Archive for the ‘Baseball Abroad’ category

Eric Thames’ Hot Start

April 27, 2017

I’m not entirely surprised by Eric Thames‘ hot 2017 start.  He really was good three years in a row in South Korea’s KBO, finishing 3rd, 1st and 2nd in OPS those years.

Thames obviously isn’t going to keep hitting in MLB better than he hit in the KBO.  The National League’s pitchers don’t have a book on Thames yet, and they’re finding out that even after three years in KBO, Thames can still hit MLB heat.  They will eventually figure out what they have to throw him and set him up for, and then it will be Thames’ turn to make adjustments.

In the video I’ve seen of Thames’ home runs so far this year his swing is very short, fast to the ball yet not rushed.  He’s strong enough he doesn’t need to wind up to generate bat speed.  It’s a very comfortable, confident swing.

Thames is being duly tested for PEDs, but he shows nothing but confidence about the results.  Obviously, PEDs could be a reason of Thames’ dramatic improvement.

However, Thames was younger and more talented than most of the players who head to East Asia for major league money.  He also went to an extreme hitters’ league that’s only a little better than AAA, which would be a great place for a hitter to develop confidence in his abilities.  It’s a lot easier to develop major league hitters in Denver than it is in either Seattle or San Diego.

Thames’ story is that while KBO pitchers don’t throw as hard, typically topping out at 91 or 92 mph, they throw a lot more breaking balls than MLB pitchers.  He says he had to become better at plate discipline than he’d been in America in order to lay off breaking balls out of the strike zone.

It certainly is apparent that after walking only 52 times in his 769 plate appearances in his major league seasons in 2012-2013 and 58 times in 514 plate appearances in his first KBO season, Thames has drawn 191 walks in 1,209 plate appearances since the start of the 2015 season.

Obviously, getting better at laying off bad pitches is a recipe for being able to put more good swings on the ball.  It also isn’t particularly unusual for a player with power to begin with to still be improving his power hitting through his age 30 season.

Thames has also said that he might not have made that improvement if he hadn’t made the jump to South Korea, stating words to the effect that if he’d stayed in the States, he might have not made the changes because it would have been easier to just keep doing what he had been doing.

I’d like to see more players in the future jump to Japan’s NPB or South Korea’s KBO and then back to MLB if they foreign performance merits it.  It is, in fact, becoming more common, although it’s also limited by the fact that the vast majority of the 4-A players who go to NPB or KBO simply aren’t going to blossom like an Eric Thames or Colby Lewis.

Hit This Sign Win 100 Million Yen

April 5, 2017

Chubu Nippon Broadcasting Company (CBC TV) has promised 100 million yen if any player hits their sign in the Nagoya Dome (home of the Chunichi Dragons).  Here are some images that give you an idea of the home run that needs to be struck to win the prize.  It will take a hell of a home run to hit the sign, but it looks doable with a lot of luck.

The 100 million yen ($900,000 at today’s rates) prize is split evenly between the player who hits the mammoth and well placed shot, and fifty viewers, who will each get 1M yen each ($9,000).  That somehow sounds very Japanese to me.

A $450,000 prize is more than 10% of what almost all of NPB’s sluggers make in a full season, so the incentive is certainly there, much as it was for all the MLB home run heroes of 1959 who appeared on the one and only season of Home Run Derby, back in the days when MLB salaries were still relatively low.

 

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 pitcher 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.

Will 2017 Be a Tough Year in South Korea’s KBO?

March 10, 2017

The South Korean team has already been eliminated from the World Baseball Classic.  They went 1-2 in the first round, beating Taiwan and losing to Israel and the Netherlands, both teams the South Korean squad was expected to best.

South Korean fans put a lot more stock in WBC performance than MLB fans do, and the KBO isn’t as developed as MLB or Japan’s NPB.  KBO attendance boomed when the South Korean team lost the final in 2009;and KBO attendance tanked after the team was knocked out in the first round (even though they went 2-1) in 2013.

KBO teams spent big this off-season, blowing away the old salary records, largely out of the belief that the national team would do well in the WBC this year and attendance would spike again in 2017.  This was an entirely reasonable assumption, because the KBO is getting better as a league every year.

As I like to say, anything can happen in a short series, but the KBO fan base isn’t quite developed enough to understand this or care.  KBO average attendance is between 12,000 and 13,000 a game, which is half that even of Japan’s NPB.  There is huge room for growth, but it still takes the national team making national news in a positive way to spur the casual fans to go to the ballpark more regularly.

Israel went 3-0 in the first round, a big surprise, although the Israeli team appears to be loaded with American players of some Jewish ancestry, including most notably Jason Marquis and of personal interest,one of my favorite minor league stars, Blake Gailen, who unfortunately hasn’t hit a lick in the first three games.

