Author Archive

Concussions Have Pushed Francisco Cervelli’s Career to a Crossroads

It’s been a strange couple of weeks for Francisco Cervelli. The 33-year-old Pirates catcher, who hasn’t played since May 25 due to a concussion, was quoted as saying earlier this month that he was giving up catching due to the toll of multiple concussions, but on Saturday, he refuted that report. Either way, his career appears to be at a crossroads, and his situation serves to remind us just how vulnerable catchers are to such injuries.

Cervelli — whose surname means “brains” in Italian, hence the nickname “Frankie Brains” — began the season in a slump and was hitting just .193/.279/.248 when, in a game against the Dodgers, Joc Pederson’s broken bat struck him in the mask:

He was placed on the seven-day injured list, and after undergoing several rounds of tests, wasn’t cleared to resume baseball activities until late June. It was the sixth documented concussion of the catcher’s 11-year major league career; he suffered one with the Yankees in 2011, two with the Pirates in 2017, and two last year. While he served primarily as a backup during parts of seven seasons (2008-14) with New York — a period that included a near-full season exile to Triple-A and a 50-game Biogenesis-related PED suspension — he’s been the Pirates’ primary backstop since arriving in a November 2014 trade for reliever Justin Wilson, one that rates as quite the heist given that Wilson’s 1.5 WAR in his lone season in the Bronx (though Yankees general manager Brian Cashman did flip him to the Tigers for Chad Green and Luis Cessa, a move that’s still paying dividends). Read the rest of this entry »

Zack Wheeler’s Injury Is Latest Dent in Mets’ Deadline Plans

Adding injury to the ongoing insult that is their 2019 season, the Mets have placed Zack Wheeler on the 10-day injured list due to what the team described as shoulder fatigue and what the pitcher himself defined as impingement. The 29-year-old righty’s condition has been described by sources as “not a serious concern,” and the timing still leaves open the possibility that the pending free agent could return before the July 31 trade deadline and demonstrate his fitness for potential suitors. Nonetheless, the news puts a significant dent in whatever plans the Mets may have to retool amid a season gone awry.

Back in January, after signing free agents Jed Lowrie, Wilson Ramos, and Jeurys Familia, as well as trading for Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz, rookie general manager Brodie Van Wagenen boldly told reporters, “I look forward to showing people that we’re a team to be reckoned with. Let’s not be shy on wanting to be the best and I fully expect us to be competitive, to be a winning team. Our goal is to win a championship and it starts with the division. So come get us.” Last Friday, with the Mets 40-50 as they began the second half — fourth in the NL East, 13.5 games out of first place, and second-to-last in the Wild Card race at seven games out — Van Wagenen conceded, “They came and got us.”

Ouch. As the trade deadline approaches — and this year, there’s only one deadline, with no August waiver period during which teams can buy time for injured players to heal — it’s time for Van Wagenen to break up this non-dynasty. In a market light in frontline starting pitching, Wheeler figured to be an attractive rental option due to his combination of performance (more on which momentarily) and price (he’s making just $5.975 million). He’s drawn attention from the Braves, Brewers, Red Sox, Yankees, and probably other teams as well. Read the rest of this entry »

Ball Four’s Big Bang: A Conversation with Jim Bouton and Dr. Paula Kurman

In January 2017, a publicist from SCP Auctions contacted me with an invitation to interview Jim Bouton, the pitcher-turned-author whose candid, irreverent, and poignant “tell-some” account of his 1969 season, Ball Four, became not just a best seller but a game-changer in the coverage of athletes, and a cultural touchstone that resonated far beyond the diamond. I jumped at the chance; not only had I first read a dog-eared copy of Ball Four at age nine, I had returned to the book countless times over the years, connecting to its outsider point-of-view and drawing the inspiration to write myself while crossing paths with Bouton a few times from 2000-08. Our conversations had always been a delight.

