Do You Have A Literary Agent?

Seemingly, sportswriters must always wonder if anyone enjoys, or even reads, their work. If a book is published, sales can be tracked but for newspapers, magazines and this new-fangled Internet thingy, the level of interest can remain a mystery.

This humble column, however, doesn’t seem to have that problem. Every weekend, readers send comments about Friday’s article and most are complimentary. Then there are others who take issue with an opinion or position, but that means they’re interested enough to take the time to disagree. Beyond those two categories, however, there is another group known as the “literary agents”. The lead character wants to know when all of these stories will turn into a book because he thinks it would be a best seller. Another reader, who is only a casual baseball fan, regularly asks “non-expert” questions that suggest general topics for future pieces. One other fan only sends comments less than a sentence like “Didn’t know that” and “Willie Mays was better”. If he was Native American, he would be called “Man Who Speaks Without Punctuation”. Seven years ago, a young Rotisserie player ramped up the discussion by requesting a specific topic. After reading a previous offering about baseball card values of that year’s hot prospects, he suggested looking at the cards of the top prospects from 10 years ago because he would “be intrigued to see how the value holds up as players reach the majors and either succeed or fail”.

The answer, of course, was “ask and you shall receive”. We reviewed the 2004 top prospect list and found “hits” (Joe Mauer, Prince Fielder, Zack Greinke & David Wright) and “misses” (Delmon Young, Greg Miller, Andy Marte & Dustin McGowan). Now it’s time to re-visit the topic and see how the youngsters from the 2011 list have done…and if their baseball cards were a good investment.

1) Mike Trout, OF Angels – A generational player. If he retired tomorrow at age 30, he’s a first ballot Hall of Famer. Three MVP’s and a lifetime WAR of 76, he’s also the only active player with an OPS over 1.000. His 2011 Bowman Chrome Rookie Card books for $300+.

2) Jeremy Hellickson, P Rays – Never lived up to the hype with a 76-75 lifetime record. He retired in 2019.

3) Bryce Harper, OF Nationals – His 2nd MVP season has put him on a Hall of Fame career path. At age 29, he’s already accumulated 1,200+ Hits, 267 HR’s and a WAR of 40. Some of his 2011 Bowman cards are still reasonable but an autographed version will set you back $250.

4) Domonic Brown, OF Phillies – Card collectors and Fantasy Baseball players know all about the failures of this “can’t miss” prospect. In six big league campaigns, he hit only .246 with a .710 OPS.

5) Dustin Ackley, 2B Mariners – Another complete bust, his six seasons produced a .241 BA and .671 OPS. Last played in the majors in 2016.

6) Aroldis Chapman, P Reds – Has been a highly-rated Closer for the last decade compiling over 300 Saves. Even now at age 33, he still averages 99 mph on the radar gun. His rookie cards are very inexpensive, as collectors don’t gravitate to one-inning players.

7) Mike Moustakas, 3B Royals – Has a World Series Ring but a very average career. Three All-Star appearances and 196 HR’s are on the stat sheet.

8) Eric Hosmer, 1B Royals – Another member of the ’15 World Series winners, his big free agent contract hasn’t panned out. In the first four years of an eight-year deal, he’s totaled 61 HR’s.

9) Jesus Montero, C Yankees –The poster boy for collectors who speculate and lose. One of the hottest cards in the hobby and now you can use them to wallpaper your man cave. Played 18 games with the Bombers and four seasons on the Mariners with no success.

10) Julio Teheran, P Braves – Was a decent Pitcher for Atlanta over a half-dozen seasons but never a star. His lifetime record sits at 78-77.

Reviewing the next ten prospects on our 2010 list gives you get a clear insight into just how difficult it is to scout young players. Only #17 qualifies as a real star…

11) Desmond Jennings

12) Kyle Drabek

13) Michael Pineda

14) Mike Montgomery

15) Jacob Turner

16) Wil Myers

17) Freddie Freeman

18) Jameson Taillon

19) Zach Britton

20) Shelby Miller

You might wonder if there were any big misses by the well-informed baseball experts that put this list together. Let’s allow you to decide, as we look at prospects inside the top 50.

24) Manny Machado

25) Chris Sale

26) Brandon Belt

If you play Fantasy Baseball, you might look a little deeper and find these six players who didn’t make the top 50…

  • Anthony Rizzo
  • Zack Wheeler
  • Craig Kimbrel
  • Nick Castellanos
  • Kenley Jansen
  • Christian Yelich

And, of course, how about those in the top 50 whose names are barely recognizable…

  • Casey Kelly
  • Jarrod Parker
  • Jon Singleton
  • John Lamb
  • Manny Banuelos
  • Tanner Scheppers
  • Brett Jackson
  • Christian Friedrich

The good news is that Montgomery will never have to buy his own drink in Chicago, Singleton made $3.5 Million to hit .171 and Kelly has won 42 games during the last three seasons in Korea.

As for baseball cards, collect but don’t speculate.

Sharing The Wins

With the Winter Meetings on the horizon, let’s take a look at the relative value of the players in the game. In a sport awash with money, old-school fans often have difficulty wrapping their heads around the new levels of salaries and budgetary guidelines. With the average MLB salary above $4 Million, how do we really know what a player’s contribution is worth? And do these contributions really make a difference in the standings?

 In other words, what is their contribution to winning games? We’ve discussed WAR (Wins Above Replacement) numerous times in this space and that statistical outcome does impact decisions made by writers voting on awards and General Managers making deals. It has become a mainstream analysis over the last decade and can help clarify and justify some contract amounts. For example, if you believe in the WAR calculations, it confirms that Shohei was the best player in the AL (9.1 WAR) and Zack Wheeler was tops in the NL (7.7 WAR). The fact that Ohtani won the AL MVP and that Wheeler finished 2nd in the NL Cy Young voting adds to the credibility of the statistic. AL Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray (6.7 WAR) was the best Pitcher in the AL while the NL MVP Bryce Harper (5.9 WAR) also had an elite number.

 Most baseball stat-heads believe a player is worth about $6-8M per win to his team and free agent signings give us a window into that formula. So, when you see the early free agent commitments, the die has been cast for more $200-$300M players.

