Archive for Residency

Pace-of-Play Proposals Could Be Hostile to Innovation

This is Alexis LaMarsh’s first piece as part of her July Residency at FanGraphs. Alexis is a communications student at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri. She enjoys breaking down numbers and exploring the cultural side of baseball. She has written for her own site, Pinch Hero, as well as Cardinals blog St. Louis Bullpen. She plans to present research at Saberseminar in August. Alexis can also be found on Twitter @clutchmarp.

With action on the field subject to an increasing number of starts and stops and the average time of game climbing in recent seasons, commissioner Rob Manfred has stressed taking active steps to reverse the trend. In 2018, MLB implemented new pace-of-play rules, including mound-visit limits and timers on inning breaks and pitching changes, part of a continuous effort that has been underway since 2015.

The effects on game length are still unclear. Per Baseball Reference, the average time of a nine-inning game last season was three hours and five minutes. Thus far in 2018, it’s down to two hours and fifty-nine minutes. In a recent interview with The Athletic, Manfred credited the league’s recent rule changes for the dip in game time, as well as improvements in the game’s pace, though his comments to that effect were relatively vague.

While it’s certainly possible that this year’s initiatives have led to slightly shorter games, Manfred’s claim suggests that he is perhaps missing a larger, more critical point: more than any superficial pace of play component, what happens at the plate appears to ultimately decide the pace and length of games. The current trends on the mound and in the batter’s box suggest that there may be a limit to the efficacy of pace-of-play initiatives. That’s of particular concern in light of the drastic steps the league has discussed to further address the issue. In service to the goal of shortening games and increasing action, MLB may end up adopting a posture that is hostile to innovation.

Part of the pace-of-play issue is what’s being thrown. In the past 16 years (for which the data is available on FanGraphs), fastball usage has trended downward, while offspeed and breaking-ball usage have trended upward:

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Finding the Next Edwin Díaz

This is Jake Mailhot’s fourth post as part of his May Residency at FanGraphs. A lifelong Mariners fan, Jake now lives in Bellingham, Washington, just a little too far away from Seattle to make it to games regularly, which is sometimes for the best. He is a staff editor at Mariners blog Lookout Landing. He can be found on Twitter at @jakemailhot. Read the works of all our residents here.

Among the various career arcs in professional baseball, the conversion from starting pitcher to reliever is one of the more common ones. It’s a last resort for aging veterans and a tried-and-true way to get the most out of middling starters. But when a talented prospect is moved to the bullpen, there are bound to be questions. It has been generally understood that a starting pitcher is more valuable than a relief pitcher, so teams are usually more conservative with their prospects, often letting them at least try to work things out as a starter before pulling the plug. But in an era when relievers are throwing more innings than ever before, a high-octane reliever might prove to be more valuable than just another starter.

Back in 2016, the Mariners moved one of their best pitching prospects from the rotation to the bullpen. Edwin Díaz took to the conversion quickly and was in the majors a few weeks later, completely skipping Triple-A. He was soon installed as the Mariners closer and has been one of the best relievers in the majors since. His already excellent fastball velocity received the usual boost from shorter stints on the mound, and his slider has developed into a plus-plus pitch.

It was a risky move for the Mariners. Instead of letting the 22-year-old try to develop his changeup in the rotation, they shifted him to the bullpen and aggressively promoted him because the major-league team needed bullpen help desperately.

I wondered if any other teams had tried something similar. Below you’ll see the results of a very specific query: every relief pitcher who has thrown at least 10 innings in the majors and had been a starting pitcher in the minors as recently as last year. To narrow the field even further, these pitchers all recorded fewer than five innings pitched in Triple-A and have posted an average leverage index greater than 1.25 when entering the game.

Recently Converted Minor-League Starters
Name IP K% BB% ERA FIP
Jordan Hicks 27.2 14.2% 14.2% 1.63 4.02
Brad Keller 22.1 14.6% 7.9% 2.01 3.46
Justin Anderson 15.2 30.9% 13.2% 3.45 4.20
Seranthony Domínguez 11.2 35.1% 0.0% 0.00 1.14

It’s an interesting list. Jordan Hicks, the man with the fastest fastball in all the land, sits atop it with almost 27 innings pitched and just 16 strikeouts to his name. Then we have a Rule 5 pick, Brad Keller, who has recently been in the mix for high-leverage innings in the Royals bullpen. Moving on. Justin Anderson wasn’t a highly regarded pitching prospect in the Angels organization, but he has added more than 6 mph to his average fastball velocity out of the pen and given Mike Scioscia another option in his constant closer carousel. This article was almost about Anderson. But the final name on the list is far more intriguing — and not just because of his 80-grade baseball name.

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When Lance McCullers Stops McCullersing

This is Jake Mailhot’s third post as part of his May Residency at FanGraphs. A lifelong Mariners fan, Jake now lives in Bellingham, Washington, just a little too far away from Seattle to make it to games regularly, which is sometimes for the best. He is a staff editor at Mariners blog Lookout Landing. He can be found on Twitter at @jakemailhot.

Earlier this year, Jeff Sullivan wrote a pair of articles, each about a pitcher who appeared to be McCullersing. That term, of course, is a reference to Lance McCullersJr., who in 2016 began throwing his excellent curveball more often than his fastball. He’s led all of baseball in curveball usage since then. He wound up throwing his curveball an astonishing 75% of the time in Game Seven of the ALCS last postseason. That appearance was peak McCullersing.

He started off this year throwing his curveball around the same amount as last year, 48% of the time. But when the calendar flipped to May, something changed. Just look at this graph of his secondary pitch usage in 2018.

That’s… interesting. In his start last night (not included here), McCullers threw his curveball around 40% of the time. That’s pretty normal for him. But it’s been less normal for him of late. In his start against the Angels last Monday, McCullers actually threw more changeups than curveballs, the latter pitch representing just 21.4% of his total count for the night. The last time his curveball usage fell below 30% was all the way back on August 3, 2015, during his rookie year.

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Sean Manaea Is Slowing Everything Down

This is Jake Mailhot’s second post as part of his May Residency at FanGraphs. A lifelong Mariners fan, Jake now lives in Bellingham, Washington, just a little too far away from Seattle to make it to games regularly, which is sometimes for the best. He is a staff editor at Mariners blog Lookout Landing. He can be found on Twitter at @jakemailhot.

