Archive for the ‘Pittsburg Pirates’ category

Inside-the-Park Home Runs

August 24, 2018

I can’t do better than this wikipedia article on the subject, but here are few highlights.

Jesse “The Crab” Burkett is the all-time leader with 55 career inside-the-park home runs.  Willie Wilson‘s 13 career inside-the-park sprints is the most by any player since 1950.

Wahoo Sam Crawford hit an astounding 12 inside-the-parkers in 1901 for the Cincinnati Reds.  Crawford is, of course, the all-time career leader with 309 triples, back in the days when the triple was major league baseball’s big power hit.

When Big Ed Delahanty hit four home runs in a game on July 25, 1896, two of the inside-the-park variety, making him the only player to have an inside-the-parker as part of a four home run game.

When Alcides Escobar hit an inside-the-park home run on October 27, 2015, he became the first player to do so in a World Series game since 1929.  It was fairly common before that, occurring nine times in the first 26 World Series.

Roberto Clemente became the first and only player to hit a walk-off inside-the-park grand slam, when he did it on July 25, 1956, during his break-out season at age 21.

Ichiro Suzuki is the only player to have hit an inside-the-park home run in the All-Star Game when he did it in 2007.

On August 18, 2009, Kyle Blanks, weighing in at 285 lbs, became the heaviest player ever to hit an inside-the-park job.

On July 18, 2010, Jhonny Peralta hit the slowest recorded inside-the-park home run.  It took him 16.74 seconds to round the bases after outfielder Ryan Rayburn crashed through the bullpen fence trying to catch the ball.

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The 10 Best Major League Players Who Started Their Pro Careers in the Independent-A Leagues

July 31, 2018

I’ve been following the Independent-A Leagues closely the last few years, and I recently wondered who the best major league players were who started their pro careers in an Indy-A League.  I couldn’t find a decent list, so I decided I’d make one.

One of the things I learned in compiling this list is just how incredibly difficult it is to have a major league career amounting to more than a couple of brief cups of coffee for players who don’t start their professional careers in the MLB-system.  MLB hoovers up just about every player with any shot of ever having a major league career that anyone besides the players themselves would typically remember.  Only a tiny number of players gets overlooked.

That said, it is within the realm of possibility that a player can start his pro career in an Indy-A league and still amount to a successful major league player.  That’s what keeps the dream alive.

Without further ado, here’s the list of the 11 best major league players who started their pro careers in an independent-A league.  Be sure to let me know if I’ve missed anyone who should be included.

1.  J.D. Drew.  J.D. Drew is really an Independent-A league ringer.  He was drafted with the second overall pick of the 1997 Draft by the Phillies.  Before the Draft, Drew and his agent Scott Boras let if be known that Drew was demanding a $10 million signing bonus.  The Phillies called Drew’s bluff, drafted him and offered him $2.6M.

Drew wasn’t bluffing.  When the Phillies refused to come up significantly from their initial offer, Drew refused to sign.  Instead, he spent parts of two seasons thumping the ball for the St. Paul Saints of the Northern League (now the American Association).

I haven’t always been a fan of Boras inspired holdouts, but it sure worked for Drew.  The Cardinals drafted Drew with the 5th overall pick in 1998 and signed him for $7 million.  Refusing to sign in 1997 did not significantly delay Drew’s career, as the Cardinals gave him a cup of coffee at the end of the 1998 season, and he was in the majors for good (except for injury rehab assignments) by 1999.

Drew would not be the last early round draft pick to elect to start his career in the Indy-A’s when he couldn’t reach an agreement with his drafting team, as you will see below.  A couple of Cuban defectors, Ariel Prieto and Eddy Oropesa, used the Indy-A Leagues as a means to boost their draft stock — one can argue whether Cuba’s Serie Nacional is an amateur or pro league, but it is effectively amateur in name only, since the players are essentially professionals who are compensated for their performance, although perhaps not in cash.

2.  Kevin Millar.  Millar is in my opinion the best undrafted, unsigned player independent-A league product in major league history.  Every year, many undrafted players are nevertheless signed by major league organizations.  As I understand it, each major league team makes a list shortly before Draft Day of the 500 or 600 players who the team believes are the best amatuer players available.  Each team’s scouts and front offices grade the nation of prospects differently, and every team has at least a few players who aren’t on any other team’s list.  If any of those players go undrafted, then the team that had the player listed will typically sign them up.

Playing for small college Lamar in Texas, Millar went undrafted and unsigned, and thus started his pro career at age 21 with the St. Paul Saints in 1993, the Northern League’s maiden season.  Millar never made an All-Star team or received an MVP vote, but he was a star on the 2004 Boston Red Sox team that won the franchise’s first World Series in 86 years.  Millar was also never allowed to join the MLB Players’ Association, because he crossed the picket line during the 1994-1995 strike.

