Yonder Alonso hasn’t been dealt a generous hand. Drafted seventh overall by the Reds in 2008 out of the University of Miami, the Cuban-born first baseman was shipped to San Diego three years later. The trade took him from one of baseball’s most hitter-friendly venues to one of its least friendly.
Last winter, the Padres sent Alonso to the A’s, who play in an equally unforgiving yard. You have to feel for him. Injuries have influenced his production as well — he’s no stranger to the disabled list — but one can’t help but wonder what his numbers might look like had he spent the last four-plus seasons in a cozier abode.
His splits aren’t extreme, but they’re emblematic. He’s hit .257 with a .697 OPS in home games and .283 with a .739 OPS on the road. Power has been at a premium, as he has just 33 home runs in 2,051 big-league plate appearances.
Alonso has never felt a need to alter his attack plan — “Generally, the way I swing pretty much works in any field” — but he’s aware that where he’s played has impacted his career.
“Staying in Cincinnati probably would have helped me out a lot,” Alonso told me earlier this season. “That’s a park where you can hit the ball to left-center and to right-center, and that’s my game. I have the power. It’s just a different atmosphere, a different beast, when you’re in a bigger park. When you come to a place like Boston or Baltimore, you get rewarded more for those same swings you take in San Diego and Oakland.”
Alonso mentioned that Petco Park has been referred to as “a place where hitters go to die” and that O.co Coliseum is every bit as challenging. Those statements were made matter-of-factly. Taking pains not to complain, he wouldn’t bite when I asked if he ever wonders what it would be like to play in a more-favorable hitting environment.
“Wondering does nothing for me,” answered Alonso. “If anything, it’s something that’s not true. Wishful thinking doesn’t help you. It’s said that the grass is greener on the other side, but I’m happy where I’m at. Having the opportunity to play every day is the most gracious thing a Major League Baseball player can have.”
Drew Finley has been impressive in the first two starts of his first full professional season. Last weekend, the 19-year-old right-hander threw the first six innings of a combined no-hitter. This past Friday, he allowed two runs over five-and-two-thirds innings.
Finley, who is with the Staten Island Yankees, has a fresh arm and a baseball background. The two are related. His father, longtime scout and executive David Finley, didn’t allow him to pitch from age 12-16.
“He wanted me to grow into my body and save my arm,” explained the 2015 third-round pick. “He asked Dr. (James) Andrews when he would let his kid start throwing a curveball, and Dr. Andrews said, ‘I wouldn’t let my kid pitch until he was at least 16.’ My dad shut me down right then and there.”
The youngster didn’t mind. He was content to play an infield corner, and he saw himself as a hitter anyway. But he did have a strong arm. A move back to the mound was inevitable.
The reins didn’t come off completely once that happened.
“I was put on a pitch count,” explained Finley. “You see guys going down left and right, because they pitched so much at a young age, through travel ball and high school, and whatnot. My dad didn’t let that happen.”
Caution was accompanied by education. Finley’s father, currently Vice President, Amateur and International Scouting for the Dodgers, made sure that his son understood the ins and outs of the game.
“When I was a kid, he’d let me hold the radar gun and I’d ask him questions,” said Finley. “I had a notepad and on the car rides home we’d compare notes. That helped me learn how to see the game. Now, as a pitcher, I’m reading hitters’ swings. I’m seeing where they are in the box, how their feet move, how their hands work. I think my pitchability is one of my biggest strengths.”
Josh Sborz isn’t one of the higher-profile pitching prospects in the Dodgers system. He’s doing his best to change that. The 22-year-old right-hander — a competitive balance pick last year out of the University of Virginia — has won seven of his 10 decisions with the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. His 2.58 ERA is fifth-best in the California League.
Sborz excelled as a closer at UVA. In his junior season, he allowed 41 hits in 73 innings and saved 15 games. The Dodgers are grooming him as a starter, and what he learned in college is serving him well in that role.
“One thing I picked up from relieving is taking it inning by inning,” said Sborz. ”That’s a key when you’re starting. If you look at the big picture, it’s kind of scary to think you have to go six, seven innings against professional hitters. But at the same time, if you minimize it to one out at a time, everything becomes much smaller and easier to grasp. ‘Compartmentalize’ would be a good word for how I’m trying to approach it.”
The former Cavalier isn’t approaching pro ball with a cavalier attitude. Sborz segued from the College World Series to low-A last summer, but he wasn’t about to let a less-electric atmosphere temper his drive.
“You can’t allow yourself to do that,” said Sborz. “You’re on limited time to make it to The Show, so you have to make every game Game 7. If you’re not the first person picked in the draft, you should have a chip on your shoulder. I’m a competitive guy from a competitive family and I don’t like losing.”
“I was at the game and it was special to see him out there,” said Sborz. “I learned a lot from just watching that one game. It’s scary to pitch in front of all those fans, but he stood there and did it. He’s been a great mentor. He’s done a great job of helping me progress not only as a pitcher, but also as a person.”
Sborz’s sibling has certainly made a positive impact on his attitude.
“If you’re not having fun, why are you playing?,” philosophized Sborz. “Why would you put in all this work if it was something you didn’t really enjoy? I love this game — I find it enjoyable and fun — and thats what keeps me going, even when things aren’t going as well as I’d like.”
Nathan Karns hasn’t been sharp as of late. Over his last four starts (going into last night’s game), the Mariners right-hander has surrendered 21 hits and issued 15 free passes in 18-and-a-third innings. The reason for his struggles is simple.
