Sunday Notes: From Chiba, With Concern; Frank Herrmann on NPB and MLB

The NPB season is currently slated to start on June 19th, with hopes of playing a 120-game schedule followed by a condensed playoff docket. The 120 isn’t arbitrary. Per the league’s bylaws, that’s the number required for a season to be considered official. In a normal year, each NPB team plays 143 games.

The MLB season? That remains an unanswered question. It is also an angst-inducing question. As everyone reading this knows all too well, there may not even be a season.

Frank Herrmann knows baseball on both sides of the planet.The Harvard-educated hurler is heading into his fourth NPB season after playing professionally stateside from 2006-2016. As you might expect, he’s monitoring not only what’s happening in Japan, but also what’s happening back home.

“The schedule alignment here is essentially the opposite of what is being proposed by MLB clubs, who want fewer regular season games with longer playoffs,” Herrmann told me via email from Chiba, Japan. “Like most things, the motivation in both cases is money. NPB doesn’t have the lucrative TV deals that MLB does. Japanese teams rely heavily on ticket sales, merchandise, and concessions to generate income and offset salaries. There have been discussions to incrementally allow fans into games starting as soon as July 10. More regular season home gates for each team, stretching into mid-November, affords teams the best chance to cover losses.”

Salary structures and legal language weigh heavily into that equation. As Herrmann pointed out, high-end salaries in Japan are “more in the $7-8 million a year range, as opposed to the $30Ms in MLB.” Moreover, NPB contracts differ from those in MLB in that they “lack a specific clause for national emergencies, therefore players have been receiving their full salaries since February.” Herrmann expects NPB will add such a clause once the season is completed.

Whether NPB’s season indeed stretches into November remains to be seen. A pair of Tokyo Giants players — including last year’s Central League MVP, Hayato Sakamoto — tested positive for trace amounts of COVID-19 antibodies on June 3rd. (Two Yakult Swallows players who subsequently reported sore throats and elevated temperatures have had their test results come back negative). While future positive diagnoses could curtail current plans, Herrmann’s belief is that NPB will attempt to “play through as needed.”

As for events on this side of the pond, he’s especially concerned with what’s happening down on the farm. His background — Herrmann made 296 minor-league appearances before going to Japan, compared to just 109 in the majors — is part of the reason. So are the relationships he’s built within the game.

“It’s disheartening to see the large-scale contraction of the minor leagues,” said the former Cleveland Indians and Philadelphia Phillies reliever. “Some of that is virus-inflicted, while some is by design. Between an abbreviated draft and the impending reduction of up to 40 affiliates, I fear many careers will end before they even have a chance to begin. As a non-drafted free agent, I understand how varied and important the development process can be. Every season we read about underdogs who seemingly come out of nowhere to forge a career, or even just have a cup of coffee. Maybe I’m biased, but I believe those are some of the most interesting story lines. They are real-life lessons about perseverance.”

Herrmann — now with the Chiba Lotte Marines after three seasons with the Rakuten Golden Eagles — cited one of his former Cleveland teammates as an example.

“I think about guys like Josh Tomlin,” said Herrmann. “He was a late-round draft pick, always kind of the 12th pitcher on the minor-league roster as we were coming up, and he used grit and a high level of aptitude to wind his way through the system. In 2016, during Cleveland’s run to the World Series, Josh’s story was among the most compelling. Those human interest stories are part of what makes baseball such a great game. I worry that we’re going to lose some of that with large-scale contraction.”

Herrmann’s younger brother recently lost — at least temporarily — an opportunity to go from non-drafted free agent to the big leagues. A 26-year-old left-hander who reached Triple-A with the Los Angeles Angels last year, Max Herrmann was one of the many minor-leaguers cut loose by MLB organizations looking to save a few pennies on the dollar.

“Like hundreds of other players, Max won’t get the chance to show off the hard work and adjustments made during the winter,” Herrmann told me. “I’m not sure how it’s going to look next season, assuming things are back to normal. How many guys have the financial flexibility to keep plying their craft without a paycheck? How many are going to be so jaded that they just hang up their cleats? And then there are the guys who don’t blossom early. Will kids be dissuaded from pouring themselves into the game if they don’t show promise at a young age, knowing that a chance to make a career out of baseball is now even more remote? With all the discussion about trying to grow the game, it seems counterproductive, and even a little nearsighted, to drastically shrink the talent pool.”

