Sunday Notes: Jose De León Is in Cincinnati With a New Arm

When I first wrote about José De León — this in a May 2015 Sunday Notes column — he was a 22-year-old prospect in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. He was also a shooting star. Piggy-backing on an emergent 2014 season, De León was dominating the hitter-friendly California League to the tune of a 1.69 ERA, and 50 strikeouts in 32 innings. His heater was a crisp and clean 94-96 mph.

Misfortune has followed those halcyon days. De León went on to debut with the Dodgers in September 2016, then was dealt to the Tampa Bay Rays four months later. Shortly thereafter, things began to go haywire. First it was discomfort in his forearm. Then came a lat strain followed by elbow tendinitis. The coup de grâce came in March 2018 when he was diagnosed with a torn UCL and underwent Tommy John surgery. Out of action until last May, De León took baby steps upon his return. He hurled just 60 innings, four of them at the big-league level, over the course of the campaign.

“The last few years have been rough,” admitted De León, whom the Cincinnati Reds acquired from the Rays over the winter in exchange for a PTBNL. “But I’ve grown a lot. I’m way stronger mentally, and I basically have a brand new arm, as well.”

His “new arm” doesn’t feel foreign to him. The Isabela, Puerto Rico native recalls former Tampa Bay teammates Alex Cobb and Nathan Eovaldi saying that theirs did feel different after surgery, but he hasn’t experienced that sensation. What he has experienced is a velocity rejuvenation. When I talked to him a few days before camps were shut down, De León told me that he’d been 95-96 in his most-recent outing, the firmest his heater had been in years. Moreover, he didn’t recall ever throwing that hard, that early.

He’s notably stronger than he once was. He’s also lighter. De León dropped 17 pounds over the offseason, yet professed to “feeling bigger.” He believes his ideal pitching weight is 210 pounds, which is five pounds less than what it was when we chewed the fat in Phoenix.

Deception has been a reliable friend.

“Because of the way I release the ball — I’m low to the ground — I think my fastball has the impression of having a higher spin rate than it actually does,” De León told me. “Back when I was in high-A, I was getting swings and misses on fastballs up, and I was throwing fastballs at the knees that they were taking. When I asked somebody, they said it looked like my low fastballs were going to skip, they were going to bounce, and then they didn’t. They stayed on plane. That’s when I started realizing I had that effect.”

De León complements his four-seamer with a circle change (arguably his best pitch), and this spring he was working with Cincinnati pitching coach Derek Johnson to improve his slider. It’s been in his repertoire, but mostly as a show-me. Despite having been groomed as a starter — his future role is up in the air — the 27-year-old has primarily been a two-pitch pitcher. Ticketed for Triple-A at the time of the shutdown, he now awaits word on what comes next. Just like the rest of us.

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Heston Kjerstad wants to prove people wrong. The 21-year-old outfielder was selected second overall by the Baltimore Orioles in this year’s amateur draft, and many believe that under-slot signability, rather than merit, drove that decision. It’s an understandable opinion. Eric Longehagen’s mock draft had Kjerstad going 12th overall, while the most-bullish of other mocks had him no higher than eighth.

Not surprisingly, there’s a chip on Kjerstad’s shoulder. Asked about his No.2-worthiness in a draft-night conference call, the University of Arkansas product presented as both confident and defiant.

“I have something to prove every time I go out there,” expressed Kjerstad. “When I went to Arkansas there were a lot of people who thought I shouldn’t have been there. When I started as a freshman, they thought I shouldn’t have started as freshman. I proved them wrong. Same in my sophomore year. I’m going to keep doing my thing, and I’m sure I’ll slowly change the minds of people who don’t realize why my name was called so early.”

His confidence level was in peak form when asked what kind of player Orioles fans can expect to see.

“I’m going to be an impact player, for sure,” said Kjerstad, who despite the bravado often came across as humble during the call. “I bring a left-handed bat to the lineup that has power to all parts of the field. I also bring a good glove to the outfield. Wherever they put me, I’ll be a solid defender.”

It’s now up to Kjerstad to prove that he was worthy of a No. 2-overall selection. He’s already shown an ability to defend the fact that he was taken that high.

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Hal McRae went 0 for 2 against Sal Bando.

Rick Reuschel went 5 for 10 against Jim Lonborg.

Wally Post went 4 for 5 against Laurin Pepper.

Smoky Burgess went 7 for 13 against Corky Valentine.

Vic Davalillo went 9 for 11 against Bennie Daniels.