Fastball velocity is one of the main factors at which analysts look when attempting to predict pitcher injuries. When a pitcher suddenly starts throwing slower than before, alarm bells start ringing. Sometimes it’s nothing; more often than not, though, it’s a pretty bad sign. Having said that, let me present — without any other context — a velocity chart for a starting pitcher from 2016 through this season.

That’s a pretty disturbing downward trend. But as far as we know, this pitcher isn’t injured. In fact, he might be the healthiest he’s been in his major league career — and he’s thrown a no-hitter this year as proof. If you haven’t guessed already, the pitcher in question is Sean Manaea. He’s throwing slower than ever before and thriving.

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Edwin Díaz Has Been Nearly Unhittable

This is Jake Mailhot’s first post as part of his May Residency at FanGraphs. A lifelong Mariners fan, Jake now lives in Bellingham, Washington, just a little too far away from Seattle to make it to games regularly, which is sometimes for the best. He is a staff editor at Mariners blog Lookout Landing. He can be found on Twitter at @jakemailhot.

There has been no shortage of remarkable relief performances during the first month of the season. Jordan Hicks and Tayron Guerrero are playing a game of one-upmanship with their fastballs. Josh Hader is striking out basically everyone he faces. Adam Ottavino resurrected his career in an abandoned storefront. But the most impressive performance of all might be what Edwin Díaz accomplished in April.

The ninth batter Díaz faced this season was also the first to actually put the ball in play — he’d struck out the first eight. Seven appearances into the year, he finally gave up his first hit, a single to Jed Lowrie. He gave up just one other hit the entire month. Among pitchers who’ve thrown 10 or more innings, possesses the fourth-highest swinging-strike rate and has produced the lowest overall contact rate when batters actually swing. If you prefer more traditional accolades, he’s also leading the majors in saves. His performance earned him the April AL Reliever of the Month Award. Any way you slice it, Díaz has been pretty great so far.

Díaz has shown flashes of dominance like this before — his 2016 rookie campaign was good for 1.9 WAR on the back of a 2.04 FIP — but he’s always been a little too erratic for his own good. Some of his success in April came despite the inherent chaos of slinging a projectile at 98 mph. He’s already walked nine batters and hit three more, and he’s given up a pair of home runs in May already. A quick look at his plate-discipline stats reveals that Díaz is throwing in the strike zone at the lowest rate of his career, around six and a half points lower than last season. And he isn’t really inducing any more swings on those pitches out of the zone — in fact, batters are swinging far less often at his pitches overall. But again, when batters do swing, they just cannot make consistent contact. Díaz’s contact rate of 55.2% is better than Aroldis Chapman’s, Josh Hader’s, and everyone else’s.

So what has made Díaz so effective this year when he does find the zone?

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Is Baseball Ready to Love Dick Allen?

This is Shakeia Taylor’s fourth and final 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).

“I believe God Almighty hisself would have trouble handling Richie Allen.”

–Phillies interim manager George Myatt, 1969

Despite a somewhat itinerant career and a relative lack of notoriety, there’s some evidence to suggest that Richard Anthony Allen was among the best players of his era. From the moment he debuted, Dick Allen made an impact, nearly helping the Phillies win their first National League title since 1950 in his rookie season. His professional baseball resume features a .292 career batting average, including seven seasons of .300 or better. He won the 1964 Rookie of the Year award and the 1972 MVP award. He posted a .534 career slugging percentage, which ranks second best among qualified players during his career. During the period in which he was active, Allen also produced the eighth-highest WAR among all position players — more wins than Hall of Famers Lou Brock or Willie McCovey or Willie Stargell recorded during the same timeframe, despite all benefiting from more plate appearances than Allen.

While Allen was noted for his talent, he also developed a reputation as one of the most controversial players in the game. He arrived for games hungover and would smoke in the dugout. He was often fined for showing up late or not showing up at all. He was known as a “divisive clubhouse guy.” His attitude would shape future perceptions of him, changing the way fans viewed him as a player.

As the years have passed, though — and as his Hall of Fame case has been evaluated and re-evaluated — those perceptions have shifted, giving way to a more complete understanding of what he endured. Many attribute his “bad attitude” to the racism and mistreatment he suffered in the minor leagues, an unfortunate trend that would follow him to the Phillies clubhouse.

Allen suffered through more unfortunate chapters that I can recount here, but perhaps the defining one came before a game on July 3, 1965, when Allen got into a brawl with Phillies teammate Frank Thomas. According to late Daily News writer Bill Conlin, the fight stemmed from an incident a week earlier when Thomas jokingly asked Allen, “Hey, boy, can you carry my bags to the lobby?” The fight solidified Allen’s bad reputation; his life in Philadelphia became hell. The city was still dealing with the effects of the 1964 racial riots and many white people sided with Thomas. The team put Thomas on irrevocable waivers. Fans began to boo loudly after Thomas, in a radio interview, said that Allen should’ve been punished, too. Allen’s left shoulder was injured in the fight with Thomas, making it difficult to play third base. He was moved to left field. The booing turned to death threats, which turned into fans throwing things at Allen on the field. He began to wear a helmet in the outfield to protect himself from further injury.

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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.


The White Sox Cap and Hip-Hop Culture

This is Shakeia Taylor’s second 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.

Given the racial makeup of Major League Baseball, it might seem like baseball’s culture would be largely distinct from hip hop’s, but it isn’t really. Many players warm up to hip-hop music and use its songs as their walk-ups. In 1993, Seattle Mariners superstar Ken Griffey Jr. chose Naughty By Nature’s “Hip Hop Hooray” as his walk-up song. The song would eventually become his personal anthem. Roc Nation, Jay Z’s entertainment company, represents baseball players, including Robinson Cano and Yoenis Cespedes.

And the game’s influence has been felt in hip hop, as well. Baseball caps, also known as fitteds, have become a mainstay in hip-hop culture. In a game that can at times feel dominated by pop country music, hip hop’s prominence in baseball — and baseball’s presence in hip hop — offers a foothold for fans of both who wish to see their interests intersect.