It’s no surprise to see that the Netherlands team made it to the second round, but it is surprising they lost to the Israeli team.  The team is loaded with players from Curicao at a time when the small Caribbean island has become a hot bed of professional baseball talent, including Andrelton Simmons, Jurickson Profar, Xander Bogaerts, Wladimir Balentien, Jonathan Schoop and Didi Gregorias.  That’s a line-up that will take the Dutch team as far as its pitching will hold up and then some.

The Oakland A’s Bargain Basement Sluggers, Part I

February 25, 2017

Earlier this off-season, ESPN’s David Schoenfeld wrote an article to the effect that older sluggers like Brandon Moss were having trouble finding contracts because teams were looking for the next Brandon Moss, i.e. minor league players past the age of 27 who could give a team a few productive seasons at a very low price.  At the time, I opined that the failure of these players to sign so far this off-season had more to the do with these players coming to terms with what teams were willing to pay them, rather than teams trying to find the next player of this type, because. as a practical matter, the next Brandon Moss isn’t so easy to find.

Ultimately, the St. Louis Cardinals gave Moss $12 million for two years, roughly ten times what the next Brandon Moss found now would cost his team in 2017 and 2018.

Schoenfeld’s article also drew attention from fangraphs, which wrote a piece on who would most likely be the next Brandon Moss in 2017.  Not surprisingly, about half of the players fangraphs identified will be playing in Japan or South Korea next year, because they are the kind of no-longer-prospects that NPB and KBO teams look for each off-season.

I still like 27 year old Jabari Blash, whose .914 OPS in 646 AAA at-bats suggests he’s a major league player, even if he hits .220 at the MLB level.  However, the Padres successfully passed him through waivers in January, so my opinion is apparently not shared by any of the other 29 major league teams.

Anyway, it’s all got me thinking about these kinds of players and the team, the Oakland A’s, that has made them famous.  What follows is a list of the players at least 28 years old the year they broke out in MLB, whom the A’s obtained for essentially peanuts in the last 25 years.

1.   Geronimo Berroa (28 years old in 1994; signed as free agent).  Berroa is the first of these players I remember the A’s finding.  He had three and a half terrific seasons for the A’s in which he hit 87 HRs with an on-base percentage well over .350, before the A’s traded him to the Baltimore Orioles.

2.  Matt Stairs (28 in 1996; free agent).  Stairs had one of the great major league careers for a player who didn’t have even 200 plate appearances in a season until his age 29 season.  In four and half seasons with the A’s, Stairs hit 122 HRs and posted the high on-base percentages the A’s were hoping for.

3.  Olmedo Saenz (28 in 1999; free agent).  Saenz was never an every day player in his four seasons with the A’s, but he was a valuable bench player who posted an OPS over .800 in three of his four seasons with the team and who could play 3B when needed.

4.  Marco Scutaro (28 in 2004; claimed off waivers from Mets).  Scutaro wasn’t a power hitter by any stretch of the imagination, but he was an older, undervalued minor league player whom the A’s acquired for peanuts.  He gave the A’s four strong seasons in what turned out to be a long and successful major league career.

5.  Jack Cust (28 in 2007; cash purchase from Padres).  Cust was perhaps my favorite player of the bunch, mostly because he was such an extreme example (at the time) of what the A’s recognized as an undervalued player.  Cust didn’t hit for average, and he struck out a hell of a lot; but in his four seasons with Oakland, he slugged 97 HRs and walked 377 times.  Only a decade later, this type of player is common in MLB, to the extent that teams can find them. There were so many one dimensional sluggers who had a hard time finding contracts mainly because none of them drew walks like Cust, Stairs or Berroa.

[I don’t know what the A’s paid the Padres to get Jack Cust, except that it was peanuts by MLB standards.]

6.  Brandon Moss (28 in 2012; free agent).  Moss is actually the least representative player on this list, as he played regularly, if unproductively, at the major league level in 2008 and 2009.  When he finally put it together for the A’s, he hit 76 HRs in three seasons, before the A’s traded Moss to the Indians.

7.  Stephen Vogt (28 in 2013; cash purchase from the Rays).  It’s somewhat difficult to know whether catchers count, since this is the non-pitching position at which players tend to develop at the latest age.  Even so, he was past the age 27 when the A’s acquired him, he’s hit 45 HRs in his four seasons with the A’s, and he likely cost the A’s peanuts to acquire.

Honorable Mention.  Frank Menechino (29 in 2000; selected from White Sox in minor league portion of Rule 5 Draft 12/97).  Menechino had only one season as an every day player for the A’s (2001), and he hit only .242.  However, he was a 2Bman with a little pop and a .369 OBP that year.  The A’s won 102 games in 2001, so one has to assume that Menechino had to have done something right.