Archive for the ‘KBO’ category

My Favorite Minor League Stars 2019

June 8, 2019

Every year I like to write about current or former minor league stars who have particularly captured my attention and/or imagination.  Here is this season’s edition:

Mike Loree and Josh Lowey.  Two pitchers who never reached the major leagues (or even got close), but have carved out professional success because they can pitch.  Both are 34 this year.

Mike Loree is currently in his seventh CPBL season and continues to be the best pitcher in Taiwan, although another former SF Giants farm hand, Henry Sosa, gave Loree a run for his money this season until having his contract purchased for a return to South Korea’s KBO last week.  I wrote about Mike Loree yesterday.

Josh Lowey is in his sixth season in LMB and he is to the Mexican League what Loree is to the CPBL.  Lowey is also 33.  Lowey has started the 2019 LMB season 8-0, and his 3.91, while on its face high, is actually the ninth best in a 16-team circuit known for its offense.  Lowey is now an incredible 63-24 in LMB play, a .724 winning percentage.  Unfortunately, Lowey has missed his last two starts.  He’s on the reserved list, rather than the Injured List, so maybe he’s dealing with a family emergency.

Cyle Hankerd and Blake Gailen.  Two more 34 year oldss who have never reached the MLB majors (or come particularly close) but who can play.  Hankerd, who was once a 3rd Round draft pick out of USC, is in his sixth season in LMB.  He has a 1.011 OPS so far in 2019, although he’s only played in 30 games.

A strong season in the Atlantic League last year got Blake Gailen a job playing for the Dodger’s AAA team in Oklahoma City.  I suspect he’s doing double duty as a coach, whether officially or not, based on the fact that he’s spent a lot of time on the Injured List and is only 3 for 19 when he’s played.  He won’t last much longer on the roster hitting like that, but I expect he’ll go into coaching when they tell him he can’t play any more.

Chris Roberson.  Now in his age 39 season, he’s still the undisputed American King of Mexican baseball.  He’s played nine seasons in LMB and at least 14 seasons in Mexico’s even better winter league (MXPW or LMP).  However, his current .893 OPS isn’t even in the LMB’s top 40 in what has been a great season for hitters south of the border.  If any American is making a good living playing baseball in Mexico, it’s Chris Roberson.

Another Mexican Leaguer who has captured my attention in the last year is Jose Vargas.  Once a 22nd round draft pick out of Ventura College, a JC in Ventura, California, Vargas quickly washed out of the White Sox’ system, after which he spent six (!) playing for the Traverse City Beach Bums of the Indy-A Frontier League.  Traverse City is by most accounts a great place to spend one’s summers; however, it’s hard to imagine being able to have a whole lot of fun on $1,600 a month, which is about where Frontier League salaries max out.

Vargas is big, has power and is able to play 3B, 1B and LF.  After paying his dues in the Frontier League, he was able to catch on with an LMB team in 2017, possibly due to the fact that LMB began treating Mexican American players as “domestic,” rather than “foreign” players for roster purposes around that time.

In his age 31 season, he’s leading LMB with 27 HRs in only 222 plate appearances, and his 1.220 OPS is third best in the league in spite of the fact that he doesn’t walk much.  I’m somewhat doubtful that Vargas is currently making the LMB’s $10,000 salary cap, because his team’s attendance is terrible (just below 2,200 per game), but the odds are good that if he isn’t earning it this year, he’ll get it next year in light of how well he’s now playing.

Karl Galinas .  A 35 year old Can-Am League pitcher, Galinas is the modern day equivalent of Lefty George.  George was a marginal major leaguer who pitched nearly forever in his adopted home town of York, Pennsylvania, where he also ran a bar.

Orlando Roman‘s baseball odyssey may not yet be over.  He’s made nine starts in the Puerto Rico Winter League over the last three winter seasons, so you can’t completely count him from making one or more in 2019-2020.  He pitched professionally for about 20 years in just about every league except the MLB majors.  He’s another pitcher like Mike Loree and Josh Lowey who has leveraged a not quite major league talent into the most successful professional career possible.

