Grant Balfour plays baseball like a rugby player for a reason. He used to be one. The demonstrative Tampa Bay Rays closer grew up with the game in New South Wales Australia. His yelling – sometimes profanity-laced – comes from a scrum mentality he inherited from his father.
“I played rugby for my school,” said Balfour. “It’s the sport my dad played. He played some rugby league matches at the first-grade level, which is equivalent to the NFL here. He played for the Balmain Tigers, who are now the Wests Tigers. I didn’t pursue a career in rugby – baseball has always been my priority – but I played growing up and still love the game.”
Most Americans aren’t well-informed on the sport, so I asked Balfour to give a brief primer.
“There is rugby and there is also rugby league,” explained Balfour. They’re two different games in Australia, but they’re fairly similar. In rugby league you can be tackled and held. Rugby is more of a continuous game. You form rucks and mauls, and continuously move the ball. There are differences like line outs instead of scrums, but to somebody who doesn’t know the games they look a lot the same.
“There are strategies to both. You have to be tough, but also smart. I think if you can be intense and also in control – if you can have controlled intensity – you can take it over the top. You can’t lose your mind and be crazy. Intensity is something you need to harness.”
Controlled intensity is a good description of Balfour’s demeanor. The 36-year-old righthander is no shrinking violet with a baseball in his hand.
“I’m a guy who doesn’t leave anything on the table,” said Balfour. “I show my passion and my fight, and if my intensity level is up there, so is my focus. I zone in on what I’m doing and get intense about my business. My father was a pretty tough guy and always had the mentality of being a bit of an underdog and a fighter. That mentality is part of being an Australian.”
I asked Balfour if he’s channeling his inner rugby player when he’s firing fastballs and yelling at himself on the mound.
“I think maybe I am,” said Balfour. “The toughness [rugby players] have is the same as you see in the NFL. It takes one kind of man to play a sport like that. There’s some yelling going on in rugby. Like I said, I’m getting myself fired up on the mound. Sometimes I need to take a step back from that, but other times I need to yell.”
Koji Uehara isn’t as demonstrative as Grant Balfour. The Red Sox closer quietly and methodically mows down hitters with impeccable command and a devastating splitter. That wasn’t always the case.
Uehara was a different pitcher when he burst onto the scene in Japan. Playing for the Yomiuri Giants, he went 20-4 with a 2.09 ERA in his 1999 rookie season. He was a starter who didn’t throw a split-finger fastball.
“I was throwing a lot of sliders then,” Uehara said through a translator. “I threw fastballs and sliders.”
Uehara twice won the Sawamura Award – Japan’s equivalent of the Cy Young Award – in his early years in Nippon Professional Baseball [NPB]. How might he have done pitching in MLB at the time? The righthander was reluctant to say.
“I don’t think about it that way,” said Uehara. “I don’t like to look back at “if” and “what” kind of things. The only thing I know is that I am able to play at the level I am now because I played in the Japanese professional league.”
His response was similar when I asked if he could have succeeded in MLB without a splitter.
“I’ve never really thought of it that way,” answered Uehara. “[But] as soon as I started throwing the split, I forgot how to throw the slider.”
Strikeout rates are lower in Japan than they are here. Did the difference in style of play impact his pitching approach?
“As far as aggressiveness, I don’t think there is much of a difference between here and Japan,” said Uehara. “The hitters here have more power, so I did have to adjust to that. I attack them aggressively and not much differently.”
MLB baseballs aren’t identical to the ones used in Japan. Does that make a difference?
“They’re more slippery here, so I have to adjust to that,” said Uehara. “What I use to get a better grip changed. More pine tar.”
More pine tar?
“I’m joking,” laughed Uehara.
NPB’s posting system isn’t a laughing matter. Uehara was 24 years old when he graduated from the Osaka University of Health and Sport Sciences. He could have come to the United States. Instead he signed with Yomiuri, who subsequently held his rights for nine years.
