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.

Pacific Coast League Circa 1957

In a recent visit, we explored the category of “Quadruple A” (AAAA) ballplayers and how AAA teams can be a stepping stone to the majors for young players and the last chance for glory when it comes to veterans. This time, we’ll look deeper into one of the most famous AAA leagues in the history of the game…the Pacific Coast League.

The PCL has been in existence for over a hundred years and was the breeding ground for many all-time greats. Joe DiMaggio played for the San Francisco Seals from 1933-35; Ted Williams was a San Diego Padre in 1937 and Joe’s Brother Dom was also a Seal in 1939 before becoming the Red Sox CF for over a decade. In 1952, the league was given the classification of “Open”, a plan to have it become a tier above AAA with the hope of becoming a third major league. That dream faded when Walter O’Malley & Horace Stoneham moved their teams to the West Coast in 1958 but during those few years, the best baseball west of St. Louis took place in cities like Portland, Sacramento and Vancouver.

For this visit, we’ll take the baseball time machine back to 1957 and look at the last true glory year of the PCL. There were eight teams and they played a 168-game schedule. The Seals won the pennant with 101 victories, while the Vancouver Mounties were a close second with 97 and the Hollywood Stars chipped in with 94 to finish third. Utilizing the help of baseball-reference.com, let’s look at the top hitters & pitchers from that historic season…

  • Steve Bilko, Los Angeles Angels – was the Babe Ruth of the league with 56 HR’s, 140 RBI’s and 1.071 OPS. He got some big league stops with the Cardinals, Dodgers and others, but his glory days were in the PCL.
  • Preston Ward, Padres – hit .330 with 22 HR’s in his age-29 season. His best major league campaign was ’58, when he hit .284 with the Indians & Athletics. He had over 2,000 major league AB’s over parts of nine seasons.
  • Joe Taylor, Seattle Rainiers – was 31 at the time and contributed 22 HR’s and a .305 BA. He had less than 300 MLB AB’s and hit .249.
  • Bert Hamric, Angels – had 19 HR’s and 11 SB’s to go with his .291 BA. His big league career consisted of one hit in 11 AB’s.
  • Bob Lennon, Padres – a .309 BA and .885 OPS was impressive. In the majors, he was 13-for-79 (.165 BA).
  • Dave Pope, Padres – already 36, he was still playing the game well with 18 HR’s and a .313 BA. In 551 big league AB’s, he only hit 12 HR’s.
  • Ken Aspromonte, Seals – one of the younger players at age 25, he hit .334 with 73 RBI’s. The following season, he was the starting 2B for the Washington Senators.
  • Fran Kellert, Seals – at age 32, he hit 22 HR’s and batted .308. His major league career was over at this point with a .231 BA in parts of four seasons.
  • Spider Jorgensen, Mounties – a grizzled veteran at age 37, he still hit .291 with 16 HR’s. He was the Dodgers regular 3B in 1947, the year that Jackie Robinson debuted.
  • Earl Averill, Padres – the other 25 year-old on the list, he had 19 HR’s for the Friars. Went on to play seven big leagues seasons and was a teammate of Bilko on the 1961 expansion Los Angeles Angels.

As for the best starting pitchers… 

  • Morrie Martin, Mounties – at age 34, he went 14-4 with a 1.89 ERA. He was a member of the A’s rotation in the early 50’s and had a lifetime major league record of 38-34.
  • Red Witt, Hollywood Stars – at age 25, he went 18-7 with a 2.24 ERA. Got to the big leagues with the Pirates in ’58 but his lifetime mark was only11-16.
  • Jim Grant, Padres – at only 21, he was outstanding as he registered a 2.31 ERA with 18 Wins. “Mudcat” went on to play 14 seasons in the majors with 145 victories and two All-Star appearances.
  • Mel Held, Mounties – 10 Wins and a 2.71 ERA in 21 starts. He only got to pitch in four games at the big league level.
  • Erv Palica, Mounties – 15-12 with a 2.80 ERA at age 29. He pitched in the majors from 1947-56 and had a record of 41-55.
  • Bennie Daniels, Stars – posted a 2.95 ERA with 17 Wins. At age 25, he went on to pitch eight seasons with the Pirates and Senators with a career mark of 45-76.
  • Larry Jansen, Rainiers – still plugging along at 36, he won 10 games and had a 3.15 ERA in 25 starts. His glory days were with the Giants in the early 50’s and he led the NL with 23 victories in 1951.