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To the chagrin of most everybody who loves America’s pastime, COVID-19 is no longer the biggest threat to a 2020 MLB season. While obviously still a serious concern, the pandemic is now playing second fiddle to rancorous negotiations between ownership and players. If no agreement is made soon, the game is pretty much adios until 2021 (at the earliest).

Andrew Miller is a member of the MLBPA’s executive subcommittee. I asked the St. Louis Cardinals southpaw for an update on where things stand from his side of the negotiating table.

“Players have always shown the desire to play, and to play as many games as possible,” Miller told me on Friday. “I can’t overstate that. Health and safety remain legitimate concerns — even as recent events in the country have dominated the news coverage — and if we can’t figure that out, there is no season. I think we are close on the medical protocols. The economic discussion is an entirely different story.

“We made an agreement in March hoping to expedite the process when the time for baseball seemed imminent. Players proceeded under the assumption that both sides wanted the maximum number of games. Unfortunately, despite a lot of public positioning from MLB, the process has dragged along at a slow pace. It now appears that MLB’s intentions all along have been to play as few regular-season games as possible. MLB has taken the stance that unless we break the agreement from March and accept a pay cut, they can dictate a short season. While we can appreciate the sacrifices required under the circumstances of this pandemic, MLB has only offered options that will hurt players in the long run. Players are determined not to abandon our principles and step away from what we believe to be a correct and fair agreement.”

What comes next?

“As for the economics, I’m not aware of anything at the moment,” said Miller. “It’s the unfortunate reality we face. I know it’s a broken record at this point, but we want to play. And we want to make sure that message is getting out loud and clear.”

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This past Thursday I ran a Twitter poll asking “If no MLB season is played because of a financial impasse, who is most at fault?” The options were 1. Players, 2. Owners/Commissioner. A total of 2,261 people voted, and the results were as follows:

Players: 6.7%
Owners/commissioner: 93.3%.

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Chick Davies went 0 for 7 against Doc Ayers.

Yip Owens went 0 for 12 against Doc Crandall.

Danny Hoffman went 0 for 16 against Doc White.

Bob Oliver went 0 for 17 against Doc Medich.

Mike Jorgensen went 0 for 32 against Dock Ellis.

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Eric Longenhagen’s initial mock draft has a pair of University of Georgia right-handers going in the first round: Emerson Hancock is projected as a top-10 selection, while Cole Wilcox’s name should be called a dozen or so picks later. According to one of their former teammates, the organizations that draft them will be bringing on board “some serious dudes.”

The uber-competitiveness that Aaron Schunk observed in Hancock and Wilcox extended beyond the chalk lines.

“We had a ping-pong table in our locker room at Georgia,” explained Schunk, whom the Colorado Rockies drafted in the second round last year. “There were nights where you could find the two of them in shorts, no shirts, sweating like they’d been running miles. They’d play 10, 15, 20 games, to 21, with neither of them giving an inch. They tried to outcompete each other in everything. The cool part is that they were so even-matched.”

The soon-to-be first-rounders weren’t necessarily the best ping-pong players on the Bulldogs’ baseball team. In Schunk’s opinion, the duo was simply part of a closely-grouped Top 5 that included himself, Tim Elliott (a fourth-round pick by the Seattle Mariners last year) and Zac Kristofak (14th round by the Los Angeles Angels). Prodded to proclaim a No. 1, Schunk gave the nod to his own most-frequent rival.

“Tim was probably our top player overall,” said Schunk, who is No. 8 on our Rockies Top Prospects list. ”Our schedules matched up, so in between classes we would run down to the clubhouse and practice together. Sometimes one of us would work on a new serve, and the other would basically just be a backboard. We got after the ping-pong table pretty competitively. We all did.”

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A quiz:

Pete Rose was the last player-manager for a National League team. Who was the last player-manager in the American League?

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS ITEMS

Hank Mason, who pitched in four games for the Philadelphia Phillies in parts of the 1958 and 1960 seasons, died last weekend at age 88. The first African-American pitcher in franchise history — the Phillies were the last National League team to integrate — Mason also played in the post-integration Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs.

The West Coast League is the latest summer-collegiate league to cancel its 2020 season. The announcement was made on Friday.

Ballpark Digest is conducting its annual Best of The Ballparks polls. Low- and high-A venues are now open for voting. Info can be found here.

Kevin Youkilis’s Loma Brewing Company has seen revenue drop by 80% during the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, they aren’t currently selling their popular “The Greek God of Hops” brand. Youkilis shared the update with San Francisco’s KPIX.

Our friends at McFarland Books are running a 40% off sale on all sports titles through June 14. Information can be found here.

