Kieran Lovegrove is among the plurality of players currently available in the minor league free-agent market. That should change in the not-too-distant future. The 24-year-old right-hander throws gas, and while his location is sometimes scattershot, he’s moving in the right direction. Six years after being drafted by the Cleveland Indians out of a Mission Viejo, California high school, he finished this season in Triple-A Columbus.
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa — he came Stateside at age five — Lovegrove made giant strides this year. Pitching out of the bullpen, he punched out 10 batters per nine innings and put up a career-best 2.73 ERA in 41 appearances. Two months after being promoted to Double-A, he represented the World Team in July’s All-Star Futures Game.
It’s taken the 2012 third-round pick time, but he’s finally begun to figure things out — at least when it comes to what works for him, and what doesn’t. While he’s no dum-dum, his attempted deep dives into the hows-and-whys of his chosen craft have only served to muddy the waters.
“I’m a thinker, and if I’m given too much information I start to think about it,” reasoned Lovegrove, whose level of familiarity with Yogi Berra is unknown. “Because of that, I’ve kind of had to avoid the analytics thing. But I have found out that when my ball is down in the zone it tends to sink, and when it’s up in the zone it four-seams. When I can throw up is when I’ve been going down. It’s all about setting up hitters, and actually pitching as opposed to just throwing the ball.”
His heater has a mind of its own.
“My fastball is a four-seam, but something about the way I pronate makes it two-seam at times,” explained Lovegrove, who sits 95-96 and flirts with triple digits. “When it’s down, it registers as a sinker at 2,500 (RPM). I wish I knew why it does what it does, but it’s working for me right now, and that’s what matters.”
Effectively reining in the pitch has been an issue. The 6-foot-4 righty walked 4.5 batters per nine innings this year, and his career rate is two percentage points higher. That’s not pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey territory, but it’s not exactly painting the corners either. Greg Maddux he’s not. (Conversely, nor is he Steve Dalkowski, of whom Pat Jordan once wrote in Sports Illustrated, “His failure was not one of deficiency, but rather of excess. He was too fast. His ball moved too much.)
A handful of years ago, Lovegrove tweaked the finger placement on his fastball in hopes of getting truer four-seam action. Feeling that he was “getting too much sink and ending up out of the zone,” he went from “dead square on the seams to a diagonal grip.”
And then are his secondary pitches. Lovegrove used to throw a slider, which morphed into a cutter, and now he throws neither. Instead, he throws a knuckle curve… which wasn’t supposed to be a knuckle curve.
“Greg Hibbard taught it to me back when I was in Mahoning Valley (in 2015) and he was the pitching coach there,” Lovegrove told me in our summer conversation. “Really, he was just trying to make my slider better. He was like, ‘Hold a knuckle curve and just spin it to me. Feel the spin, feel the spin, feel the spin.’ Two years after that, I decided to start throwing an actual knuckle curve off the mound.”
The third weapon in his arsenal has also undergone an alteration. He used to baby his circle change, and now he tries to throw it through a wall.
“We discovered that it’s better when it has less spin and moves at a higher speed,” Lovegrove said. “I used to try to throw it in the 83-85 range, and now my thought process is that I’m trying to throw it 100 MPH. When I do that it comes out 88-90 and gets me more uncomfortable looks. Then I can move in with the fastball, or maybe get him out in front with a knuckle curve. I throw hard, so it’s mostly going to be fastballs, but you still have to pitch.”
Most of us have attended a baseball game where we fully expected a certain outcome. I’m not talking about your run-of-the mill “chances are pretty darn good” assumptions. What I’m referring to is “I’d wager my house on this one” assumptions.
One such game I’ve attended took place in Toronto’s Rogers Centre, and let’s just say it’s a good thing I’m not a betting man. What I expected — heck, what the majority of fans throughout two countries expected — ended up not happening. That’s how baseball works sometimes, isn’t it?
As Blue Jays fans are loath to remember, ALCS Game 5 was the Waterloo of their team’s 2016 season. Rather than taking advantage of an unheralded rookie pitcher with all of 11 big-league innings under his belt, a high-powered Jays offense fluttered and sputtered. By night’s end, the visiting Cleveland Indians were World Series bound.
There was no cheering in the press box that night — the practice is verboten — but there were more than a few expressions of disbelief. Ryan Merritt wasn’t supposed to spin four-and-a-third scoreless innings and leave the game with a lead that was never relinquished. Not with his unaccomplished resume. Not against this team. With few exceptions, we all expected to be back the next night for a Game 6.
People expecting that October evening to be a watershed moment for the then-24-year-old southpaw have been disappointed. Merritt has gone on to throw 215 innings, but only 20 of them have come at the big-league level. As a velocity-challenged control artist — he issued just two free passes in 71 Triple-A innings this year — he’s been little more than an afterthought for a pitching-rich division winner.
His fortunes may have changed a few days ago. It was reported on Thursday that Merritt has signed with the Tampa Bay Rays as a minor league free agent, and will receive an invite to big-league camp.
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
Is Joe Mauer deserving of enshrinement in Cooperstown? My colleague Jay Jaffe feels that he is, as evidenced by this carefully-considered piece that ran earlier in the week. Arguments against are equally valid — the longtime Minnesota Twins stalwart is by no means a slam dunk — but there is no denying that Mauer has his bona fides.
