Archive for Indians

The Telephone Game in Cleveland

CLEVELAND — This author is all too familiar with cases of identification mix-ups within the confines of Progressive Field, as you might be aware of if you are a loyal listener of FanGraphs Audio.

Earlier this year, I approached Matt Davidson’s locker stall in the visiting clubhouse in Cleveland and asked Matt if he had time for an interview. Seated, Matt agreed. He was pleasant and eager, as if he hadn’t spent much time being hounded by reporters. It was in the midst of the interview, speaking with Matt — Matt Skole — when he mentioned how he played in the Nationals organization earlier in his career. I realized my mistake. I had the wrong 6-foot-4 position-playing Matt. I politely asked another question or two and ended the interview. While a surge of embarrassment struck me, at least the error was realized before, say, publication.

There was another sort of case of mistaken identity in Cleveland on Tuesday night.

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Daily Prospect Notes: 7/9

Notes on prospects from lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen. Read previous installments here.

Victor Robles, CF, Washington Nationals (Profile)
Level: Rehab   Age: 21   Org Rank: 1   FV: 65
Line: 0-for-1, BB

Notes
Robles has begun to make rehab appearances on his way back from a hyperextended left elbow that he suffered in early April. He’s gotten two plate appearances in the GCL each of the last two days. The Nationals’ big-league outfield situation should enable Robles to have a slow, careful rehab process that takes a few weeks. He is one of baseball’s best prospects.

Adam Haseley, CF, Philadelphia Phillies (Profile)
Level: Hi-A Age: 22   Org Rank: 7   FV: 45
Line: 2-for-5, HR

Notes
The homer was Haseley’s fifth of the year and his slash line now stands at .301/.344/.417. He’s undergone several swing tweaks this year, starting with a vanilla, up-and-down leg kick last year; a closed, Giancarlo Stanton-like stance early this season; and now an open stance with more pronounced leg kick that loads more toward his rear hip. All that would seem to be part of an effort to get Haseley hitting for more power, his skillset’s most glaring weakness. But Haseley’s swing plane is so flat that such a change may not, alone, be meaningful as far as home-run production is concerned, though perhaps there will be more extra-base hits.

The way Haseley’s peripherals have trended since college gives us a glimpse of how a relative lack of power alters those variables in pro ball. His strikeout and walk rates at UVA were 11% and 12% respectively, an incredible 7% and 16% as a junior. In pro ball, they’ve inverted, and have been 15% and 5% in about 600 pro PAs.

Akil Baddoo, OF, Minnesota Twins (Profile)
Level: Low-A Age: 19   Org Rank: 12   FV: 45
Line: 3-for-5, 2B, SB

Notes
Baddoo is scorching, on an 11-game hit streak during which he has amassed 20 hits, nine for extra-bases. He crushes fastballs and can identify balls and strikes, but Baddoo’s strikeout rate has doubled this year as he’s seen more decent breaking balls, with which he has struggled. Considering how raw Baddoo was coming out of high school, however, his performance, especially as far as the plate discipline is concerned, has been encouraging. He’s a potential everyday player with power and speed.

Jesus Tinoco, RHP, Colorado Rockies (Profile)
Level: Double-A Age: 23   Org Rank: NR   FV: 40
Line: 6 IP, 3 H, 0 BB, 1 R, 7 K

Notes
Tinoco didn’t make the Rockies’ offseason list, as I thought he had an outside shot to be a reliever but little more. His strikeout rate is way up. He still projects in the bullpen, sitting 93-95 with extreme fastball plane that also adds artificial depth to an otherwise fringe curveball. He’ll probably throw harder than that in the Futures Game.

Travis MacGregor, RHP, Pittsburgh Pirates (Profile)
Level: Low-A Age: 20   Org Rank: 21   FV: 40
Line: 5 IP, 3 H, 1 BB, 2 R, 6 K

Notes
MacGregor is a projection arm who is performing thanks to his ability to throw his fastball for strikes, though not always where he wants. His delivery has a bit of a crossfire action but is otherwise on the default setting and well composed, with only the release point varying. It’s pretty good, considering many pitchers with MacGregor’s size are still reigning in control of their extremities. MacGregor’s secondaries don’t always have great movement but should be at least average at peak. He projects toward the back of a rotation.

Austin Cox, LHP, Kansas City Royals (Profile)
Level: Short Season Age: 21   Org Rank: HM   FV: 35
Line: 5 IP, 3 H, 0 BB, 1 R, 10 K

Notes
Cox, Kansas City’s fourth-rounder out of Mercer, has a 23:3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 11.2 pro innings. He put up goofy strikeout numbers at Mercer, too, but struggles with fastball command. He’s a high-slot lefty who creates tough angle on a low-90s fastball, and his curveball has powerful, vertical shape. It’s likely Cox will be limited to relief work due to fastball command, but he could be very good there, especially if the fastball ticks up in shorter outings.