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The Boston Globe’s Chad Finn recently unearthed some old Peter Gammons Sunday Notes trade rumors, one of which, from November 1984, had the Red Sox sending Jim Rice to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for Steve Bedrosian and Brad Komminsk.

Looking back, the deal wouldn’t have done all that much for Atlanta. The Braves were woeful in the years that followed, and a past-his-prime Rice wouldn’t have done much to change that. The Red Sox? That’s a good question.

Rice was solid in 1985 (a 123 wRC+ and 2.6 WAR), and very good in 1986 (a 133 wRC+ and 5.5 WAR). After that, he pretty much fell off a cliff in terms of value and production. Payroll plays into the equation as well; Rice was the American League’s highest-paid player in both 1987 and 1988.

Komminsk was a hyped prospect who turned into a bust. Bedrosian was another story. In 1985, the Methuen, Massachusetts native was a league-average starter who threw just over 200 innings. In 1986, he moved to the bullpen and garnered 29 saves. In 1987, he had 40 saves and was named NL Cy Young. Bedrosian then remained a closer for four more seasons.

The key year in this what-if is 1986. As Red Sox fans remember all too well, Calvin Schiraldi and Bob Stanley couldn’t close out World Series Game 6, with a Mookie Wilson roller culminating the gut-wrenching collapse.

Would Bedrosian have held the two-run lead? Would the snakebitten Boston squad have even made it to the World Series with Bedrosian as their closer and Rice doing his slugging in Atlanta? We’ll never know the answer to those questions. They’re nonetheless interesting to ponder.

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Don Buford spent five seasons with the Chicago White Sox before being dealt to the Baltimore Orioles in November 1967. A year earlier, a managerial change led to an expansion of his wardrobe. Eddie Stanky took the reins from Al Lopez in 1966, and he quickly set out to motivate the speedy Buford.

“Starting out, [Stanky] said that if I could steal 20 bases he’d buy me a pair of alligator shoes,” Buford recalled. “I told him, ‘I’ll steal 20 bases before halfway through the season.’ True enough, I did that. I said to him, ‘Hey, I’ll steal you another 20, but you’ll have to buy me a suit.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’ll buy you a suit if you steal another 20.’ I ended up with 51 on the season, so I got alligator shoes and a suit from Eddie Stanky.”

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A quiz:

Which pitcher with at least 15 wins against the New York Yankees has the best winning percentage against them?

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS ITEMS

The independent American Association held a dispersal draft this past Tuesday. Notable among the selections was Cito Culver, whom the Fargo-Morehead RedHawks took in the first round. In 2010, the now-27-year infielder was drafted in the first round by the New York Yankees out of a Rochester, NY high school.

Addison Russell has signed a one-year deal with the KBO’s Kiwoom Heroes. An All-Star with the Chicago Cubs in 2016, the 26-year-old shortstop had been suspended in 2018 for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy.

Mike McCormick, who won a Cy Young award pitching for the San Francisco Giants in 1967, died earlier this week at age 81. A left-hander who made his MLB as a seventeen year old, McCormick went 134-128 for five teams from 1956-1971.

Jorge Julio, a native of Mexicali, Mexico who pitched for the California Angels in 1966 and 1967, died this past week at age 75. Julio’s otherwise undistinguished career — he appeared in just 10 games — included a complete-game shutout with 15 strikeouts against the Cleveland Indians on October 2, 1966.

The Fenway Park Writers Series will be hosting a Zoom meeting with The San Francisco Chronicle’s John Shea on Thursday June 25, at 7 pm EST. Shea will discuss his new book, 24: Life Stories and Lessons From the Say Hey Kid. Information can be found here.

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The answer to the quiz is Babe Ruth, who went 17-5 (.733) against the Yankees while pitching for the Boston Red Sox. For those of you who guessed Frank Lary, the Detroit Tigers righty known as “The Yankee Killer” went 28-13 (.683) against the Bombers.

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Back in January, this column included a segment on how Aaron Judge had received media training from Johanna Wagner back when he was in Double-A. How Wagner’s company, Love My Team Consulting, came to be is an interesting story itself.

Wagner was running the lighting-and-sound department at New York’s Julliard School when the September 11 terrorist attacks took place. No longer in the working-with-artists stage of her theater career, she was at that time in her mid-30s and feeling unfulfilled. Shaken by the cataclysmic event, Wagner decided it was time to “figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up.” She quit her job.

