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Meet Yoko, Diablos Rojos del Mexico’s First Japanese Ballplayer

The journey that made Takaaki Yokoyama the first Japanase player with Diablos Rojos del Mexico in 79 years of franchise history was not a planned one.

Back in 2014, when he made his debut in Japan with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, his main goal was to make a living in Japanese baseball. In order to do it, he had a what might be called a typical repertoire for a Japanese pitcher — fastball, sinker, curveball, slider, and changeup. But he struggled with home run issues and below-average velocity on his heater (138.9 kmh or 86.3 mph). He tried to improve his offspeed stuff after a rough couple of years, moving from a classic changeup to a splitter. That bumped up his velocity on offspeed pitchs almost 4 mph but did nothing to correct his main problem in NPB: his fastball was getting destroyed. According to Deltagraphs, his four-seam fastball had a -10.6 run value in less than 20 innings pitched in 2016. Two years later, he was released.

Luckily for Yokoyama, that wasn’t the end of the road. The 28-year-old right-hander teamed up with a group of international players to showcase themselves in several spring games organized by Yokoyama’s agent and translator, Toma Irokawa, in an effort to offer their services to American teams.

The plan worked for him. He signed with the New Jersey Jackals in the CanAm league and was about to get his first shot at independent baseball until things hit a snag.

“He had everything set up but problems with the immigration process delayed us. In the middle of that process, we got the call from Diablos Rojos,” remembers Toma.

Word of Yokoyama and the showcase had spread, and a team in need of bullpen help was about to get it in the form of its first Japanese pitcher. Read the rest of this entry »

A Closer Look to Gleyber Torres’ Orioles Demolition Act

When the 2019 major league baseball season opened, observers generally agreed with the projections that forecast the Baltimore Orioles’ pitching staff has likely to suffer like no other rotation in the American League East. Then again, not even the most pessimistic models could have predicted what the New York Yankees — and more specifically, Gleyber Torres — had in store for the Orioles in the teams’ first 12 games against each other.

First, let’s do a general body count after the latest six-game sweep the Orioles endured at the Yankees’ hands:

  • New York launched 36 home runs in 12 games. That’s already the third-most home runs the Yankees have generated against the Orioles in a single season. They are 10 home runs short of their 2017 record with seven games to go.
  • The Yankees’ tOPS+ against the Orioles this year is 127. Basically as a group when facing Baltimore, they own an OPS similar to Kris Bryant’s in 2019 (.967).
  • The xwOBA of Yankees hitters against Baltimore is .393. This is like if the Yankees lineup were instantly turned into a 2019 version of Franmil Reyes, Mitch Moreland, or Justin Turner.

But the destruction would have never reached these levels if not for Torres. The sophomore infielder has launched 10 of his 12 homers this year against the Orioles, joining Joe DiMaggio, Aaron Judge, Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig as the only players with double-digit home runs in a season against the O’s.

His triple-slash versus Baltimore this year is a ludicrous .465/.531/1.233 in 50 plate appearances and his tOPS+ sits at 275 in 2019 when he faces Baltimore.

In other words, Torres has really gone out of his way in order to bash Orioles pitchers. Just for context, if Torres didn’t play again this year against Baltimore, he would own the best tOPS+ of any Yankee hitter in history with at least 50 PAs against any ballclub in a single season:

Best tOPS+ for a Yankee Hitter vs Any Team in a Single Season
Rk Player Opponent Year PA tOPS+
1 Gleyber Torres Baltimore Orioles 2019 50 275
2 Jesse Barfield Baltimore Orioles 1990 50 248
3 Ken Griffey Boston Red Sox 1984 51 242
4 Joe DiMaggio St. Louis Browns 1936 108 234
5 Mickey Mantle Washington Senators 1968 59 231
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

We really don’t know what happened in 1936 between DiMaggio and the St. Louis Browns (his tOPS+ was a bit lower than Torres’ but he had 108 PAs), but fortunately these days we can dive into Torres’ carnage and play the good old “blame game” but with advance stats.

Did Orioles pitchers really deserve this struggle, or is it just the case of a batter who seems to be ascending into the elite?

To answer this, we’re not going to analyze the 20 hits the infielder has connected versus the Orioles this year. Instead, we’ll just focus on the 10 home runs, and check velocity, type, and location of the pitches Torres took yard while we compare it to the results of similar pitches in the Statcast era.

1) Alex Cobb split fastball down and in.

