Archive for the ‘Boston Red Sox’ category

Remember Rotator Cuff Injuries?

March 17, 2017

Today, the injury every pitcher dreads is the torn ulnar collateral ligament.  When I was young, it was the torn rotator cuff.

A couple days ago I wrote about Ed Hobaugh, a pitcher who basically had one real year in the Show and then quickly faded off into oblivion.  Probably my favorite player fitting this description is Bill Dailey.  His career progression was almost identical to Hobaugh, except that Dailey’s one full season was truly a tremendous year.

Dailey was the closer for the Minnesota Twins in 1963.  The Twins finished 3rd in 1963 (91-71) in a ten-team league, in large part due to Dailey’s one out-sized season.  Dailey went 6-3 with 21 saves and 1.99 ERA while throwing 108.2 innings.  His save total was 3rd best in the league, tied with  Hoyt Wilhelm, but behind Stu Miller (27) and Dick Radatz (23).  The Monster was the Junior Circuit’s best closer that year, but Dailey was an impressive second.

Dailey was 28 in 1963.  I’d guess he mastered command of a sharp curveball shortly before that season.  He only stuck out 72 batters in 1963, but he still had a K/BB ratio of 3.8 and a WHIP well under 1.0.

In 1964 Dailey tore his rotator cuff, and his professional career was over at age 29.  That made him the Mark Fidrych of his day, only without the Bird’s youthful promise.  Wayne Garland is another pitcher from Fidrych’s era with the same basic story.

San Francisco Giants’ broadcaster Mike Krukow had a riff about how when he entered professional baseball, teams’ pitching coaches would ask youngsters whether they wanted their shoulders to hurt or their elbows to hurt.  If the former, the pitcher was taught to throw the curveball, and if the latter the slider.

The curveball was a much more popular pitch in the 1960’s and 1970’s than it is now when the slider is the dominant off-speed pitch.  That may in part be due to the fact that pitchers as a group come back better from Tommy John surgery than from rotator cuff surgery, which is now often referred to as the labrum.  Shoulder injuries more often involve cartilage than tendons, which is probably why they are harder to come back from than elbow injuries.

For pitcher after his age of 30 season, shoulder injuries pretty much spell the ends of their careers.  A 30+ year old with a strong enough arm can still come back from an elbow tear, at least so long as the doctors can find a good elbow tendon transplant.

Former San Francisco Giants Prospect Edwin Escobar Heading to Japan’s NPB

January 11, 2017

Former Giants prospect Edwin Escobar is heading to the Nippon Ham Fighters of Japan’s NPB on a 90 million yen ($780,000) deal for the 2017 season.  What makes this deal relatively interesting is that Escobar will be only 25 in 2017, the second pitcher after Elvis Araujo, who signed with the Chunichi Dragons earlier this off-season, who will be only 25 in 2017 and expected to star immediately in NPB’s major leagues.

Escobar was one of the Giants top starting pitcher prospects in 2014, when they traded him at the trade deadline to the Boston Red Sox along with Heath Hembree for Jake Peavy.  At the time, Escobar who was only 22 years old then and pitching with promise at AAA, was the prospect who seemed to have more upside.  As it turned out Hembree has become a useful bullpen piece for the BoSox, while Escobar is moving on to Japan, because he had injury problems in 2015 and didn’t return strong in 2016.

Past history suggests that the ideal age for a North American player to start an Asian career is their age 27 season, and a majority of the North American players who head off to Asia are older than that when they go.  In the last year or so, however, we have started to see more players under age 27 trying their luck in Asia, as the immediate rewards (next year’s salary) are greater in NPB or South Korea’s KBO, and North American players are beginning to feel that success in Asia can also be used as a spring-board to return to the MLB-system at some later date.

It will be interesting to see how Escobar and Araujo do in NPB in 2017.  I would think that Araujo’s chances are better, as he has far more proven MLB experience and success.  NPB is a good enough league, and the adjustments necessary to play NPB’s style of baseball and live in Japan are such, that foreign players as young as Escobar and Araujo have a hard time getting off to the fast start needed to stick in Asian baseball.  I tend to think that players who are at least 27 as NPB or KBO rookies tend to do better in part because they are more experienced in professional baseball and more mature.

Still, Escobar’s and Araujo’s talent level appears to be high by the standards of North American players who go to play in Asia, and the experience of pitching in NPB, unless a total disaster, will probably be beneficial to their careers even if they return to the MLB system in 2018.  Playing in a league that is roughly intermediate between AAA and the MLB majors is clearly more advantageous to a player’s development than another season spent almost entirely at AAA.