Her next move was to spend the summer traveling to every major-league stadium. Wagner then wrote a book — The View From the Stands — about the fan experience in each of the 30 venues.That process was the pathway to her current profession.

“I stayed where the visiting teams stayed, and got to see what a major-league player’s life was like away from the field,” Wagner told me. “I saw fans stalking them for their autographs, interrupting their meals with their families. I realized that while fans love this game, most players don’t really see that. They only see the stalking and the interruptions, and the fans telling them that they suck for three hours. They don’t see the traditional idea of fans, the fathers and sons, the people talking about whether this was a good tim for a hit-and-run. I saw that there was a gulf there.”

Wagner felt there was a way to bridge that gap, and better connect players with their fans. Her theater background gave her a head start; she understood working in front of a camera, and how to express oneself effectively. Wagner proceeded to get a master’s degree in sports business and establish a consulting company. The timing proved to be perfect.

“As my idea was coming into play, social media happened,” explained Wagner. “Teams were hungry to have somebody who was prepared to help their players with social media. At the time, most teams were using general media training — regular corporate media training — as opposed to someone doing sports exclusively. In my case, just baseball.”

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Left on the cutting-room floor from Thursday’s interview with Brandon Mann was a story from his 2006 season in the California League. Mann was with Visalia, and on this particular day his team was matched up against San Jose. On the mound for the Giants was a young right-hander named Tim Lincecum.

Mann knew what to expect. Both he and Lincecum are Seattle-area natives, and being a month apart in age they’d played against each other in high school multiple times. Visalia’s hitters had simply heard the hype.

It took all of one batter for hype to change to mouths agape.

“I was talking up Tim, and everybody was like, ‘Ah, we got this guy; we’re going to crush him,’” recalled Mann. “Fernando Perez was our leadoff guy, and he struck out on three pitches. Fernando walked back to the dugout and was like, ‘Little Timmy’s got a biiiiig arm, boys!’”

This was barely a month after Lincecum was drafted 10th overall by the Giants out of the University of Washington. The following May, “Little Timmy’ was in San Francisco’s starting rotation.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

The Minnesota Twins have removed a statue of former owner Calvin Griffith from outside Target Field. Howard Sinker and Chris Miller have the story at The Star-Tribune.

At The Tampa Bay Times, Marc Topkin told how New York Mets pitcher Marcus Stroman offered advice and inspiration at a Tampa youth baseball practice.

The NPB season got underway on Friday, and R.J. Anderson provided a primer on Japan’s top league for CBS Sports.

Shawon Dunston — the Cubs’ first-round pick in 1982 — has advice for this year’s No. 1, shortstop Ed Howard. Mark Gonzales has the story at The Chicago Tribune.

Ryan Rowland-Smith shared stories from his Seattle Mariners career on the Lookout Landing podcast.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

In 2008, CC Sabathia tied for the American League lead in shutouts, with two. The same year, he tied for the National League lead in shutouts, with three.

Bob Gibson had 13 shutouts in 1968. That’s the most in a single season since Pete Alexander logged 16 in 1916.

In 1972, Cesar Cedeno batted .320 with a .537 SLG. He had 22 HR and 55 SB.
In 1973, Cesar Cedeno batted .320 with a .537 SLG. He had 25 HR and 56 SB.

On June 21, 1970, Cesar Gutierrez went 7 for 7 to help lead the Detroit Tigers to an 9-8, 12-inning win over the Cleveland Indians.

On June 25, 1941, Joe Kuhel stole home with the bases loaded in the 13th inning as the Chicago White Sox beat the Washington Senators 2-0. It was a triple-steal, with Taffy Wright swiping third, and Luke Appling swiping econd.

On June 25, 1924, the Pittsburgh Pirates scored five in the ninth, and two in the 14th, to defeat the Chicago Cubs by a count of 8-7. Emil Yde, who pitched 10-and-a-third innings in relief, hit a bases-clearing double to send the game to extra frames, then ended the contest with a two-run triple.

In I920, Cleveland Indians southpaw Duster Mails appeared in nine regular-season games, eight of them as a starter, and went 7-0 with a 1.85 ERA. He then threw 15-and-two-thirds scoreless innings in the World Series, tossing a 3-hitter in a 1-0 Game 6 win.

Two players in big-league history have gone by the name “Polly.” Both of them — Polly McLarry and Polly Wolfe — played for the 1912 Chicago White Sox.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: Jose De León Is in Cincinnati With a New Arm 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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José De León grew STRONGER than ever and he is just 27 years old