Bobby Wilson has caught for 16 seasons — nine of them at the big league level — so he knows pitching like the back of his hand. Particularly on the defensive side of the ball. With a .577 OPS in exactly 1,000 MLB plate appearances, the 35-year-old hasn’t exactly been an offensive juggernaut. But his stick isn’t why the Chicago Cubs acquired him from the Minnesota Twins this past Thursday. They picked him up for his receiving skills and his ability to work with a staff.
The quality and style of pitching he’s seeing today aren’t the same as what they were when he inked his first professional contract in 2002.
“The game is ever evolving, ever changing,” Wilson told me a few weeks ago. “I’ve seen it go from more sinker-slider to elevated fastballs with a curveball off of that. But what really stands out is the spike in velocity. There’s almost no one in this league right now who is a comfortable at bat.”
In his opinion, increased octane has made a marked impact on how hitters are being attacked.
“If you have velocity, you can miss spots a little more frequently, whereas before you had to pitch,” opined Wilson. “You can’t miss spots throwing 88-90. If you’re 95-100 , you can miss your location and still have a chance of missing a barrel. Even without a lot of movement. Because of that, a lot of guys are going to four-seam, straight fastballs that are elevated, instead of a ball that’s sinking.”
But as the veteran catcher said, the game is ever evolving. He’s now starting to see more high heat in the nether regions of the zone, as well.
“With hitters trying to adjust to elevated fastballs, some guys who throw hard are gripping a two-seamer and trying to sink it,” observed Wilson. “We have velocity going everywhere now. Fernando Romero is an example. He’s 95-97, but instead of throwing four-seam fastballs he’s gripping what he calls a one-seamer — it’s just off a two-seam — and the ball is diving and cutting at that speed. It’s tough to catch, and if it’s tough to catch it’s tough to hit.”
I mentioned to Wilson that Oakland pitching coach Scott Emerson told me that a fastball can have roughly a four-MPH difference in perceived velocity, depending on location. He readily agreed, with an example from his time in the Dodgers organization.
“They wanted Chris Hatcher to pitch on the inner part of the plate, up, and across,” recalled Wilson. “They didn’t want him to go down and away, because of perceived velocity. The numbers showed that’s where he got hurt. They wanted him to throw where his velocity played up more.”
Analytics have obviously played a big role in the changes Wilson has seen over the years, and while he identifies as old-school, he by no means eschews data, nor the number-crunchers who provide it. Far from.
“Players are soldiers,” said the veteran backstop. “If something is brought down to us that says, ‘Hey, this is going to make us better,’ we try it. We’re going to go with what works.”
When the Colorado Rockies acquired Drew Butera from the Kansas City Royals on Friday, they brought on board a solid backup catcher with nine years of big-league experience under his belt. They also brought on board someone whose engaging personality and knowledge of the game may soon translate to a different role.
“A lot of guys have said that I’d make a good coach or manager,” said Butera, who at age 35 is nearing the end of his playing career. “It’s something I might be interested in. We’ll see what happens when I’m done, where I’m at with my family and what opportunities come up. I went to school for communications and broadcasting, and that might be an option as well. I’ve done a few pregame shows with our staff here, which I’ve enjoyed.”
Asked what type of approach he’d employ in a managerial role, Butera told me that he’d be a blend of analytics and old-school. While he embraces the former, the latter is in ingrained in his DNA.
“It’s the way I was brought up,” explained the son of former catcher, coach, and scout Sal Butera. “I like the purity of the game. I like the hard-nosed, and the way that players police themselves — the old-school feel to baseball. But you need both. Analytics have to have the human element, and the human element has to have analytics. A good blend is what works best.”
Butera was with the Twins, Dodgers, and Angels before coming to Kansas City, and now Colorado. How do the managers he’s played for compare in that respect?
“I think (Mike Scioscia) might have been the most old-school of the bunch,” Butera said in our early-summer conversation. “He and (Ron Gardenhire) were very old school. When I was in L.A. with (Don Mattingly, analytics were starting to become a little bit more involved, but there was still an old-school vibe to him. Ned Yost is old-school as well, but nowadays everybody has to have a little bit of analytics to them. I think Ned is doing a good job of blending analytics with an old-school mentality.”
