Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

MLB Teams Should Develop Two-Way Stars

March 18, 2017

Baseball America recently published its list of its top ten prospects for the 2017 Amateur Draft.  The top two players, high school star Hunter Greene and Louisville 1B/P Brendan McKay are described as two-way stars (offense and defense) who the drafting teams will probably develop as pitchers.

I wish MLB teams and the players themselves would be more willing to develop the players as two-way stars, like Japan’s Shohei Otani.  There is a certain logic to what I am saying, at least so far as those prospects who are developed as pitchers in pro baseball.  Because pitchers are so susceptible to arm injuries, developing the player at least in part as a position player is basically a kind of insurance policy, since if he blows out his arm, he could still prove to be a major league hitter.

In the case of Greene and McKay, their talent levels as baseball players are probably so high that they could potentially develop into stars either as pitchers or afield.  If the player quickly proves in the low minors that the player’s professional potential is as one or the other, you haven’t lost much but committing a minor league season or two to doing double duty.

MLB teams and amateur players don’t typically do so for a number of reasons.  The teams quickly decide how they like the youngster better and train him toward that narrow goal.  That’s what they based their 1st round draft pick on.

Also, each MLB team ideally wants to be developing one player at each position on each minor league team, because in most cases those are the guys who are one day going to contribute at the major league level. Developing a player as a two-way star means some degree of platooning somewhere, as I explain below.

The amateur player’s primary concern is getting as big a signing bonus as possible.  Since the team almost always considers their value at the moment of selection as either or, the player’s financial incentive is clearly with doing what the team wants the player to do.

I would love to see a young player like Greene or McKay say, “I’m willing to sign for $1M under slot if you will agree to play me at least X number of games in the field.  I’m good enough to do both, and I just might add a great deal of value if I can prove it.

In 2016’s NPB season, Shohei Otani went 10-4 as a pitcher with a 1.86 ERA and 174 Ks in 140 innings pitched.  As mainly a DH, he slashed .322/.416/.588 in 104 games and 382 plate appearances.  Otani would have led the Pacific League in OPS if he’d had only 61 more plate appearances.  Oh, and by the way, his team the Nippon Ham Fighters won the 2016 Nippon Series.

You can’t tell me that the way the Fighters used Otani in 2016 didn’t have a lot to do with the team’s success, since while he could have potentially pitched exclusively for the same overall value, he would have had to throw a truly unhealthy number of innings to do so.  Otani, who is still only 22 years old, could be better, on both sides of the ball, in any of the next few years than he was in 2016.

Developing a two-way player requires a team to be willing to platoon, at least at the DH position, since a two-way player is going to miss games recovering from his pitching efforts.  Also, teams willing to do so don’t typically get to select the two-way player before the team that most highly values him as a pitching prospect.

On the other hand, MLB organizations realistically expect only a couple of players at any level below AA ball to eventually make the Show.  Platooning to develop a true MLB prospect on both sides of the ball is not overly burdensome, since it’s unlikely that any one MLB team will have more than one of these players in its minor league system at any one time.

I’d don’t think it’s any surprise that the very best of the best amateur players feature real two-way prospects.  Youngsters with great physical talent who really understand the game at a physical level are going to be able to hit, pitch and field.

That said, I will admit that it’s either to find the next Shohei Otani in NPB than it is in MLB.  Since MLB is the better league, you have to be better on both sides of the ball to be either a pitching ace or an hitting star, let alone both.

At the end of the day, it’s probably going to take Greene saying, “I’m willing to take only $5.4M or $6.4M in order to play both ways,” or Brendan McKay saying, “I’m willing to accept $5.0M or $5.85M to play both ways,” in order for MLB to develop a true two-way player.

I’m sure we haven’t seen the last two-way player in MLB, but it’s sure unlikely to be any more common in the future MLB than in its been in MLB past, for the reasons suggested above.

Remember Rotator Cuff Injuries?

March 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ed Hobaugh — Here’s to You!

March 15, 2017

This weekend I saw one of my oldest friends for the first time since January.  While he is not a baseball fan like me, he’s the kind of guy who still goes to the occasional comic book/baseball card convention, and he had gone to one at Stonestown recently.

He bought some sports cards, all but one baseball (49er receiver Gene Washington).  He offered to give me one, and looking through them, mostly early 1970’s cards, there was a good chance I had most of them in my childhood collection, now buried away in a closet somewhere.

One card I’m sure I didn’t have was a 1962 topps Ed Hobaugh card.  I don’t think I’d ever heard of him before, but he went 7-9 with a 4.42 ERA for the expansion 1961 Washington Senators and pitched 126 innings that year.

