Archive for the ‘Baseball History’ category

Shohei Otani San Francisco Giants

December 7, 2017

I hope that the Giants in their recent meeting with Shohei Otani pointed out that the SF Giants were the first MLB team to sign a Japanese pitcher, when they inked Masanori Murikami before the 1964 season.  Otani is potentially a historic player, both in terms of his multi-talents and the relative bargain that the winning MLB team will sign him for.  A little significant history might be just the thing to convince him that San Francisco is the right landing spot, among his many options.

It would indeed be exciting if the Giants could both sign Otani and trade for Giancarlo Stanton in the same off-season.  No one player can turn the 2017 Giants into 2018 contenders.  But Otani, Stanton and a healthy Madison Bumgarner?  At least it would give Bay Area money-bags a good reason to buy 2018 season tickets and a little hope for the rest of us.

Advertisements

Marshall Bridges and Joe Stanka

December 7, 2017

Marshall Bridges crossed my consciousness for the first time yesterday.  He came up while I was reviewing Joe Stanka‘s years with Sacramento of the Pacific Coast League — see below.  I hit a link for Bridges’ major league numbers and found out that he was the 1962 World Champion New York Yankees’ top fireman.

Bridges went 8-4 with 18 saves, while Luis Arroyo, who had a break-through year for closers generally in 1961, was next on the Bombers with seven.  Arroyo’s 1961 season was so great, in fact, that it appears to have a cast a dark shadow over Bridges’ merely impressive 1962, even though the ultimate outcome, a World Championship, was the same.  Bridges had a big fastball and was hard to hit but wild, and his 1963 campaign was similar to Arroyo’s 1962.

The thing that really did in Bridges’ Yankees’ career, perhaps, was that he got into an altercation with a female patron in a Ft. Lauderdale bar during Spring Training 1963, and Bridges ended up getting shot in the leg.   According to baseball reference, “21-year-old Carrie Lee Raysor claimed Bridges had repeatedly offered to drive her home and, after repeatedly not taking ‘no’ for an answer, ‘took out [her] gun and shot him'” below the knee.

I hope she was good-lucking.  Bridges eventually made a full recovery, but since he was already 31 in 1962, he again recaptured his 1962 magic.

Bridges was an African American lefty (Ms. Raysor was a married black woman, according to my sources) from Jackson, Mississippi who started his professional career with the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro Leagues.  Bridges started his MLB-system career as a two-way player, but pitched better than he hit in the low minors and became a full-time pitcher.  He didn’t reach the majors until his age 28 season, and still pitched in seven major league seasons.  He passed away at the age of 59 in 1990.

Bridges also pitched for the NL Champion Cincinnati Reds in 1961, but had been sent down to the minors for good long before the Reds reached the post-season.  Bridges pitched in two games of the 1962 Series, but allowed three runs, two earned in 3.2 innings pitched and did not receive a decision.

More famously, he allowed Chuck Hiller’s 7th inning game-winning Grand Slam in Game 4, with Jim Coates‘ runner on first the run what cost Coates the decision.  This website says that Marshall Bridges was the last Negro Leaguer pitcher to pitch in the World Series.

I was surprised the Bridges’ name rang no bells and his photo on baseball reference was not familiar, after I saw his record.  I knew about Chuck Hiller’s Grand Slam, but obviously not the pitcher that served it up.  I fancy myself pretty knowledgeable about pitchers, including relievers, who had at least one great season in the 1960’s, and I was sad to be disabused of that notion.

I think that a big part of the reason I had never heard of Bridges is because he appears to have appeared on only one Topps baseball card in his seven seasons of major league play.  Topps apparantly elected not to put out a card for Bridges in either 1962, the year he had the great season, or in 1963, the year after.  The shooting incident in before the 1963 season was almost certainly why there was no baseball card for 1963, since he was on the Yankee’s major league roster for all or most of the 1963 season.