“There weren’t as many Japanese major league players over here [in 1999],” explained Uehara. “So there were some non-baseball-related things I wasn’t quite sure about. I also wasn’t really confident I would do well here. But I definitely wanted to come here earlier than I did. Unfortunately, I was with a team, the Giants, that didn’t allow players to use the posting system. It is what it is.”
Tucker Barnhart almost got the best of Koji Uehara on Tuesday night. The Cincinnati Reds catcher hit a long, towering fly ball in the ninth inning of a tie game at Fenway Park. Shane Victorino caught it in front of the 380-foot marker in right-center field.
Barnart’s blast would have been a home run in 29 of 30 big-league ballparks. Not this one. When it fell just short, the 22-year-old rookie cradled his head in his hands in disbelief along the first base line.
“I crushed it – I hit it as good as I can hit a ball – it just didn’t go out,” Barnhart told me the following day. “The pitch was a fastball middle-in. If I could draw up a homer pitch, that’s about where it was. When I hit it, I immediately started talking to it like a golf shot, like Go! Go!
“Yesterday was the first time I’ve ever been at Fenway. I’m a switch-hitter and we were facing a lefty starter, so I took most of my swings in batting practice righthanded. I only took one round lefthanded, so coming into the at bat I didn’t really know what it took to get the ball out to right field. I hit it really well, but it just kind of hung up there and Victorino ran it down.”
Barnhart has one home run in 19 big-league at bats. He hit it at Great American Ballpark on May 1 versus the Brewers. The one at Fenway traveled a greater distance.
“It was definitely farther than the one I hit at home,” said Barnhart. “It’s 380 to the spot I hit the ball last night, and it’s about 325 or 330 in Cincinnati. This one was probably about 45-50 feet farther. But it comes with the territory. Things even out over the long run.”
I asked Barnhart if he was familiar with Fenway’s red seat. Located in the right field bleachers, it commemorates a home run hit by Ted Williams, in 1946.
“A few of us who had never been here before arrived early for a tour and they were talking about the red seat,” answered Barnhart. “I believe they said it’s 502 feet from home plate. I know I don’t have that in the tank. I saw it out there and it’s definitely not where I was aiming.”
Tucker Barnhart was in the Reds lineup because Devon Mesoraco is on the disabled list. Jay Bruce, Aroldis Chapman, Tony Cingrani and Mat Latos are also on the DL. Billy Hamilton wasn’t in the starting lineup in Boston due to a sore wrist.
Do the Reds have enough depth to withstand the injuries, or the talent to earn a playoff spot once everyone is healthy? The team has received plenty of criticism for their lack of moves during the offseason. Shin-Soo Choo departed as a free agent and there were no notable acquisitions.
Given the inflated demands of the free agents on the market, it’s understandable why Walt Jocketty stood pat. That’s not to say he couldn’t have found creative ways to upgrade a talented-yet-flawed team. The Reds general manager feels he did the right thing.
“There weren’t a lot of moves to make,” said Jocketty. “We like our team and we’ve liked our team all along. Unfortunately, we’ve had a number of injuries so people aren’t getting an opportunity to see how good our team is.”
Jocketty’s point is valid. Regardless of what he might have done over the offseason, his squad has been competing without several key pieces. But could he – should he – have made moves?
“I’ve learned to be patient,” said Jocketty. “The worst thing you can do is keep making changes all the time. Then there’s no continuity with your club. You need to have faith in your players and you need to have faith in your manager and staff. I do. It’s just a matter of time until we get all our guys back, and then we’ll see where we are.”
I asked Jocketty if overpaying this past offseason would have negatively impacted future opportunities to improve the team.
“It wasn’t just [will we have money later], it was also ‘Do we have enough money now?,’ responded Jocketty “We’d have loved to have Choo back, but we couldn’t afford him. And there really wasn’t anything else we felt we could do — that we felt we could financially do. Once your club is set, it’s pretty hard to make changes.”