Each year at this time, we turn to another statistical measure in an attempt to gauge player value. The other stat that is team-result based is WS (Win Shares) as developed by the godfather of modern statistical analysis, Bill James. While trying to describe the formula is impossible (James wrote an entire book on the topic in 2002), it comes down to a system where each game a team wins during the season is meticulously analyzed and the three players most responsible for that win get a “win share”. So, if a team wins 80 games, there will be 240 win shares distributed on the roster. Position players will have a tendency to accumulate higher totals than pitchers, but it’s all about comparisons between players among positions. Only five position players had a number over 30 in 2021 and it’s difficult to take exception with the results. Ohtani led the way with a figure of 38 followed by Juan Soto, Aaron Judge, Brandon Crawford & Harper with who all had 31. The 26-30 category included numerous familiar names and a number of surprises…

> J.P. Crawford

> Ty France

> Freddie Freeman

> Paul Goldschmidt

> Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

> Max Muncy

> Matt Olson

> Salvador Perez

> Jorge Polanco

> Jose Ramirez

> Fernando Tatis Jr.

> Trea Turner

The highest-rated Starting Pitchers were Wheeler with 19 and Kevin Gausman & Walker Buehler with 18 each.

As always, there are some hidden tidbits in the rankings that impact both fantasy and reality baseball…

> Rookies of the Year contributed 21 (Randy Arozarena) and 22 (Jonathan India).

> How about the hyped free agent SS? Marcus Semien 24, Carlos Correa 23, Corey Seager 21, Javier Baez 20 & Trevor Story 16.

> Mike Trout has 319 in his career, trailing only Joey Votto (333) since the stat was introduced in 2008.

> And maybe a glimpse at potential…Jared Walsh (22), Dylan Carlson (20), Luis Urias (19) & Akil Baddoo (18).

Don’t forget, it’s the season for sharing…even if they’re Win Shares.

Hanging Around The Hot Stove With Bill James

Many baseball fans from the “Baby Boomer” generation haven’t really bought into the immense change in how statistics are viewed. They still look at the game with their eyes and are only concerned with the numbers on the back of the baseball card. For those of us more immersed in the details of the game, the man who guided us through the wilderness is Bill James. Starting in the late 70’s, he published an annual “Baseball Abstract” that began the task of analyzing data in new and different ways. By 1985, he wrote the first “Historical Baseball Abstract” and that 700+ page volume still sits on the bookshelf in my office.

For baseball fans in general and Fantasy Baseball players who can’t wait for the upcoming season, Bill also helps us get through the winter while we’re longing for box scores. Each November, The Bill James Handbook gives us a review of the season, lifetime stats of every major league player and numerous articles and lists to make the “hot stove” season tolerable. The 2022 version is available now and at 634 pages, offers just about something for everyone. The Old Duck has an annual exercise, where I take my initial cursory glance at the book and begin discovering information that surprises and enlightens me.

So, here are some random observations from my first time through the pages…

> In golf and tennis, fans can easily find current rankings on each player. The systems are set up so that the rankings move up and down based on performance and are not just for the current season. James has developed a similar idea for ranking starting pitchers. The current top five are Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler, Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole and Zack Wheeler. Scherzer is at the top of the heap for the first time since August of 2019. Wheeler had the biggest jump of the top five as he was #29 at the start of the season. The champion Braves had two SP’s in the top 10…Charlie Morton at #6 and Max Fried at #8. Brewer starters Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff came in at #9 & #10. Some of the biggest drops since a year ago were Yu Darvish (#9 to #29), Zack Greinke (#12 to #45) and Kyle Hendricks (#14 to #74). On the positive side, Robbie Ray (#55 to #7), Kevin Gausman (#33 to #12) and Julio Urias (#44 to #14) led the way.

> Fielding metrics are relatively new and not yet accepted by fans or even by many statisticians. The handbook’s “Defensive Runs Saved” chart shows how players can help their team even when they don’t have a bat in their hand. Paul Goldschmidt of the Cards led all 1B with 9 runs saved, but Lewin Diaz of the Marlins actually matched that number despite only playing 40 games. Whit Merrifield of the Royals topped 2B with 14; youngster Ke’Bryan Hayes of the Pirates led at 3B with 16 while Platinum Glove recipient Carlos Correa was dominant at SS with 20. There were great performances in the Outfield with Gold Glove winner Tyler O’Neill leading the LF with 11, Michael A. Taylor (another Gold Glover) in CF had 19 and Adolis Garcia topped the RF with 13…one more than Joey Gallo. Dallas Keuchel led all Pitchers with 12 and Jacob Stallings was far and away the best Catcher with 21. For all the cynical fans out there, we can’t leave out the worst fielders in the game and how many runs they cost their teams…

1B) Rhys Hoskins & Bobby Dalbec – 7

2B) Cesar Hernandez & Jed Lowrie – 11

3B) Alec Bohm & Rafael Devers – 13

SS) Jose Iglesias – -22

LF) Justin Upton – 11

CF) Jarred Kelenic – 16

RF) Jorge Soler – 11

C) Zack Collins – 18

> A consistently debated topic among fans and media is the dramatic increase in defensive shifts. In 2014, shifts were utilized over 13,000 times, in 2015 the number increased to over 17,000 and in 2016, it grew tremendously (+58%) to over 28,000. The 2017 numbers seemed to show that the optimum advantage had been reached, as the figure dropped slightly to 26,700. But 2018 put every number in the rear-view mirror with over 34,600 (a 30% increase). 2019 left that number in the dust with a 34% increase to 46,700. To the naysayer, the question becomes, would teams be shifting if it didn’t work? According to the “Runs Saved” statistic, shifting saved 196 runs in 2014, 267 runs in 2015, 359 in 2016 and 346 in 2017. Then in 2018, it increased to 592! 2019 came in at 622 runs! If you prorate the 2020 number to a 162 game season, there would have been 64,606 shifts, an increase of 31% from 2019. The shift lowered the Batting Average of shift candidates by 39 points. 25 of the 30 teams increased their shift usage, so don’t expect the strategy to go away. However, 2021 showed a slight reversal for the first time. This season’s number dropped to a little over 59,000 and it appears that teams are being more selective as to who they shift. Some hitters are “shift candidates” and others are not. Max Muncy hit .151 against the shift while Austin Meadows hit .160. Players of that category won’t see anything different unless there’s an eventual rule change.

