This past Wednesday, I talked to Oakland A’s pitcher Chris Smith for the first time in close to a decade. After we’d exchanged pleasantries, I asked the now-36-year-old right-hander how he’d describe his career. His answer came as no surprise.
“Oh, man, how about rollercoaster?,” suggested Smith. “It was a rollercoaster early on, and it’s continued to be a rollercoaster.”
That’s an apt assessment. Since being selected by the Red Sox in the fourth round of the 2002 draft, Smith has experienced ups and downs worthy of Six Flags. A dune buggy accident compromised his 2003 season, and he’s bounced — mostly in the minors — from Boston to the Brewers to the Mariners to the Padres to the A’s.
And then there was his three-year hiatus away from affiliated ball.
“When the Mariners let me go (in May, 2011), I thought I was done,” admitted Smith. “I got released because of my performance — not because of health — and I was OK with that. If I wasn’t good enough, it was time to move on. I went back to UC-Riverside and became the pitching coach there.”
It turned out that he wasn’t done after all. After a year spent coaching at his alma mater, Smith was convinced to make a comeback in independent ball.
“A couple buddies of mine — Mike Burns and Lincoln Holdzkom — were going to play with the Wichita Wingnuts,” explained Smith. “They tried to get me to go with them, and I said ‘no.’ Then Kevin Hooper, who was the manager there, called me.
“I’d been playing catch with the pitchers at UC-Riverside — I started throwing bullpens at the end — and I felt fine, so I decided, ‘Let’s do it.’ I ended up playing with the Wingnuts in 2013, the Sugarland Skeeters in 2014, and then the Padres picked me up. They probably looked at me as roster filler, but roster filler or not, I made the most of it and was able to pitch myself back on the map. Oakland called in 2016, and I said, ‘I’d love to come pitch for you guys.’ They sent me to Nashville, and last summer they called me up — I was in the big leagues for the first time since 2010.”
Smith, who has 145 big-league innings to his credit — and 1,043 in the minors — closed our conversation with another description of his career: “Basically, I went from stay-at-home dad — I have three daughters now — to part-time stay-at-home-dad and part-time pitcher.”
Sergio Romo is known for his slider, but the most-memorable pitch he’s ever thrown was something else. On a frosty October night in Detroit, Romo froze Miguel Cabrera with a 10th-inning fastball down broadway to close out the 2012 World Series.
“That was obviously one of the better moments of my career,” said Romo, who has since moved on from San Francisco to Tampa Bay. “It was such a cool experience to be out there with a chance to win it all. Being in that moment, I didn’t even feel the cold (it was 41 degrees at first pitch, with 21-mph winds).”
Buster Posey was putting down the fingers, but — with a whole lotta shaking going on — the righty reliever was the one calling the shots. It was he who wanted the heater.
“It was my call to throw the fastball,” Romo told me. “I’d thrown him five sliders in a row, and I don’t know if anyone noticed, but I shook off on all five pitches — even if Buster put down a slider. Every time. I shook just to shake. Pitch number six, I shook again, and then threw a fastball.”
Wanting to make sure I understood correctly, I asked if he could elaborate.
“OK, so the count is 0-0,” responded Romo. “He put down slider, I shook. He put down slider again and I threw a slider. Count is 0-1: He put down a slider and I shook. He put down slider again and I shook. Then he put down slider and I threw a slider. On 1-1, he put down a slider. I shook, he put down slider again, and I threw another slider. I kept doing that.
“Pitch number six — the count was 2-2 with a foul ball — I shook again. This time he put down a fastball, and I said, ‘Thank you.’ I threw a fastball and he took it.”
Until I mentioned it to him earlier in the week, David Price wasn’t aware that Burke Badenhop is currently working in the Arizona Diamondbacks front office. The Red Sox lefty didn’t seem too surprised, as his former Tampa Bay Rays teammate is “a smart guy” — and not just when it comes to baseball.
“He’s probably running their fantasy football,” mused Price. “Burke might be the best fantasy owner I’ve been around. He and Rocco Baldelli always had the best team.”
I was talking to Ruben Amaro earlier this week when the subject turned to players with excellent knowledge of the game. The Red Sox first base coach brought up the name of someone he knows well from their days together in Philadelphia.
