Sunday Notes: Spiritual Hamburger, New Boog, Banny in Boston, Clint Frazier, more

Professional baseball has been a strange road for 27-year-old Mark Hamburger. In 2011, four years after the Minnesota Twins signed him as a non-drafted free agent, Hamburger pitched in five games for the Texas Rangers. Since that time he’s meandered through the minors with multiple organizations and played a season of indie ball with his hometown team – the St. Paul Saints. Twice he’s run afoul of organized baseball’s recreational-drug policy.

Hamburger is older and wiser than he once was, and every bit as unique as he’s always been. Currently in his second stint with his original organization – he went 4-4, 3.79 with Triple-A Rochester last year – the righty is anything but ordinary.

When I talked to him a few days ago, the 6′ 4” Hamburger had just returned home from a yoga class. A former girlfriend introduced him to the ascetic discipline seven years ago, and he’s been stretching his body – and mind – ever since.

“Yoga has made me more flexible, and more enduring to the weird throwing form that is pitching,” Hamburger told me. “It’s also helped me spiritually and mentally. Yoga doesn’t focus on the next move or the previous move, but on that moment. That’s what you have to do in baseball, especially as a pitcher.”

Breath control is an important facet of yoga, and one of Hamburger’s “Three B’s of pitching.” Balance and break point are the others, but breathing is what helps him calm down and stay loose.

“I let out my air before every pitch,” said Hamburger. “That’s because I want to have the exact same delivery every time. When you have a little bit of air in your lungs, or a lot of air in your lungs, it becomes a different pitch. If you have no air in your lungs – you’re going off that last pocket – it’s the same every time.”

As for staying loose, the engaging hurler stresses that it helps a pitcher not get hurt. In his words, “You can’t break Gumby” and “When you’re whippy and snappy there is less tension in your arm.”

Hamburger’s right arm has endured 575 professional innings. His loose-and-limber role model threw countless more.

“To me, the greatest pitcher of all time was Satchel Paige,” explained Hamburger. “He was 6′ 4” and 180 lbs, and while he pitched before guns, he must have been throwing 95-100 mph. Guys couldn’t see the ball off him. Paige pitched all year long and didn’t lift weights. He had drinks and fried food – he went out and partied – but kept on developing his pitching muscles, as opposed to developing weight-room beach muscles.”

Hamburger eschews more than excess weight-room work. He’s also not a fan of supplements and energy drinks. In his opinion, it’s better to play your game smooth and relaxed, rather than amped up. There’s also a health factor at play.

“I had an arm injury that was due to sugar,” explained Hamburger. “Sugar affects the body. I was down in Latin America, drinking too much soda and not enough water. I believe that all the energy drinks… they say they’re energy drinks, but if you look at the labels, they’re just a bunch of sugar. Gatorade is food coloring and sugar. These are monster money guzzlers, and all they offer is a little sugar kick.”

The twice-sanctioned Twin Cities native mostly gets his kicks on the mound these days, but there is a lot dancing around in his head as well. He relishes the idea of returning to the big leagues, and that means learning from the past and keeping everything in perspective.

“You grow every year,” said Hamburger. “You weed out what didn’t benefit you and change for the better. I don’t believe in coincidences. I don’t believe I was ready for (the big leagues). Mentally, spiritually, physically – in every way, shape or form – I still needed to learn myself. I was a great athlete, but I didn’t have the capability to go up into that money and spotlight. I got wrapped up in ‘The Show.’

“I was living in the moment without also looking at my future and treating it as a way to one day feed my family. I was like a squirrel. I could turn left, turn right, go up, go down. Basically, everything that caught my eye, I was going straight for. I wasn’t ready – especially spiritually – for the journey that’s coming.”

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Earlier this month, the Rays acquired Herschell Mack “Boog” Powell from the A’s. Part of the package that sent Ben Zobrist west, Powell is more than a nickname namesake of a legendary Oriole. The modern-day Boog (yeah, we know you’re out there too, Sciambi) profiles as a poor man’s Brett Butler.

For those of you sketchy on your 1980s-1990s baseball, Butler was a small-and-speedy left-handed-hitting centerfielder who sprayed singles and triples and walked more than he struck out. He also swiped bases, albeit with not-so-pretty nabbed-stealing numbers.

That’s Powell in a 22-year-old, still-in-the-minors nutshell.