I love players (and baseball cards) like this.  1961 was Hobaugh’s one great MLB hurrah.  He pitched pretty well in 26 games, mostly in relief, for the Senators in 1962, pitched ineffectively in nine MLB games in 1963, and that was the end of his major league career, although he continued to pitch in AAA until the 1969 season.

Hobauch was a college pitcher at Michigan State who didn’t pitch professionally until his age 22 season after finishing school and being signed by the White Sox organization.  He went 11-4 in the Three-I League in 1956 and threw a no-hitter, but he missed all of the 1957 and 1958 seasons, most likely because of military service.

Hobaugh was a good, but by no means great, AAA pitcher in the American Association in 1959 and the Pacific Coast League in 1960, going a combined 24-18.  Hobaugh appears to have been a pitcher without major league stuff who knew how to pitch, maybe comparable to some  of the pitchers who find success in the East Asian leagues after failing to make it in MLB today.  Pat Misch springs to mind.

At the time of the 1960 American League expansion draft, Hobaugh was still reasonably young, had pitched reasonably well in AAA and hadn’t been protected by the team that originally signed him.  But for expansion, Hobaugh probably would have received one or two major league cups of coffee at most.  However, the new Senators needed players, and Hobaugh turned out to be probably the team’s fifth best pitcher in their expansion year.

Hobaugh is pretty typical of the players who fill expansion team rosters and who prevent said expansion team from losing 120 games their first season in the Show, but who aren’t good enough to prevent the team from losing 100.  For every Jeff Conine that an expansion team finds among the available 27+ year olds, there are probably ten Ed Hobaughs who got their one real chance to be a major leaguer in that first expansion year and then quickly receded as the expansion teams tried to develop younger, potentially more talented players.

At the end of the day, Hobaugh proved he was a real major league, even if was only for a couple of seasons with an expansion team.  Ed Hobaugh — here’s to you!

What Will Adam Duvall Do in 2017?

March 14, 2017

As a 27 year old rookie (he may not technically have qualified as a rookie in 2016 because he had 149 plate appearances going into the season, but he was a rookie in all other respects), Adam Duvall was one of the feel-good stories of 2016.  His 103 RBIs were fifth best in the Senior Circuit, his 33 HRs were tied for 6th, and he made the All-Star team.

Given that 27 year old rookies tend not to have particularly impressive careers, the jury is definitely out on whether 2016 was a peak year fluke or Duvall can continue to make adjustments and have a more memorable MLB career.  Lew Ford is kind of the recent poster boy for the classic 27 year old rookie who had one great season and then quickly faded off into the sunset.

I recently wrote a couple of posts about the string of players the Oakland A’s developed beginning with their age 28 seasons.  However, most of the A’s diamonds-in-the-rough had high on-base percentages to go with their plus MLB power.  Duvall swings away and swings away some more, to the tune of a 4/1 K/BB ratio last year.

Guys who walk as little as Duvall does often have problems adjusting when opposing  pitchers stop throwing them strikes, pitch to their weaknesses and get better at setting them up to pitch to their weaknesses.

On the other hand, Duvall runs pretty well (six triples and six stolen bases in 11 attempts), and his left field defense was rated by fangraphs as more valuable than his offensive contributions in 2016 in spite of the fact that he made eight errors, which is a lot for a corner outfielder.  The upshot is that if Duvall can maintain the same level of offensive performance in 2017 and beyond as he had in 2016, he’ll still be a valuable major league player for some time to come.

The question is probably can Duvall continue to hit well enough in 2017, so that the Reds don’t lose confidence in him and conclude he was one-year wonder.  That can happen faster than you think if he starts off this season in a bad slump.

As a former San Francisco Giants’ prospect, I’ve been following Duvall with interest since he hit 22 HRs for Class A Augusta, a very tough place to hit, in his age 22 season.  He hit 30 home runs in the Class A+ San Jose the next year (in the hitter friendly California League), and continued to hit home runs the next three seasons in the upper minors.

In short, Duvall’s 2016 power is no fluke, and the question is whether he can hit for enough of an average, given his adversity to taking a walk , to keep put himself in a position to continue hitting the long balls.  Whether he will or won’t is definitely an open question as we approach the 2017 season.

More Thoughts on This Year’s 1B/DH Free Agents

February 13, 2017

Adam Lind signed today with the Washington Nationals on a one year deal with a team option for a second season which guarantees Lind $1.5 million.  The amount of the guarantee is just about the lowest possible on a major league deal for a veteran player like Lind (at least in terms of the unwritten MLB salary scale) and is still something of a surprise considering that Lind hit 20 HRs last season and has a proven track record as a slugger.