“I’m struggling with fastball command,” explained Karns. “I need to establish more of the plate early, then work to the edges and expand the zone. Lately, I’ve been working that backwards. I’m expanding too early and falling behind, then getting more of the plate. That’s a bad scenario. I need to flip the script.”
Karns doesn’t feel he’s guilty of nibbling, nor is he getting squeezed. He’s simply not putting the baseball where he wants to. He described his malady as “more of a control issue; instead of missing by a ball or two, I’m missing by more like three.” Asked if he can pinpoint the reason — mechanics? — he responded in non-specifics.
“It’s nothing glaring,” answered Karns. “I’m not saying I don’t know why. What I’m doing just isn’t translating into success right now. I just have to do a better job.”
Here’s something for the “you don’t see this every day” category: The Tigers were awarded a run after Friday night’s game was over, and they didn’t even know it until the following day. Here’s what happened:
With one out in the ninth inning, Miguel Cabrera hit a ball that Cleveland outfielder Rajai Davis ran down, then bobbled before running into the wall. Not realizing that he made the catch, a pair of Detroit baserunners, Ian Kinsler and Cameron Maybin, rounded the bases without tagging up. The Indians threw the ball in and doubled off Maybin, who had been on first, ending the game. The play was reviewed to confirm the catch and the teams left the field thinking that Cleveland had won by a score of 7-4.
On Saturday, the Elias Sports Bureau alerted MLB that Kinsler, who had been on second, had scored Detroit’s fifth run before the game was technically over. Kinsler crossed the plate before Maybin was doubled off and the Indians would have needed to appeal at second in order to negate his run. They didn’t do so. As a result, Kinsler was credited with a run scored, Cabrera with a sacrifice fly, and the final score was 7-5.
As I wrote about on Wednesday, White Sox reliever Zach Putnam threw almost exclusively splitters — his best pitch — in a recent game. Alex Avila, who was behind the plate that night, articulated that pitch selection is more about situations and comfort level than percentages.
The veteran catcher is comfortable calling for a pitch that isn’t his battery mate’s normal go-to.
“A pitcher’s best pitch might be a curveball, but for some reason it’s not working that day,” said Avila. “I caught Justin Verlander’s no-hitter against Toronto. A lot of people will say his best pitch after his fastball is his curveball. He didn’t have it that day. I think we threw it one time. He was throwing his slider, which was his fourth-best pitch. The game dictates how many times you’re going to throw something.”
Pitching is proactive and hitting is reactive. With that in mind, I asked Orioles right-hander Mychal Givens, a converted shortstop, if he feels more in control on the mound than he did at the plate.
“Yes, because you’re like the quarterback,” responded the 26-year-old. “The pitcher is in control, because the action doesn’t start until he’s ready. The hitter has to wait. Baseball is the only game where the defense has the ball, and that means we’re more in control. The offense — the hitters — are on the defensive, because they have to react to each pitch.”
I asked Jason Motte the same question. The Rockies reliever began his professional career as a catcher, so he too knows what it feels like at each end of the 60-feet, six-inch pathway. With 13 seasons under his belt, the 34-year-old righty doesn’t dwell on results as much as he used to.
“When I was a hitter, I thought way too much,” said Motte. “Maybe that’s why I wasn’t very good? But are you more in control when you go out there and pitch? You are and you aren’t. At the end of the day, it’s all about the process. Whether you’re hitting or pitching, you don’t control the outcome; you can only control the process that goes into it. You can make a perfect pitch and give up a hit and you can smash a baseball right at someone.
“If I execute a pitch, great. If I don’t, OK, who cares; that pitch is done; worry about the next pitch. Sure, you get frustrated when you give up runs, but at the end of the day, all you can do is make pitches. I’m kind of at the point now where it is what it is.”
Torey Lovullo got quite the thrill last Sunday. The Red Sox bench coach got to see his son, Nick, make his professional debut with the short-season Lowell Spinners. A 22-year-old infielder, the younger Lovullo was drafted by Boston in the 20th round out of College of the Holy Cross.
Lowell is 30 miles from Fenway Park, and with the Spinners’ game starting after the Red Sox game ended, the proud father was able to get there in time to see his son stroke a seventh-inning single. Shortly thereafter, he was wiping his eyes.
“I waited for him after the game, and when he walked up to me he reached into his pocket,” said the older Lovullo. “He handed me the ball from his first hit and said ‘Happy Father’s Day.’ It was one of those moments you never forget. I kind of had to fight back tears.”
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
Graham Womack continues his fine work at the Sporting News, this time opining that players more-deserving than Ichiro will remain on the outside looking in as the Japanese icon is inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The speakers have been announced for this summer’s Sabermetrics, Scouting, and the Science of Baseball seminar, which is held annually in Boston. As always, the list is impressive.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
From April 19, 2011 to August 12, 2013, David Robertson faced 25 hitters with the bases loaded. He retired all 25 of them, striking out 18.
As a member of the Yankees, Sparky Lyle had 57 saves in which he recorded six-or-more outs. In 1972, his first season in New York, he had 18 saves of at least two innings.
Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Gordon had exactly 1,000 hits in his first 1,000 games.
On May 24, 1936, Tony Lazzeri hit three home runs, including a pair of grand slams, and drove in 11 runs. He batted eighth in the Yankees lineup that day.
The 1960 Yankees hold the record for most runs scored in a World Series with 55. Despite outscoring the Pirates 55-27 — the widest margin in Series history — the Yankees lost in seven games.
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.