If you’re not a Tampa Bay Rays fan, you probably aren’t too familiar with Yonny Chirinos. That would be understandable. The 24-year-old right-hander has never been a highly-ranked prospect, and prior to a few weeks ago he hadn’t set foot on a big-league mound. As a matter fact, were it not for a dinged-up Rays rotation, he’d probably be facing Triple-A hitters right now.
Instead, he’s flummoxing big-league hitters. Over his first three MLB outings — two starts and one relief effort — Chironos has thrown 14-and-a-third scoreless innings. Facing formidable Red Sox (twice) and White Sox lineups, he’s allowed just eight hits and a pair of walks, while fanning a dozen. His ground ball rate is a solid 50%.
His two-seamer is his bread and butter. Chirinos started developing the pitch in 2015, per the urging of his coaches, and the following year it became part of his arsenal. It’s now his best pitch, which makes him atypical among Tampa Bay hurlers. As manager Kevin Cash put it, “A lot of guys on our staff throw the fastball at the top of the zone and utilize the carry, and he’s kind of the opposite of that. He sinks the ball.”
He also spins it. Not necessarily with ride — although he does unveil a four-seamer from time to time — but rather with crisp down-and-away-to-righties break. Chirinos augments his mid-90s sinker with a slider that Kyle Snyder called “a swing and miss pitch that he’s also capable of finding the strike zone with.” The team’s first-year pitching coach added that the youngster can “change shapes and speeds with his slider,” making it even more effective.
As was the case with his sinker, the native of Bachaquero, Venezuela didn’t have a slider when he entered pro ball. His breaking pitch was a curve, but the Rays had him transition to a slider in his 2014 rookie-ball season. Snyder was the organization’s pitching coordinator at the time, and his influence on Chirinos’s pitch mix didn’t stop there. Last year he oversaw another developmental tweak in Triple-A.
“Around the end of July he went to a split-change,” explained Snyder, who spent the summer as Durham’s pitching coach. We tried to work conventional changeup grips and ended up going to that. It’s been a difference maker. There’s more vertical movement with the changeup he’s throwing now.”
And then there’s the dedication that he pairs with his natural talent. Snyder called Chirinos “probably the hardest-working guy I’ve been around as a pitching coach,” and while the youngster got early pitching tips from an uncle — Jesus Chirinos pitched in Venezuela and spent one season in the Brewers organization — he spoke humbly of how “God has given (him) the ability to pitch.”
That ability includes exemplary control. Chirinos walked barely over a batter per nine innings in the minors, and he’s begun his big-league career doing much the same. He is, as Cash and Snyder emphasized, a strike thrower. Make that a strike thrower who has yet to give up an earned run. Don’t feel bad if you hadn’t noticed.
How well known was Baltimore Orioles outfielder Trey Mancini when he was at Notre Dame? According to the 2013 eighth-round pick, not very.
“Before I got drafted, a scout (for a big-league team) came in asked me how many innings I threw that year,” Mancini told me on Saturday. “I guess he was told to go to Notre Dame to ask me a couple of questions, but he obviously didn’t know anything about me. He thought I was a pitcher.”
Mancini is slashing .292/.342/.489 in 666 MLB plate appearances.
The Cardinals drafted Carson Kelly as a third baseman in 2012, and the following spring Baseball America ranked him the ninth-best prospect in the St. Louis system. In doing so, they lauded the Portland, Oregon native’s “strong arm and reliable hands” at the hot corner.
Kelly was converted to a catcher in 2014, and his defensive reputation is even better at his current position. Ready for prime time with the glove — the 23-year-old has 44 big-league games under his belt — he’s now biding his time in Triple-A while Yadier Molina logs the bulk of innings behind the dish in St. Louis.
He considers his infield background a big plus.
“It was a big help,” Kelly told me late last season. “The movements are very similar when a guy is running — the transfer, the footwork, the need to follow your throw. Everything has to be on time. Having that infield experience gives me a good base behind the plate.
Kelly laughed when I shared that an old stereotype for a catcher is the slow, fat kid who isn’t athletic enough to play in the infield.