A couple of guys in the MLB minors I’m following are Tyler Alexander and John Nogowski.  Tyler Alexander got his start in Brewers’ system but was effectively banished from MLB after testing positive for pot a couple of times while he was having some personal problems.  He spent three years pitching great for Fargo-Moorhead in the American Association and wintering a couple of season in the LMP.

Last year, Alexander pitched effectively in LMB in the summer and in the Dominican League in the winter.  That got him a minor league contract with the A’s, who sent him to AAA Las Vegas.  So far, the results have not been encouraging.  Alexander has a 6.85 ERA after 11 start.  Although he’s struck out 46 batters in 47.1 innings pitched, the long ball has killed him.  I suspect the A’s haven’t yet moved him to the bullpen because they don’t have anyone they reasonably expect to pitch better as a starter in what is probably a terrific hitters’ park.

Last off-season, I thought that Alexander would be a great prospect for Taiwan’s CPBL.  It could still happen, since Alexander will be 28 next season, and isn’t going to last long with a 6.85 ERA at AAA, even in a hitters’ park.

I wrote about John Nogowski two years ago when, after getting bounced out of the A’s system, I noticed he was batting over .400 in the American Association at the still young age of 24.  I “predicted” he’d get signed by another MLB organization soon, and he was within about a week by the Cardinals’ organization.  More importantly, John wrote a comment on my article, becoming the first and so far only active professional player ever to comment on one of my articles.  Needless to say, I’ll be a fan of John’s for life.

Nogowski played well at AA Springfield in in 2018 and is playing fairly well this season at AAA Memphis at age 26.  He’s currently slashing .267/.402/.400.  He’s got major league get-on-base skills, but doesn’t have the power he needs for the position he plays (1B).  His talents might be more suited to Japan’s NPB, where the outfield fences are a little shorter.

At any rate, there’s still a chance that Nogowski could get a major league look this year, if things break right for him.  Unfortunately, he’s not currently on the Cards’ 40-man roster, which means he’ll have to get truly hot at AAA Memphis to bump somebody else off.


Mike Loree: The Best Pitcher You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of

June 7, 2019

Mike Loree just won his 77th CPBL game, moving him past Jonathan Hurst for second most by a foreign pitcher in the Taiwanese league’s history.  Although he still has to win another 31 games to catch all-time foreign leader Ozzy Martinez, an argument can be made that Loree is already the best foreign pitcher in the CPBL’s 30 year history.

It isn’t easy to have a long career in the CPBL, in part because it’s an in-between league, a little better than the Atlantic League and the summer Mexican League, from both of which the CPBL draws many of its foreign players, but not as good as South Korea’s KBO or Japan’s NPB.

Like the KBO and NPB, turnover among foreigners in the CPBL is high.  Many foreign pitchers are already 30 when they start their CPBL careers, so they tend to get old fast.  Also, the CPBL currently has only four teams, which means that starting pitchers face each other team’s line-up eight to 12 times a season.  In other words, by the end of a pitcher’s first full season, all of the league’s hitters know the pitcher intimately.

On the other hand, if a pitcher dominates in the CPBL, the odds are good a KBO or NPB team will come calling.  That just happened with Henry Sosa, who because of tax problems in South Korea and a trend in the KBO this past off-season to weed out older, highly paid foreign players in favor of younger, lesser paid foreign players, started this year in the CPBL.  After 12 starts, he was leading the CPBL in wins, ERA and strikeouts, and the SK Wyverns came and bought out his rights, so Sosa is back the KBO, and Mike Loree is back to being the CPBL’s undisputed best starter.

Mike Loree has been able to stick in the CPBL for so long because he doesn’t have conventionally great stuff.  He did get a shot in the KBO in 2014, but he only lasted one season at the minor league level for the expansion KT Wiz, because the team elected to bring back another foreign pitcher who hadn’t pitched as well but had better stuff.