3-5.  George Sherrill, Joe Thatcher and Kerry Ligtenberg.  A trio of relief pitchers who all pitched in between 386 and 442 major league games.  George Sherrill was the Orioles’ closer in 2008 and the first four months of 2009 before being traded to the Dodgers.  He finished his career with a 3.77 ERA, 56 saves and 320 Ks in 324.1 IP.  He started his pro career with Evansville of the Frontier League in 1999.

Joe Thatcher had a nine year career as a left-handed relief specialist.  He was effective in the role, finishing his major league career with a 3.38 ERA and striking out 270 batters in 260.2 innings pitched.  Thatcher began his pro career with River City in the Frontier League in 2004.

Kerry Ligtenberg was the Braves’ closer in 1998 before hurting his arm.  He came back from it, but never pitched as well as he did in 1998.  He finished his major league career with a 3.82 ERA and 357 Ks in 390.2 IP.  He started his pro career in the short-lived North Central and Prairie Leagues in 1994 and 1995.

6.  David Peralta.∗  David Peralta gets an asterisk because he started his professional career as an 18 year old pitcher in the Cardinals’ organization.  He pitched ineffectively for two seasons in the Rookie Appalachian League and was unceremoniously dumped.  He came back four years later as a 23 year old outfielder for the Rio Grand Valley WhiteWings of the short-lived North American Baseball League, and gradually worked his way up the majors three years later in 2014.  He’s still active and having a solid season at age 30, so he could well move up this list in the future.

7.  Aaron Crow.  Another high first round draft pick who refused to sign a contract with the Nationals, Crow made four appearances (three starts) with the Ft. Worth Cats of the American Association in 2008 and 2009 in order to prove he was still worth a high 1st round draft pick by the Royals in 2009.

Crow had four strong seasons as a set-up man in the Royals bullpen from 2011-2014 before his arm gave out.  He compiled a 3.43 career major league ERA and struct out 208 batters in 233.2 IP while recording six saves.

Crow is attempting a comeback in the Mexican League this summer at age 31.  While he is pitching effectively (2.33 ERA in 19 relief appearances so far), his peripheral numbers don’t suggest he’ll make it back to the majors in the near future.

8.  Daniel Nava.  Nava started his professional career at the advanced age of 24 with the Chico Outlaws of the long since defunct Golden Baseball League.  He hit a grand slam in his first major league game in 2010 (as I recall, the outfielder may have actually tipped the ball over the wall with the end of his glove), and he was a star for the 2013 World Champion Red Sox when he slashed .303/.385/.445 as an every day outfielder who split his time between right field and left field.

Nava has managed to play parts of seven major league seasons, and at age 35 he’s still listed as part of the Pirates’ AAA team, although he has yet to play a game this season because of injury.

9.  Jeff Zimmerman.  Zimmerman finished his three year major league career as the closer for the Rangers before injuries, including two Tommy John surgeries, ruined his career.  He started with the Winnipeg Goldeyes of the Northern League in 1997.

10T.  Matt Miller and Chris Coste.  Miller was a relief pitcher who pitched in an even 100 major league games with a career 2.72 ERA with 95 Ks in 106 IP.  He was a 31 year old rookie for the Rockies in 2003, but enjoyed most of his major league success starting with the Indians in 2004.  His professional career began with Greenville of the short-lived Big South League in 1996.

Chris Coste was the Phillies’ primary back-up catcher for four seasons starting with his age 33 season in 2006.  He began his pro career in the North Central and Prairie Leagues in 1995 and then spent four seasons with his home town Fargo-Moorehead Red Hawks of the Northern League before being signed by the Indians’ organization.  The North Central and Prairie Leagues may not have lasted long, but in Coste and Kerry Ligtenberg, these leagues gave first shots to two young Minnesota ballplayers who eventually made the big time and proved they belonged there.

Other players who had more than brief major league cups of coffee who began their pro careers in the independent A leagues are Chris Colabello, Brian Tollberg, James Hoyt, Chris Jakubauskas, Scott Richmond, Brian Sweeney, Chris Martin, Trevor Richards and Bobby Hill.  Hoyt, Martin and Richards are all still active and have at least a reasonable shot at adding to their career major league numbers.

Bobby Hill was drafted in the second round in consecutive seasons and presumably started his career in the Atlantic League in 2000 because he refused to sign after the White Sox drafted him the year before.  Scott Richmond started his professional career in the Northern League in 2005 at the age of 25, which makes him the oldest rookie professional baseball player I found to eventually make the majors after starting in the Indy-A leagues (MLB organizations never or almost never sign any amateur over the age of 23).

