Archive for the ‘Cincinnati Reds’ category

Best Hitting Pitchers in MLB Baseball 2018

May 12, 2018

Shohei Ohtani has more or less blown up any discussion of the best hitting pitchers in major league baseball.  He’s created a whole new paradigm for two-way players that hasn’t existed since the 1920’s and the only question is whether he is the start of a new trend or a one-off.

Highly touted prospect Brendan McKay is still on pace to be the next two-way player, although he’s still got a long way to go and his hitting abilities may not be able to keep up with his pitching abilities as he shoots up through the minors.  McKay is already ready for a promotion to A+ ball as a pitcher, and I wouldn’t hold him back to let his hitting catch up.  Still, major league pitchers who can also pinch hit should have value in today’s extreme relief pitching game.

1.  Shohei Ohtani.  I didn’t want to jump on the Ohtani as hitter bandwagon too soon, but I was convinced he’s for real (even if he doesn’t continue to bat .344 and produce over 1.000) when he beat the shift with a double down the left field line about a week ago.  Ohtani has what it takes to be a great major league hitter, although he’ll face his forced adjustments and his hitting performance will be affected by the many games in which he does not bat.  That said, the baby-faced 23 year old phenom can hit.

1.  Madison Bumgarner (.185 career batting average and .555 career OPS).  MadBum is still baseball’s best full-time pitcher, but the bloom is off the rose compared to Ohtani, who will be DHing three times a week until major league baseball pitchers prove they can get him out.  A one-on-one Ohtani-MadBum home run derby at the All-Star Break would be an enormous amount of fun.  Madbum should be healthy by then.

3.  Zack Greinke  (.229 BA, .579 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.

The fact that the Diamondbacks are apparently not willing to give Greinke even half a dozen opportunities to pinch hit each season is a missed opportunity.

4.  Yovani Gallardo (.229, .564).  Gallardo’s career as a major league pitcher may be over, but he sure could hit.

5. Adam Wainwright (.199 BA, .529 OPS).  Another player whose major league pitching career is winding down, but with well over 500 career at-bats, Wainwright has well proven his abilities as a hitting pitcher.

6.  Noah Syndergaard (.181 BA, .561 OPS).  A poor start to the 2018 season has brought Syndergaard’s batting average below the Mendoza Line, but he has power and will take a walk.

7.  Daniel Hudson (.226, .567).  Since coming back from an arm injury as a major league relief pitcher, Hudson has had only one plate appearance since 2012, but he could hit.

8.   Mike Leake (.200, .511).  Mike Leake hasn’t had a plate appearance yet this year, as he is now an American League pitcher.  He hit a ton his first three seasons with the Reds, but hasn’t done much with the bat since.

9.  Tyler Chatwood (.214, .485) and Tyson Ross (.199, .476).  As I point out every year, the best hitting major league pitchers get pretty bad pretty fast.

Honorable MentionsCC Sabathia (.212, .539)  CC hasn’t had a hit since 2010, but he could hit when he had the opportunity to bat more than three or four times a season.  Travis Wood (.185, .537).  Wood’s major league career appears over.

Young Hitting Pitchers to Watch.  Michael Lorenzen (.226, .618).  A shoulder injury has prevented Lorenzen from pitching or hitting so far in 2018.  Ty Blach (.194, .505) hit as a rookie in 2017 but is off to a terrible start with the bat in 2018.  Ben Lively (.182, .545) still has to prove he can be a major league starter.

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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?

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.

KBO Goes Younger and Cheaper with its Foreign Imports in 2018

February 13, 2018

With the Samsung Lion’s announced signing of 28 year old pitcher Lisalverto Bonilla to a reported $700,000 deal, South Korea’s KBO has now filled all 30 roster spots for foreign players heading into the 2018 season.  KBO teams went younger and cheaper this off-season, which is probably a very sensible thing to do.

Last off-season, KBO teams spent big, hoping that the Korean National Team would do well in the 2017 World Baseball Classic and the KBO would see a big boost in attendance as a result.  The Korean team under-performed again in the WBC, and KBO attendance, while steady, did not experience the attendance surge KBO teams had been betting on.

KBO teams spent big on some older foreign pitchers with significant MLB experience like Jeff Manship, Carlos Villanueva and Alexi Ogando.  However, these oldsters had a hard time staying healthy, and their performances while solid, weren’t the league-leading performances their respective teams were paying for.