Oakland’s 20th round selection in the 2012 draft, Powell hit .343/.451/.435 between low-A Beloit and high-A Stockton last year. Displaying little power – just three dingers – he walked 61 times, fanned 53 times, and was 16- for-31 in stolen bases attempts.

“I’ve always been a small-ball guy,” Powell told me in the final week of the AFL season. “From travel ball up to high school and college, I’ve always been the guy who bunts and gets on base for the three- and four-hole hitters.”

The 5′ 10” 180 lb. Mission Viejo product considers plate discipline his best quality. He said he lays off a lot of pitches and usually doesn’t swing at off-speed before two strikes. Something else he is does isn’t an asset.

“My swing has always been kind of long, so I tend to jam myself a lot,” said Powell. “I’m normally not swinging at inside pitches, and that’s something I need to work on. Right now, I’m trying to get my hands straight to the ball. I’m trying to get them quicker and not drag them around.”

More than his bat path needs polishing. Powell is also making a mechanical alteration above the shoulders. Admitting that he’s “always been high maintenance,” he explained that his head would go up, then down, when he swung. His goal is to fix his mechanics while still using the natural ability that got him to pro ball.

The same applies to his running game. Powell feels he does a decent job reading pitchers, but his pilfer rate – 62% since entering pro ball – doesn’t exactly shout Rickey and Raines. His technique is in need of some fine-tuning.

“My stealing needs work more than anything else,” said Powell. “As soon as I start going, my head comes up and my chest comes forward. I feel like I’m dragging. I have the speed, but I need to clean up my mechanics in order to put it to better use.”

The youngster has potential if he can optimize his skills. He’ll never hit for power – “Any time I run into one is icing on the cake” – but Butler, who played 17 seasons, wasn’t a bopper either. Post PED-era, Powell is seemingly well-positioned to slash and scoot himself into a big-league lineup.

“There are guys in MLB who hit a bunch of home runs, but I feel like small-ball guys are coming back,” said Powell. “Like I said, that’s always been my game.”

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Adopting a leg kick helped Clint Frazier last year. Getting rid of a leg kick helped him even more.

Frazier was in a funk for the early portion of his first full professional season. Cleveland’s 2013 first-round pick was scuffling at low-A Lake County, and frustration was beginning to build. A tweak seemed in order, and the suggested adjustment turned out to be – irony be damned – both a wrong result and the right answer.

“I got into a slump I couldn’t get out of,” said Frazier. “ I was asked if I wanted to try a leg kick. The idea was that it would help my timing, but it ended up disrupting things more than I could have imagined. The second half, I went back to what I was doing in high school, kind of a little toe-tap, and that helped me get going and feeling normal again.”

According to Carter Hawkins, Cleveland’s director of player development, there was a method to the madness. Frazier was too hyped up – “I was basically trying to impress people” – and needed to do a better job of staying within himself.

“The leg kick ultimately wasn’t what Clint settled on, but we feel that implementing it slowed him down and helped to improve his timing,” Hawkins said. “When he moved back to his natural leg movement, everything kind of fell into place. More importantly, we were encouraged by Clint’s involvement and ownership of the process. His willingness to ask questions, take risks, and provide feedback about what he was feeling was impressive.”

When we spoke earlier this week, Frazier made clear he wasn’t pushed into the temporary adjustment. He said he’s always open to anything that will make him better, and he simply realized, as time went on, that he wasn’t comfortable with a leg kick.

Another thing the 212-lb. right-handed slugger realized is that 100% effort on every batting-practice swing was a recipe for fatigue. Frazier told me he’s always been a max-effort guy, and that he needed to tone down in a minor-league schedule.

Frazier’s numbers suggest he learned a lot over the course of the 2014 season. He hit a solid . 282/.367/.448, with nine of his 13 home runs, in the second half. Going back to a toe-tap was a big reason for the resurgence, but it might not have happened without the leg kick.

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Tom Zachary is a footnote in Yankees history. His short stint in New York is nonetheless noteworthy.

A left-handed pitcher, Zachary was claimed off waivers by the Bombers from the Washington Senators in August 1928. After splitting six regular-season decisions, he went nine innings and beat the Cardinals in Game 3 of the World Series.

In 1929, Zachary went 12-0, the most wins without a loss in big-league history.

Three appearances into the 1930 season, Zachary was released and claimed by the Boston Braves.

Zachary actually played a part in Yankees lore before coming to New York. Pitching for the Senators, he gave up Babe Ruth’s 60th home run in 1927.