More typical of the North American players who go to Asia is the 33 year old Alexi Ogando, who just signed a $1.8 million deal with the KBO’s Hanwha Eagles.  Ogando has the proven MLB track record that earned him what is to date the second highest contract amount for a foreign player in the KBO’s history (Esmil Rodgers signed a $1.9M contract before the 2016 season).  Howwever, I think that the Eagles overpaid for Ogando by at least $300,000, as Ogando’s 2016 performance in MLB and at AAA strongly suggest a pitcher with not a lot left in the tank and with very little chance indeed of receiving a major league contract for 2017.

Ogando will almost certainly be used as a starter in the KBO, since KBO teams don’t pay this kind of money for relievers.  We’ll have to wait and see how he does.

San Francisco Giants Sign Mark Melancon and Other Developments

December 7, 2016

There was an article in the SF Chronicle today entitled, “New Giants Closer Mark Melancon Explains Why He Picked SF.”  Surprisingly, the quote, “They gave me a sh*$-load of money!” appears nowhere in the article.

The Giants were determined to sign Mark Melancon and they did by the basic expedient of offering him the most money.  It’s an all-in kind of move since Melancon will be 32 in 2017, but now is the time for one last run at going deep into the post-season with this core of players.

Today’s big news is the Chris Sale trade.  It’s a hard pill to swallow for Chi-Sox fans, given that they had a good chance at their first over .500 season since 2011 going in to the upcoming season, and now they most certainly do not. The team went 18-14 in Sale’s 32 2016 starts, which means the team without him is going to have to be about 12 games better than they were last year to finish 2017 with a winning record.

From White Sox management’s perspective, though, the move makes a great deal of sense.  Sale was definitely a squeaky wheel in 2016, and the White Sox got a boat-load of young talent in exchange for the three years of now bargain-price control on Sale’s contract.  Yoan Moncado, Michael Kopech and Luis Basabe all look like great prospects, and Chicago got a fourth B-level prospect to boot.  Things might look up dramatically for the White Sox in 2018 or 2019.

Nippon Ham Fighters to Post Shohei Otani after 2017 Season?

December 5, 2016

mlbtraderumors.com posted a piece this evening stating that NPB’s Nippon Ham Fighters have announced they will post super-prospect Shohei Otani after the 2017 season.  This seems like a real possibility only if Otani made it clear to the Fighters that he wants to be posted.

The only reason for the Fighters to post Otani two years earlier than they reasonably had to would be to avoid him getting hurt.  Otherwise, Otani is clearly worth more to the team than the same $20 million they will get for him whether they post him next off-season or three years from now.

Otani cannot be unaware that he is the best player in NPB and that his major league earnings will certainly be greater the younger he leaves for MLB.  I would expect him to command a $200 million plus contract next off-season in addition to the posting fee.

After helping the Fighters win the 2016 Nippon Series, as Masahiro Tanaka did before insisting that the Rakuten Golden Eagles post him a few years back, Otani’s ability to successfully demand posting is very high.  NPB teams don’t want to look bad to their fan bases by preventing obvious major league talents from going on to greater wealth, fame and professional fulfillment in MLB, particularly when they have reached the top of the mountain in NPB.

I see Otani as strictly a pitcher in MLB, except perhaps for occasional pinch-hitting opportunities if he signs with a National League team.  For that reason, though, I’d like to see a National League team sign him, although I expect the Yankees and Red Sox will have a lot to say about that.

The Current Pitcher Most Likely to Win 300 Games

October 25, 2016

In June of 2009, I wrote a blog piece entitled Of Course, Someone Else Will Win 300 Games.  After the 2012 season, I wrote a post which looked at the issue more deeply, and I concluded that it was more likely not that a pitcher pitching in 2012 would win 300 games.

In two updates to the 2012 piece, I reversed course and concluded that it was less likely than not that a current pitcher would win 300 games.  My most recent post from after the 2015 season is here.

While I am still of my revised opinion that it is less likely than not that a current pitcher will win 300 games, I think the odds are better today than they were a year or two ago, mainly because of the huge come-back season Justin Verlander had in 2016, about whom I will talk about more below.

In my original post, I listed the average number of career wins the last four 300 game winners (Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson) had at the end of their age 30 through age 40 seasons:

Average: 137 (30); 152 (31); 165 (32); 181 (33); 201 (34); 219 (35); 235 (36); 250 (37); 268 (38); 279 (39); 295 (40).