When Josh Tomlin was drafted in 2005, his scouting report said he had good range with quick reactions and the hands to play shortstop. His bat was quick. San Diego’s 11th-round pick hit .351 at Angelina Junior College.
Tomlin’s scouting report also said his arm was his best tool, which is a big reason he bypassed signing with the Padres and transferred to Texas Tech. The decision didn’t positively impact his draft status – he was Cleveland’s 19th-round pick in 2006 – but it was the catalyst to a big-league career.
“In junior college, I would come into games from shortstop to pitch the later innings,” said Tomlin. “I had a feel for pitching, but wasn’t ready to make that move yet. When I went to Texas Tech, I’d pitch on Friday night and play short, second, or third on Saturday and Sunday. I realized at that point I had a better chance as a pitcher than I did playing the field.”
The Indians realized it as well. A year earlier the Padres weren’t quite so sure.
“San Diego drafted me as kind of a… I wouldn’t say a two-way player, but it was a situation where I could have played infield in the Padres organization,” said Tomlin. “The transition to pitcher probably would have happened eventually, but I’d have gotten a shot at short had I signed with them.
“When I was drafted by the Indians in 2006, it was ‘We want you as a pitcher; you’re going to be a pitcher.’ It was clearly the right decision. I could swing the bat a little, but I wasn’t going to hit for power. I was going to be a slap guy, and I wasn’t very fast either. From talking to people who have been around the game for a long time, I knew I had a better chance to make it as a pitcher.”
The right-hander clearly went the right route. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t miss playing the field.
“I still have the mentality of an infielder,” admitted Tomlin. “I still love taking ground balls in the infield during BP. It’s probably my favorite thing in the world to do. But knowing how I hit… I swing a wet newspaper. I don’t think I really had a chance to make it to the big leagues as a position player.”
Twenty-five years ago the Oakland A’s swept the San Francisco Giants in the Earthquake Series. Mike Gallego remembers it well. An A’s infielder at the time, Gallego was on the field when the Loma Prieta earthquake shook Candlestick Park, and the entire Bay Area, before Game 3. The 1989 World Series was put on hold for 10 days.
In the interim, Jose Canseco caused a disruption of his own. Gallego – now Oakland’s third base coach – told me the story when the A’s visited Boston last weekend.
“After the earthquake hit we were kind of in limbo,” said Gallego “We were wondering if they were going to continue the World Series or not. Tony LaRussa came up with the idea of sending us back to our spring training site in Arizona. That would get us out of the area and keep our minds focused on winning the World Series if it restarted.
“The first day we got to Arizona he said we were going to have closed practices and inter-squad games. He wanted the intensity to be there. He wanted us to take our at bats seriously and play hard. Break up a double play if needed. We all agreed.
“I’m playing shortstop. Dennis Eckersley is on the mound and Jose Canseco is at the plate. Everyone is taking it seriously except for one guy. That’s Jose Canseco. He’s thinking, ‘What are we doing practicing?’
“Jose gets in the box and kind of digs in. He really takes his time. Eckersley is getting ready to throw the pitch and you can see he’s getting a little perturbed waiting. Eck steps off the mound and Canseco is looking out at him, kind of laughing. Then Canseco points out to center field like Babe Ruth. Eck just kind of stood there like, ‘Oh, really?’
“Ron Hassey is catching and gives a Eck a sign for fastball away. Eck shakes. Slider, shakes again. Fastball in, yes. Eckersley rears back and drills Canseco right in the back. Canseco can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. No one can believe it. Canseco charges the mound.
“We didn’t brawl, but everyone was yelling and screaming at each other. This was at our spring training site with nobody in the stands and no media. It was just us in an empty stadium. Tony loved it. It was just the kind of intensity he wanted. I thought to myself, ‘If we get back to the World Series, we’re definitely winning this thing.’”
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.