> In the past, players were judged as good baserunners if they swiped a lot of bases. Not only were their other baserunning skills not considered, even their caught stealing stats were ignored. However, as Tom Boswell pointed out over 25 years ago, a caught stealing is equivalent to two outs because it not only removes a baserunner, it also causes an out. Now we have information that tells us how often a player goes from 1st to 3rd or 2nd to home plate on a single. The handbook grades baserunning on the net amount of bases a player gains in a given season. The top eight were Starling Marte (+50), Nicky Lopez (+42), Whit Merrifield (+41), Tommy Edman (+40), Myles Straw (+36), Fernando Tatis Jr. (+32), Ozzie Albies (+31 and Trea Turner (+30).  The Royals were the best baserunning team in the game at +86 and the Dodgers were second with +84.

> How often did the top five starting pitchers use their fastball? The “Pitchers’ Repertoires” section will answer that question by telling you that it was 47% for Scherzer, 52% for Buehler, 57% for deGrom, 48% for Cole and 61% for Wheeler. See a pattern here? Maybe the pitching philosophy of “Throw him the heater, Ricky” went out about the time of “Major League II”.

That’s just a taste of the information in this year’s edition and we haven’t even looked at the individual player stats. No wonder that “stathead” is now an accepted baseball term.

Who Is Clutch?

The definition of “clutch” seems to be somewhat elusive for many people. The slang dictionary describes it as “the ability to deliver when peak performance is needed” and your imagination can take that beyond the realm of sports. The urban dictionary concurs by saying, “the ability to perform well on a certain activity at a particular moment, despite external pressures, influences or distractions.” Of course, the term also has a tendency to fit other circumstances such as, “you are really craving a beer…you go to the fridge and there’s one left…so clutch.”

For long-time baseball fans, clutch has always been linked with RBI’s. After all, don’t the leaders in that statistical category come through in the clutch? The answer, of course, is never that easy. The folks who study baseball statistics have known since the 70’s that raw stats can be misleading. Batting in runs is a very important factor in a player’s success but that outcome is influenced greatly by where he hits in the line-up, whether he has protection in that line-up and, more importantly, how many runners were on the base paths when he came to the plate. To this end, baseballmusings.com gives you the historical data to determine “RBI Percentage”. It is a result of a player’s (RBI – HR) / Runners On, or in simplistic terms, what percentage of base runners did a player drive in during the season. In 2020, the stat told us that Freddie Freeman & Jose Abreu (the two MVP’s) finished 3rd & 4th in all of baseball with marks over 22%.

So, with the 2021 season in the rear-view mirror, let’s look at the best (and worst) clutch hitters in the game. The statistical information is for regular season games and includes players who had at least 175+ runners on base when they came to the plate.

1) Eddie Rosario 21.9% – Cleveland gave him a cheap one-year deal and the Braves picked him up at the trade deadline. Wonder how that worked out?

2) Jesus Aguilar 21.3% – His 93 RBI’s were a big part of the Marlins offense.

3) LaMonte Wade 21.0% – Acquired prior to the season for a Pitcher with an ERA over 8.00…hit 18 HR’s and posted a .808 OPS.

4) Manny Machado 20.8% – You should get something for $300 Million.

5) Austin Meadows 20.5% – 27 HR’s & 106 RBI’s in his age 26 season. And you wonder why the Rays win and the Pirates lose?

6) Adam Duvall 20.4% – Another Braves mid-season acquisition and another World Series ring.

7) Teoscar Hernandez 20.4% – A number of Jays are more well-known but this guy is a solid presence in the line-up.

8) Lourdes Gurriel 19.9% – The Toronto organization has a bright future.

9) Ozzie Albies 19.4% – A 3.4 WAR contributor for a $3 Million salary.

10) Bo Bichette 19.3% – Pitching to this line-up can’t be fun.

11) Jose Abreu 19.3% – Arguably the most consistent bat in the game.

12) Jared Walsh 19.1 – Albert going to the Dodgers was a nice story but this kid needed to play everyday.

Fernando Tatis Jr. shows up in the next level as do Franmil Reyes, Ketel Marte and Yadier Molina.  When it comes to everyday players, the bottom of the barrel looks like this…

> Carter Kieboom 7.3% – Has a .197 BA in 355 major league AB’s.

> Jake Bauers 7.4% – Now more of a suspect than a prospect

> Jackie Bradley Jr. 8.0% – Picked up his $12 Million option for 2022…smart move

Hope all your Fantasy players come through in the clutch.

Baseball Movies – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The late Roger Ebert and I were probably equally talented on the baseball fields of our youth. That is to say, we certainly both selected the correct career path.  If you are a true baseball fan, movies about your favorite sport are irresistible. There have been numerous “top-ten” and “best-of” lists of baseball movies, but someone’s opinion doesn’t matter if you fell in love with a movie the first time you viewed it on a screen. When Clint Eastwood’s “Trouble With The Curve” came out a few years ago, a baseball-loving friend of mine thought it was great. A mainstream baseball writer, however, took the film to task for its depiction of scouts and the less than realistic plotline. Which of them is correct? It doesn’t matter because for many of us, a movie about baseball is always worth the time.

For this visit, the Old Duck will ramble on about some of his personal favorites and delve into the archives for “Quacktoids” about the famous and obscure of the genre. Your favorites may be among them, but remember that opinions are like a part of your anatomy…everyone has one. The film review site “Rotten Tomatoes” has all of these in their list of top 35 baseball movies.    

> 4 Stars

According to Leonard Maltin’s comprehensive movie guide, only one mainstream baseball movie qualifies as “****” and that is 1942’s “Pride Of The Yankees”. This biography of Lou Gehrig impacts even the Yankee haters in the audience and certainly belongs in the top five of all time. When Gary Cooper gives the famous, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech, there’s not a dry eye in the house.

