Author Archive

The Sting of Contraction Is No Minor Matter

Last week, conflicting reports regarding the state of Major League Baseball’s ongoing effort to contract and realign the minor leagues surfaced. While Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper and the Associated Press both reported that MLB is nearing an agreement with Minor League Baseball that would result in the loss of 42 affiliated teams, MiLB countered with a statement disputing the accuracy of the reports. Regardless of exactly where things stand in the negotiations, particularly with the COVID-19 pandemic endangering the entirety of the 2020 minor league season, some thinning of the herd appears likely.

While I’ve lived in New York City for 25 years and attended hundreds of Yankees games and dozens of Mets games in both recreational and professional capacities, I grew up on minor league baseball, primarily in Salt Lake City, where I lived from 1973-88 (and where my parents still reside), and Walla Walla, Washington, where my paternal grandparents lived and where I visited for several summers in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Thus I’m all too familiar with the pain that comes from a city losing its minor league affiliate — and two of the 42 teams reportedly on the chopping block hit close to home, both my current one and the one of my youth.

When I began attending games circa 1977-78, the Salt Lake Gulls were the Triple-A affiliate of the California Angels, and part of the storied, high-scoring Pacific Coast League. They featured future big leaguers like Willie Aikens, Rance Mulliniks, and Dickie Thon, all of whom Angels general manager Buzzie Bavasi made sure to trade away for aging veterans (not without some success), a pattern that continued through the remainder of the two teams’ relationship. While I had no affinity for the big club, I enjoyed following the careers of the aforementioned players and their successors, like Tom Brunansky and Brian Harper, as they fanned out across the majors.

My father would take my brother and me to a few Gulls games each year — often against the Albuquerque Dukes, the Dodgers’ Triple-A team and therefore of considerable interest in our household — and highlights from those games still stick out, particularly from 1979, the year they won the PCL championship. In one game we attended, Ike Hampton, a catcher-turned-designated hitter who clubbed 30 home runs for the Gulls that year, bookended a 17-inning epic with a pair of homers, though I was safely tucked in bed by the time the latter landed. In another game, Floyd Rayford, a third baseman whom Earl Weaver later used as a backup catcher, mashed a dramatic eighth-inning three-run homer that turned a 4-2 deficit into a 5-4 lead, creating pandemonium; we could have turned cartwheels all the way home. Once my fascination with baseball statistics had begun, I’d pore over the Gulls’ daily box scores and update a hand-kept stat sheet, annexing my mother’s pocket calculator to figure out batting averages and ERAs. A few years later, I’d even apply rudimentary Bill James formulas to calculate runs created, though this involved some guesstimation when it came to counting walks via a standard four-numbered box score (AB R H BI). Read the rest of this entry »

Jay Jaffe FanGraphs Chat – 4/27/20

Avatar Jay Jaffe: Hello folks, and welcome to my first Monday chat in a few weeks. While I wait for the queue to fill up, a couple of things…

Avatar Jay Jaffe: First, I have a tribute to the legendary Steve Dalkowski, who passed away on April 19. The accounts of his career are voluminous, for he threw faster and harder than perhaps any other pitcher who has come along — but he lacked control, both on and off the field…

Avatar Jay Jaffe: Second, I have a CPBL-related piece in the pipeline for later this week


Avatar Jay Jaffe: (I have been jonesing for several varieties of Asian food but those restaurants in my area were the first to shutter)

Avatar Jay Jaffe: OK, now, on with the show

Read the rest of this entry »

Remembering Steve Dalkowski, Perhaps the Fastest Pitcher Ever

You know the legend of Steve Dalkowski even if you don’t know his name. He’s the fireballer who can summon nearly unthinkable velocity, but has no idea where his pitch will go. His pitches strike terror into the heart of any batter who dares face him, but he’s a victim of that lack of control, both on and off the field, and it prevents him from taking full advantage of his considerable talent. That, in a nutshell, was Dalkowski, who spent nine years in the minor leagues (1957-65) putting up astronomical strikeout and walk totals, coming tantalizingly close to pitching in the majors only to get injured, then fading away due to alcoholism and spiraling downward even further. Dalkowski, who later sobered up but spent the past 26 years in an assisted living facility, died of the novel coronavirus in New Britain, Connecticut on April 19 at the age of 80.

