Sunday Notes: Brewers’ Erceg, Francona’s Computer, Lamb’s Power, Miller, more

Lucas Erceg hopes to have his name on the back of a Milwaukee Brewers uniform someday. In order to get there, he will have to keep his word to the scout who put his name on the back of Erceg’s. So far, so good.

Erceg slashed .327/.376/.518, with nine home runs, between a pair of low-level stops this summer. He did so after the Brewers drafted him 46th overall out of an NAIA program that helped him grow up. The left-handed-hitting third baseman had transferred to Menlo (CA) College after becoming academically ineligible at Cal-Berkeley.

“My priorities were mixed up,” admitted Erceg, who made a name for himself by hitting .303/.357/.502 in his sophomore season at Cal. “I failed a couple of classes — I didn’t pass enough units — because I was trying to live the life of a college student instead of going to the library on a Tuesday night. In essence, I wasn’t taking school seriously.”

Erceg is taking seriously the fact that he let people down. He doesn’t intend to have it happen again.

“I was representing Cal and (head coach) David Esquer, and I had to transfer” said Erceg. “When I got to Menlo I was representing Jake McKinley, who told me he was going to help me become the man I needed to be in order to play professional baseball. I wasn’t going to let him down like I did coach Esquer. Same thing with the area scout who was willing to put his name on my back. Joe Graham took that card and helped give me this opportunity.”

Erceg had a good relationship with Graham during the scouting process, but he wasn’t necessarily expecting to be drafted by Milwaukee. He was confident his name would be called, but he didn’t know by which team or in what round. The Cal fiasco had clouded his draft stock, and he knew it.

“I knew there was a perception thing I had to deal with,” Erceg told me. “There were a lot of rumors out there and I had to tell scouts they weren’t all true. I had to put myself forward and let them know I was admitting my mistakes, and that I was doing all I could to better myself as a person.”

Erceg tackled a heavy credit load in the fall semester at Menlo in order to make himself eligible for the baseball season. That success in the classroom — and the increased level of maturity that allowed it to happen — coupled with his performance on the field, made him a second-round selection.

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Jake Lamb’s pinch-hit home run on Friday was his 28th long ball of the season. That is eight more than Eno Sarris predicted back in March, and the most on the Diamondbacks. A majority have been to the pull side, which is notable. In spring training, Lamb told me that when he’s feeling good, he’s “probably not even swinging at (pitches in).”

When I caught up with the left-handed-hitting third baseman in mid-August, he told me he was happy with his swing path when the D-Backs broke camp in April. Throughout the spring he had been “hitting balls harder and pulling them in the air a lot more often.”

Despite doing a better job of handling the inside pitch, the 25-year-old’s approach remains middle-of-the-field.

“I don’t want to get pull-happy,” explained Lamb. “If you’re thinking pull-side, you can’t go with fastballs away; you’ll probably roll them over. I need to hit the ball where it’s pitched. I know the scouting report on me. They reports say to try to pound me in. Even so, if I get one middle-in and I’m geared up, ready for it, I can definitely react to it. I think I’ve showed that.”

Lamb has scuffled over the last six weeks, but his overall numbers are respectable. On the season, he’s slashing .258/.335/.534.

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Terry Francona didn’t have a computer when he managed in Philadelphia, although he did write out match-ups on the back of the lineup card every day, which he equates to dabbling in sabermetrics before having learned the word. He did have a computer when he was the bench coach in Oakland. Ditto in his managerial stints in Boston, and now Cleveland.

Francona said on Friday that he loves getting information that makes him think. (He jokingly added that he probably makes Sky Andrecheck, the team’s senior director of baseball research and development, want to jump out the window.) Recently, his informational intake has resulted him using Andrew Miller, arguably his best reliever, in high-leverage situations prior to the ninth inning. It’s smart baseball, but more than analytics are involved.

“There are other reasons, too,” said Francona. “You can use somebody in the seventh, but you better have somebody in the ninth who can do it too. We have Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw behind him, so we can do that.”

For Francona, theory doesn’t always equal practice. In a vacuum, he’d likely go more whole-hog with leverage. The real world is a different animal. Ninth-innings aside, bullets are used in the bullpen as well as between the white lines.

