Chuck Cottier made his MLB debut in a star-studded environment. Playing second base, he was in the Milwaukee Braves lineup alongside the likes of Hank Aaron, Del Crandall and Eddie Mathews. The first ground ball he fielded on that April 1959 afternoon came off the bat of Roberto Clemente, on a pitch thrown by Warren Spahn. Harvey Haddix, who a month later would take a a perfect game into the 13th inning against the Braves, was on the mound for Pittsburgh.
Cottier’s first professional game was also memorable. Just 18 years old at the time — he’d signed at 17 out of a Grand Junction, Colorado high school — Cottier was playing for the Americus-Cordele Orioles in the Georgia-Florida League. It was 1954, and the minor league landscape was different than it is today.
“The lowest league was class D,” explained Cottier, who is now 83 years old and a special assistant to the general manager with the Washington Nationals. “From there it went to C, B, A, Double-A, Triple-A, and many of the organizations had two teams in each classification. We had three Triple-A teams at one time.”
Displaying a sharp-as-a-tack memory, the venerable baseball lifer told me that his first-ever game was played in Fitzgerald, Georgia, in a ballpark with a skinned infield. One play in particular stood out. Cottier remembers a “big left-handed hitter named Thompson” smashing a one-hop line drive that hit him just above the wrist, caromed over his shoulder, and rolled all the way to the fence.
Several hours later, his ride stopped rolling.
“Afterwards, we go in and take a shower,” recalled Cottier. “There was no hot water. There were also no towels. From there we go out to load the bus to go back to Americus-Cordele. It was an old school bus, and about three miles outside of town we heard this big noise. All of a sudden, something went right through the hood. The bus blew a rod. The driver pulls over and says, ‘Boys, you’re going to have to find your own way back to Cordele, because this bus isn’t going to make it.’”
The still-wet-behind-their-ears D-Ballers had no choice but to stick out their thumbs.
“There we were, at 11:30-12 o’clock at night, hitching a ride,” said Cottier, who later would play parts of nine big-league seasons and manage the Seattle Mariners. “A guy comes by in a pickup truck, and a bunch of us jump in back with our bags. The guy is driving about as fast as it could go, and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘What am I doing? My buddies are back home, going to the beach, doing this, doing that, and here I am, scared to death in the back of a pickup truck.’But do you know what? I was living my dream. All these years later, I’m still living my dream.”
Back in May of 2017, I wrote about how Yency Almonte — then a Double-A Yard Goat — was turning a corner in Hartford. Equal parts raw and promising, he was then ranked 13th on our Rockies Top Prospect list. In the opinion of Eric Longenhagen, the righty profiled as a No. 4 or 5 starter, [with] “a chance for more if he can outperform my changeup or command projections.”
The jury is still out on whether the now-24-year-old will be more than a bottom-of-the-rotation piece, but there’s no question that he made great strides with his command last year. While walk rates are only part of the equation, it’s nonetheless worth noting that he had a 2.89 BB/9 in Triple-A. In 14-and-two-thirds big league innings — Almonte made 14 appearances out of the Rockies’ bullpen — he issued four free passes.
Last week, I asked Almonte how he’s grown as a pitcher since our Double-A conversation. Along with pointing to his improved command, he cited a more reliable changeup. In each case, keeping his mechanics as simple as possible and not trying to do too much have been key. Confidence has also played a role.
“When you throw one pitch well, you have a tendency to try to make the next one nastier,” Almonte explained. “You’re kind of fighting yourself, instead of just trying to repeat the same pitch. When I got to the big leagues last year, and was talking to some of the veteran guys, their message was, ‘Just keep it simple and get outs. You’re not out here to make [hitters] look bad. You’re trying to create weak contact and get quick outs.’”
Almonte is slated to begin this season with the Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes. Assuming enough quality strikes, he’ll almost assuredly get an opportunity to record outs in Colorado over the course of the summer.
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
Jake Jewell is spare with words. It’s not as though the 25-year-old righty is unfriendly — that’s not the case at all — it’s just that he’s… well, spare with words. I learned as much after approaching his locker at the Angels’ aesthetically-pleasing spring training facility [Tempe Diablo Stadium features arguably the Cactus League’s best mountainous view].
Asked to describe himself as a pitcher, Jewell told me that he’s “a competitor who likes to get after the hitter.” Asked if he’s an adrenaline junkie on the mound, his response was, “Oh, yeah. Absolutely.” That said, he recognizes that being too geeked up can result in “things getting out of hand.” Learning to slow the game down is thus “another tool you have to learn.”
He learned about misfortune last June. Pitching in just his third big-league game, Jewell fractured his fibula while covering home plate after a wild pitch. [I was there, and from my perch in the Fenway Park press box the injury looked gruesome.]
When healthy, Jewell features a fastball that has topped out at 99 mph. He tends to not work up in the zone, preferring instead to “try to live at the bottom, which is what [he’s] been taught [his] whole life.”
Off the field? The Norman, Oklahoma native likes to be thought of as, “Just a good guy. Easy going.” Based on my one interaction with him, that seems like an accurate self-assessment. As for his conversational style, let’s just say Jewell prefers to let his pitching do the talking.