Ron Shelton, who while playing in the Orioles’ system a few years after Dalkowski heard the tales of bus drivers and groundskeepers, used the pitcher as inspiration for the character Nuke LaLoosh in his 1988 movie, Bull Durham. In 2009, Shelton called him “the hardest thrower who ever lived.” Earl Weaver, who saw the likes of Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, and Sam McDowell, concurred, saying, “Dalko threw harder than all of ‘em.”

“It’s the gift from the gods — the arm, the power — that this little guy could throw it through a wall, literally, or back Ted Williams out of there,” wrote Shelton. “That is what haunts us. He had it all and didn’t know it. That’s why Steve Dalkowski stays in our minds. In his sport, he had the equivalent of Michelangelo’s gift but could never finish a painting.”

In 1970, Sports Illustrated’s Pat Jordan (himself a control-challenged former minor league pitcher) told the story of Williams stepping into the cage when Dalkowski was throwing batting practice:

After a few minutes Williams picked up a bat and stepped into the cage. Reporters and players moved quickly closer to see this classic confrontation. Williams took three level, disciplined practice swings, cocked his bat, and motioned with his head for Dalkowski to deliver the ball. Dalkowski went into his spare pump, his right leg rising a few inches off the ground, his left arm pulling back and then flicking out from the side of his body like an attacking cobra. The ball did not rip through the air like most fastballs, but seemed to appear suddenly and silently in the catcher’s glove. Read the rest of this entry »

The Red Sox Got Slapped on the Wrist for Their Illegal Sign-Stealing

If you were hunkered down under a stay-at-home order waiting for Major League Baseball to release its long-awaited report on the Red Sox’s illegal sign-stealing efforts, then we have good news for you: the wait is over. On Wednesday, the league announced the conclusions of its investigation and the punishments handed down by commissioner Rob Manfred. If you were expecting the discipline to be comparable to that received by the Astros in January, you may want to get back to binge-watching Tiger King, because according to the report, there simply isn’t a lot to see here.

In the case of the Astros, when Manfred issued his report on January 13, he found that the team illegally stole signs during the 2017 regular and postseason and into the 2018 regular season. He suspended president of baseball operations Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch for the 2020 season (both were fired by owner Jim Crane within hours), fined the team $5 million (the maximum allowed under MLB’s constitution), and stripped them of their first- and second-round picks in both this year’s and next year’s amateur drafts. When it came to disciplining the Red Sox, however, Manfred only found evidence that the illegal sign-stealing occurred during the 2018 regular season; suspended only J.T. Watkins, the team’s video replay system operator; stripped away only its second-round pick in this year’s draft; and did not fine the team. As with the Astros, no players were punished.

The baseball world waited 3 1/2 months for this? A previously unknown backroom employee has taken the fall for an entire organization while those above him escaped without punishment — it doesn’t get much more anticlimactic than that, nor does it make a whole lot of sense, given the need for intermediaries between the video room and the dugout. And it certainly isn’t a severe enough punishment to act as a deterrent. There isn’t a team among the 30 who wouldn’t trade a second-round draft pick and a single baseball operations employee for a world championship. Read the rest of this entry »

If I Could Be Transported to Any Season in Baseball History…

The question got my attention, no doubt because the man asking it was a friend who had tagged me among some esteemed company when he posted it to Twitter. “You can be transported to any baseball season in history,” wrote Jon Weisman, the longtime proprietor of Dodger Thoughts and the author of two books about the team’s history. “Once transported, you will not know what has happened — you will experience it all unfold in real time. Which season do you pick?”

Elsewhere within his series of tweets, Weisman laid out the dilemma at hand: “whether to relive a season you adored, or newly experience a season you would adore.”

In the midst of making dinner, I resisted the temptation to fire off a knee-jerk response. When hypothetical baseball time travel is involved, it’s important not to go off half-cocked, particularly when you can write about it.

I turned 50 years old in December. My storehouse of baseball memories goes back to 1978, the year I learned to read box scores. While a few years during college are faint — I didn’t see a lick of the 1990 World Series, though I do remember participating in some fantasy team-by-mail contest that year, seven years before joining my first online fantasy league — that’s a storehouse of 42 seasons worth of baseball, some of which I would consider reliving if given the chance, not just because of the World Series winners but the quality of the pennant races, with record-setters and Hall of Famers also figuring into the calculus. Read the rest of this entry »

Jay Jaffe Fangraphs Chat – 4/21/20

Avatar Jay Jaffe: Good afternoon, folks, and welcome to the first edition of my chat in 15 days. Scheduling issues have prevented me from sticking to my usual Monday time slot, so thanks for bearing with me.

