Here’s to the Grinders–Week 1

There were a number of great moments for some of baseball’s biggest stars during the first week of the MLB season. Albert Pujols hit his 521st career home run, which tied him for 18th place on the career list with Hall of Famers Ted Williams, Willie McCovey, and Frank Thomas. Mark Buehrle won his 200th career game and is now tied for 113th on the all-time list with Chuck Finley, George Uhle, and Tim Wakefield (wow, Tim Wakefield won 200 games). Alex Rodriguez hit home run #655 and is just five away from the legendary Willie Mays.

But this isn’t about those guys. Those guys get plenty of notice. This is about the lesser-knowns, the guys you’ve never heard of or had forgotten about. These are my guys. They are the scrubs, the journeymen, the players who refuse to hang up their spikes . . . the grinders.

  • San Francisco Giants pitcher Matt Cain’s arm injury opened the door for Chris Heston to get the second start of his major league career. Heston is 27 and debuted with the Giants just last season, so he’s not really a prospect, if he ever was one. He played college baseball at Seminole Community College in Florida and was drafted in the 47th round of the 2007 Major League Draft. He did not sign. When you’re drafted in the 47th round, it’s like the team is telling you, “Hey, we need someone to carry the bats from the clubhouse to the dugout for one of our minor league teams and you look like you might be able to handle that job.” Heston went back to school for another year, then was drafted in the 29th round by the Washington Nationals the following year. When you’re drafted in the 29th round, it’s like the team is telling you, “Hey, we need someone to take up space on one of our minor league rosters so the real prospects can have someone to play against.” Heston chose to go back to school, this time to East Carolina University, and ended up being drafted again, this time in the 12th round. He signed with the Giants and pitched in their minor league system for five years before getting into three games during last year’s Championship run. He pitched a grand total of 5 1/3 innings as part of the team that won the World Series so he has a ring on his finger. No matter what he does for the rest of his major league career, Chris Heston has a World Series ring. In his start on Wednesday, Heston pitched six scoreless innings for his first major league victory.
  • A guy I hadn’t thought of in a few years, and didn’t know was still playing baseball, had a big hit on Wednesday. This player got off to a great start to his major league career, hitting .300/.336/.549 in 70 games in his rookie year of 2005 and was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the caption: “The Natural”. “The Natural” tanked the following year (.260/.293/.449) but rebounded for a 3.3 WAR season in 2007 (.293/.338/.444). Since 2008, he’s had one above average season, two seasons close to replacement level, and four seasons below replacement level. If you haven’t guessed by now, this player is Jeff Francoeur. Jeff Francoeur is a survivor. Just when you think you’ll never hear another thing about Jeff Francoeur, he shows up once again. After hitting .235/.287/.378 in 2012, you might have thought his career would be over. Then when he hit .204/.238/.298 in 2013, it wouldn’t have been a stretch to say a fork was sticking out of his back because surely he was done. And certainly after he had 2 hits in 24 at-bats last year, you would think it was time for him to ride off into the sunset. But he didn’t ride off into the sunset. He signed with baseball’s most pathetic team, the Philadelphia Phillies. On Wednesday, he came to the dish in a scoreless game in the bottom of the sixth and hit a 3-run jack to help the Phillies beat the Red Sox. The only possible conclusion is that Jeff Francoeur is a zombie.