Hope you can recall a few of these heroes from the history of the PCL…

AAA Versus AAAA

Even the most casual fan understands that in minor league baseball, the AAA level is the stepping stone to the major leagues. This is where those top prospects in each organization prove their worth and make that final jump to “The Show”.

If you play Fantasy Baseball or are a rabid fan of a particular team, experience has shown you that being a success at AAA doesn’t always guarantee a similar outcome in the majors. Last week, a long-time Dodger fan lamented to me about the recent past where the team always seemed to have a minor-league player who made an immediate impact like Yasiel Puig, Joc Pederson, Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger & Alex Verdugo. He compared this group with 2021 call-ups like Sheldon Neuse, Gavin Lux, Matt Beaty & Zack McKinstry and determined that the “cupboard is bare”.

This brings us to a category of players in every organization that scouts call “Quadruple A” (AAAA) players. These are the guys who very often excel at the AAA level but can’t seem to make that final jump. If a player isn’t considered a prospect after age 25, AAA rosters are filled with these “suspects”. Don’t kid yourself, these aren’t bums. Every single one was a stand-out player at one time but through injuries, lack of opportunity or inability to adjust, they are stuck. Interestingly, the 2021 season has seen a few of them break through like Adolis Garcia of the Rangers (age 28), Patrick Wisdom of the Cubs (age 30) and Tyler Naquin of the Reds (age 30).

Let’s look at some of the tops hitters & pitchers at AAA that are over 25 (stats as of 9/10)…

  • Henry Ramos (ARI, age 29) is hitting .371 and just got his first major league AB last week.
  • Jason Krizan (SFG, age 32) sports a .896 OPS and has played six seasons at AAA without ever being on a major league field. 
  • Jamie Ritchie (ARI, age 28) has hit .299 in three AAA seasons but has never gotten the call.
  • Austin Allen (OAK, age 27) has 20 HR’s and a .321 BA at AAA this year, but in 104 major league AB’s, his BA is .212.
  • Braden Bishop (SFG, age 28) is hitting .315 with 9 HR’s & 9 SB’s at AAA but in 90 big league AB’s, he’s hit .133.
  • Matt Lipka (MIL, age 29) has swiped 26 bases this season in the minors but he’s in his 11th pro season without ever being called up.
  • Aderlin Rodriguez (DET, age 29) has 25 HR’s at AAA Toledo but this is his 12th minor league campaign.
  • Mikie Mahtook (CHW, age 31) has 21 HR’s in 306 AB’s at Charlotte but has only 33 HR’s in 884 major league AB’s.
  • Josh Lindblom (MIL, age 34) appeared in eight games for the Brewers this year with a 9.72 ERA but he has the best ERA of any AAA pitcher this season at 2.81.
  • Raynel Espinal (BOS, age 29) just made his first big league appearance after posting a 10-4 record at AAA.

Of course, this is not unique to the players of today. In the days before the Dodgers & Giants left New York, the most popular ballplayer of the Pacific Coast League was a slugging 1B named Steve Bilko. Playing for the Los Angeles Angels from 1955-57, he hit 37, 55 & 56 HR’s while averaging 142 RBI’s. His major league career was intermittent during the 50’s & 60’s as he posted a lifetime BA of .249 with a total 76 HR’s.

More recently, Mike Hessman set the record in 2015 for lifetime minor league HR’s when he blasted his 433rd round-tripper for AAA Toledo. He was 37 at the time and it was his final season. He only had 223 major league AB’s over the years with 14 HR’s and a .188 BA.

These are the guys who deserve our respect for their fortitude and desire. No Boos…only cheers.

The Rookies Go To WAR

The truncated 2020 baseball season impacted players in a myriad of ways. Those possibly affected the most were the ones getting close to the major leagues. With no minor league season, limited access to facilities and the threat of the virus itself, nothing was normal. So, heading into 2021 what could we expect of prospects? Would their potential overcome the obstacles or would they fall behind on the road to “The Show”.