Pitch location:

This was the first homer of the season for Torres, and it was no-doubter. It had a 105 mph exit velocity and a projected distance of 400 feet. The pitch was an 87.3 mph split fastball. down and in to the inner part of the zone for a right-handed batter.

The location of this pitch is right in Torres’ wheelhouse, so it’s safe to say this was a mistake. Additionally, splitters in that zone have not borne good results for Cobb historically. Since 2016, that pitch in that specific zone has a .629 xwOBA allowed versus right-handed hitters. When he locates it somewhere else, that numbers goes down to .326.

2) Mike Wright fastball up in the zone.

Pitch location:

This was a fastball at 94.6 mph that left the bat with a 101.9 mph exit velocity and was projected for 390 feet.

If you look at Torres’ past home runs, you will see that this is the first (and only) home run he has gotten with a fastball in that specific zone. He has 18 swing-and-misses, four swinging strikeouts, and three hits against those types of pitches. If you add the velocity, this was his first hit versus an upper fastball in the zone with at least 94 mph.

Maybe Wright doesn’t have an elite spin rate to go up there regularly (that pitch was at 2259 rpm), but you can’t blame him for trying this in an 0-2 count. Until that day, he had only allowed three home runs pitching there with his fastball. He also has allowed an xwOBA of .283 with his heater in that zone. The idea and the execution were good on paper, but Torres had other plans. This one is all Torres’ “fault.”

3) David Hess fastball up in the zone.

Pitch location:

This looked a lot like the Wright pitch. A 95-mph heater up in the zone that came back at 104 mph projected at 408 feet. Again, high fastballs have not been Torres’ favorite in the major leagues. This was, according to Baseball Savant, his fifth hit off a fastball in that specific zone and just his second home run. Also, he has swung and missed 21 times at similar pitches and suffered four swinging strikeouts.

Just a day after Torres collected his first home run in the majors against a fastball up in the middle of strike zone, he decided to launch his second career homer against a fastball up and in for strike. Just like Wright, you can’t blame Hess for going up there with good velo and a decent spin rate (2294 rpm on that pitch) in a 3-2 count. Until that day, he had only allowed one homer on his fastball in that zone. Now he has three (Clint Frazier also punished him there later in May). In my book this one was also a Gleyber Torres magic trick.

4) David Hess middle, middle fastball.

Pitch location:

Do we have to explain this?

Torres crushed this fastball at 89.9 mph right at the heart of the plate and sent it home at 108 mph, projected at 427 feet, the fourth-longest home run of his career in the majors.

In 2019, you can’t expect good results if you throw a middle-middle 90-mph fastball with below-average spin rate (that one had 2158 rpm). Just for context, since 2017, fastballs in the heart of the plate with a velocity between 89 and 91 mph and with a spin rate between 2100 and 2200 rpm have a very spooky .445 xwOBA. It’s just not good a pitch. This one is definitely on the pitcher.

5) Andrew Cashner changeup middle out (but in the zone).

Pitch location:

Destruction. This 84.8-mph changeup located in the middle/out part of the plate was demolished by Torres, who sent it out at 104.9 mph to center field. The shot projected at 432 feet, which ranks as the third-longest home run of the youngster’s career.

Cashner was in a 3-1 count and didn’t want to issue a walk, so he decided to use his best secondary pitch in the zone after he saw what Torres had done against the fastballs of a couple of his teammates. Of course the pitch landed in Torres’ hot zone (middle/in), but at least he failed with the secondary pitch he uses more. Cashner has an acceptable .311 xwOBA with his changeup since 2015 versus right-handed batters, and that was the first homer he had allowed to a righty with that pitch in that specific zone in his major league career.

It was good choice in my book, but the execution was a little bit flawed, and Torres was just too hot. There was more than one responsible on this one.

6) David Hess slider down and in (out of the zone).

Pitch location:

This was an 83.3-mph slider slightly out of the zone down and in that ends up in the stands with a 93.5 mph exit velocity, projected at 351 feet.

This was all Torres and Yankee Stadium. In a 3-1 count, Hess couldn’t sell him a fastball again in the zone. Instead he went with his money pitch down and a little bit in, and he suffered the first home run with his slider in that zone in his major league career. It was just a tough break if you consider that those types of hits (balls between 92-94 mph exit velocity and between 27-29 degrees launch angle) have been recorded 957 times in the Statcast era and only 58 of them have turned into a homer (6%).

7) Andrew Cashner middle-middle curveball.

Pitch location:

Torres was entering “God Mode” at right about this moment. An 81.2-mph curveball at the heart of the plate was blasted to center field at a 100.2 mph with a projected distance of 415 feet.