“Chase Utley is a very inquisitive guy,” volunteered Amaro. “You would think that he’s more old-school, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he hasn’t adapted, and understood, analysis — what data can bring to an evaluation process.”
Could Amaro see Utley working in a front office some day?
“It’s possible,” responded the former Phillies GM. “He has the intelligence to do it. I think he probably has more of a passion to stay on the field, though.”
Kansas City Royals third base coach Mike Jirschele is from Clintonville, Wisconsin, which has a population of approximately 4,500. It’s a baseball town, and the his family plays a big part of that. The home field for the semi-pro Clintonville A’s is named after his father, Don Jirschele.
The Milwaukee Brewers are the MLB team of choice for most people in Clintonville, but thanks to Jirschele’s longtime association with his current club — he’s been in the organization for 25 years — lines of allegiances have become blurred.
“A lot of people in our area watch the Royals closely, because I’m here,” explained Jirschele. “It was funny — when we went to the World Series, there were blue ribbons on trees, and some of the local businesses painted their windows, ‘Go Royals.’”
The little boy that lives within veteran coach still says, ‘Go Brewers.’
“At heart. I’m still a Brewers fan,” admitted Jirschele. “I’ve always loved the Brewers, and I still like to see them do well. I wouldn’t mind playing them in the World Series sometime. Of course, I wouldn’t be a Brewers fan then.”
Tzu-Wei Lin was well known on the international scouting circuit long before the Red Sox signed him out of Taiwan in June 2012. Most notably, he’d excelled in the 2010 World Junior Championships, where he was named tournament MVP. Opportunities to come stateside were plentiful.
“A lot of teams were interested,” Lin told me this summer. “When I was 16, the Yankees were going to sign me, but I was told to wait. After that, I almost signed with the Indians, but again my agent said “no, no, no,” because I hadn’t finished my high school yet. But then, when I was 18, four guys from the Red Sox came and watched me. They picked me up.”
Eddie Romero, Jr. — now an assistant general manager — led the way.
“We took a caravan of scouts to Taiwan to kind of sit on him for a few days,” said Romero, who at the time was was Boston’s director of international scouting. “Our area scout, Louie Lin, did a great job of setting up a game for us.
“Tzu-Wei showed plus speed, good hands, good arm strength. He showed us the ability to play shortstop, and we knew he could play other positions as well. He was very confident in the box, spraying line drives all over the field. We liked his collection of overall tools, plus he performed very well for us.”
Lin has seen action at second base, third base, and shortstop for the Red Sox this season. He’s slashing .273/.365/.345 in 64 plate appearances.
Abraham Toro-Hernandez stands out as an intriguing prospect in the Houston Astros organization. The 2016 fifth-round pick hails from Longueuil, Quebec, speaks fluent Spanish, and he plays at both at the hot corner and behind the dish. He also swings a healthy bat. In 286 plate appearances between short-season Tri-City and low-A Quad Cities, the 20-year-old switch-hitter swatted 15 home runs and logged an .859 OPS.
Power potential aside, versatility and character are his calling cards. Of Venezuelan descent, Toro-Hernandez — a third baseman at Seminole State — began strapping on the tools of ignorance after reaching pro ball.
“They want me to work at both positions,” Toro-Hernandez told me this summer. “I didn’t really have a catcher background — maybe just a couple of games in high school — but the Astros told me it would help a lot if I was able to play multiple positions.”
Being bilingual increases his value.
“Knowing Spanish and English, I can communicate better with all of my teammates, including the pitching staff,” explained Toro-Hernandez. “A lot of players here are Dominican, and it’s hard for some of them to speak English. I try to help them. I can kind of take on some leadership this way.”
Philadelphia’s Rhys Hoskins has a 1.446 OPS and a .000 BABiP in 37 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers.
Houston’s Josh Reddick has full-season career highs in BA (.316), OBP (.365), SLG (.485) and doubles (31). His 82 RBI are three short of his 2012 total.
On Saturday, Colorado’s Nolan Arenado became the first third baseman in MLB history to have at least 125 RBI in three consecutive seasons.
Dustin Pedroia went 0 for 9 on Friday night as the Red Sox beat Tampa Bay 13-6 in 15 innings. Per the inimitable Jayson Stark, Pedroia joined Trot Nixon (July 7, 2006) and Martin Prado (July 26, 2011) as the only players in the last 25 years to go 0 for 9.
