Archive for the ‘Baseball Abroad’ category

Shohei Otani Beating the Shifts

May 5, 2018

One thing that has really impressed me in the last couple of games is Shohei Otani very clearly attempting to hit ’em where they ain’t by hitting the ball to left field.  Here’s video of the first double a couple of days ago, a ball that was hard hit but was playable with the 3Bman playing where he would a right-handed batter, but instead went unmolested down the line for a stand-up double with Ohtani running at only 70%.  You can see video of Otani hitting another double to left field in last night’s game for the next day or two.

If Otani can force defenses to play him straight away, I don’t see any reason why he can’t be a .300 hitter in the major leagues on a semi-regular basis.  Otani is likely to experience swings based on the fact that he will be a part-time hitter and part-time pitcher for as long as Otani wants to keep doing both.

If the hitting we’ve seen from Otani so far is for real, it’s still within the realm of possibility that he could end up as the Angel’s everyday right fielder.

Otani would not be the first great two-way player.  Jack Bentley for the New York Giants and the early 1920’s Baltimore Orioles, the last minor league team almost certainly better than the worst major league teams.

Bentley played 1B and pitched a full season of games for the Orioles for three seasons, and then pitched and pinch hit (at least 39 times) for the World Series losing 1923 and 1924 Giants.  He was probably one of the best players you’ve never heard of.

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Tetsuto Yamada May Be Back

May 4, 2018

27 games into the NPB season Tetsuto Yamada, after a slow start, is slashing .282/.413/.603.  That’s comparable to his 2015-2016 seasons, and a blame sight better than 2017, when he played in all 143 of the Yakult Swallows’ games, but he slashed a brutal (for him and his future MLB prospects) .247/.364/.435.

I suspect that Yamada hurt himself late in the 2016 season and was still healing from it in 2017, even though the team felt it had to play him every day and he apparently didn’t ask for time off.  Maybe he’s fully healed this year, and he’s back on track while still only 25 this season.

If he’s all the way back, he’s NPB’s best hitting prospect for MLB now that Shohei Otani is in Anaheim.  He’s got another year or two of service with the small market Yakult Swallows after this season, but the Swallows will almost certainly post him once his seven full seasons are recorded.

Hideto Asamura is also off to a start that is his best start since his terrific age 22 season in 2013.  He’s slashing .304/..358/.536.

Asamura played mostly 1B in 2013, and the Seibu Lions moved him to 2B next year.  Presumably, he has had to spend more training in the field and less taking batting practice.  Still, he’s young, and he plays for a small market team, so if his 2B defense is major league adequate, he could provide some value to a small market MLB team.

Yoshihiro Maru and Yuki Yanigita are off to terrific starts, but they won’t be so young when they become available to MLB.  Yoshitomo Tsutsugo isn’t off to the kind of start that you want to see for potentially aspiring MLBers.  It’s early in the season, though, and Tsutsugo isn’t far off his mark at .233/.345/.478, so if he heats up with the Japanese summer, he could still be worth considering.

Ichiro Is Done

May 4, 2018

Ichiro retired into the Mariners’ front office where he will presumably work to bring more elite Japanese players to Seattle.  He finishes at age 44 with 3,089 hits, after all those hits in Japan.

Suzuki may the last of the hitters in the Paul Waner, Rod Carew, Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn line, the pure hitters.  Power’s too important in today’s game, perhaps unless Japan can produce another Ichiro, or at least another better than Nori Aoki. the poor man’s Ichiro.

If it’s a style that all but gone, Ichiro brought a talent set to MLB that will be missed if we don’t soon see it again.

Dice-K Sighting

May 3, 2018

Diasuke Matsuzaka won his first NPB game since 2006 two days ago.  It was a long time in coming, as he’s been out of MLB since 2014. Matsuzaka has been trying to re-start his Japanese career ever since, but arm problems limited him to a total of 15 games pitched at various levels from 2015 through 2017.

Matsuzaka seems to be healthy this year, but he’s now 37 years old and his command doesn’t appear to be back to where it once was.  Given how much he’s accomplished in his professional career and how much money he’s made, it’s a testament to his desire to keep pitching that he’s kept at it through what must have been three very long and difficult seasons when he couldn’t get or stay healthy.

He hit 91 mph on the radar gun on April 30th and threw 114 pitches over six innings, which is lot for a pitcher of his age and injury history.  It certainly remains to be seen if can put in one final strong season before he elects or is forced to call it quits once and for all.

Knuckleheads

April 28, 2018

One thing every baseball blogger needs is something to get exercised about.  Knucklehead ballplayers are a great source for vituperative writing.