The relationship between baseball and hip hop is particularly deep in Chicago. Jay-Z has his Yankees cap, but 90s rap videos were all about the White Sox fitted. It became a symbol of the culture at a time when rap was going mainstream and rappers from both coasts were gaining popularity. The design and color scheme of the cap are simple, yet timeless.

The most ubiquitous White Sox cap design — which is also the club’s current cap design — is actually drawn from the 1948 White Sox logo, and was designed by the grandson of White Sox founding owner Charles Comiskey, Chuck.

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Diversity in Baseball Begins in Little League

This is Shakeia Taylor’s first 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.

Sports, for all their faults, are important for many. They’re important in a way we sometimes don’t talk about. One of my friends recently said to me, “Playing baseball as a kid probably saved my life.” It’s been on my mind ever since he said it, because I understand the sentiment. There are kids in many cities and towns across America who would say the same.

My friend, who grew up in a tough urban neighborhood, said baseball saved his life because it gave him something to do. It gave him something to focus on; it kept him off the street. Those statements hold true for many other kids.

I had complained about the lack of diversity in baseball for a long time. I had talked about how people of color and women and girls need better representation in the sport, and I’d done so until I reached a point of exhaustion. Then one day, I decided I would stop talking and try to do something about it.

It started with a Google search for the Little League regional office for my local area. Then came an email to that office with one request:

Hi there, I am interested in helping a Chicago Little League team who may be in need of additional support in the way of equipment and monetary donations. I am hoping you can put me in touch with a coach or two in the city who could use the assistance. I’m happy to answer any and all questions. Thank you in advance!”

My email was answered by Carlton Jones.

Jones is the district administrator for the North and West parts of Chicago, as well as parts of the South side. Jones also serves as the liaison between the leagues, the Central Region Little League HQ, and the International Headquarters in Williamsport. He has been involved with Little League since 2010, but he has served as a coach, manager, or board member in youth baseball since 2003.

“I wanted children from the North Side of Chicago to have the opportunity to enjoy little league baseball and compete in the LLWS tournament, which has five phases, the last two of which are televised.”

Jones’ district, Illinois Little League District 12, or IL-12, has a large geographical footprint. Literally every neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago is serviced. For the West Side, it’s everything north of Cermak. On the South Side, it includes Englewood, Bronzeville, the South Loop, Oakwood, Kenwood, and Morgan Park.

When asked about the current state of Chicago Little League, Jones tells me that “Chicago Little League is a Special Needs league that provides baseball opportunities for players 4-18 and 19-25 that would not be able to play without special accommodations. It was part of Horner Park North-West Little League until it became large enough to be its own league.”

According to a 2015 Wall Street Journal article, 9 million kids between the ages of seven and 17 played baseball in the United States in 2002, but by 2013, that figure had dropped by more than 41%. With participation on the decline, teams and leagues have been forced to either shut down or merge, further constricting access for poorer families and making the sport whiter and more affluent. Baseball is expensive, and that expense is having an adverse effect on the participation of Black and Latino Americans. You need equipment and uniforms. You need fees. You need money for transportation. Teams in economically disadvantaged areas are often forced to apply for grants and fundraise heavily in order to support kids who want to play.

“Our Little Leagues cost anywhere from $25-$50 for basic programming up to $300 for teams that play over a 30-game season,” Carlton explained. “Your typical travel team will cost a minimum of $800, although $1,500 is closer to reality. Include private lessons and special overnight tournaments, and travel ball for a 12-and-under will easily cost in the $3,000-$5,000 range.”

The burden of that expense contributes to the ethnic and racial disparity we see in professional baseball today. The 2017 Racial and Gender Report Card for Major League Baseball reveals the game to be overwhelmingly white. Among the players present on last season’s Opening Day active rosters, 31.9% were Latino and just 7.7% were African-American or African-Canadian. And while those levels are consistent with 201 6– and while the overall participation of non-white players is at an all-time high — they represent a marked drop from the peak of African-American participation in the sport in the mid-1970s, when approximately 27% of players were African-American.

The disparity extends to those who watch the game. As of 2013, 83% of MLB television viewers were white; just 9% were Black. Of that same group, 50% were 50 years or older. Seeing oneself reflected in the game isn’t the only reason people engage with baseball, but it creates an important, lasting link to the sport. And with the current viewing audience increasingly composed of a white and aging demographic, it is vital to the future health of the sport that kids of color and girls develop an interest the game and are able to sustain that interest.

MLB recognizes this and in 2017, along with USA Baseball, established the Dream Series. The objective of the Dream Series is not only to prepare young players for a future in baseball, but to increase diversity across the sport, particularly among pitchers and catchers. The 2017 season saw baseball’s 30 organizations opening the season with just 54 African-American pitchers and five African-American catchers in the minors. The multi-day event coincides with the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend, and players receive presentations on entering baseball out of high school and through college. Registration is free.

In recent years, the Dream Series has featured top prospects like Hunter Greene, who was taken second overall by the Reds in last year’s amateur draft. It is an important step, but it can’t serve everyone. Many of the players who are invited are well past Little League. MLB has endeavored to support youth baseball and softball in cities with its RBI Program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities), but the need for programming targeted at communities of color persists, especially in neighborhoods like those served by Jones’ district.

After I reached out, Jones arranged a meeting with Vanessa Munoz of the Horner Park Thundercats and Luis Medina of Amundsen Park Little League, two administrators for teams that could use a lot of help. For the 2018 season, Horner Park has about 50 softball players in the 12-and-under group, and over 200 players in the high school aged group. For the Amundsen Park team, Jones and Medina are estimating 100-150 players. Both leagues are comprised primarily of Black and Latinx children.

For the last eight weeks, I have shared the stories of these two teams on Facebook and Twitter. Each needs to raise at least $1,000 to cover their charter and insurance fees. Translating that cost into equipment is difficult, as funding to pay for fees, as well as field equipment is needed. Initially, the response was one of excitement, but that hasn’t translated into significant donations. Money has been coming in slowly, but with the season fast approaching, both teams could use an influx of cash. To make the fundraising easier for those interested in donating, Vanessa and Luis have been using the cash app. The process has underscored the challenges these teams and communities face: scattered individual efforts and determined administrators like Carlton Jones, trying to stretch resources to serve as many as children as possible.