I never had Bridges’ 1960 Topps card, and I couldn’t have seen his card for any other year since there weren’t any.  Anyway, that’s my excuse for my shameful ignorance.

Joe Stanka was a pitcher who appeared in only two major league games, but was one of the first two great American pitchers in NPB history.  Stanka was also probably the first “modern” player in Japan’s NPB, in the sense that he was exactly the type of 4-A player just past age 27 which ultimately became the bread-and-butter of NPB recruiting of foreign players.

Stanka pitched reasonably effectively in his 5.1 major league innings during the September of his age 27 season, but when he got an offer to play in the Japan that off-season, he jumped at it.  Stanka pitched four full seasons for the Pacific Coast League’s Sacramento Solons before his 1959 major league cameo, when the PCL was still the best of the three AAA leagues.  In those four seasons, he was one of the Solons’ top two starters in three of those seasons and was the third best out of six in the fourth year, his rookie year in the league.  Marshall Bridges was the best starter on the 1958 Solons.

Stanka won 100 games against 72 losses in seven NPB seasons.  He was generally a No. 2 starter in Japan, except for 1964, when he was one of the Central League’s top three starters, going 26-7.  More importantly, he had one of the all-time great Japan Series, pitching shut-outs in Games 1, 6 and 7 (ya think?), beating fellow American Gene Bacque, the 1960’s other 100 NPB game winning foreigner, in Game 6.  Bacque had had an even better regular season than Stanka in 1964.

I got to thinking about Stanka while I was researching foreign players in NPB in the 1960’s.  1962 was roughly the year that NPB teams routinely began to bring in foreign players throughout each NPB league’s six teams.

Most of the foreign MLB-system players in 1960’s NPB were players over the age of 30, who were finishing out their relatively/marginally successful MLB-system careers and wanted to keep playing for top dollar once their future MLB major league hopes were dim indeed.  The next largest group was younger players who played in the MLB low minors and somehow made their way to NPB to continue their careers.

There were few 4-A players of Stanka’s type in the 1960’s, but Stanka’s success wasn’t really acted upon by NPB teams until the 1970’s.  Today, NPB teams (and now KBO teams) like best foreign players going into their age 27 season, with ages 26 and 28 a close second.  Teams will still sign older players with substantial major league records, but it’s not nearly as common as it once was.

Casey McGehee is an example of a current generation older player.  McGehee has had the talent level, good luck and good sense to use two separate stints in NPB to have what must be his most successful professional career possible.  He’s returning to the Yomiuri Giants in 2018 for a reported $2.4 million, which beats by far what most 35 year olds make.

In reviewing the NPB 1960’s, one thing that struck me is that by the 1960’s, NPB was already a pretty good league.  The older major league veterans mostly had a couple of good years and then were too old to succeed in NPB.  Relatively few foreign players during this period were either No. 1 starters or No. 1 hitters (per each of each league’s six teams) in any of their many, collective seasons.

Foreign hitters provided power, which NPB teams highly valued.  By the late 1960’s, it was mostly foreign sluggers that NPB teams were signing.

As a final note, in 1962 saves was still not an official statistic, although it was the third season that the Sporting News had been reporting save totals based on a formula created by Jerome Holtzman.  Bridges’ 18 saves were second best behind The Monster, Dick Radatz.  As far as I know, there is no (close) family relationship between Jerome and Ken Holtzman, another fine pitcher who fell victim to early success and 1970’s pitch counts.

Kansas City Royals Non-Tender Terrence Gore

December 2, 2017

The Royals non-tendered Terrance Gore today, apparently ending his career as a Royal, because he is out of minor league options and still isn’t much of a hitter in the minor leagues. In parts of four regular seasons, Gore played in 49 major league games, had 14 plate appearances and 14 runs scored, and stole 21 bases in 25 attempts.

His career highlights so far were in the 2014 and 2015 post-seasons, when he played in eight games with no plate appearances, but nevertheless scored two runs and stole four bases in five attempts.