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The answer to the quiz is Don Kessinger. The longtime shortstop was a player-manager for the Chicago White Sox in 1979.

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Greg Harris made history on September 28, 1995 when he became the first player in the modern era to switch-pitch in a game. A right-handed reliever for the Montreal Expos at the time, Harris threw left-handed to two of the four Cincinnati Reds batters he faced that night. It’s something he’d long wanted to do, only to have his managers nix the idea. In the penultimate outing of a career that stretched back to 1981— this thanks to the acquiescence of Felipe Alou — Harris finally got the green light. It happened with the Expos down by six runs in the ninth inning. Joe Siddall was behind the plate.

“If I remember correctly, he had asked Felipe a few days earlier and was told no,” Siddall told me. “But I knew when he came into that game that it was the plan. He retired Reggie Sanders [pitching right-handed], then switched the [custom-made} glove to his other hand to face Hal Morris. I recall kind of chuckling to myself, ‘Here we go.’

Harris’s first pitch went to the backstop — “it wasn’t even close” — and the next three failed to find the strike zone as well. Siddall recalls thinking ‘This doesn’t really count, right? Anybody can pitch with both hands, but can you record an out with both hands?’

And then he did. Eddie Taubensee hit a dribbler in front of the plate, which Siddall pounced on and threw to first for the out. “The crowd went wild.” Harris then switched back to right-handed and retired Bret Boone to end the inning.

The glove Harris used is now at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown. It’s not the only such model he owned. Harris had a handful of them, one of which he later gave to Siddall, encased in a plastic container.

A final note on Harris: he was also a switch-hitter, making him the only player in big-league history to both hit and pitch from both sides.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

Sports Illustrated’s Emma Baccellieri wrote about how MLB’s mental skills coaches are helping players embrace the unknown.

How much money do MLB players actually make? Travis Sawchik delved into that question at FiveThirtyEight.

Beyond The Boxscore’s Kenny Kelly wrote about how a shortened draft will have lasting harm.

Eno Sarris and Emily Waldon of The Athletic talked to recently-released minor-league players about their plight.

Seattle Mariners broadcaster Dave Sims shared his thoughts on the George Floyd protests in a guest commentary at The Seattle Times.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

The Montreal Expos boasted baseball’s best record at 74-40 when a strike prematurely ended the 1994 season in mid-August. Also in line for a postseason berth at that time were the Texas Rangers, who led the American League West with a record of 52-62.

The Cleveland Indians went 100-44 in the strike-shortened 1995 season.

Terry Forster pitched out of the bullpen for five teams from 1971-1986. As a hitter, he slashed .397/.413/.474 with a 154 wRC+ in 86 plate appearances.

In 1912, Smoky Joe Wood went 34-5 with a 1.91 ERA pitching for the Boston Red Sox. In 1922, Wood slashed .297/.367/.442 in 585 plate appearances as an outfielder with the Cleveland Indians.

Dick Radatz hit his only career home run on June 5, 1965, a two-run shot in the 11th inning to give the Red Sox a 5-3 win over the Kansas City Athletics. Working exclusively out of the Boston bullpen, Radatz had 49 wins, 98 saves, and a 2.57 ERA over 538 innings from 1962-1965.

Steve Busby and Amos Otis became the first players inducted into the Kansas City Royals Hall of Fame on this date in 1986.

On this date in 1966, the New York Mets took Steve Chilcott with the first-overall pick of that year’s amateur draft. The Kansas City A’s selected Reggie Jackson with the second-overall pick.

Also on this date in 1966, the Minnesota Twins took Steve Garvey in the third round out of a Tampa, Florida high school. Garvey opted to attend Michigan State University, and was subsequently drafted and signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1968.

Players born on this date include Herb Score, who was arguably baseball’s best pitcher prior to being hit in the face by a line drive early in his third big-league season. A left-hander with the Cleveland Indians, Score had logged a 153 ERA+ while leading American League pitchers in strikeouts in both 1955 and 1956.

Nolan Ryan led his league in strikeouts 11 times, in walks eight times, and in wild pitches six times. Of note, the Hall of Famer’s given name is Lynn Nolan Ryan.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: From Chiba, With Concern; Frank Herrmann on NPB and MLB 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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marchandman34
Member
Member
marchandman34

Great read as typical David.

Anyone have suggestions from the McFarland library?
I own the selection from Tom Thress, he’s made some tweaks to his methodology since publication, but a worthy read nonetheless, insightful.

Joser
Member
Joser

I really want to read that House of David book (with ~90 photos!) but it’s not published yet.