For that reason, I kind of miss the end of the professional careers of Milton Bradley and Sidney Ponson.  They provided countless opportunities for my digital venting.

Now, if a player is kind of a jerk, but really, really good, everyone in the baseball world kind of puts up with him, at least so long as he remains at the top his game.  Think Barry Bonds.  But the moment the player begins to slip, then everyone is quick to jump in and get their digs.

With that in mind, I’ve kept my eyes open for a knucklehead worthy of Bradley and Ponson.  Some players are just so bad, they’re disgusting and quickly out of the game like Aaron Hernandez.  Other promising contenders like Matt Bush end up (apparently) learning something and turning their lives around .

What you need is a guy who is just bad enough that he hangs around so you can be righteously indignant every time a team that should know better signs him anyway.

A guy I’ve got my eye on is former marginal MLB pitcher Josh Lueke (pronounced like loogie with a k).  You may or may not remember Lueke for an incident that happened back in 2010 when he was a throw-in prospect who went to the Mariners in the deal that sent Cliff Lee to the Rangers.

The Mariners at the time were taking a leading role in MLB in speaking out against violence against women.  However, the Mariners traded for Lueke, who had spent most of the previous summer in the Bakersfield, California jail after being accused of sexually assaulting a young woman he brought home from a bar, which even a cursory internet search would have revealed (which I well know: I was one of the first to report Lueke’s legal problem which I had discovered through a cursory internet search when the trade was announced).  The allegations were pretty disgusting, but there was a lot of alcohol involved, and ultimately Lueke got off relatively easy in all respects except for his reputation.

The M’s understandably caught a lot of flack for the move, and they eventually traded him off to Tampa Bay, although not until after he had gotten lit up for a 6.06 ERA in 25 major league relief appearances for them in 2011.  Lueke has a major league arm, but after unsuccessful major league stints with the Rays in each of 2012 through 2014, he ended up in the Mexican League in 2015, presumably because at age 30, he was no longer worth the baggage that came with him.

Lueke not surprisingly had a big year in the Mexican League — he’s got a major league arm — and was signed by the Yakult Swallows in 2016 for an estimated $330,000.  He had a good year, posting a 3.06 ERA and 60 Ks in 64.2 relief innings pitched, and the Swallows brought him back in 2017 for an estimated $687,000, a hefty raise and MLB money anyway you slice it.

Lueke was even better in 2017, recording a 2.97 ERA, 22 holds and seven saves, while striking out 70 in only 60.2 innings pitched.  Lueke had made a success of himself in a league that would pay him major league money and where few likely knew much if anything about his past.

Alas, the knucklehead in him struck again.  The Swallows are a small-market NPB team, and apparently their offer for the 2018 season wasn’t to Lueke’s liking, because he skipped a team practice on October 2, 2017, the day before the Swallows’ last game in a season in which they finished dead last 29.5 games out of the play-offs (team practices in these circumstances are not usual in NPB — it’s a Japanese thing — fighting spirit and all that).  The Swallows suspended him for the last game, didn’t bring him back in 2018 and no other NPB team did either.

As an American (and a knucklehead), you can’t necessarily expect Lueke to understand how important it is in Japanese baseball for players to show respect and for the team to save face.  Still, that’s usually one the first things players from the Americas are told by the foreigners already there, and Lueke had been in the league two seasons.

Anyway, in 2018, Lueke is back in the Mexican League as the league’s best closer.  Now aged 33, MLB teams apparently decided he was too old for his baggage to offer him a minor league no matter how well he had pitched in NPB the year before.

So, Lueke has apparently worn out his welcome in both MLB and NPB, and he’s presumably making somewhere between $8,000 (the official league cap) and $15,000 (more likely if the rumors are to be believed) a month to pitch in Mexico, but in any event far, far less than the $800K or $900K the Swallows almost certainly would have been willing to pay him if he hadn’t stepped on his dick.

If, in fact, no NPB team can or will bring Lueke back to Japan, then his opportunities for better future pay-days are extremely limited.  KBO and CPBL teams only sign starting pitchers, and Lueke hasn’t started a game in his professional career.  A relief pitcher of Lueke’s abilities who wears out his welcome in both MLB and NPB is certainly a worthy candidate for Knucklehead of the moment.

Lee Dae-ho Elects to Rest on His Laurels

April 13, 2018

AKA Dae-Ho Lee is looking like a guy who has finally decided to just stop fighting it.