Notes from the Field
Just some pitcher notes from the weekend here. I saw Rangers RHP Kyle Cody rehabbing in Scottsdale. He was 94-96 for two innings and flashed a plus curveball. Joe Palumbo rehabbed again in the AZL and looked the same as he did last week.

Cleveland has another arm of note in the AZL, 6-foot-1, 18-year-old Dominican righty Ignacio Feliz. He’s one of the best on-mound athletes I’ve seen in the AZL and his arm works well. He sits only 88-92 but that should tick up as he matures physically. His fastball has natural cut, and at times, he throws what looks like a true cutter in the 84-87 range. He also has a 12-to-6 curveball that flashes plus.

Feliz could develop in a number of different ways. Cleveland could make a concerted effort to alter his release so Feliz is more behind the ball, which would probably play better with his curveballs. Alternatively, they might nurture his natural proclivity for cut and see what happens. Either way, this is an exciting athlete with workable stuff who doesn’t turn 19 until the end of October.

Between 15 and 18 scouts were on hand for Saturday night’s Dodgers and Diamondbacks AZL game. That’s much more than is typical for an AZL game, even at this time of year, and is hard to explain away by saying these scouts were on usual coverage. D-backs OF Kristian Robinson (whom we have ranked No. 2 in the system) was a late, precautionary scratch after being hit with a ball the day before, so he probably wasn’t their collective target. Instead, I suspect it was Dodgers 19-year-old Mexican righty Gerardo Carrillo, who was 91-96 with a plus curveball. I saw Carrillo pitch in relief of Yadier Alvarez on the AZL’s opening night, during which he was 94-97. He’s small, and my knee-jerk reaction was to bucket him as a reliever, but there’s enough athleticism to try things out in a rotation and see if it sticks.


Daily Prospect Notes: 7/5

Monday through Wednesday notes on prospects from lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen. Read previous installments here.

7/2

Brewer Hicklen, OF, Kansas City Royals (Profile)
Level: Low-A   Age: 22   Org Rank: HM   FV: 35+
Line: 4-for-6, 2B, HR

Notes
Hicklen has some statistical red flags if you’re unaware of the context with which you should be viewing his performance. He’s a 22-year-old college hitter with a 30% strikeout rate at Low-A. But Hicklen hasn’t been committed to playing baseball for very long, as he sought, late in high school and throughout college, to have a football career. He went to UAB as a baseball walk-on and eventually earned a football scholarship as the school’s defunct program was to be reborn. But Hicklen’s physical tools stood out as he continued to play baseball (plus speed and raw power), so he was drafted and compelled to sign. He hasn’t been focusing on baseball, alone, for very long and has a .300/.350/.525 line in his first full pro season. He’s a toolsy long shot, but so far so good.

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Daily Prospect Notes: 6/27

Notes on prospects from lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen. Read previous installments here.

Jabari Blash, OF, Los Angeles Angels (Profile)
Level: Triple-A   Age: 28   Org Rank: NR  FV: 35
Line: 3-for-3, 3 HR, BB

Notes
Blash is no longer rookie-eligible, so while he’s a fun player to watch hit bombs and had a hell of a game last night, he’s on here today as a conduit to discuss what’s going on with some of the Angels hitters in the lowest levels of the minors. This is Trent Deveaux last fall, when he first arrived in the states. His swing was largely the same early this spring, albeit with a stronger, more involved top hand, which helped him drive the ball with more authority. This is what he looks like right now, which bears quite a bit of resemblance to Blash. No offense to Blash, who has had a long pro career and will probably play for another half-decade or so, but I’m not sure I’d proactively alter an ultra-talented 18-year-old’s swing to mimic that of a notoriously frustrating replacement-level player. Deveaux isn’t the only low-level Angels hitting prospect whose swing now looks like this.

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Daily Prospect Notes: 6/26

Notes on prospects from lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen. Read previous installments here.

Taylor Hearn, LHP, Pittsburgh Pirates (Profile)
Level: Double-A   Age: 23   Org Rank:FV: 45
Line: 7 IP, 4 H, 1 BB, 7 K, 0 R

Notes
Hearn’s peripherals (27.5% K, 9.3% BB) are exactly the same as they were last year when he was in High-A. He’s a little old for Double-A, but that matters less for pitchers and Hearn’s early-career injuries set back his development pretty significantly. He’ll flash a 55 slider and average changeup, and he throws enough strikes to start, though he’s not overly efficient. He was up to 97 last night and projects as a fourth starter or late-inning reliever. Here are his swinging strikes from yesterday…

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Trevor Bauer and a Month of Cleveland’s Rotation

Cleveland set a number of records last year by means of a dominant collective pitching effort. This contributor noted last summer how the Indians’ rotation was distancing itself from the rest of baseball, and on Oct. 2, Jeff Sullivan argued that the Indians might have had the best overall staff of all time. They were the best of all time by some measures, including total WAR.

