Martin Cervenka is looking to join a select group of his countrymen. Currently the lone product of the Czech Republic in professional baseball, the 24-year-old native of Prague is hoping to follow John Stedronsky (1879), Frank Rooney (1914), and Carl Linhart (1952) as the only Czech-born players to see big-league action.
Cervenka has been climbing the ladder slowly, but surely. Signed by Cleveland when he was 16, he began playing stateside two years later — the Indians wanted him to finish high school first — and he’s currently strapping on his catcher’s gear in Lynchburg. He’s also swinging a much-improved bat. In 32 games with the high-A Hillcats, Cervenka is slashing .280/.328/.407.
Competition-wise, it’s a long way from Prague to pro ball.
“Back home, it’s a bunch of clubs playing on weekends only,” explained Cervenka, who estimated there are “five or six” baseball diamonds in Prague. “There are 10 teams in the top league, and something like 14 teams in the second league. In total, they play about 55 games a year. There are some really good players, though. We have one of the top four or five (national) teams in Europe.”
Outside of Czech baseball’s small inner circle, even the best players are largely anonymous. Despite his unique standing, Cervenka is basically John Doe.
“The baseball people obviously know who I am, but other people don’t,” admitted Cervenka. “It’s not like hockey. A superstar in the NHL… everybody knows his name and what he looks like. That’s not how baseball is back home.”
Cervenka was in Italy when he caught the attention of Indians scout Peter Gahan. One of six players from the Czech Republic participating in MLB’s European Academy, in 2008, he was subsequently signed and given an opportunity few from his country have earned.
The native Czech has balanced books and baseball since beginning rookie ball in 2011. Every offseason, he’s returned home to further his education. Whether he reaches the pinnacle or not, the Prague-born backstop has a bachelor’s degree in business to fall back on once his playing days are over.
When I interviewed him in 2012, Albert Almora was 18 years old and two months removed from being drafted sixth overall by the Chicago Cubs out of a Hialeah, Florida high school. I remember being impressed with his comportment. The youngster struck me as humble, and mature beyond his years.
He obviously still had a lot to learn. Precocious as he was, plenty of seasoning remained. Almora spent the next three-plus years in the minors, and the results weren’t always pretty. At times he looked like a wunderkind, but more often than not, he looked lost.
Looking back, Almora realizes how little he actually knew when we first spoke.
“I could go on and on,” responded Almora, when asked how much better he understands the game now than he did then. “First and foremost, I’ve learned about my body and what it takes to play a full season. That was a big step — getting a routine that works for me — and it didn’t happen overnight. I had to go through some ups and downs, and get my little bumps and bruises.
“Besides getting my body down, I had to learn a lot mentally. It wasn’t high school anymore, and I wasn’t going to hit .600. I had to learn to ride things out. I had to learn how to breathe, and how to take the failure and convert it into success. And, hey man, it’s pretty cool.”
Almora credits numerous people in the Cubs organization, “from the front office on down,” for his development. No less important is what happened from his neck up. As he matured, Almora came to realize that the tools that made him a first-round pick didn’t require too much tinkering.
“For awhile, I was trying to change mechanical things,” explained Almora. “But it was my approach that I should have been changing, not my stance or my leg kick. Once I figured that out, I kind of went back to what I was doing in high school. That’s physically. It’s my mind that has changed the most.”
Almora has hit .270/.315/.425 since debuting with the Cubs last June. He celebrated his 23rd birthday a month ago.
How can a veteran catcher tell when a young pitcher is starting to ‘get it’? According to Derek Norris, the way they go about preparing for a start tells you a lot.
“I think it’s when they start finding what I call ‘comp players’ when they’re watching film,” opined Norris, who currently backstops for the Tampa Bay Rays. “For instance, Blake Snell is going today (against the Red Sox). Say he pulls up James Paxton, and watches how Paxton pitched Boston in his last outing. When guys start figuring out how guys similar to them pitched to the team they’re about to face — how they attacked them, and how the hitters reacted — you know they’re getting more mature in their process.”
Norris went on to clarify that Paxton isn’t necessarily an ideal comp for Snell — the Seattle southpaw was simply the first name that came to mind — but his reasoning was sound. Scouting reports provide information, but how same-handed pitchers, with similar repertoires and similar stuff, approached a lineup tells you even more.
Earlier this season, Clint Hurdle was effusive in his praise of a hurler who’d just stymied his club’s offense. After the game, the Pirates skipper broke down the performance as follows:
“He changed speeds, threw secondary pitches in offensive counts, cut the ball, sunk the ball, elevated. The curveball played. He played that north-south game with the hitters. He got them out front. He stayed out of the middle of the plate, and off the barrel. He hit spots and made pitches.”