Old friend Eno Sarris participated in the Training Pitchers panel at last weekend’s SABR Analytics Conference. The former FanGraphser — now with The Athletic — expressed that using an opener is a coping strategy, not necessarily an optimal strategy. His reasoning was spot on.
“Blake Snell doesn’t need an opener,” said Sarris. “It’s really something you do when you have a guy you think you can get five innings out of — if you pick the right five innings. You start right after the top four [batters in the lineup], and then stop him again when that top four comes back a third time. That’s what it’s really about, making it as easy as possible for your fourth and fifth starters.”
Sticking with SABR Analytics, Joe Rosales had an interesting take on why force-feeding new-age information to veteran players isn’t necessarily a good idea.
“The ultimate analytical tool is the human brain,” said Baseball Info Solutions’ VP of Research and Development. “We’re always taking in information, and processing it, and making decisions based off of it. Just because somebody isn’t using numbers doesn’t mean they’re not making the right decisions. The human brain is fallible, but it’s not impossible that there are certain players [for whom] their feel really just means they’re processing information in an analytical way that allows them to be successful. They’ve figured out the little things that make them successful.”
Rosales offered those words after Kyle Boddy spoke of how veteran players tend to become more receptive to “the quantitative side of it” once their tried-and-true methods are no longer sufficient. Driveline’s owner and founder accepts that human nature is the overriding reason.
“Anyone in this life who is over 28 pretty much has a fixed mindset in a lot of things,” opined Boddy. “Until something challenges their worldview, or until something disrupts it, they’re not going to be really open to that. You need to have that respect, and that understanding, of humanity. You don’t want to force anything, whether its stats or technology, on someone until they’re [ready] to hear it.”
Cleveland Indians righty Shane Bieber has allowed one earned run in 14 innings. He’s walked two and fanned 17.
New York Yankees righty Luis Cessa has allowed one earned run in 13 innings. He’s walked one and fanned 13.
Oakland A’s righty Frankie Montas has allowed one earned run in 13 innings. He’s walked three and fanned 13.
San Diego Padres righty Chris Paddack has allowed three earned runs in 12-and-two-thirds innings. He’s walked two and fanned 20.
Paul Lindblad finished his career with 68 wins. But for riotous actions, it would have been 69. The lefty reliever was in line for the win on the final day of the 1971 season when fans stormed the field at Washington’s RFK Stadium with his team up by two runs and one out to go. Rather than being victorious in their last game before the franchise relocated to Texas and became the Rangers, the Senators were forced to forfeit.
Four years later, Lindblad had an equally memorable, and far more satisfying, final game of the regular season. On September 29, 1975, he was one of four Oakland A’s pitcher to combine for a no-hitter against the California Angels. Never before had a foursome turned that trick.
One of the rule changes on tap in MLB will require teams to designate players as either position players or pitchers, with only the latter allowed to pitch in the first nine innings — unless his team is ahead, or behind, by at least six runs.
What exactly is to be gained by this new regulation? Yes, 2018 saw a greater number of position players take the mound than in years past. But so what? Having a Matt Davidson hurl an inning, instead of an Aaron Bummer, in a blowout is somehow bad for the game? I’ll argue that it’s the exact opposite. Wade Boggs, Jose Canseco, and Ichiro Suzuki are among the 600-plus position players who have been called upon to pitch. Baseball is an entertainment business, is it not?
Oh, and how many times did a position player toe the rubber last year with his team neither ahead, nor behind, by at least six runs? The answer is zero.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
Giants righty Jeff Samardzija feels that MLB should abolish extra innings, and adopt the English Premier League’s point system — three for a win, one for a tie. Mark Townsend has the story at Yahoo Sports.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Patsy Donovan, who played for seven teams from 1890-1907, holds the record for most hits by an Irish-born player. He had 2,256.
From 1922-1925, New York Giants outfielder Irish Meusel drove in 470 runs and struck out 86 times.
Tim Ireland’s only career hit — a single off of Jamie Easterley — came in the sixth inning of a May 1992 game that saw the Kansas City Royals trounce the Milwaukee Brewers by a score of 17-3. Two innings later, he drew his only career walk, and subsequently scored on an inside-the-park home run by Willie Wilson.
Willie Wilson hit 13 inside-the-park home runs. Seven of his first eight, and 13 of his first 16, career round trippers didn’t leave the yard.
Johnnie LeMaster hit an inside-the-park home run in his first big league plate appearance. Playing for the San Francisco Giants, LeMaster achieved the deed against the Los Angeles Dodgers — Don Sutton was on the mound — in 1975.
The starting outfield for the 1921 Yankees comprised Babe Ruth, Bob Meusel, and a revolving cast. Appearing in 25-or-more games were Elmer Miller, Ping Bodie, Braggo Roth, Chick Fewster, and Chicken Hawks.
Chicken Wolf appeared in 1,193 games with the American Association’s Louisville franchise from 1882-1892. Primarily an outfielder, Wolf took the mound three times and allowed 21 runs in 10 innings.
Two players named Chick Autry have played in the big leagues. William “Chick” Autry scored 22 runs and struck out 28 times. Martin “Chick” Autry scored 21 runs and 29 struck out times. Each finished his career with 296 plate appearances.
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.