Then earlier this season, remarkably, the Houston Astros appeared set to better that Cleveland staff, recording an ERA that was almost 50% better than average over the season’s first two months.

But guess what? The Indians are making another run. And while the club’s overall staff (relievers included) might not ultimately rival Houston’s, the Indians’ rotation just might be able to chase down the Astros’. Read the rest of this entry »


José Ramírez and the Greatest Third-Base Seasons Ever

Though he was voted into the starting lineup of the American League All-Star team last year and finished third in MVP voting, as well José Ramírez is still something of an under-the-radar star. Perhaps it’s because he plays in Cleveland rather than a larger, more glamorous market. Maybe it’s because he plays alongside — but also the shadow of — Francisco Lindor, an elite shortstop who’s 14 months younger. It’s conceivable that Ramirez’s early-career struggles and the fact that he shares his name with a Braves pitcher contribute to his lower profile as well.

Regardless, with the strong start to his 2018 season — and particularly a torrid May, during which he recorded a 214 wRC+ and 2.6 WAR, tied with Lindor for the MLB high) — the 25-year-old switch-hitter is now fifth in WAR since the start of 2016, behind only Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Kris Bryant and Jose Altuve (15.6 WAR, 0.7 ahead of the sixth-place Lindor). By any standard, he deserves to be considered among the game’s top-tier players.

What’s more, Ramírez has put himself in position to do something that no third baseman has ever done: post a season of at least 10 wins (hat-tip to reader GERB who pointed this out in my most recent chat). Through Saturday, he had compiled 4.1 WAR in the Indians’ 57 games (he sat out one), an 11.7 WAR pace, though he’s not the only player on such a breakneck clip. Trout entered Sunday on an astonishing 13.5-win pace (4.9 WAR in 59 Angels games), and Betts on a 10.5 WAR pace (4.1 in 63 games — the number the Red Sox will have played when he’s eligible to come off the disabled list on June 8).

Ten-win seasons at any position are, of course, quite rare, and while there’s nothing magical about that plateau beyond our inherent fascination with the decimal system, getting to double-digits is still pretty cool. Via FanGraphs’ methodology, there have been just 51 different 10 WAR seasons since 1901, one for every 249 batting title-qualified player-seasons. Just over half of those (26), occurred before World War II (one for every 139 qualified seasons) when the wider spread of talent made it easier for individual players to dominate. Babe Ruth (nine) and Rogers Hornsby (six) account for more than half of those prewar seasons, with Ty Cobb (three), Lou Gehrig, Honus Wagner, and Ted Williams (two apiece) the other repeat customers. Eddie Collins, Jimmie Foxx, and Tris Speaker round out the prewar group, and Williams is the only player to have a 10-win season during the war (1942, before he himself missed three seasons in the military).

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Francisco Lindor Wants to Be Baseball’s Best Player

Articles about great players have this habit of turning into articles about Mike Trout. That’s because Mike Trout is the best player in the world. I’m not certain it’s even up for debate. It will be one day, and maybe that day will be soon, but Trout has proven so much, for so long. Players sometimes flirt with Trout’s level of performance. They’ll do it for a month, or even two or three. Then they fade away, while Trout remains. That’s his big secret: never slump. Never slump, and always be awesome.

I understand that, these days, there’s a conversation comparing Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. As you could guess, despite Betts’ start, I’ll still take Trout. I’m a Trout guy. But the Betts side does raise a valid point: Betts’ offensive bar doesn’t have to be so high, because he’s so incredibly valuable in the field. Betts is baseball’s best defensive right fielder. That gives him a leg up. He doesn’t have to hit like Trout to be more valuable than Trout. That much is correct.

That much would also apply to Francisco Lindor. Lindor is a wizard at a premium defensive position. He’s a threat when he gets on the bases. And now, at the plate, Lindor has leveled up. To be clear, I’m still a Trout guy. But Lindor, at least, is closing the gap.

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José Ramírez Is a Star

Ramírez has exhibited a kind of power never anticipated by talent evaluators.
(Photo: Erik Drost)

More or less, the public perception of a ballplayer’s value correlates pretty strongly with the reality of that player’s value. Mike Trout, for example, is almost universally regarded as the best player in the game. The numbers bear that out. José Altuve and Kris Bryant have both won MVP awards in recent years. Their records suggest that such accolades are warranted.

That said, an examination of the FanGraphs leaderboard for WAR since 2016 — which you can examine for yourself by means of this convenient link — reveals a case where perception and reality seem to diverge. Here are the top players from same:

WAR leaders, 2016-18
Rank Player WAR
1 Mike Trout 19.5
2 Mookie Betts 16.8
3 Kris Bryant 16.2
4 José Altuve 15.4
T5 Francisco Lindor 14.2
T5 José Ramírez 14.2
Through games played May 13th, 2018.