Despite the lack of funding, Jones remains hopeful for the future of Little League baseball in Chicago. “Little League is a leadership program that uses the vehicle of baseball and softball to mold the children of today into the future leaders of tomorrow,” he says. “The pride of wearing the LL Patch, representing your park during the tourney season, and being able to play with your friends means the world to these children, as the sport is their life and refuge during the summer. For the parents and community contributing to neighborhood and having something to bond together with is tremendous. One day, one of these leagues will go far in the tournament and make the city proud.”

I hope he is right, and that these teams can find the support they need to flourish. I think about my friend, whose life was perhaps saved by a game. I think about what it means for young kids of color to be able to look up at the majors and see faces that look like theirs. I wonder how long they’ll sustain that connection if the current demographic trends continue. I wonder how long baseball can sustain itself as costs mount, and the audience at home ages. I hope others will try to get more diversity on the field. The health of baseball in the US might depend on it, and a few young lives, too.


The Great Australian Home-Run Spike, Part 3

This is Alexis Brudnicki’s fifth piece as part of her March residency at FanGraphs. Alexis is the Director of Baseball Information for the Great Lake Canadians, an elite amateur baseball program in London, Ontario, Canada. She has written for various publications including Baseball America, Canadian Baseball Network, Sportsnet, The Hardball Times, and Prep Baseball report. She won a 2016 SABR Analytics Conference Research Award for Contemporary Baseball Commentary. She can also be found on Twitter (@baseballexis). She’ll be contributing here this month.

This is also the third installment of a three-part series exploring whether the Australian Baseball League is in the midst of their own juiced ball and bat controversy. In this installment, league officials and the equipment manufacturers respond. You can find Part 1 and Part 2 here.

The Response

Increasingly aware of the way the numbers were adding up throughout the season, the Australian Baseball League’s general manager, Ben Foster, understands the natural inclination for players, fans, and others to draw their own conclusions about what led to the spike in home runs and the offense on a whole.

“One of the great entitlements for sports fans is their right to speculate and to try and figure out why something as unpredictable as sport always surprises us,” Foster said. “As a fan myself, I love to speculate on things like, ‘Will this player or that player have a great year?’ Or, ‘Why did he go to the bullpen in that situation?’ So I do think it is natural for people to speculate about every aspect of the game when they see unexpected results.”

But the league’s GM does not believe that the numbers point to any one thing in particular. Acknowledging that equipment might have been a part of the equation, he does suspect that the standard of baseballs used during the recent season were of superior quality to those used previously.

“I cannot rule out that equipment played a part, too,” Foster said. “But I think it’s an oversimplification of just the baseballs. In conversations I had with players and coaches, many commented on the improved quality of the bats we supplied this season.

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The Great Australian Home-Run Spike, Part 2

This is Alexis Brudnicki’s fourth piece as part of her March residency at FanGraphs. Alexis is the Director of Baseball Information for the Great Lake Canadians, an elite amateur baseball program in London, Ontario, Canada. She has written for various publications including Baseball America, Canadian Baseball Network, Sportsnet, The Hardball Times, and Prep Baseball report. She won a 2016 SABR Analytics Conference Research Award for Contemporary Baseball Commentary. She can also be found on Twitter (@baseballexis). She’ll be contributing here this month.

This is also the second installment of a three-part series exploring whether the Australian Baseball League is in the midst of their own juiced-ball and bat controversy. In this installment, the pitchers respond. You can find Part 1 here.

The Pitchers

For some, the conversation started early.

In the opening weekend of the 2017/18 Australian Baseball League season, 111 runs were scored and 30 home runs were hit. In just 11 games. More than half of those home runs were hit at Melbourne Ballpark, home to the Aces, who hosted the Perth Heat for four contests.

“I noticed a difference in the league in Round 1,” said Josh Tols, a current Phillies farmhand and southpaw for the Aces with five seasons in the ABL under his belt. “There was an abnormal number of home runs hit at Altona in our opening series against Perth. Typically, with the wind at our field, the ball doesn’t get out all that much. Just looking at the home-run numbers after Round 1, you kind of had a feeling it was going to be a long year for the pitchers.”

Other hurlers didn’t begin to notice a difference until a little later.

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The Great Australian Home-Run Spike, Part 1

This is Alexis Brudnicki’s third piece as part of her March residency at FanGraphs. Alexis is the Director of Baseball Information for the Great Lake Canadians, an elite amateur baseball program in London, Ontario, Canada. She has written for various publications including Baseball America, Canadian Baseball Network, Sportsnet, The Hardball Times, and Prep Baseball report. She won a 2016 SABR Analytics Conference Research Award for Contemporary Baseball Commentary. She can also be found on Twitter (@baseballexis). She’ll be contributing here this month.

Juiced or not juiced?

While the question has become a persistent topic of conversation in Major League Baseball of late, similar rumblings about the state of the baseball have begun to pick up steam across the world.

After the six teams in the Australian Baseball League combined for 171 home runs over 119 total regular-season games during the 2016-2017 season, those same squads hit 379 long balls in the same number of matchups during the most recent winter.

A comparison of the offensive stats of the 2016-17 season to the 2017-18 season highlights the shift:

ABL 2016-17 vs. 2017-18 Batting Comparison
Season R/G R H 2B 3B HR K OBP SLG OPS
2016/17 4.78 1138 2053 394 34 171 1746 .339 .388 .727
2017/18 6.51 1550 2343 476 35 379 1999 .361 .495 .856
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Numbers represent league totals

And the pitching stats diverge similarly:

ABL 2016-17 vs. 2017-18 Pitching Comparison
Season ERA R/9 IP R ER BB WHIP H/9 HR/9
2016-17 4.28 5.08 2016.1 1138 958 812 1.421 9.2 0.8
2017-18 5.93 6.97 2002.0 1550 1320 849 1.594 10.5 1.7
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Numbers represent league totals

Power numbers went way up, offensive numbers increased in every statistical category across the league, and pitching stats were abysmal, with more runs scored per game than ever before. It was a significant enough difference to inspire the players and fans to speculate on the causes.

