Baseball

Sunday Notes: Rockies Prospect Mitchell Kilkenny Channels Calvin and Hobbes

Mitchell Kilkenny is quietly having a stupendous season. A second-round pick by the Colorado Rockies in 2018 out of Texas A&M, the 24-year-old right-hander boasts a 1.47 ERA over eight starts with the Low-A Fresno Grizzlies and the Spokane Indians. Moreover, he’s fanned 54 batters and issued just five free passes in 43 innings.

His plus command is a much-needed asset. Kilkenny is more finesse than power, his fastball ranging from the upper 80s to the low 90s. At least for now. Kilkenny threw harder as a collegian, but then came Tommy John surgery shortly after he was drafted, and last year’s cancelled minor-league season only muddied the waters. No matter. He fully expects his velocity to tick back up in time, and even if that doesn’t happen, his ability to mix, match and tunnel two- and four-seam fastballs, a slider, a curveball, and a changeup has proven to be plenty effective. As Kilkenny put it, “I might not be bright and flashy, but I’m having success.”

Prior to matriculating at Texas A&M where he double-majored in Renewable Natural Resources and Forestry, he excelled in English class at Houston Christian High School.

“My one fun fact is that I won two awards in creative writing contests,” Kilkenny told me. “One was for a class project where we were to write to a favorite author of ours. I picked Bill Watterson, for Calvin and Hobbes, because that was my favorite comic growing up, I love Calvin and Hobbes. Anyway, it was just a little piece about what the author had given me, which was some of the insights you can get out of a simple comic.”

Does the emerging pitching prospect identify with the character whose alter egos include Spaceman Spiff and Stupendous Man, and who is the creator of Calvinball?

“Yeah. I would say I identify with Calvin,” Kilkenny said after chewing on the question for a moment. “There are a lot of good lessons about friendship and some of the absurdities of life. Told through a child, they’re easily understandable.”

Somewhat less understandable is the subject of Kilkenny’s other award-inning entry. Asked to write about a place he felt comfortable, he picked an aquarium.

An aquarium over a mound?

“Yes,” said Kilkenny. “Oddly enough.”

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Lute Barnes went 1 for 6 against Balor Moore.

Skeeter Barnes went 1 for 9 against Frank Viola.

Rabbit Maranville went 8 for 14 against Elmer Ponder.

Bunny Brief went 2 for 4 against Pol Perritt.

Bunny Fabrique went 2 for 4 against Pol Perritt.

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Brayan Bello is emerging as one of the top pitching prospects in the Red Sox system. No. 11 on Eric Longenhagen’s list and blessed with top-shelf stuff, the 21-year-old right-hander out of the Dominican Republic is 5-0 with a 2.53 ERA in nine starts between High-A Greenville and Double-A Portland. He’s fanned 59 batters in 42-and-two-thirds innings.

The strides Bello has made since posting a 5.43 ERA at the Low-A level in 2019 are marked. Not only has his velocity increased and his slider sharpened, he’s become more in tune with the nuances of his craft.

“I’ve learned from my failures in the past, when I was more of a thrower,” Bello explained, with Red Sox pitching coordinator Julio Rangel serving as a translator. “I didn’t know why I was throwing certain pitches — I didn’t understand the whole dynamic of pitching — and now I have a better idea of what to do with the hitters and how my stuff plays. I’m a big admirer of Pedro Martinez. I watch a lot of his videos, and that’s part of [how I’ve learned].”

Bello’s best secondary pitch is a circle changeup that gets more depth than horizontal movement. His breaking ball is a slider, a pitch he feels is just short of his change-of-pace in terms of quality. Bello’s bread-and-butter is his heater. According to Rangel, the youngster’s four-seamer gets “OK ride. He’s not one of those guys that gets big ride, but he has the velo and that compensates for a lot.”

Bello’s fastball has been sitting 96-97 [mph] and he’s been up to 99 this year. I asked if his M.O. on the mound is to get swings-and-misses and strikeouts.

