Brock Burke was a relatively obscure pitcher in the Tampa Bay Rays organization when I first wrote about him in 2017. He was performing well at the time — a 1.23 ERA through nine starts — but context was a mitigating factor. A blip on most prospect radar, he was facing Midwest League hitters in his third full professional season.
He’s no longer quite so obscure. Nor is he Tampa Bay property. In December, the Texas Rangers acquired the 22-year-old southpaw in the three-team trade that sent former top prospect Jurickson Profar to Oakland. His appeal to the AL West cellar dwellers was understandable. Burke fashioned a 1.95 ERA, and fanned 71 batters in 55-and-a-third innings, after earning a second-half promotion to Double-A Montgomery.
I recently asked Texas GM Jon Daniels about the deal that brought Burke to the Lone Star State.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations about Profar over the years,” Daniels told me. “This winter, after a number of talks, we defined what we were looking for. Our priority was to get a young starter who was at the upper levels, and [Burke’s] had a lot of things we liked. His trajectory is really interesting — from Colorado, not a ton of development at a young age. Sometimes guys from those cold-weather states need a little time to lay a foundation.”
Daniels brought up Tyler Phillips — “He really burst onto the scene with us last year” — as another close-to-home example. A 21-year-old right-hander from New Jersey, Phillips emerged as one of the Rangers’ better pitching prospects with a stellar season in the South Atlantic League.
Where Burke’s professional development has taken place worked in his favor.
“Coming from Tampa Bay’s system was a plus,” Daniels said. “We know that things were done in a good way. It sounds like he’s really matured. And not only has he stepped up, he’s just starting to scratch the surface. He’s got a really unique fastball — just how it plays, both from a scouting perspective and from the data.”
Asked which of the two — scouting or data — played a bigger role in his team’s overall assessment of the lefty, Daniels allowed that it was the former. As he put it, “A couple different guys weighed in pretty heavily on this one. The data backed up some of the things we were looking at, but he was on our radar because of the scouting. I’d say it was more of a scouting acquisition.“
How soon might a location device find Burke on a mound at Globe Life Park?
“If he takes another step the way he did last year, he could come fairly quickly,” said the 41-year-old GM. “But we’ll see. This is his first year on the 40, and he has nine starts above A ball. He’ll come at whatever pace he comes.”
Dan Vogelbach has already made it to the big leagues. The stocky 26-year-old has logged 146 plate appearances with Seattle over parts of three seasons. What he’s yet to do is convince the Mariners that he merits regular playing time at the highest level.
He has little left to prove on the farm. In 1,215 Triple-A at bats, the 250-pound slugger has slashed .291/.411/.496, with 60 home runs. Moreover, he’s not only coming off a .979-OPS season with Tacoma, an adjustment he made last spring was the catalyst for increased pop.
“I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish, which was to get the ball in the air and hit more balls hard to center field,” Vogelbach told me a week ago Wednesday. “I was able to go out there and backspin them to all parts of the field. Now I just need to keep perfecting that. There’s always something popping up that you can fix.”
Getting on top of elevated fastballs can be challenging for hitters who are looking to lift the ball in the air. Vogelbach’s M.O. against those particular pitches is simple: Settling for less is better than punching out.
“All pitchers are different, and all approaches against pitchers are different,” opined the first baseman/DH. “When a guy has a lot of ride, you’ve got to adjust to that. Sometimes you can’t be in launch mode. Against some pitchers you have to shorten up and just take your hits. At the end of the day you have to try to perfect both swings.”
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
Matt Strahm’s slider was featured in a recent installment of the Learning and Developing a Pitch series. When I sat down with him for the piece, I discovered that his four-seam fastball is interesting as well. In the opinion of Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley, the way the 27-year-old grips the pitch is atypical.
“He’s told me that I throw wrong, because the horseshoe is in, versus out,” said Strahm. “I’ve asked him ‘What’s the difference?,’ because the ball is round. Right? I don’t get it.”
He does get a lot of outs, and StatCast helps explain why. Strahm’s four-seam spin rate was in the 86th percentile last year, and his spin efficiency “averaged 98%” in a bullpen he’d thrown the day before we spoke. As the saying goes, ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’
Also of note: He’s added 20 pounds to his 6-foot-3 frame. Thanks to “a lot of weight room and a lot of eating,” Strahm has gained back what he lost while recovering from 2017 knee surgery, “plus some.” Bigger and stronger, he’s hoping to improve upon a 2018 season that saw him log a 2.05 ERA over 41 appearances out of the San Diego bullpen.
Andy Green was quoted in last week’s column, saying that the Padres don’t have a specific pitcher-usage philosophy — at least not in terms of copying how other teams do it. I got essentially the same answer answer when I asked the San Diego manager about multi-positional players.
“If you have those guys, you embrace it,” said Green. “If you have more of a set lineup, you don’t. That’s probably more of what we’ve seen in Houston. I know Marwin Gonzalez moved all over the field, but the bulk of their guys were staying in one set spot. The Cubs might be skinning that cat differently. We’re going to do it the way we think is best for us.”