I have to give this one to Torres. Cashner was down in the count and just wanted to get back with a curveball in the zone. Yes, maybe it was a pitch too noble for a guy so inspired, but it was a perfectly fine selection to try to come back in the at-bat. That was just the second homer of Torres’ career against a curveball and the very first homer Cashner has allowed on a curveball in a 1-0 count in the majors. Of course, Cashner’s curveball isn’t a great pitch (.332 of xwOBA since 2015), but a man has to work with the tools he has.

8) Mychal Givens slider down and in (in the zone).

Pitch location:

This was an 85.3-mph slider down in the zone to open up the at-bat against a hitter with seven home runs in 2019 versus the Orioles. The result was a hit at 94.2 mph that turned into a 384-foot homer.

Givens has a solid slider with a career .284 xwOBA allowed, but Torres didn’t care. He just tagged that baseball on the very first pitch and gave Givens his first homer allowed on his slider in 2019.

Yes, you could argue that the pitch hung a bit and stayed in the strike zone too long, but this was just the second time Givens has allowed a long ball with a slider in that zone in his major league career.

This is just Gleyber Torres being hotter than the gates of hell. Look no further.

9) Dan Straily slider down and away (in the zone).

Pitch location:

Torres already had three games with multiple home runs against Baltimore when he started this game. Straily threw his money pitch at 85.3 mph in a reasonably good zone, and Torres blasted a 102.4-mph home run projected at 424 feet.

Straily believes in his slider. He owns a .267 xwOBA with that pitch since 2015, so that trust isn’t unreasonable. Then again, before facing Torres in the third inning, he already had allowed two homers against that pitch courtesy of Thairo Estrada and DJ LeMahieu. Despite that, he decided to go in the zone in a 1-2 count against a hitter that was looking for his ninth homer against his team this year. That was not wise. This home run has two fathers in my book, as it wasn’t the pitch location for the count or the hitter.

10) Gabriel Ynoa’s fastball away.

Pitch location:

At this point there is no way Torres gets something in the zone, right? Well, Ynoa decided to test him with a 92.9-mph fastball away at the edge of the strike zone, and Torres returned the favor with an opposite-field home run of 377 feet and at 101.5 mph.

This one is all Gleyber. You could ask why they were throwing strikes to him, but the Orioles were already down 6-2 in the fifth inning. Ynoa threw a fastball to a specific zone where Torres didn’t do real damage in his rookie season. Then again, this Torres seems different. This was his first homer against a fastball in that zone in his major league career and only his second hit.

Final review:

The Baltimore Orioles may have an underwhelming pitching staff right now, but these things that Gleyber Torres did against them were not entirely their fault. At only 21 years old, the Venezuelan infielder seems to be rapidly learning and reducing his holes at the plate while growing more power in different areas of the strike zone.

Yes, Baltimore pitching helped, but more than that it seems like Torres decided to use the Orioles to make a statement to the baseball world.

A statement that is just beginning to unfold.

It’s Time for Michael Pineda to Change His Approach

Michael Pineda has always had a bit of a weak spot in his pitching profile. From his debut in 2011 until his 2017 ended with Tommy John surgery, he threw 680 innings while allowing 91 total home runs. That translated to a 1.20 HR/9, putting Pineda in the bottom 20th percentile in the league among pitchers with at least 650 innings pitched.

Despite the eye-catching rate, the home runs were a manageable issue; Pineda’s FIP in those years was a fine 3.60. More than avoiding home runs, Pineda needed the health he enjoyed between 2015-16 to be an average starter. Even setting aside the Tommy John, his time in the majors is riddled with stints on the disabled list for a variety of maladies. Now in 2019, with the health of his arm finally restored, the home run issues looms larger.

After his first nine starts of the year, Pineda is leading the majors in home run rate among qualified pitchers with a 2.49 HR/9. Following his last start, he became the first Minnesota Twins pitcher to allow at least three home runs in consecutive outings since Bartolo Colon in 2017.

This is still a small sample, and Pineda’s home run rate will probably go down as he keeps pitching. However, given his previous home run issues, the recent spike merits a closer look.

First, let’s examine his fastball. Of the 13 home runs he has allowed this year, six have been against fastballs in the middle or upper part of the zone. Pineda has always liked to throw his fastball in the zone, challenging hitters with good gas, and he has been doing exactly that this year. Read the rest of this entry »

Pitching Jewels from Mexico: Alex Delgado’s Changeup and Josh Lowey’s Curveball

Attempting to discover pitching jewels — guys who may have some value in MLB — in international leagues is a relaxing hobby I recommend you try in your free time.

