The first words out of Casey Kelly’s mouth surprised me. When I asked the former top prospect how he’d describe his career, I expected something along the lines of, “It’s been frustrating.”
He said “It’s been fun.”
That’s a glass-is-half-full attitude if there ever was one. Since being taken in the first round of the 2008 draft by the Red Sox, the 27-year-old right-hander has thrown just 640 professional innings, 62 of which have come at the highest level. They haven’t been pretty innings. Kelly’s big-league ERA is an unattractive 6.39.
His future look especially bright after he was acquired by San Diego in the Anthony Rizzo–Adrian Gonzalez trade. Heading into the 2011 season, Kelly was ranked by Baseball America as the Padres top prospect (Rizzo was right behind him). Displaying a power arsenal, he went on to hurl 142 quality frames as a 21-year-old in Double-A.
Clouds were looming on the horizon. He’s since spent more time on the shelf than he has on the bump.
Burdened by an uncooperative elbow, the righty made just 12 appearances from 2012-2014. He took the mound 33 times in 2015, but with his stuff still not up to snuff, he suffered abysmal results. Last year was better, but not good enough to keep a job. Cast aside by the rebuilding Braves, he signed a free agent contract with the Cubs in January.
“It’s definitely been a journey,” said Kelly, who has bounced from Boston to San Diego to Atlanta — with myriad trainer’s tables in between — and now Chicago. “I ran into some injury trouble, but at the end of the day, it’s something that happens in baseball. Guys get hurt. You just have to come back from that.”
Like many pitchers who go under the knife — he had Tommy John surgery in 2013 — Kelly doesn’t know exactly why his UCL gave out. Nor can he explain why a return to health was such a long time coming.
“There are so many variables involved that you can’t really pinpoint one thing,” Kelly told me. “When you have the surgery, you don’t know if you’re going to be back in 12 months, 24 months, 36 months. Everybody has their own journey, and mine just took a little bit longer. It is what it is. But I feel healthy now — my arm feels normal again — and I’m excited to see what this year has in store for me.”
Jerry Dipoto uttered the following words at the Cactus League media session in late February:
“You’re starting to see a lot of roster churn. When that happens, you’re generally going to see a little bit more of a wavy outcome, instead of just one true outcome.”
The Seattle GM was referring to the state of the American League West as a whole, but truth be told, he’s more responsible for the churn than anyone. The wheeling and dealing he did this offseason was Melville-ian in scope — much like Moby Dick, the Mariners transaction log is a hefty tome.
There was a method behind the madness.
“We had a much more targeted list of players who we felt fit our needs,” explained Dipoto. “Last year, when I first got here, we didn’t want to start trading off, wholesale, players from the minor leagues who we didn’t know and hadn’t had a chance to evaluate. But we knew we had needs (and) we filled those needs with one-year players, like Adam Lind, Dae-Ho Lee, Nori Aoki, Chris Iannetta, Seth Smith on a one-plus-one.
“This year, we took that next step, trying to transition our roster into a more athletic defense-oriented group without giving up all of the offensive goodness.
“We’re not looking to go out in a fantasy baseball type way and improve a position because Player A is better than Player B, especially if the player we have its what we’re trying to do.”
Whether or not Dipoto is steering the Pequod remains to be seen.
Based on what David Forst told me, the A’s approach to acquisitions differs from that of Dipoto. According to the Oakland GM, his club considers both style and overall upgrade when making moves, but when push comes to shove, a preference exists.
“There’s a balance,” said Forst. “But if I had to choose, ultimately I’m on the side of getting the best player. If you think you have a style of play, it’s because your guys fit it. If you’re upgrading — getting an objectively superior player — that guy is going to make you better, no matter what.”
As for how Dipoto views his AL West rival, he’s not taking them for granted, despite their consecutive last place finishes.
“You can’t sleep on the Oakland A’s,” declared Dipoto. “They do a lot of intriguing things and find a way to be competitive.”
Eno Sarris’s recent piece on Joey Votto got me wondering when I first spoke to the Cincinnati stalwart. The answer is 2007, when he was still in Triple-A. Looking back at the interview, the following line stands out:
“RBIs are something you can’t control as much because there aren’t always going to be guys on base in front of you.”