This is the age of the last four 300-game winners in the season in which each won their 300th game: Maddux 38, Clemens 40, Glavine 41 and Johnson 45.  In short,  and as you probably already knew, you have to be really good for a really long time to win 300 games.

Here are the current pitchers  I think are most likely to win 300 based on their current ages (during the 2016 season) and career win totals:

CC Sabathia (35) 223

Justin Verlander (33) 173

Zack Greinke (32) 155

Felix Hernandez (30) 154

John Lester (32) 146

Clayton Kershaw (28) 126

Max Scherzer (31) 125

David Price (30) 121

Rick Porcello (27) 107

Madison Bumgarner (26) 100

What you look for in projecting a pitcher to have a long career is that he throws really hard, he strikes out a lot of batters, and he doesn’t throw a whole lot of innings before his age 25 season.  That said, Greg Maddux didn’t strike out batters at an extremely high rate, even as a young pitcher, and he threw a lot of major league innings before his age 25 season.  Still, these factors remain relatively good corollaries for predicting longevity in a major league pitcher.

For these reasons, I like Justin Verlander’s chances of winning 300 the best.  His 2016 season, in which he struck out 10 batters per nine innings pitched and led his league in Ks, suggests he’s all the way back from whatever was holding him down in 2014 and 2015 and can be expected to pitch many years into the future, provided he isn’t worked as hard as he was from 2009-2012.

Add to this the fact that Verlander is pretty close to the average of the last four 300-game winners (the “Last Four”) through his age 33 season, and I, at least, have to conclude he’s still got a reasonably good shot at winning 300.

For pretty much the same reasons, I like Max Scherzer’s odds going forward as well.  In his age 31 season, he recorded a career-high 11.2 K/IP rate, he didn’t pitch a whole lot of innings at a young age and he’s really racked up the wins the last four seasons.  There’s no reason to think at this moment that he cannot continue to throw the 215-230 innings he’s consistently pitched the last four seasons for many more seasons to come.

CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw are all ahead of the Last Four.  However, their ability to last long enough to win 300 is very much in question for each of them.  Sabathia had a come-back season in 2016, but he’s won only 18 games the last three years, and I don’t see him at his age, his size and his recent injury history winning another 77 major league games.

Felix Hernandez is well ahead of the Last Four at the same age, but he looks to be on the verge of the arm injury many have been predicting for the last several years.  In 2016, Hernandez strikeout rate was the lowest of his career, his walks rate was the highest, and he threw fewer innings than in any season since he was an 18 year old minor leaguer.

Clayton Kershaw is undeniably great, but he missed 12 starts this season to a herniated disk in his back.  Herniated disks aren’t something that typically heal fully and never return for someone who is as active as a professional athlete, unless they are very, very lucky.

There have always been a lot of questions about whether Zack Greinke can consistently pitch 210-220 innings is a season, and 2016 did nothing to dispel that concern.  David Price has likely been overworked his last three seasons.  Jon Lester has settled into a very nice groove of pitching between 200 and 220 innings a year, and quite likely for that reason has had only one less than successful season since 2008.

Rick Porcello and Madison Bumgarner are really too young and too far from 300 wins to merit much consideration at this point.  Young pitchers who rack up the wins can fade as fast as Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain.

Even so, there was no way a year ago that I could have imagined Rick Porcello would make a list of the ten pitchers I thought had the best chance to win 300 games.  He threw a lot of professional innings before his age 25 season (although never 200 in a season), and he didn’t strike anyone out.  Starters who can pitch but don’t strike anyone out tend to go the way of Mark Fidrych and Dave Rozema.

However, something strange happened.  Porcello has started striking people out, with his 2015 and 2016 rates the highest of his career, while also improving his command.  It’s rare for a pitcher to improve his strikeout rate significantly this late in his major league career without adding or perfecting another pitch or dramatically improving his command, but the information I was able to find on line suggests that Porcello credits making better in-game and between-game adjustments and that he’s getting better coaching in terms of correcting minor mechanical flaws sooner based on video tape analysis.  On the other hand, Porcello came up so young that he may just still be learning as a pitcher and has become better at pitching to each American League hitter’s weakness.