Gore is still young enough that he may make it back to the majors when someone needs a late-inning defensive replacement/pinch base runner.  It’s also still within the realm of possibility that he could learn to hit in the high minors, although that kind of seems unlikely.

Gore is exactly what a team should look for in a late-inning defensive replacement/pinch-runner.  He’s a real baseball player, who can do everything well except hit for average or for power.

Once upon a time, A’s owner Charlie Finley tried a track-and-field sprinter, Herb Washington, as the A’s designated pinch runner, but it didn’t really work out, since Washington really didn’t know enough about baseball to be a great base runner or stealer.  Finley and the A’s had a lot more success with players like Gore, who were elite minor league base-stealers but couldn’t hit enough to play regularly in the majors.

Further Thoughts on Major League Baseball’s Pension Plan

October 13, 2017

About a year ago, I wrote a post on MLB’s player pension plan.  It got a lot more hits than I expected, probably because there were many people as curious as I was about the players’ pension plan who couldn’t find good information on the internet on this question.  However, the post generated only a single comment, from Doug Gladstone, a man who wrote a published book about the unfairness of one aspect of the current pension system.

Mr. Gladstone wrote:

My name is Doug Gladstone, and I’m the author of the critically acclaimed 2010 book, A Bitter Cup of Coffee; How MLB & The Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve.

I read this post with great interest, if only because it doesn’t mention the 500 or so former players, such as the Giants’ Don Taussig or Rich Robertson, who don’t get an MLB pension. All they get is a bone thrown at them — for every 43 games they were on an active roster, they get a measly $625, up to $10K per year. And MLB is a $10 billion industry.

I’d love to see you do a follow-up to this post, and if you let me know your email address, I’ll send you a few releases about this dirty little secret.

I did not respond sooner because I had mixed feelings about his premise, at least insofar as the title of his book suggests.  I have not read Gladstone’s book, so it was hard to respond intelligently.

My conclusion, without reading his book, is that Gladstone has a point, but only up to a point.  Players who accumulated one quarter up to 15 quarters of major league service time between 1946 and 1984 deserve more than $625 per year in pension benefits for each 43 games (one quarter of a season) of major league service, up to 16 quarters of major league service, when full pension benefits would kick in for players from this era.

My opinion is that these 874 former players (according to Gladstone, and to the extent that they are all still alive as of this writing) deserve $2,000 per year for each quarter of MLB service (or 1/16th per quarter of whatever the current minimum benefit is for players who accumulated one quarter of MLB service after the 1985 rule change or four full years [16 quarters] of service between 1946-1984).  In my mind, that would be a fair amount.

The problem I had with Mr. Gladstone’s comment and book title is that it fundamentally misunderstands the rules of federal labor law.  Under that law, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) solely represents the interests of current MLB players.  The only obligation the MLBPA has to retired players is to ensure that they receive the benefits to which they are entitled based on the rules (contract terms) in effect during their playing careers.  In other words, retired players are only entitled to the pension benefits in effect when they were actually playing.

The most important issue to MLB players when they first elected to have a real union in 1966 was their pensions.  That’s why they fought in 1969 for the service limit for a major league pension to be cut down from five full seasons to four full seasons for all players going back to 1946 (the start of player organizing and, as a direct result, the original pension pension plan and rules).  In 1969, the current players all knew of players who had long major league careers who weren’t entitled to pensions  under the old rules (see Bobby Tiefenaur) who active players believed deserved pensions.

By 1985, the active players were not particularly concerned about players who played between 1946 and 1984 who had at at least a quarter of MLB service but less than 16 quarters of MLB service.  They fought at the start of the 1985 season (there was a two-day strike) for full pension benefits after only 43 days (one quarter) of service for all players, but only going forward.  Owners were willing to make this compromise in large part because MLB revenues had grown tremendously since 1969, in no small part due to the formation of the MLBPA and the new marketing and merchandizing schemes the MLBPA originated and the owners quickly copied and improved upon.  You can read Marvin Miller’s book, A Whole Different Ball Game for some of the details.

