Baseball

Sunday Notes: Derek Shelton’s Pirates Aren’t The 1980s Cardinals

As a rule, teams tend to be less aggressive, and take fewer chances, when behind in games. The logic is sound, but at the same time, is it really necessary? Is there not often something to gain by pushing the envelope and putting pressure on the opposing side, regardless of the score? I asked that question to Derek Shelton earlier this week.

“I think it’s game-situational,” the Pirates manager replied. “The question I would [throw] back to you — this is rhetorical, of course — is ‘What’s the variation in terms of number of runs when you start to take chances, or don’t take chances?’ If it’s three or less, you probably have a greater chance of being aggressive. If you get to the point where you’re at four-plus, you have to be very careful… because the risk-reward may not play out.”

Going deep with runners on is arguably the best way to erase multi-run deficits, but that’s not a reward Shelton has seen much of since taking the helm in Pittsburgh prior to last season. The Pirates hit just 22 home runs with men on base in 2020. Only the Texas Rangers, with 20, hit fewer. And there weren’t a ton of solos, either. All told, Willie Stargell’s old team out-homered only the Arizona Diamondbacks and the St. Louis Cardinals.

Of course, not every good team has a lineup full of bashers. Your father’s Cardinals are a prime example. In the 1980s, St. Louis had multiple championship-caliber clubs that were largely bereft of power. They made their hay by motoring around the base paths. I brought up how it might be interesting to look back at how often they ran when trailing by multiple runs.

Shelton retorted with unassailable logic.

“It would also be cool to have Ozzie Smith, Tommy Herr, Willie McGee, and Vince Coleman,” said Shelton. “I can honestly tell you, if we had those guys, we would definitely run more. Or even the Kansas City team from back in the day, with Willie Wilson and that group.”

Touché.

The Pirates ranked third from the bottom among the 30 teams in stolen bases last year. Not only did Shelton’s lineup lack boppers, it lacked rabbits as well. Add in an MLB-worst OBP, and what you had was a dearth of legitimate running opportunities. In order to be aggressive you need the right personnel, and Shelton’s squad didn’t have it. By all accounts, they still don’t. The 1980s Cardinals they’re not.

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Sticking with the Pirates, Jacob Stallings had a slightly different offensive profile last year. The 31-year-old defense-first catcher upped his fly-ball rate from 33.8% to 39.5%, while his pull rate fell from 45.4% to 37.5%. He also struck out more frequently than he did in 2019, that number going from 19% to 28%.

To what extent were any of those changes purposeful?

“Not at all,” Stallings said in response to my question. “Last year, more of an emphasis was [put] on getting ready on time, and I think when you’re ready on time, you’re going to hit more balls in the air, and drive more balls. And then hit more balls the other way. I certainly wasn’t trying to strike out more. I can promise you that.”

Stallings went on to say that he was more patient in 2020, which contributed both to more strikeouts and a higher walk rate (10.5%, compared to 7.6% in 2019). He added that he likes hitting the ball the other way, and would prefer to “keep that trend going.” The higher fly-ball rate is something he can give or take.

“I’m not the kind of guy that tries to hit the ball in the air, or anything like that,” said Stallings, who logged a 93 wRC+. “I just try to hit it. I’ll take whatever I can get.”

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Bombo Rivera went 5 for 15 against Ross Baumgarten.

Fernando Tatis Jr. is 6 for 11 against Madison Bumgarner.

Ginger Beaumont went 8 for 20 against Red Ames.

Bevo LeBourveau went 9 for 22 against Mule Watson.

Ned Yost went 10 for 12 against Tommy John.

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Padres manager Jayce Tingler provided an update on Anderson Espinoza yesterday. Asked about the 22-year-old right-hander, Tingler said Espinoza had a good offseason, and that he’s looked good in early bullpen sessions. The delivery is being repeated, the fastball and slider are being located, and every bit as importantly, the body and arm seem to be in fine form. Espinoza has twice undergone Tommy John surgery, and hasn’t pitched in a game since 2016.

If you blinked when looking at his age, yes, he’s somehow still just 22 years old (he turns 23 next month). Originally in the Red Sox system, Espinoza was barely past his 18th birthday when he was dealt to the Padres in exchange for Drew Pomeranz. At this point Espinoza qualifies as a question mark, but as a former Top 100 prospect who once drew Pedro Martinez comps — did we mention that he’s only 22? — a bright future remains a possibility.

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A quiz:

Four players have homered in four different decades. Rickey Henderson, Willie McCovey, and Ted Williams are three of them. Who is the fourth?

