Archive for the ‘Baseball History’ category

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?

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Lop-Sided Wins

April 8, 2018

As I write this the Phillies are beating up on the Marlins 20-1 in the late innings.  The game is being played in Philadelphia, and when I saw the box score, I was reminded of the quote attributed to famous Yankees’ owner and beer baron Col. Ruppert, who said that his favorite day at the ballpark was when the Yankees scored 10 runs in the first inning “and then slowly pulled away.”  Other internet sources state that Ruppert said either 8 runs or 5 runs in the first inning, but I first heard it as 10 runs and my own personal preference is for the 10 runs.

I’m sure any of you who are long-time baseball fans rooting for a specific team have attended at least a couple of total blow-outs by the home nine, and I, for one, always found these games extremely enjoyable.  There’s nothing like seeing all of your home-town heroes pound out one hit after another to the point of complete massacre. The high-drama games are great, but only if your team wins at the end.

It’s also fun when your pitcher is pitching well in these games.  He’s full of confidence, because, lord knows, he won’t give up ten runs, so the moundsman, if he’s worth his salt, pounds the zone and challenges the losers to hit it.  Even if they do, it’s always right at a fielder in these games.  That keeps the game moving along, even while the home team is busy running around the bases in their half of each inning.

As a Giants fan entering his 41st season of active fandom (I attended a game or two in 1977 and rooted for the Giants, because at that age I couldn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t root for the home team, but I didn’t really become a serious fan until 1978, when a Jack ClarkVida BlueBob Knepper team held first place into August), I have come to learn that 16-3 victories are typically followed by 3-2 losses.

For what it’s worth, two teams have scored ten runs in the first inning and gone on to lose the game.  On June 8, 1989, the Pirates put up ten runs in the first inning, but the Phillies put up crooked numbers in the bottom half of the first and four subsequent innings and won 15-11.  On August 23, 2006, the Royals scored 10 runs in the bottom of the first to go up 10-1, but the Indians scored in six of the following nine innings to pull out a 15-13 win.  I don’t think it’s happened again since 2006, but I didn’t look very hard.

Shohei Otani So Far

April 4, 2018

Here is an espn.com article on Shohei Otani that I really enjoyed reading (probably because it confirmed my existing prejudices).  The point is basically that Otani has to keep playing in the majors until he proves he isn’t ready.

He won his first start, he has his first major league hit, why wouldn’t you keep him? Otani has hit 100 mph in the games that count, and, Oh, he runs really well.

Learn those lessons at the major league level, baby!

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.

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.

Remaining Unsigned Free Agents Are Running Out of Time

March 3, 2018

With business closed on Friday, March 2nd as I write this, it’s safe to say that the remaining unsigned free agents this off-season are running out of time.  Veteran MLB players know how to get themselves in shape and don’t necessarily need six weeks of Spring Training.  Even so, MLB teams have now played between 6 and 9 Spring Training games each, and another week of missed games is reasonably likely to impact the performances of many of the remaining unsigned free agents in the 2018 regular season.

Add also the fact that at this point the vast majority of MLB teams have spent what they are willing to spend in 2018, at least unless a deal too good to pass up comes along.  The players who haven’t signed at this point are all players who at the start of this free agency period thought they were worth a lot more than the teams thought they were.  Neither side has blinked so far, but in short order the players’ values for 2018 are going to drop.

The missed Spring Training time becomes particularly important because any free agent who has already reached the age of 30 is signed as part of a win-now strategy.  Even before the current analytics trend took hold, teams well knew that over-30 free agents were going to provide almost all of their value in the first one to three seasons of their free agent deals.  The big payouts after the first two or three seasons were simply a cost of trying to win in the first few seasons.  Now, thanks to analytics, teams have better reasons not to hand out anything more than three year offers to over-30 free agents.

Analytics are basically about percentages, and percentages don’t necessarily predict reality.  Yes, relatively few major league teams are entering the 2018 looking like realistic possibilities to go deep into the post-season.  However, in baseball anything can happen in a short series.  10 teams make the post-season, and any of those ten teams could be the next 1973 Mets or 1987 Twins, or any of the many other not particularly impressive play-off teams since 1969 that got hot at the right time.

That said, there is almost no down-side to teams getting stingy with free agents this off-season, so long as the players’ union cannot prove collusion.  A few teams won’t perform as well in 2018 and 2019 as they would have if they gave the bucks to one or more of this year’s remaining free agents.  However, all teams will ultimately benefit if management succeeds in reducing the percentage of revenues that goes to free agents.

Assuming that the teams weren’t stupid enough this time around to create significant evidence of collusion, the biggest threat to management’s recent hard line is a player strike when the current collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2021 season.  That’s a long way out in the future in business terms, and management may be betting that players will have less stomach to strike with average annual salaries as high as they are now.

That’s a bet that management has consistently lost in the past, particularly during the labor disputes between 1985 and 1994 when salaries were hugely larger than they had been in 1966 when the players’ union formed. However, I suspect that management is full of people who will want to keep testing the players’ resolve as salaries grow higher.  Since it’s now been a generation since the 1994 strike, a new generation of management and players may have to find out for themselves the consequences of labor conflict in a highly profitable industry.