The obvious answer in Australia was that the equipment was different. Though there has been speculation about modifications to the baseballs in MLB, the Aussie league’s transition to a new equipment provider — moving from Rawlings balls and SAM BAT sticks to bats and balls from Brett Sports — removes any need to speculate.

Or does it?

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Life After Baseball, Part 2

This is Alexis Brudnicki’s second piece as part of her March residency at FanGraphs. Alexis is the Director of Baseball Information for the Great Lake Canadians, an elite amateur baseball program in London, Ontario, Canada. She has written for various publications including Baseball America, Canadian Baseball Network, Sportsnet, The Hardball Times, and Prep Baseball report. She won a 2016 SABR Analytics Conference Research Award for Contemporary Baseball Commentary. She can also be found on Twitter (@baseballexis). She’ll be contributing here this month.

This is also the second installment of a two-part series exploring the lives of baseball players after their playing careers are over. You can find Part 1 here.

The Scout and the Coach

Rene Tosoni and Pete Orr shared the World Baseball Classic clubhouse with Chris Leroux, learning of his impending stint on reality television as they were about to embark on new careers of their own.

The games Canada played against Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Team USA were Orr’s swan song. The squad’s starting second baseman finished his playing career the previous season after 16 years. He spent parts of eight of those in the majors with the Braves, Nationals, and Phillies. He stayed in shape for a year after his career came to an end with the aim of helping his country’s squad in Miami.

As for Tosoni, he wasn’t sure where the season might take him after Canada’s run at the Classic came to a quick finish. The outfielder had played the previous season — his 10th in professional baseball — in the independent Atlantic League with the Sugar Land Skeeters and had an offer to return. The former Twins outfielder had just spent the entire offseason looking for a coaching job, reaching out to all 30 affiliated clubs, hearing nothing.

In the midst of their playing careers, neither Tosoni nor Orr had given much thought to life after baseball. Tosoni felt that his focus on the game led him to stay on the field as long as he did, and Orr knew that someday he would have to face his future, but both hoped that day would just never come.

“When I was still playing, I didn’t know what I was going to do after baseball,” Orr said. “It was something I kind of feared. I knew it was coming, but I just wanted to keep playing. Then once family and kids got involved, I started to really think about it, and I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do. It is a little scary, but you take it as another challenge.

“I was fortunate. I had a year after I stopped playing; a full year to kind of let it all sink in that I wasn’t a baseball player anymore, so that helped me. Now that I’m on the other side of it, I know I’m going to miss it for the rest of my life, but I’m okay with that, and I think it’s a good thing that I’m going to miss it. I don’t mind.”

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Life After Baseball, Part 1

This is Alexis Brudnicki’s first piece as part of her March residency at FanGraphs. Alexis is the Director of Baseball Information for the Great Lake Canadians, an elite amateur baseball program in London, Ontario, Canada. She has written for various publications including Baseball America, Canadian Baseball Network, Sportsnet, The Hardball Times, and Prep Baseball report. She won a 2016 SABR Analytics Conference Research Award for Contemporary Baseball Commentary. She can also be found on Twitter (@baseballexis). She’ll be contributing here this month.

Baseball has a life of its own.

When players are immersed in that life, most often they’re focused on the task at hand, the path ahead, and the game they love. There are some who think beyond the season, or their current contract, and try to make plans for a future without the game. The truth is, though, it can be really hard to think about a life beyond the only one players have ever known.

According to a 10-year-old study from the University of Colorado at Boulder, the average Major League Baseball career lasts 5.6 years, with one in five position players lasting only a single season in the majors. The study also indicated that, at every point of a player’s career, the chance of it ending entirely is at least 11%.

Baseball’s average career length is also the longest among the four major sports, with the average NFL career lasting 3.5 years, an NBA career 4.8 years, and the NHL next-longest at 5.5, according to information obtained by the RAM Financial group a decade ago.

Major League Baseball originally established its College Scholarship Program in the 1960s, and last year made changes during collective bargaining to what is currently called the Continuing Education Program, “to help baseball players prepare for life after baseball.” The alteration to the program represents an attempt to move away from for-profit schools and to allow players to continue education at institutions with more successful graduation rates.

Steve Tolleson is a ballplayer-turned-wealth advisor for Parallel Financial, who got his start in the money game in college. His final research project en route to obtaining his degree revolved around studying professional athletes and what happens to their money both while playing and after leaving the game.

“Most athletes feel like they’re great at their profession, so they’re probably great at managing their life outside of their profession,” Tolleson said. “Those are a lot of the athletes who fall into trouble…

“It’s a special brotherhood we’re all in, and we get a bad rep for managing money and managing lifestyles. It’s the reality. If you have a 25-year-old making $5 million a year, they live in a way they shouldn’t live. It’s not for everybody because some people are going to do what they want to do no matter what you do or no matter how you scare them, but the guys we work with are very much understanding of what life after baseball has to look like.”

Tolleson — whose professional career spanned 12 years, with stretches of four of those in the majors — had an early glimpse of the financial world during college, but the infielder took a real interest in it, and his future, following an extended trip back to Triple-A after some time and success in the big leagues.

“I honestly started getting more serious about it in 2012,” he said. “I played pretty much the full year in the big leagues with Baltimore, I was designated [for assignment], I played with the White Sox, had a great year in Triple-A, and was never given the chance to play in the big leagues for whatever reason that was. That offseason really led me to start thinking, what’s next?”

But what does life after baseball really look like? After years of focusing on throwing a ball or wielding a bat, how do players adapt to preparing for the second stage of life and everything it entails? Some players are ready, some use their baseball network to remain in the game in another capacity, and some find options just fall into their laps. Others, no doubt, just fade from our view.

In this two-part series, several former players discuss how they prepared for civilian life and the challenges they’ve faced since leaving the game. This first part features two players who left the game for a different kind of show business. Meet the entertainers.

Chris Leroux has always lived his life in six-month spurts.

After being drafted out of high school in Mississauga, Ontario, he actually began his professional career after attending Winthrop University, a seventh-round pick of the Florida Marlins in 2005. The right-hander played in the big leagues for the Marlins, Pirates, and Yankees during his 11-year career, also spending time in Japan and splitting winters between the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, before calling it quits and becoming the titular bachelor on The Bachelor Canada last year.