Who was the pitcher? The answer can be found below the ensuing section.
Manny Randhawa’s recent ‘Kill the Win?’ article at Sports on Earth had me thinking about the Players View piece I did on the subject 24 months ago. Randhawa and I both got thoughtful responses from the people we talked to, including this especially-erudite entry from Yale-educated Craig Breslow:
“I don’t think it’s going anywhere. Unless we’re going to kill every single statistic, then we should spare the win. I don’t think you can make a good argument for killing a statistic for not telling the whole story. You just to have to explain it doesn’t give a comprehensive evaluation of the performance of a pitcher.”
The pitching performance that elicited the aforementioned praise from Clint Hurdle was delivered by Boston’s Rick Porcello. On April 3, the reigning Cy Young Award winner limited the Pirates to three singles in six scoreless innings before tiring in the seventh.
Bruce Markusens’ Card Corner Plus articles at The Hardball Times are always a good read, and his most-recent is no exception. The piece included a line that is accurate, yet of of questionable reasoning. Referring to a 1983 Topps card that featured Reggie Smith and a second, unidentified, player, Markusen wrote, “No one could have known it at the time, but it would be Sandberg who would become the more famous of the two.”
Markusen is correct that Ryne Sandberg became more famous than Reggie Smith. But should that have been the case?
Sandberg finished his career with 282 home runs and 60.9 WAR, while Smith finished his with 314 home runs and 64.6 WAR. Sandberg played in the postseason twice, but never in the World Series. Smith played in the postseason four times, and was in the World Series each time.
This isn’t to say Sandberg is undeserving of his fame, nor of his Hall of Fame status. He was a fantastic player. As for Smith, who received scant consideration for Cooperstown, one could make an argument that he’s among the most-underrated players in baseball history. He’s certainly less famous than he should be.
The Colorado Rockies are 9-0 in one-run games, and the only team to be undefeated in one-run games. The MLB record for most one-run wins without a loss in a season is 11, held by the 1972 New York Mets.
Cincinnati’s Zack Cozart leads all qualified shortstops in WAR (2.1), batting average (.351), OBP (.432), and SLG (.595).
White Sox outfielder Avisail Garcia ranks 170th among qualified hitters with a 4.2 BB%. He leads the AL in batting average, and is slashing .357/.400/.610.
Kenley Jansen fanned all four batters he faced on Thursday. He’s logged three strikeouts in an inning seven times this season. Overall, the Dodgers closer has 32 Ks in 16 frames.
On May 13, Kansas City’s Nate Karns struck out 12 Baltimore batters in five innings. In doing so, he became the first Royals pitcher to record double-digit strikeouts in a start of five-or-fewer innings. Earlier in the month he became the second in franchise history to record four strikeouts in one inning. Kevin Appier turned the trick in September 1996.
On Tuesday, Yu Darvish became the the sixth Japanese pitcher to win at least 50 games in MLB. The others are Hideo Nomo (123), Hiroki Kuroda (79), Hisashi Iwakuma (63), Daisuke Matsuzaka (56), and Tomo Ohka (51). All told, 46 Japanese-born players have pitched in at least one big-league game.
Seiji Uebayashi, a 21-year-old outfielder, is slashing .320/.354/.566, with six home runs, in 131 plate appearances for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. His .920 OPS is the highest among NPB players 22 years old and younger.
On Thursday, Rockies pitching prospect James Farris escaped a ninth-inning, none out, bases loaded jam with a pair of strikeouts and a ground out to preserve a 4-3 win. On Friday, he punched out all three batters he faced to close an 8-7 win. Acquired by Colorado from the Cubs in the Eddie Butler deal, Farris has six saves and a 1.15 ERA for the Double-A Hartford Yard Goats.
New York Yankees pitching prospect Chance Adams is 5-1 with a 1.15 ERA in eight starts between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre. The 2015 fifth-round pick out of Dallas Baptist has gone 21-3, 1.97 in 209-and-two-thirds innings as a pro.
Aaron Civale, Cleveland’s third round pick last year out of Northeastern, has a 2.85 ERA in 47-and-a-third innings for the low-A Lake County Captains. More notably, he’s fanned 48 and issued just three walks.
Taylor Gushue, a catcher in the Nationals system, is slashing .310/.392/.720, with 12 home runs, for high-A Potomac. Washington acquired Gushue from the Pirates last year in exchange for Chris Bostick.