“There’s a chance to get burned doing that,” said Francona. “If somebody hits a home run, the guy at bat before… if you keep getting guys up and don’t get them in the game, you’re going to wear them out. I’ve almost had to put some rules in place for me. Like if we get Miller up, he’s getting in.”

Miller has appeared in 60 games, including 16 since coming to Cleveland at the July trade deadline. With the Indians, he’s entered the game in the sixth inning once, the seventh inning six times, the eighth inning five times, and the ninth inning four times. On the season, he’s allowed 39 hits and fanned 105 in 64 innings of work.

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On Friday, I suggested to Andrew Miller that his slider is often so good that he could tell hitters it’s coming and they still couldn’t hit it. His response was to laugh and say if that was true, he’d throw it every pitch.

He’s moving in that direction. Over the last four seasons, the southpaw’s slider usage has climbed from 39.2% to 42.3% to 54.3% to 61.3%. Not surprisingly, this year’s percentage is the highest of any pitcher in either league.

“I’ve realized you don’t have to be a fastball-dominant pitcher,” explained Miller. “Recognizing that been important to my career, to getting better. It’s been so engrained in us to get ahead with our fastball. And when you’re behind in the count, you get back into it with your fastball. Getting beyond the idea that you have to do that was big for me.”

He’s not the only one who feels that way. Fellow southpaw Rich Hill has been throwing his curveball close to 50% of the time. Miller sees a lot of himself in his former teammate.

“I know Rich pretty well and he and I use our pitches pretty similarly,” said Miller. “We’ve kind of turned our breaking ball into our first pitch and our fastball into our secondary pitch. Betances is right there with us. Dellin — he calls it a slider; I call it a curveball — throws a lot of breaking balls too. He’s had as much success in baseball as anybody one the last couple of years.”

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This season’s home-run explosion has led many to suggest that the baseball is juiced. The claim has been refuted by MLB. Whether it has been debunked is another question. To my knowledge, no one has given a plausible explanation for why a plethora of middle infielders have become Frank Howard lite.

A pitcher I spoke to shared an interesting observation. He compared a few of this year’s baseballs with a handful that have been sitting in his garage, and the older baseballs had higher seams.

When renowned physicist Alan Nathan explored the subject of juiced baseballs for a recent Hardball Times article, he found that seams don’t have much of an affect on exit velocity. What hasn’t been explored — again, at least not to my knowledge — is whether seams affects the entire flight of a baseball that is hit 350-400 feet.

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Minnesota’s James Beresford made his big-league debut last night. He also got his first hit — a seventh-inning single off of Cleveland’s Shawn Armstrong — which was greeted by a standing ovation from the home crowd at Target Field. A 27-year-old native of Australia, Beresford has played in the Twins minor league system since 2007. Afterward, he admitted to being a little emotional.

“I took a little moment when I got to second,” said Beresford, who was moved up on a sacrifice bunt. “(Francisco) Lindor kind of gave me a tap and said ‘Enjoy it; you deserve it. Congrats.’ That’s when it kind of… when a guy of his caliber says that, it kind of sinks in a little bit. Yeah.”

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A number of players have made their big-league debuts in recent weeks. By the time October rolls around, a smattering of others will get their feet wet as well. Some will go on to flourish. Others will languish and then disappear. Jim Leyland managed for two decades and has seen plenty of both.

“When they first get here, most guys have some reservation in their mind as to whether they’re really good enough or not,” said Leyland. “Once they settle in, they realize they are. I’ve had a lot of players who came up to the big leagues and we sent them back down to the minors. The good ones come back and the ones that aren’t so good usually don’t.”

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St. Louis Cardinals rookie right-hander Matt Bowman was featured here on Friday. Not included in the interview were his thoughts on Yadier Molina, to whom he is deferring when it comes to pitch selection

“It’s a huge advantage to throw to that guy,” Bowmen told me. “He’s an encyclopedia of baseball knowledge. I can do all the research on hitters I want, but once I get on the mound I know I can trust what he puts down. That’s important. Confidence in a catcher can allow for better pitch execution.”

Bowman loves to delve into data. He also recognizes the value of reading hitters, which Molina does as well as anyone.

