Sunday Notes: Dombrowski, Nola, Ngoepe, Kokubo, Knuckleball Release Points, more

When it comes to acquiring relievers, Dave Dombrowski hasn’t had much luck in recent seasons. He’s made a lot of great signings and trades over the years, but as of late it’s as though someone has been following him around with voodoo dolls and pins.

Prior to the 2014 season, as GM of the Tigers, Dombrowski signed closer Joe Nathan to a free agent contract. Nathan proceeded to log 35 saves, but he had a 4.81 ERA and a number of implosions. The following April, he had Tommy John surgery.

In July 2014, the Tigers traded for Joakim Soria, hoping he could bolster their underperforming bullpen. Instead, the former Kansas City closer had a 4.51 ERA over 13 appearances, then allowed five runs in one inning of work in the ALDS.

In December 2015, in his first big move after taking over as president of baseball operations in Boston, Dombrowski dealt for Craig Kimbrel. The all-star closer suffered six losses, had a career-high 3.40 ERA, and his 31 saves were his fewest in a full season. His walk rate was an ugly 5.1.

Later that December, Carson Smith was acquired via trade from Seattle. Instead of being the shut-down setup man Boston was counting on, Smith had Tommy John surgery after making just three appearances.

This past offseason, Dombrowski traded for Tyler Thornburg, with the expectation that he will fill the role Smith hasn’t been healthy enough to handle. Thornburg has been shut down most of the spring with shoulder weakness.

That’s three subpar performances, two surgeries, and a still-unresolved health issue. Meanwhile, a pair of Dombrowski-acquired starters, David Price and Drew Pomeranz, are also in injury-concern limbo. Like Thornburg, their pitching wings might be fine, but there are concerns.

I don’t know if Dombrowski drinks. If he does, a shot of courage might be in order the next time he pulls the trigger on a late-inning arm.

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A few weeks ago, this column included a segment on New York Yankees bullpen coach Mike Harkey. The focus was on arm health, as Harkey hurt his shoulder as a young Chicago Cub, hindering a career that spanned 1988-1997. He learned a lot in his days as a hurler. For much of that time, he played with one of the game’s master craftsmen.

Greg Maddux and I were the same age,” said Harkey. “When we were together, he was starting to become the pitcher he ended up being — a Hall of Famer. Once he developed a cutter, he took off. Greg always had a great changeup, and he had that nasty sinker.”

Not surprisingly, Harkey passes along wisdom gleaned from his former teammate when he works with pitchers. Little of it stretches back to their days in Chicago.

“I share some of the conversations I’ve had with Greg, but not really from when we were playing together,” explained Harkey. “They are mainly from since we’ve retired. When we see each other in the offseason, we’ll always talk about pitching. He felt his biggest keys were fastball command, and to never give in to hitters. That’s one thing I stress when I talk to pitchers.”

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According to Pete Mackanin, his starting pitchers have been pitching well this spring. The Phillies manager seemed especially pleased with 23-year-old right-hander Aaron Nola, who has shown increased velocity.

“I’m thrilled about that,” said Mackanin. “He’s touched 93, and even 94 once, which we’d never seen. If he can retain that throughout the season, that’s going to be a plus for him. Plus, he’s learned a changeup, and he’s thrown that very effectively, as has Jerad Eickhoff. They’ve added that to their repertoire, which can only enhance their performance.”

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Jerry Dipoto showed a good sense of humor earlier this spring when addressing the decision to turn Edwin Diaz to a reliever. When a reported suggested that it seemed like a good idea, the Seattle GM said, “Then it was me. If it was a bad idea, then it would have been somebody else.”

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Left on the cutting room floor from Friday’s Terrance Gore chopping-wood article was his willingness to get bruised. He has a proclivity to get plunked. As the speedster explained, pitchers like to jam him inside, and he’s willing to take one for the team.

Gore has reached base twice in nine big-league plate appearances, and each time it was via a HBP. He’s been hit 44 times in minor-league action.