Cole Tucker, a 20-year-old shortstop for the high-A Bradenton Marauders, leads the minors with 25 stolen bases. Pittsburgh’s pick in the first round of the 2014 draft is slashing .289/.370/.453.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. will need to have a pretty remarkable career in order to match the exploits of his father. Vladimir Guerrero Sr. hit 449 home runs and logged a 931 OPS in 16 big-league seasons. He did so with one of the most-aggressive approaches of his generation.
According to Blue Jays farm director Gil Kim, the top prospect in the Toronto system isn’t a chip off the old block in every respect. When I asked him what stands out about the 18-year-old third baseman, he gave an answer I wasn’t expecting.
“Strike-zone discipline,” stated Kim. “You look at Vladdy’s tools, and it may be easy to overlook the fact that he has more walks than strikeouts right now. That’s pretty impressive. Most people look at the power, and the sheer tools, but he controls the zone pretty well. Strike-zone discipline and instincts are two areas that have us really excited about Vladdy.”
In other words, the son didn’t inherit the swing-at-anything-close from his father.
“He did not,” agreed Kim. “But his hand-eye coordination is good enough to where if he did, he’d probably still be successful.”
Guerrero is slashing .328/.430/.512 in 35 games with the low-A Lansing Lugnuts. At the time I talked to Kim, he had drawn 20 walks and gone down on strikes 18 times in 143 plate appearances. He has four home runs.
Tim Neverett has shared a handful of entertaining stories in recent columns. We’ll go to the Red Sox radio voice for two more this week. Both come from his days as a minor-league broadcaster.
“Bret Boone was in town with Calgary,” remembered Neverett. “He’d been up with the big-league club, but he got sent down. I asked him if he’d do a pregame show with me. He said, ‘Yeah, OK.’ He was standing outside the dugout, his hands on his hips, a sour look on his face. I began with a softball question, and he started in with an expletive-laden answer — ‘It’s bull bleep that I’m even here; this bleeping sucks.’ It was this that and the other, and nothing to do with what I asked.
“Another time, Lance Berkman had eight RBIs against us. I think he was with Colorado Springs. I went into their clubhouse, and a card game was going on. I said, ‘Hey Lance, great game last night. Do you have time to do a pregame with us for Vegas radio?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, I’ve got time. Why don’t you come by the dugout at 7:10 and I’ll talk to you all you want.’ I go, ‘Are you serious?’ He goes, ‘Yeah. Come by at 7:10. No earlier.’ I go, ‘All right. Thanks a lot.’ The game was at 7:10.”
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
Chase d’Arnaud spent 22 days on the Red Sox roster, but appeared in just two games and got only one at-bat. Not only that, he has a band and talks to reporters about the dopamine flooding his brain. Rob Bradford shared his appreciation of the unique journeyman infielder at WEEI.com.
Writing for Baseball America, Alexis Brudnicki chronicled University of Alabama third baseman Noah Fondren, who overcame a battle with anorexia on his way to collegiate success.
Bobbleheads are popular, and Boston’s Double-A affiliate gave out some especially-appealing ones this past Tuesday. Kevin Thomas of the Portland (Maine) Press Herald has the story.
At Denverite, Christian Clark wrote about how doing social media for sports teams is weird, new territory — and easier when they’re winning.
Beyond The Boxscore’s Henry Druschel loves stats, but he thinks they need to do more than convey truth.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Over a 21-inning stretch from May 23-25,1936, the New York Yankees outscored the Philadelphia Athletics 53-11.
On this date in 1952, the Brooklyn Dodgers scored 15 runs in the first inning against the Cincinnati Reds. After the first batter was retired, 19 consecutive Dodgers reached safely. Four Reds pitchers combined to allow eight singles, a double, a home run, seven walks, and two HBPs. The second out of the inning was recorded on a caught stealing.
In 1935, Chicago Cubs outfielder Augie Galan came to the plate 775 times (including 27 plate appearances in the World Series) without grounding into a double play. In 1984, Jim Rice came to the plate 708 times and grounded into 34 double plays.
In 1976, the Detroit Tigers drafted Alan Trammell in the second round. In the seventh round, they drafted, but didn’t sign, Ozzie Smith. The Padres selected Smith in the fourth round the following year.
In December 2014, the Cincinnati Reds acquired Eugenio Suarez from the Detroit Tigers in exchange for Alfredo Simon. The latter had a 5.05 ERA in Motown and is now out of baseball. Suarez left the yard 21 times last year in his age-24 season, and is currently slashing .305/.380/.563, with nine home runs.
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.