Two More 1st Round Draft Picks Fail to Sign

July 7, 2018

Two more First Round Draft picks failed to get signed and will instead by pitching in college next year.  The Atlanta Braves failed to sign 8th overall pick Carter Stewart, and the Arizona Diamondbacks failed to sign 25th overall pick Matt McLain.  Add to those two, the Pittsburgh Pirates failed to sign 36th overall pick Gunnar Hogland.  For what it’s worth, all three unsigned 1st rounders and Hogland are high school right handed pitchers.

The 8th overall pick came with a $4.9807M slot value, but medical tests after Stewart was selected raised issues for the Brave, and according to MLB.com’s Jim Callis, the Braves’ final offer came “a lot closer” to the 40% of the slot amount ($1.992M+) the Braves had to offer to get the 9th overall pick in 2019 than the full slot amount.

Assuming that the Braves offered something around $2.5M, Stewart should have signed, but I can at least understand why he elected to attend Mississippi State with J.T. Ginn, the Dodgers’ unsigned first round selection.  It has to be disappointing to be selected this high and not receive an offer close to the slot amount when you have the leverage of being able to elect college.

On the other hand, the D’backs are reported to have offered McLain the full $2.6364M slot amount even though none of Baseball America, MLB.com, ESPN, or fangraphs had him ranked in the top 50 of this year’s prospects.  McLain should have took the money.

Hoglund is another prospect who didn’t make any of the major raters’ top 50 (fangraphs had him at 55th), but didn’t sign.  However, mlbtraderumors.com doesn’t report any rumors as to what the Pirates offered him.

The four unsigned prospects is probably a single season Draft record.  Factors that may be contributing to the failed signings is that a four scholarship at a major university is now worth $200,000+.  College players at major programs get to be campus heroes and probably receive all kinds of perqs like personal tutors.  College athletes also make all kinds of connections that can help them in business after their playing careers are over.

Another factor is that MLB teams have shown that top pitching prospects can blow out their elbow tendons and still be first round draft picks.  Brady Aiken and Jeff Hoffman are two recent prospects who were drafted in the 1st round after having Tommy John surgery.  (It’s worth noting, though, that neither Aiken or Hoffman has done much yet to justify their high draft positions.)  That makes it a lot less risky for high school pitchers to elect to go to college rather than accept a $2M+ signing bonus to start their professional careers.

Ichiro Is Done

May 4, 2018

Ichiro retired into the Mariners’ front office where he will presumably work to bring more elite Japanese players to Seattle.  He finishes at age 44 with 3,089 hits, after all those hits in Japan.

Suzuki may the last of the hitters in the Paul Waner, Rod Carew, Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn line, the pure hitters.  Power’s too important in today’s game, perhaps unless Japan can produce another Ichiro, or at least another better than Nori Aoki. the poor man’s Ichiro.

If it’s a style that all but gone, Ichiro brought a talent set to MLB that will be missed if we don’t soon see it again.

Lop-Sided Wins

April 8, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Taiwan’s CPBL Is the Lowest Major League

April 5, 2018

My interest in Taiwan’s CPBL has grown over about the last five years.  Part of the reason is that in the world-wide baseball scene, the CPBL is the lowest major league.

The CPBL fills a space between obvious minor leagues like the Mexican (Summer) League, the Caribbean Winter Leagues, and the European Leagues (Holland and Italy), the next lowest (and I would consider obvious) major league, South Korea’s KBO.

Players can possibly make as much as $15,000 to $17,000 a month for a two or two-and-a-half month Winter League season in Puerto Rico, Mexico or the Dominican Republic; and rumors say the best players on the wealthiest three or four teams in the summer Mexican League make considerably more than the approximately $8000.00 official monthly salary cap for a 4.5 month season.  This all means the very best Mexican League players are making $90,000 or $100,000 in salary and benefits, if they are also playing during the winter.

The best paid player in the CPBL in 2017 made $497,000 as part of a three year deal with at least 17 other players making between $200,000 and $310,000, according to CPBL English and my reasonable estimate of Mike Loree’s 2017 salary.  There’s going to be a jump in league performance where the salaries are relatively that much higher.

The CPBL has a minor league, and the major league is only a small 4-team league in a country of more than 23.5 million where baseball is highly popular due to the Japanese occupation.  The best Taiwanese players at 18 (and even earlier — Dai-Kang Yang, aka Daikan Yoh played some high school ball in Japan and thus is not treated as a foreigner for NPB’s roster limits — he signed a four to six year contract for somewhere between 1.0 billion yen and 1.8 billion yen [$9.44M to $17M] in the pre-2017 off-season — Japanese teams don’t publish actual salary numbers so the media sources make educated guesses) get sucked up by MLB and Japan’s NPB.