Ten years later, a certain segment of Reds fans continue to criticize him for not driving in enough runs. Votto’s career slash line with runners in scoring position is .332/.480/.584.
It’s as though he had a crystal ball.
In the six-year stretch spanning 1947-1952, four players had at least 3,100 PAs and an OBP of .415 or better. Ted Williams & Stan Musial were two. The others — you’re excused if you don’t know them — were Philadelphia A’s teammates Ferris Fain and Elmer Valo.
Overall, Valo played from 1940-1961 and slashed .282/.398/.391. Fain had a far more fascinating career. He played just nine seasons (1947-1955), but they were remarkable seasons. Not only did he slash .290/.424/.396, he won a pair of batting titles and was an all-star five times.
Japan’s Yoshitomo Tsutsugo was named MVP of Pool B in the first round of the World Baseball Classic. That shouldn’t come as a shock. The left-handed-hitting slugger led NPB in home runs (44) last year while slashing .322/.430/.680 for the Yokohama Bay Stars. Tsutsugo, who turned 25 in November, is primarily an outfielder but has also spent time at the infield corners. He will be paid ¥300 million (approximately $2.6 million) this coming season.
Daniel Descalso is off to a hot start with his temporary new team. The 30-year-old former St. Louis Cardinals and Colorado Rockies utility man has three hits and three RBI for Italy, which has split its first two games in the WBC.
His other new team is the Arizona Diamondbacks, with whom he signed a free agent deal last month. His recency puts him in good company. The D-Backs’ leadership group, led by Mike Hazen, came on board in the months that preceded his arrival. When I talked to Descalso a few weeks ago, he was anxious to see what the analytically-driven bosses bring to the fore.
“Any time there is a regime change, it will be reflected in what they focus on and what they deem important,” said Descalso. “I guess the best blueprint for us to look at would be what they’re doing in Boston. A lot of those guys came over from the Red Sox, and I’m sure they’re going to implement the strategies that were successful there — what they did behind the scenes.”
I asked the veteran of seven big-league seasons how aware most players are of what happens upstairs.
“Our focus is going to be on the field,” said Descalso. “We’re going to go out there and try to do what we’re good at, and that’s competing between the lines. But if we get feedback from the front office — ‘Hey, this is what we’re focusing on, and want to get better at’ — it’s on us, as players, to implement that.”
With Team Israel’s WBC success in mind, let’s take time to acknowledge the greatest Jewish player of all time: Detroit Tigers Hall of Fame first baseman Hank Greenberg.
From 1933-1940, Greenberg slashed .326/.418/.625, led the American League in home runs three times, and was twice named MVP. He then spent all but one month of 1941, and the entirety of the 1942, 1943, and 1944 seasons, in military service during World War II. Greenberg returned to play three more years before retiring with a 158 adjusted OPS, which ranks 16th best all-time.
Spring training standings are to be taken with a grain of salt. That’s no secret. Frankly, there’s a decent chance you can’t say with any certainly how your favorite team is faring, record-wise, in the Cactus or Grapefruit league. That said, W-L records are being tabulated, so let’s take a look at some notables.
The Yankees (13-3), Pirates (11-4), and Cardinals (10-4) are giving their fans — the ones that are paying attention, anyway — something to dream on . Conversely, the Tigers (3-12), Rangers (2-10), and Braves (4-10), are still awaiting their wake-up calls.
One year ago, the Diamondbacks were wide awake in March, then slumbered come summer. They went 24-8 in the Cactus League and 69-93 in the regular season. Meanwhile, the Cubs went 11-19 in Cactus action and 114-64 (including the postseason) once the games started counting.
Perusing my unused-quotes file, I unearthed a short conversation with Jason Castro from last summer. The Stanford-educated backstop was an Astro at the time — he’s now a Twin — and where his feet are in the batter’s box was the topic at hand.