By 1985 there was a mature owner-union relationship in which both sides weren’t going to give up anything unless they got something in return.  After 1985 the players didn’t have a great deal of interest in fighting for players who retired before 1985 with between one and 15 quarters of major league service.  Meanwhile, the owners/controlling interests of MLB teams, who are now all billionaires or 100+ millionaires, are people who didn’t get this rich because they gave up one more dollar than they absolutely had to in a contract negotiation.  That is how capitalism works for better or for worse.

The MLBPA could not ask for and receive better benefits for retirees without giving up something that the active players (the actual union members) wanted.  Had the union leaders wanted to the do the “right thing” — at least according to Gladstone — they would have been violating federal law if the active players did not agree to it.

Current owners could certainly do the right thing if they wanted to.  They can certainly afford to do it, if they wanted to, but 99% of the time you don’t get to be a billionaire or 100+ millionaire by giving up money you don’t have to.  Owners almost certainly all feel like they’ve given up as much as they can to get every single collective bargaining agreement that has been signed since and including 1985.

Owners and the MLBPA won’t give the 874 or less players Gladstone advocates for a better deal unless the public demands it.  But how many current MLB fans really care enough about former players who retired between 1946 and 1984 with between one and 15 quarters of MLB service getting fairer retirement benefits, to actually do something about it?

The Demise of the Everyday Player

August 10, 2017

Years and years ago I read a piece by Bill James in which he argued that Cal Ripken‘s decision to keep his consecutive game streak alive was actually detrimental to the Baltimore Orioles’ ultimate goal of winning as many games as possible.  The article made a lot of sense to me: playing every single game, even by the very best players, means that the player plays a lot of games when he’s exhausted and/or has minor injuries, which can’t heal properly because the player is playing six days a week; under those circumstances, even the best major league players aren’t necessarily playing as well as the replacement-level player sitting in the team’s bench would.

[In fairness to Ripken, the Orioles’ true ultimate goal was putting as many cans in the seats as possible.  Being Cal Ripken, playing every game every day for a generation, probably was pretty good for Orioles’ attendance during that streak.]

Cal Ripken’s consecutive games streak is a record that probably never will be broken because it seems that MLB teams now agree whole-heartedly with what James argued all those years ago.  In contrast to the Asian leagues, where playing every day in leagues that play shorter schedules and have more rain-outs is still commendable, MLB teams have clearly decided that the occasional day off is more valuable than playing every single game.

Looking at the 17 full seasons from 2000 through 2016, the shift from playing every single game seems to have taken hold after the 2008 season.  In the nine seasons from 2000 through 2008, an average of 6.33 players per season played in all 162 games.  In the eight full seasons since then, only 2.5 players per season have played 162 games in a season.

Even players who manage to play at least 160 games in a season seems in decline.  In the 14 seasons from 2000 through 2013, an average of 13.6 players played at least 160 games per season.  In the last three seasons, that average has dropped almost in half to seven per season. The recent low seasons could be a result of a small sample fluke, but I don’t think so.

Just as teams have learned that using more and more relief pitchers pitching more and more total innings results in fewer runs scored by the opposition, teams have also learned that keeping their stars properly rested and their bench players sharp results in better won-loss results.  The good managers, and I consider the Giants’ Bruce Boche one of them, realize that keeping the stars fresh and the bench players sharp has a lot more value than riding the race horses until they inevitably drop.

For what it’s worth, Justin Morneau is the last player to play 163 games in a season.  Morneau’s 2008 Twins lost their 163rd game to the White Sox, sending the latter team to a brief post season and former team home.  The all-time record for games played in a season is Maury Wills‘ 165: he played all 162 regular season games and all three games to decide the pennant against the Giants.  That was the year Wills set then records for plate appearances and stolen bases in a season.