Performance Incentives and Contract Negotiating Inertia

February 22, 2018

Years ago before I started this blog in April 2009 I wondered why you didn’t see major league contracts that contained as much or more incentive money than guaranteed money.  It seemed fairly obvious to me that for players over 29 or 30 coming off a bad year following at least some very good years in the not too distant past, they would be ideal candidates for contracts that didn’t guarantee much up front but could pay the player generously if he was able to recapture a some portion of his old magic.

At the time, I more or less assumed that there were limitations set by the collective bargaining agreement regarding just how much of a major league contract would be in the form of incentives.  However, since starting this blog, I’ve looked through the collective bargaining agreements and never seen anything that limits the amount or percentage of the contract that can be payable as performance incentives that have to be earned.

Instead, I do believe there are written or unwritten limits on the nature of performance incentives.  You can’t get a performance incentive for winning 20 games or hitting 30 home runs, but you can get an incentive based on playing in a certain number of games, accumulating a certain number of plate appearances or pitching a certain number of innings.  You can also get performance incentives for winning or finishing in the top five of Cy Young or MVP voting or by making the All-Star team.

In the last few years, we’ve seen all kinds of contracts which are mostly performance incentives.  Today, Chris Tillman finalized a deal with the Orioles that guarantees him $3 million, but contains an additional $7 million in innings pitched incentives.  Two off-seasons ago, the Dodgers signed Japanese hurler Kenta Maeda to a deal that guaranteed Maeda $25 million over eight seasons but could be worth a potential $105 million if all of the many, many different performance incentives were achieved.

Assuming that there were in fact no collectively bargained limitations on contracts for which 70% to 80% of the value of the contract was in the form of performance incentives, why did it take so long for teams and players to reach the kinds of deals that we see routinely now?  It is particularly strange when you consider that for a very long time minor league contracts for veteran players have routinely provided the player 7 to 10 times as much money for major league roster time as for minor league roster time.

I think that a lot of it has to do with the inertia of past contract negotiating practice, as I suggested in one of yesterday’s posts.  In the past, a player worth a guaranteed major league contract (and his agent) expected that most of the money of the contract would in fact be guaranteed.  That was the whole purpose of collectively negotiating for guaranteed annual contracts.  Everyone in MLB was a little suspicious of the idea of major league contracts that provided more than t0% or 20% of the potential contract amount as unguaranteed performance incentives.  So long as both players and managers took for granted certain salary structures, there wasn’t much reason to adopt a different form of contract, even if it would have made a great deal of sense to do so.

Why have things changed in recent years?  I think Maeda’s contract really changed the way everyone in MLB viewed MLB contracts, and his contract was based on certain somewhat unique circumstances that at the time seemingly applied only to him.  As a Japanese star, Maeda was basically guaranteed a four-year $20 million contract in NPB when he became a free agent.  NPB limits free agent contracts to a maximum of four years and has a de facto salary scale that made Maeda’s future NPB earnings highly predictable.

The Dodgers eight year $25 million offer beat any guarantee Maeda was likely to get from an NPB team (plus, of course, Maeda was determined to test himself against the best in MLB).  Also, Maeda is a small right-hander who had thrown a lot of NPB innings.  MLB has had a long-standing prejudice against small right-handed pitchers, particularly when they’ve already thrown a lot of innings.

I think Maeda’s contract was something of a revelation for MLB teams.  Reliable MLB 4th and 5th starters now command $6M to $10M a season (see e.g., Jhoulys Chacin), and the Dodgers were getting someone potentially better than that for a guarantee of less than $4 million a season.

Meanwhile, the contract has worked out for Maeda, who has pitched well enough and often enough to make far more money pitching for the Dodgers than he could have made in Japan.  In fact, I suspect that the Dodgers in 2017 made it a point to get Maeda his 25th start, when another performance incentive kicked in, because Maeda was clearly worth the extra money and the contract hadn’t taken into account that Maeda might be highly valuable to the the team as a sometime relief pitcher.

The other big factor is how much starting pitchers are now worth.  Chris Tillman was really good from 2013 through 2016, but was pretty awful in 2017.  He isn’t worth more than a $3 million guarantee based on his age (30 in 2018) and his 2017 performance, but if he returns to his 2013-2016 form in 2018, a reasonable possibility, he could easily be worth $10 million.  He’s going to have to be pretty good to pitch 200 innings, when the last of the incentives kicks in, in a season in today’s game.

Once one team and player do something obvious but contrary to prior practice, then all the other teams quickly jump in.  You could say the same, for example, for the Dodgers signing Jackie Robinson in 1946.  However, until that first team and player do it, everyone is worried about the possibility that a dramatic change will upset the apple cart.

Teams have always wanted to pay players based on their immediate past performance and anticipated immediate future performance.  It’s just taken awhile for the contract negotiators to catch up.