One interesting side note is that Lou Gehrig once appeared in a movie playing himself but it wasn’t about baseball. In 1938, just prior to being diagnosed with ALS, he starred in “Rawhide”, a “B” movie Western. The premise was that Lou had retired from baseball, moved out west and joined forces with a singing lawyer. Together, they worked against a racketeer who’s stealing money from ranchers. Sound corny? Of course! But watch a few 1930’s movies with John Wayne, Roy Rogers & Gene Autry and you’ll understand.

> Kevin Costner

This Oscar-winning actor, director and producer obviously has an affinity for baseball. He made two films back-to-back in the late 1980’s that show up on just about every top-five list you will find. The outrageous “Bull Durham” (1988), is a minor league story of the veteran Catcher “Crash” Davis mentoring the kid Pitcher “Nuke” LaLoosh. Worth watching over and over again if only to hear, “Why’s he calling me meat? I’m the one driving the Porsche”.  And who wouldn’t convert to Annie Savoy’s Church of Baseball?

A year later, “Field Of Dreams” was the complete antithesis of the previous film. Costner’s character hears voices that convince him to build a baseball field in the middle of his Iowa corn farm and the next thing you know, the 1919 Chicago Black Sox show up to play. As with many sports movies that depend on history, the audience must have some “suspension of disbelief”. After all, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson didn’t throw left-handed, but the movie is, after all, a fantasy. “If you build it, he will come”.

A decade later, the star returned to the baseball diamond with 1999’s “For Love Of The Game”. Not up to the standard of the first two, it still gets points for the realistic end-of-season baseball game that provides the backdrop of the story and the brilliant decision to have Vin Scully do the play-by-play.

> Based On A True Story

This term usually means that the screenwriter and producer had some level of poetic license in the depiction of true events. Movies are infamous for creating a “Hollywood” ending that might be a real stretch. With that caveat, there have been many baseball movies that didn’t need much fabrication because the stories stood the test of time.

One such example is “Eight Men Out” (1988), the story of the 1919 Chicago White Sox and their attempt to throw the World Series. Director John Sayles was meticulous in creating the era on screen and Eliot Asinof’s book was the basis for the film. A wonderful ensemble cast made the players believable and the movie easily belongs in the top ten.

Even though it wasn’t a theatrical release, “61*” (2001) was an amazing film directed by lifetime Yankee fan Billy Crystal. The story of Mickey Mantle & Roger Maris chasing Babe Ruth’s record in the Summer of 1961 was brought to life beautifully without a major star in the cast to detract from the story. How could you not love a movie that casts knuckleball Pitcher Tom Candiotti to portray knuckleball Pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm?

A heartwarming entry in this category is “The Rookie” (2002), which tells the true story of high-school baseball coach Jimmy Morris, who makes it all the way to the big leagues with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Be careful not to look through the bargain bin and accidently pick-up “The Rookie” (1990), the buddy-cop movie with Clint Eastwood & Charlie Sheen, as you’ll be very disappointed.

Speaking of heartwarming, don’t miss “The Stratton Story” (1949) with Jimmy Stewart playing White Sox Pitcher Monty Stratton, who lost his leg in a hunting accident. Major leaguers Jimmy Dykes & Bill Dickey appear in the film.

Turning a book about advanced baseball analytics into a mainstream success may sound like a stretch, but Director Bennett Miller, along with star Brad Pitt, put it all together in 2011’s “Moneyball” based on Michael Lewis’ bestselling book.

“A League Of Their Own” (1992) celebrated the professional woman baseball players who helped keep the game alive during the 1940’s. Lots of laughs and a few tears too, especially the final scene in Cooperstown. But, don’t forget, “There’s no crying in baseball”.

Even though it is in the documentary category, don’t miss finding “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” (2000). It tackles two difficult historical topics…prejudice in the sport and how World War II impacted the lives of baseball players and fans.

Even if you’ve seen “42”, find “The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950), where Jackie plays himself. It was a “docudrama” before the term was invented.

Jimmy Piersall wasn’t a superstar player but his story was unique and you get a dramatic glimpse into an athlete recovering from a mental breakdown in “Fear Strikes Out” (1957).  Three years before “Psycho”, Anthony Perkins portrays the Red Sox outfielder.

> Consensus Classics

These next three movies seem to pop-up on just about every top-ten list. “The Natural” (1984) tells the story of Roy Hobbs, who goes from obscurity to stardom in the twilight of his baseball years. Bernard Malamud’s novel was written in 1949, the same year major leaguer Eddie Waitkus was shot by a deranged female fan. Some say the event inspired the book, but no matter the back story, the film has some of the best cinematography and set pieces in any sports film. And, of course, Robert Redford chose #9 as a tribute to Ted Williams.

“The Sandlot” (1993) is a charming little film, essentially for younger viewers, that follows a 1960’s sandlot baseball team through their trials and tribulations in the neighborhood of their small town.

“Major League” (1989) followed closely on the heels of Bull Durham and took the characterizations to a comic-book level. Charlie Sheen, Wesley Snipes, Dennis Haysbert and especially Bob Uecker, created the necessary atmosphere to make the rag-tag Cleveland Indians a pennant-winning team.  Haysbert also played a baseball player in Tom Selleck’s “Mr. Baseball” (1992).

> Under The Radar

If you first became aware of Robert DeNiro’s acting chops in his Oscar-winning performance as young Vito Corleone in 1974’s “Godfather II”, you may have missed “Bang The Drum Slowly” (1973). Michael Moriarty plays the star Pitcher of a mythical New York baseball team (patterned after Tom Seaver?) and DeNiro is his slow-witted Catcher with a terminal illness. While accepting the actor’s skills as major leaguers might be difficult, the story is true to the sport.

I’m always surprised at how few baseball fans have seen “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Movie Kings” (1973). This homage to the barnstorming days of Negro League players includes Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones & Richard Pryor in the cast. Look for former Angel slugger Leon Wagner as the 1B.

