Blake Parker is a proven closer, but only down on the farm. Of the 32-year-old right-hander’s 117 professional saves, only three have been in a big-league uniform. The most recent came a week ago, with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Playing at Fenway Park, Parker entered with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning, and punched out Chris Young to close out a 6-3 win over the Red Sox.
He’s having an All-Star-quality year. In 39 relief outings, the first-year Angel has a 2.04 ERA and a 1.38 FIP, and he’s fanning batters at a rate of 13 per nine innings. The extent to which that’s a surprise is a matter of debate. His MLB opportunities have been at a premium in recent seasons, but Parker’s Triple-A efforts have been exemplary. Sandwiched around an injury-truncated 2015 were a 25-save campaign that included a 1.77 ERA and a 13.1 K-rate, and a 19-save campaign with a 2.72 ERA and A 12.7 k-rate.
Parker believes that closing in the minors helps prepare a pitcher for doing so in the majors — “you learn how to deal with the emotional stress that comes with pitching the ninth” — and he likewise feels it impacts one’s ability to handle high-leverage situations in preceding innings.
“They say the last three outs are the hardest to get,” said Parker. “But while they may be the toughest mentally, sometimes you get the back end of the order in the ninth. I’m not saying those guys can’t hit, but there is something to getting those crucial outs in the seventh and eighth. I think my experience closing in the minors helps me harness my emotions to do both.”
Harnessing emotions was essential when he came on to face Young — and bail out a struggling Cam Bedrosian — with the game on the line. Fenway Park was a cauldron of expectant energy, with 36,000 fans on their feet. It was white-knuckle time, but the righty wasn’t intimidated.
“I loved it,” Parker told me the following day. “I love the crowd being into it, especially at a place like this, where there’s a sellout almost every night. It’s special. Moments like that are what I love about this game. I was a little geeked up out there — I won’t lie — but I felt great.”
Whether or not Parker gets more chances to close remains to be seen. As for the three big-league saves already on his resume — one each with the Cubs, Yankees, and Angels — he described them as “kind of sporadic; a few times I’ve basically been the last man left out there, and it’s a matter of being ready when your name is called. I’ll take ‘em when I can get ‘em.”
Alex Avila should represent the Detroit Tigers in this year’s All-Star game. The 30-year-old catcher leads his club in batting average, OPS, wOBA, wRC+, and WAR. His slash line is an eye-opening .315/.431/.586.
Avila is also a contender for Comeback Player of the Year honors. Hampered by injuries — concussions have been especially troublesome — he’s hovered around the Mendoza line each of the past two years. When I asked why he’s having a standout season, he said health is probably the biggest reason.
His swing hasn’t changed, nor has his basic approach. The latter has long been a strong suit, and that’s especially true this year — his 12.5 O-Swing% is the lowest in either league. Avila knows what he wants. He focuses on a specific area of the plate, and if the pitch is there, he lets fly. If it’s not — assuming he doesn’t have a two-strike count — he leaves the bat on his shoulder.
“You have to know your strengths,” explained Avila. “The pitcher is going to try to pitch to your weaknesses, but they’ll make mistakes. The key is to be able to capitalize when they do. What you want is a pitch you can handle well, one you can drive.”
Avila feels his strengths have remained fairly static. Along with being patient, he’s displayed an ability to hit the ball to the opposite field with authority, and also turn on inside pitches. His ground balls tend to be pull side, which plays into the one notable change he’s made to his attack plan.
“There were times I would try to manipulate the ball,” admitted Avila. “I would try to hit it away from the shift, and too often that causes weak contact. This year, whether a team is shifting me or not… I couldn’t care less. I’m just trying to hit the ball hard. If I hit it at the guy who is playing in short right field, so be it.”
As the saying goes, it’s hard to argue with results.
Taylor Rogers is quietly having an outstanding season. Amid little fanfare, the 26-year-old southpaw has four wins and a 2.15 ERA in 35 appearances out of the Minnesota Twins bullpen. Used almost exclusively in the seventh and eighth innings, he’s been charged with just three runs over the past two months.
When I asked the University of Kentucky product what’s behind his newfound success, he pointed to his noggin.