Looking at a top-100 prospect list published in January, it’s easy to find some poor results (stats are through 9/3)…

  • #4 Jared Kelenic has been up with Mariners twice this season and is hitting .158 in 240 AB’s
  • #24 Spencer Howard was traded from the Phillies to the Rangers at the deadline and has zero Wins with a 6.56 ERA.
  • #25 Christian Pache began 2021 in the Braves line-up but hit only .111 with 25 K’s and 2 BB. He’s now at AAA.
  • #30 Vidal Brujan got a “cup of coffee” with the Rays and went 2-for-26.
  • #71 Leody Taveras has played 24 games for the Rangers and is hitting .113.

OK, let’s not toss our ROY ballots in the trash just yet. With the help of “Wins Above Replacement” (WAR), we’ll get a feel for which rookies are really contributing to the success of their team.

First the offensive players…

  • Jonathan India (NR, 3.4 WAR) has been a force in the Reds line-up with 18 HR’s, 61 RBI’s and 9 SB’s.
  • Adolis Garcia (NR, 3.1 WAR) came out of nowhere as a 28 year-old with 29 HR’s, 77 RBI’s & 9 SB’s.
  • Patrick Wisdom (NR, 2.2 WAR) was a marginal prospect with the Cardinals in 2018, but his age 29 campaign with the re-building Cubs has been amazing…25 HR’s.
  • Randy Arozarena (#35, 2.1 WAR) had an over the top post season in 2020 for the Rays and most fans didn’t even realize that he was still rookie-eligible this year. Having a very solid 2021 with 18 HR’s, 60 RBI’s & 12 SB.
  • Tyler Stephenson (NR, 1.9 WAR) has taken over the catching duties for the Reds and has a .371 OBP.
  • Wander Franco (#1, 1.8 WAR) had to wait at AAA but has now made his presence felt with a 30+ game on-base streak.
  • Dylan Carlson (#13, 1.7 WAR) was somewhat over-hyped but has performed well with 13 HR’s and a .344 OBP…he’s only 22.
  • Ramon Urias (NR, 1.6 WAR) – This 27 year-old has been playing professional baseball since 2011 but you don’t really need great credentials to join the Orioles line-up. A .351 OBP in 265 AB’s has been quite good.
  • Ryan Mountcastle (#82, 1.6 WAR) has been another bright spot for the Birds with 25 HR’s.
  • Edmundo Sosa, Jazz Chisholm & Akil Baddoo have also contributed 1.6 WAR.

Now, for the Pitchers…

  • Trevor Rogers (NR, 3.3 WAR) has made 20 starts for the Marlins with a 2.45 ERA.
  • Luis Garcia (NR, 2.8 WAR) leads all rookies with 10 Wins and the Astros are very happy with his 3.23 ERA.
  • Shane McClanahan (NR, 2.2 WAR) is 9-5 in 21 starts for the league-leading Rays.
  • Cole Irvin (NR, 2.1 WAR) has been the most durable of the group with 149 IP in 26 starts for the A’s.
  • Ian Anderson (#20, 2.0 WAR) hasn’t disappointed the Braves with his 3.36 ERA.
  • Dane Dunning (NR, 1.9 WAR) came over the Rangers from the White Sox in the Lance Lynn deal and should be a long-term asset.
  • Emmanuel Clase (NR, 1.8 WAR) has emerged as the Guardians Closer with 20 Saves.
  • Logan Gilbert (#59, 1.8 WAR) is a bright spot for the Mariners at age 24.
  • Garrett Whitlock (NR, 1.6 WAR) has had 7 Wins and a 1.63 ERA out of the Red Sox bullpen.

With just a few weeks left in the season, the ROY Awards are still to be decided. Who do you like?

The Fantasy Baseball Time Machine Goes Back To 1986

If you didn’t play Fantasy Baseball before the Internet, the historical concept of 1980’s Rotisserie Baseball might be slightly hazy. For the Old Duck, it is an era filled with the best memories one could imagine.

In March of ’81, I read an article in Inside Sports magazine entitled, “The Year George Foster Wasn’t Worth $36.” It was written by Dan Okrent and was one of the very first references to “Rotisserie” (Fantasy) baseball.