What has made Loree so successful in the CPBL, I believe, is his ability to pitch.  His best pitch is a forkball, which really falls off the table and burrows into home plate.  He mixes that pitch mainly with a fastball in the 88 to 90 mph range, which he commands extremely effectively, as well as a couple of other pitches he uses to keep the hitters guessing.

No matter how many times CPBL hitters have seen Loree’s forkball, they still can’t lay off it, and they’re usually well out in front of it.  Like a good change-up, it makes Loree’s fastball much better.  In watching highlights of Loree’s stikeout pitches in games when he’s pitching well, he gets a lot of called strikes on fastballs an inch or two off the plate away, because he throws to the catcher’s target, and, I suspect, Loree well knows which CPBL umpires will give him that call.

For a pitcher who can out-think the hitters and keep them guessing, playing in a small league can actually benefit a pitcher like Loree.  Loree knows all the hitters and umpires in the CPBL like the back of his hand, which gives him a good idea what to throw and when.

With Sosa back in the KBO, the odds are good Loree will finish the season leading the CPBL in wins, ERA and strikeouts, as he did in 2015 and 2017.  Loree is now 34 years old, so there’s no good way to tell just how many more years he’s got in him.  However, he’s settled into a groove in the CPBL that has really allowed him to show just how good he can be, and he’s earning well more (probably between $250,000 and $300,000 this year) than he could make in the MLB minor leagues (assuming he could even get a job there at his age) or in Latin America.  It certainly seems like Mike Loree has found a home in Taiwan and will keep pitching there as long as he can.

As a side note, it’s a good time for CPBL fans to see some of the best pitchers the league’s history right now.  Aside from Loree, all-time CPBL wins leader Pan Wei-Lun is still active and off to one of his best starts in many years.  Pan’s story is typical of a lot of pitchers: he was great when he was young, but heavy workloads took their toll.  He’s now 37 years old, and clearly he still knows how to pitch.

Mac Williamson Elects Free Agency

June 1, 2019

Mac Williamson‘s time as a San Francisco Giant is likely over, as he has elected free agency instead of accepting an assignment to AAA Sacramento.  Maybe a fresh start in a new organization is just what Big Mac needs.

However, as I say with a lot of players of Williamson’s talent level (too good for AAA, not good enough for the Show), if an Asian major league team from Japan or South Korea makes him an offer, Mac should jump on it with both feet.

It seems clear to me that Williamson is never going to be able to lay off major league breaking balls down and away, but he’s got the power Asian teams love, and he might be able to hit well enough in NPB or the KBO to take advantage of his power.

Williamson turns 29 on July 15th, so he’s still young enough to sign with another major league organization now, and if it doesn’t result in a reasonably good chance of starting 2020 with an MLB major league team, signing with an Asian team next off-season.

For what it’s worth, the 2019 Giants seem to be a team made up of outfielders at the major league and AAA levels who should seriously consider giving Asian baseball a shot in the not too distant future.  Mike Yastrzemski is holding his own after six major league games, but 28 year old rookies don’t typically go on to major league success.  Mike Gerber and Austin Slater are killing it at AAA Sacramento this season, both have major league experience, and neither is getting any younger, as both will turn 27 before the end of the 2019 calendar year.

One would have to think the odds are indeed good that at least one of these four outfielders will be playing in Asia at some time in the next twelve months.

Josh Lindblom Wins 50th KBO Game

May 15, 2019

With his seventh victory of the 2019 season (against zero losses), Josh Lindblom became only the sixth foreign pitcher to record 50 wins in South Korea’s KBO.  He’s also the active career leader among foreign KBO pitchers, after each of Dustin Nippert, Henry Sosa and Eric Hacker failed to return to the KBO in 2019.