Also, this off-season KBO teams elected to jettison some of their big foreign stars who still pitched effectively in 2017 but were getting long in the tooth, namely Dustin Nippert, Andy Van Hekken and Eric Hacker.  Nippert was able to sign a $1 million with the KT Wiz, but that was less than half of the record-setting $2.2 million the Doosan Bears paid him in 2017.

Well, there’s a lot to be said for going younger and cheaper.  Players going into their age 26-29 seasons are a lot less likely to get hurt than players over the age of 30.

Also, except for teams with a realistic chance of going deep into the post-season, KBO teams should be looking for foreign pitchers they can develop and keep around for a few years.  You might get one great year from an MLB veteran over 30, but you might get three or more good years out of a pitcher who is signed entering his age 27 or 28 season.

The initial contract that a foreign player in the KBO signs tends to have a big impact on future contracts.  KBO teams own the rights of each foreign player in the KBO, meaning that the team which signs a foreigner to his first contract is the only game in town unless the player plays well enough to generate interest from a NPB team.

Starting a rookie foreign player in the $600,000 to $800,000 range means that it’s going to take more than one fine KBO season for that player to begin to approach the top of the salary scale for foreign players, which is currently between about $1.5 million to $2 million.  Needless to say, if you pick the right 26 to 29 year old at $600,000 to $800,000, that could be a player a KBO team could build a team around for the next three or four seasons without breaking the budget.

MLB Teams Want Shorter Free Agent Contracts

January 18, 2018

There has been a lot of talk this off-season about the fact that only two of the top dozen free agents has yet signed a contract. mlbtraderumors.com weighed in again on this issue today.

The one thing that seems obvious to me looking at the players who have signed free agent contracts this off-season so far is that teams want shorter contract lengths (i.e., no more than three years) and will pay more per year to get them.

No team has yet signed a player to more than three years.  However, the players who have agreed to three year deals have done pretty well, at least compared to mlbtraderumors’ predictions for its top 50 free agents, which experience has shown deserve a lot of weight.  mlbtraderumors has a formula it uses and tweaks every off-season based on the previous off-season’s signing results, and their predictions have proven to be well better than educated guesses.

Carlos Santana’s three-year $60 million deal is the biggest free agent signing so far.  mlbtraderumors correctly predicted the three-year term, but underestimated the payout by $5 million per year.  Tyler Chatwood (predicted 3 years $20M; actually received 3 years $38M). Jake McGee (3/$18M; 3/$27M), Mike Minor (4/$28M; 3/$28M), Bryan Shaw (3/$21M; 3/$27M), Tommy Hunter (2/$12M; 2/$18M), Pat Neshek (2/$12M; 2/16.25M), Michael Pineda (2/$6M; 2/$10M) and Miles Mikolas (2/$10M; 2/$15.5M) all did significantly better on two and three year deals than predicted.

Meanwhile, only Addison Reed (4/$36M; 2/$16.75M), CC Sabathia (2/$24M; 1/$10M), Yonder Alonzo (2/$22M; 2/$16M), Brandon Kintzler (2/$14M; 1/$5M) and Howie Kendrick (2/$12M; 2/$7M) have done significantly worse than predicted.  Zack Cozart (3/$42M; 3/$38M), Jay Bruce (3/$39M; 3/$39M), Juan Nicasio (2/$21M; 2/$17M), Jhoulys Chacin (2/$14M; 2/$15.5M), Welington Castillo (2/$14M; 2/$15M), Anthony Swarzak (2/$14M; 2/$14M) and Steve Cishek (2/$14M; 2/$13M) got right around what was predicted.

Finally, both Wade Davis (4/$60M; 3/$52M) and Brandon Morrow (3/$24M; 2/$21m) got one fewer year than predicted, but at a much higher annual rate, so much higher, in fact, that one has to think there wasn’t much incentive to hold out for the extra year.  I think these signings make it likely that each of Lance Lynn, Greg Holland and Alex Cobb will be forced to accept three year offers, although probably for only $3M to $6M less than mlbtraderumors predicted over four seasons.

