Brock Burke was nowhere to be found on top-prospect lists when he was featured here at FanGraphs last June. But he did merit our attention. Tampa Bay’s third-round pick in the 2014 draft had one of the lowest ERAs in the minors at the time. While the sample size was small — just nine starts on the season — his dominance was undeniable. He’d begun to put himself on the map.
The southpaw out of Evergreen, Colorado wasn’t nearly as good after a mid-summer promotion from low-A Bowling Green to high-A Charlotte. His ERA as a Stone Crab was exponentially higher than it was as a Hot Rod — a Brobdingnagian 4.64 as opposed to a Lilliputian 1.10.
This year he flip-flopped his ebbs and flows. The 22-year-old lefty started slow, then got on a serious roll after earning a promotion to Double-A Montgomery in July. In nine starts for the Biscuits, Burke put up a 1.95 ERA and punched out 11.9 batters per nine innings. If win-loss records are your cup of tea, six of seven decisions went his way.
He blames this season’s slow start on a confluence of timidity and anger.
“I thought I had a chance to make Double-A out of spring training,” Burke told me late in the season. “I was kind of mad about being sent back to high-A and didn’t pitch the way I wanted to pitch. I wasn’t attacking. The same thing happened after I got promoted last year. I was too timid. This year started out the same way.”
April was a cruel month for the lefty — 17 runs in 21 innings over five starts — and early May was a wasteland as well. The season’s second month began with Burke surrendering 10 runs in an equal number of frames. Then he got himself right.
“I was able to snap out of it,” said Burke. “Again, I wasn’t the happiest to be back in the Florida State League, but I finally realized that I needed to take the smart route and pitch my way out of there. I stopped being tentative and started pitching aggressively again.”
The youngster possesses enough raw stuff to attack opposing batters. His heater this season topped out at 97 MPH, two ticks higher than a year ago. Augmenting that velocity is good carry. Burke couldn’t tell me his spin rate, but he did know that his vertical movement was ’11 to 12 on a zero-to-15 scale.'”
What lies ahead for Tampa Bay’s 2018 Minor League Pitcher of the Year? If he continues to pitch like he did in Double-A, he could easily find himself in the Rays rotation within a year or two. Whether or not that would include working the first inning has crossed his mind.
“They seem to be recruiting pitchers who aren’t true starters so much as hybrids who can go four, five, six innings after an opener,” said Burke. “I could end up being one of those guys. Whatever they need, I’ll be up for it.”
Harrison Bader won’t win a Gold Glove this year — he’s not one of the three finalists at his position in the National League — but that perceived slight comes with an asterisk. The St. Louis Cardinals rookie played just 74 games in center field, while Lorenzo Cain (138), Billy Hamilton (150), and Ender Inciarte (155) roamed that particular expanse roughly twice as often. Bader’s defensive brilliance was spread between three spots, as he also manned right field 41 times, and left field 13 times.
Brilliance is by no means a hyperbolic descriptive. The 24-year-old University of Florida product had 19 defensive runs saved, and among fly chasers his 17.2 UZR/150 was second-best in baseball behind Mookie Betts. StatCast loves him as well, as evidenced by this mid-August article by the always-informative Mike Petriello.
I asked Bobby Poyner — himself a former Gator — what he most remembers about his college teammate’s defensive prowess.
“His instincts were, and are, topnotch,” the Red Sox reliever recalled. “His first step on the ball is super special, and once he gets going he’s one of the best runners out there. He’s obviously got a really good arm. You always knew that Bader was going to be an unbelievable player. It’s awesome seeing him do what he’s been doing.”
Last February, Red Sox majority owner John Henry suggested that his team would be backing off on its use of analytics. Belying his investment management background, Henry told reporters, “We have perhaps overly relied on numbers.”
The backing off never happened. Thanks in large part to the hiring of Alex Cora, the Boston ball club ultimately leveraged more information, not less. Dave Dombrowski acknowledged as much when I asked the President of Baseball Operations how much the team relied on analytics this year, compared to when John Farrell was manager.