 

 

Kenta Maeda — Every 10th Day Starter?

July 21, 2017

I’ve been a fan of the Dodgers’ Kenta Maeda for a long time.  I followed his career closely in Japan, where he was a great pitcher at the top of the class just behind Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka.  I definitely thought he was good enough to be a successful major league pitcher.

I also liked Maeda because he was a small right-hander, and I was a small right-handed player in my playing days, now oh so long ago.  Like Tim Lincecum, Maeda was small, but he could pitch, and I felt there ought to be a place his talents in MLB.

From the beginning MLB teams were suspicious of Meda because of his size.  The Dodgers signed him on a deal that guaranteed him only $25 million over eight years, but was chock full of incentives if he could prove he could be a successful MLB starter.

Last season, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts decided pretty quickly that Maeda’s innings had to be strictly limited.  While at the time I thought that this might reflect some latent MLB prejudice against small right-handers, on further analysis, I was probably wrong.

Roberts is literally the product of an American Marine and a Japanese woman his father met while serving in Japan.  (I, and probably lots of other baseball afficionados, had assumed that the Dodgers’ manager was the son of Panamanian ball player Dave Roberts, who was playing in Japan the year and the year before the now manager was born.)  The Dodgers’ manager was a below average sized major leaguer in his own day.

Instead, Roberts decided quickly and probably accurately that it would be tough for a pitcher Maeda’s size to start every fifth game.  In fact, this has been a problem for all Japanese pitchers moving to MLB, including those with MLB-sized bodies like Darvish, Tanaka and Hisashi Iwakuma (it’s been a problem for a lot of American-born pitchers too.)  In Japan, starters typically start only once a week, because so many games are washed out during the wet Japanese summer months.

This season, Maeda has been the victim of the new home run trend, and he’s been in and out of the Dodgers’ talent-packed starting rotation.  He’s become basically a spot starter (and spot reliever), starting when the team doesn’t have an extra game off to rest the other starters.

Maeda has been remarkably successful in this role.  Through June 9, pitching as part of the regular five-man rotation, Maeda had a 4.95 ERA.  Since then he’s made five starts on average eight days apart, and he’s allowed more than one run in a start only once, on a day when he had only four full days’ rest since his previous start.

I’ve been following MLB since 1978, which is pretty much the entire era of five-man pitching staffs.  Many is the time I’ve seen teams try to use 4+-man rotations, basically skipping the fifth man every time there was an extra day off that allowed the other four starters their normal rest.

This strategy has almost never worked.  The fifth starter was routinely skipped because he really wasn’t an adequate starter at all.  The fifth starter, who wasn’t any good to begin with, tended to be even worse when he didn’t pitch regularly.  Also, one of the other four adequate or better starters tended to get hurt at some point in the season, which rendered the strategy completely ineffective.

This season, the Dodgers are so deep with talent that they have the starters, the bullpen, and the pitcher in Maeda to make this strategy work well for the first time I can remember.  Maeda is a veteran pitcher who can be still be effective starting every eight to 12 games, plus the occasional one or so inning relief appearance in between, who may well benefit from starting half as often as the typical MLB starter.

Maeda has also been willing to give the team whatever it needs, even though the infrequent starts hit him directly in the pocketbook because of his incentive-laden contract.  Apparently, Maeda is mature enough to realize that he’s making more in the U.S. than he would have made if he’d stayed in Japan.  Plus, the reasonable likelihood of a World Series check and ring probably do a great deal to assuage any hurt feelings Maeda might otherwise have.

I’m a strong believer that managers need to be extremely flexible in terms of using the actual players they have on their rosters, with their specific skill sets and specific weaknesses, in order to tease out as many regular season wins as they possibly can in any given season. Managers’ jobs are too tenuous not to do every single thing within their power to win ball games.