I’m not saying that Lind should have received a lot more, but even a $2 million guarantee would have represented 33% more than what he actually got.

In the context of this year’s market for one dimensional 1B/DH players, it ultimately was not surprising that no one claimed Byung-ho Park off waivers.  That was certainly what the Twins were counting on.

However, it is still interesting that not even one MLB team thought that Park was worth a $9.25 million gamble for three years of control for a player whom the Twins valued more than twice as highly a year ago.

For Park, starting the 2017 season at AAA Rochester is probably the best thing that could happen to him.  He’ll get to play every day there, continue to work on his newly shortened swing, and likely earn his way back to the Show in 60 or 70 games.  As fangraphs noted just before Park was designated for assignment, there are plenty of things about Park’s 2016 performance to suggest he still has potential as an MLB player if he can make some more adjustments.

Pedro Alvarez is beginning to look like he might be the odd man out, as there can’t be many more landing places given the recent signings of Mike Napoli, Chris Carter and now Lind.  That said, Alvarez was a more productive hitter than Lind last year, so I expect him to get more than a $1.5 million guarantee, although it certainly looks like he now has little hope of more than a one-year deal.

There always seems to be something of a herd mentality in MLB front offices, and I don’t necessarily think that small contracts for this kind of player this off-season means that these guys won’t get better contracts in future off-seasons.  This year’s deals may have had more to do with the glut of these players on the market — in an off-season where there are fewer of them, they may do better.

Also, if some of these guys on one year deals can do better in 2017, or in Chris Carter’s case, have the same season in 2017 that he had in 2016, they’ll get better deals next off-season.

Rooting for Dellin Betances in Arbitration

January 20, 2017

The New York Yankees and Dellin Betances are going to arbitration.  Betances is asking for $5 million; the Yankees are offering $3 million.  I’m rooting for Betances.

This is nothing new in that my allegances are usually with the players: the players, not ownership, put the cans in the seats.   However, in this case, reading that the Bombers renewed Betances’ 2016 contract at the major league minimum strikes me as just wrong.

There is obviously something more to the story.  Even the cheapest, small market teams usually give tiny raises to young players before they become arbitration eligible.

However, many teams, if the player will not accept the raise the team unilaterally elects to give, whatever that might be, choose to punish the player by renewing him at the minimum for not accepting the unilaterally imposed small raise.  I have to think that is why Betances got a $5,000 raise in 2015 which was probably the amount of the rise in the major league minimum and got no raise at all in 2016, when presumably the national cost of living index did not rise and the major league minimum did not go up.

In my mind, it is just so short-sighted.  The Yankees are the wealthiest team in baseball, and even if Betances wasn’t willing to accept the raise the Yankees wanted to give him when the Yankees could set whatever raise they wanted, it is just dumb not to give him that raise.  Instead, the Yankees elected to punish him to save, what, $50,000 or $100,000?  Chump-change in terms of the team’s $225 million plus player payroll, thereby guaranteeing that Betances will never ever give the Yankees one plug nickel when the time comes that Betances is the one with the leverage.

Another element of this story is that Betances is old relative to his major league service time and performance, which will have some impact on his future earning ability.  Betances is one in a long line of storied major league pitchers who always had great stuff, but who took a long time to develop command (some of these guys obviously never do).

Betances finally found his command in his age 26 season, and his performance has been other-worldly since then.  Still, he sees younger guys making more money because they reached the Show sooner, even if they now aren’t as good.  Add to that the fact that the Yankees are so good that despite his tremendous performance over the last three years, he’s notched only 22 saves, because the Yankees always had somebody at least as good with more experience who got the saves opportunities.

In short, Betances feels he deserves to get paid, and the Yankees probably assume that, since they are the rich, rich Yankees, players will always demand top money regardless.   Even so, it’s doubtful that taking Betances to arbitration serves the Yankees in the long run.

Maybe the situation with Betances is soured already.  However, the Yankees are also sending a message to every other player in the organization that each player ought to stick it to the Yankees or the team will stick it to them.

One thing that has to be remembered is that even as rich as the Yankees are, there are some players who might sign for a little less than absolute top dollar because they want to remain with the franchise that developed them or gave them their first big league opportunity or because they want to play in New York.  Some players, like most recently Yoenis Cespedes, really seem to thrive under the brightest lights, or the cultural or life-style options the Big Apple provides.  If you’re a player from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Japan, South Korea or a lot of other places, NYC has a lot to offer.

Whether Betances wins or loses the upcoming arbitration hearing, the best revenge will be staying healthy and continuing to strike out more than 11 batters per nine innings pitched.  That way, Betances will eventually get the big money from the Yanks or someone else.

Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.  Every pitcher would remain healthy and effective forever if it was solely a matter of hard work and will power.  In the meantime, Aroldis Chapman will continue to get the save opportunities, and the Yankees will continue to work Betances hard as a set-up man, since they know they won’t get any team-friendly contract extensions from Betances and his agents any time soon.

Unless, of course, team and player agree to a multi-year extension before the arbitration hearing.

Slugging It Out in Japan: A Listing of Top Foreign Hitters in Japan’s NPB

January 18, 2017

In the past couple of years, I’ve written a couple of posts on the all-time leaders among foreign hitters in the history of Japan’s NPB.  The articles have met with a positive response, so I will update them whenever new or more complete information comes to me.  This iteration adds stolen base leaders.

BATTING AVERAGE (4,000 ABs)

1.  Leron Lee .320

2.  Boomer Wells .317

3.  Wally Yomamine .311

4.  Leon Lee .308

5.  Alex Cabrera .303

6.  Alex Ramirez .301

BATTING AVERAGE (3,000 ABs)

1.  Bobby Rose .325

2.  Matt Murton .310

3.  George Altman .309

Leron Lee was not, as his wikipedia page suggests, the first American player to go to Japan during the prime of his professional career.  However, he was the first first major leaguer of his ability and past MLB success to go to Japan before his age 30 season.  Lee is not just the best career hitter among North American players, he has the highest NPB batting average of any player with at least 4,000 at-bats, and he had almost 5,000 NPB at-bats, so it was no fluke based on a small data set.

Leon Lee was Leron’s little brother and the father of former MLBer Derrek Lee.  Pops never played in MLB, but he was nearly as great an NPB player as his big brother, and that’s saying something.

Wally Yonamine, a Nisei (Japanese American) from Hawaii, was the first foreign player to play in NPB after the Second World War, breaking in with the Yomuiri Giants, far and away NPB’s most popular team, in 1951.  Yonamine was sort of the poster boy for a class of Japanese American athletes during the era between about 1920 and 1950 who were famed on the West Coast and Hawaii for their abilities on both the baseball diamond and the gridiron in semi-pro leagues.

Yonamine was really an exceptional athlete.  He was 5’9″ and 180 lbs, fast and tough.  He was the first Asian American to play pro football that I am aware of, playing for the San Francisco 49ers in 1947, the team’s second season in the All-American Football Conference.  He played in 12 of the team’s 14 games that year and started three times.  He ran for 74 yards on 19 carries, caught three passes for 40 yards, ran back an interception for 20 yards and returned a total of nine punts and kick-offs.  He quit football after injuring himself playing baseball the next summer.

In his only season of minor league baseball, he hit .335 as a catcher in the Class C Pioneer League at age 25 in 1950.  At that age, his MLB chances were slim, so he went to Japan in 1951, where he mostly played outfield.  He had a major impact on NPB, bringing his tougher, more aggressive American style of base running.  He is one of only three only foreign player in the NPB Hall of Fame (NPB’s first 300 game winner Victor Starfin was born in Russia but grew up in Japan after his family fled the Russian Revolution), something I’ll comment on below.

HITS

1.  Alex Ramirez 2,017

2. In-cheon Paek 1,831

3. Tuffy Rhodes 1,792

4. Leron Lee 1,579

5.  Leon Lee 1,436

6.  Bobby Marcano 1,418

7.  Boomer Wells 1,413

8.  Alex Cabrera 1,368

9.  Wally Yonamine 1,337

10.  Shosei Go 1,326

11.  Jose Fernandez 1,286

12.  Bobby Rose 1,275

13.  John Sipin 1,124

14.  Roberto Barbon 1,123

15.  Ta-Feng Chen (Yasuaki Taiho) 1,089.

16.  Matt Murton, 1020.

Before I wrote the original piece in 2014, I’d never heard of Bobby Marcano, John Sipin or Roberto Barbon (or if I have I’ve long since forgotten).  Marcano hit .317 with an .857 OPS in the AAA Pacific Coast League at the age of 23, but elected to sign with an NPB team the next season.  I don’t know anything about his story, but it was apparently a good move, as he had a very successful 11 career in Japan playing mostly 2B.

John Sipin got into 68 games for the expansion San Diego Padres in 1969.  A couple of big years in the Pacific Coast League at ages 23 and 24, and off he went to Japan for a nine year NPB career.  He also mostly played 2B.  Both Marcano and Sipin played most of their NPB careers in the 1970’s.