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
Ed Lucas made it to the big leagues after deciding to hang up the spikes and pursue a front office position. Six years later, he’s in a job that promises to be a stepping stone to that goal. The 36-year-old former utility player is on the coaching staff of the Miami Marlins, where his role is both multi-faceted and information-oriented. Befitting his education — Lucas graduated from Dartmouth with a degree in Sociology and Economics — his responsibilities include advance work that entails “digging through the heat maps and the numbers.”
His numbers as a player were nothing to write home about. In 573 big-league plate appearances split between the 2013 and 2014 season, Lucas had a .624 OPS and five home runs with the team that now employs him as their “administrative coach.” Preceding that meager production were nine years spent toiling on the farm.
“I tried to retire after the 2012 season,” Lucas told me. “I was exploring opportunities, and had actually taken the LSAT in the middle of that summer. I went to the winter meetings and interviewed with a few different teams for what were essentially front office internships. Then the Marlins called out of the blue and offered me a playing job. I wasn’t actively pursuing one, but they gave me an invite to big league camp so I decided to play for one more year. That ‘one more year’ turned into being in the big leagues by mid May, and I ended up playing three years after that.”
As for his future, Lucas doesn’t want to paint himself into a corner by chasing any one particular position. He intends to explore opportunities “on both sides” — front office and the coaching front — “and see where they lead.” In the meantime, he’ll continue to process and disseminate information — and throw the occasional round of batting practice — for the club that delayed his retirement plans six short years ago.
Minnesota manager Paul Molitor was asked about Fenway Park when the Twins visited Boston in late July. Not surprisingly, he’s a fan of the historic ball yard.
“It’s one of those parks you want to cross off in terms of places you get a chance to play,” the Hall of Famer told reporters. “I’ve been fortunate to have been coming to this park a long time, and I still look forward to when that Boston trip comes around. It’s such a unique venue. It was always my favorite place to play.”
The numbers support the memories. Molitor slashed .323/.365/.476 with 12 home runs in 494 career plate appearances at Fenway Park.
Where didn’t the .306/.369/448 career hitter enjoy playing?
“I don’t know if the numbers bear it out, but the park that I always felt I had a tough time in was Oakland,” Molitor told me prior to a mid-August game in Detroit. “Back in the old days, the outfield was more open and it was a park where the ball didn’t really carry very well, particularly at night. And there was that sense that you were more in the middle of the field than you were at one end, because of all the room behind home plate. They eventually changed that. There was just something about the background, and the vastness of it, that always made it feel a little odd for me to hit there.”
Molitor slashed .283/.362/.422 with seven home runs in 382 career plate appearances at Oakland Coliseum.
The quality of a team’s pitching staff obviously factors into how well a hitter fares in a particular park. Molitor acknowledged that, but at the same time he feels some venues are simply more comfortable than others.
“I’m sure its a combination,” said Molitor. “But as pitching staffs change over 10 years, and guys have a chance to play that long, for whatever reason some parks are still going to stick out, regardless of who has the ball.”
Ian Kinsler hit the 400th double of his career on Wednesday. In doing so he became the 186th player to reach that mark, and the 23rd whose primary position was second base.
New Zealand’s first-ever professional baseball team will be competing in the Australian Baseball League, with their season getting underway in November. The Auckland Tuatara will be managed by former MLB pitcher Steve Mintz.
Japan beat Taiwan 6-0 on Friday to capture its sixth straight Women’s Baseball World Cup. Japan went undefeated in the 12-team tournament and has now won 30 consecutive games in the biennial competition. Canada captured this year’s bronze medal, defeating the United States 8-5 in 10 innings.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have announced that Jaime Jarrin, the team’s Spanish-language broadcaster since 1959, will be inducted into the Dodger Stadium Ring of Honor on Friday, September 21. Jarrin was a Ford C. Frick honoree in 1998.
Dayton Dragons play-by-play voice Tom Nichols made his MLB debut on Tuesday when he joined the Cincinnati Reds radio broadcast for three innings. Nichols called his 4,000th minor-league game earlier this season.
The Dayton Dragons, Cincinnati’s Midwest League affiliate, have sold out their last 1,316 home games — the longest sell-out streak in professional sports history.
