitters.

It made sense to me at the time.  However, if I have the right game, Coffman went on to score in a game the Giants ended up losing 5-4.

I also remember Krukow getting hurt later against the Cardinals when leading the charge in one of these situations, inside the eye of the scrum as I recall it.  It might have been a leg injury, like a thigh bruise, but I seem to remember him losing time because of the injury.  I can’t find the game, so maybe I’m mis-remembering it.

A lot less entertaining to watch than the Arenado Show was Jordan Zimmerman getting hit in the face with a line-drive off that bat of Jason Kipnes.  It was scorched, and Zimmerman couldn’t get up his glove hand in time.  Zimmerman was down for awhile but it looks like he escaped major injury.  He reportedly has a bruised, not broken, jaw, and passed the concussion protocol tests.

It serves to remind you that baseball players do risk something when they go out on the field.  That’s part of the reason they get the big money.

Modern Day Pitching Masterpieces

April 10, 2018

In today’s game where pitch counts rule, particularly in the first half of April, it’s worth noting just how well Max Scherzer and Corey Kluber both pitched today.

Kluber pitched eight shutout innings in the Indians’ 2-0 victory over the Tigers.  He struck out 13 while throwing only 103 pitches.  He allowed only two singles and a walk.

Scherzer pitched even better, allowing only two singles while striking out ten on a 102-pitch, complete game 2-0 shutout over the Braves.

In today’s Moneyball game, no-hitters don’t have the same value they once did.  Or at least, teams are increasingly unwilling to let pitchers try to complete no-hitters once they’ve thrown more than 120 pitches.

This change is beyond merely the internal workings of each team’s statistics department.  I saw a headline yesterday about how Shohei Ohtani “almost” pitched a perfect game, when in fact he came out after the seventh inning.  Even the sportswriters tacitly accept that losing a perfect game in the 7th is now roughly equal to what losing a perfect game in the 9th inning was a generation ago.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing if it does, in fact, cut down on pitcher injuries.  It’s hard to prove smaller workloads for starters mean fewer injuries because injuries still happen constantly.  Major league pitchers can’t afford to ever throw anything except their best pitches, although a pitcher with stuff like Ohtani’,along with confidence and pitching smarts, can realize he doesn’t need to throw his best fastball until he needs it for the strikeout pitch.  If your best fastball is 92 mph or lower in today’s game, you can’t afford to throw ’em much lower than that ever.

What makes Kluber’s and Scherzer’s performances so impressive is that it is damn hard to strike out double-digit hitters in eight or nine innings while still throwing fewer than 105 pitches.  Getting a strikeout on fewer than five pitches is a relatively rare thing for almost all major league pitchers.

In today’s game, pitching eight full innings or more is a rarity since it almost always has to be done on fewer than 120 pitches. Pitching eight full innings today is probably more valuable than pitching a complete game in the 1970’s, because it happens less often.  With bullpens working so much harder today than two generations ago, an eight or more inning performance has more value to a team than it’s ever had.

I think most people would regard Kluber and Scherzer at this moment as among MLB’s five best starters.  Tonight’s performances suggest that in the context of today’s game, they’re as good as any top five starters at any time in MLB history.

 

Taiwan’s CPBL Is the Lowest Major League

April 5, 2018

My interest in Taiwan’s CPBL has grown over about the last five years.  Part of the reason is that in the world-wide baseball scene, the CPBL is the lowest major league.

The CPBL fills a space between obvious minor leagues like the Mexican (Summer) League, the Caribbean Winter Leagues, and the European Leagues (Holland and Italy), the next lowest (and I would consider obvious) major league, South Korea’s KBO.

Players can possibly make as much as $15,000 to $17,000 a month for a two or two-and-a-half month Winter League season in Puerto Rico, Mexico or the Dominican Republic; and rumors say the best players on the wealthiest three or four teams in the summer Mexican League make considerably more than the approximately $8000.00 official monthly salary cap for a 4.5 month season.  This all means the very best Mexican League players are making $90,000 or $100,000 in salary and benefits, if they are also playing during the winter.

The best paid player in the CPBL in 2017 made $497,000 as part of a three year deal with at least 17 other players making between $200,000 and $310,000, according to CPBL English and my reasonable estimate of Mike Loree’s 2017 salary.  There’s going to be a jump in league performance where the salaries are relatively that much higher.

The CPBL has a minor league, and the major league is only a small 4-team league in a country of more than 23.5 million where baseball is highly popular due to the Japanese occupation.  The best Taiwanese players at 18 (and even earlier — Dai-Kang Yang, aka Daikan Yoh played some high school ball in Japan and thus is not treated as a foreigner for NPB’s roster limits — he signed a four to six year contract for somewhere between 1.0 billion yen and 1.8 billion yen [$9.44M to $17M] in the pre-2017 off-season — Japanese teams don’t publish actual salary numbers so the media sources make educated guesses) get sucked up by MLB and Japan’s NPB.

