Sunday Notes: Braves, Billy Burns, 3B Coaches, more

Nick Markakis isn’t clearing fences. In his first season in Atlanta, the erstwhile Oriole is without a home run in 294 plate appearances. Despite the paucity of power, he’s been the Braves cleanup hitter in 31 games. Don’t scoff. Markakis has a .314./.404/.407 slash line batting out of the four-hole, Overall, he’s slashing .298/.393/.361.

Even so, he wouldn’t be hitting fourth in a perfect world. Manager Fredi Gonzalez has limited options when he fills out his lineup card. Going into last night, only the Phillies (40) had homered fewer times than the Braves (41) this season. Freddie Freeman has a dozen dingers, and after that it’s basically banjo city.

“Other than Freddie Freeman, he’s our best hitter,” Gonzalez told me earlier this week. “When I first put him there, it was to put a good hitter behind Freddie to protect him a little bit. We want someone who’s going to give us a good at bat, no matter if it’s a home run or a double. I think he’s our best option.”

Markakis used to provide more punch. In nine seasons with the Orioles, he had 141 circuit clouts. Part of that was homer-happy Camden Yards, but it’s not as though Turner Field is a graveyard for fly balls. Off-season immobility is likely contributing to his power outage.

“I had neck surgery and was out for eight weeks,” explained Markakis, who took pains to say he wasn’t making excuses. “I got 25 at bats in spring training, and from there I was thrown into the fire. I’m treading water right now, but I’m never out there trying to hit home runs anyway. You can be a successful baseball player without power. If you have a good on-base percentage and hit a bunch of doubles, your OPS is going to be right where you want it.”

One thing is for certain: Markakis isn’t in Baltimore anymore. The Orioles are second in the American League with 82 home runs, and last year they led both leagues with 211. The Braves may not reach triple digits.

“Power is a great thing to have, especially if you have a lot of guys who get on base,” said Markakis. “But if you don’t have a lot of guys who get on base, and you don’t have a lot of power… we’re not a team that’s going to hit 200 home runs. We have to scrap and win ballgames in small ways.”

With a homerless cleanup hitter, albeit one having a solid season.

——

Oakland outfielder Billy Burns is a speed burner. He’s also a switch-hitter, which wasn’t the case when Washington drafted him out of Mercer University in 2011. The Nationals asked Burns to begin batting from both sides at the tail end of his first professional season. His wheels were the reason.

“They wanted me to utilize my speed, and being left-handed puts me closer to first base,” said Burns, a natural right-handed hitter. “I was a little surprised when they asked, but I was willing to work at anything they thought would make me a better player. Once I accepted it, I was all in.”

The transition went well, but it wasn’t a walk in the park. Burns is no old dog – he’s still just 25 – but learning new tricks requires a concentrated effort.

“Hitting lefty, I was basically starting from scratch,” said Burns. “I originally tried to mirror my right-handed stroke, but it just didn’t work. My muscles weren’t developed the same way, so a lot of that just didn’t flow.”

Burns credits Mark Harris, his hitting coach in low-A and high-A, for molding his left-handed stroke. Ditto his approach, which isn’t identical from both batter’s boxes. Interestingly, eyesight factors into the equation.

“My mechanics and approach differ a little left to right,” Burns told me. “It also depends on how I’m seeing the ball from each side. From the beginning, I could always see it better from the left side. I don’t know why. My left eye is dominant, but I don’t know if that plays a part in it.”

The 5-foot-9 speedster knows he’ll never be a power threat – he went deep just twice in 1,513 minor league at bats – but he does have a pair of round trippers this year. Fittingly, they came from opposite sides of the dish.

Burns is currently batting a cumulative .323/.368/.425. From the right side, he’s .309/.377/.400. From the left side, he’s .328/.364/.435.

——

The next time you’re at a ballpark, watch the third base coach for each team. You might be surprised by what you see. They’ll move around a lot, and it’s unlikely they’ll position themselves exactly the same way. And forget the coaching box. It’s not uncommon for third base coaches to be well outside the boundaries of where they’re technically allowed to stand.

According to Mike Gallego, it’s all about the angles.

“With a runner on first, I want to be where he’ll have me in sight when he turns the bag,” explained the Oakland third base coach. “I’ll be up the line a little bit. With a runner on second, I’ll be down the line so I can stop the runner after he rounds third.