The Quad Cities River Bandits, Houston’s Midwest League affiliate, have set a record for strikeouts in a season. Durham held the old minor league mark, with 1,421. Quad Cities pitchers head into the final days of the season with 1,500 strikeouts.
Datona Tortugas first baseman Ibandel Isabel, who leads the minor leagues with 36 round trippers, broke the Florida State League’s home run record earlier this week. The 23-year-old Cincinnati Reds prospect surpassed the 33 hit by Jim Fuller (1971) and Ed Levy (1950, 1952, and 1953).
Myles Straw, a 23-year-old outfielder in the Houston Astros system, leads the minor leagues in stolen bases with 69. Straw swiped 35 bags in 41 attempts, in 65 games, at Double-A Corpus Christi, and he has 34 in 36 attempts, in 64 games, with Triple-A Fresno.
The Cleveland Indians and Lake County Captains have agreed to an extension of their Player Development Contract, which will now run through the 2020 season. The Captains have been an Indians affiliate since 2003.
Charlie Culberson has become “Charlie Clutch” in Atlanta, and the 29-year-old utility man is using his newly-found fame to help others.
“We teamed up with BreakingT, a shirt company, and some of the proceeds are going to a cancer research center here in Atlanta,” explained Culberson, who has multiple walk-off home runs in his first season with the Braves. “My wife and I have had some family members affected by cancer, and research is obviously important. The company came up with a Charlie Clutch shirt. I wouldn’t have come up with a Charlie Clutch shirt — that’s a little bit too much for myself — but people like it. It’s kind of a trendy thing right now.”
As fate would have it, the couple’s efforts have ended up hitting close to home. A few weeks after they got involved with the Winship Cancer Center at Emory University, Culberson’s father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer. He’ll begin receiving treatment at Winship in the near future.
An informational note on the Culberson family: multiple online sources list former Red Sox and Senators outfielder Leon Culberson as Charlie Culberson’s grandfather, but it isn’t true.
“Leon was from Rome, Georgia, which is where I grew up, but he was actually my grandfather’s first cousin,” Charlie told me. “We’ve tried to correct everyone on that for years now, but they never seem to change anything online. I actually met Leon’s son a month or so ago, and it was neat to catch up and talk about his dad.”
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
No one needs to “save baseball,” and Matt Provenzano gave us his reasons why at Beyond the Box Score.
Over at Red Leg Nation, Steve Mancuso opined that Cincinnati’s culture problem isn’t in the clubhouse, but rather in the owner’s box.
Marc Topkin of The Tampa Bay Times talked to Joe Maddon, who gave his opinion of a USA Today story suggesting that his “fate is tenuous” if the Cubs suffer an early exit in postseason action.
At The Week, Jeva Lange wrote about how Japan’s Ayami Sato is not only the best female baseball player on the planet, she might be the greatest who ever lived.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Heading into September, Miami Marlins third baseman/outfielder Brian Anderson led National League rookies in games played, hits, doubles, runs scored, and RBI. He ranked second in WAR.
Brian Johnson has started 16 games for the Boston Red Sox over the past two seasons. The Red Sox have a record of 14-2 in those games.
Homer Bailey has started 19 games for the Cincinnati Reds this season. The Reds have a record of 1-18 in those games.
In 1914, Red Sox left-hander Dutch Leonard went 19-5 with a 0.96 ERA. His losses were by scores of 1-0, 1-0, 5-3, 1-0, and 3-0.
In 1910, Brooklyn right-hander George “Farmer” Bell pitched 310 innings and had an adjusted ERA of 114. His won-lost record was 10-27.
On this date in 1986, the Houston Astros outlasted the Chicago Cubs 8-7 in an 18-inning marathon at Wrigley Field. The teams combined to use 53 players, with Greg Maddux getting the loss in the big-league debut.
On September 1, 2007, Clay Buchholz threw a no hitter against the Baltimore Orioles in his second MLB start. The Red Sox righty walked three and fanned nine.
On September 4, 2002, Scott Hatteberg hit a walk-off home run to give the Oakland A’s a 12-11 win over the Kansas City Royals. It was Oakland’s 20th win a row.
Hughie Jennings reached base via a hit-by-pitch 287 times — the most of any player in history — and via a base on balls 347 times.
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.