While not really a baseball movie, “The Naughty Nineties” (1945) must be included on the list for one reason. It contains the best recorded version of Abbott & Costello doing their “Who’s On First?” comedy routine. This is the film clip shown at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

> Light-Hearted

“The Bad News Bears” (1976) gives Walter Matthau a chance to shine as the profane and grumpy Little League coach. “Damn Yankees” (1958) brings the smash Broadway musical to the screen with Tab Hunter playing the mythical ballplayer who changes the fortunes of his team. “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” (1949) has Gene Kelly & Frank Sinatra choosing baseball over vaudeville because Esther Williams owns the team.

> Rock Bottom

Every movie category has its clunkers and baseball in no exception. Stay away from sequels including Major League II & III as well as any of the Bad News Bears follow-ups and Sandlot 2 & 3. “Ed” (1996) is about a chimpanzee playing 3B in the minor leagues and “Talent For The Game” (1991) would have us believe a scout could put on catching gear and sneak into a televised major league game without anyone noticing.

Was one of your favorites missed? Maybe some modern examples like “Sugar” (2008) or “Everybody Wants Some” (2016). Or Dizzy Dean’s biography, “The Pride Of St. Louis” (1952). Or either version of “Angels In The Outfield” (1951 & 1994). How about Tommy Lee Jones as “Cobb” (1994) or John Goodman’s version of “The Babe” (1992). As a Red Sox fan, I’d be remiss not to mention “Fever Pitch” (2005).

Whatever you decide to watch, save me an aisle seat.

Unexpected WAR

Baseball fans and Fantasy Baseball Managers love pleasant surprises. Those players who weren’t on the radar and then turned out to be a very productive asset for your team.

They could fall into a number of categories. There are prospects that exceeded their ranking in the organization. Then there are those acquired in some insignificant trade who emerge with their new team. Or a post-hype player who disappointed in his first season or two and then figured it out. Every season, these players make a difference in the success of MLB teams and 2021 is no exception. We’re not talking about established guys like Bryce Harper or Jose Ramirez who continued to produce outstanding numbers or top prospects such as Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or Juan Soto.

To indentify the best of these, we’ll once again rely on “Wins Above Replacement” (WAR) which is a statistic designed to answer the following question…if this player got injured and their team had to replace them with an available minor leaguer or a AAAA player from their bench, how much value would the team be losing? The value is expressed in a wins format, so we can compare each player’s actual value.

According to the rankings provided by Fan Graphs, there were about 40 players who provided at least 4 Wins to their team with Shohei Ohtani leading the way at 8.1. In that top 40, we’ve identified a few who would certainly qualify as a pleasant surprise. Let’s take a look at the list with their overall ranking and WAR contribution…

> #12 Nathan Eovaldi, Red Sox (5.6 WAR) – The BoSox best starting pitcher, his 182+ IP were more than his last three seasons combined… and he made the All-Star team!

> #15 Bryan Reynolds, Pirates (5.5 WAR) – The Bucs had a lousy year but this OF hit .302 and led the NL in Triples.

> #16 Brandon Crawford, Giants (5.5 WAR) – Had his best season ever at age 34 and was rewarded with a contract extension.

> #19 Tyler O’Neill, Cardinals (5.4 WAR) – Emerged at age 26 with a 34 HR / 15 SB season.

> #21 Cedric Mullins (5.3) WAR – 30 HR’s & 30 SB’s after never having even having 200 AB’s in a big league season.

> #28 Buster Posey, Giants (4.9 WAR) – At age 34 after skipping the 2020 season? Wow!

  • #40 Dylan Cease, White Sox (4.6 WAR) – Didn’t miss a start and led the AL in K/9 with 12.3.
  • #41 Mike Zunino, Rays (4.5 WAR) – Don’t let the .216 BA fool you, he hit 33 HR’s and was outstanding behind the plate.
  • #48 Nicky Lopez, Royals (4.4 WAR) – Hit .201 last year and then became an everyday player to post a .300 BA and swipe 22 bases.
  • #49 Logan Webb, Giants (4.3 WAR) – Had started 19 games prior to ’21 with an ERA over 5.00…11-3 with a 3.03 ERA along with an impressive post-season performance.
  • #53 Austin Riley, Braves (4.2 WAR) – The “post-hype” poster child, he hit .226 & .239 his first two seasons and then produced 33 HR’s & 107 RBI’s…and he’s still only 24.
  • # 60 Willy Adames, Brewers (4.1 WAR) – Turned it all around after joining the Crew…20 HR’s in 99 games.

If you had these 12 players on your Fantasy squad, apply for the Mets GM opening now.

The Best OPS

50 years ago, if a baseball fan was asked who the best hitters were, the only significant resource would have been the sports section of the Sunday newspaper. Somewhere in the back pages, there was a long, slender list in very small type showing all current major league players. And those players were ranked by their BA (Batting Average) because that had historically been the benchmark for position players.

Looking back at 1971, we find that the top five BA’s belonged to Joe Torre (.363), Ralph Garr (.343), Glenn Beckert (.341), Roberto Clemente (.341) & Tony Oliva (.337). Fine players all, but were they the five best hitters in baseball? Not when you consider that Sal Bando finished 2nd in the AL MVP voting to a Pitcher (Vida Blue) and hit .271 while Willie Stargell was the runner-up to Torre in the NL while hitting .295. Beckert had 2 HR’s & 42 RBI’s while Garr contributed 9 HR’s & 44 RBI’s.

As modern baseball analytics have evolved, one of the most accepted statistics has become OPS (On-Base % + Slugging %). Not only does it prioritize getting on base, it also adds the concept of moving more runners around the bases. After all, Slugging Percentage is defined as Total Bases /At Bats. Old school fans might question the veracity of the stat but baseball history tells the tale. The five highest lifetime OPS numbers belong to Babe Ruth (1.16), Ted Williams (1.12), Lou Gehrig (1.08), Barry Bonds (1.05) & Jimmie Foxx (1.04). There are only three other hitters with a number over 1.00… Hank Greenberg, Rogers Hornsby and Mike Trout.

With our 2021 regular season now in the books, let’s see who the best hitters in baseball were according to the numbers.

1) Bryce Harper, Phillies OF, 1.044 OPS – Fans have a tendency to feel that he’s overrated and overpaid. The actual results disagree, as he had 35 HR’s, 101 Runs and 84 RBI’s. In today’s game where plate discipline is a forgotten art, he also walked 100 times. This was his best OPS since the MVP season of 2015.

2) Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Blue Jays 1B, 1.002 OPS – Only 22, he led the AL in HR’s with 48 and OBP with .401

3) Juan Soto, Nationals OF, .999 OPS –Arguably the best of the game’s great young players, he’s putting up historic numbers. Also only 22, his .465 OBP is off-the charts. And, how about 145 BB and only 93 K’s? His lifetime OBP is the same as Ty Cobb!

4) Fernando Tatis Jr., Padres SS, .975 OPS –You guessed it, he’s 22 years old. Led the NL in HR’s (42) despite missing over 30 games.

5) Shohei Ohtani, Angels DH, .965 OPS – 46 HR’s & 28 SB’s would be impressive enough even if he didn’t also post a 9-2 record on the mound.

6) Nick Castellanos, Reds OF, .939 OPS – 100 RBI’s and his first All-Star appearance.

7) Joey Votto, Reds 1B/OF, .938 OPS –No one saw this coming at age 37, it was his best number since 2017. His lifetime OPS of .937 is second to Trout among active players.

8) Kyle Tucker, Astros OF, .917 OPS –Doesn’t match the hype of Correa, Altuve and Bergman but this is an outstanding young player (he’s 24).

9) Aaron Judge, Yankees OF, .916 –He’ll be a free agent in 2023…how big is your wallet?

10T) Bryan Reynolds, Pirates OF, .912 OPS –When you play for a lousy team, it’s easy to be under the radar.

10T) Tyler O’Neill, Cardinals OF, .912 OPS –Entering his prime at age 26, just a little less “swing & miss” will make him a star.

Did your favorite player get left off the list? The next three are all over .900… Matt Olson, Trea Turner & C.J. Cron.

As for 1971, the two players who exceeded 1.000 OPS were Henry Aaron and Willie Stargell.

Field of Dreams

OK, close your eyes and picture yourself sitting behind home plate at a beautiful ballpark, on a perfect day, surrounded by big league scouts, watching a game filled with prospects from ten different major league teams. Pretty nice dream, isn’t it? Well, without trying to rub it in, your fantasy is my reality because I’m fortunate enough to live in the Valley of the Sun.

An envelope arrived in the mail this week from the “Office of the Commissioner of Baseball”. No, it wasn’t my voting credential for the MVP & Cy Young Award…it was better! It was my annual season pass for the Arizona Fall League.

The Arizona Fall League, which was the brainchild of Hall of Fame Baseball Executive Roland Hemond, brings together 180 players for six weeks every October and November. Utilizing six of the Spring Training ballparks in the Phoenix area for six weeks, local fans pay $9 (or $7 for Seniors) to watch some of the top prospects in baseball compete against each other and attempt to impress scouts and team executives with their talent. Back in 2011, for example, Mike Trout & Bryce Harper patrolled the same outfield for the Scottsdale Scorpions. This Fall, at least a dozen of the MLB.com top 100 prospects will be on rosters including Spencer Torkleson & Riley Greene (DET), Marco Luciano (SF), CJ Abrams (SD), Triston Casas (BOS), Nolan Gorman (STL), Gabriel Moreno (TOR), Brett Baty (NYM), McKenzie Gore (CLV) and Nick Gonzales (PIT).

 Today, we’ll take a retrospective look at the last decade of the league (2010-19) and some of the players who made it to “the show”.

> 2010

* Brandon Belt hit .372

* A.J. Pollock hit .317 with 7 SB’s

 * Charlie Blackmon only hit .264 but with more walks than strikeouts, his OBP was .372…maybe he’ll make a good lead-off hitter someday

* Marc Rzecpzynski was 4-0 in six starts with a league-leading 1.26 ERA

> 2011

* Forget about Trout & Harper, the leading hitter was Jedd Gyorko with a .437 BA and a 1.204 OPS

* There was also another .400 hitter…Scooter Gennett at .411

* Nolan Arenado batted .388 with 33 RBI’s in 29 games

* Dallas Keuchel’s 5.08 ERA gave you no clue as to his future success

> 2012

* Billy Hamilton stole 10 bases but only hit .234…sound familiar?

* Christian Yelich batted .301 but had zero HR’s…think he’ll ever develop any power?

* George Springer hit .286 and his 13 walks got his OPS up to 1.012

* Chase Anderson went 3-1 with 25 K’s in 23+ IP

> 2013

* Kris Bryant hit 6 HR’s in only 77 AB’s and posted an OPS of 1.184

* C.J. Cron was the leading hitter with a .413 BA and 20 RBI’s

* Mitch Haniger led the league with 24 RBI’s

* Mike Montgomery had a 2.57 ERA…three years later he got the last out of the World Series

> 2014

* Jesse Winker was the leading hitter at .338

* Greg Bird & Hunter Renfroe each hit 6 HR’s

* Roman Quinn swiped 14 bases in 24 games

* Zach Davies was 3-0 in seven starts with a 1.75 ERA

> 2015

* Gary Sanchez was the top slugger with 7 HR’s & 21 RBI’s

* Jeimer Candelario showed off his skills by hitting .329 with 5 HR’s

* Jeff McNeil’s .230 BA didn’t deter his progress to the big leagues in 2018

* Josh Hader’s miniscule 0.56 ERA was a forecast of things to come

> 2016

* Gleybar Torres was the batting champion at .403

* Cody Bellinger posted a .981 OPS

* Tim Tebow hit .194 and struck out 20 times in 62 AB’s

* Frankie Montas allowed one earned run in 17 innings

EPSON MFP image

> 2017

* Ronald Acuna JR. led the league with 7 HR’s

* Austin Riley had an OPS of 1.021

* Victor Robles had a .389 OBP and swiped 7 bases

* Max Fried was 3-1 with a 1.73 ERA

> 2018

* Pete Alonso tied for the league lead in HR’s

* Keston Huira’s 33 RBI’s led the league

* Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit .351

> 2019

* Royce Lewis hit .353 with 20 RBI’s but missed all of 2021 with injury

* Brandon Marsh batted .328 with a 909 OPS…in 2021, he was the Angels CF

* Joey Bart posted a 1.290 OPS with 4 HR’s in 10 games

* Jonathan India hit only .133 but he might be the 2021 NL ROY

* Tanner Houck registered 26 K’s in 23 IP…in 2021, he helped the Red Sox to the post-season

The season begins on October 13th and finishes with the Championship Game on November 20th. Hope you can join us sometime at the ballpark in Arizona…you’ll recognize me as the one person sitting behind home plate without a radar gun.