“The other day, I didn’t get in line with (Ben) Zobrist tagging from second on a deep fly ball to center field. I was kind of up the line, in position for him to score on a base hit. He was coming straight from second and the center fielder, Anthony Gose, let one fly. He’s got an arm, and Zobrist has a repaired knee, and I was screaming, ‘Get down, get down’. He didn’t hear me, or see me, and came in standing up. There was no play, but it was closer than I’d like. That showed how important angles are.”

In some ballparks, it’s hard to see the baseball. At Fenway Park, it’s impossible to see the left field corner from the coaching box.

“This place is crazy,” said Gallego. “First of all, you can’t see the ball down the line. You have to creep up on it, which puts you in the path of the runner. You have to get on the line, then back off the line in a hurry. I don’t get into fair territory, but I’d probably hear it from the umpire if I did.”

More on that in a moment. First, a word about illumination.

“There are fields that have the scoreboard lighting up on the wall,” said Gallego. “Toronto is an example. The ball gets into that area and you have a hard time picking it up. You have to make sure to get yourself at an angle where you can see the ball come off the wall.”

One thing a third base coach hates to see is a line drive coming directly at him.

“You definitely try to make some space with those big right-handed pull hitters,” said Gallego. “A Josh Donaldson and a Yoenis Cespedes gets his bat head through so quickly that the ball just rockets toward you. I’ll get a lot deeper with guys like that.”

At times, deeper is well beyond where the rule book says they can go. Given the importance of angles, third base coaches will also stray closer to the plate than allowed. It only matters to umpires if the opposing team complains, but that rarely happens. Their own third base coach does plenty of roaming of his own.

——

Let’s go back to the Braves, and to the players at Fredi’s disposal.

It’s common knowledge that Jonny Gomes mashes southpaws. It’s equally well known that he is replacement-level fodder when facing same-sided pitching. Over his career, Gomes is .221/.304/.409 versus righties.

So far this season, Gomes has been penciled into the lineup 37 times with a right-hander on the mound. Against them, he’s hitting an abysmal, and wholly predictable, .182/.226/.295.

Why has he playing as often as he has?

“Sometimes he’s our best option,” said Gonzalez. “We don’t have anyone else to hit. For instance, we just sent (Todd) Cunningham down and if he was here, he might have played instead of Jonny tonight.”

A lack of preferable match-ups has also factored in. Atlanta went through a stretch of 27 games where they faced just one left-handed starter. Rather than completely bury him on the bench, Gonzalez “picked spots to throw him a bone against righthanders.”

There’s also the Gomes factor.

“Good things happen when he’s in the lineup,” opined Gonzalez, echoing other managers who Gomes has played under. “I know the splits, but he brings an energy to the lineup that you can’t quantify. You might not be able to explain it, but you can feel it.

“If you believe all the numbers – sometimes you believe them and sometimes you go, ‘This is the reason,’ whether you like it or don’t like it, or somebody pooh-poohs it. He brings intangibles you can’t quantify.”

Gonzalez cited the 2013 World Series, where Red Sox manager John Farrell used Gomes against right-handers and trusted his below-average defense late in games. As for the tribute Gomes received on the Fenway Park video board the previous day, the season-and-a-half he played in Boston was long enough for a legacy.

“It’s like dog years here,” said Gonzalez. “When you win a World Series… I was walking around, looking for Gomes Way or Gomes Avenue. At least a cul-de-sac.”

——

R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball danced up a storm in a recent outing at Fenway Park. Biue Jays broadcaster Joe Siddall is a former catcher, so I asked him if he has any experience with the butterfly pitch. He does, much to his consternation.

Siddall caught Tim Wakefield in spring training, 2000. A few years earlier, he caught a veteran hurler trying to make a comeback as a knuckleball pitcher.

Tim Leary signed with the Expos and we were together with their Triple-A club in Ottawa,” said Siddall. “He didn’t throw a knuckleball every pitch, but he threw it quite often, and he threw a very hard one. I remember one game in particular. It was a windy day, and that thing was dancing all over the place. Talk about one of the most humbling experiences for a catcher. You strength is being a good receiver, and you’re chasing balls to the backstop.”

Siddall also caught Tim Layana in Ottawa, and that wasn’t a piece of cake either.