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Terry Felton pitched in 55 big-league games, all with the Minnesota Twins, from 1979-1982. His record was 0-16.

In 1982, Felton went 0-13. That gives him the distinction of having logged the most losses without a win in a single season. His career mark, ignobly, is also a record.

In 1914, Guy Morton of the Indians lost his first 13 big-league decisions. Unlike Felton, he proceeded to put his name in the Win column. Morton, who was known as “Alabama Blossom,” finished his rookie campaign 1-13 and went on to win 98 games over 11 seasons.

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Eduardo Rodriguez is a left-handed pitcher who used to throw with his other arm. The 21-year-old Red Sox pitching prospect – acquired from the Orioles for Andrew Miller at last year’s trade deadline – made the change following a childhood accident.

Rodriguez was seven years old and playing with his brother – they were loading bags of sand onto a truck – when he fell and broke his right arm. He was in a cast for over a year, and having already developed an interest in baseball, began throwing with his left hand.

Rodriguez reaches the high 90s with his fastball and is ranked among the top prospects in the Red Sox system. As for the heavy equipment that impacted his handedness, Rodriguez now climbs onto it with confidence. His family owns a construction business in their native Venezuela, and he’s comfortable behind the wheel when he goes home to visit.

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Brian Bannister’s plans changed this past week. The former Mets and Royals righty was close to launching a company that would focus on player development, scouting, and analytics, incorporating sabermetrics and pitch data into the process.

Instead of becoming an entrepreneur, he became an employee. This past Tuesday, Bannister was hired as a professional scout/analyst by the Boston Red Sox. Surprisingly, they are the only team that has approached him about a front office role.

Bannister isn’t at liberty to divulge details about his new job, but he is free to discuss concepts and theories. Well-versed in sabermetrics and mechanics alike, Bannister is a perfect fit for an organization he describes as “open to anything that improves the decision-making process for their team.”

“My focus is entirely on simplifying and humanizing analytics in a way that players and coaches can apply it, immediately and effectively,” Bannister told me. “My background as a player helps out a lot with this, because it doesn’t matter if you make an analytical advancement if nobody can implement it, understand it, or are resistant to change.

“When I look at a sport like golf, 12-year-old kids are getting lessons in front of a Trackman. They know the exact distances and spins of their shot types with each club, and as a result are growing up developing muscle memory and swing characteristics that are optimized to their unique physical characteristics. In baseball, this process is much more complex, because we aren’t hitting a static ball to a static target. We have to understand how a pitcher’s movements affect the ball, how the movement on the ball affects the hitter’s reaction, and how the batted-ball-results average out over the course of a long season. To effectively map out this sequence of events, you need to have a thorough understanding of pitching mechanics, pitch data, and sabermetrics, because they all work together.”

Four years after throwing his last pitch, Bannister now works in a front office. According to GM Ben Cherington, Boston’s new hire will have “professional scouting coverage and will assist our analytics team with specific projects.”

It’s hard to believe there’s a better job for Brian Bannister. It’s even harder to believe that no other team had offered him an analytics-based opportunity.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Nine pitchers who threw at least 100 innings in 2014 had a BABiP of .330 or higher. Of them, T.J. House had the highest GB% (60.9). Colby Lewis had the lowest (33%).

Eight pitchers who threw at least 100 innings in 2014 had a BABiP of .260 or lower. Of them, Felix Hernandez had the highest GB% (56.2). Chris Young had the lowest (22.3%)

One of my favorite Tweets this week came from Adam Darowski, the man behind the fantabulous Hall of Stats: Best ERA in no-decisions (min 100 ND): Greg Maddux 3.16, Kevin Brown 3.41, Nolan Ryan 3.44, Rick Reuschel 3.45 (per baseball-reference.com).

Pete Rose isn’t simply MLB’s all-time leader in hits. He’s also professional baseball’s all-time leader. Counting his time in the minor leagues, Rose amassed 4,683 safeties. Ty Cobb and Hank Aaron also topped the 4,000 mark. Including his time in Japan, Ichiro is up to 4,122.

Mark Armour and Dan Levitt, co-authors of the soon-to-be-released “In Pursuit of Pennants – Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball” have started a blog series to highlight the best 25 general managers in baseball history. The blog is here. Information on the book can be found here.





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.

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Jamie
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Jamie

Spiritual Hamburger is the name of my new jam band.

Poor Man's Rick Reed
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Poor Man's Rick Reed

“(Hamburger) RELISHES the opportunity to return to the big leagues.” I love it.