Taking The Fifth

Over the last few decades, the increased popularity of high stakes poker has created numerous opportunities for “amateur” players to end up at the final table of the annual World Series of Poker. Despite their calm demeanor and purposeful “poker face”, you can’t help but wonder what is going through the mind of one of these home-game players as he faces the professionals who utilize their reputations to intimidate their opponents.

The Old Duck has the answer…they’re scared spitless!

How could I know? In November of 2002, I faced the same daunting task as I looked around the table at the first XFL (Xperts Fantasy League) Draft and realized what I was up against. My opponents weren’t Amarillo Slim or Doyle Brunson, but they were the Rotisserie equivalent including Alex Patton, Ron Shandler, Steve Moyer, Lawr Michaels, Todd Zola and others. As a successful home-league player since 1984, I was lucky enough to be invited as one of the “challengers” (aka amateurs) to participate in this first industry expert’s keeper league. And, that first year, I held up my part of the bargain by finishing 8th in the 12-team league. As the old poker saying goes, “If, after the first twenty minutes, you don’t know who the sucker is at the table, it’s you.”

Then in our third season (when we expanded to 15 teams), I won my first title. The self-deprecating comment I used at the time was that we should have a trophy and call it the Orville Moody Cup, in honor of the 1969 U.S. Open golf winner who never won another PGA tour event. Once I won another title in 2009, it seemed like this was no longer a fluke and maybe I was really more like Ernie Els than the aforementioned Moody. It is, however, wise to remember the old Swedish proverb, “Luck never gives; it only lends.”

Back-to-back championships in 2011 & 2012 solidified my place in the very small realm of Rotisserie lore and I’m still humbled to be in the company of these very nice men and worthy opponents. Jesse Owens said, “Awards become corroded, friends gather no dust.”

In the ensuing years, the Dux remained very competitive with two 2nd-place finishes and the league’s best overall record but winning that elusive 5th title was never quite within the grasp. Then, despite the advancing years and declining grey matter, the Old Duck had everything fall into place in 2021. Of course, we’ve discussed in this space many times that reading about someone else’s Fantasy team is a cure for insomnia but let’s paraphrase Lesley Gore’s 1963 hit record and say, “It’s my blog and I’ll brag if I want to”. And there’s always the rationalization that some of the strategies will be helpful to those of you who also play this silly game.

> Donald’s Dux…15 team, Mixed, 5×5 (w/OBP), 40-man rosters with 23 active each week, $260 budget for 23-player Draft in November (or occasionally in December), maximum of 15 keepers including Farm players, Supplemental Snake Draft in March for 17 additional players ($1 salary), monthly in-season free agent additions ($5 salary). The salaries of players drafted increase $5 each year, salaries of Farm Players increase $3 each year (once activated), established 2003

* Smart Keeper Decisions (November 2020)

1) Jose Abreu $22 – Some refer to this format as a “Dynasty” league because you can keep inexpensive, young players for many years. This consistent slugger was taken with the #1 supplemental pick back in 2014 and continues to produce at a high level including 117 RBI’s in 2021.

2) Randy Arozarena $8 – Liked him as a Cardinal prospect and picked him up in September of last year just before his incredible post-season performance. A ROY candidate, he produced $22 worth of value.

3) Teoscar Hernandez $6 – Another player who seemed to have upside, he was added in the 2020 supplemental phase. In that power-house Toronto line-up, he had more RBI’s (116) than Vlad Jr.

4) Pete Alonso $7 – Acquired in the March 2019 supplemental draft before he had a major league AB. He’s belted 106 HR’s in 2+ seasons.

5) Kevin Gausman $6 – Young starting pitchers usually take a while to develop. 2020’s breakout campaign led to this season’s elite results that will have his name on many Cy Young ballots. A top-six SP in this format with a $25 value

6) Brandon Woodruff $16 – Top-tier SP’s in this league can cost $25 or more…his stuff made this an easy call. Only won 9 games but had 211 K’s.

* Dumb Keeper Decisions (November 2020)

1) Gleybar Torres $10 – It was easy to write off his 2020 results as an aberration…turns out that it was the new normal.

2) James Karinchak $4 – Seemed to be a lock for the Closer job in Cleveland, but the early season success wasn’t maintained and he ended up with a trip to AAA.

* Smart Draft Decisions (December 2020)

1) Marcus Semian $24 – This was the case where ignoring the 2020 stats worked. He was 3rd in the MVP voting in 2019 and still in his 20’s. 45 HR’s later; he produced a $30 season

2) Zach Wheeler $25 – The staff needed an ace and he turned out to be an excellent choice. Along with Gausman & Woodruff, the Dux had three top-ten SP’s.

3) Rasiel Iglesias $16 – One of the most unheralded of the top-tier Closers, he produced an outstanding season.

4) Tyler Mahle $3 – Liked the way he finished up in 2020 and despite the trap of a hitter’s park, his stuff came through with 210 K’s.

* Dumb Draft Decisions

1) Cristian Javier $15 – Betting on him to be in the Astros rotation was a bad decision. He didn’t start and didn’t pitch in high-leverage bullpen situations.

2) Brandon Nimmo $18 – As usual, he got injured and played less than 100 games.

3) Drew Pomeranz $1 – The last pick in the end game, thought he might get some Save chances. Instead, he was ineffective and then injured.

* March 2021 Reserve Draft (All players start with a $1 salary)

1) Ramiel Tapia – Had the #3 pick in the 1st round and needed some speed. When Garrett Hampson went at #2, he was the best available. He provided exactly what was expected…69 Runs, 20 SB’s and a .328 OBP.