SCP was auctioning the Ball Four original manuscript and ancillary materials, “every note Bouton scribbled, every tape he recorded, the full manuscript and all the heated correspondence from Major League Baseball, which ordered him to deny it,” wrote the New York Times’ Typer Kepner. Also included was the edited manuscript “detailing the publisher’s attempt to gut the book of every tough, revealing, or sexual passage,” a letter from the publisher’s lawyer “identifying 42 instances of potential libel, and Bouton’s final edits that addressed only 4 of them,” correspondence related to Bouton’s always-contentious contract negotiations from his playing days, and “exquisitely maintained scrapbooks” kept by Bouton’s mother, detailing every stage of his career, including his 1978 comeback. The Ball Four lot, whose auction was scheduled to end on January 21, was expected to fetch “somewhere in the $300,000-to-$500,000 range” and already had attracted multiple bidders, according to the managing director of SCP Auctions.

The stars did not quite align. Initial hopes of conducting our interview face-to-face at MLB Network headquarters in Secaucus, New Jersey, in connection with separately scheduled appearances on MLB Now, were dashed when the 77-year-old Bouton decided to pass on a trip from his home in the Berkshires to the studio. Instead, we did the interview by phone on Friday, January 13, eight days before the auction closed. What I did not know until calling was that Bouton was ailing. As his second wife, Dr. Paula Kurman, explained before our interview, he had not fully recovered from a 2012 stroke and had difficulty speaking (as well as reading and writing). Hence, she would assist with the interview.

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Pitcher, Author, Everyman, Hero: Jim Bouton (1939-2019)

Jim Bouton first made his mark as a star right-hander for the Yankees at the tail end of their 45-year dynasty, winning 39 games in the 1963-64 regular seasons (plus two more in a pair of World Series), and making one All-Star team (’63). Yet his second act — after he injured his arm, lost his fastball, and hung on to his career literally by his fingernails, trying to tame the knuckleball with the expansion Seattle Pilots — was far more interesting and impactful. Bouton began keeping notes chronicling his travails, which, with the help of editor (and fellow iconoclast) Leonard Shecter, became Ball Four. His candid, irreverent, and poignant “tell-some” account of his 1969 season with the Pilots, Triple-A Vancouver Mounties, and Houston Astros not only became a best seller, it revolutionized the coverage of athletes, and keyed a proliferation of inside-baseball books that went far beyond the diamond. Recognized in 1996 as the only sports book among the 159 titles selected for the New York Public Library Books of the Century, Ball Four brought Bouton enough fame and notoriety to last a lifetime. That lifetime ended on Wednesday, when Bouton, who was 80 years old and suffering from vascular dementia, passed away at his home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

With its candid glimpse into the lives of major league ballplayers — hard-drinking, skirt-chasing, amphetamine-popping athletes using four-letter words — as they attempted to cope with the pressures and the boredom of the game, Ball Four was raunchy and controversial. Set against a backdrop of social upheaval, the outsider Bouton often found himself at odds with his teammates regarding the war in Vietnam, race relations, politics, and the burgeoning union movement within the game, which would eventually challenge the Reserve Clause, leading to higher salaries and the right to free agency.

Amazingly, such an explosive exposé did not win Bouton many friends within baseball. Fellow players accused him of violating the sacred trust of the locker room. His ex-Yankees teammates were said to take it very hard, particularly Mickey Mantle, whose debauchery had previously been hidden from fans by writers who had sanitized heroes for public consumption. Bouton, whose major league career ended shortly after the book was published in 1970 (though he made a brief comeback with the Braves in 1978), was effectively blacklisted by the Yankees until 1998, after the tragic death of his daughter Laurie in an automobile accident prompted his son Michael to write an open letter to the New York Times, asking the team to help Bouton heal old wounds by inviting him to Old-Timers’ Day. They did, and Bouton was greeted with a warm ovation. His cap flew off on his first pitch, a signature from his playing days.

When excerpts of Ball Four first appeared in Look Magazine in the spring of 1970, MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn tried to get Bouton to recant his claims and state that the book was fiction. “It was the perfect form of censorship,” the pitcher-turned-author recalled in 2010, on the occasion of the book’s 40th anniversary. “The publisher had only printed 5,000 copies on the grounds that nobody would want to read a book about the Seattle Pilots written by a washed-up knuckleball pitcher. Then the baseball Commissioner calls me in, and they have to print another 5,000 and then 50,000 and then 500,000 books…” Including 10th, 20th, and 30th anniversary editions with epilogues that created what MLB’s official historian John Thorn called “a candid, sometimes heartbreaking extended memoir without parallel in American literature,” Ball Four sold millions of copies worldwide. Read the rest of this entry »

Jay Jaffe FanGraphs Chat -7/11/19

Avatar Jay Jaffe: Good afternoon, folks, and welcome to today’s chat. Just moments ago I filed my lengthy tribute to Jim Bouton, who passed away yesterday [Update:]. He had a massive impact not only on the culture at large, but on me personally, as I crossed paths with him several times. Thus I’m more than a little verklempt. I’ll begin the chat in  few minutes, after I take a breather and order lunch. Your patience is appreciated.