Roberto Barbon was a light-hitting (.241 career NPB batting average) middle infielder from Cuba who played 11 seasons in Japan starting in 1955 at the age of 22.  His defense was probably very good for him to last so long, and his 308 career NPB stolen bases is the record for Gaijin players, at least according to some sources.  Here is a NY Times article about Barbon, who still lives in Japan and is involved in baseball.

HOME RUNS

1.  Tuffy Rhodes 464

2. Alex Ramirez 380

3. Alex Cabrera 357

4.  Leron Lee 283

5.  Boomer Wells 277

5.  Ta-Feng Chen (Yasuaki Taiho) 277

7.  Leon Lee 268

8.  Ralph Bryant 259

NPB teams pay their relatively high-priced foreign position players to hit home runs, so it isn’t particularly surprising that eight foreign players have topped 250 career home runs in NPB.  Ralph Bryant hit a lot of home runs and also set strike out records, striking out 204 times in 127 games played in 1993, in his eight year NPB career.

RBIs

1.  Alex Ramirez 1,272

2.  Tuffy Rhodes 1,269

3.  Alex Cabrera 949

4. Leron Lee 912

5.  Boomer Wells 901

6.  Leon Lee 884

7.  Bobby Marcano 817

8.  Bobby Rose 808

RUNS

1.  Tuffy Rhodes 1,100

2.  Shosei Go 880

3.  Alex Ramirez 866

4. In-cheon Paek 801

5.  Leron Lee 786

6.  Alex Cabrera 754

NPB teams pay foreign hitters to drive in runs rather than score them, which is why the RBI totals are so much more impressive than the runs scored totals.

STOLEN BASES

1.  Shosei Go  381

2.  Roberto Barbon 308

3.  In-cheon Paek 212

4.  Wally Yonamine  163

5.  Larry Raines 114

As I’ve written before, it is no small task to determine who is “foreign” for NPB purposes and who isn’t.  At the time Shosei Go joined Japanese professional ranks in 1937, Taiwan was a Japanese colony, so Go was not considered a “foreign” player during his playing career.  However, as an ethnic Taiwanese born and raised in Taiwan (he attended high school there), he seems more “foreign” to me than Victor Starrfin, who lived in Japan since before his second or third birthday.  Go also seems more foreign than Hiroshi Ohshita, an ethnic Japanese who was probably born in Kobe, Japan but spent part of his childhood, including high school, in colonial Taiwan, but then attended Meiji University, one of Japan’s big six college baseball programs.

Another thing my original research in compiling these lists pointed out is just how much of a fungible commodity NPB teams apparently consider foreign players to be.  A total of fewer than 20 players made any of my six lists.  There are easily more than four times this many foreign players who were great in NPB from between three to seven seasons who didn’t stick around long enough to make my lists.

Since most foreign players are at least 26 to 28 years old in their first NPB season and often quite a bit older, a lot of them simply didn’t have much left by the time they reached their mid-30’s.  However, it’s just as true that in a majority of cases it only took one bad year, even after many good ones, for a foreign player to be sent packing.

Given the fact that NPB teams have become exceptionally good at picking out the most promising foreign players available (usually what we call 4-A players: guys who hit like major leaguers in AAA but have become too old to contend for major league starting jobs), but that even among these players only about half succeed quickly, long and consistently enough to stick around more than a year or two in NPB, its something of a shock how quickly NPB teams give up on foreign players with a proven track record.  This is so much the case that I’m always shocked on those rare occasions when a foreign hitter sticks around as long as three NPB seasons if he’s never had a single season OPS higher than about .815.

In fact, some of the best available foreign players are probably never considered by NPB teams, since their value is in their gloves rather than their bats.  In NPB, all the glove-tree guys are Japanese.

The best Gaijin hitter in NPB history has to be Tuffy Rhodes.  While he wasn’t a .300 hitter, his power and his ability to draw walks account for his exceptional RBI and Runs Scored totals, aside from the fact that he was once tied for the single season NPB home run record with the legendary Sadaharu Oh.

Foreign hitters who should eventually join Wally Yonamine in the NPB Hall of Fame are Rhodes, Alex Ramirez and Leron Lee.  Whether they will is another matter.  Apparently it takes a longer period of retirement before former players become eligible, and NPB’s Hall of Fame seems relatively more exclusive than MLB’s Hall of Fame, at least in terms of players.  The NPB Hall is particularly heavily stacked with non-players — for example, Lefty O’Doul is in Japan’s Hall of Fame for his goodwill tours to Japan in the 1930’s which increased the game’s popularity there, even though he isn’t in the MLB Hall of Fame despite an accomplished lifetime in the U.S. professional game.