2) Logan Webb – The pitching staff held together so well that this 2nd round pick wasn’t really needed, but he’s a keeper for next year.

3) Gregory Soto – Chosen in the 3rd round, he filled in for Karinchak on our roster and should close for the Tigers in ’22.

4) Yandy Diaz – The 4th round pick, he proved to be a valuable back-up at 1/3 with a .362 OBP.

5) Emmanuel Clase – Remembering his stuff from the short stint with the Rangers in ’19, he was grabbed in round 7 as an insurance policy for Karinchak. He’ll be closing for the Guardians in ’22.

* In-Season Moves

1) The nature of this league is that teams in the bottom half of the standings start re-building very early in the season. And, if you’re contending, the offers come at you from all directions. It is a very difficult process because the league is unique and evaluating these deals is very difficult. The Dux resisted most overtures and only made one trade of consequence that was effective May 31st. My team sent Yoan Moncada ($13 salary), Miguel Amaya (Farm) & the 2nd round pick in 2022 for Max Scherzer ($33) & Manny Machado ($28). Moncada is an OBP monster in this format (.375) and only has a $3 salary increase, Amaya is the Cubs #4 prospect and young Catchers are like gold in this league & the pick will end up being the 16th player next March. So the other squad got three potential keepers in exchange for two players they would throw back.

The end result was 134 points (out of 150) and a 9 point margin over former champ Trace Wood. The Dux had no weak categories finishing with at least 11 points in every column.

Next week, we’ll gather in Phoenix for Baseball HQ’s First Pitch conference and spend four days talkin’ baseball and watching Arizona Fall League games. Then we freeze our rosters in November and do an on-line draft in December to prepare for next season.

This last quote belongs to Martina Navratilova, but it just as easily could have been said by XFL member Perry Van Hook, “Whoever said it’s not whether you win or lose that counts…probably lost.”

You can review the league’s history at fantasyxperts.com

Fastball John

Baseball is a game of history and tradition, but also a game of infinite changes. The current debate over young starting pitchers and their workloads is a perfect example. From pitch counts to innings limits following the shortened 2020 season to bullpen games, the topic continues to percolate with baseball fans of every age.

People of my generation consider themselves “old school” and like to point out that Pitchers of the 50’s & 60’s toiled in four-man rotations and sometimes exceeded 300 innings. Robin Roberts went over that threshold for five consecutive seasons from ’51 to ’55 and Warren Spahn was over 290 IP twice in the late 50’s when he was 37 & 38 years old. In the 60’s, 300+ innings were normal for Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal, Sandy Koufax, Jim Bunning & Denny McLain. In 1971 & ‘72, Mickey Lolich totaled 47 Wins and pitched over 700 innings! Going into the last week of the 2021 season, only Zack Wheeler & Adam Wainwright had pitched 200 innings.

Of course, those days are long gone and the reasons are many. Obviously, the long-term health of a Pitcher’s arm is a consideration, but to be honest, that didn’t seem to be a big concern in those earlier decades. It seems more than a coincidence that the uncontrolled usage of the bullets in a Pitcher’s arm started to change with the advent of free agency in 1976. Players and their agents could now see the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and it all depended on longevity. In today’s game, if you can stay healthy for six years, even an average Pitcher can become a rich man. Gone are the days of Managers and GM’s being allowed to go “all in” on player’s careers in order to keep their job secure.

The examples of Pitcher’s careers being short-lived are many, including Koufax, who was forced to retire at age 30. A classic case study is that of John D’Acquisto in the 1970’s. He was drafted in the first round (17th pick in the country) out of High School by the Giants in 1970 and was blessed with an electric arm that could throw triple digits before radar guns were the rage. To help you understand the mentality of major league teams at the time, let’s look at his minor league progression…

> 1971, Class “A” Decatur of the Midwest League – 29 starts, 233 IP, 244 K’s & 124 BB…at age 19.

> 1972, Class “A” Fresno of the California League – 26 starts, 209 IP, 245 K’s & 102 BB…at age 20.

> 1973, Class “AAA” Phoenix of the Pacific Coast League – 31 starts, 212 IP, 185 K’s & 113 BB…at age 21. And if that wasn’t enough, the Giants brought him up in September to pitch another 27 2/3 IP in the big leagues.

Now think about today’s young hurlers like Julio Urias & Sean Manaea and their agent, Scott Boros. What kind of reaction might there have been if the Dodgers or Athletics suggested that even one of those statistical lines was reasonable for their top pitching prospect? The obvious answer is a coronary for Boros, but can you also imagine the media scrutiny?

In 1974, John came up to the Giants and pitched his first full big league season…

> 36 starts, 215 IP, 167 K’s & 124 BB…at age 22. That’s over 850 innings before his age 23 campaign. And innings don’t tell the entire story because when you look at the strikeouts and walks, you can start to imagine the pitch counts.

Not surprisingly, arm trouble was the result and after two injury plagued years with the Giants, John was traded to the Cardinals and eventually got healthy enough to emerge as the Padres Closer in the late 70’s before retiring after the 1982 season. He now works for MLB in the Phoenix market monitoring games for the pace-of-play project and you can see him at Chase Field, Spring Training ballparks and the Arizona Fall League. When you meet him, you can’t help being impressed by his warmth and friendliness to everyone at the ballpark. And being an old-school guy, he’ll be honest and tell you that he never wanted to come out of a game because he knew he’d get the next guy out. However, maybe that attitude would be different if the bullpen had Craig Kimbrel and Liam Hendricks pitching the 8th & 9th innings. In 1974, the Giants were 72-90 and the bullpen included Randy Moffitt, Elias Sosa and Charlie Williams…Moffitt was the Closer and his ERA was 4.50!

As with all former big league players, John D’Acquisto is proud to have worn the uniform and happy to tell you great stories about his years in the game…but you can’t help wondering what might have been.

As a hobby, John has also developed his artistic side and produces beautiful artwork. Here’s a sample that has a prominent spot in my baseball-themed office.

A few years ago, John put out his biography titled “Fastball John”. It was very well received and sold so many copies that the publisher has now made the book available in hardcover through Amazon books. It is a great read for a baseball fan.