  • In Cincinnati, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds played a closely fought ballgame that went to extra innings. The Pirates brought in Radhames Liz to pitch the bottom of the 11th. Liz had been signed as an amateur free agent by the Orioles in 2003 and played three seasons with the O’s from 2007 to 2009 but had major control problems as he walked 6.2 batters per nine innings. He spent the 2009 season in the Padres’ minor league system then pitched in Korea for three years before returning to the states and signed a minor league contract with the Blue Jays before the 2014 season. He pitched at two levels in 2014, then signed a one-year deal with the Pirates. His appearance in the bottom of the 11th inning on Wednesday was his first major league action since 2009. Unfortunately, it did not go well. He started off the inning by getting Brandon Phillips to pop out. He then plunked Zack Cozart. In 2014, Zack Cozart was the worst hitter in all of baseball who had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title when he hit .221/.268/.300 (56 wRC+). The last person you’d ever want to hit with a pitch is Zack Cozart, but that’s just what Radhames Liz did. He regained his composure to strike out Matt Dominguez. Of course, Matt Dominguez was the second-worst hitter in all of baseball last year (63 wRC+). It’s kind of amazing that the two worst hitters in baseball last year were batting back-to-back in this situation, but life has those little amazing things happen every now and then. Still, there were two outs and a runner on first and Billy Hamilton was coming to the plate. Billy Hamilton, by the way, was the 13th-worst hitter in all of baseball last year out of the 146 hitters who qualified for the batting title (79 wRC+). Surely, Radhames Liz could get Billy Hamilton out and send this game to the 12th inning, right? No, not right. Not right at all. Radhames Liz walked Billy Hamilton. This is not a particularly easy thing to do because Billy Hamilton does not walk very often (5.7% of the time in his career). Walking Billy Hamilton meant there were now runners on first-and-second and Radhames Liz would have to face Joey Votto, the best hitter on the Reds. Joey Votto singled to right, Zack Cozart scored, and Radhames Liz had single-armedly lost the game for the Pittsburgh Pirates in his first major league action in six years.
  • On Friday, Jerome Williams started for the Philadelphia Phillies against the Washington Nationals. Williams is on the seventh major league team of his career, including three just last season. His best year was his rookie year back in 2003 with the San Francisco Giants when he was worth 2.0 WAR. He hasn’t come close to that performance since. In 2008, he played for the Long Beach Armada of the independent Golden Baseball League (other GBL alums include Mark Prior, Jose Canseco, and Rickey Henderson). In 2010, he played for the Uni-President Lions of Taiwan in the Chinese Professional Baseball League. He was with the Los Angeles Angels from 2011 to 2013 and spent the 2014 season with the Astros, Rangers, and Phillies. In his nine major league seasons, he’s had an ERA under 4.00 just two times. He’s still kicking around, though, and pitched 6 innings while allowing just a single run on five hits in his first start this year.
  • The Tampa Bay Rays are without three-fifths of their projected starting rotation, so they got creative on Friday and started Steven Geltz. Geltz signed with the Los Angeles Angels as an undrafted free agent in 2008 out of the University of Buffalo. It’s highly unlikely for an undrafted free agent to ever making the major leagues. In addition, Geltz is listed as 5’10”, 170 pounds and he’s a right-handed pitcher. Short, right-handed pitchers are a rare breed in major league baseball. Scouts are generally looking for size and projectability when scouting pitchers and this is even more true for right-handed pitchers. It’s easier to be short and slight if you’re a left-handed pitcher slinging breaking balls than if you’re a righty. Geltz doesn’t have a great fastball (averages around 92 mph) but he’s been quite good in 7 seasons in the minor leagues, with a career 3.38 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in 362 minor league innings, while striking out 12 batters per nine innings. He got a cup of coffee with the Angels in 2012 and a Mocha Grande with the Rays last year and has pitched in 15 major league games with a 2.84 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, and 13.5 K/9. All of his previous professional appearances have been as a reliever and he has never faced more than 10 batters in an outing before. So, there he was on the mound to start Friday night’s game against the Marlins. He went two innings, throwing 35 pitches, 25 for strikes, and allowed one run. Not bad. There’s a pretty good chance that this will be the only start of his major league career.

Finally, we have the journiest-journeyman of all the journeymen, Buddy Carlyle:

New York Mets’ reliever Buddy Carlyle was originally drafted by the Cincinnati Reds out of a Nebraska high school in the second round of the 1996 MLB Draft. Then this happened:

  • 1996: Pitched for the Princeton Reds in the Appalachian League
  • 1997: Pitched for the Charleston AlleyCats in the South Atlantic League
  • April 8, 1998: Traded to the San Diego Padres for Marc Kroon.
  • 1998: Pitched for the Chattanooga Lookouts and the Mobile BayBears in the Southern League
  • 1999: Pitched for the Las Vegas Stars in the Pacific Coast League
  • Made his major league debut on August 29, 1999 with the San Diego Padres.
  • 2000: Pitched for the Las Vegas Stars and the San Diego Padres
  • November 3, 2000: Contract was sold to the Hanshin Tigers of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League.
  • 2001 and 2002: Pitched for the Hanshin Tigers
  • December 18, 2002: Signed as a free agent by the Kansas City Royals
  • 2003: Pitched for the Wichita Wranglers of the Texas League and the Omaha Royals of the Pacific Coast League
  • October 15, 2003: Granted free agency
  • December 23, 2003: Signed as a free agent with the New York Yankees
  • 2004: Pitched for the Trenton Thunder of the Eastern League and the Columbus Clippers of the International League
  • October 14, 2004: Granted free agency
  • November 18, 2004: Signed as a free agent by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
  • 2005: Pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Las Vegas 51s of the Pacific Coast League.
  • December 15, 2005: Signed by the Florida Marlins.
  • 2006: Pitched for the Albuquerque Isotopes of the Pacific Coast League
  • May 18, 2006: Sold to the LG Twins of the Korean Baseball Association
  • December 4, 2006: Invited to spring training by the Atlanta Braves
  • 2007: Pitched for the Richmond Braves of the International League and the Atlanta Braves
  • 2008: Pitched for the Richmond Braves and Atlanta Braves
  • 2009: Pitched for the Atlanta Braves, the Rome Braves of the South Atlantic League, and Gwinnett Braves of the International League
  • October 9, 2009: Granted free agency
  • 2010: Returned to Japan to pitch for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters of the Nippon Professional Baseball League.
  • December 2, 2010: Signed a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training with the New York Yankees.
  • 2011: Pitched for the New York Yankees, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees of the International League, and the Toros del Este of the Dominican Winter League
  • January 30, 2012: Signed a minor league contract with the Atlanta Braves
  • 2012: Pitched for the Gwinnett Braves of the International League
  • November 3, 2012: Granted free agency
  • December 11, 2012: Signed a minor league contract with the Toronto Blue Jays.
  • 2013: Pitched for the Buffalo Bison of the International League
  • November 5, 2013: Granted free agency
  • February 18, 2014: Signed a minor league contract with the New York Mets
  • 2014: Pitched for the Las Vegas 51s of the Pacific Coast League and the New York Mets
  • November 4, 2014: Granted free agency
  • January 5, 2015: Signed as a free agent with the New York Mets

By my count, this is Buddy Carlyle’s 20th year in professional baseball but only the eighth year in which he pitched in the major leagues. He’s played on 26 teams for 14 different organizations in four different countries. He’s been a Red, an AlleyCat, a Lookout, a BayBear, a Star, a Padre, a Tiger, a Wrangler, a Royal, a Thunder, a Clipper, a Dodger, a 51, an Isotope, a Twin, a Brave, a Ham Fighter, a Yankee, a Toro, a Bison, and a Met.

Before last season, Carlyle had pitched 284.3 major league innings with a 5.13 ERA and 1.39 WHIP, while striking out 7.2 batters per nine and walking 3.4. Last year, at the age of 36, Carlyle found major league success by posting a 1.45 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, and 1.5 BB/9.

On Opening Day this year, the Mets were holding a 3-1 lead heading into the ninth but their closer, Jenrry Mejia, was injured with a sore elbow. Jerry Blevins got the first out of the inning, then Buddy Carlyle came in to get Ryan Zimmerman and Wilson Ramos for his first major league save. He was immediately added to nearly 2,000 fantasy baseball teams on Yahoo by ever-watchful saves scavengers. More importantly, it was a great moment for a guy who just kept plugging away at it all these years. Hat tip, Buddy Carlyle.



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Bobby Mueller has been a Pittsburgh Pirates fan as far back as the 1979 World Series Championship team ("We R Fam-A-Lee!"). He suffered through the 1980s, then got a reprieve in the early 1990s, only to be crushed by Francisco Cabrera in 1992. After a 20-year stretch of losing seasons, things are looking up for Bobby’s Pirates. His blog can be found at www.baseballonthebrain.com and he tweets at www.twitter.com/bballonthebrain.

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I am proud of you Son. Great article!