Sunday Notes: Joe Girardi and AJ Hinch Address Backspinning Catchers

Toronto Blue Jays pitching prospect Hagen Danner is a converted catcher who gets good ride on his four-seam fastball, and he attributes that quality to his former position. Hearing that from the 23-year-old right-hander prompted me to ask Philadelphia Phillies manager Joe Girardi if what I was told made sense.

“I can definitely see that,” said Girardi, who caught for 15 big-league seasons. “But I don’t think it’s a guarantee; some [catchers] have a little tail to their ball when they throw. At times, I would have a little tail. But [Garrett] Stubbs really gets underneath it, really gets that spin. There are a lot of catchers who do. It’s how we’re taught to throw.”

Good ride typically comes with a four-seam grip, but unlike pitchers, a catcher isn’t standing on a mound with ample time to manipulate the baseball in his hand; he has to receive the ball, make the transfer, and get rid of it as quickly as possible. I asked the catcher-turned-manager about that as well.

“You don’t have time to get the grip, but ideally you want to throw it straight,” said Girardi. “And you can still throw it straight, pretty much, if you don’t have a perfect four-seam grip.”

Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch is likewise a former catcher, so I asked him the same questions I’d asked Girardi.

“True backspin is something that every catcher would want in every throw,” said Hinch, who caught parts of seven big-league seasons. “If you’re throwing to the bases — second and third — you would want the true backspin, which would help the ride you’re talking about. The vertical.”

As for achieving a four-seam grip prior to making the throw, Hinch’s answer differed somewhat from Girardi’s.

“You can move the ball a little bit,” said the Tigers manager. “You’re not going to sit there and look at it, but part of the art of the exchange is making sure that you get a good grip. You try, every time, to get a four-seam grip. You don’t have time to mandate it, but you can try. If you watch guys play catch every single day, they’re always turning the ball.”

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One of the pitchers Hagen Danner caught at Huntington Beach High School is now a high-profile position player prospect. Drafted 14th overall by the Kansas City Royals in 2017, Nick Pratto heads into the 2022 season No. 47 on our Top 100 Prospects list. Both took the mound as preps.

“He threw 90-92 [mph], and his changeup is the nastiest thing I ever caught in high school,” said Danner, who is No. 14 on our Blue Jays list. “He would definitely pitch if you asked him to.”

It’s far more likely that the Royals will ask him to hit in the middle of their lineup, possibly as soon as this summer. Pratto is coming off a season where he went deep 36 times while putting up a 156 wRC+ between Double-A Northwest Arkansas and Triple-A Omaha.

“He’s one of the best hitters in minor league baseball,” Danner said of his friend and former teammate. “He’s the smartest hitter up there. He’s got pop and he puts the bat on the ball. You see it in the numbers. He’s going to be Rookie of the Year. I’m calling it right now.”

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Brock Holt is 11 for 18 against Dylan Bundy.

Jose Altuve went 0 for 13 against Bronson Arroyo.

Christian Yelich went 0 for 10 against Tim Lincecum.

Cotton Tierney went 9 for 13 against Clyde Barfoot.

Pete Kilduff went 9 for 18 against Virgil Cheeves.

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The Pirates were playing in Dunedin when it was reported that Trevor Story would be signing with the Boston Red Sox. I was on hand, so I asked Pittsburgh manager Derek Shelton for his thoughts on the division-impacting deal.

“The American League East is a beast,” said Shelton. “I spent seven years there as the hitting coach in Tampa, and we’ve seen multiple teams in that division add to their group. What we’re seeing in the game is flexibility of athletes; you’re seeing guys go places and play different positions to make teams better. Let’s use Toronto; we saw Marcus Semien do it last year — a guy that was a shortstop and went and played second base. Multi-positional athletes are very important, and we’re seeing guys be willing to do different things. The East is going to be a fun division to watch this year.”

It’s also a division that the Pittsburgh manager is happy not to be a part of. “I don’t miss the American League East,” Shelton said.”Not at all.”

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Sticking with the Pirates, Oneil Cruz is continuing to raise eyebrows. The 6-foot-7 shortstop — Pittsburgh’s top prospect — has five hits in 11 spring training at bats, and two of them have left the yard. The first, which I was on hand for, came on a barely-ankle-high breaking ball that he golfed pull-side over the right field wall. Statcast measured the how-did-he-do-that? blast at 413 feet.