Lindblom is the KBO’s highest paid foreign player in 2019 with a one-year salary reported to be $1.77 million.  He’s currently playing for the circuit’s wealthiest team, the Doosan Bears, and he’s currently leading the league in wins (7) and ERA (1.48) and is second in strikeouts (61).  The upshot is that if he continues to pitch well in 2019, he’s got a good shot at besting Dustin Nippert’s record-setting $2.2 million salary in 2017 next off-season.

KBO teams can now sign foreign players to multi-year contracts, so I could see Lindblom signing a two-year $4M guaranteed deal next off-season.

It’s tough having a long career in the KBO as a foreign player.  The KBO pays well for the 4-A players it signs, and there is a surplus of available foreign players who might be solid KBO performers.  As a result, KBO teams expect elite performance from their foreign “mercenaries” every season, and it they don’t get it, they quickly bring in another foreign player at a lower salary to start.

However, some foreign players have what it takes to consistently excel in the KBO, and they can make some good money if they do so.  Lindblom is the latest example.

What to Do about Luke Heimlich?

May 10, 2019

Down in Mexico, lefty Luke Heimlich is busy proving he’s a legitimate major league prospect.  Unfortunately, he’s also a convicted child molester.

After six starts in the Mexican League (LMB) so far this season, Heimlich has a 3.41 ERA with 32 Ks in 34.1 innings pitched.  While I believe the LMB is really a AA level of play, rather than the AAA status it is granted by MLB, for a rookie professional pitcher, even one now 23 years old, to pitch this well at this level says a great deal about Heimlich’s abilities as a pitcher.

You will note that Luke Heimlich’s page on to which I link above does not contain a photo for Heimlich even this late into the season.  It’s like everyone wants to do everything they can to have Heimlich fly under the radar to the extent possible.

I don’t see an MLB organization trying to acquire Heimlich this season.  My guess is that Heimlich, assuming he stays healthy, will attempt to pitch in the upcoming Mexican Winter League (LMP) or the Dominican Winter League (if he can find a team) and hope that a strong performance there will compel an MLB organization to sign him in spite of all his very heavy baggage.

As I’ve written before, I don’t see an MLB organization signing Heimlich until he’s put in at least two full seasons in the LMB, so that the signing organization can credibly argue that Heimlich has proven he can keep his nose clean and has paid his dues.  Even so, any MLB organization to sign Heimlich will still face a firestorm, because his history is too well known now for the media not to immediately raise his child molestation conviction as soon as he is signed.

Would an NPB or KBO team be willing to sign Heimlich before the 2021 or 2022 season?  I kind of doubt it.  NPB or KBO teams have a lot of choices in terms of the foreign players available to them, and the media in Japan in particular can be every bit as thorough as the U.S. media, particularly when it comes to baseball.  I don’t see Heimlich’s conviction record being tolerable in South Korea either.

The Lamigo Monkeys of Taiwan’s CPBL tried bringing in Heimlich last season, but the Taiwanese media got hold of Heimlich’s story soon enough and the league voided the contract within a week of its signing.

As for Heimlich, I’m sure that all he wants to do is keep his head down and continue to have the opportunity to pitch professionally somewhere.  If he continues to pitch well in the two Laredos — U.S. and Mexican — he can at least look forward to making living pitching there going forward.

Early Season Asian Baseball Run-Down

April 28, 2019

The elite few who have read this blog with any regularity know that I follow Asian major league baseball quite closely.  Here’s a run-down on what’s happening in the Far East so far in 2019.

Japan’s NPB

So far, it feels like a fairly typical NPB season.  The high revenue Yomiuri Giants and SoftBank Hawks are leading their leagues respectively.  However, the small or mid-market Yakult Swallows, Chunichi Dragons, Hiroshima Carp and Rakuten Golden Eagles remain within close striking distance.  Of course, only 25 games into the NPB season, no one is yet truly out of it.