“First and foremost, I’m coming to the ballpark acting like I’m going to pitch, and not wondering if I’m going to pitch,” Rogers told me on Tuesday. “In the bullpen, when the phone rings, it’s so sudden. You can’t always just tell your mind, ‘Go ahead, get in the moment.’ But if your mind is already there, you’re better prepared to go out there. Another tool I like to use is visualization, which kind of rounds around the backside of that — ‘I’m going to pitch today.’”
Rogers has reverse splits this season, but as the best lefty at Paul Molitor’s disposal, he is keenly aware of match-up possibilities. Sitting in the bullpen, he’ll “look at the lineup to see where the lefties are at, and I’ll visualize myself facing that lefty.” He’ll do so in an almost Zen-like manner.
“I don’t know if this is a good analogy, but the only thing I can compare it to is picturing yourself sitting on the beach,” Rogers told me. “If you can close your eyes and picture yourself on the beach, you can start to hear the waves, and feel the sand, and the warm air. It’s kind of like a daydream. It’s, ‘OK, Chris Davis is coming up, and here we go.’ By the time I get out there, my brain has already seen him.”
What it hasn’t seen is the result of the pitch. For Rogers, visualization is about execution, not imagining what he has no control over.
“I’m visualizing the shape of the pitch, and the location of the pitch,” explained Rogers. “I’m not visualizing the result. After the ball leaves your hand, it’s out of your control. Round ball, round bat, and all that.”
He doesn’t get much ink, but Danny Jansen is having a stellar season in the Blue Jays organization. In 257 plate appearances split between high-A Dunedin and Double-A New Hampshire, the 22-year-old catching prospect is slashing an impressive .341/.411/.500, with seven home runs.
Injuries have hampered Jansen since Toronto took him in the 16th round of the 2013 draft out of an Appleton, Wisconsin high school. Now that he’s healthy, he is, in the words of Blue Jays farm director Gil Kim, “really opening up some eyes.” Kim called Jansen “one of the most-improved players in the system,” and went on to laud his makeup and competitive nature.”
Derek Hill returned to action this past week for the first time in nearly 11 months. Last August, the Detroit Tigers outfield prospect felt a pop in his elbow and fell victim to Tommy John surgery. It wasn’t his first time on the shelf. Since being drafted 23rd overall in 2014, Hill has been on the disabled list multiple times, albeit mostly with minor maladies.
Hill is a highly-regarded defender — and an ultra-aggressive defender. He’s just 21 years old, and hasn’t advanced beyond low-A, but there are already highlight-reel compilations of his diving, and wall-crashing, catches. Last summer, I asked Hill about the injury risk that comes with his all-out style.
“I wouldn’t say I’m an injury waiting to happen,” opined Hill. “But if I need to go into the wall to make a play for my pitcher, I’m going to do that. It’s a team game, so you have to be willing to put your body on the line. The down side of that is, running into walls might have you out of the lineup for a few games.”
Or, if you blow out your elbow, the good part of a year. Hill is currently on a rehab assignment in the Gulf Coast League.
Larry Andersen went on a bit of a rant when I talked to him for my recent piece on mound visits. I didn’t include it — not the part I’m including here — largely because it was tangential. Based on what he said, the Phillies broadcaster wouldn’t mind seeing an electronic strike zone.
“This is all about speeding the game up, but I honestly don’t know who wants to speed the game up,” said a seemingly exasperated Andersen. “If it’s MLB, then why are they implementing all of these rules, and all of these things, that slow the game down? Why don’t they get umpires who’ll call strikes? We had a game… I won’t mention who the umpire was, but if you look it up on FanGraphs, there were six pitches in the first two innings that should have been strikes. One of them split the middle of the diagram, and it was called a ball.
“We’ve got replay, so why not get an electronic thing to put on the plate. Forget the home plate umpire. That would speed the game up as much as anything. If umpires would call strikes and force guys to swing the bat… if they would call the strike zone the strike zone, instead of from the knees to the bottom of the zipper — that’s the strike zone now. It’s not the belt. It’s not the letters. It’s not what the rule book says. To me, that’s the biggest thing that slows the game down, and I don’t know why they can’t see that.”