“My goal is always to get ahead, but once I get in a two-strike count and feel like I can put someone away, I’ll try for a strikeout,” replied Bello.” But my mindset is always attacking hitters.”

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A quiz:

The BBWAA began selecting a Most Valuable Player in each league in 1931. Who was the first pitcher to win an MVP award?

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS ITEMS AND LATE-JUNE NOTABLES

The Society For American Baseball Research has honored Vince Gennaro with its 2021 Bob Davids Award. The award goes to an individual whose contributions to SABR and baseball reflect the ingenuity, integrity, and self-sacrifice of the founder and past president of SABR, L. Robert “Bob” Davids. Information can be found here.

Art Ditmar, a right-hander whose big-league career spanned the 1954-1962 seasons, died earlier this month at age 92. Pitching for the Philadelphia/ Kansas City Athletics and the New York Yankees, Ditmar went 72-77 with a 3.98 ERA over 1,269 innings. As noted in his RIP Baseball obituary, radio broadcaster Chuck Thompson mistakenly had Ditmar — not Ralph Terry — throwing the pitch that Bill Mazeroski homered on to walk off Game 7 of the 1961 World Series.

Four of the top five batting average leaders in the National League play for the Reds (Nick Castellanos and Jesse Winker) or the Pirates (Adam Frazier and Bryan Reynolds). Washington’s Trea Turner is the outlier.

Four of the top seven batting average leaders in the American League play for the Astros (Michael Brantley, Yuli Gurriel, Yordan Alvarez, Carlos Correa).

Jonathan Loaisiga had a four-strikeout inning on Friday night. According to YES Network statistician James Smythe, it was just the third in franchise history that a Yankees hurler had as many Ks in a single frame. Loaisiga joins A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes in accomplishing the feat.

Per the Detroit Tigers media relations staff (prior to yesterday’s double-header), Akil Baddoo is one of 17 rookies with at least 140 at-bats, and he ranks first in OPS (.880) and walk rate (13.2%), second in batting average (.282) and slugging percentage (.506) and third in OBP (.374) and stolen bases (8).

Per stat nerd @PassonJim on Friday night: Shohei Ohtani’s past nine hits: HR, HR, bunt single, HR, HR, HR, HR, HR, bunt single.

Albert Pujols has 5,996 total bases and needs 84 more to tie Willie Mays for third-most all time. He has 3,274 hits and needs 19 more to tie Mays for 12th place all time.

Vladimir Guerrero Sr. hit 50 home run in 258 games over his first three seasons.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is in his third season and has 50 home runs in 258 games.

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The answer to the quiz is Lefty Grove, who was honored as American League MVP in the inaugural year of BBWAA voting. The Philadelphia Athletics southpaw went 31-4 with a 2.06 ERA in 1931.

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The Astros have MLB’s best offense, and every bit as notable is the success they’ve had developing pitching talent. I asked Houston GM James Click about that when the club visited Fenway Park earlier this month.

“I don’t think you need to look any further than Bill Murphy and the pitcher-development program that we have, in terms of developing and maximizing pitching,” the former Tampa Bay Rays exec told me. “That starts with Brent Strom and Josh Miller, and we added Murph to the staff this year because we wanted to bridge the gap between the majors and the minors. Development doesn’t stop once you get to the major leagues, so wanted to make sure that we had continuity with the message and the techniques, all the way from the major leagues down to the Dominican and extended spring training.”

Click has only been with the Astros since January 2020, and when you add in no minor-league season last year due to the pandemic, he’s had limited in-person exposure to the team’s pitching prospects. He’s looking forward to more eyeball looks going forward, and while his background is more analytics than scouting, he sees value doing just that.

“The player development system here in Houston has certainly developed quite a few very impressive arms,” said Click. “Our entire starting rotation, almost, is a testament to that. So I’m not looking to come in here and reinvent the wheel or turn over the applecart. But I still would like to get a better feel for how they do things, add my two cents, and see if we can continue to move it forward.”