When Andrew McCutchen hit his 200th home run earlier this week, he became the fourth player in Pirates history to reach that number. Willie Stargell (475), Ralph Kiner (301) and Roberto Clemente (240) are the others.
With his next home run, Robinson Cano will become the 16th player in MLB history with a career batting average of .300 or better, and at least 1,000 runs, 2,000 hits, 500 doubles, 300 home runs and 1,000 RBI.
Chicago White Sox outfielder Avisail Garcia is 95 for 241 (.394) against the AL Central this year. He is 29 for 68 (.426) against his former team, the Detroit Tigers.
Minnesota Twins outfielder Byron Buxton has been successful in each of his last 21 stolen bases attempts, and is 26 for 27 on the season.
Miles Mikolas has a 2.11 ERA in his third season with NPB’s Yomiuri Giants. The former Padres and Rangers right-hander has 176 strikeouts and 20 walks in 174-and-two-thirds innings.
At 39-21, the Chicago Cubs have the second best record of any team since the All-Star Break. The Cleveland Indians have the best record, at 45-17.
With their win on Friday, the Rockies cinched their first winning record since 2010.
With their win yesterday, the Yankees clinched their 25th consecutive winning season.
The Red Sox are 13-3 in extra-inning games this season, and 2-0 in games that have lasted at least six hours. They are 1-3 in games that have lasted under two-and-a-half hours.
Like most big league broadcasters, Steve Stewart once called games in the minors. I asked the Kansas City Royals radio voice for a story from those bygone days, and he shared the following:
“In 1993, when he was at his peak with the Red Sox, Roger Clemens was on a rehab assignment,” recalled Stewart. “I was with the Richmond Braves. We had Chipper Jones, Ryan Klesko, Javy Lopez — a stacked team of prospects. They were pumped that they were going to face Roger Clemens. They were sky high.
“Clemens was on a pitch count, maybe 60 pitches, and he only gave up one hit. Chipper Jones — he was 21 years old — hit a ball that went off the top of the centerfield wall and came back into play for a double. You would have thought he had just won the World Series. He was so excited to have gotten a hit off a legend like Roger Clemens.”
Tommy John belongs in the Hall of Fame. While primarily a stats-based honor, a plaque in Cooperstown is also earned via reputation and importance to the game. John’s name is as well known as any in baseball, and it will remain so far into the future.
Even if the most-important medical procedure in baseball history didn’t bear his name, John would be worthy of serious consideration. His 288 career wins rank 26th all-time (he also won six post-season games), and his 4,710-and-a-third innings rank 20th all-time. His 62.0 WAR is more than that of 80-plus players already enshrined.
Critics can claim that John was a compiler, but playing 26 seasons — 14 of them after undergoing a game-changing procedure — qualifies as a unique, and wholly Hall-worthy, accomplishment.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
Twins pitchers Trevor May and Ryan O’Rourke have not only been rehabbing injuries this season, they’ve also been flexing their muscles as budding entrepreneurs. Mike Berardino explained how at The Pioneer Press.
Baseball America listed the attendance figures of every team in minor league baseball for both this year and last year.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Stan Musial made his MLB debut — and collected the first of his 3,630 career hits, all with the St. Louis Cardinals — on this date in 1941.
On September 17, 1968, Gaylord Perry of the San Francisco Giants threw a no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals. On September 18, 1968, Ray Washburn of the St. Louis Cardinals threw a no-hitter against the San Francisco Giants.
Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson played his final game on September 22, 1927. He homered in his only plate appearance on the day.
The 1954 Cleveland Indians finished 111-43, and two of the greatest players in Detroit Tigers history played meaningful roles. Hank Greenberg was the GM, and fellow Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser went 7-2 with a 2.51 ERA.
The pitching staff for the 1916 New York Giants included Rube Benton, Pol Perritt, Slim Sallee, Ferdie Schupp, and Sailor Stroud. Perritt was on the mound for the September 18 tie game that broke up the club’s 26-game winning streak.
The 1977 Kansas City Royals won 24 out of 25 games between August 31 and September 25. Their lone loss in that stretch came on September 16.
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.