Sunday Notes: Porcello’s Spin, Korea’s Park, Nava, Hockey, more by David Laurila March 13, 2016 In my January 31 column, I noted that Rick Porcello has one of the highest four-seam spin rates in the game. Given his increased usage over the past two years, I theorized that he began throwing the pitch more often for that very reason. It turns out I was wrong. “When I started using my four-seam more in Detroit (in 2014), it was just a different fastball to give them a different look,” Porcello said in Fort Myers. “I didn’t know anything about spin rate until I was told about it last year.” Regardless of the reason, the pitch wasn’t a panacea. A plethora of mis-located fours helped contribute to a tumultuous 2015. In his first season with the Red Sox, Porcello allowed 196 hits in 172 innings, and his ERA was an unsightly 4.92. His signature pitch was equally to blame. “Without getting too deep into it, everything was kind of elevated into a hitting zone,” explained Porcello. “That was the case for both my four-seamer and my sinker. When you’re throwing everything at a certain height in the strike zone, hitters don’t need to respect down.” Porcello doesn’t think about creating spin, but he knows when his pitches aren’t doing what they normally do. His sinker is “more of a feel pitch” and for a much of last year it was “more of a running two-seamer than it was a power sinker.” Working down is his preferred modus operandi going forward. Not because his four-seamer can’t be effective, but because he feels it will be more effective used selectively. “I don’t expect to be using (the four-seamer) as much as I did when I was struggling,” said Porcello. “I’m going to take the same approach I had toward the end of last season, which is primarily the sinker down. It’s my most important pitch. It’s my bail-out pitch when I need a ground ball, and getting hitters to focus down in the zone is what allows me to get a swing-and-miss with my four-seamer. “I’ve been first and foremost a sinker-heavy pitcher my entire career. That’s where I’ve had a lot of my success, so I’m not going to jump ship on it. But I have a four-seamer with a good spin rate, and I’m going to use it accordingly.” ——— Byung Ho Park isn’t going to match what he did last season in Korea. Playing for the Nexen Heroes, the 29-year-old slugger slashed .343/.436/.714, with 53 home runs. He’ll nonetheless be expected to produce. The Twins ponied up a $12.85 million posting fee to acquire his services, and they’ll pay Park $12 million over the next four seasons. When I talked to Park in Fort Myers (with the help of translator J.D. Kim), he described his hitting approach as “nothing fancy.” Saying that he “doesn’t have a super philosophy,” he elaborated that he focuses on finding good timing and squaring up the ball. Notably, he said he swings hard. A Korean reporter I spoke to called Park an aggressive hitter, and his strikeout numbers could be a concern. He went down by way of the K 161 times last year. Don’t expect Park to lose any sleep over the whiffs. “Striking out doesn’t fear me,” said Park. “It’s just an out.” Adapting to a new strike zone and a different pitching style will be challenges. The American-born pitchers he faced in his homeland “threw more of a cutter or a sinker — fastballs with movement — and Korean pitchers, most of the time, throw straight fastballs.” Based on first impressions, the strike zone in Korea “might be a little wider,” while “high-and-low, it might be a little bigger here.” Park acknowledged his power as a strength. But while he downplayed the nuances of his approach, he doesn’t consider himself simply see-ball-hit-ball. “What I look for depends on the situation,” explained Park. “It depends on the runners on the bases and who is on the mound. I couldn’t say I get in the box every time with the same kind of attack plan.” ——— Daniel Nava is 9 for 15 so far this spring. Not that those numbers are especially meaningful. The sample is small, and March results are best taken with a grain of salt. Even so, they hint at a return to form for a player expected to get regular ABs with the Angels. Anaheim signed Nava off the scrap heat this past winter, after he was released by the Rays. The rags-to-riches outfielder was abysmal in limited duty last season. Splitting 166 plate appearances between Boston and Tampa Bay, Nava hit an injury-influenced .194/.315/.245. That slash line was a far cry from his career mark of .278/.364/.403. Fully recovered from hand and knee maladies that hampered his ability to drive the ball, the 33-year-old switch-hitter feels he’s ready to “get back to being the type of hitter I was previous to last year — a guy who grinds out at bats.” According to manager Mike Scioscia, that’s what the Angels need. “If you break down last year, from the offensive side, on-base percentage is the first thing that jumps out,” said Scioscia. “We need guys who can can get on base and set the table. If Daniel Nava is playing to his potential, there’s no doubt he’s a really good fit for us.” Currently slated to platoon in left field — a role he had in Boston — Nava is expected to get most of his at bats against righties. He’s back to switch-hitting — “I tried going just left last year, but it didn’t really work out” — but he’s clearly better from his dominant side. Since breaking into the big leagues, Nava has reached base at a .377 clip when standing in the left-handed batter’s box. ——— In 2010, the Pittsburgh Pirates went 57-105. Early that season, Andrew McCutchen — 23 years old and in his second season — told me the following: “There were times last year when we played and people were chanting, ‘Let’s go Steelers,’ and ‘Let’s go Penguins.’ I have nothing against the Steelers or the Penguins—they’re two good teams—but it would be good to hear them say, ‘Let’s go Pirates’ every night.” Fast forward to today: The Pirates are coming off a 98-win season and have been in the postseason each of the past three years. They head into 2016 with high expectations. Think about that for a minute, Pittsburgh fans. ——— Last month, in Phoenix, I talked to Brewers GM David Stearns about player procurement. With balance in mind, I asked if he’d shy away from acquiring power hitters if the Milwaukee lineup was already well-stocked in that area. His answer elicited memories of Harvey’s Wallbangers. “If all nine of them could play defense, at nine different positions, that might be OK,” Stearns told me. For those of you not up on Brewers history, Harvey Kuenn managed Milwaukee in 1982 and his squad banged plenty of walls on their way to a pennant. The Brew Crew bashed a best-in-both-leagues 216 home runs, with seven positions (they platooned at DH) totaling 19 or more. It was a fun summer in Wisconsin. ——— Hockey is big in Michigan. From the Detroit Red Wings to youth leagues, the sport provides winter solace while the Tigers are at rest (and fans of the Lions and Pistons kvetch). Ryan LaMarre, who debuted with the Reds last year and is currently in camp with the Red Sox, began playing hockey at a young age. There was a rink in his family’s back yard — his father was a coach — and he was competing on the travel circuit by the time he was eight years old. One of the all-time leading scorers at Jackson Lumen Christi High School, he was team captain and was twice named All-State. LaMarre was a center, so it’s no surprise who he modeled his game after. “It was Steve Yzerman,” said LaMarre. “He was the captain, and one of my heroes. I was lucky. I grew up at a time when the Wings were winning Stanley Cups left and right. I remember the Russian Five, the Grind Line, Kris Draper, Bob Probert. It was an awesome time to be a hockey fan in Michigan.” LaMarre grew up with Steve Kampfer (Florida Panthers) and he attended the University of Michigan with the likes of Luke Glendening (Red Wings) and Max Pacioretty (Montreal Canadiens). Despite his ability on the ice, LaMarre went to Ann Arbor to play baseball. “Had I wanted to play (hockey) at the college level. I would have had to play Juniors first,” said the 27-year-old outfielder. “I stuck with the high school route, so I could play hockey, football and baseball. I ended up getting the scholarship offer for baseball.” ——— In 1951, when he owned the St. Louis Browns, Bill Veeck signed 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel. On August 19, Gaedel famously pinch-hit for the lead-off hitter in the first inning of a game against the Detroit Tigers. He wore the number 1/8 on his uniform, but not his name. It wasn’t until 1960 that player’s names adorned the backs of big league uniforms. Veeck — then the owner of the Chicago White Sox — was responsible for the innovation. ——— As a rule, umpires are either unnoticed or mocked. Either they get the call right (ho-hum), or they screw over your favorite team with grievous misjudgment. When their (rare) mistakes are overturned by replay, you shake your head in redemptive amusement. Chuck Meriwether feels blessed to have gone unnoticed and mocked for two decades. “Every morning, I wake up and thank God,” said Meriwether, who was a big-league umpire from 1988-2009, and is now an umpire supervisor. “People talk about players getting to the big leagues. For an umpire to get to the big leagues is even tougher. It’s like having a Supreme Court Judge job. There’s not much of a turnover.” Meriwether was all business on the field, but that didn’t stop him from smelling the roses. When I asked if him he ever stepped back and appreciated his surroundings, he smiled broadly. “I worked two World Series — 2004 and 2007 — and in one of those years I was working with an umpire named Brian Gorman,” said Meriwether. “We were in Boston. The Green Monster has all the scores on it during the summer, and Brian said to me, ‘We must be in the World Series, because we’re the only game in town.’ That’s when the butterflies start flying and you really feel blessed.” ——— Willie Bloomquist played for four teams over 14 seasons before retiring earlier this week. He was never an every-day notable — he logged 400 plate appearance only once — but he was always valuable. A jack-of-all-trades, Bloomquist played 100 or more games at six different positions, and 47 more at first base. Bloomquist’s name was mentioned when I did my informal poll of possible future managers. Don’t be surprised if he joins the coaching ranks in the not-too-distant future. ——— The Tampa Bay Rays are hoping to employ more multi-inning relievers this year. Manager Kevin Cash shared the following when I broached the subject last week in Fort Myers: “We’ve already done it with Enny Romero and Matt Andriese.,” said Cash. “Those two, along with Andrew Bellatti, Steve Geltz, Alex Colome — we’re going to look to extend those guys to being more than one-inning pitchers. Ideally, we’ll have those options. We’ll take the spring to figure out who’s capable of doing it, and who is best-suited to stay in that one-inning role.” ——— LINKS YOU’LL LIKE Chris Smith of MassLive recently profiled Chris Young the outfielder. According to the article, Young hadn’t always envisioned a career in professional baseball. As a high school student in Houston, he thought he would one day attend medical school and become a doctor. Peter Schmuck of the Baltimore Sun had a good take on Goose Gossage’s inane and ironic comments regarding old-school protocol. One of the first things I thought upon reading Gossage’s words was, “Didn’t he play with Reggie Jackson?” Schmuck pointed that out, adding that Goose’s generation was “viewed by many of their crew-cutted predecessors as preening peacocks who spent too much time trimming their Fu Manchu mustaches and styling their hair.” Alex Speier of the Boston Globe, reporting from the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, wrote about how Bill James is not a fan of the balk rule. ——— RANDOM FACTS AND STATS Brandon Phillips was 23 for 26 in stolen base attempts last year. The 34-year-old’s 88.5% success rate was tops in the National League. Chase Utley has stolen 143 bases in 161 attempts in his career. His 88.8% success rate is the best all-time. Hisashi Iwakuma (40.3) had the highest swing rate at pitches outside the strike zone last year. Chris Heston and Ubaldo Jimenez (59.9) had the lowest swing rate on pitches in the strike zone. From 1962-1965, Dick “The Monster” Radatz had 49 relief wins and 98 saves for the Red Sox. Riggs Stephenson slashed .336/.407/.473 from 1921-1934 with the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Cubs. In 39 World Series plate appearances, the long-forgotten outfielder hit .378/.410/.432.