I suspect that advanced analytics have suggested to teams something they already knew: long-term free agents contract can be a long-term albatross around a team’s neck is veteran player gets hurt or old fast.  Better to pay more per season for fewer seasons so the burden of a bad contract doesn’t hurt the team for as many seasons.

I could see Yu Darvish being forced to accept a five-year deal in the $140M to $150M range, although as the No. 1 starter available this off-season, I think someone will eventually give him a sixth season.  The reported rumors sound as if both Kansas City and San Diego have made Eric Hosmer offers close to the six years and $132M that mlbtraderumors predicted.

The market for J.D. Martinez does not seem to be developing as predicted, but the four years at $100M predicted for Jake Arrieta seems likely to be met since he is the second best free agent starter available.  Scott Boras is representing a number of top free agents this year, and his asks have been pie-in-the-sky, as they always are.  I don’t believe the reports that any free agent will wait until after the 2018 regular season starts to sign, because that is an absolute value killer for a free agent if ever there was one.

It’s likely that a majority of the mid-range free agents (Nos. 20-50) who haven’t yet signed won’t do as well as the predictions, however, based on the fact that many teams have now filled their needs by the free agent players signed to date.

 

The Ten Best Players from the U.S. Virgin Islands in MLB History

December 31, 2017

Lately, the tiny island nation of Curacao (current population 150,000) has garnered a lot of attention for all the great baseball players produced there.  Before Curacao, the tiny Caribbean island nation (sort of) that produced a surprisingly large number of major league players was the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The first Virgin Islander to play in the major leagues was Valmy Thomas on April 16, 1957.  Thomas was born in Puerto Rico, where he later experienced the greatest share of his professional baseball success, because his mother didn’t trust the hospitals in the U.S. Virgin Islands and thought she’d get better care in Puerto Rico.  However, mother and baby returned to the Virgin Islands shortly after the delivery.  Joe Christopher was the first major league player actually born in the Virgin Islands when he broke in in 1959.

Including Thomas and Julio Navarro, who was also born in Puerto Rico but grew up on St. Croix, at least 16 Virgin Islanders have played in the majors.  Here is my list of the best ten:

1. Horace “Hoss” Clarke (1965-1974).  The starting 2Bman in the period immediately following the end of the New York Yankees’ multi-decade dynasty, Clarke was in his prime a terrific defensive 2Bman, leading the Junior for six consecutive seasons in assists (1967-1972), four consecutive seasons in putouts (1968-1971) and twice in double plays (1969, 1972).  He was also seen as a good lead-off man in his day, but he was definitely an old-school lead-off man who ran well and stole bases but didn’t really get on base enough for the role.

Clarke’s reputation in his own day was affected by the fact that the Yankees were no longer consistent winners, as one of the team’s best players in this era, he took a lot of undeserved heat for it.  He also had a reputation for not being tough on hard slides into second base to break up the double play, but as noted above, he did lead the AL twice in turning double plays and never finished lower than 5th (in a 10- or 12-team circuit) in this category in any of the seven seasons between 1967 and 1973.  He was also a polite but quiet man who preferred playing musical instruments to talking, something that probably didn’t endear him to sportswriters looking for good quotes and copy.

Like most Virgin Islands players of his era, he played many winters in Puerto Rico where V.I. players were more or less treated like locals, and like several other V.I. players Clarke took a Puerto Rican wife.  After his career, Clarke returned to St. Croix, where he taught children to play baseball and also worked for a time as a scout for the Royals.

2. Al McBean (1961-1970).  Al McBean is not at all well remembered today, because his nine year Pittsburgh Pirates career was played entirely between the 1960 and 1971 teams that were World Champions.  He won 15 games as a starter in 1962 and then was gradually converted to a reliever over the 1963.  The Pirates’ top reliever Elroy Face took McBean under his wing and taught McBean how to pitch in relief situations while having McBean over to his house to BBQ.

McBean went 13-3 with 11 saves in 1963, posted a 1.91 ERA with 21 saves (tied for 2nd best in NL behind Hal Woodshick‘s 23 saves) in 1964, and posted a 2.29 ERA with 19 saves (tied for 4th best) in 1965.  McBean wasn’t as good after that but remained an effective reliever and starter for the Bucs though 1968.