Xolo: How much do you think Syndergaard might bouce back by simply getting away from the Mets?

Avatar Jay Jaffe: Given the state of their wretched defense, which ranks last in the NL in UZR and Defensive Efficiency, quite a bit. For one thing, he’s got a 3.98 FIP compared to a 4.68 ERA, and additionally has received below-average pitch framing. For another, the atmosphere in that clubhouse may well be a factor, particularly considering the recent change in pitching coaches. I’d imagine he pitches much better if he changes scenery, and I do think that if the Mets commit to dealing him, he would be the deadline’s top target, ahead of Bumgarner.

Dave from Modesto: I apologize if this seems combative, but why did you feel the need to bring up “service time shenanigans” in the first sentence of your article about the Home Run Derby? And do you legitimately feel that the only reason Alonso wasn’t promoted last season was service time concerns? (defense, playing time available given other guys on the roster, 40-man concerns played no role?)

Avatar Jay Jaffe: Major League Baseball and its teams use the All-Star week festivities to highlight the product they’re offering. I think a marquee event during which people are taking stock of the sport most pressing issues — the CBA, the home run tide, etc — is a perfect time to highlight its efforts to undermine its own product. And no, I don’t believe there’s any other credible explanation for Alonso’s belated arrival outside of financial ones, given that he’s proven to be defensively adequate.

J: Highly recommend Xifu over on Livingston and Nevins for lunch. Don’t think they deliver but it’s like $5 for a huge spicy and sour soup with 10 dumplings.

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It Was a Home Run Derby for the Ages (Especially for Those Under 30)

The pairing was worth the wait: two rookies, both denied well-earned call-ups last year due to service-time shenanigans, not only clubbed their way into the 2019 Home Run Derby at Cleveland’s Progressive Field, but all the way to the finals. In the end, the Mets’ Peter Alonso bested the Blue Jays’ Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who had done nothing less than steal the show by setting Derby records in every round. Alonso’s 23rd home run of the final round, which landed with around 18 seconds left in regulation time, beat Guerrero’s freshly-set record without his even needing to tap into his bonus time.

Between a more aerodynamic ball that is being launched with record frequency, and a decision on the part of officials not to enforce the rule requiring the pitcher to wait until the previous ball had landed (a source of controversy amid Bryce Harper’s 2018 win), Derby records were demolished left and right. And while it lacked the likes of Harper, Mike Trout, Manny Machado, Aaron Judge, and so on, youngest Derby field ever (average age 25.26 years) threw the spotlight on some of the sport’s brightest young talents. Every contestant except one (Carlos Santana) was 27 or younger. Even with a decided lack of star power — just five of the top 20 players in total home runs participated, none of them previous winners — the head-to-head, single-elimination bracket format, with timed four-minute rounds and 30 seconds of bonus time added for hitting two 440-foot homers (as measured by Statcast), kept things entertaining, though the event did wind up running long.

While the 24-year-old Alonso, who has already homered 30 times for the Mets this year, emerged victorious thanks to a trio of walk-off wins, the 20-year-old Guerrero, the youngest participant in Derby history, and the first offspring of a previous winner to participate (dad Vlad won in 2007) was the star of the night. Due in part to his delayed call-up and some early difficulty adjusting to the majors, the game’s consensus top prospect has hit just eight regular season homers (which might be the fewest of a Derby participant — I’m not sure), but on Monday night he showed poise well beyond his years, particularly during the extended exposure he received in an epic semifinal battle with Joc Pederson. The pair not only finished regulation time tied at 29, which matched the single-round record that Guerrero had just set in the quarterfinals, but they remained tied through a one-minute tiebreaker round and the first three-swing “Swing-Off” in Derby history. More on that momentarily.