You may be a more observant baseball fan than I am — or you may be from Cleveland (some people are!) — but I’m not sure that one out of every 10 reasonably aware fans would be able to say, without checking, that José Ramírez has recorded the fifth-most WAR of any hitter in the game over the last two-plus seasons. I’m not sure they would say he’s been more valuable than Josh Donaldson, Corey Seager, and Joey Votto over that span. But he has been.

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Mike Clevinger, Ben Zobrist, and When Shoes Aren’t Just Shoes

Mike Clevinger is a pretty great pitcher. He throws 94 mph. He’s cut his walk rate in half since last year. He’s been the best starter so far this season in one of the league’s best rotations.

Mike Clevinger also has pretty great shoes. They’re designed by by artist Jonathan Hrusovsky. Look at these things.

Ben Zobrist is a pretty great player himself. In his age-37 season, he’s recorded a batting line about 15% better than league average. He still plays multiple positions well. He’s the eighth-best player by WAR over the last decade.

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Sunday Notes: Indians Prospect Will Benson Has Power and a Plan

The Cleveland Indians were looking into the future when they selected Will Benson 14th overall in the 2016 draft. The powerfully-built Atlanta, Georgia product was a week shy of his 18th birthday, and his left-handed stroke — lethal against prep competition — was going to require polish if he hoped to reach his sky-high ceiling. Two years later, that process is well underway.

“You really wouldn’t,” Benson responded when I asked if now-versus-then film footage would show the same setup and swing. “In high school, you’d see a very athletic kid just competing and somehow getting it done. What you’d see now is more efficient movement — that’s a big thing I’ve worked on — and I’m maintaining better posture throughout my swing. Mechanically, making sure I’m getting behind the baseball is huge for me.”

Hitting the ball long distances isn’t a problem for the young outfielder. His power potential is a primary reason he went in the first round, and 545 plate appearances into his professional career — keep in mind he’s still a teenager — Benson has gone yard 23 times. The youngest position player on the roster of the Lake County Captains, he currently co-leads the low-A Midwest League with seven round trippers.

While Benson’s swing is conducive to clearing fences, his mindset is that of a well-rounded hitter. While he’s embraced launch-angle concepts, his focus is on simply squaring up the baseball. Read the rest of this entry »


Does Any Team Want to Win the AL Central?

In the annals of modern baseball history, we’ve seen some pretty bad teams win division titles, with the 1973 Mets and 2005 Padres claiming flags with just 82 wins apiece. If there was a silver lining to the 1994 strike, it’s that it spared us the possibility of a sub-.500 team making the playoffs, as the 52-62 Rangers were the best of the AL Worst, er, West. Which brings us to today’s AL Central. With the Indians (17-18) having lost four in a row and eight out of 11, the division lacks a single team playing .500 ball. Cleveland nonetheless leads the pack, and the division as a whole has a collective 68-102 record and a .400 winning percentage, the worst in the majors.

To be fair, the AL Central did project to be the majors’ worst. Via our preseason Playoff Odds page, here are the aggregated projected standings for the six divisions:

Aggregated 2018 Preseason Projected Standings
Division W L Win%
AL East 422 388 .521
AL West 416 394 .513
NL Central 410 400 .506
NL West 407 403 .502
NL East 390 420 .481
AL Central 385 425 .476

And here’s how the divisions sat as of Wednesday morning:

Aggregated 2018 Standings
Division W L Win% Run Dif
AL West 96 85 .530 36
AL East 92 82 .529 57
NL East 91 84 .520 29
NL West 92 87 .514 -21
NL Central 88 87 .503 23
AL Central 68 102 .400 -124
Through close of play on Tuesday, May 8

The AL Central has become MLB’s black hole, sucking losses into its gravitational field. Currently, it’s the only division collectively below .500 (the NL Central has rallied over the past few days), and there’s now a 103-point difference in winning percentage separating them from the worst of the other five divisions. Coincidentally, their collective run differential is 103 runs worse than any other division’s as well.

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The Astros Aren’t the Only Team Whose Pitchers Are Adding Spin

Last week, Trevor Bauer neither confirmed nor denied having made a point about how foreign substances can increase spin rate.

Bauer wants the sport either to enforce rules against pine tar and other illegal, tacky materials used by pitchers (that’s about impossible, as Bauer acknowledges) or make grip-enhancing legal. While employment of a foreign substance resides outside the rules, there is little enforcement of those rules unless they are openly defied.

Spin is thought to be largely an innate skill, difficult to increase dramatically. Generally, the more velocity a pitcher has, the more spin a pitcher is capable of producing. There is a relationship between spin and velocity, so if a pitcher can increase his velocity, he can reasonably expect to increase his spin rate.