After signing a record 4-year $12.9 million KBO deal and giving the Lotte Giants one fine season in 2017, it sure looks like Lee has decided there’s no point for the Big Boy to fight the Pig Tiger anymore, with an emphasis on the former animal.  The photo reminds me of Japhet Amador  in the Mexican League, only older and more beer gut, and I’m certainly old enough to know.

After an O.K. start this season in the first half dozen games, Lee’s current .623 OPS after 16 games and conditioning suggest that in his age 36 season, he’s going to enjoy his time until the weight catches up with him and he gets hurt.

When it was a question of him establishing himself as a World Class player entitled to World Class salaries, Lee was willing to work on the conditioning.  Five years can be a long time in a baseball career, and now Lee is through pushing himself away from the dinner table.  Hell, he’s got nearly three full years left on his guaranteed contract.

For a massive 1B/DH type, he’s put in plenty through age 35.  I’m kind of surprised he lasted this long.

Is It Too Soon to Call Shohei Ohtani the Best Hitting Pitcher in Major League Baseball?

April 11, 2018

Every year just before or just after the regular season starts I write a post of the best hitting pitchers in MLB.  These articles are some of the most popular I’ve written, so I do it pretty religiously every year until now.

This year, I don’t know what to do about Shohei Ohtani.  He’s hit home runs in three consecutive games, including one that traveled nearly 450 feet, but he has had only 19 major league plate appearances.

I have generally tried to limit my list to pitchers with at least 100 major league at-bats in order to weed out great one-season fluke performances.  But no one has come along like Ohtani in several generations, a true two-way player who can’t really be compared with anyone I’ve seen play in MLB since I became a fan in 1978.

Ohtani also has an established track record in Japan’s major leagues.  How much credit do you give him for that?  On a scale from 1 to 10 with the MLB AAA a 1 and the MLB majors, I would rank NPB’s majors as a 4.  NPB is a good league, but it’s not the MLB majors.

There is no doubt even with a limited sample size that Ohtani is an elite MLB rookie prospect on both sides of the ball.  It still remains to be seen on the hitting side how quickly he will adjust once MLB pitchers, scouts and analytics guys find the holes in his swing.  (As a pitching prospect, Ohtani has a less of a problem — unfamiliarity is a pitcher’s friend, and as long as he can continue to command his pitches, it could well be 2019 before major league hitters figure out how to attack his exceptional stuff.)

As such, I’m going to hold off on my annual article until I feel more confident that Ohtani’s performance is for real.  With Ohtani DHing three times a week, that shouldn’t be too long.

The thing that excites me even more than Ohtani’s exceptional MLB performance so far, is that his breakthrough has the possibility of effecting a paradygm shift in MLB.

For the last generation at least, MLB teams have a made a decision when they draft or sign an amateur player that they will develop that player either as a hitter/position player or as a pitcher.  Most of the time MLB teams make the right decision, but once in a while you get a two-way player on whom the team makes the wrong decision.

For example, I think the odds are high in hindsight that Micah Owings would have had a more successful major league career if the DiamondBacks had elected to develop him as a hitter, rather than as a pitcher.  Owings was a real prospect on both sides of the ball out of college, but under the old regime, the D’Backs made a decision that he was going to be a pitcher and stuck with it until he hurt his arm and couldn’t be a pitcher any longer.

With early first round 2017 picks Brendan McKay and Hunter Greene, the Rays and Reds have made at least some effort to develop them as two-way players, at least while they are still in the low minors.  I strongly suspect that Shohei’s performance in Japan had something to do with decisions to try to so develop McKay and Greene at least a little bit as two-way players, because everyone in MLB knew well by the time of the 2017 amateur draft what Ohtani was doing in Japan at a level of play too high to be an aberration.

Obviously, there won’t be a whole lot of players so good on both sides of the ball that MLB teams will try to develop them as two-way players.  However, there was always be a few top amateur prospects who can do everything on a baseball field.

In today’s game, two-players could be extremely valuable, at least enough to give these prospects a chance to try both in the low minors and see how it goes.  The American League has the DH, which is ideal for taking advantage of a two-way player, but the NL still needs pinch-hitters and there are fewer roster spots for them now that all teams are carrying more relief pitchers.

In 2003-2004, Brooks Kieschnick had some value as a relief pitcher/pinch hitter/emergency left-fielder for the Brewers. (Kieschnick had been developed as a hitter, and only turned to pitching when his MLB career as a position player didn’t pan out — he’d been an effective college pitcher but it wasn’t a close call when he was drafted as a hitter.) Why not give at least a few two-way prospects two-way training in the minors leagues to try to develop a more valuable major league player down the line?