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Gift Ngoepe has come a long way since I first spoke to him in 2010. At the time, the Pittsburgh shortstop prospect — and first black South African ever to sign a professional baseball contract — was 19 years old and in short-season ball. He’s now on the doorstep of his big-league debut. His bat is a question mark, but thanks to Jose Iglesias-like defensive ability, he may break camp with the Pirates as a backup infielder.

I caught up with Ngoepe as the team was boarding a bus to Bradenton following a game in Fort Myers, and asked what the last six-plus years have been like for him.

“Life has been pretty interesting,” Ngoepe told me. “I’ve had a lot of ups and downs, but I’m pushing each and every single day. I have been, ever since that day we spoke. I’m chasing my dreams. You never stop working, not until you retire, or until they decide to take that jersey off you.”

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Hiroki Kokubo won’t be returning as the manager of Japan’s national team. He made the announcement following his team’s 2-1 loss to the United States in the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic.

Kokubo’s squad bunted a lot in the WBC — small ball is a staple in the land of the rising sun — but they hit bombs as well. Not usually known for their power, Samurai Japan homered 11 times in seven games. The 45-year-old former Fukuoka and Yomiuri infielder knows what it feels like to go deep. In a playing career that spanned 1994-2014, Kokubo clubbed 413 home runs.

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Xander Bogaerts has represented the Kingdom of the Netherlands in each of the last two WBCs. He was just 20 years when he did so in 2013, which made for some nerves. Upon returning to Red Sox camp earlier this week, he said it was easier this time around, as he feels “more like a grown guy now.”

As for how he feels about the WBC’s 11-inning rule — each team starts with runners on first and second — he’s not a big fan. That’s understandable, given that his team lost in that manner to both Japan and Puerto Rico, wth the latter eliminating them from competition.

“Wow,” exclaimed Bogaerts, when asked for his opinion. “I don’t know if it’s good or not, but it killed us twice, so I would say not. But that’s probably the way the game will go in the future, so you just have to adjust to it. We didn’t take advantage of it, and other teams did.”

Hopefully Bogaerts was off base with “probably the way the game will go in the future” comment. If not in future tournaments, certainly in MLB.

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Earlier this week, I mentioned to Steven Wright that fellow knuckleballer Eddie Gamboa would throw the pitch exclusively in a perfect world. Boston’s butterfly purveyor is of like mind. He told me Gamboa is “spot on” with his view, which includes the fact that there is no perfect world in the knuckleball realm.

“If I could throw it 100% of the time and just change speeds on it… I mean, that’s what you want to do,” said Wright. “But sometimes it’s hard pitch to command, and you need the fastball to get your release point back.”

How does a fastball help a knuckleballer get his release point back?

“In order to throw a straight four-seam fastball, your arm has to be in a good position and your hand has to be in a good position,” explained Wright. “If I throw a fastball and see it cut a little bit, that’s what I’m doing with my knuckleball as well. I’m getting too far on the side of the ball. If I can throw a four-seam fastball and keep it straight, down and straight, that tells me I’m behind the ball. That’s the same spot I want to throw my knuckleball out of.”

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Justin Haley didn’t expect to be taken in the Rule 5 draft. He certainly didn’t expect to change teams multiple times on the same day. He began in Boston, and a flurry of trades later he was in Minnesota.

He’s not complaining.

“It’s not something you have control over,” Haley told me on Friday. “It’s more that it happens and you’re ecstatic that it did. Then there was the process, which was different than anyone else’s Rule 5 experience. I went from the Angels to the Padres to here. That was exciting.”

His pre-pitch set up on the mound is unique. Baseball America’s prospect handbook describes it this way:

Haley sets up on the third base side of the rubber, with his other foot straddling the rubber. With the ball in his glove raised in front of his face, he looks in for the sign with his pitching hand cocked at his waist, fingers dancing back and forth like Wyatt Earp ready to draw.

I asked the 6-foot-5 righty to explain the origin.