Earlier the same day, Derek Shelton told reporters that the 23-year-old Cruz has “done a good job at shortstop so far,” and will also see time time in the outfield before the close of camp (Cruz subsequently played left field on Friday). As for when the organization’s top prospect reaches Pittsburgh, only time will tell.

“Oneil is going to have an impact on our club this year at some point,” said Shelton. “When that is, I don’t think any of us know.”

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A quiz:

Who holds the Pittsburgh Pirates franchise record for most home runs in a single season?

The answer to the quiz can be found below.

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NEWS NOTES

Andrew Miller announced this week that he’s retiring after 16 big-league seasons. Notable recently for his stellar work with the MLBPA, the 36-year-old southpaw finished his playing career having made 612 regular-season pitching performances and 29 more in the postseason where he logged a 0.93 ERA over 38-and-two-thirds innings. Twice a guest on FanGraphs Audio — in October 2020 and again in October 2021 — Miller was at his best from 2015-2017 when he went 17-6 with 50 saves and a 1.63 ERA.

Sammy Levitt has been hired as a pre- and postgame host for San Diego Padres radio broadcasts. The Northwestern University graduate had been serving as the radio play-by-play voice of the Double-A Amarillo Sod Poodles.

The Philadelphia Phillies have added four former players to their broadcast team. Michael Bourn, Chad Durbin, Erik Kratz, and Kevin Stocker will rotate road games, while Larry Andersen will remain the analyst for most home games.

Pete Ward, a left-handed-hitting third baseman/outfielder for three teams from 1962-1970, died earlier this month at age 84. A native of Montreal, Ward had back-to-back stellar seasons with the Chicago White Sox, logging a 136 wRC+ and 4.6 WAR in 1963, and a 128 wRC+ and 6.1 WAR in 1964.

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The answer to the quiz is Ralph Kiner, who homered 54 times for the Pirates in 1949. Kiner also has the second highest total in franchise history, 51 in 1947, while Willie Stargell’s 48 home runs in 1971 ranks as third-most.

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Nick Castellanos had his introductory press conference in Clearwater on Wednesday, and if you’ve read about it, you’ve probably already seen his money quote — a gem that few beat writers would pass up. “I don’t have a college degree,” Castellanos said. “I hit baseballs.”

The newest addition to the Phillies lineup does that with aplomb — he had 34 bombs and a 140 wRC+ last year — which is the primary reason Philadelphia signed him to a five-year $100M contract. As for his lack of advanced schooling, the slugger is by no means slow on the uptake. At least not in the opinion of agent Scott Boras, to whom I spoke after the presser.

“This guy’s dad is a doctor,” Boras told me. “He’s a smart lad. He’s got wheels up there. Very precise, very accurate, very examining. You’ll give him information and he’ll ask you questions. He’s a relentless learner.”

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FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Mike Fiers has reportedly signed with Leones de Yucatan, in the Mexican League. A 36-year-old veteran of 11 big-league seasons, the righty dealt with hip and elbow ailments last season and made just two appearances with the Oakland A’s.

The NPB season got underway on Friday with six games. Notable among the opening-day performances was Yoshinobu Yamamoto’s eight scoreless innings as the Orix Buffaloes beat the Seibu Lions 6-0. The 23-year-old right-hander is coming off a season where he went 18-5 with a 1.39 ERA.

Gregory Polanco went 3-for-4 with a run scored and an RBI as the Yomiuri Giants beat the Chunichi Dragons 4-2. “El Coffee” played for the Pittsburgh Pirates for eight seasons before inking a deal with the Dragons this past January.

The Yakult Swallows rallied from an 8-1 deficit to beat the Hanshin Tigers 10-8. Kyle Keller, who pitched in 32 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates last year, allowed three ninth-inning runs and was charged with the loss. Erstwhile MLB outfielder Domingo Santana had four hits and five RBIs for the winning side.

Roki Sasaki topped at 102 mph last night in Chiba Lotte’s 6-5, 11-inning loss to the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. The 20-year-old Marines right-hander fanned 10 while allowing four hits and three runs over six innings.

Tsuyoshi Shinjo will reportedly be wearing his nickname on the back of his uniform this season. The colorful Nippon Ham Fighters manager has dubbed himself “Big Boss.”

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Damon Jones made his MLB debut with the Philadelphia Phillies last August, and his lone outing was — in his own words — “invigorating, yet full of anxiety at the same time; I couldn’t feel my body.” Pitching against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the 27-year-old left-hander departed the nervy ordeal unscathed thanks to the efforts of a teammate.