However, MLB in particular produces a fair number of Taiwanese players who peak at the AA or AAA level and then return to Taiwan and become CPBL stars.  CPBL teams also are able to sign players who don’t become top prospects until later in their college careers, because MLB and NPB teams prefer signing youngsters.

Wang Po-Jung is the best hitter in the CPBL, and he was drafted out of a Taiwanese University (the Chinese Culture University in Taipei).  In his first two seasons, he batted .414 as a rookie and .407 as a sophomore, his age 22 and 23 seasons.  It’s a hitters’ league, but even so back-to-back .400+ seasons are impressive.

Wang is batting .452 this season after eight games, and I would put the odds at 80% (at least 10 of the remaining 20% is for possible injury) that Wang will be playing in NPB next season, because CPBL teams only maintain rights for their best domestic players for three seasons.  The jump to MLB is too great, given the difference between the CPBL and the MLB majors, but Wang would probably be very appealing to an NPB team on a two year deal that would guarantee him around $1.0M to $1.2M.  That’s a relative bargain for a top foreign player in NPB, but it’s probably more than a CPBL team would offer, aside from the fact that strong NPB performance would bring much larger NPB salaries or a chance to jump to MLB for his age 27 season.

The first player who got me interested in the CPBL was probably league ace Mike Loree.  I noticed him when he had a huge season in the Indy-A Atlantic League in 2011, which got him some late season time at the Pirates’ AA franchise in Altoona.  Loree made four appearances in which he pitched a total of 7.2 innings and allowed six hits and three walks while striking out 11.

That fine performance didn’t get Loree a return engagement in 2012 because he was already 26 (baseball reference has the wrong date of birth) and his fastball tops out at 89 mph.

Loree can locate his fastball, and he has a terrific forkball which burrows into home plate.  In the CPBL starting in 2013, he quickly established himself as the circuit’s best pitcher.  Even in a league in which every team plays every other team in the league 30 times a season and he’s entering his fifth full season, CPBL hitters still can’t pick up the change of speed consistently out of Loree’s hand.  Loree also commands a tight slider, which gives him a different look and speed from the fastball and his change-up forkball.  I’ve followed Mike Loree‘s mostly CPBL career ever since.

2013 was also the year Manny Ramirez played half a season in the CPBL.  Ramirez’s performance and status as an MLB superstar got the CPBL a huge boost in attendance and an international attention it hadn’t had before.  Another CPBL team then paid former long-time MLBer Freddy Garcia a then record of nearly $400,000 to pitch for them in 2014.  Garcia was very good but not dominating, which says something for the quality of play in the CPBL, given that Garcia had pitched creditably in the MLB majors the year before (4.37 ERA and 4.48 run average in 17 games and 13 starts for the 2013 Orioles and Braves at the end of long 156-108 major league career).

Garcia didn’t boost CPBL attendance the way ManRam had, and he wasn’t brought back in 2015.  However, that year another of my favorite obscure players, Pat Misch, pitched a no-hitter in Game 7 of the Taiwan Series.

Misch was a former 7th round draft pick by the SF Giants in 2003, after being a 5th round draft pick by the Astros the year before.  Nevertheless, he always struck me as a pitcher who took a lack of major league stuff as far as he possibly could because of his ability to pitch, not unlike Mike Loree.  If I had had to pick a former major league pitcher to throw a no-hitter in the Taiwan Series, Pat Misch certainly seems like an obvious candidate in terms of his past major league career, continued reasonably success at AAA, yet at a price a CPBL team could afford.

What is standing in the way of the CPBL becoming a better league by holding on to its top domestic talent and attracting better foreign pitchers for the three available team roster spots for foreigners, is unimpressive attendance except during the post-season.  CPBL’s four teams only averaged just over 5,500 per regular season game in 2017, although post-season attendance can reach 19,000 per game in the league’s biggest ballpark.

Attendance isn’t better because of a couple of past gambling scandals in the league’s 29 season history, and probably the fact that most of the best Taiwanese players are playing in Japan, the U.S. and now South Korea (the KBO’s NC Dinos signed the league’s first Taiwanese player, former MLBer Wang Wei-Chung, this past off-season — he’s off to a quick 2-0 start).

I think the CPBL needs and Taiwan could potentially support two more teams, but the league currently has no plans to expand.  A strong performance or two by the Taiwanese team in future World Baseball Classics is probably what the league needs to move up the next level in attendance, at least to the point where it could begin to compete with KBO teams for foreign pitchers.