“In the same way that someone might make the argument that numbers are just a reflection of what you can see, he can see that a hitter can’t get to an outside pitch, or that he’s going to get tied up inside,” said Bowman. “He doesn’t necessarily need the numbers. He has his hand on the pulse of the game.”

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I don’t have an American League Cy Young award vote this year. If I did, Justin Verlander would be on my short list. The Tigers right-hander is second in the AL in innings pitched — IMO the most under-appreciated old-school stat — and with few exceptions they’ve been quality innings. Verlander has allowed two-or-fewer earned runs in 19 of his 29 starts and three-or-fewer in 24 of the 29. On two other occasions he allowed four runs while going seven innings.

Voters who like to look at W-L records — Verlander is 14-7 — should note that he has a loss and seven no-decisions in games where he allowed two-or-fewer runs.

Pitchers frequently say their job is to give their team a chance to win. With the exception of three first-half clunkers, Verlander has done that all season.

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Official scoring decisions are sometimes challenged and reversed by the league office. How does the process work? I asked that question to Stew Thornley, a longtime official scorer for the Minnesota Twins.

“The team or the player can challenge it,” explained Thornley. “They have 72 hours to send the play in, and we can respond on why we called it as we did. Joe Torre will read that, look at the video, and either uphold the call or overturn it.

“It used to be that only the teams could do it, but the collective bargaining agreement in 2012 gave the players that right. That’s why the number of plays sent in has gone up.”

How often are plays sent in, and how does that compare to previous seasons? Thornley wasn’t at liberty to divulge those numbers. He was comfortable admitting that subjectivity often enters the picture.

“To me, there is no such thing as “right call-wrong call” for every official scoring decision,” opined Thornley. “When we show a play in our meetings and 50% say they’d call it a hit, and 50% say they’d call it an error, that means either can be considered correct. It’s subjective. The way I see it, hit-or-error isn’t a fine line, it’s a fuzzy line.”

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

At the Seattle Times, Geoff Baker wrote about how before Colin Kaepernick, there Carlos Delgado and the US invasion of Iraq.

Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports wrote about the rebirth of Justin Verlander.

You probably saw this — it was published at The Hardball Times — but if you happened to miss it, Jen Mac Ramos’s farewell to the Bakersfield Blaze is a great read

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

On September 19, 2002 Mike Ryan made his major-league debut with the Minnesota Twins and had hits in each of his first two at bats. They came in the first inning as Minnesota batted around and scored nine runs. Neither counted. The game was called on account of rain in the third inning and both hits were expunged from the record book.

In his rookie season, Cleveland Indians righty Gene Beardon went into his September 16 start with a record of 14-7. He won six games over the next 19 days to finish 20-7.

Knuckleballer Wilbur Wood had four 20-win seasons, two 20-loss seasons, and one 20-save season.

Hall of Fame knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm had five wins and no saves prior to his 30th birthday. He had 57 wins and 133 saves after his 40th birthday.

On May 1, 1920, the Brooklyn Robins and Boston Braves played to a 1-1 tie in 26 innings (game called on account of darkness). On May 2, the Robins lost to the Philadelphia Phillies 4-3 in 13 innings. On May 3, the Robins played the Braves again and lost 2-1 in 19 innings. All told, Brooklyn played 58 innings in the three days. They used just four pitchers.

The Arizona Diamondbacks used 12 pitches in their 12-inning loss to the Giants on Friday night.





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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Twitchy
6 years ago

Pretty hard to choose Verlander over someone like Sale. He’s started 2 more games but only has 1 1/3 IP more, so he goes fewer IP per game. Sale has him beat by FIP, ERA, WAR, RA/9 WAR (Sale leads the AL by a decent amount).

Verlander is having a good season but I’m having a hard time putting him over guys like Sale, Porcello & Kluber or arguably even Quintana. I could see top 5 for Verlander, but not top 3. The innings pitched is a good point that a lot of people overlook, but really given how close the other guys are in IP, the only thing the IP difference would do is make me want to vote for Verlander over Aaron Sanchez. Sanchez has been better on a per inning basis, but you could argue with the fact the Jays are keeping his innings down that Verlander has had the better season.