Managers often aren’t flexible in large part because the players demand consistency in their roles (and the players are now well better paid than the managers), and because there are certain well-established notions about how managers should use their players, built up over generations, and known to the sportswriters who cover the games like professionals.  It’s the reason that teams without great closers generally do not elect to use bullpens-by-committee based on match-ups, even though this would make a great deal of sense if you don’t have a true closer.

Roberts may well end up sending in Maeda for every fifth start if somebody else in the starting rotation gets hurt.  I’m just trying to point out that using Maeda on a less regular basis seems to be working very well for the Dodgers and that Maeda might be exactly the pitcher to make such a strategy work.  The 2017 Dodgers are currently on a pace to win 113 games.  It’s hard to find fault with that.

Home Runs and Strikeouts

June 29, 2017

The last year and a half, MLB has been averaging all-time records for both home runs and strikeouts.  Much has been written on this topic, but not by me, so hear goes.

The cause of the increases are fairly obvious.  All of the teams and players, thanks to advanced statistical analysis (sabrmetrics) and much better tracking records of every pitch and every ball put into play and their outcomes, has finally broken down professional baseball’s 125+ year hostility to strikeouts, at least if more strikeouts come with more home runs.

Obviously, a home run, compared to singles and doubles, produces a greater benefit than the extra cost of a strikeout compared to an out made on a ball put in play.  Teams just don’t care any more if a player strikes out 200+ times for every 650-700 plate appearances, so long as that player also hits 30+ HRs and can keep his on-base percentage over .320, however he may get to that number.

What is interesting in the last year and a half is that batting averages have not fallen in spite of the increase in strikeouts.  Along with the increase in defensive shifts, one would expect to see falling batting averages as a result of these trends.  In fact, the new obsession with batter launch angles (i.e., upper-cutting the ball in order to hit it in the air) is almost certainly in part a result of the increase in defensive shifts, as home run balls are much harder to defend against and the statistical analysis and tracking shows that balls hit in the air are much likelier to result in hits than balls hit in the ground.

I have certainly noticed the rise in pitchers throughout professional baseball who are striking out more than 8 batters per nine innings, but still have terrible ERAs, because they are giving up lots of hits and especially home runs.  It’s not something I’ve ever seen before on this scale, and I very much doubt anyone else has seen it either.

Since swinging for the fences at all times seems to be working, I don’t see any likelihood in the near term that these trends won’t continue, absent rule changes imposed from the top.

Clearly, teams are going to have to start finding and developing more pitchers that hitters cannot easily hit in the air, i.e., extreme groundball pitchers.  However, MLB has been drafting and developing pitchers based mainly on arm strength since basically forever.

There are always a few extreme groundball pitchers in MLB, including low side-armers, but these guys never get anything they don’t earn in spades.  Their major league careers typically start late, and often don’t get a chance except from teams that are desperate for affordable, effective pitching.  It’s no surprise that in the last 15 or 16 years, it was the “Money Ball” Oakland A’s who developed both Chad Bradford and Brad Ziegler as effective major league relievers.

This subject is particularly on my mind because I recently wrote a post about San Francisco Giants’ prospect Tyler Rogers.  Rogers now has a 2.14 ERA in more than 46 relief innings pitched at AAA Sacramento, but the Giants elected to call up Dan Slania yesterday when they put Mark Melancon on the 10-day disabled list.

Slania is a year younger than Tyler Rogers, he has much better stuff, and he has a better draft pedigree.  However, Slania was hit hard as a starter at AAA (7.82 ERA) in large part because he couldn’t keep the ball in the yard (14 HRs in 61 IP).

140 years of baseball history support calling up Slania over Rogers.  However, the way the game is being played at this moment suggests that teams need to start to crediting the cold, hard statistics that extreme groundball pitchers like Rogers put up.

Also, if more hitters are hitting more balls in the air, the value of outfield defense is also going to increase.  Fast outfielders who can cover ground are going to become more valuable than ever.