Jones entered the game in the eighth inning and promptly retired the first batter he faced, AJ Pollock, on a ground ball. A single and a pair of walks followed, loading the bases and sending Jones to the showers. Mauricio Llovera proceeded to clean up the mess. The right-hander fanned Albert Pujols, then induced a harmless pop-fly to strand all three runners. Jones’s ERA remained spotless, a pristine triple-zeros.

I asked the southpaw if he bought Llovera dinner after the game.

“I wanted to; I told him I’d buy him a steak, but he wouldn’t let me,” responded Jones. “He buzzed Pujols up-and-in, and everyone kind of booed because it’s Albert Pujols, but then he got out of it.”

But again — this despite Jones’s best efforts — no free dinner.

“He’s not a big steak guy; he must have wanted some Punta Cana from Allentown,” said Jones, who played with Llovera at Triple-A Lehigh Valley for most of the season. “I told him multiple times that I’d take him and his wife out for dinner. He always said no.”

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

At Forbes, Mike Ozanian and Justin Teitelbaum provided MLB revenue stream information and the 2022 valuation for each of the 30 teams. (The New York Yankees top the list at $6B, while the Miami Marlins hold down the bottom at $990M. The average MLB team is worth $2.07B.)

MASN, the regional sports network that airs Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals games, won’t be sending their broadcaster teams on the road once the regular season starts. Dan Connolly has the story at The Athletic (subscription required).

The Ringer’s Zach Kram ranked the off-season gains and losses of all 30 MLB teams.

At The Washington Post, Gus Garcia-Roberts and Jack Douglas teamed up to write about how Tyler Skaggs’s agent had urged the now-deceased Los Angeles Angels southpaw to pitch through pain.

Former baseball journalist Jonah Keri was sentenced to 21 months in jail for his domestic abuse conviction. Joe Lofaro has the story at Montreal’s CTV News.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

The Detroit Tigers have called Lakeland, Florida their spring training home since 1934, the longest tenure in the same locale for any of the 30 teams. The Philadelphia Phillies have trained in Clearwater since 1947.

Bo Bichette, whom the Blue Jays renewed earlier this week at a pre-arbitration-eligible $723,550, set a franchise record last year with 29 home runs as a shortstop. Tony Batista’s 26, in 1999, was the previous franchise high at that position.

Kyle Schwarber has a .349/.431/.683 slash line in 72 career plate appearances as a catcher. He has a .059/.172/.137 slash line in 58 career plate appearances as a pinch hitter.

Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina need nine starts to equal Mickey Lolich and Bill Freehan for the most starts as a battery. (Hat tip to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who mentioned this last month.) Counting the postseason, Lolich and Freehan teamed up 328 times with the Detroit Tigers from 1963-1975.

Goose Gossage pitched for NPB’s Fukuoka Daiei Hawks in 1990. The then 38-year-old right-hander went 2-3 with eight saves and a 4.40 ERA in 47 innings.

Victor Starffin went 38-12 with a 0.97 ERA over 436 innings with the Tokyo Kyojin in 1940. The first 300-game winner in NPB history Starrfin, a native of Nizhny Tagil, Russia, also played under the name Hiroshi Suda. Per his Peter Bjarkman-penned SABR BioProject entry, Starffin was kept under constant surveillance during WWII due to concerns that he could be a foreign agent or a spy.

The Kansas City Royals traded David Cone to the New York Mets as part of a five-player deal on today’s date in 1987. Cone went on to amass 55.9 WAR over the next 16 seasons. The four other players involved in the trade combined for 1.4 career WAR.

Players born on today’s date include Lynn McGlothen, who pitched for six teams from 1972-1982. A right-hander whose best seasons came with the St. Louis Cardinals — he was an All-Star in 1974 when he went 16-12 with a 2.69 ERA — McGlothen died in a mobile-home fire two years after throwing his last pitch.

Also born on today’s date was Creighton Gubanich, a catcher whose career comprised 52 plate appearances with the Boston Red Sox in 1999. The first of Gubanich’s 13 big-league hits was his only home run, a grand slam in a 12-11 loss to the Oakland A’s.





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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marcusthelionmember
3 months ago

While batting average is out of favor as a statistic, hitting over .600 is an achievement in slow pitch softball let alone MLB.
A true Brock-Star performance!