There’s certainly incentive to increase spin rate, as there’s a correlation between spin and whiffs. A 300-rpm improvement is equivalent to a couple percentage points of swinging-strike rate. Bauer has said he can increase his spin rate by about 300 rpms by adding a tacky substance to the throwing hand. It’s conceivable that he did something similar to prove a point during the first inning of his start last Monday:

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Trevor Bauer Might Have Conducted an Experiment

CLEVELAND — In case you’ve not been logged into your social-media account in the past several days, Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer has been outspoken about rampant use of pine tar (and other grip-aiding substances) in the game.

Bauer’s position is basically that the playing field ought to be level: either MLB better enforces the pine-tar rule or it makes grip-aiding substances legal. And Bauer knows it would be about impossible to enforce the current rule. Bauer says he has tested pine tar in a lab setting and said it significantly increased his spin rate. He claims it has a greater effect than steroids on performance.

“I’ve melted down Firm Grip and Coca-Cola and pine tar together,” Bauer told reporters Wednesday. “I’ve tested a lot of stuff. At 70 mph, when we were doing the tests, spin rates jumped between 300–400 rpm while using various different sticky substances. The effect is slightly less pronounced at higher velocities — more game-like velocities — but still between 200–300 rpm increase.”

As many in this audience are aware, the greater the fastball spin rate, the more “rise” effect the pitch has, the more it resists gravity, the more swing-and-miss it generates. More spin equals more swing-and-miss. That’s been proven by Driveline Baseball, where Bauer trains, and FanGraphs’ own Jeff Zimmerman.

There is incentive to add spin. And now with Statcast and its TrackMan Doppler radar component in all major-league stadiums, pitchers have had the ability to measure their spin to better understand some of the underpinnings behind their performance in game environments.

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Top 22 Prospects: Cleveland Indians

Below is an analysis of the prospects in the farm system of the Cleveland Indians. Scouting reports are compiled with information provided by industry sources as well as from our own (both Eric Longenhagen’s and Kiley McDaniel’s) observations. For more information on the 20-80 scouting scale by which all of our prospect content is governed you can click here. For further explanation of the merits and drawbacks of Future Value, read this.

All the numbered prospects here also appear on THE BOARD, a new feature at the site that offers sortable scouting information for every organization. Click here to visit THE BOARD.

Indians Top Prospects
Rk Name Age High Level Position ETA FV
1 Francisco Mejia 22 MLB C/3B 2019 60
2 Triston McKenzie 20 A+ RHP 2020 50
3 Yu-Cheng Chang 22 AAA SS 2019 50
4 Bobby Bradley 21 AA 1B 2019 50
5 Shane Bieber 22 AA RHP 2019 45
6 Nolan Jones 19 A 3B 2021 45
7 Will Benson 19 A RF 2022 45
8 Eric Haase 25 AAA C 2018 45
9 Greg Allen 25 MLB CF 2018 45
10 Willi Castro 20 AA SS 2020 45
11 Conner Capel 20 A+ OF 2021 40
12 Elijah Morgan 21 A RHP 2020 40
13 Aaron Bracho 16 R SS 2023 40
14 Aaron Civale 22 AA RHP 2020 40
15 George Valera 17 R LF 2023 40
16 Tyler Freeman 18 R SS 2022 40
17 Luis Oviedo 18 R RHP 2022 40
18 Sam Hentges 21 A+ LHP 2021 40
19 Quentin Holmes 18 R CF 2023 40
20 Logan Ice 22 A+ C 2021 40
21 Jesse Berardi 22 A- SS 2021 40
22 Sam Haggerty 23 AA UTIL 2020 40

60 FV Prospects

Signed: July 2nd Period, 2012 from Dominican Republic
Age 21 Height 5’10 Weight 180 Bat/Throw B/R
Tool Grades (Present/Future)
Hit Raw Power Game Power Run Fielding Throw
50/60 55/55 30/50 50/45 40/45 80/80

Mejia wasn’t/isn’t a lost cause as a defensive catching prospect, but his bat is almost ready for the big leagues. It’s that ability to hit that prompted a move to third base during the Arizona Fall League and, now, reps in left field to accelerate Mejia’s timetable to Cleveland. He certainly has the arm for wherever Cleveland wants to play him. It’s an 80-grade howitzer that elicited audible gasps from AFL crowds. His hands and footwork at third were predictably raw.

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The CEO of Big League Advance Makes His Case

Last Monday, I wrote on this very site about both the lawsuit Indians uberprospect Francisco Mejia has filed against Big League Advance (“BLA”) and also BLA’s counterclaim. With the rise of branding contracts in professional sports, Mejia’s lawsuit likely represent a harbinger of things to come — rather than an aberration unlikely to be repeated — as a new frontier in sports litigation develops.