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS NOTES

Juan Pizarro, who pitched for eight teams from 1957-1974, died on Thursday at age 84. A flame-throwing southpaw from Santurce, San Juan, Puerto Rico, Pizarro had his best seasons with the Chicago White Sox, going a combined 35-17, 2.48 in 1963-1964.

Ángel Mangual, who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1969, and the Oakland A’s from 1971-1976, died on Tuesday at age 73. An outfielder from Juana Díaz, Puerto Rico, Mangual had a pinch-hit, walk-off single for the A’s in Game 4 of the 1972 World Series.

SABR announced its 2021 Henry Chadwick Award recipients. Honored for their contributions to baseball research were Gary Ashwill, Alan Nathan, and Robert W. Peterson. Further information can be found here.

SABR’s annual convention won’t be held this summer due to coronavirus health concerns and travel restrictions. SABR 50 has been rescheduled for August 10-14, 2022 at the Hyatt Regency Inner Harbor in Baltimore.

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The answer to the quiz is Omar Vizquel. The four-decade shortstop hit his first home run in 1989, and his last in 2010.

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Left on the cutting-room floor from this week’s interview with Atlanta Braves prospect Braden Shewmake were his thoughts on college competition. In the opinion of the former Texas A&M stalwart, more runs being scored on Sundays isn’t all about lesser-quality pitchers taking the mound.

“The arms on Sunday aren’t as good, but I also think that hitters start to figure out how teams are throwing against them,” said Shewmake, who was big on preparation in his time with the Aggies. “They see that on Friday and Saturday, so they know what to look for on Sundays. Obviously some pitchers are different —it could be a lefty thumber — but if it’s the same kind of guy, their pitching coach is probably going to have him throw you the same way. That’s part of why I think run numbers are up on Sundays.”

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A question A.J. Hinch fielded on Saturday elicited a tangentially-related observation. Much as college pitchers are frequently following scripts, their catchers are relying on directives from the dugout. For the lion’s share of them, autonomy is but a dream.

“The intricacies of calling games is not just something you can throw, and bestow, on a catcher,” said the Tigers manager. “Amateur baseball has gone a little bit more coach-driven; coaches are calling in college, and certainly in high school.”

That development-hindering hand-holding disappears once a backstop reaches pro ball, resulting in a steep learning curve. Determining which fingers to put down — this while playing against increasingly-tougher competition — isn’t a talent easily nurtured. Moreover, the higher you move up in the ranks, the more information there is to parse. At the highest level, a catcher is far removed from relying on his coaches, but he’s also not going it alone.

“You get into the minor leagues, and there’s a little more structure in the game-calling,” said Hinch. “The art of running a game needs to be in full focus when you come to the big leagues. It’s as much as information as the NFL throws at quarterbacks. That’s why they started wearing the wristbands with all the information we can get in front of them.”

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Matthew Boyd was asked about Alan Trammell being on the field during workouts, and his response was music to the ears for Tigers fans of a certain age. Four-plus decades after debuting in Motown as a fresh-faced 19-year-old, “Tram” remains forever young.

“It speaks to his commitment to the Olde English D,” said Boyd. “His commitment to wanting to make us a championship ball club. He has so much wisdom to impart… He was in our group taking feeds at second base, and snagging balls. Spencer Turnbull was letting balls rip, and Tram’s putting his nose right in there, gloving them.”

Boyd probably meant to say Spencer Torkelson, not Spencer Turnbull. Either way, it’s cool to know that the Hall of Fame shortstop is still capable of scooping up scorchers. Today is Trammell’s 63rd birthday.

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A snapshot of two outfielders who played in the 1930s and 1940s:

Chuck Klein: 2,076 hits, 398 2B, 300 HR, .411 wOBA, 133 wRC+, 46.0 bWAR.
Bob Johnson: 2,051 hits, 396 2B, 288 HR, .411 wOBA, 133 wRC+, 55.3 bWAR.

Klein is in the Hall of Fame (via the Veterans Committee}. The slugger known as “Indian Bob” is not in the Hall of Fame.

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FOREIGN AFFAIRS

The NPB season is slated to get underway in late March. The SoftBank Hawks, the defending Pacific League champions, have already named their opening-day starter. Getting the ball will be 29-year-old right-hander Shuta Ishikawa, who went 11-3 with a 2.58 ERA last year.

Nineteen-year-old Roki Sasaki reportedly threw a bullpen for the Chiba Lotte Marines on Saturday. A 2019 first-round pick whose fastball has been clocked as high as 101 mph, Sasaki has yet to pitch in an NPB game.