However, MLB in particular produces a fair number of Taiwanese players who peak at the AA or AAA level and then return to Taiwan and become CPBL stars.  CPBL teams also are able to sign players who don’t become top prospects until later in their college careers, because MLB and NPB teams prefer signing youngsters.

Wang Po-Jung is the best hitter in the CPBL, and he was drafted out of a Taiwanese University (the Chinese Culture University in Taipei).  In his first two seasons, he batted .414 as a rookie and .407 as a sophomore, his age 22 and 23 seasons.  It’s a hitters’ league, but even so back-to-back .400+ seasons are impressive.

Wang is batting .452 this season after eight games, and I would put the odds at 80% (at least 10 of the remaining 20% is for possible injury) that Wang will be playing in NPB next season, because CPBL teams only maintain rights for their best domestic players for three seasons.  The jump to MLB is too great, given the difference between the CPBL and the MLB majors, but Wang would probably be very appealing to an NPB team on a two year deal that would guarantee him around $1.0M to $1.2M.  That’s a relative bargain for a top foreign player in NPB, but it’s probably more than a CPBL team would offer, aside from the fact that strong NPB performance would bring much larger NPB salaries or a chance to jump to MLB for his age 27 season.

The first player who got me interested in the CPBL was probably league ace Mike Loree.  I noticed him when he had a huge season in the Indy-A Atlantic League in 2011, which got him some late season time at the Pirates’ AA franchise in Altoona.  Loree made four appearances in which he pitched a total of 7.2 innings and allowed six hits and three walks while striking out 11.

That fine performance didn’t get Loree a return engagement in 2012 because he was already 26 (baseball reference has the wrong date of birth) and his fastball tops out at 89 mph.

Loree can locate his fastball, and he has a terrific forkball which burrows into home plate.  In the CPBL starting in 2013, he quickly established himself as the circuit’s best pitcher.  Even in a league in which every team plays every other team in the league 30 times a season and he’s entering his fifth full season, CPBL hitters still can’t pick up the change of speed consistently out of Loree’s hand.  Loree also commands a tight slider, which gives him a different look and speed from the fastball and his change-up forkball.  I’ve followed Mike Loree‘s mostly CPBL career ever since.

2013 was also the year Manny Ramirez played half a season in the CPBL.  Ramirez’s performance and status as an MLB superstar got the CPBL a huge boost in attendance and an international attention it hadn’t had before.  Another CPBL team then paid former long-time MLBer Freddy Garcia a then record of nearly $400,000 to pitch for them in 2014.  Garcia was very good but not dominating, which says something for the quality of play in the CPBL, given that Garcia had pitched creditably in the MLB majors the year before (4.37 ERA and 4.48 run average in 17 games and 13 starts for the 2013 Orioles and Braves at the end of long 156-108 major league career).

Garcia didn’t boost CPBL attendance the way ManRam had, and he wasn’t brought back in 2015.  However, that year another of my favorite obscure players, Pat Misch, pitched a no-hitter in Game 7 of the Taiwan Series.

Misch was a former 7th round draft pick by the SF Giants in 2003, after being a 5th round draft pick by the Astros the year before.  Nevertheless, he always struck me as a pitcher who took a lack of major league stuff as far as he possibly could because of his ability to pitch, not unlike Mike Loree.  If I had had to pick a former major league pitcher to throw a no-hitter in the Taiwan Series, Pat Misch certainly seems like an obvious candidate in terms of his past major league career, continued reasonably success at AAA, yet at a price a CPBL team could afford.

What is standing in the way of the CPBL becoming a better league by holding on to its top domestic talent and attracting better foreign pitchers for the three available team roster spots for foreigners, is unimpressive attendance except during the post-season.  CPBL’s four teams only averaged just over 5,500 per regular season game in 2017, although post-season attendance can reach 19,000 per game in the league’s biggest ballpark.

Attendance isn’t better because of a couple of past gambling scandals in the league’s 29 season history, and probably the fact that most of the best Taiwanese players are playing in Japan, the U.S. and now South Korea (the KBO’s NC Dinos signed the league’s first Taiwanese player, former MLBer Wang Wei-Chung, this past off-season — he’s off to a quick 2-0 start).

I think the CPBL needs and Taiwan could potentially support two more teams, but the league currently has no plans to expand.  A strong performance or two by the Taiwanese team in future World Baseball Classics is probably what the league needs to move up the next level in attendance, at least to the point where it could begin to compete with KBO teams for foreign pitchers.

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.