McBean had a hard sinker that was hard to elevate, and he threw from different arm angles to give hitters diverse looks.  He was known for his sense of humor and tried to put on a show for the fans, which sometimes got him called a hot dog.  He was also a flashy but stylish for the time (mod) dresser who became famous in Pittsburgh for a white suit, white tie and white shoes ensemble.  He sometimes drew comparisons to Muhammad Ali.

McBean also married a Puerto Rican woman named Olga Santos, whom he told the first time he met her that one day he’d marry her.  They married about nine months later in Pittsburgh.

Surprisingly, McBean never made an All-Star team, but he played in the one and only Latin American Players’ Game, the last game played at Manhattan’s old Polo Grounds on October 12, 1963, attended by 14,235 fans.  It was played for charity with NL and AL squads featuring Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Luis Aparicio, Minnie Minoso and Tony Oliva among others.  The National League team won 5-2, and McBean was involved in the game’s most exciting play: a triple by McBean that drove in Tony Gonzalez but on which McBean was thrown out at home plate on a Minoso to Aparicio to Jose Azcue relay.  For what it’s worth, the players on the two teams were disproportionately Cubans, reflecting all the great players coming out of that country before the Revolution.

McBean finished his major league career with a 67-50 record, 63 saves and a 3.13 ERA.  He returned St. Thomas after his career, working in housing and recreation for the Virgin Islands government.  Needless to say, he thinks most of today’s highly paid stars are soft.

3.  Elrod Hendricks (1968-1979). Part of Earl Weaver‘s catcher’s platoons for many years, Hendricks played for much of the Orioles’ greatest period of success between 1966 and 1979.  Hendricks didn’t hit for much of an average (.220 lifetime), but he’d take a walk and hit not too infrequent home runs, two things that Earl Weaver loved.  In fact, Weaver discovered Hendricks while managing in Puerto Rico after several unsuccessful attempts by Hendricks to establish himself playing in the U.S.

Hendricks was also a fine defensive catcher who throw out 38% of attempted base stealers during his career.  He played in five post-seasons, four with the O’s.  He played 16 seasons of winter ball in Puerto Rico and was the Orioles’ bullpen coach for a remarkable 28 years.

He was also a great handler of the Orioles’ great pitching staff.  He caught Jim Palmer‘s no-hitter on August 13, 1969, and Palmer had great things to say about Hendricks, despite their sometimes contentious disagreements about pitch-calling while Palmer was on the mound.

The most famous play in Hendricks’ career happened in the 1970 World Series.  In Game 1 with the score tied 1-1, Reds pinch hitter Ty Cline hit a high chopper off home plate, which Hendricks grabbed with his bare hand.  Berno Carbo came charging in from third trying to score.  Hendricks lunged towards Carbo trying to apply the tag as umpire Ken Burkhart moved forward to call the batted ball fair.  Burkhart and Hendricks collided, spinning Burkhart to the ground as Hendricks tagged Carbo with his empty mitt.  Burkhart called Carbo out, and Carbo and Reds manager Sparky Anderson argued vociferously.  This was before instant replay replay reversal, but the instant replays on TV showed clearly, both that Hendricks had tagged Carbo with the wrong hand and that Carbo had completely missed home plate.  Carbo did not touch home until he did so unaware as he argued with Burkhart.  Here is the replay from youtube.

4. Jose “Shady” Morales (1973-1984).  Morales and Manny Mota were generally recognized as baseball’s best pinch hitters during the 1970’s.  Morales’ 25 pinch hits in 1976 broke Dave Philley‘s 1961 record (tied by Vic Davalillo in 1970) and lasted until John Vander Wal stoked 28 in 1995.

Jose Morales’ had started his professional career as a catcher because of his strong arm, but developed a reputation as a defensive liability there.  Becoming a top pinch hitter kept on major league rosters, and he later had success as part of a DH platoon for the Minnesota Twins.

Morales played professionally for more than twenty seasons, including two decades of Winter ball in Puerto Rico.  When he retired his 123 career major league pinch hits was third best all-time, and he still ranks 8th best all-time.  He then worked as a hitting coach and instructor and now lives in the Orlando area.

5.  Jerry Browne (1986-1995).  Known as the “Guv’nor,” Browne had his best season as the starting 2Bman for the 1989 Indians, when he slashed .299/.370/.390.  Despite being a fast base runner who got on base, Browne was inconsistent and wasn’t good at turning the double play.  Ultimately, he developed into a utility man who played 2B, 3B and all three outfield positions.  He’s done some couching for major league organizations and now lives in Texas.