The Carolina League’s Salem Red Sox will feature professional baseball’s first all-female broadcast team this season, with Melanie Newman joining Suzie Cool in the radio booth. Newman called games for the Frisco RoughRiders last year. Cool debuted behind the mic in Salem last May.
If you missed the news a few weeks ago, the Oakland A’s announced that Coco Crisp will join Ken Korach and Vince Cotroneo in the radio booth for 33 games this season. The former outfielder will serve as an analyst.
Sabermetric pioneer Dick Cramer will be presented the SABR Analytics Conference Lifetime Achievement Award this coming Saturday. A co-founder of SABR’s Statistical Analysis Committee, Cramer is credited with having popularized the metric OPS.
A reminder that FanGraphs will be hosting a meet-up at the Two Brothers Scottsdale Tap House & Brewery, in Scottsdale, Arizona, this coming Friday. Cool people will be there.
If the Giants are victorious 74 times this season — they went 73-90 a year ago — Bruce Bochy will finish his managerial career with 2,000 wins. In nearly a century and a half, only 10 big league managers have reached that lofty plateau. Add in three World Series titles, and the venerable San Francisco skipper seems a shoe-in for Cooperstown.
Kelby Tomlinson is honored to have played for Bochy in each of the past four seasons.
“He’s a great manager,” said Tomlinson, who signed a free agent contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks over the winter. “He’s won the three (World Series) and even more than the championships, he’s a great person to have lead your ship. He’s focused not only on trying to win, but also on helping each player.”
Tomlinson hails from Chickasha, Oklahoma. A visit to a museum located in Otsego County, New York is coming down the road.
“It will be really cool once his plaque is in the Hall of Fame,” Tomlinson told me. “My son and I can go up there someday, and I can tell that story of how I played for him.”
Count Jon Lester among those who eschew the idea of an opener. When I asked him if he could embrace working innings 3-9 instead of 1-7 — he’d be on the mound for the final out rather than having someone else finish the job — the veteran hurler reacted almost as though insulted. His response was prefaced by a dismissive snort.
“There’s a reason it says ‘starter’ before my name,” Lester said outside the Cubs spring training clubhouse. “Plain and simple. I’m a starter. I get paid to start. I get paid to throw innings. I loved what Bum said, even though he came back and said he was kidding around.”
Lester was, of course, referring to Madison Bumgarner having told reporters that he would be “walking right out of the ballpark” if the Giants dared to use an opener in one of his scheduled starts.
The 35-year-old southpaw concluded his straight-shooting stance with a basketball analogy.
“You’re not going to not start LeBron James because you want him at the end of the game,” said Lester. “You’re going to put him in to start the game, and you’re going to have him in at the end of the game. If we’re fortunate enough to go that long, great. If not, that’s why we pay our closers. I just… yeah.”
All right then. Lester ranks ninth among active pitchers with 2,366 innings pitched, and his 15 complete games are tied with Bumgarner for 14th-most. He’s also gone the full nine in a pair of post-season games.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
Dodgers pitcher Rich Hill, along with his wife Caitlin, have pledged $575,000 to support research on rare and undiagnosed genetic diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children. Alex Speier has the particulars at The Boston Globe.
Over at The San Diego Union-Tribune, Kevin Acee told of how GM A.J. Preller stunned and inspired Padres players with a clubhouse speech.
MLB.com’s Mark Shelton wrote about how the Reds don’t plan to use Raisel Iglesias as a traditional closer. As Cincinnati manager David Bell explained, “Sometimes it may be determined that the most important part of the game is earlier than a traditional save situation.”
White Sox play-by-play voice Jason Benetti is an everywhere man. Jeff Agrest explained the how and why at The Chicago Sun Times.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Eleven MLB teams are among the sponsors for next weekend’s SABR Analytics Conference: the Arizona Diamondbacks, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Colorado Rockies, Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, and Toronto Blue Jays.
Bryce Harper has a career OPS of .900 and has averaged 4.4 WAR annually. Mookie Betts has a career OPS of .888 and has averaged 6.1 WAR annually. Betts, who is nine days younger than Harper, has played in 283 fewer games.
On March 4, 1948, Cardinals Hall of Famer Stan Musial signed a one-year contract for $31,000. “Stan the Man” had been holding out, hoping for a higher salary despite slashing “only” .312/.398/.504 the year before.
The average number of innings pitched by a starter in 1958 was 6.37. In 1988 it was 6.36. In 2018 it was 5.36.
Terry Steinbach reached base 48 times via HPB, the most times for any player born in the State of Minnesota. Next on the list are Paul Molitor (47), Jack Crooks (44), Chick Gandil 42), and Roger Maris (38). Credit for this piece of obscure trivia goes to @Passonjim.
Four managers have been fired during spring training: Phil Cavarretta, by the Cubs in 1954; Alvin Dark, by the Padres in 1978; Tim Johnson, by the Blue Jays in 1999; and Joe Kerrigan, by the Red Sox in 2002.
In 1923, Cleveland Indians outfielder Charlie Jamieson slashed .345/.422/.447 while leading the American League with 222 hits. His nickname was “Cuckoo.”
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.