“I’m pretty much always in the same place,” Castro told me. “There might be some minor adjustments, but while I’ve seen other guys do it — drastically move where they stand in the box — it isn’t something I’ve really ever experimented with. It’s a comfort level. When you move too much, it slightly changes your perspective on where you’re seeing the ball coming out of — that window, I guess you could say.”
Repeated deliveries of inside cheese might prompt an occasional repositioning, but for the lefty swinger, that’s a matter of reaction, not proaction.
“If I was constantly getting thrown inside, I would possibly back up a hair, just to give myself a little more room, “ explained Castro. But as far as how that might help me see the ball better, I don’t think it has any benefit.”
Sticking with older, unused quotes, Jeff Mathis shared the following on a pitcher who was known for having good command, but pedestrian velocity.
“I remember Kevin Slowey throwing a lot of fastballs,” said Mathis, who caught the now-retired righty in 2013-2014 when both were with the Marlins. “It wasn’t like he was mixing in a lot of other stuff. He used to get a lot of late swings, and swings and misses, with his fastball. A lot of that was location, but spin rate and deception were probably part of it, too.”
In 2007, his rookie season with the Minnesota Twins, Slowey told me he was “a right-handed pitcher in a left-handed pitcher’s body.” He went on to toss 662 big-league innings before taking a job with the Major League Baseball Players’ Association.
Good news for craft beer lovers who attend White Sox games: Chicago’s south side club has reportedly struck partnership deals with multiple regional breweries and will be more than doubling the number of brands available. In related news, Modelo Especial will be the team’s official import sponsor. Miller, which had been the club’s beverage partner, will no longer be associated with the Sox.
Former Chicago Cubs pitcher Bill Hands passed away earlier this week at age 76. Overshadowed by Fergie Jenkins during his prime, Hands had his best seasons from 1968-1970 when he won 54 games with a 3.00 ERA and a 3.09 FIP. The workhorse righty was stingy with free passes. Over that three-year stretch, Hands issued 169 non-intentional walks in 823-and-two-third innings.
Clint Frazier, he of the the colorful personality and sky-high ceiling, got his red locks chopped off a few days ago. The Yankees prospect did so because that’s the Yankees way. From an appearance standpoint, they believe in being bland. Longer hair and facial hair are frowned upon.
Across town, New York’s other big league team features amply-coiffed performers — baseball rock stars, you might say — like Thor, deGrom, and Gsellman. Myriad fans — and not just Mets fans — are captivated by them, because along with being talented, they’re not bland.
Sampson fears aside, baseball needs less bland.
(Of note: I wrote the above paragraphs on Friday morning before learning that colleague Nick Stellini would be devoting a full column to the subject later in the day. If you miss Nick’s take, it can be found here.)
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
Writing for Remezcla, Fernando Perez explained how MLB’s international prospect showcase is shifting power back to young Latino peloteros.
A highly-entertaining excerpt from Jason Turbow’s Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, and Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s ran at The Stack earlier this week.
At The Boston Globe, Alex Speier wrote about what is, and more notably what isn’t, shared at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. As Billy Beane put it, “There’s no low-hanging fruit at the executive level… I have no idea if we’re Fred Flintstone or cutting edge.”
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
On August 14, 1958, Vic Power stole home in the bottom of the ninth inning to give the Cleveland Indians a 10-9 win over the Detroit Tigers. It was his second steal of home that day, and his second in two innings. On the season, Power swiped a total of three bases.
Knuckleballer Phil Niekro had 11 seasons in which he allowed fewer than three walks per nine innings. Three times he allowed two or fewer.
Miami Marlins pitchers issued 62 intentional walks last year, the most in the majors. The Cleveland Indians issued 34, the most in the American League. The Kansas City Royals had the fewest in either league, with just eight.
Congrats to Bill James, who was named the first winner of the SABR Analytics Conference Lifetime Achievement Award. Also deserving of kudos are August Fagerstrom, Meg Rowley, and Mina Kimes who won the conference’s 2017 research awards.
The 2017 Sabermetrics, Scouting, and the Science of Baseball benefit — aka Saberseminar — will be held on August 5-6, in Boston. Speakers have yet to be announced, but a glance at last year’s roll call will give you an idea of what to expect.
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.