One thing that would help the current generation of pitchers greatly in the quest for 300 career wins is another round of major league expansion.   There’s nothing like a watering down of the talent pool to elevate the best players’ performances.  The Last Four’s generation benefited from expansion in 1993 and 1998, but it doesn’t look like there will be another round of expansion any time soon.

Intentional Walks

May 22, 2016

Someone recently wrote a dumb article arguing that the intentional walks should be discouraged by advancing base runners even when there are bases open, essentially turning the intentional walk into a single.  The impetus for this article was the May 8 game in which the Cubs walked Bryce Harper six times and hit him with a pitch in seven plate appearances.  The Cubs won the game in 13 innings 4-3.

The basic argument of the article was that fans don’t want to see the game’s best hitters pitched around.  That makes a certain amount of sense.  However, there are a couple of obvious flaws with the argument.

First, it’s a little late in the day for this change.  Pitchers and teams have been pitching around the game’s best hitters at least since the days of Babe Ruth and the rise of home runs in 1920, and probably since the heavy hitting days of the 1890’s.

Second, baseball is supposed to be a team game.  An intentional walk is almost always a failed strategy if the next batter reaches base safely.  If a team has one great hitter in the heart of its line-up, but no one else that can hit, why shouldn’t the opposing team be able to take advantage of that fact by pitching around the team’s only strong hitter?

That’s exactly what the Cubs did in all four games of that series against the Nationals, which the Cubs swept.  The Cubs won all four games by no more than three runs, and Harper scored only three runs in spite of reaching base 14 times without hitting safely, so obviously the strategy worked.  Why shouldn’t the onus be on the Nats to find somebody who can hit behind Harper to make other teams pay for employing this tactic?

Finally, and most importantly, I don’t see any way to for the plate umpire to determine whether or not a pitcher is intentionally trying to walk a batter if the intentional walk is eliminated and pitchers simply elect to throw four pitches out of the strike zone without the catcher stepping out from behind the plate.  Presumably, in the early days of baseball, pitchers simply threw four pitches out of the strike zone when they didn’t want a certain hitter to have an opportunity to hit, and at some point, teams did away with the pretense of trying to look like the pitcher was pitching to the hitter in good faith but not throwing strikes.

Pitchers pitch to the game’s best hitters very carefully anyway.  Making the plate umpire decide whether or not a pitcher is missing the strike zone intentionally would lead to a lot of arbitrary decisions or would simply be ignored.

An analogous comparison is allowing umpires to deny the batter a base after the batter is hit by a pitch if the umpire thinks the batter didn’t try to get out of the way.  This rule is almost always ignored, even for batters who every one knows don’t try to get out of the way (Don Baylor) or who appear to be moving out of the way but are actually moving into the pitch (Ron Hunt).  As a result, the rare instances when the rule is enforced, for example during Don Drysdale‘s scoreless innings pitched streak when his plunking of Dick Dietz wasn’t called, allowing the streak to continue, always seem arbitrary and capricious.

MLB has only been keeping track of intentional walks since 1955.  What is interesting about the stats is except for when Barry Bonds was juicing hard between 2001 and 2004 and hitting like Babe Ruth‘s big brother, the record for intentional walks for a season is Willie McCovey‘s 45 in 1969.

Since the end of the Steroids Era, it’s not at all clear that intentional walks are much more common now than they were before the Steroids Era.  It’s also worth noting that the intentional walk appears to be much more of a National League strategy, perhaps because of the DH in the AL, with the top 17 single season intentional walks totals recorded in the Senior Circuit.  Further, walking Barry Bonds as much as teams did between 2001 and 2004 does not appear to have been particularly effective, as the Giants won more than 100 games more than they lost during those four seasons.

Good time for a trivia question — who holds the American League single season record for intentional walks?  Answer below.

Anyway, what got me thinking about this issue again is that MLB is reportedly discussing a rule to make the intentional walk automatic, meaning that the defensive team could simply advise the umpire of its intent to issue an intentional walk without the need for four wide pitches.  Presumably, the purpose of the new rule, if formally approved, is to speed up the game.

MLB is also discussing reducing the strike zone from the bottom of the knees to the top of the knees.  If enacted and enforced by the umpires, this is anticipated to boost offense.  More offense means more intentional walks, as the cost of the intentional walk (a free base) is less when the league’s best hitters become more productive offensively.

The American League record for intentional walks in a season is 33, set my Ted Williams in 1957 and matched by John Olerud in 1993.