According to a study released by Kansai University, Masahiro Tanaka’s return to the Rakuten Eagles is expected to add 5.72 billion yen ($53.9 million) to the economy of Miyagi Prefecture, where the Eagles are based in the city of Sendai.

(NPB notes per jballallen.com)

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Baltimore left-hander John Means was asked for his opinion of FanGraphs’ projections giving his team a 0.0% chance of reaching the postseason. The affable Oriole wasn’t offended by the question, but he did push back a little.

“The last two years we’ve been projected to finish last place, and we haven’t,” Means told assorted members of the media. “I think we’ve outplayed projections every year I’ve been up here, and the plan is to outplay the projections again. I think we have a better chance than 0.0, for sure. We try to not listen to the noise too much.”

The Orioles are projected to go 63-99 this year, and it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see them do better than that. As for their chances of actually making the playoffs… let’s just say that’s almost certainly not going to happen, regardless of numerical percentages, or any noise that happens to surround it.

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Chris Sale had Tommy John surgery last March, which means that much of his past year has been spent rehabbing. Queried about that arduous process on a Zoom call, the Red Sox southpaw was thoughtful in his response. Moreover, he wasn’t asking for any sympathy.

“At the end of the day, perspective is big in these situations,” said Sale. “While I was obviously rehabbing, going through some stuff, dealing with things, I had it better than most. Honestly, with everything that’s going on in the world… you have to realize that you’re not the only one going through a tough time. Somebody somewhere has got it worse than you. There are some days I’ve just had to suck it up and do it.”

Sale also shared that he had “a mild” case of COVID-19 in January, losing taste and smell for about a week, but not running a fever. He’s also recovered from a recent bout with neck stiffness. Sale has yet to throw off a mound this spring.

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I recently asked former big-league closer Chris Perez which of his former bullpen mates stands out as someone who thought he was good hitter, whether he was or not.

Brett Myers,” answered Perez. “We were together in Cleveland (in 2013). He’d been with the Phillies for a long time, and all he would talk about is hitting. Like, he wanted to go back to the National League and be a starter, because he missed hitting so much.”

Myers slashed .134/.177/.157 with 151 strikeouts and no home runs in 557 big-league plate appearances.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

At The Boston Globe, Julian Benbow wrote about how the sports analytics community is overwhelmingly white and male.

At Defector, Eric Nusbaum told us that MLB’s minor league power play is an offense against baseball history.

MiLB.com’s Benjamin Hill filled us in on the longest partnerships in the minors.

The Philadelphia Enquirer’s Damichael Cole wrote about the 1905 Philadelphia Giants, who boasted five Hall of Famers and dominated Black baseball.

The AP’s Jake Seiner shared how David Price, Buster Posey, and others who opted out in 2020 are excited for 2021.

The philosopher John Rawls was a devoted baseball fan, and one of his letters on that subject was shared at Boston Review.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Robinson Canó and Edwin Encarnación each debuted in 2005. Canó has a .360 wOBA and a 125 wRC+. Encarnación has a .362 wOBA and 125 wRC+

Diomedes Olivo was 41 years old when he made his MLB debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960. A southpaw from Guayubín, Dominican Republic, Olivo went 5-1, 2.77 with seven saves for the Bucs in 1962.

Guy Hecker went 26-23 and threw 45 complete games for the Louisville Colonels in 1886. He also captured the American Association batting crown with a .341 average (in 378 plate appearances).

Jim Baxes homered 17 times in 308 career plate appearances.
Clyde Milan homered 17 times in 8,339 career plate appearances.

Home Run Baker led the American League in round trippers every year from 1911-1914, a four-season stretch where he logged a 155 wRC+ and helped lead the Philadelphia Athletics to three pennants and two World Series championships. Baker proceeded to sit out the 1915 season in a salary dispute.

From 1974 to 1978 the Dodgers played 12 NLCS games, winning nine and losing three. Charlie Hough pitched in all of the losses and none of the wins. (per @AidanJacksonEvans.)

The Montreal Expos signed Jose Canseco to a free agent contract on today’s date in 2002. Canseco was cut loose prior to the start of the season.

Players born on today’s date include Jouett Meekin, who pitched for five teams from 1891-1900. Meekin went 33-9 with the New York Giants in 1894, and in 1896 issued what is known to be the first intentional walk in big-league history.

Also born on today’s date was Luther “Dummy” Taylor, who pitched for the New York Giants (and briefly the Cleveland Bronchos) from 1900-1908. A right-hander who attended the Kansas School for the Deaf, Taylor went a combined 54-33 with a 2.39 ERA from 1904-1906.

Independent Negro League teams in 1914 included the French Lick Plutos and the West Baden Sprudels.

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