By 1984, the originators of the game (including Okrent and Glen Waggoner) published the first edition of “Rotisserie League Baseball.” When I spotted the book, the ’81 article came to mind and I couldn’t wait to consume the details of this fascinating hobby. After reading the entire book in one sitting, I got on the phone and began calling numerous baseball-loving friends with the following challenge – “Go buy this book and tell me if you’re in.” Within 48 hours, the “Bowling League of Rotisserie Baseball” was born. Why Bowling? Well, almost everyone in the group (including me) worked in the bowling industry…owners, executives, managers, sales reps and the like.

So there we sat in the spring of ’84, eight guys who were baseball fans but didn’t have a clue about this new game other than the minimal strategies talked about in the book. No Internet, no Fantasy magazines, no Sabrmetrics and no Rotisserie Gurus. Our main resource was the Sporting News and its Baseball Register. I chose Donald’s Ducks for my team name and we went boldly where no fan had gone before.

In going through some personal archives, I came across an article from the L.A. Times published in 1986. As you’ll see, the writer was trying to make sense of this strange hobby and interviewed me along with a number of other “pioneers”. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy the perspective of our great game from 35 years ago.

For Rotisserie Baseball Fanatics, a Grand Sham

April 30, 1986|FRANK CLANCY 

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April 3 was not a good day for local baseball fans. On that day Pedro Guerrero, the Dodgers’ star left fielder, ruptured a tendon in his left knee, causing fans throughout Southern California to bemoan his misfortune. But J. R. Williams probably reacted more strongly than most fans to the injury, which will keep Guerrero idle at least until July.

“I was really upset,” the 23-year-old computer operator recalled later. “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it.

“I hate to see any player get hurt,” Williams added, but his concern was not entirely selfless. Williams owns the “J. R. Ewings” of the Golden State League of Rotisserie Baseball Clubs; Guerrero, who hit 33 home runs last year and batted .320 for the Dodgers, was also the Ewings’ star. On April 1, Williams had signed Guerrero to one of the richest contracts in league history: $7 a year for three years.

Confused? You’ve never heard of Rotisserie Baseball or the Golden State League, let alone the J. R. Ewings? Don’t worry. Except in the hearts and minds of J. R. Williams and 10 friends, the Ewings exist only on paper.

> Thousands of Fans

But how does this league, and hundreds like it, exist in the minds of owners! Indeed, Rotisserie League Baseball (named after a Manhattan restaurant, at which the first known league was conceived in January, 1980) has attracted thousands of baseball fans, causing some to lose sleep worrying about their players, others to run up large phone bills, and many–heresy among baseball fans–to root against the home team.

The object of such devotion, also known as “ghost” or “fantasy” baseball is on its surface a disarmingly simple game. It has no board, no dice, and no cards. It requires only imagination–and an incredibly detailed knowledge of baseball.

While rules vary somewhat from league to league (often being altered at winter meetings by “club officials”), basically here is how it goes: Soon after baseball season begins, about 10 “owners” gather to select real players from major league teams. Each chooses 22 or 23 players, including eight pitchers, at auction or through a draft. As in major league baseball, the challenge is to evaluate players and assemble a balanced team.

Throughout the six-month long baseball season, owners trade, cut, and move players, measuring their success by the actual statistics of their players. In October, leagues use eight statistical categories, such as home runs (5 points in a typical league) and pitching victories (30 points for a starting pitcher, 20 for a reliever), to determine the best team. The top three split the money collected from the player auction or from entry fees. One local league, for example, charges $60 per team to enter and pays $350 to the top team, $150 to second place and $100 to third.

(The concept is not confined to baseball, and a handful of leagues play a similar game with pro football, using only offensive players. In one, the “Hollywood Football League,” owners chip in $500 apiece.)

If J. R. Williams’ reaction to Pedro Guerrero’s injury seems extreme, in context it is not at all so.

Last summer, mononucleosis and hepatitis forced Matthew Irmas, owner of Matt’s Fat Bats in the Westwood Rotisserie League, to miss three months of work. But Irmas, 29, remained an active owner. “For three months I was completely consumed by baseball,” the Marina Del Rey resident remembers. “I would wake up at 3:30 in the morning waiting for the paper to come.”