6.  Joe Christopher (1959-1966).  Joe Christopher had one great major league season when he was one of the few bright spots on a dreadful 1964 Mets team.  He slashed .300/.360/.466 and recorded 10 assists as the team’s primary right-fielder.  As a pinch-runner for the Pirates, “Hurryin’ Joe” scored two runs in the 1960 World Series.

He was the fifth player drafted by the expansion 1962 Mets.  His most vivid memory of the 1962 season was teaching center fielder Richie Ashburn how to say “Yo la Tengo” (“I got it!”) so that he wouldn’t collide with Venezuelan shortstop Elio Chacon, only to have Ashburn get run over by the much larger left fielder Frank Thomas.

Christopher credited his hitting success in 1964 in part to a pamphlet written by Paul Waner, which Christopher sent away for for 50 cents based on an add in the Sporting News, and a meeting he had with Waner in 1961.  Christopher also played in Puerto Rico for many winters and married a Puerto Rican woman, although the marriage lasted only about six years.  After baseball, he went into advertising.

7.  Midre Cummings (1993-2005).  Cummings moved to Florida for his final year of high school and became a first round draft pick for the Twins (29th overall in 1990).  He developed a reputation in baseball, perhaps unjustly, as a player with a lot of talent but who had a bad head in that he was too lackadaisical in his training and work habits.  He was never able to establish himself as an everyday player at the major league level, but he eventually established himself as an effective pinch hitter, leading his league several times in pinch hits.

The highlight of Cummings’ major league career, perhaps, was the 2001 post-season, where like Joe Christopher before him, he was used primarily as a pinch runner and scored three runs, two of them in the World Series, including the tying run in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7.  Cummings now lives in Tampa and coaches children.

8.  Jharel Cotton (2016-2017).  Cotton came to the U.S. at the age of 16.  He went 9-10 with a 5.58 ERA as a rookie starting pitcher for the A’s in 2017.  He’s got a live arm, but he will be 26 in 2018, so we’ll see where his career goes.  On August 9, 2016, Cotton fell one batter short of pitching a perfect game in the AAA Pacific Coast League, allowing a triple to the 27th batter with two outs in the ninth.

9.  Calvin Pickering (1998-2005).  Pickering also moved to Florida for his final year of high school.  Although a 35th round draft pick, he showed both a tremendous ability to hit and to hit for power as soon as he started his professional career.  Alas, weight issues (he reported to Spring Training at least one year weighing 300 lbs and never played at much less than 260) and the injuries that came with them prevented him from becoming a major league star.

Pickering hit 35 home runs at AAA Omaha in only 379 plate appearances during his age 27 season and played for half a season in South Korea’s KBO two years later.

10.  Valmy Thomas (1957-1961).  My next post will be devoted to Valmy Thomas, who had a very interesting professional career.

The Ten Best Nicaraguan Players in MLB History

December 25, 2017

I recently had dinner with the Nicaraguan side of my second family.  Not surprisingly, I have been inspired to identify the best ten Nicaraguan Players in MLB history.

1.  Dennis Martinez (1976-1998). He has been the most famous Nicaraguan baseball player for a couple of generations now, so much so he’s mentioned in the 1983 Nick Nolte/Gene Hackman movie Under Fire.  Small wonder — he went 245-193 in his 23 year major league career.

Martinez led the American League in innings pitchedm (292.1) and complete games (18) in 1979 for the World Series losing Baltimore Orioles; led the AL in wins in a four-way tie with 14 in the 1981 Strike season; and led that National League in ERA (2.39), complete games (nine) and shutouts (5) as a 37 year old Montreal Expo in 1991.  He was the first and still the best Nicaraguan player ever to play in MLB.

Here’s an interesting factoid from wikipedia about Martinez: “On September 28, 1995, a wild pitch by Martinez broke the jaw of Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett. This would be Puckett’s last official game of his career, retiring in 1996 due to glaucoma in his right eye, a problem unrelated to Martinez’s pitch.”  Puckett batted right-handed, so the pitch probably hit him in the left-side of the face.