First, you will be doing something that forces you to watch (non-American) baseball all year long. The TV memberships you will need to start watching are really cheap. And there is something appealing about imagining yourself as the one who “discovered” a 2-WAR, 32-year-old pitcher for a major league team.

Of course, finding complete treasures shouldn’t be the main goal of this exercise unless you want to live in a constant state of frustration. Instead, as someone who has played this little game for years now, I have to advise that instead of searching for a potential major league pitcher, you keep an eye out for a particular pitch that could do some damage in the best baseball league in the world. It’s still a hard task, but at least your odds will look less like winning the lottery and more like being struck by lighting in an open field.

Take what I found in Efren Alexander Delgado’s changeup for example. This guy is a 24-year-old lefty starting pitcher for Guerreros de Oaxaca with no outstanding numbers in Mexico. Then again, if you look closely, you will see that he went full “Bumgarner Mode” on the 2018 Mexican League postseason: a 2.25 ERA, with 39 strikeouts and nine walks in 32 innings against tough teams such as Diablos Rojos Del México, Leones de Yucatan, and Sultanes de Monterrey.

He sporadically touches 90 mph with his fastball and has an average curveball, but he does have a magic changeup. Just watch this at-bat and try to identify who Delgado is striking out:

Yes, what you are seeing is rare footage of the only strikeout folk hero Willians Astudillo suffered in the Venezuelan Winter League last postseason while he was playing with Caribes de Anzoategui. This part of the game wasn’t broadcast (Nicolas Maduro was speaking and every Venezuelan network was forced to broadcast him), but thanks to my little birds in Venezuela, we manage to salvage this piece of baseball history. Read the rest of this entry »

The Day MacKenzie Gore Baptized Mexico’s New Baseball Cathedral

It’s been exactly one year since I moved to Mexico City from my crumbling Caracas, and I have to confess that it has swept me off my feet.

The food is great, the weather is awesome, it’s inexpensive. The people are kind, and every weekend it seems that you have something different to do. Not that I’ve accepted every offer, but there is still something pleasing about turning down opportunities just to get cozy on your couch.

However, this past weekend, Mexico City had an offer too good to pass up.

For the past couple of years, the citizens of this very religious place had been expecting the grand opening of a new cathedral, not for Catholics, but for the church of baseball we are so devoted to in this corner of the web. And on Saturday, that wait finally came to an end.

Located in the eastern part of the city and very near the airport at Puebla metro station, Alfredo Harp Helu Stadium opened its doors and officially became the new home of the Diablos Rojos del Mexico, arguably the most successful team in Mexican League history.

From above, the structure honors the team it was built for by mimicking a massive pitchfork, the weapon of choice of a respected “Diablo.” The name honors the man responsible for all of this: the owner of the Diablos, Guerreros de Oaxaca, and partial owner of the San Diego Padres, Mr. Alfredo Harp Helú. Read the rest of this entry »

Building a Latin American Pitcher Voltron with Ramón Hernández

Killing time used to be an art for children of my generation. We didn’t have a smartphone in our hands. The internet was still some kind of sorcery unavailable in our towns, and the TV offered just four channels, where soap operas ruled the air time. Time, as you can imagine, kept taunting us as he slowly passed by outside, while we stayed indoors.

Because of that, I personally craved my parents’ permission to go out. When I was fortunate enough to receive it, my friends and I played “Quemado” (something like Pelota Vasca but where we fielded the ball and threw it to the wall) or “Pelotica de Goma” (this Baseball5 thing is flat out plagiarism for us Venezuelans). And when we got tired or lost the ball to an unfriendly neighbor, we just went ahead and bantered.

In these exchanges full of imaginary exercises, my brain decided to create a habit that still haunts me to this day. I called it the “Voltron Game,” and, as in the famous Japanese cartoon of the 80s, it consists of assembling a perfect entity using the outstanding parts of other things that were perfectly fine separately.

I did this with dinosaurs, cities, and cars. I did this with super heroes and super villains. And, of course, I did it (and still do it) with baseball.

Omar Vizquel once helped me assemble the perfect Venezuelan shortstop. Henry Blanco once helped me assemble the perfect Venezuelan pitcher. And now, because springs training for MLB and in Mexico are awfully long, I wanted to play again with Ramón Hernández, current Diablos Rojos del Mexico bench coach, as my new partner. Read the rest of this entry »