A fellow owner avoided that problem by subscribing to a computer data base that provides detailed baseball results. Now he can find out how his players did minutes after a game ends.

> Penny Pincher League

Donna Turner, 51, a banking consultant, owns the DT’s in the Penny Pincher League. The Torrance resident says her long-distance phone bill doubled last summer because she was calling major league teams for information.

Turner isn’t unique. According to Toby Zwikel, assistant publicity director for the Dodgers, the team received a number of calls from Rotisserie players asking about Guerrero. Zwikel says his office gets “too many” such calls: “They are a pain for us. We’re here 14 hours a day and more during the season. To answer those questions is just one more thing we have to do.”

“Being a baseball fan is one thing,” Donna Turner explains, “but to really let your fantasies go in a league is another. You get the ‘owners’ syndrome–you really think these players are yours. Your mind runs away.”

Rotisserie leagues have made dedicated Dodger fans reconsider their loyalties. “You never watch a baseball game the same way again,” says Don Drooker, 40, of Canoga Park, whose team, Donald’s Ducks, competes in the Bowling League of Rotisserie Baseball (a group of bowling industry managers and executives). “You could be a lifelong Dodger fan, but if you go to the stadium and one of your pitchers is pitching against the Dodgers, you root against the Dodgers.”

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of similar leagues. Ghost League Baseball, a San Francisco company selling computer software to run leagues, has responded to more than 1,000 inquiries about the program and a statistics service since both were introduced in February, says part-owner Jules Tygiel. Bantam Books’ Rotisserie League Baseball, a humorous guide, has 51,000 copies in print, and more than 400 leagues, including about 40 in Southern California, have paid $50 apiece to join the Rotisserie League Baseball Assn.

For their money, association members get a mixture of serious information (final major league rosters, lists of players by position) and humor that has from the beginning marked this game. At the end of each season, for example, the original Rotisserie Leaguers ritually pour Yoo-Hoo, a soft drink once endorsed by ex-New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, on their league champion; the association will send a can of Yoo-Hoo to any league that cannot obtain the syrupy chocolate beverage. Few, it seems, actually emulate the ritual.

With names like the the Wulfgang (owned by Steve Wulf) and the Sklar Gazers (Robert Sklar), the original league also spread a plague of puns that play on owners’ names. The J. R. Ewings compete against Harper’s Bizarre (Ben Harper), the Fuller Brushmen (Alan Fuller), and the Haskimos (Mike Haskins).

> Fall in Love’

Devotees of Rotisserie baseball offer various explanations for the game’s popularity. “It begins with little boys,” suggests Glen Waggoner, 45, a founding member of the original Rotisserie League, the editor of Rotisserie League Baseball, and now a contributing editor at Esquire. “Just before sex, boys fall in love with baseball. In adolescence they get their heads turned by sex, but in their 20s and 30s baseball comes back; by then you no longer have a credible fantasy of playing major league baseball yourself. The next greatest fantasy is to (own a major league team). With Rotisserie League Baseball you can do that, and you don’t need $25 million.”

Although league champions have been known to win more than $1,000, players say money is hardly a motivation. “The money is irrelevant,” Don Drooker insists. “The people in our league would do this for 260 match sticks.”

Along with the leagues have come a host of related businesses selling statistics services, winning systems, a scouting service, and leagues via computer modem. One new company, Ghost League Baseball, grew out of the Pacific Ghost League, formed in San Francisco five years ago.

At 37, part-owner Jules Tygiel is no ordinary businessman. A professor of history at San Francisco State University, he is the author of “Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy.”

“Baseball has been booming,” Tygiel says, “and part of it has to do with the computer. Baseball is so much a game of numbers, of statistics; the marriage of baseball and computers is a fortuitous one. Baseball first became popular in an age of mathematics, the 1880s, so it doesn’t surprise me that this resurgence in popularity of baseball coincides with the introduction of the personal computer.”

But if the Dodgers cannot replace Guerrero, it will be a long summer. In his absence, the team is using Franklin Stubbs, a promising rookie, and Cesar Cedeno, an aging superstar.

The J. R. Ewings are no better off. Drafting on Sunday, April 13, at a league meeting in a Glassell Park residence, owner Williams acquired Andy Van Slyke and Greg Gross, who last season hit 20 fewer home runs and batted 60 points lower than the Dodgers’ popular star.