Shortly after publishing that piece, I spoke with BLA Chief Executive Officer Michael Schwimer about his company, the Mejia lawsuit, and what the future might hold. Schwimer, it should be noted, was good enough to spend a full hour being grilled by an attorney while simultaneously fathering his two young children, an arrangement most reasonable people would consider to be less than ideal.

Big League Advance

Schwimer himself is a former major-league pitcher, owner of an abbreviated 48-inning career with the Philadelphia Phillies marked by a lot of strikeouts (9.62 K/9) and a lot of walks (4.25 BB/9). After leaving the game, he started Big League Advance. Schwimer said he started BLA because of his own experience in the minor leagues. “I was reffing basketball games [to make ends meet],” Schwimer told me. “I was babysitting.” Schwimer believed there was a better way, and BLA was born.

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The Underappreciated Legacy of Larry Doby

This is Shakeia Taylor’s third piece as part of her April Residency at FanGraphs. Shakeia is an avid baseball fan and baseball history enthusiast. Her main interests include the Negro Leagues and women in baseball. She has written for The Hardball Times and Complex. She hosts an annual charity bartending fundraiser for Jackie Robinson Day, all of tips and raffle proceeds of which are donated to the Jackie Robinson Foundation. Though not from Baltimore, she’s still an Elite Giant. Shakeia can also be found on Twitter (@curlyfro). She’ll be contributing here this month.

A statue of Doby outside Cleveland’s Progressive Field.
(Photo: Erik Drost)

Larry Doby entered the league 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson’s debut, making him the second Black player in Major League Baseball. Ever. The second person to do something is often forgotten. This past weekend, MLB’s 30 teams celebrated Jackie Robinson Day, marking Robinson’s debut in 1947. No such day is designated to celebrate Doby’s career. Indeed, Doby’s legacy has often been overshadowed by Jackie’s, but it is one that deserves to be remembered on its own.

Lawrence Eugene Doby was born on December 13th in Camden, South Carolina. As is common for many born in that time, it is unclear precisely in what year he was born, 1923 or 1924. His birthday is listed differently depending on the source. In what this writer would like to think was the universe acting on his behalf, Larry’s father, David, met his future wife, Etta, while playing baseball on the street in front of her home. During his early years, Doby spent much of his time with his grandmother due to his parents’ marital issues. When Larry was eight years old, his father died. Four years later, Etta and her young son moved to Paterson, New Jersey.

In Paterson, Doby was a multi-sport athlete, achieving success in baseball, basketball, football, and track. He even played baseball for the Smart Sets, a Black semi-pro team, during summer breaks from school. As a senior in high school, he accepted a basketball scholarship at Long Island University-Brooklyn. But before he enrolled, at age 17, he joined Abe and Effa Manley’s Newark Eagles.

Many speculated during his Negro Leagues career that it would possibly be Doby, and not Jackie, who would break the color barrier. Jackie bested him by three months, but Doby circumvented the minor leagues entirely. Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck finalized a deal for Doby with Effa Manley, the Eagles’ business manager, on July 3, 1947. He paid her a total of $15,000 — $10,000 for taking him from the Eagles and another $5,000 once it was determined he would stay with Cleveland for at least 30 days.

Doby was regarded as “a Negro good enough to play major league ball,” writes Dr. Louis Moore in an article titled “Doby Does It! Larry Doby, Race, and American Democracy in Post World-War II America” from the Journal of Sport History. On July 5, with Cleveland on the road in Chicago, he made his debut against the White Sox in the first game of a doubleheader. In his only at-bat of the game, he struck out. Though he started the second game of the double-header, he would not start another the rest of the season. While good play is no guard against a determined racist — Robinson enjoyed a successful debut and still received terrible treatment from fans and players — Doby’s struggles brought out white opposition. Like Jackie, Doby wasn’t allowed to stay in the same hotels or eat in the same restaurants as his team. He was subjected to racial slurs from fans, opposing players, and even teammates. He was called “coon,” “jigaboo,” and “nigger.” Opposing players would spit in his face when he slid into second base.

Moore notes that,

[b]y the end of the year, his batting average dipped to a dismal .156, and many white fans claimed Doby did not have the goods. For whites, he became a symbol of the limitations of economic integration in post-World War II America. In other words, Doby took work away from a white man.

By all accounts, including his own, Doby took the racism he faced and channeled it into aggression on the field. He admitted that sometimes that aggression meant he swung too hard and missed a pitch. Despite his place in history, Doby felt lonely and isolated. “There’s something in the Bible that says you should forgive and forget,” Doby told the New York Post in 1999. “Well, you might forgive. But boy, it is tough to forget.” However, he was undeterred.