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I recently picked up a copy of Thom Henninger’s new book, The Pride of Minnesota: The Twins in the Turbulent 1960s, The introduction includes a fascinating fact about Tony Oliva. The Twins were forerunners in bringing over and signing players out of Cuba, and while Oliva is the most notable, it almost didn’t happen. Henninger explained as follows:

Oliva’s skills were so raw that the Twins decided not to sign him at the close of spring training in ’61 but when the failed attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro led to the closing of borders between the two countries, Oliva stayed in the United States and cashed in on his second chance.”

In other words, were it not for the Bay of Pigs, Oliva may never have been a Twin. The could-be Hall of Famer played 15 seasons in Minnesota and had a 129 wRC+.

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FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Tyler Austin is slashing .333/.436/.641 with NPB’s Yokohama DeNa Bay Stars. The 29-year-old former big-league outfielder has 16 home runs in 227 plate appearances.

Masahiro Tanaka is 3-4 with a 3.18 ERA in 10 starts with NPB’s Rakuten Golden Eagles. The former New York Yankees right-hander made 173 MLB starts, and he has 172 career starts in Japan.

David Buchanan is 9-2 with a 2.35 ERA in 14 starts with the KBO’s Samsung Lions. The former Philadelphia Phillies right-hander pitched in Japan from 2017-2019 and took his talents to South Korea in 2020.

Andrew Suarez is 7-2 with a 2.35 ERA in 14 starts with the KBO’s LG Twins. The erstwhile San Francisco Giants southpaw is in his first international season.

Hye-seong Kim has a KBO-best 25 stolen bases and has been caught stealing just twice. The 22-year-old Kiwoom Heroes shortstop is slashing .296/.361/.377.

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I ran a Twitter poll earlier this week asking which of Dusty Baker, Tony La Russa, or Joe Maddon is the better manager. A total of 301 votes were cast, and the results were… interesting. La Russa, who is second to Connie Mack on the all-time managerial wins list, received a paltry 12.6% of support. Baker garnered 31.2%, while Maddon mustered a robust 56.1%.

The subjectivity of the poll aside — ditto the level of impact a manager has on a team’s record — their respective career won-lost percentages are notably close: La Russa .536, Maddon .535, and Baker .534.

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The New York Yankees are in third place in the American League East with a record of 40-36. For a team with championship aspirations, it has thus far been a disappointing season. Down on the farm is another story. Yankees affiliates have been winning at an eye-opening rate.

At 31-13, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders have the best record of any Triple-A team.

At 31-15, the Somerset Patriots have the best record of any Double-A team.

At 30-16, the Hudson Valley Renegades have the best record in the High-A North Division.

At 30-15, the Tampa Tarpons have the best record in the Low-A Southeast-East Division.

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FARM REPORT

Grayson Rodriguez has 76 strikeouts in 48 innings between High-A Aberdeen and Double-A Bowie. The 21-year-old right-hander — No. 2 on our Baltimore Orioles Top Prospects list — has a 1.69 ERA on the season.

Cade Cavalli has 88 strikeouts in 52-and-a-third innings between High-A Wilmington and Double-A Harrisburg. The 22-year-old right-hander — No. 2 on our Washington Nationals Top Prospects list — has a 2.24 ERA on the season.

Brandon Williamson has 64 strikeouts in 36 innings between High-A Everett and Double-A Arkansas. The 23-year-old left-hander — No. 12 on our Seattle Mariners Top Prospects list — has a 3.75 ERA on the season.

Peyton Battenfield has 63 strikeouts in 41-and-two-thirds innings between High-A Bowling Green and Double-A Montgomery. The 23-year-old right-hander — N0. 48 on our Tampa Bay Rays Top Prospects list — has walked just six batters and has a 1.08 ERA on the season.

Zach McCambley has 64 strikeouts in 50 innings with High-A Beloit. The 22-year-old right-hander — No. 27 on our Miami Marlins Top Prospects list — has walked just four batters and has a 2.88 ERA in his first professional season.