“We knew that with him coming from the Houston organization, which is very detailed and aggressive as far as the information they’re getting, analytically and statistically, that Alex would… bring that on board,” said Dombrowski. “We spent a lot more time giving people in our front office responsibilities to provide Alex with what he wanted. On the field there was a great deal more use of information by Alex and his staff than we’ve had in the past.”
On a related note, Dombrowski shared that permission was recently granted to teams requesting to talk to “a couple” members of Cora’s coaching staff. It is unknown whether Ron Roenicke is among them, nor if the interest has pertained to managerial openings. Roenicke has previous experience in that role, having skippered the Milwaukee Brewers from 2011-2015.
Cora had expressed a few weeks earlier that he and his 62-year-old bench coach “speak the same language.” With that in mind, I asked the manager of this year’s World Series champions if a team hiring Roenicke would essentially be getting an older version of himself. After chewing on the question, the 43-year-old answered in the affirmative.
“We’re similar, yeah,” said Cora. “He teaches the game. He communicates. He has passion for the game. And he might be older, but he doesn’t act older. He connects with players.”
According to Cora, Roenicke also hasn’t fallen behind the times. He’s no dinosaur in terms of the modern-day game.
“When Ron was in Milwaukee, they were shifting,” explained Cora. “They shifted a lot. So it’s not like this is new for him — what we’re doing now. He’s in tune with the game. I’d hate to lose him, but I know how this business goes. If somebody calls, he’ll make a great impression. He’s a great baseball man.”
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
I’m a big fan of Pedro Martinez. Not only was he was the greatest pitcher of our generation, he’s an astute observer of the game. The insight he provides as a TV talking head is second to none. But that doesn’t mean he’s infallible.
Asked if this was the best Red Sox team in franchise history, Martinez opined — this per The Boston Globe — that were three “bad” teams in the American League East this year. One was the Orioles. Yep. Another was the Blue Jays. Yep. The third was… the Rays. Uh, no.
We’ll have to give him mulligan on that one. Tampa Bay finished 90-72 and had a winning record against teams that advanced to the postseason. Using a golf analogy, Pedro sliced that one into the water. Bad.
Best season you’re probably not aware of? In 1910, Philadelphia Athletics right-hander Jack Coombs went 31-9 with a 1.30 ERA and tossed an American League record 13 shutouts. He proceeded to win all three of his World Series starts, including the clincher, while going 5 for 13 with the bat.
His postseason performance wasn’t an October outlier. In six career Fall Classic outings, the Waterville, Maine product went 5-0 with a 2.70 ERA. He helped his cause by slapping 8 hits in 24 at bats, and driving in four runs.
Here’s another great season you’re probably not aware of: In 1914, Boston Braves right-hander Bill James went 26-7 with a 1.90 ERA and three saves. He then threw a two-hit shutout in Game 2 of that year’s World Series. Two days later, he pitched a pair of scoreless innings in relief and got another win in Game 3.
His glory days were short-lived. James, who was a tender 22 years old during his scintillating season, proceeded to hurt his arm and appear in just 14 more big-league games.
The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks won the 2018 Japan Series yesterday, defeating the Hiroshima Carp by a score of 2-0. The Game 6 win was fueled by a home run by Yurisbel Gracial and six shutout innings from Rick van den Hurk. Hawks catcher Takuya Kai was named Series MVP.
Bill Fischer, a senior pitching advisor for the Royals, died earlier this week at age 88. Signed by the White Sox out of a Wausau, Wisconsin high school in 1948, Fischer went on play for four teams from 1956-1964. While with the Kansas City A’s, he set a big-league record by throwing 84-and-a-third consecutive innings without allowing a walk. He later served as a pitching coach for the Reds, Red Sox, and Rays.
Minor League Baseball has selected Midwest League President Dick Nussbaum as the recipient of the Warren Giles Award, which honors outstanding service as a league president.
Pulaski Yankees General Manager Betsy Haugh has been named Minor League Baseball’s 2018 Rawlings Woman Executive of the Year.