Doby went on to have a successful major-league career. In attempt to make Doby more comfortable in his second season, Veeck removed five players from the team who had been “discourteous” to him. Doby played the outfield full time and batted .301, becoming a major contributor to Cleveland’s pennant victory. He was the first African-American to hit a home run in the World Series, a series that Cleveland went on to win. Doby ultimately became a seven-time All-Star and put together five 100-RBI and eight 20-home-run seasons. In 1978, the same man who gave him his shot as a player in the major leagues hired him to manage his Chicago White Sox, making Doby just the second African-American manager in major-league history.

Doby recalled in a 1997 New York Times interview:

When Mr. Veeck signed me, he sat me down and told me some of the do’s and don’ts. He said, ‘Lawrence’ — he’s the only person who called me Lawrence — ‘you are going to be part of history.’ Part of history? I had no notions about that. I just wanted to play baseball. I mean, I was young. I didn’t quite realize then what all this meant. I saw it simply as an opportunity to get ahead. Mr. Veeck told me: ‘No arguing with umpires, don’t even turn around at a bad call at the plate, and no dissertations with opposing players; either of those might start a race riot. No associating with female Caucasians’ — not that I was going to. And he said remember to act in a way that you know people are watching you. And this was something that both Jack and I took seriously. We knew that if we didn’t succeed, it might hinder opportunities for other Afro-Americans.”

In the summer of 2014, Cleveland unveiled a statue of Jim Thome before one was erected for Larry Doby. It was an act many Cleveland fans — and some baseball fans outside of Ohio — viewed as an injustice, not because Thome is undeserving, but because Doby’s should’ve come first. According to Moore, Doby was not just a symbol of hope for Clevelanders, or a good player, but a “reflection of the struggle for economic opportunities.” Black Cleveland residents were fighting for the passage of a Fair Employment Practice Committee law at the same time Doby joined the local ball club.

The FEPC was created after World War II by executive order. It was meant to be an organization in charge of ensuring that private companies that received government contracts for military work did not discriminate on the basis of color. But companies that failed to comply received relatively light penalties that only applied to military spending. Cleveland’s Black population had grown tremendously after the Second Great Migration, and the fight there centered around a desire for more FEPC legislation at federal, state, and local levels. After Doby was signed, local legislators agreed to support FEPC legislation and sent a letter to Veeck for his acquisition of the young outfielder. One could say Doby helped advance with the progress of civil rights in Cleveland both on and off the field.

An unsigned editorial that ran on page 14 of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Friday, July 4, 1947 titled, “Pulling for Larry Doby” read:

President Bill Veeck of the Cleveland Indians made news again yesterday by buying the clever infielder, Larry Doby, from the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. Veeck is the first American League owner to sign a Negro player. The Brooklyn Dodgers established the precedent by bringing up Jackie Robinson this year from Montreal. Manager Lou Boudreau, we believe, expressed the sentiments of Cleveland fans by saying that “creed, race or color are not factors in baseball success — ability and character are the only things that count. Negroes have risen to stardom in the other sports. If given the opportunity they will do so in baseball. Veeck deserves to be congratulated. The fans will be pulling for Larry Doby to make good.

“He said he never got booed in Cleveland,” Larry Doby Jr. told an interviewer. Not only was Cleveland important to Larry, but Larry was, and is, important to Cleveland.

Robinson broke the color barrier alone, but men like Doby joined the fight for acceptance and respect, and a place for those who would follow them. No telling of baseball’s story is complete until legacies like his are remembered. Larry Doby died of cancer in Montclair, New Jersey, on June 18, 2003. Despite being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998, he still doesn’t get the credit he deserves. “Jack and I had very similar experiences,” Doby told the Times in 1997. “And I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t want people to remember my participation.” It is essential to the health of major-league Baseball, even today, that we honor Doby’s wish.


Francisco Mejia and the Legal Limits of Brand Contracts

Back in 2016, Phillies third baseman Maikel Franco signed a contract with a company called Fantex. The terms were fairly simple: for a payment of $4.35 million, Franco agreed to pay Fantex 10% of all of his future earnings. Fantex would also be allowed to sell its “share” of Franco to investors, thereby generating additional revenues. Franco and Andrew Heaney were the pioneers, signing “brand” contracts with Fantex back before they were fashionable.

At the time, a friend of mine asked me what I thought of the deal, and I surprised him by panning it. “Just wait for the lawsuit this type of deal will generate,” I said. Evidently, that wait is now over.

On February 21, 2018, Indians catcher (and potentially third baseman and left fielder) of the future Francisco Mejia filed a lawsuit against a company called Big League Advance Fund I, LP. You can read the complaint here, plus BLA’s answer and counterclaim here.

So what is this about? Evidently, Mejia signed three contracts with BLA, which guaranteed him a $360,000 payment in exchange for 10% of his career earnings. If this sounds like Franco’s Fantex deal, you’re mostly right — but Mejia says there were some red flags with BLA which make this contract unconscionable.