Most of the top NPB hitters are off to good starts, including Hayato Sakamoto, Tetsuto Yamada, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, Nori Aoki and Dayan ViciedoTomoyuki Sugano is off to a not so hot start after a recent rough outing and Takahiro Norimoto is still recovering from non-Tommy-John elbow surgery to clean out loose bodies and bone chips, but Kodai Senga is still showing MLB-level stuff.

I am convinced that Tetsuto Yamada is going to be an MLB player.  The most important stat for NPB hitters in terms of future MLB success is on-base percentage, and Yamada has that in spades.  He has a .513 OBP so far this season and an NPB career OBP of .404.  He plays 2B, he runs well (142 career NPB steals at an 82% success rate) ,and he plays for the small market Swallows.

Yamada should be posted this post-season, so he can join MLB in 2020 for his age 27 season.  The relatively new posting fee regime gives NPB teams the most money based on the greatest value of the player to an MLB team.  Yamada’s value to an MLB team will be highest this coming post-season if he doesn’t get hurt or slump.

South Korea’s KBO

The SK Wyverns and Doosan Bears are off to the best starts, with LG Twin, NC Dinos and Kiwoon Heroes leading the field for the KBO’s five playoff spots.  Foreign Aces Tyler Wilson and Josh Lindblom are off to great starts.  Lindblom is the KBO’s highest paid foreign player this year at somewhere between $1.7M and $1.9M, so if he can keep up this exemplary performance so far, he could challenge Dustin Nippert’s $2.2M single season record for foreign player compensation in 2020.

Former MLBers Jose Miguel Fernandez, Byung-ho Park, Jerry Sands and Darin Ruf are among the top six KBO hitters in terms of OPS so far.

Offense is down in the KBO so far this season, apparently due to less zing in the baseballs per

I’ve noticed the out-sized effect Cuban players have had in Asia in recent years.  Part of it is that Cuba produces a great deal of baseball talent, at least as much as the Dominican Republic or Venezuela, and only the Cuban players with a reasonable shot at playing in the MLB majors go through the very arduous process of defecting.  Needless to say, the Cuban defectors don’t all live the MLB major league dream, but many of those that haven’t have lived the dream in Asia.

I think that one of the things that help Cuban players is that, because they come to the MLB system later, they have to make a bigger adjustment than the Dominicans and Venezuelans who come to the MLB system between age 17 and 21.  If the Cuban players can succeed as AAA players in the MLB system, they’ve done something, and it’s relatively not as big a deal for them to adjust to playing and living in Asia.  That’s my theory anyway.

Taiwan’s CPBL

The big story in the CPBL this year is the performance of former KBO Ace and marginal MLB major leaguer Henry Sosa.  After six starts, his 1.26 ERA leads the league by nearly a run-and-a-half and his 48 Ks (in 43 IP) leads the league by an even dozen.

The CPBL got lucky in signing Sosa, who was one of the KBO’s top starters in 2018, when/where he finished third in ERA (3.52), sixth in run average (4.12), second in strikeouts (181) and third in innnings pitched (181.1).  Sosa didn’t return to the KBO for 2019 because of South Korean tax law changes which would have required him to pay most of his salary to the government, and at age 33 (he turns 34 in July), he was too old to interest any MLB team.

Sosa at 95-to-97 mph consistently throws harder than any other pitcher in the CPBL, and he’s learned from his time in the KBO that he throws hard enough at the KBO level to attack the strike zone.  Rob over at CPBL Stats opined before the season started that the signing of recent MLB major leaguer Austin Bibens-Dirkx would create a test for how good CPBL hitters currently are.  I think that Sosa is a better test — the extent to which CPBL hitters can eventually catch up to Sosa will show just how good or not they are.

The second best pitcher in the CPBL so far this year is another Dominican former KBO Ace Radhames Liz.  The 35 year old Liz has been recorded as throwing even bigger fast balls than Henry Sosa, but Liz can’t do it as often as Sosa.