“A couple of years ago, on a windy, dry day, I started rubbing my fingers together to keep a little moisture, a little friction, in them,” Haley told me. “That was to get a good grip on the ball, and I just kept doing it. It turned into something.

“Having a wide base is something I’ve pretty much had since college. I’ve moved from one side of the rubber to the other, but I’ve always had the same wide base. Tall guy, wide base. I’ve pretty much carried that through my career.”

Whether his career will be with the Twins, or if he’s returned to the Red Sox, will be determined shortly.

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Paul Moehringer’s all-time Los Angeles Dodgers article at The Hardball Times earlier this month got me thinking about the Sandy Koufax-era (1955-1966) squads. That led me to discover that while six of those teams reached the World Series, the one with the most regular-season wins didn’t. In 1962, the Dodgers went 102-63 and finished a game behind the pennant-winning Giants.

The 1962 Dodgers are remembered mostly for the dominant Koufax-Don Drysdale duo, and for Maury Wills swiping 104 bases. Obscured in the shards of history is a youthful outfield that shone brightly (but never went on to reach of pantheon of superstardom that seemed possible).

In his age 23 season, Tommy Davis slashed .346/.374/.535, with 27 home runs and 18 stolen bases. He led the NL in hits (230) and RBI (153), and was worth 5.8 WAR.

In his age 22 season, Willie Davis slashed .285/.334/.453, with 19 triples, 21 home runs and 32 stolen bases. He was worth 5.2 WAR.

In his age 25 season, left fielder Frank Howard slashed .296/.346/.560, with 31 home runs and 119 RBI. He was was worth 3.7 WAR.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

Writing for The Canadian Baseball Network, Alexis Brudnicki gave an account of Chris Leroux’s swan song in the WBC, and an August outing that broke the camel’s back.

Jared Diamond of The Wall Street Journal, wrote about a campaign called “Ni Uno Mas,” which hopes to quell the type of tragedies that befell Oscar Taveras and Yordano Ventura in the Dominican Republic.

In 2010, a skinny 16-year-old in the Brewers system waved his finger at a coach, said, “No, I’m a shortstop,” and stormed out of the room. The player was Orlando Arcia, and Adam McCalvey has the story at MLB.com.

According to Lynn Henning of The Detroit News, the Al Avila-Brad Ausmus relationship is adversarial at times.

Over at The Washington Post, Jorge Castillo wrote about how Nationals pitcher Shawn Kelley once envisioned a career in politics.

Per Peter Gammons, who cited Fyodor Dostoyevski in his telling, Daniel Bard is willing to endure the frustration.

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Pitching for the Red Sox from 1905-1907, Joe Harris had an ignominious record of 3-30. His career included a hard-luck pitching performance that nearly belies belief. On September 1, 1906, the luckless righty lost a 24-inning complete game by a score of 3-1. Harris finished that season 2-21 with a 3.52 ERA.

From 1926-1929, Pirates teammates (and Hall of Famers) Pie Traynor and Paul Waner combined to hit 124 triples while striking out 115 times.

Ken Reitz was a starting third baseman in eight big-league seasons (1973-1980), all with the St. Louis Cardinals, and led NL 3B in fielding percentage in six of them. He won his only Gold Glove in 1975, a season in which he committed a career-high 23 errors, finished fifth in fielding percentage, and had his lowest-ever range factor,

Through his age-21 season, Al Kaline had 540 hits, 59 HR, a .311 BA, and 15 WAR. Through his age-21 season, Mike Trout had 399 hits, 62 HR, a .314 BA, and 21.5 WAR.

Tony Conigliaro had 84 HR through his age-21 season. Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays & Babe Ruth combined for 87 HR through their age-21 seasons.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: Dombrowski, Nola, Ngoepe, Kokubo, Knuckleball Release Points, more by David Laurila!

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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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EonADS
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EonADS

The funny thing about Japan not hitting that many homers is that the world record professional Home Run King is Japanese. I know it’s not the same as the MLB, but still. Just a funny bit of irony.