Talk of Banning Defensive Shifts Is Just Stupid

April 27, 2016

There was a particularly stupid article on espn.com today in which Yankees manager Joe Girardi said that if he was Commissioner he’d ban defensive shifts.  The apparent motivation for this stupid comment was the fact that Nate Eovaldi lost a no-hitter because a batter hit against a defensive shift Girardi had at least tacitly approved.  I’m not sure if I am more irritated by the inanity of Girardi’s quoted comments or the fact that ESPN presented this baloney as legitimate national baseball news.

Girardi is quoted as saying that as long as extreme, modern defensive shifts are permissible, he’ll use them (because — duh! they obviously work), but he just doesn’t like them because “it takes away from the original intent of the setup of baseball” (writer Andrew Marchand’s stupid choice of words, rather the manager’s actual stupid quoted comments).

This is just wrong on so many levels.  Originally, the 1Bman, 2Bman and 3Bman played more or less right on their respective bases all the time and the shortstop was more of a rover who roamed around the inner outfield  in 10-man softball.  Gradually, over several decades of trial and error (quite literally) between roughly 1840 and 1870, infielders and outfielders moved around until they found the optimal defensive alignments, in an era long before each hitters’ batted balls were charted, where they could best defend against batted balls.

Probably from the moment fully professional league play started in 1871, infielders moved around based on the hitting tendencies of the hitters they were defending against, based on their own personal experience of observing and reporting to their teammates each hitter’s specific tendencies.

Even the extreme defensive shifts we see today are “new” only in the sense that they are being employed more frequently, and not that the infielders or outfielders are moving any further from their “typical” positions.  A favorite trivia question of my childhood in the 1970’s and 1980’s was which team first employed the “Williams Shift,” i.e., the shortstop playing on the 1B side of second base and the 2Bman playing in short right field?

The answer is the Chicago Cubs, because the Williams Shift began in the 1920’s against left-handed hitting Phillies slugger Cy Williams, rather than the more famous Ted Williams a generation later.  You would have been a dead pull hitter too, even against the most extreme defensive shifts, if you were a left-handed batter with pop playing half of your games in the Baker Bowl.  Ted Williams and Barry Bonds didn’t change their swings or their approaches just because the infielders shifted, because pitchers usually pitched inside against them, into the shift, and right into their wheelhouses, as Teddy Ballgame once famously explained.

How can you say that a defensive strategy which has been around almost a 100 years is suddenly ruining the game?  Only if you are profoundly ignorant, or you have some other agenda.

I kind of suspect that what Girardi was really doing was trying to make his pitcher feel better better about losing his no-hitter because a hitter beat the shift Girardi called.  I doubt Girardi is a rocket scientist, but I doubt is as dumb as the reported comments make him sound.

The fact that espn.com reports this nonsense as national baseball news is perhaps more irritating because some professional editor really ought to know better.  Making these kinds of facile arguments and presenting them as legitimate debate brings down the entire level of the conversation.  Sort of like Marco Rubio making insufficiently veiled negative references regarding the size of Donald Trump’s penis, and Trump assuring the American television public in no uncertain terms that he is sufficiently endowed to be POTUS.  While unconscious assumptions about Presidential candidates’ respective virility has probably played a much greater role in their ultimate success or failure than any of us would care to admit, it certainly does not elevate the discussion to make those unconscious assumptions explicit.

Another way to see how ridiculous Girardi’s claim is to take it to its logical conclusion.  Do we put pitcher’s rubbers (or 19th century pitcher’s boxes) at every infield and outfield position and insist that each fielder make contact with it before the pitcher releases the ball or the batter puts the ball in play?  Do we ban cannon-armed, but slow of foot shortstops like Cal Ripken from positioning themselves on the outfield grass?  Do we ban outfielders who are exceptionally good at going back on the ball like Tris Speaker from playing too shallow for fear they might take away too many Texas League hits?  Do we put additional chalk lines all over the infield to make sure infielders don’t shy away too far from their assigned bases?

Look, if a team wants to play put all seven defenders behind the pitcher in the right field corner, I say let them.  The answer to more defensive shifts is obvious: find more hitters who can hit against the shift.  If a left-handed pull-hitter’s value as a slugger is so great that the opposing team wants to play seven defenders to the right of second base, how does it desecrate baseball to let the fielding team have that option?  If the value of left-handed power hitters is diminished somewhat by modern shifting, that means the value of players of the type who were baseball’s greatest hitting stars before 1920 will be elevated somewhat.  How can that possibly be a travesty to the history of the national pastime?