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An American Knuckleballer in Korea

This is Sung Min Kim’s fourth piece as part of his February residency at FanGraphs. (He gets a couple extra days because of the month’s brevity.) Sung Min is a staff writer for River Avenue Blues, the biggest independent New York Yankees blog on the web, and has freelanced for various publications including Deadspin, Sporting News, VICE Sports, the Washington Post, and more. He can also be found on Twitter. He’ll be contributing regularly here this month. Read the work of all our residents here.

Knuckleballers are rare. Lefty knuckleballers, even more so. Consider: Wikipedia’s list of knuckleball pitchers features 29 names. Only four of them are left-handers.

Knuckleballers are even more rare in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). In the 36-year history of the league, there’s only been one ever. This one happens to be a lefty, though.

Some MLB fans will recognize the name: LHP Ryan Feierabend. Selected in the third round by the Mariners out of an Ohio high school back in 2003, Feierabend made it to the majors as a 20-year-old in 2006 but had only 25 major-league appearances with Seattle in three seasons. From 2010 to 2013, he was a journeyman, making the rounds through the Mariners, Phillies, Reds, and Rangers systems, as well as the Atlantic League. In 2014, Feierabend resurfaced back in MLB for six appearances with Texas, but after that season, he signed a deal with Nexen Heroes of the KBO.

Feierabend told me that the Nexen Heroes showed interest in him about a year before the signing. “The time was summer 2013. I was in Triple-A Round Rock and was having a pretty good season,” Feierabend recalled. (He produced a 6-5 record and 3.66 ERA in 120.1 IP.) “As the season went on, more and more teams from Korea became intrigued with me. About four different scouts gave me their business cards, but only one of them — from Nexen Heroes — stayed in touch.” Later, in November 2015, the Heroes finally made an offer and told him that he had 72 hours to make a decision.

“Well, here I am four years later, so I definitely signed,” Feierabend said.

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How Korean Baseball Briefly Shortened Time of Game

This is Sung Min Kim’s third piece as part of his February residency at FanGraphs. (He gets a couple extra days because of the month’s brevity.) Sung Min is a staff writer for River Avenue Blues, the biggest independent New York Yankees blog on the web, and has freelanced for various publications including Deadspin, Sporting News, VICE Sports, the Washington Post, and more. He can also be found on Twitter. He’ll be contributing regularly here this month. Read the work of all our residents here.

Pace of play has, without a doubt, become a hot-potato subject in MLB and for commissioner Rob Manfred. The league, of course, recently made some rule changes in order to quicken game flow, alterations that mostly concern things like mound visits, commercial breaks, instant replay, and the timing of pitching changes. We even had a league executive make some, uh, interesting propositions about the ninth inning.

While many of MLB’s proposals this offseason have focused on improving pace of play, other possible rule changes have sought to more explicitly shorten games. One such idea is to increase the size of the strike zone. The idea here is straightforward: more strikes means quicker at-bats, and quicker at-bats means quicker games.

With the new pace-of-play measures already announced, we won’t be seeing a bigger strike zone yet. However, another league already put that measure in practice in 2017. Last year, before the season’s start, the KBO (Korean Baseball Organization) announced that they were going to adopt a wider strike zone.

The KBO made the decision for different reasons than MLB would. First, it seemed like a knee-jerk reaction to Team Korea’s poor showing in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. South Korea, the host of Group A in the first round of the tournament, was eliminated after the first two games, losing to Israel and the Kingdom of Netherlands (though they did beat Taiwan in their third and final contest). That early exit served as a wake-up call, inspiring league officials to think critically about the game.

But there was another reason for the change. KBO has been a high-offense environment for the past few seasons. From 2014 to 2016, the league enjoyed an average OPS of .807, .787, and .801 respectively. It was not always this way, though. As recently as 2012, KBO skewed more pitcher-friendly, believe it or not. That season, the league had a .698 OPS. Since then, hitter OPS has increased by about 100 points in just seasons, which is significant.

I could write a whole article on why that is. But for now, we’ll stick to the strike zone. After the offensive environment of the last few years, officials felt that the balance needed to shift back towards pitching after three consecutive years of inflated run-scoring. By increasing the strike-zone width and calling more strikes, pitchers would gain some advantage.

When announcing the change, the head KBO umpire official Kim Poong-Gi explained that the league would not explicitly re-define the strike zone. Rather, the intent was to maximize the size within the regulated measure. That meant, hypothetically, the pitch that touches any portion of zone boundary would be considered a strike.

And the new zone did inspire change.

Two pitches don’t conclusively prove the point, but as examples, here is Kim Gyeong-Un of the Hanwha Eagles, taking a pitch for a ball on May 18, 2016.

And here is Min Byung-Hun of the Doosan Bears taking a called strike three on a pitch in a very similar location on August 31, 2017.

The new mandate not only affected ball and strike calls but also average game length. In 2016, the average KBO game lasted 3 hours and 23 minutes. In 2017? Just 3 hours and 17 minutes. It is perhaps noteworthy, as well, that for the first month of the season, the average game length was 3 hours and 12 minutes, a whole 11 minutes shaved off the previous mark. That seems even more significant! So, hypothetically, the strike-zone change could be a practical short-term solution to quicken games.

There is a nagging question, though — namely, what happened after that first month? If we compare April to the rest of the season, we do see differences in strikeout rate and called-strike rate

2017 KBO Ball-Strike Numbers
Month K% BB% Pitches/PA Strike% Called-Strike% Swinging-Strike%
April 18.5% 7.8% 3.83 64.2% 28.3% 14.4%
After 17.4% 8.0% 3.86 63.5% 27.3% 14.5%

The five-minute jump between April and everything after that seems significant enough to demand an explanation. Two theories are often invoked. The first is that hitters got acclimated to the change, decided to adapt a more aggressive approach, and produced. The second is that the umpires gradually went back to the previous strike zone.

The first theory is going to take some numbers to support. The wider strike zone bumped up the strikeout rate and reduced the walk rate throughout the league. As you see below, there were definitely more called strikes. As a result, hitters became a bit more aggressive.