At that five-hour auction, Golden State League owners showed they can be as ruthless and unforgiving as George Steinbrenner, the temperamental New York Yankees owner with a penchant for firing managers and publicly berating players. Consider, for example, the case of Ken Landreux.

Two nights earlier, the Dodger center fielder played poorly against the San Francisco Giants: with several Golden State League owners watching, Landreux made an error that allowed the Giants to score three runs. By Sunday, his Rotisserie League value had plummeted. Selected by Commissioner Pete Arbogast (the “Arbohydrates”), Landreux was the very last player chosen. His auction price and 1986 salary: 10 cents.

Hope you enjoyed the quick trip in the time machine…maybe next year; I’ll try to draft that English prospect H. G. Wells.

Secrets of the Scrap Book

Being retired is supposed to be fun. Spending time with family & friends, traveling, activities you enjoy, volunteer work or finally having time for that hobby you love.

The Old Duck is especially fortunate to spend three days a week interacting with folks who share my passion for sports and the collectibles that spring from the games that are played.

Card collecting is over 100 years old and the hobby has evolved into a complex and ever-changing marketplace. From the tobacco cards of the early 20th century to the sporadic issues of the Depression era and World War II to the post-war cards from companies like Bowman & Leaf, it wasn’t until almost 70 years ago that the Topps Company started the real boom era of sports card collecting. While they issued a couple of playing card style sets in 1951, the 1952 set marked the true beginning of baseball cards as we know them today with over 400 numbered cards that included statistics and player bios. Bowman also issued card sets during this time, but Topps bought them out in 1956 and became the exclusive distributor of major league cards for a period that lasted through 1980. They had to compete against numerous other manufacturers for the next 25 years, but became the exclusive producer again about 15 years ago.

A recent set of circumstances can possibly be defined as juxtaposition. Last week, various news reports confirmed that Major League Baseball had made an agreement with a sports apparel company to take over the licensing and production of baseball cards by 2026. In essence, this means that in five years, there will no longer be Topps Baseball cards. For collectors and fans, it almost seems unfathomable, as the history of these products is so embedded in the fabric of the game.

The day after the announcement, I received a call from a nice lady by the name of Shirley. As with many clients, she came to me through a referral from someone who had a positive experience with their own collection. She proceeded to tell me that she had some old baseball cards that were in poor condition and didn’t know if it was really worth the time, but could I fit her into my schedule. Of course, the pandemic has brought hundreds of people to my corner at the baseball card shop that seem to think cards from 1988 are “old” but I’m always willing to give time to anyone who wants to drop in.

When Shirley arrived a few days later, she placed a small red scrapbook on the counter that looked like it was from the 1940’s. Upon opening the book, I discovered close to 100 cards from the iconic 1952 Topps set. Mixed emotions would be the only way to describe the experience, as the cards are certainly scarce but Shirley’s description of the condition was correct because the cards were taped onto the pages.  The retail value of cards in this type of condition isn’t much but the memories are priceless. Especially when they came from Topps first set in the same week where we hear about the end of the Topps era.

Let’s take a trip down baseball’s memory lane and look at the cardboard heroes on a few random pages.

  • Al Schoendienst, Cardinals 2B – Known better as “Red”, this lifelong redbird was Stan Musial’s closest friend and played 19 seasons in the big leagues. A 10-time All-Star, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989.
  • Eddie Stanky, Cardinals Manager – Known for jumping on the back of Leo Durocher when Bobby Thomson hit that famous Home Run in ’51, he managed St. Louis for the next four seasons.
  • Mel Parnell, Red Sox Pitcher – The BoSox best hurler in the late 40’s and early 50’s, he won 27 games in 1949 and 21 in 1953.
  • Robin Roberts, Phillies Pitcher – Won 20 games or more from 1949-1955, pitching over 300 innings in each of those seasons. Won a total of 286 games and was voted into Cooperstown in 1976.
  • Johnny Mize, Yankees 1B – Even missing three years in his prime serving in World War II, this prolific power hitter made the Hall of Fame in 1981. Hit 51 HR’s for the Giants in 1947.
  • Bob Feller, Indians Pitcher – Broke into the majors in 1936 as a 17 year-old and was the most dominant pitcher of the era. Another player who spent three years of the 1940’s in the military, he led the AL in Wins six times and was inducted into Cooperstown in 1962.
  • Other familiar names found in the pages include Phil Rizzuto, Johnny Sain, Warren Spahn, Preacher Roe, Enos Slaughter, Ted Kluszewski, Dom DiMaggio & Monty Irvin.