“You have to be ready to react to 95-mph pitches and to breaking balls in the dirt,” countered Kelly. “You need that quick reaction. It’s almost like your first step as an infielder. I played third coming up through the system and I remember some balls getting hit really hard at me. I think you need to be even quicker behind the plate.”
That quickness comes in every bit as handy when you’re corralling high-velocity pitches with explosive movement.
“Some fastballs almost look like they’re going to hit the ground, and then they take off,” explained Kelly. “They shoot up, almost like they’re rising. Those are the four-seams with spin, and they’re some of the toughest ones to catch. Then you have those hard, heavy ones, the sinkers, that have a lower spin rate. You have to be able to handle both.”
The Tampa Bay Rays — a team built more on speed than power — got off to a slow start in the thievery category. Kevin Cash’s club swiped just one bag, and attempted just the one steal, in their first eight games. That prompted me to ask the fourth-year manager how important the running game will be to his team’s success this season.
“It could be really important, and we’ve got to be efficient when we’re doing it,” answered Cash. “Overall speed is going to be important. Making sure that we’re scoring on doubles in the gap from first base, and that we’re scoring on singles when we’re on second base. Smart, efficient base running will be important.”
Some managers — I brought up Anaheim’s Mike Scioscia as an example — advocate aggressiveness on the base paths. Does Cash want the Rays to run with abandon?
“I don’t think so,” was his response. “Every team is built differently. I totally understand that thought process, but we value our guys staying on base. Efficiency is something we maybe value a tick more than other clubs.”
As of this morning, the Rays had been successful on 6 of 10 stolen base attempts.
The Baltimore Orioles placed Jonathan Schoop on the DL yesterday with an oblique strain. After Buck Showalter announced the news, I shared that an American League trainer I spoke to last season suggested that too many swings in the cage is likely contributing to the increased number of oblique injuries.
“I would tend to agree, (but) not too much,” responded Showalter. “They just swing more. It’s something you can practice every day. Pitchers can’t practice pitching like that, but swinging… everybody’s got batting practice pitchers. Everybody’s got hitting machines. Everybody’s got tees. Everybody is trying to fine-tune their craft every day. So there’s some merit to that.”
Quiz time: Since 2002, only one pitcher who has thrown at least 100 innings has a ground-ball rate over 70%. Who is it?
The answer can be found below.
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
The answer to the quiz is Scott Alexander. The Los Angeles Dodgers southpaw has a 72.5% ground-ball rate in 101-and-a-third innings.
Author’s note: As a reader pointed out, the answer originally listed in this space was incorrect. I apologize for the error.
Luke Bard has pitched effectively out of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim bullpen. In five appearances covering eight-and-a-third innings, the former Minnesota Twins prospect has allowed one run on four hits, with nine strikeouts. A high-spin four-seamer — Bard discussed the pitch here — and a biting slider are big reasons why.
According to Scott Radinsky, aggressiveness and poise are also playing key roles in the 27-year-old’s success.
“Rule 5 guys are always a long shot, but he came to spring in great shape ready to go, with an understanding of how to use his stuff and attack the strike zone without fear,” explained Anaheim’s bullpen coach. “He’s not afraid to pitch to contact, and he’s got a steady heartbeat. He doesn’t seem to be overwhelmed.”
Radinsky’s mention of Rule 5 status is meaningful. Bard will likely need to keep pitching well to remain an Angel, as the AL West club has postseason aspirations and can’t afford to keep underperforming players on the roster. If they end up having to offer him back to his old club, it’s a safe bet the Twins would gladly take him back.
Frigid temperatures have wreaked havoc on early-season attendance in several cities so far this spring. And the numbers in the box scores don’t tell the whole story, either — those are tickets sold, not fannies through turnstiles. According to Rays beat writer Marc Topkin, fewer than 1,000 fans were on hand to watch Tampa Bay play on the South Side of Chicago on Monday. With a game-time temp of 35 degrees, and a brisk wind making it feel even colder, it’s hard to blame people for staying away.