Strike-Ball Numbers, KBO
Year K% BB% Pitch/PA Strike% Swing% Swing Ks Look Ks
2016 16.9% 9.3% 3.89 61.9% 45.3% 7427 2316
2017 17.6% 8.0% 3.86 63.7% 46.1% 7389 2620

Given the changes, more strikeouts, fewer walks, and more swings are to be expected. Hitters hit .272/.339/.400 in April and .289/.357/.447 from May till the end of the season. And most importantly, for the league’s purposes, here are the overall league slash lines:

2016: .290/.364/.437
2017: .286/.353/.438

The new strike-zone measure, while initially helping with the pace of play, did little to address the run-scoring environment. You could argue that the new strike zone encouraged hitters to be more aggressive and resulted in more balls put in play. The league 2017 BABIP of .327 is not much of a change from .326 and .331 from the previous two seasons. As the slugging percentage would indicate, the power did not die down either. In fact, the home-run total increased from 1,483 to 1,547. All in all, after a blip in the first month, the hitters simply continued to rake, and the game length regressed back to the norm.

The second point however, is partially confirmed. As the new rule was implemented, it became clear that pitches that did not touch the strike zone boundaries were often called strikes. In a mid-July interview, Kim Poong-Gi admitted that they “tweaked” the strike zone to make it smaller than it was in April. “Because the strike zone was overly wide in April, we adjusted it a bit smaller,” Kim said, “but we are still enforcing the wider strike zone width.” If that is true, then the numbers may back up the correlation. In April, the league ERA was at 4.46. It increased to 4.63 in May and saw a dramatic rise in June to 5.64.

That brought attention to a new problem: consistency. It can be hard enough to enforce a new measure. It gets harder when every umpire has a different zone.

The wide-strike-zone experiment, for now, is still an experiment in the KBO. Kim Poong-Gi announced in December that the league will continue to use wider strike zone in 2018. It’s very doubtful that it will solve the run-scoring issue in 2018 with the current pool of hitting and pitching talent in the KBO. Regarding pace of play, it would be easier to conclude something meaningful if there wasn’t such a disparity between the first month of game and the rest of the season’s. Other factors might account for some of the change in game length. Given the fluctuating game length trend and the overall inconsistencies, one could say that the strike-zone change created more problems that it solved. Does that mean that MLB should ditch the idea completely? Not necessarily. If the umpires can enforce a consistently sized zone throughout the season and give the players a good idea what to expect, then it could be executed decently.

Of course, another thing to note is that, throughout the baseball history, the strike-zone rules have changed multiple times. The regulation was not passed on a stone tablet like the Ten Commandments. It has been a product of adjustments according to the environment. For instance, in 1968, The Year of the Pitcher, MLB experienced an all-time pitcher-friendly season during which hitters slashed a mere .237/.299/.340 overall, with pitchers thriving to the tune of a 2.98 ERA. In 1969, the league responded by reducing the strike-zone size. In 1987, the league saw a then-record 4,458 home runs in a season. MLB adjusted the strike zone before the 1988 season by increasing the size. So it goes. The odds are that we will see another strike-zone change in future. Whether it will be for the pace of play remains to be seen.

All stats from Statiz unless otherwise specified.


Asia Is No Longer a Last Stop for Major Leaguers

This is Sung Min Kim’s second piece as part of his February residency at FanGraphs. Sung Min is a staff writer for River Avenue Blues, the biggest independent New York Yankees blog on the web, and has freelanced for various publications including Deadspin, Sporting News, VICE Sports, the Washington Post, and more. He can also be found on Twitter. He’ll be contributing regularly here this month. Read the work of all our residents here.

For the first post of my residency, I examined the biggest names in Asia who could soon come over to U.S. Because of the massive amount of attention MLB gets from local media and fans, people keep their eyes peeled on potential Asia-to-MLB transactions.

What does not get as much attention, however, is the reverse. Teams in Asia (for the purposes of this article, I’m specifically referring to teams in Japan and South Korea) diligently scout players Stateside, mainly scouring the Pacific Coast League, the International League, and sometimes even Mexico or independent ball to fill out their foreign-player roster. The Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), a 10-team league, has a cap of three foreign players per team, while the Nippon Professional League (NPB), a 12-team league, has a cap of four foreign players on its major-league rosters, and no cap on its minor-league rosters.

Sure, it may not be as newsworthy as an MLB team signing an exciting talent from Asia (remember the buzz Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani generated this offseason?), but there are reasons to keep track of players crossing the Pacific to the Far East. In recent years, the players traveling to Asia are likely quite familiar to everyday baseball fans in the U.S. That hasn’t always been the case. For some time, playing baseball in Asia was seen more as a destination of last resort for players who could not find their way in the majors or were past their prime. Rather than signing ex-big leaguers looking to “collect their last paychecks,” however, Asian clubs are now signing younger players on the fringes of the big leagues — the so-called “Quad-A” player — and even, in some instances, players who are on a major-league 40-man roster.

Players are also now realizing that their careers don’t “go to die” in Asia. Rather, it is sometimes an opportunity for them to play well, get better, and return to Major League Baseball. With MLB teams having increased their scouting presence in the NPB and KBO, we have seen notable recent cases of American players thriving there and securing a guaranteed MLB contract.

One such player is, of course, Milwaukee 1B/OF Eric Thames. After recording a .799 OPS in the Orioles’ and Mariners’ minor-league systems in 2013, Thames signed with the NC Dinos of the KBO, where he proceeded to record video-game numbers, slashing .349/.451/.721 with 124 home runs and a 188 wRC+ from 2014 to 2016. Following the third of those season, the Brewers signed Thames to a $16-million contract with a $7.5 million club option for 2020. In his first season back in the MLB, Thames produced a 124 wRC+ with a 2.1 WAR while hitting 31 home runs for the Brewers. Not bad.

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The Top MLB Prospects of Asia

This is not only one of the final installments of Prospect Week 2018, but also Sung Min Kim’s first piece as part of his February residency at FanGraphs. Sung Min is a staff writer for River Avenue Blues, the biggest independent New York Yankees blog on the web, and has freelanced for various publications including Deadspin, Sporting News, VICE Sports, the Washington Post, and more. He can also be found on Twitter. He’ll be contributing regularly here this month. Read the work of all our residents here.