Avatar Jay Jaffe: I didn’t publish anything today, but on Monday, I looked at the start of the Chinese Professional Baseball League season… and last Friday, I looked at the Korea Baseball Organization’s efforts to get its season underway…

Avatar Jay Jaffe: It was great to get to see some live baseball in 2020, and I’m hopeful the powers that be will make arrangements to stream more of it so that baseball-starved overseas viewers can partake

Pat’s Bat: Loved your article on Taiwanese baseball.  Why aren’t we all playing Taiwanese fantasy baseball right now?

Avatar Jay Jaffe: Thanks, and good question! In a league with just four teams, the prospects for a fantasy game would be somewhat limited, but I think the bigger issues are getting ahold of the statistical feeds to run a game, and to do so without losing anything in translation. There’s a potential for a lot of confusion with so many players sharing the same surnames — I counted seven Lins and three Chens in the starting lineups of the Monkeys and Guardians in the game I wrote about, and there are a couple different variants when it comes to transliterations of those names

Ryan: Someone last week in a chat asked about Hall of Famers and the opposite of Peak WAR/WAR 7. That is, which HOF player, if you added up their *worst* seven seasons, would have the *lowest* WAR total? Ken Griffey, Jr. seems to be a likely candidate to me, considering his fWAR for his worst seven years adds up to negative 2.5 WAR. Do you know of any HOFers who can “beat” that total?

Read the rest of this entry »

Sorting Out Who’s Hu In Taiwanese Baseball is a Welcome Challenge

Hu? The name took me back, and even more than a decade later, accounted for a substantial percentage of what I knew about Taiwanese players in the professional ranks. Circa 2008, Chin-Lung Hu was considered a Top 100 prospect by both Baseball America (no. 55) and Baseball Prospectus (no. 32), and the third-best prospect on the Dodgers behind Clayton Kershaw, who panned out, and Andy LaRoche, who did not. I’d written about him a couple of times for the Baseball Prospectus annuals, noting that his acrobatic fielding conjured up comparisons to Omar Vizquel and forecast for future Gold Gloves as well as the bat speed to hit .300 at the major league level. A dozen years later, here he was, halfway around the globe and fresh off a milestone and a bit of history: his 1,000th hit in the Taiwan-based Chinese Professional Baseball League — due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the only professional baseball league currently playing its regular season, albeit to empty ballparks — and with the fewest games played (704) to reach that mark to boot.

Alas, I had actually missed the momentous knock, but caught up with it on Twitter a short while after via the Eleven Sports Taiwan account, which was streaming an English-language broadcast of Saturday’s game between the Rakuten Monkeys and the Fubon Guardians (Hu’s team). The Guardians had been on the short end of a 12-2 rout in the eighth inning when Hu, who had gone 0-for-4 in pursuit of hit number 1,000, singled just to the right of second base, plating a run.

An inning and maybe 45 minutes later — shortly after 9:30 AM in Brooklyn, where I had my 3 1/2-year-old daughter in my lap as we peered at a foreign but recognizable version of the national pastime — the announcers were still talking about Hu’s hit, because he was up again in what was now a 12-5 game. With men on first and second and two outs, he grounded into a potential game-ending double play, but the second baseman’s throw had pulled the shortstop well off the bag, and Hu beat the throw to first. The Guardians’ manager actually challenged the call via instant replay but was denied. The inning continued, and the game eventually ended 12-9, still a win for the undefeated (4-0) Monkeys.

My appetite had been whetted, to say the least. Read the rest of this entry »

Half a World Away, the Korea Baseball Organization Looks to Play

There’s no joy in Mudville or anywhere else in the United States as far as the 2020 baseball season goes, but halfway around the globe, the story is very different. The Chinese Professional Baseball League regular season got underway on April 11 in Taiwan, and the Korea Baseball Organization is poised to resume its exhibition season in South Korea on April 21, also without fans in attendance, with an eye towards beginning its regular season in early May. The twist is that both leagues are playing to empty ballparks due to prohibitions against large gatherings as a means of combating the spread of the novel coronavirus. But where Major League Baseball is staring down the very real possibility that its entire season could be wiped out due to the COVID-19 pandemic, both foreign leagues have been able to reopen thanks to their respective countries’ success in containing the outbreak, even if it’s not quite business as usual. Now, through the magic of streaming video, and possibly television, they’re poised to become the center of the baseball world.