I don’t think of Dennis Martinez as quite being a Hall of Fame pitcher.  However, his 245 career wins are going to look even better to Veteran’s Committee members (or whatever MLB calls them now) as time passes.

2.  Vicente Padilla (1999-2012).  Padilla was a successful right-handed starter who finished his major league career 108-91.  Padilla signed his first contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks a month before his 21st birthday, which is old for a Latin American prospect, after working with Dennis Martinez in Nicaragua to improve his change-up.

I remember Padilla as having a reputation as a bean-ball artist.  The stats bear out my memory.  Padilla led the AL in HBP with 17 in 2006, and he plunked at least 15 in a season three other times.  Padilla is 67th all-time in hitting batters (109), and Dennis Martinez is tied for 50th all-time (122) in many more games and innings pitched.

Pitchers will always doctor baseballs and throw at batters, if they can get an advantage by doing so.  A pitcher coming out of a hard-scrabble place like Nicaragua (only Haiti and Honduras have lower per capita GNP in the Western Hemisphere), you’re going to do what it takes to win ballgames.  By my calculation, Padilla made at least $54 million playing professional baseball around the world, so his pitching style clearly worked for him.

3.  Marvin Benard (1995-2003).  Benard was born in Bluefields, Nicaragua and moved his family to the Los Angeles City of Bell at the age of 12.  He was generally beloved in San Francisco, although he really only had two great major league seasons, his age 27 and 28 seasons.  Then he got old fast.  The Giants signed him to a three-year $11.1 million for the next three years (2001-2003).  Benard was hurt much of 2002, the Giants surely didn’t get their monies’ worth in the final year of the deal.

Marvin’s son Isaac Benard is a 21 year minor leaguer for the Tampa Rays, who didn’t hit great at the Rays’ A- team in 2017, the Hudson Valley Renegades of the New York-Pennsylvania League.

4.  Albert Williams (DeSousa) (1980-1984).  Albert Williams was a top starter on three bad Minnesota Twins’ teams from 1981-1983 and started the Twins’ season opener in 1984.  His career story is especially interesting.

Williams was originally signed by the Pirates’ organization in 1975 and he played two years in the low minors in their system.  However, in 1977, he couldn’t get a visa from the Nicaraguan government to play in the U.S., so he was forced to remain in Nicaragua, where he joined the Sandinistas and fought against the Somoza dictatorship for 16 months.  He then was “smuggled” out of Nicaragua to pitch for the Panama franchise in the Inter-American League in its sole season of 1979.

The Inter-American League had six teams in four countries plus Puerto Rico, but didn’t make it through a full schedule, with teams playing between 72 and 51 games for the season before the league folded.  An interesting idea, but travel expenses must have been great.

Williams then signed with the Twins’ organization.  He also pitched six winters in the Venezuelan Winter League including the 1983 Caribbean Series for the Tiberones de La Guaira.  However, Williams’ didn’t have great stuff, and it looks as if his pitching arm gave out, based on the fact that he last pitched in the MLB system in 1985 at the age of 31 after a rapid descent.

5.  Wilton Lopez (2009-2014).  Like Williams above, Lopez was a good pitcher whose MLB stardom only shown briefly.  The middle four years of his major league career, he was a strong right-handed reliever, who went 16-15 with 11 saves.  He fell apart the next season, and last pitched in the MLB-system in 2015, his age 31 season.

According to recent reports from La Prensa as of late September 2017, reports are that Lopez’s wing has recovered enough from whatever was afflicting it two years ago for him to have signed to play baseball professionally in Nicaragua and play on the Nicaraguan National Team.

6.  Everth Cabrera (2009-2015).  The National League’s leader in stolen bases in 2012 with 44, the lowest total to lead the Senior Circuit since Craig Biggio’s 39 in 1994, Everth Cabrera was a good major league player only two seasons, that year and the next.  Cabrera is probably most famously remembered outside of San Diego for his 50-game suspension arising out of the Biogenesis PED scandal, which came down late in the 2013 season.  He was never the same after that, and his 2017 performance at AAA Syracuse at the age of 30 makes it unlikely he’ll play in the MLB-system in the future.

According to La Prensa, Cabrera is also playing professionally in Nicaragua this Winter and on the National Team.