Going into yesterday, the Oakland A’s had committed 71 errors, the most in the majors. Their minus-42 Defensive Runs Saved were the worst in the majors.
On Wednesday, the Oakland A’s homered five times in an 11-7 loss to the Houston Astros. Since moving to Oakland in 1968, the A’s are 36-5 when hitting at least five home runs.
As of Thursday, the Cincinnati Reds had a record of 33-44 and a minus-45 run differential. The Minnesota Twins had a record of 40-36 and a minus-45 run differential.
The Red Sox released Allen Craig on Friday. Acquired from the Cardinals at the July 31, 2014 trade deadline, Craig slashed .139/.236/.197 in 65 games with Boston. He has a .668 OPS in Triple-A this season.
Also on Friday, Howard Kellman called his 6,000th game for the Indianapolis Indians. His first broadcast for the Triple-A club was in 1974, when the roster included Joaquin Andujar, Ken Griffey, and Ray Knight.
Yesterday, Dustin Pedroia played his 100th consecutive errorless game, a Red Sox record for second basemen.
Following his team’s 2-1 victory on Saturday night, Mike Matheny now has 500 managerial wins with the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Arizona Diamondbacks 50-30 record is their best 80-game start in franchise history.
Since being drafted in the second round last year, 19-year-old Toronto Blue Jays prospect Bo Bichette is slashing .403/.456/.658, with 57 extra-base hits, in 384 plate appearances.
Ben Gamel, who should represent the Seattle Mariners in the All-Star game, is slashing .348/.405/.489. He’s been worth 2.1 WAR, the most on the team.
MLB batters hit 1,101 home runs in June, breaking the old record for home runs in a month. There were 1,069 hit in May 2000.
Two decades after beginning his big-league career with the Cleveland Indians, Bartolo Colon may have reached the end of the road. On Thursday, the 44-year-old right-hander was designated for assignment by the Atlanta Braves.
Colon’s name came up when I was chatting with Dave Burba, who is now the pitching coach for Colorado’s Double-A affiliate, the Hartford Yard Goats. From 1998-2001, the two were teammates.
“Looking back at my career, there were a couple of guys who truly amazed me,” recalled Burba. “When I was with the Indians, Bartolo Colon would sit 91-93, and by the eighth inning he’d be throwing 98. I don’t know how he did that. And he’s still pitching. I’m not sure how he’s doing that, either.”
In an April Notes column, I mentioned that the 1901 New York Giants had three deaf players on their roster. Four decades later, Dick Sipek became MLB’s first deaf player since Herbert “Dummy” Murphy appeared in nine games for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1914. Sipek — a graduate of the Illinois School for the Deaf — played for the Cincinnati Reds in 1945. An outfielder who saw most of his action as a pinch hitter, Sipek is purportedly the first deaf player not to have been nicknamed Dummy.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
Why do so many fans hate sports announcers? Neil Best explored the subject at Newsday.
Longtime Toronto Blue Jays broadcaster Jerry Howarth is back in action after cancer surgery and a bout of laryngitis. Gregory Strong has the story at The Canadian Press.
At The Washington Post, Barry Svrluga questioned whether Nationals Park ticket policies resulted in lower-than-average attendance for a series against the Cubs.
This year’s SABR convention just concluded, and Philip Bondy of The New York Times wrote about how the organization is in need of younger members. Placing more emphasis on sabermetrics may help achieve that goal.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Harmon Killebrew’s first four big-league appearances came as a pinch runner, and his first three defensive appearances came as a second baseman.
On July 3, 1912, Rube Marquard of the New York Giants won his 19th game of the season without a loss. On July 8, his record fell to 19-1 in a 7-2 loss to the Chicago Cubs.
On July 6, 1949, Walker Cooper of the Cincinnati Reds went 6 for 7 with three home runs and 10 RBI in a 23-6 win over the Chicago Cubs.
With five more hits, Joey Votto will become the third Canada-born player with at least 1,500 hits. Larry Walker had 2,160, and Justin Morneau 1,603. At .966, Votto has a one-percentage-point edge on Walker for the highest OPS among our up-north neighbors.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.