In recent years, CPBL teams (there are currently only four of them) have focused mostly on North American pitchers as their foreign imports.  I think part of that is that even though the CPBL pays better, there is more longevity for Latino pitchers to pitch in the summer Mexican League and their home country’s winter league than to try to jump to the CPBL’s slightly higher salaries.  In Sosa’s case, I believe he is looking at jumping to Japan’s NPB if he can dominate in Taiwan.

Anyway, I think that Sosa and Liz will have CBPL teams looking at Latin pitchers more next off-season.

AAA Defense

April 27, 2019

I was wondering yesterday what the level of defense is like in AAA ball compared to the Show.  In 2018, major league teams combined for a .984 fielding percentage.  In the International League last year, the league fielding percentage was .982 and in the Pacific Coast League .981.  So MLB is clearly just a little bit better, to the tune of two or three fewer errors put 1,000 chances by this relatively objective metric.

One thing I noticed about looking at AAA fielding statistics from last year was the degree to which AAA players still play multiple positions each year.  By my count only 12 players out of 30 AAA teams managed to play even 100 games (out of a 140 game schedule) at the same position in 2018.

Not one outfielder managed to play 100 games at any of the three outfield positions.  Just about every AAA outfielder splits time between the corners or all three outfield positions.  Obviously, since it’s a developmental league, teams want as many of their players to be able to play multiple positions in a pinch if they are called up to the majors.

I was also wondering about the degree to which NPB and KBO teams are valuing defense among their foreign position players.  Both leagues still seem to prefer the best hitters they can find.  Unfortunately, baseball reference doesn’t provide fielding stats for NPB and the KBO, so there’s no way for me to compare defensive numbers between the three levels of play.

However, if some foreign players are good enough to star as hitters and pitchers, there must be some that could star in Asia based on their defense.  Particularly in this age of defensive metrics, there have to be some.  The fact that AAA players bounce around the diamond defensively must make it more difficult to project defense as it is offense.

One position I thought might be rich for defensive defensive value to Asian teams is 3B.  Most above major league average defensive shortstops, 2Bmen and CFs, even if they are not major league hitters, have a successful major league career path as bench infielders.  3B, however, is a position that is both difficult to play defensively, but has to be a major league hitter to keep a major league job.  Good glove, not quite major league hitting 3Bmen would seem to be especially good candidates for Asian major league success.

To my surprise, I found about 15 AAA 3Bman in 2018 who looked like they could play the hot corner at a major league level based on the raw numbers (fielding percentage; double plays and chances per 9/IP) who weren’t so young or good with the bat to be sure-fire prospects, but hit well enough in 2018 at the AAA level.

One I particularly like for Asian baseball next off-season is Albuquerque Isotope Josh Fuentes.  He batted .329 with an .871 OPS last year, and has a higher OPS (.924) so far this year.  On defense, Fuentes turned 25 DPs while making only 10 errors in 110 games and making 2.70 plays per 9/IP, so he’s likely a plus-major league defensive 3Bman.

However, Fuentes is 26 this year, and he is stuck behind Nolan Arenado in Denver, so unless he gets traded or Arenado gets hurt, Fuentes won’t much of a chance at the major league level this year.  Fuentes has all of 18 major league plate appearances to date, but that would be enough to entice an NPB or KBO team if Fuentes can keep his OPS this year at or near .900.

Another AAA 3Bman I’ll be keeping an eye on is the Las Vegas 51’s Sheldon Neuse.  He has the raw tools to be a plus major league defensive third-sacker and can play shortstop in a pinch, but he made a lot of errors last year and didn’t hit well in the Pacific Coast League (.661 OPS) in his age 23 season.  He’s slashing .308/.372/.474 so far this season.

Neuse is stuck behind Matt Chapman in Oakland, so he has to keep hitting in Las Vegas this summer and hope the A’s are buyers at the trade deadline, so he can get a shot at establishing himself as a major leaguer somewhere else while he’s still young enough to be considered a legitimate prospect.