Already, the five-team CPBL has begun streaming games on Twitter (in English, via Eleven Sports) and YouTube. For about $35, one can subscribe to CPBL TV (here’s a step-by-step guide in case you’re intimidated by the language barrier). The 10-team KBO began streaming intrasquad exhibitions on YouTube on March 23 — a Lotte Giants intrasquad game featuring former major leaguers Dan Straily and Adrian Sampson starting for the opposing teams — after its exhibition season was postponed. Naver, one of their internet portals, will stream KBO games domestically but right now no agreement for overseas has been announced, though ESPN has approached the league about airing games in the U.S.

Earlier this week, in an effort to give myself a crash course in the KBO — beyond its epic bat flips, of course — and then share it with our audience, I conducted email interviews with three team employees, two of whom will be familiar to FanGraphs readers. Both Josh Herzenberg and Sung Min Kim wrote for this site as recently as last year and now work for the Lotte Giants. Herzenberg, who spent time in the Dodgers’ amateur scouting and player development departments before contributing to FanGraphs, was hired this past winter to be the team’s pitching coordinator and quality control coach, while Kim, a South Korea native who grew up in the States, graduated from the University of Maryland in 2015, and wrote for River Avenue Blues, VICE Sports, the Washington Post, and FanGraphs before being hired into the Giants’ R&D department last fall; while at FanGraphs, he documented the experiences of foreign-born KBO playersas well as the fan culture, the de-juiced baseball, and more. The third participant was Aaron Tassano, an Arizona-based international scout for the Samsung Lions who lived in South Korea for about eight years and previously worked for the Cubs, Rays, and Astros. All three were generous with their time in answering my questions. Read the rest of this entry »

In Downtown Brooklyn, a Curveball on Jackie Robinson Day

Today, April 15, is Jackie Robinson Day, though with MLB’s season postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the celebration has taken on a different form. So has my observation, albeit not quite by choice.

As a writer who grew up a third-generation Dodgers fan and who has lived in Brooklyn for the past 12 1/2 years, I’ve generally greeted the day as an opportunity not just to acknowledge Robinson’s bravery and the pivotal moment of integration but to further our understanding of the man and the context that surrounded his career. That effort now extends to my own 3 1/2-year-old daughter, Robin (her name is not a coincidence). She already owns a Robinson shirsey (her second one, actually) and both my wife — Emma Span, managing editor of The Athletic’s MLB vertical — and I have made efforts to tell her a version of his story that she can understand.

In late February, we visited Robin’s preschool and gave a presentation on the basics of baseball as part of a “Family Traditions” series during which we touched upon Robinson. As it turned out, learning about him dovetailed with the class’s recent learning about Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and other civil rights heroes, and as a result, a picture of Robinson was soon posted to the wall alongside them. Read the rest of this entry »

Missed Time and the Hall of Fame, Part 3

Picking up where we left off in my series on the impact of missed time on Hall of Fame candidates, we turn to the active pitchers whose shots at Cooperstown might be harmed most due to the loss of a significant chunk or even the entirety of the 2020 season. In Part 1, I noted that whether we’re talking about the effects of military service during World War II and the Korean War or the strike-shortened 1981, ’94 and ’95 seasons, it appears that fewer pitchers were harmed in their bids than was the case for position players. Even so, lost time can prevent hurlers from reaching the major milestones — most notably 200, 250, or 300 wins, and 3,000 strikeouts — that so often form the hooks for their candidacies, and right now, there exists a cohort of starting pitchers whose electoral resumés are coming into focus.

As with the position players, I’ll focus on that group rather than younger hotshots who not only have more time to make up ground but also, inevitably, will probably face some kind of injury-driven challenge along the way (hello, Chris Sale). I’ll spare a thought for a trio of closers as well. As with the other pieces in this series, all WAR totals refer to the Baseball-Reference version. Read the rest of this entry »