And just think, every pack of cards came with a stick of bubble gum.

Fantasy MVP – Stats or Value?

As a true baseball fan, what are your criteria for choosing a “Most Valuable Player” (MVP)? Everyone seems to have a different take on this award and for the 60 baseball writers who vote on the award each year, there seems to be just as much confusion. Even the directions mailed out with the ballot say, “There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means”.

Are you in the camp of those who feel that the Cy Young Award is for Pitchers and the MVP is for everyday players? In the 1980’s, both Willie Hernandez (’84) & Roger Clemens (’86) were awarded both in the same year. It happened again in 1992 with Dennis Eckersley and as recently as 2011 & 2014 when Justin Verlander & Clayton Kershaw captured both trophies.

Or maybe you feel strongly that the MVP needs to come from a winning team that makes the playoffs? Ernie Banks won the NL MVP in both 1958 & 1959 playing on Cubs teams that were under .500. In those two seasons, he hit 92 HR’s and had 272 RBI’s making his dominance difficult to ignore. In fact, there are some who feel that winning teams dilute the value of star players because there are usually multiple members of the roster making significant contributions.

A few years ago, baseball writer Jeff Passan added another talking point to the MVP debate. He asked if “value” also includes a player’s contribution to his team relative to his salary and posed the question, “have we been missing what should be one of the chief criteria of value”. Bryce Harper is having an MVP-type season, but his salary is $25 Million. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has even more amazing stats, but makes only $605,400. The basic theory is “MVP in actuality is the one that most improves postseason chances given payroll limitations.” Passan wasn’t quite ready to use performance vs. contract as a primary factor in MVP voting but felt that when a spot on the ballot is “too close to call”, he would consider it as secondary criteria.

Of course, experienced Fantasy players have been utilizing this approach for decades. Unlike major league baseball, we all choose and manage our teams under the umbrella of a salary cap. When every team’s budget is $260, “value” becomes a relative term. While some may say that once you leave the Draft table, it’s all about performance, a given player’s salary impacts your roster’s flexibility throughout the season. So, let’s take a look at the MVP race in a real world fantasy baseball league.

For this laboratory experiment, we’ll use the industry’s premiere “experts” keeper league, the Xperts Fantasy League (XFL). A 15-team mixed, auction-style league with 5×5 stats (OBP replaces BA), the league is in its 19th season. As with most leagues, it has some interesting rules including dynasty-type salary guidelines, but the essence of the stats vs. value argument will be clear. Adhering to recent real-world MVP balloting, we’ll look at teams in contention as we head into the final quarter of the season. The current standings have five teams with 100 points or better and they are clear of the field by at least 10 points. Statistics are as of August 13th.

For purposes of anonymity, we’ll call the contenders the Mallards, Barristers, Gandhis, Broadcasters & Ronettes. Only players either kept or drafted in the December 2020 auction will qualify, eliminating $1 bargains chosen in the March 2021 supplemental phase like Emmanuel Clase, Jesus Aguilar and Jake McGee.

The  Mallards have received stellar production from Marcus Semien, who has produced a $29 return. However, his salary of $24 creates a gap of only $5 while Kevin Gausman has also contributed $29…with a $6 salary.

The defending champions Barristers have a plethora of great values with Bo Bichette, Rafael Devers & Ozzie Albies but the MVP is an easy call. Even with time spent on the IL, Fernando Tatis Jr. has contributed $39 in value for a $7 price tag.

The emerging Gandhis have boppers like Max Muncy and Joey Gallo, but they also get to put Shohei Ohtani into their line-up. Even though he takes up two spots on the roster, his $10 salary makes him the obvious MVP.

The Broadcasters have a number of outstanding players but the aforementioned Guerrero laps the field with a $7 salary and a $39 season.

