Sunday Notes: Mitch Keller Bows to the BABIP Gods

Mitch Keller has only thrown 69-and-a-third big-league innings, and he’s already had a remarkable career. The baseball gods are a big reason why. In his 2019 rookie season, the now-24-year-old Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander had a 7.13 ERA to go with a 3.19 FIP, and this past season he had a 2.91 ERA to go with a 6.75 FIP.

Hello, BABIP.

In an almost-inexplicable quirk of fate, Keller followed up a .475 BABIP — the highest one-season mark in MLB history — with a .104 BABIP in 2020. No pitcher who threw 20-or-more innings in last year’s pandemic-truncated campaign had a smaller percentage of balls put in play against him fall safely to the turf. This happened with an average exit velocity of 88.5 mph, which was higher than the 87.6 he’d allowed in 2019.

Ben Lindbergh wrote about Keller’s snake-bit season for The Ringer last spring, and the conversation they had prior to publication is what brought the data to the fore.

“I remember getting off that phone call and looking it up myself,” said Keller. “I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness. That’s crazy.’ I knew that I had a high BABIP, but I had no idea it was the highest in history. Once he told me, it wasn’t like I was coming back to the dugout thinking, ‘Man, I think I’m having some bad luck.’ It was actually on paper, as a stat. It was, ‘No, seriously. I was having bad luck.”

Last year’s good luck culminated in yet another unique aspect of his young career. In his penultimate outing, Keller threw six hitless innings before being lifted from the game. Six days later, pitch counts again being the reason, he departed after five hitless innings. With batted balls consistently finding gloves, he finished the campaign having thrown 11 no-hit innings.

Not since Johnny Vander Meer threw consecutive no-hitters in 1938 had a National League pitcher made back-to-back starts of at least five innings without giving up a hit. Keller, who feels that his stuff was actually better in 2019 than it was in 2020, was once again dabbling in statistical extremes.

Asked if this past season’s Lilliputian .104 BABIP was a matter of things evening things out, Keller acknowledged that was probably the case. As for what happens going forward, he doesn’t expect Lindbergh — nor yours truly — to be writing similar stories about his relationship with the baseball gods.

“I don’t know if it’s possible for either extreme to happen again,” said Keller. “Hopefully, I’ll be on the lower end of that in-between.”

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Asked on Friday about Hank Aaron, Triston McKenzie called the iconic Hall of Famer, “a Black figure that I looked up to,” adding that he’d twice dressed up as Aaron on Halloween. While admittedly not much of a baseball-history buff, he’s nonetheless well aware of Aaron’s on-the-field accomplishments, and of his civil rights efforts. As McKenzie put it, “We lost a great one today.”

This past August, McKenzie logged his first big-league strikeout against a future Hall of Famer. Pitching for the Cleveland Indians, the 23-year-old right-hander fanned Miguel Cabrera on a slider. It was the first of 10 punch-outs in a wholly successful big-league debut.

Cabrera was the most-accomplished hitter that McKenzie faced in his 33-and-a-third MLB innings in 2020. And as much as that stood out, it wasn’t the only time he peered in from the mound with a sense of awe.

“In the moment, I was barely able to contain my giddiness to face Yadier Molina,” McKenzie told me. “He’s a future Hall of Famer. Status comes into play when you’re talking Hall of Famers — just how the name is revered — and when you talk about great catchers, Yadier Molina is a name that has to come up.”

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Mickey Rivers went 0 for 9 against Steve Trout.

Gus Gil went 0 for 10 against Catfish Hunter.

Tim Salmon went 1 for 4 against Doug Creek.

Eddie Lake went 1 for 4 against Jake Wade.

Jason Bay went 3 for 4 against Chris Waters.

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Minnie Miñoso was ranked the 10th-best left fielder of all time in the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, which was published in 2001. The next six players on the list are in the Hall of Fame, as are a smattering of others who rank below Charlie Keller, who came in at No. 17. Were it not for misfortune, Keller would be enshrined in Cooperstown as well. James wrote in the Abstract that had Keller not been injured, he “would have been one of the greatest power hitters in the history of baseball.” Playing primarily for the New York Yankees in the 1940s, Keller logged a 152 wRC+ and homered 189 times in 4,604 plate appearances.

Keller’s career falls short of Hall-worthiness due to his injury-marred lack of longevity. Miñoso, who played for the Negro National League’s New York Cubans prior to excelling in MLB, is another story. The “Cuban Comet” belongs in Cooperstown, and hopefully the Golden Era Committee comes around to rectifying his undeserved omission.