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Previewing the 2019 Home Run Derby

This year’s Home Run Derby arrives at a time of unprecedented long ball saturation, no matter how one chooses to measure its dimensions. Teams are hitting 1.37 home runs per game, a 9.2% increase over 2017, the year of MLB’s previous high rate. Homers make up 3.6% of all plate appearances and 5.3% of all batted ball events, gains of 8.7% and 10.5% relative to 2017. You can more or less double those increases when comparing this year to last year, during which the frequency (1.15 per game) was merely the fifth-highest of all time, a hair behind 2016 (1.16). It’s getting kind of ridiculous, particularly now that we understand that recent changes to the ball’s materials and manufacturing process have resulted in a more aerodynamic ball that carries further.

Given that I’m the old crankypants who last week declared that we’ve reached the point of too many homers, you might find it odd that I’m the one touting the Derby, but I see no contradiction. I’m firm in my belief that we can indulge in a bake-off without mandating that everybody eat a whole pie — rather, 1.37 whole pies — per day.

Besides, while it took MLB more than 30 years — there was a derby television show in 1960, and the event has been part of the All-Star festivities since 1985 — to find a Derby format that works, the head-to-head single-elimination bracket setup with timed, four-minute rounds and 30 seconds of bonus time added for hitting two 440-foot homers, as measured by Statcast, really does make for an entertaining event. The fireworks produced by the likes of Giancarlo Stanton at Petco Park in 2016, or Aaron Judge at Marlins Park in 2017, or Bryce Harper at Nationals Park last year were a gas to watch, creating the kind of whizz-bang spectacle that raises the profile of recognizable stars and helps to grow the game. That said, the television ratings for last year’s event set a 20-year-low, so what do I know?

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Red Sox Plan to Turn to Eovaldi for Relief

Nathan Eovaldi hasn’t pitched in a major league game since April 17, and he won’t until sometime after the All-Star break, but this week, before even beginning a rehab assignment, he’s been cast as a potential solution for one of the Red Sox’s biggest weaknesses: their bullpen. On Tuesday, in the aftermath of the team’s drubbing by the Yankees in the two-game London Series — during which that bullpen was torched for 21 runs and 23 hits in 12.1 innings — manager Alex Cora and president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski announced plans to use Eovaldi as their closer, a job the 29-year-old righty has never held before.

Eovaldi, who is recovering from arthroscopic surgery to remove loose bodies in his right elbow, struggled with his command and control while making just four starts in April, getting hit to the tune of a 6.00 ERA and 7.12 FIP. That comes after last year’s strong rebound from his second Tommy John surgery, during which he threw 111 innings with a 3.81 ERA, 3.60 FIP, and 2.2 WAR. Integrating a relatively new cut fastball into his arsenal, he set career bests with a 22.2% strikeout rate and 4.4% walk rate. As Jeff Sullivan pointed out last November, his penchant for pounding the strike zone with such precision is rare among pitchers with such high velocity — and oh, can he bring it. According to Pitch Info, his average fastball velo of 97.4 was tied for third among all starters with at least 50 innings.

Eovaldi has rarely pitched out of the bullpen during his eight-year major league career, not only never notching a save in eight regular season relief appearances — four with the Dodgers as a rookie in 2011, three with the Yankees in an exile from the rotation in 2016, and one last year — but never even pitching in a save situation.

That said, he shined amid his crash course in high-leverage relief work last October, making four appearances during Boston’s championship run, two of them in save situations and one in extra innings. He threw 1.1 scoreless innings in front of Craig Kimbrel in the ALCS Game 5 clincher against the Astros, two days after making a strong six-inning start, then added scoreless innings in Games 1 and 2 of the World Series against the Dodgers, and pitched the final six innings of the 18-inning epic Game 3, taking the loss when he served up a solo homer to Max Muncy but winning the hearts of New England for his gutsy, 97-pitch effort. That was the only earned run he allowed in 9.1 relief innings; he yielded four hits and walked one while striking out seven.