Would MLB be willing to start the season a week later and make up those lost games with some old-fashioned Sunday double-headers in the summer months? Unfortunately, the answer is most likely no. And it’s a pity. Baseball isn’t meant to be played, nor watched, in weather befitting the Iditarod.
Counting spring training, the Red Sox have won 26 of their last 29 games. The Bostonians finished their Grapefruit League slate on a 14-1 run, and are 12-2 since the start of the regular season.
Iowa Cubs manager Marty Pevey got his 1,000th career win on Friday. The former Montreal Expos catcher began managing in the minors in 1996, and along the way he’s had two stints as a coach for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Gary Kendall managed his 1,000th game for the Double-A Bowie BaySox yesterday. This is Kendall’s eighth season with the Orioles affiliate, and his 19th in the Baltimore organization.
Joe Mauer recorded his 2,000th hit as a member of the Minnesota Twins on Thursday, making him the seventh player in franchise history to reach that mark. Mauer’s .392 OPB is second highest of that elite group, behind Rod Carew’s .393.
Josh Naylor, whom I wrote about in last Sunday’s column, is off to a scintillating start with the Double-A San Antonio Missions. Through nine games, the left-handed-hitting San Diego Padres prospect — Miami’s first-round pick in 2015 — is slashing .471/.525/1.129 with six home runs.
Early in spring training, Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell was asked a question about the Brewers Wall of Honor. His response, which showed a deep appreciation for baseball history, included kudos for a National League rival.
“As a player, I always thought the San Francisco Giants did an excellent job of honoring their history,” shared Counsell, who played in San Francisco often as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks. “There are memories that people have of coming to the park that I think are important to keep alive — for fathers and mothers to tell their kids about people their parents took them to watch play when they were growing up. Sharing that oral history is awesome. It’s a big part of what baseball is all about.”
With video replay review now part of the game, each team entrusts an individual to quickly assess whether a call should be challenged. He (or she) is typically stationed in the clubhouse with video screens at hand.
The Kansas City Royals recently gave props to their replay coordinator, Bill Duplissea, in their game notes. In his four-plus years, Duplissea “has made good on over 66% of his challenges,” and last year his 69% success rate was second-best behind the Yankees’ 74%. In 2016, he was the best of the best at 69.2%.
Mostly lost amid the Shohei Ohtani two-way player excitement is the fact that several Negro League players did double duty. One of them, Ted Radcliffe, was actually known by the nickname Double Duty. A longtime teammate of Satchel Paige, he was known as an excellent defensive catcher and frequently formed a battery with the legendary pitcher when he wasn’t on the mound himself.
Radcliffe claimed that Paige, whom he knew growing up in Mobile, Alabama, was born in 1900, not 1906 as Paige claimed. That would mean the Hall of Famer was 48 years old (not 42) when he made his MLB debut with the Cleveland Indians in 1948, and 65 (not 59) when he made one appearance for the Kansas City Athletics in 1965. As for Radcliffe, he was believed to be the oldest living former professional baseball player when he died in 2005 at age 103.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
MLB opening-day rosters showed a 7.8% increase in African-American players, and USA Today’s Bob Nightengale looked at what that might mean for the future.
At The New York Times, Christina Caron told us about 99-year-old Phil Coyne, who is retiring after 81 years as an usher for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
On this date in 1915, Cleveland played its first game as the Indians. The team was known as the Naps from 1901-1914.
The Baltimore Orioles played their first game on this date in 1954,. The franchise had spent the previous five decades as the St. Louis Browns.
On this date in 1997, it was announced that Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 would be retired throughout MLB.
Jackie Robinson had a .409 OBP and struck out just 291 times in 5,804 career plate appearances.
Shoeless Joe Jackson went 12 for 32 in the 1919 World Series. His .375 BA led all players (min. 10 at bats).
Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson won 373 games for the New York Giants (and briefly the Cincinnati Reds) from 1900-1916. Along the way, he walked 1.59 batters per nine innings. His younger brother, Henry Mathewson, went 0-1 in 11 innings for the Giants from 1906-1907. He walked 14 batters in his only start.
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.