The Ronettes have gotten $27 of value from Whit Merrifield but his salary of $21 won’t make him their MVP. How about Adam Frazier’s $16 season for a $2 salary and throw-in multiple position eligibility.

If you consider yourself an expert at this game or just a fan that plays for the love of the game, the theory of “value” should always be in your thought process, especially if you’re re-building for 2022. It impacts trade decisions as well as keeper choices next Spring. Determine your MVP for this year and you’ll be a step ahead of your competition.

Futures Card Game

Through the first three decades of the era of modern baseball cards, collecting was what it was all about. Opening packs, making your Dentist rich by chewing the bubble gum, finding your favorite players and putting together a complete set. When the Topps monopoly ended in the early 80’s, the hobby began to change and customers were no longer just collectors, to a great extent they also became speculators. People had seen the dramatic increase in the valuation of cards from the 50’s & 60’s and determined they could make a profit by investing in this unique commodity.

As a dealer in sports cards, I have the unenviable task of telling sellers that all those cards they saved from the 80’s & 90’s don’t have any value. The factor left out of their thought process back then was the lack of scarcity. Manufacturers supplied an enormous amount of product and values went south quickly. In fact, this phenomenon almost ruined the industry, as collectors got fed up with too many products and too much supply.

The hobby started to reinvent itself about 15 years ago and created a new breed of speculator. By seeding packs with limited edition, autograph and relic (jerseys & bats) cards, they found customers who were willing to gamble on high-priced products in hopes of getting that extremely rare (and valuable) card. Of course, there are still millions of fans who collect cards for the joy of the hobby, but even they are always hoping for a great “pull” from a pack.

For today’s speculator, one of the most popular investments is the card of a prospect. As Fantasy Baseball aficionados, we all know that only a small percentage of the top 100 each year actually become stars, but the appeal of the next Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or Juan Soto is too much for these collectors to resist. Historically, the Bowman brand (owned by Topps) is known for highlighting minor leaguers with potential. This goes all the back to their 1992 set where you’ll find Mariano Rivera’s rookie card a full three years before he wore a major league uniform. Now, of course, the prospects even have autographed cards in the packs. Now understand that we’re not talking about rookies who have already made a splash like Dylan Carlson or Ke’Bryan Hayes. We’re scouting the minor leaguers you probably haven’t heard of yet.

  So, with the annual Futures Game in the rear-view mirror, let’s get a feel for some of the prospects and their market demand. The price reflects the current market value of an autograph card from 2021 Bowman Chrome Prospects.

> Blaze Jordan, Red Sox 1B/3B – A great name for a hitter on a hot streak, this 18 year-old is batting .362 in Rookie League ball and his card is at $150.

> Hedbert Perez, Brewers OF – Also 18, his Dad (Robert) played six seasons in the majors. He’s hitting .342 in Rookie ball and his card will set you back $100.

> Maximo Acosta, Rangers SS – Hobbyists love the young guys and this 18 year-old is on a fast track to be the Rangers next long-time SS. His autograph card is a $100 investment.

>Yoelqui Cespedes, Marlins OF – The younger Brother of Yoenis, he defected from Cuba to pursue the game. He’s 23 and playing at the A+ level with an OPS of .822 and a card value of $100.

> Spencer Torkelson, Tigers 1B/3B – The #1 pick in last year’s draft, he signed for over $8 Million. On track to replace Miguel Cabrera, his card is worth $100.>Jeremy De La Rosa, Nationals OF – Still a work in progress, he’s playing A ball at age 19. The hype is there with a card price of $60.Jeremy De La Rosa, Nationals OF – Still a work in progress, he’s playing A ball at age 19. The hype is there with a card price of $60.

Jeremy De La Rosa, Nationals OF – Still a work in progress, he’s playing A ball at age 19. The hype is there with a card price of $60.

  • Garrett Mitchell, Brewers OF – At age 22, he’s honing his skills at AA and his card will set you back $50.
  • Kevin Alcantara, Cubs OF – Recently acquired from the Yankees in the Anthony Rizzo trade, this 19 year-old is batting .364 at Rookie ball. $75 will get you his card.
  • Aaron Saboto, Twins 1B – Having contact issues at A ball, he’s a power prospect and a card investment of $50

For Fantasy players and card collectors, prospects can make your day…or break your heart.