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Chas McCormick was featured here at FanGraphs earlier this week, with his rise from under-the-radar prospect to big-league starting outfielder the focus of the interview. A former 21st-round pick, McCormick has a 113 wRC+ with the Houston Astros in his rookie season.

A few off-the-field facts were shared when I talked to him at Fenway Park.

“I have a twin brother, Jason, who is nine minutes older than me and played college baseball [at Immaculata University],” McCormick told me. “And then… do you know Herr’s Potato Chips? J.M Herr is my grandmother’s sister’s husband. So I’m related to Herr’s Potato Chips.”

An endorsement deal seems only natural. Has he been asked to be a spokesman for the company?

“Not yet,” said McCormick. “I might need to be an All-Star first.”

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

The Athletic’s Andrew Baggerly shared how Giants outfielder Darin Ruf is helping feed San Francisco’s homeless, one brown bag at a time.

Virginia senator Mark Warner hopes to use $550 million in unspent federal aid to help minor league franchises. Michael Martz has the story at The Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The U.S. Postal Service unveiled a commemorative Yogi Berra stamp earlier this week. Jon Rimmer has the story at Pinstripe Alley.

Tom Hawthorne explored the mystery of the Vancouver baseball ballerina photos at Montecristo Magazine.

Brew Crew Ball’s Lindsey Loberg gave us a quick scouting report on right-hander Miguel Sánchez, whom the Brewers called up from Triple-A Nashville.

Baseball America’s JJ Cooper wrote about how partner leagues (previously known as independent leagues) are facing a player shortage as MLB organizations are purchasing contracts at a record rate.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Albert Pujols has 1,338 walks and 1,330 strikeouts. Alex Rodriguez had 1,338 walks and 2,287 strikeouts.

Detroit Tigers Hall of Fame second baseman Charlie Gehringer had 1,417 hits, 451 extra-base hits, and 92 home runs in home games. He had 1,421 hits, 453 extra base hits, and 92 home runs in away games.

Nine players taken by the Tigers in the 1976 draft reached the majors. Three are Hall of Famers (Jack Morris, Ozzie Smith, and Alan Trammell), while a fourth, Dan Petry, played 13 season and went 125-104 with a 3.95 ERA.

In 1935, Red Sox right-hander Wes Ferrell had an 11-day stretch where he had three complete-game wins and hit four home runs. One of the dingers was a pinch-hit, three-run walk-off. On the season, Ferrell slashed .347/.427/.533 with seven home runs, and he went 25-14 with a 3.52 ERA and 31 complete games.

Number of different ballparks homered in: nine, Otis Nixon (11 career home runs); eight, Mel Ott (511 career home runs). Per Aidan Jackson-Evans.

According to to the back of his 2021 Topps card, White Sox infielder Danny Mendick’s grandfather had season tickets for Rochester’s minor-league team for more than 70 years.

In 1955, Yogi Berra was named AL MVP after slashing .272/.349/.470 with 27 home runs. He was worth 5.2 WAR. Al Kaline, who finished second in the voting, slashed .340/.421/.546 with 27 home runs. He was worth 7.3 WAR.

On today’s date in 2003, the Red Sox scored 14 runs in the first inning on their way to a 25-8 win over the Florida Marlins. Boston scored 11 runs before making an out, and Johnny Damon finished the frame with a single, a double, and a triple.

Dick Terwilliger and Wayne Terwilliger — not related — were both born on today’s date. Dick, who pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1932, drew his first breaths in Sand Lake, Michigan in 1906. Wayne, who hailed from Clare, Michigan, was an infielder for five different teams from 1949-1960 and went on to coach for the Washington Senators and Texas Rangers.

Also born on today’s date was Red Barron, who had four hits in 21 at bats for the Boston Braves in 1929. A member of the Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Fame, the erstwhile outfielder’s given name was David Irenus Barron.

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