According to Mejia’s Complaint,

Defendant BLA’s business plan involves utilizing various “runners” who approach up and coming baseball players in areas such as the Dominican Republic. These runners (usually former baseball players) advise prospects that Defendant BLA will advance them considerable sums of money, to be repaid by a percentage of the player’s future earnings. The prospects are generally young, uneducated and unsophisticated. Few speak English. Most, if not all, come from very modest families who are struggling financially.

According to Mejia, BLA approached him when his mother was very ill and struggling with medical bills. The contracts were signed, says Mejia, without a translator, and BLA even paid for Mejia’s lawyer just so the contract could state Mejia had the advice of counsel. Mejia says that BLA employees showed up at his house unannounced to collect a payment of about $10,000 after Mejia made the big leagues and threatened to bar him from playing if he didn’t pay. And, according to the Complaint, given Mejia is projected to earn over $100 million in the major leagues, BLA stands to recover over $10,000,000 against a $360,000 investment, which Mejia says is unconscionable.

If you’re interested in seeing the contract, it’s available here. That’s the third one Mejia signed — the one that’s the subject of the lawsuit.

So what does “unconscionable” mean, anyway?

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Corey Kluber Is the Best Pitcher in Baseball

Corey Kluber, overwhelmed with joy.
(Photo: Arturo Pardavila III)

For a really long time, there was little doubt about the best pitcher on the planet. Clayton Kershaw has been on an epic run that will land him in the Hall of Fame. Over the past two seasons, Kershaw has still been brilliant, but he’s averaged 24 starts and 162 innings instead of 32 starts and 222 innings. That slight downturn in health has allowed arguments to pop up debating whether Kershaw is still the best pitcher in baseball. Last season, Max Scherzer was the takeover candidate of choice. The 2016 National League Cy Young winner followed up one great performance with another by claiming the award again. Ignored in those debates was a pitcher who has been better than both over the past two seasons and projects to be better this year: Corey Kluber.

On Monday, Kluber pitched eight scoreless innings, striking out 13 batters against one walk and just two hits. After three starts, Kluber’s ERA is 1.57, his FIP is 2.33, and he’s been worth 0.7 WAR. That’s great, but it doesn’t really separate him from a bunch of good pitchers off to great starts, including Scherzer, Dylan Bundy, and Gerrit Cole. Let’s extend to the past just a little bit more to get a sense of how Kluber has done lately. The table below shows the top pitchers by WAR since the All-Star Break last season.

Best Pitchers Since 2017 All-Star Break
Name IP FIP ERA WAR
Corey Kluber 133.1 2.51 1.76 4.6
Luis Severino 99.2 2.81 2.17 3.3
Carlos Carrasco 107.0 2.91 3.36 3.1
Jacob deGrom 102.0 2.81 3.18 3.0
Justin Verlander 120.0 3.28 1.88 3.0
Jon Gray 102.1 3.18 3.96 2.9
Chris Sale 97.2 2.76 2.86 2.9
Charlie Morton 95.0 2.92 3.03 2.8
Gerrit Cole 109.1 3.35 3.62 2.8
Stephen Strasburg 75.0 2.47 1.32 2.6
Max Scherzer 92.1 2.97 2.73 2.5

Kluber is so far out ahead of the pack, the 1.3 WAR difference between him and Severino is nearly double the difference between Severino and 11th-place Scherzer. Combining his great second half with his strong start to this season, Kluber has struck out 169 batters and walked only 15. Since the All-Star Break last season, Kluber has been the best pitcher in baseball, and it isn’t particularly close. To really take a look at the best pitcher in baseball, it probably helps to take a bit of a longer view. Read the rest of this entry »


The Necessary Conditions for Edwin Encarnacion’s Inside-the-Parker

Adjectives like “impossible” and “improbable” and “unbelievable” are used quite liberally in sports broadcasting and writing — perhaps misused, even.

A walk-off win is not unbelievable; it happens semi-regularly. Likewise, winning a championship is not technically impossible for most teams (even if 11 clubs have a 0% chance of winning the World Series according to FanGraphs’ playoff odds). Nevertheless, people respond to narratives, and the overcoming-all-odds story is a popular one.

While we should employ such descriptors more sparingly, what Edwin Encarnacion did Monday night truly bordered on the improbable and impossible without sliding into hyperbole.

You’re probably aware that he hit an inside-the-park home run. While three 34-year-olds have hit inside-the-park homers since 2012 — David DeJesus, Jimmy Rollins, and Jason Bourgeois — Encarnacion is the oldest to do so in at least the past six seasons.

Here’s the video evidence:

Encarnacion is not exactly fleet of foot. He’s a DH who was born in 1983. Encarnacion (25.6 feet per second) ranked 420th out of 465 MLB players in Sprint Speed last season, according to Baseball Savant’s leaderboard.

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