While I’ve been an ardent follower of Major League Baseball since middle school, my interest in the sport increased considerably when I began following the Asian leagues closely. There are three popular leagues in East Asia: Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) based in Japan, Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) based in Korea, and the Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) based in Taiwan. I was “born into” the KBO because of my Korean nationality. I slowly learned more about the NPB, though, as I grew up and Korean stars like Tae-Kyun Kim, Samson Lee, Seung-Yeop Lee, etc., headed there to play.

At around the time I was becoming more well acquainted with the particulars of the aforementioned leagues, major-league teams also began showing greater interest in Asian talent. Daisuke Matsuzaka’s move to Boston was particularly significant to raising the profile of Asian baseball in the States. Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka made their own splashes by bringing posting fees to their respective NPB teams and earning big contracts right out of Japan. Hyun-Jin Ryu’s move to the Dodgers was a landmark event, too, as it represented the first time ever that a Korean-born KBO player landed a big multi-year deal with a major-league club. More recently, of course, the entire Shohei Ohtani storyline — which ultimately landed the two-way star in Anaheim — has unfolded in very public fashion. There are more I’d mention but I’ll spare you for now.

It’s clear that more attention has shifted to the Asian leagues’ top players. There are clear major-league talents on the east side of the globe, and some of them — mostly the star-level types in each respective league — have decided to forego the comfort of their domestic leagues to challenge themselves in a whole new culture.

Some of those experiments have worked out, some have not. It is not easy to predict how a particular player will do in majors because there are so many factors to weigh. Skill is one thing. There are also cultural adjustments, too, and subtle differences to which players must adjust on the field. For instance, early in his MLB career, Hideki Matsui had difficulty dealing with the two-seam-heavy approach utilized by some pitchers. It is difficult to become adequate in all these aspects right away — especially for those players who are expected to start. Nonetheless, many Asian players dream of playing in the majors.

So, here, I present a list — accompanied by scouting reports — of six prospects playing in Asia. For this list, I considered only those players who (a) would be available to leave Asia within the next three years (or, before the start of the 2021 season) and who (b) have expressed interest in coming to the MLB or have, at least, not publicly refuted such a thing. Some players, like top NPB shortstop Hayato Sakamoto of the Yomiuri Giants (dubbed as the “Derek Jeter of Japan”), prefer to stay in Japan. Sakamoto has been ML scouts’ favorite for a while, but it’s possible that he just wants to stay and remain a star of Japan’s most popular team.

Yusei Kikuchi, LHP, Saitama Seibu Lions

Kikuchi is all but guaranteed to appear in the States by 2019. Not only does he features an arsenal that would easily make him a starter in the majors, but also he has strongly expressed desire to come over to the US. Back in 2009, as a top high-school pitching prospect for Hanamashi Higashi (the same high school attended by Shohei Ohtani attended), Kikuchi attracted much MLB interest. For instance, the Rangers recruited Derek Holland to try to persuade Kikuchi to sign with Texas. However, Kikuchi decided to stay in Japan and was drafted in first round by the Seibu Lions, for whom he has pitched ever since.

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Francisco Lindor and Baseball’s Arbitration Problem

This is Mike Hattery’s fourth piece as part of his September residency at FanGraphs. Hattery writes for the Cleveland-based site Waiting for Next Year. He can also be found on Twitter. Read the work of all our residents here.

As Francisco Lindor launched his 33rd home run of the season on a peaceful afternoon this past Saturday in Seattle, his future in Cleveland seemed to be weighing on the minds of many, as tweets featuring the phrase #Lifetimecontract flooded my timeline. While I’ll leave the precise terms of a potential Lindor extension to others, Lindor’s evolving profile remains a matter of interest as it relates to the arbitration process.

As Travis Sawchik recently documented, Lindor’s past two seasons have been quite different. Very good, but different nonetheless. In 2016, Lindor rode an impressive defensive performance to a six-win campaign. This year, he’s on pace to record roughly the same WAR total but has arrived at that point by different means, more than doubling the career-high home-run total (15) he produced last season.

On the open market, Lindor’s 2016 and -17 seasons would likely be treated fairly similarly in terms of average annual value. While imperfections certainly exist in the defensive data, the marketplace appears to pay players accordingly, whether the runs are added with the bat or saved with the glove. Major League Baseball’s arbitration structure, on the other hand, is far more archaic.

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How Financial Security for Minor Leaguers Would Benefit Everyone

This is Mike Hattery’s third piece as part of his September residency at FanGraphs. Hattery writes for the Cleveland-based site Waiting for Next Year. He can also be found on Twitter. Read the work of all our residents here.

While the adoption in recent years of bonus pools both for domestic and international prospects has prevented certain clubs from optimizing their pursuit of amateur talent, the player-development strategies within organizations remain a wild frontier. Teams continue to innovate and find advantages, no matter how small. And the effects of that innovation continue to manifest themselves, it seems.

Consider: of the 10 players recently identified by Jeff Sullivan as successful non-prospects, two belong to the Dodgers and another two to the Indians. A pair of baseball’s top clubs, in other words, just happen to have stumbled upon otherwise marginalized talent. Whether that’s mere coincidence or a reflection of organizational competencies, these are the sort of developmental successes that can open windows of contention, especially for a small-market club like Cleveland.

In their pursuit of a competitive edge, teams have looked beyond the traditional player-development staff and budget. The Indians, for example, hired James Harris last offseason to lead player development. On the one hand, the hire made perfect sense: Harris’s core competencies are biometrics and nutrition. On the other hand, Harris had little experience in baseball, having served as chief of staff to former Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. The Philadelphia Phillies, meanwhile — as part of their own efforts to improve development and player performance — earmarked $1 million towards healthier meals for the team’s prospects.

These individual examples illustrate the pursuit, within organizations, of a competitive developmental advantage. Which leads to a question: what additional avenues could be pursued to create a short-term competitive edge?

A possible answer to that question begins with late psychological theorist Abraham Maslow. Maslow constructed a five-level “hierarchy of needs,” the highest of those needs being “self-actualization,” or the fulfillment of one’s potential. In order to reach that state, however, it’s necessary for the individual to satisfy the more fundamental needs that precede it.

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