7.  Erasmo Ramirez (2012 – present).  Now we get into the players who are active in MLB now.  Erasmo Ramirez is a 27 year old sometime starter, sometime reliever, who has a career W-L record of 30-35 with three saves.  Ramirez was an effective No. 3 starter for the 2015 Tampa Rays, going 11-6 with a 3.75 ERA.

Ramirez also pitched well in 11 starts for the Seattle Mariners after being acquired from the Rays near the 2017 trade deadline and is apparently going through the salary arbitration process with the M’s.  mlbtraderumors.com projects him to make $4.7 million in 2018.

8.  Cheslor Cuthbert (2015 – present).   Cheslor Cuthbert is a 3Bman going into his age 25 season.  If Mike Moustakas does not re-sign with the Kansas City Royals, Cuthbert should be first in line to take that job and with it the opportunity to become a major league star.  His defense is not good, but major league adequate.  He hit well as a 23 year old rookie in 2016, but not at all in his 2017 sophomore season.  He’s hit at AAA Omaha and he’s young enough that you have to think the odds are reasonably good if he enters the 2018 season as the Royals’ regular third-sacker.

9.  J.C. Ramirez (2013 – present).  Since the Anaheim Angels selected Ramirez off waivers from the Cincinnati Reds in late June 2016, his performance has been eye-opening, first in relief in 2016 and then as an unexpected starter in 2017.  He went 11-10 last year with a 4.15 ERA over 147.1 IP.  However, he was shut down in late August after experiencing forearm pain, he struck out only 105 batters, and he’ll be 29 in 2018, so there are no guarantees going forward.

10.  David Green (1981-1987).  Green arguably had a better major league career than J.C. Ramirez or Chestlor Cuthbert has had to date, but I’m fairly confident the latter two will finish their major league careers ahead of Green.  Green could hit a little, but in his two seasons as an MLB regular, he walked less than 5% of his plate appearances.  Although he had the arm and speed to play right field and back up in center field, he mostly played 1B in the majors, a defensive position he didn’t hit well enough for.  He was part of the infamous Jack Clark trade in February 1985, which ultimately netted the Giants only Jose Uribe.   That’s definitely going to hurt his all-time rating with this Giants fan.

Green later played for part of a season (1986) in Japan’s NPB, as Vicente Padilla did in 2013.  Green does not appear to have played professionally since his age 30 (but more likely age 31) season in 1991.

Green’s back story is interesting.  His father Edward “Eduardo” Green had been one of the great players in Nicaraguan baseball history.  Eduardo originally though this first son Eduardo Jr. would follow in his footsteps.  However, Jr. didn’t have the talent, while younger son David did.  Eduardo Sr. shifted his attentions to David when the latter was about 15 years old, and was reportedly an abusive instructor.

Green signed a contract with the Milwaukee Brewers in June 1978 for a $20,000 signing bonus. The Brewers scout Julio Blanco Herrera pulled out ten $100 bills from his pocket and paid Green a “down-payment” at a time when due to the Nicaraguan Revolution it was extremely difficult to get cash because the banks and businesses were all closed and food had to be paid for in cash.  Eduardo Sr. died of a series of heart attacks while David was playing in the MLB minors.

On the eve of breaking through to the majors, Green was regarded as one of the best prospects in baseball.  However, he was isolated from his family in Nicaragua because of the war, and he may have started to develop an alcohol problem.  Green’s mother died during Spring Training 1984, which may have deepened his problem with alcohol, and perhaps cocaine, which was sweeping through major league baseball at that time.

Green briefly went into rehab in 1984, but left to resume playing baseball without having kicked his habits.  His drinking problem resurfaced in an ugly way after his playing career, when he was convicted of driving while intoxicated following an accident in St. Louis in which an elderly woman ultimately died. He likely served less than a year in jail based on the jury’s recommendation of six months of incarceration.

10 of the 14 Nicaraguan born players to play in the major leagues have been pitchers.  Nicaraguan major leaguers have disproportionately been Afro-Nicaraguan players.

As a final note, all of Cabrera, Cuthbert and the two Ramirez’s played on Nicaragua 2013 National Team that failed make the World Baseball Classic after getting blown out in qualifying games against Columbia (8-1) and Panama (6-2).  It tells you how good even the second-tier Latin American National teams are now.