So does Victor Martinez, who, like his sweet-swing contemporary, has likewise decided to call it a career. Consider these numbers:
Mauer had 2,123 hits, 143 home runs, 3,040 total bases, 923 RBIs, and was an All-Star six times. Martinez had 2,153 hits, 246 home runs, 3,320 total bases, 1,178 RBIs, and was an All-Star five times.
As for the defensive side of the ball, Mauer caught 921 games and was at first base 513 times. Martinez caught 858 games and was at first base 213 time. The latter made more appearances at the DH position — 869 to Mauer’s 310 — thanks largely to the immense presence of Miguel Cabrera at first base in the Detroit Tigers lineup.
Was V-Mart as good as Mauer? No, but the gap is smaller than a lot of people might think.
Speaking of similarities, check this out:
Joe Mauer played 15 seasons with the Twins, won three batting titles, had a .306 batting average, and 3,040 total bases. Tony Oliva played 15 seasons with the Twins, won three batting titles, had a .304 batting average, and 3,002 total bases.
Jerry Howarth was given a Lifetime Achievement award from Sports Media Canada on Thursday. Howarth was the radio play-by-play voice of the Toronto Blue Jays from 1981-2017.
Keston Hiura was named the MVP of the Arizona Fall League. The 22-year-old Milwaukee Brewers infield prospect — a 2017 first-round pick out of Cal Irvine—had a .934 OPS for the Peoria Javelinas. Past AFL MVPs include Ronald Acuna Jr., Gleyber Torres, Kris Bryant, and Nolan Arenado.
Ryan O’Rourke, who was first featured here at FanGraphs in February 2013, has signed a minor league free-agent deal with the New York Mets. The 30-year-old left-handed reliever has been out of action since undergoing Tommy John surgery in May 2017. O’Rourke appeared in 54 games with the Minnesota Twins between the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
The Australian Baseball League season got underway earlier this week. If you want to keep up with what’s going on down under, here is a link to the ABL’s website.
This coming Tuesday is the deadline for teams to set their 40-man rosters ahead of the Rule 5 draft. The annual event will take place on December 13, on the final day of this year’s Winter Meetings.
A few days ago, I noted on Twitter that Eddie Yost had eight full seasons with an on-base percentage of .400 or higher, and didn’t make an All-Star team in any of them. As baseball historians know, Yost spent the bulk of his career with the Washington Senators and was known as “The Walking Man.” In one 11-year stretch, the under-appreciated-in-his-time infielder logged a .259 batting average and a .406 OBP.
Bill James responded to my Tweet with some eye-opening elaboration. To wit:
“Yost lost more of his power to his home park (Griffith) than any other player… Over a period of five years he hit 50 home runs on the road, only three in his home park.”
In his career, Yost homered 25 times in 3,796 plate appearances at Griffith Stadium, and 114 times in 5,379 plate appearances at other venues. His slash line over 18 seasons — he played from 1944-1962 — was .254/.394/.371.
Alex Wood told the story behind his changeup in a recent installment of our Learning and Developing a Pitch series. Today we’ll hear from the Dodgers southpaw on another of his offerings — his knuckle curve.
“I didn’t have a breaking ball until I got to the Braves,” said Wood, whom Atlanta drafted in 2012 and subsequently swapped to Los Angeles in 2015. “My first spring training in big-league camp — my first one ever — I went in knowing that in order to take the next step forward, I would need to figure out some kind of breaking ball. I’d had trouble throwing one my whole life.
“Craig Kimbrel is one of my good buddies — he’s got a wipeout breaker — and Jonny Venters… I spoke to them. They both threw some variation of a knuckle curveball. I tried that, and it’s kind of evolved from there. My breaking ball has become a pretty good weapon for me.”
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
At The Baltimore Sun, Jon Meoli talked to members of the 1983 Orioles, who are wondering how long they’ll be the city’s last World Series championship club.
How does NPB’s free agent system work? Japan-based sportswriter Jim Allen answered that question on his blog.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Batters were hit by pitches a record 1,922 times this year.
The Washington Nationals finished 82-80 and had a plus-89 run differential. The Philadelphia Phillies finished two games behind their NL East rivals at 80-82 and had a minus-51 run differential.
Tampa Bay’s Tommy Pham had five doubles, six triples, and five home runs in September, making him the first American League player with at least five extra-base hits of each type, in any calendar month, since Harold Baines in August 1984. (per the Rays media relations department.)
William Sisler was born on November 17, 1900. A left-handed pitcher, Sisler played for more than 40 minor league teams from 1923-1948. He never made it to the majors.
Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to win an MVP award on this date in 1949. The Brooklyn Dodgers infielder led the National League in batting average (.342) and stolen bases (37).
In 1977, Cardinals teammates Bob Forsch and Eric Rasmussen finished with identical 4.48 ERAs. Forsch had a record of 20-7. Rasmussen (who had the better FIP) went 11-17. (Thanks to @instreamsports for pointing this out to me.)
Nothing to do with baseball, but it’s worth noting that the son of former NBA player Manute Bol is a 7’ 2” freshman hooping in Oregon. Bol Bol is a Duck.
Buddy Groom’s given name is Wedsel Gary Groom.
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.