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A quiz:

Ty Cobb had 4,189 career hits. Against which team did he record his 4,000th hit?

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS ITEMS

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum announced that the Kansas City T-Bones of the independent American Association are being rebranded as the Kansas City Monarchs. The name honors the Negro League franchise that was founded in 1920 and existed into the 1960s.

Mike Bordick, Rick Dempsey, Jim Hunter, and Gary Thorne are among those who won’t be returning to Baltimore Orioles broadcasts in 2021. All have been employed by the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), which is reportedly dealing with financial issues.

The Atlanta Braves signed 29-year-old outfielder Kyle Garlick off waivers from the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday. A 28th-round pick by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2015, Garlick had a 145 wRC+ for Triple-A Oklahoma City in 2019. He was featured here at FanGraphs in September 2016.

Bob Costas and Tim Mead will headline a virtual SABR Day program this coming Saturday, January 30, from 2:00-4:00 p.m. EST. Registration is free for SABR members, while a $10 donation is requested from non-members. Information can be found here.

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The answer to the quiz is the Detroit Tigers. Playing in his first season with the Philadelphia A’s, Cobb recorded hit # 4,000 against his old team on July 18, 1927. All told, Cobb had 3,900 hits with the Tigers, and 289 with the A’s.

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I ran another who-was/is-better Twitter poll this week, and as is often the case when I do these, the results were far more one-sided I than expected. The candidates were Bobby Grich and Joey Votto, and the latter received a resounding 88.4% of the votes.

Their respective slash lines point to Votto being by far the better player. The Cincinnati Reds stalwart — still active at age 37 — has a .304/.419/.517 mark, while the erstwhile Orioles and Angels infielder hit just .266/.371/.424. Votto also has a clear edge in wC+, 150 to Grich’s 129.

But then there are defense and positional adjustments to consider. Grich, a middle infielder with a plus-plus glove, finished his career with 69.1 WAR. Votto, a first baseman, heads into the 2021 season with 56.7 WAR. Grich’s edge does shrink when you subtract his final two seasons, which puts his total games played on a nearly-even par with Votto’s, but with 66.3, he still comes out ahead.

Personally, my preference would be Votto. I have zero issue with the voting results in that respect. Even so, one thing remains clear: Grich is extremely underrated.

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Barry Larkin was a undeniably superior to Michael Young — the metrics show that quite clearly — but this snapshot is nonetheless interesting:

Larkin: .295 BA, 2,340 hits, 441 doubles, 198 home runs.
Young: .300 BA, 2,375 hits, 441 doubles, 185 home runs.

Are those numbers a bit misleading in terms of overall offensive value? Without a doubt. Larkin outshines the erstwhile Texas Rangers shortstop in categories such as wOBA and wRC+, and he was far more of a force on the base paths. Even so, Young deserves some props. His 13-year (plus a cup of coffee) career is largely under-appreciated by fans outside the state of Texas.

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Props also go out to Tyler Maun, who edits and writes for MiLB.com, cohosts the Show Before the Show podcast, and previously did play-by-play for the Myrtle Beach Pelicans and the Altoona Curve. Maun is the radio voice of University of Denver basketball, and on Friday — this from a remote location — he called the first eight minutes of a game played in Fargo, North Dakota sans a video feed. Prior to the technical difficulties being worked out, Maun relied entirely on a live stats feed to describe the action. A link to that trial-by-fire can be found here.

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FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Hernán Pérez was named the MVP of the Venezuelan Winter League after slashing .402/.500/.627 with Tigres de Aragua. A 29-year-old infielder, Pérez spent last season with the Chicago Cubs. Minnesota Twins’ utility man Willians Astudillo, who played for Caribes de Anzoategui, finished second in the balloting.

Aguilas Cabañas — managed by Felix Fermin — captured the Dominican Winter League championship, beating the Gigantes del Cibao in seven games. Juan Lagares was named series MVP.

Matt Dermody, who has pitched for both the Toronto Blue Jays and the Chicago Cubs, has agreed to sign with NPB’s Seibu Lions.(per jballallen.com).

Toronto Blue Jays prospects Samad Taylor and Chavez Young are playing for the Australian Baseball League’s Canberra Cavalry. Taylor is a 22-year-old second baseman, Young a 23-year-old switch-hitting outfielder. Both spent the 2019 season in high-A Dunedin.

Damek Tomscha is slashing .328/.356/.582 with five home runs in 67 at bats for the ABL’s Melbourne Aces. The 29-year-old Sioux City, Iowa native has played stateside in the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago White Sox organizations.