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Manny Machado Has Been Fine

On the heels of the record-setting free agent contract that he signed in February, Manny Machado’s career with the Padres began inauspiciously. He hit just .236/.325/.368 in March and April, and as recently as June 12 was slugging less than .400. Since then, he’s been just about the hottest hitter in baseball, and it appears that he’s turned his season around.

Off the bat, it’s worth remembering that this hasn’t been a typical season for Machado. The 26-year-old superstar agreed to terms on his 10-year, $300-million deal with the Padres on February 19, officially signed two days later, and thus got a late jump on spring training. He didn’t make his Cactus League debut until March 2, a full week into the exhibition season, and it’s fair to wonder if he was fully in shape to start the regular season. He struck out in 25% of his 120 plate appearances in March and April, a figure more than 10 points higher than last year’s 14.7%, and more than eight points above his career 16.4% mark. His 88 wRC+ for the period was the first time he left the gate with a below-average month; last year, he sizzled at a 157 wRC+ clip (.361/.448/.676) in March and April.

Machado was much better in May (.283/.365/.485, 120 wRC+), and he even cut his strikeout rate to a much more normal 16.5%. Towards the end of the month, however, he fell into a 4-for-40 slump, his worst stretch of the season. That carried into June; through the games of June 12, his line stood at .240/.329/.397 with 10 home runs and a 93 wRC+, placing him in the 25th percentile among all MLB qualifiers. Since June 13, Machado has been nearly unstoppable, batting .400/.427/.914 in 75 PA through July 1. His slugging percentage and 10 home runs in that span are both tops in the majors, while his 237 wRC+ is tops in the NL (it fell behind DJ LeMahieu’s 248 with an 0-for-2 showing in Monday’s loss to the Giants).

Through all of those ups and downs, and the aforementioned arbitrary endpoints, Machado is now batting a respectable .276/.349/.513. His 20 homers are tied for 10th in the NL, and he is on pace to surpass last year’s career-high of 37. His 124 wRC+ is tied for 25th in the league and is three points ahead of his career mark. His 2.3 WAR is tied for 20th. He spent five weeks manning shortstop in the absence of the injured Fernando Tatis Jr., where the small-sample metrics say he was slightly below average, but now back at the hot corner, he’s been above average. Read the rest of this entry »

More Than You Probably Wanted to Know About First-Inning Scoring

Any new fans coming to major league baseball through this past weekend’s London Series between the Yankees and Red Sox got a rather distorted sense of the game’s scoring and temporal norms, particularly in the first inning of each contest. In Saturday’s series opener, each team sent 10 batters to the plate, scored six runs, and chased the other team’s starting pitcher (New York’s Masahiro Tanaka and Boston’s Rick Porcello). The 12-run, 58-minute inning was just the opening salvo of a slugfest that seemed to be imported straight from Coors Field, a 17-13 slog that took four hours and 42 minutes to play. Sunday’s game, won 12-8 by the Yankees, wasn’t quite as high scoring, but it did feature a four-run first inning by the Red Sox that clocked in around 26 minutes, not to mention a nine-run seventh inning by the Yankees in a game that lasted four hours and 24 minutes.

Though neither team in Saturday’s game came close to outdoing this year’s first-inning high score (10 runs by the Phillies on April 16 against the Mets), and the two teams fell short of the combined record of 16 runs most recently accomplished by the A’s (13) and Angels (3) on July 5, 1996, the rivals did make some history. According to STATS, this was the first time since June 23, 1989 (Blue Jays at A’s) and just the sixth time since 1912 that both teams scored at least six runs in the first inning. Via the Baseball-Reference Play Index, that game was one of just three since 1908 in which neither starter got out of the first inning after allowing at least six runs, with an August 4, 1948 game between the Red Sox and Browns, and an April 16, 1962 game between the Cardinals (not Bob Gibson’s best day) and Phillies being the others.

The Yankees’ big numbers in London helped them overtake the Twins for the major league lead in scoring (5.80 runs per game). While Saturday’s game was the second time in less than two weeks the team chased a former Cy Young winner in the first inning after clobbering him for six runs — they did so on June 19 against the Rays’ Blake Snell as well as Saturday against Porcello — they’re actually not the majors’ most prolific first-inning team. They entered Sunday ranked eighth in the majors with 0.62 first-inning runs per game, a per-nine rate of 5.56.

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