The Normal CornBelters announced earlier this week that they will be joining the summer collegiate Prospect League. The franchise has spent the last nine seasons in the independent Frontier League.
The Texas Rangers acquired Drew Smyly from the Chicago Cubs in exchange for a PTBNL on Friday. In doing so, they brought brought on board a southpaw who learned his signature pitch by accident. The following excerpt — taken from the initial installment of our Learning and Developing Pitch series — explains how his cutter came to be.
“In college, I had a pretty big blister on my pointer finger — it was very sensitive — so I couldn’t really push off with that finger. To stay in the game, I kind of had to — and this is probably not the best thing to do — throw on the side of the ball. I started putting more pressure on my middle finger to take away the pain and sensitivity from my pointer finger, and the ball naturally started cutting.”
Bruce Sutter had 300 saves and a 136 adjusted ERA. Billy Wagner had 422 saves and a 187 adjusted ERA. Sutter allowed 879 hits and had 861 strikeouts in 1,042 innings. Wagner allowed 601 hits and had 1,196 strikeouts in 903 innings. Sutter is in the Hall of Fame. Wagner isn’t in the Hall of Fame.
Voters still have an opportunity to right that wrong, although early indications suggest those chances are scant. Wagner has yet to garner more than 11.1% of support in his three years on the ballot.
A random thought given how non-awesome this year’s World Series TV ratings were (no, this isn’t about start times on the East Coast);
While inter-league play is understandably popular throughout the regular season, does it detract from the appeal of the Fall Classic? And if so, does it matter? In what is ultimately an entertainment business that revolves around the almighty dollar, is what happens over a week-plus stretch in October really all that important?
I’m of the opinion that it is. Ditto the idea that inter-league play does detract from said appeal. Your mileage may vary.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
How is the World Series MVP determined? Michael Silverman explained the process at The Boston Herald.
The 1919 World Series was an important part of Latino baseball history. Adrian Burgos explained why at La Vida Baseball.
Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi feel the philosophies that got the Dodgers to back-to-back World Series are conducive to winning a World Series. Bill Plaschke of The Los Angeles Times isn’t sure that’s the case.
Over at Lookout Landing, Jake Maillot gave his opinion of why the Mariners need to go all-in on high-risk, high-reward starting pitchers.
Ryan McKenna established himself as one of the top prospects in the Orioles organization this summer, and that success has carried over to the Arizona Fall League. Jon Meoli wrote about the up-and-coming outfielder at The Baltimore Sun.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
On average, minor league games that lasted nine innings were played in a time of 2:48 this season (per Baseball America). MLB games that lasted nine innings were played in an average time of 3:00 (per Baseball-Reference).
Willie McCovey batted .271 and went deep 264 times in home games. The San Francisco Giants legend batted .269 and went deep 257 times in road games.
In his six healthy campaigns from 1934-1940 (he played just 12 games in 1936), Hank Greenberg batted .320 and averaged 39 home runs and 150 RBIs annually. The Detroit Tigers slugger, who battled anti-Semitism during his career, subsequently spent the next four years in military service during World War II.
This year’s Red Sox-Dodgers World Series matchup was the first between the two franchises since 1916. The Brooklyn Bridegrooms hit 28 home runs as a team in that bygone season, with Zack Wheat (9) and Casey Stengel (8) leading the way. The 2018 Dodgers hit 235 home runs.
On this date in 2001, the Arizona Diamondbacks scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat the New York Yankees 3-2 in Game 7 of the World Series.
On November 6, 1974, Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander Mike Marshall became the first reliever to win the Cy Young Award. Marshall appeared in 106 games, threw 208-and-a-third innings, and was credited with 15 wins and 21 saves.
The 1939 New York Yankees went 106-45, with only Red Ruffing (21) finishing with more than 13 wins. Six different Yankees pitchers had between 10 and 13 wins.
Loren Babe, who played third base for the Yankees and A’s in 1952-1953, was nicknamed “Bee Bee.”
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.