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If Shohei Ohtani continues to be a two-way player, a combination DH-closer role would make a lot of sense. I was reminded of that idea when Eduardo Perez shared on MLB Network Radio earlier this week, and I don’t see many drawbacks. Yes, the Angels are in need of starting pitching, but a one-two bullpen punch of Ohtani and Raisel Iglesias would be pretty formidable. Rather than limiting him to a start every six or seven days, Ohtani’s power arm could be used in high-leverage situations multiple times a week while also keeping his bat in the lineup. Moving him from DH to the mound in the late innings would be perfectly plausible, and quite possibly help the Halos win more games.

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Per baseball and political historian Curt Smith, in 2014 Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Smith shared that tidbit, and much more, during a SABR Boston virtual event earlier this week.

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Rocco Baldelli admitted last month that one of 2020’s pandemic-spurred rule changes — a runner placed at second base in extra innings — snuck up on him at times. Moreover, he’s not sold on its implementation.

“Even though you know it’s coming — you know it’s the new set of rules — the 10th inning rolls around and you hear someone talking about it behind you,” the Minnesota manager told reporters via Zoom. “Then it’s, ’Oh. Shoot.’… I feel like you could probably play an inning or two before sending the runner out to second base, to maybe finish it in a traditional sense.”

In other words, Baldelli would like to see an actual baseball game continue for at least a little while longer. I fully agree with him. If the worst rule in professional sports somehow remains in place, the least we could do is wait a few innings before compromising the contest’s integrity.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

At Our Game, John Thorn explored the possibility that Walt Whitman plagiarized the words that open Ken Burns’s Baseball.

The Undefeated’s Claire Smith wrote about Hank Aaron and his eternal connection to Black baseball.

The late Charlie Pride caught for the Negro League’s Memphis Red Sox before becoming a country music legend. Larry LeGrand was one of Pride’s teammates, and Mike Stevens talked to him for The Roanoke Times.

Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto shared thoughts on several subjects this past week, and Shannon Drayer looked at three of them for 710 ESPN Seattle.

Rob Neyer interviewed former big-league pitcher, and current Cincinnati Reds broadcaster, Chris Welsh on the latest episode of SABRcast.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Jon Lester had a .636 winning percentage and a 3.64 ERA in nine seasons with the Red Sox. He had a .636 winning percentage and a 3.64 ERA in six seasons with the Cubs.

In 1937, Yankees right-hander Red Ruffing went 20-7 and threw 22 complete games. In 1938, he went 21-7 with 22 complete games. In 1939, he went 21-7 with 22 complete games.

Lou Gehrig hit 14 home runs against the Cleveland Indians in 1936.

Barry Bonds slashed .436/.718/1.128 in 78 plate appearances against the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004.

Hank Aaron slashed .337/.376/.612 with 50 home runs in 782 career plate appearances at Wrigley Field. The 50 home runs at Wrigley is his most in a visiting ballpark.

The home run leaderboard when Hank Aaron was born on February 5, 1934: Babe Ruth 686, Lou Gehrig 299, Rogers Hornsby 299, Cy Williams 251, Hack Wilson 238. (Per @PassonJim)

The Toronto Blue Jays selected Tom Henke from the Texas Rangers as a free agent compensation pick on today’s date in 1985. Henke went on to record 217 saves with the Jays over the next eight seasons. His career total is 311.

The Kansas City Royals signed Harmon Killebrew as a free agent on today’s date in 1975. Killebrew hit 14 of his 573 home runs in his lone season with a team other than the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins.

Players born on today’s date include Clay Touchstone, who pitched for the Boston Braves in 1928 and 1929, and for the Chicago White Sox in 1945. The Moore Township, Pennsylvania native won over 200 games in the minor leagues between big-league stints. His given name was Clayland Maffitt Touchstone.

Dean Chance, Pat Gillick, Boog Powell, Cal Ripken Sr, and Earl Weaver all played for the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League’s Fox Cities Foxes in 1960. Four of the league’s eight teams were located in Iowa, two were in Wisconsin, and one each were in Kansas and Nebraska. None were in Illinois or Indiana.





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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Tony
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Tony

I’m not a Baltimore fan, but when my team wasn’t playing I would turn on the Orioles game to listen to Gary Thorne despite the Orioles not being a very interesting team. Good luck to Gary in finding his next job!

Sonny L
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Sonny L

Same. There are a small handful of ‘announcer voices’ I seek out when I’m just flipping around MLB.tv for background noise.

Good luck Gary