“Tim threw a knuckle curve, but it was actually more of a knuckleball,” explained Siddall. “He called it a knuckle curve, because some pitchers spike the one finger and rotate the baseball. He didn’t rotate the baseball. He stayed stiff, and while it kind of went down like a breaking ball, it acted more like a knuckler. Half the time it went down, and half the time it would stay straight.”

——

Joe Oliver was behind the plate for 13 big-league seasons. He blocked plenty of sliders and curveballs in the dirt, so knows how the ball bounces.

“A curveball is usually going to bounce a certain way when it hits the ground,” explained Oliver. “It’s going to have more of a topspin. It’s going to hit and carom straight, which could be more up and over your head. A slider from a right-handed pitcher is typically going to go to your right. That’s because of the angle of the spin. Arm angle plays into it, but if a guy throws from a three-quarters slot, what I just said is going to be the prevailing case. When you block balls for a living, you learn these things.”

——

Pat Tabler grew up in Cincinnati, dreaming of one day playing for the hometown team. As a high school senior, in 1976, the Reds brought him in for a workout before the draft.

The Big Red Machine were World Series champs, and as a result had the final pick of the first round. They told Tabler they were thinking of taking him if he was still available. They never got the chance. The Yankees grabbed him with the 16th selection.

It was a big year for Cincinnati preps. Sandwiching Tabler were Leon Durham, who went 15th overall, and Jeff Kraus, who went 17th overall. The following year, local products Richard Dotson and Scott Munninghoff both went in the first round. “That’s when Cincinnati was huge in baseball,” Tabler told me. “I think it was the Pete Rose effect.”

Rose was Tabler’s hero, and the youngster got to take batting practice with baseball’s all-time hits leader, and the rest of the team. He also got to dress in theie locker room. “You think I didn’t want to get drafted by the Reds?,” Tabler said, rhetorically.

One more thing about the workout. Fans filing into the ballpark during batting practice mistook him for someone else.

“Fans thought I was Joel Youngblood,” said Tabler. “I don’t know why. I had long hair and I guess I looked like him, so they were all, ‘Hey, Joel, sign this!’ I wasn’t about to sign anything; I was just this 18-year-old kid. But the whole thing was really cool.”

Tabler went on to play for five teams over 12 big league seasons. Alas, the Reds weren’t one of them.

——

Matthew Trueblood’s recent article about Jack Morris and DRA was intriguing, and the extent to which it sways opinions will be interesting to see. Presumably, at least a few open-minded fan/analysts will be nudged toward a more-favorable view of the World Series hero/whipping boy. Others will refuse to budge, much like hard-line political partisans who stick fingers in their ears when an opposing viewpoint makes a modicum of sense.

I’ve always had mixed feelings on Morris’s Hall of Fame worthiness. I agree with most of the arguments against, and I didn’t view him as one of the 10 best players when he appeared on the ballot for the final time. That said, I probably place more weight on innings pitched and the “fame” component than most FanGraphs readers. Did Trueblood’s article move my own Morris needle beyond the borderline mark? I’m pondering that question, and in the sense of fairness, you should as well.

——

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Thirty players have amassed 3,000 or more hits. All are in the Hall of Fame with the exception of Pete Rose (4,256), Derek Jeter (3,465), Rafael Palmeiro (3,020) and Alex Rodriguez (3,000).

Twenty players have amassed between 2,800 and 2,999 hits. All are in the Hall of Fame with the exception of Barry Bonds (2,935), Ichiro Suzuki (2,886), Omar Vizquel (2,877), Harold Baines (2,866) and Ivan Rodriguez (2,844).

A few days ago, Nick Markakis played his 393rd consecutive error-free game, the most ever for an outfielder. Darren Lewis previously held the record.

Per Bill Chuck of Gammons Daily, Mark Buehrle and Josh Collmenter had each allowed 24 doubles, the most of any pitcher, as of Wednesday. Since that time, each has given up two more, increasing their respective totals to 26.

A reminder that this year’s SABR convention will be held in Chicago this coming Thursday through Sunday. All are welcome. It’s an annual tradition for many of us, and I hope to see you there.





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.

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joser
7 years ago

These tidbits are so great, and so much better than the canned stuff we get fed on the WorldWideLeader and pretty much any other broadcast. Thanks for doing this. I’m sure it’s fun but like any job has its tedious moments, and in those moments please remember you have readers who appreciate it (even if we don’t always mention it as often as we should).

Brandon
7 years ago
Reply to  joser

Right there with you

scott
7 years ago
Reply to  joser

hear, hear!