Fantasy Rookies – Hook, Line & Stinker

For over 30 years, Fantasy players have bought the hype on prospects and overpaid for rookies on major league rosters. We just can’t help it, as the intrigue of finding the next Mike Trout counterbalances that pea-sized portion of our brain that holds the logic. Even Fantasy pundits use axioms such as, “pay for the future, not for the past” and we end up going hard after players with no future. The only efforts we really remember are the ones like drafting Tony Gwynn for $5 in 1984. All the failures drift out of our memory like so many losing weekends in Las Vegas.

 

Well, I’m here to tell you that it will get worse before it gets better. According to one analytic website, 2015 was the best season for rookies in the history of the game. Just look at the list! The top four vote-getters in the NL were Kris Bryant, Matt Duffy, Jung-ho Kang & Noah Syndergaard. In the AL, it was Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Miguel Sano & Roberto Osuna. Beyond those top choices, you also had Obubel Herrera, Randal Grichuk, Addison Russell, Joc Pederson, Billy Burns & Eddie Rosario. All of the “extra” guys had a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 2.3 or better. Certainly an unprecedented level of talent.

 

So, how do we curtail our enthusiasm in 2016? Taking on Mr. Spock from Star Trek as a partner would be one solution, but maybe roster research could also help. As we sit here in late January with most of the available free agents in the fold, which rookies will really have the opportunity to get significant playing time this season? Using one of the many “Top 100” lists from the baseball section of the Internet, let’s try to gain some traction as Drafts get closer.

 

> Byron Buxton, Twins OF – Still only 22, he’s been stalled by injuries. Should be the CF and lead-off hitter on opening day, but don’t forget that he hit .209 in 129 MLB AB’s last season…with 6 BB’s & 44 K’s.

 

> Corey Seager, Dodgers SS – Slated to be the team’s everyday SS after a solid AAA campaign and impressive September performance. Let’s not forget, however, that a year ago the same things were being said about Joc Pederson and his Fantasy owners are currently jumping ship.

 

> Steven Matz, Mets P – The #4 starter in the rotation for ’16, this LH was very impressive after his late-season call-up.

 

Are you impressed with these three players? Well, you better be, because after going through the top 50 on the list, I can’t find anyone else who seems like a lock for a job on April 3rd. Pitchers like Lucas Giolito, Julio Urias, Tyler Glasnow & Jose Berrios will still be in the minors. Joey Gallo & Trea Turner don’t have places in the line-up. Yoan Moncada, Brendan Rogers & Dansby Swanson are too far away. Alex Reyes is suspended, J.P. Crawford is injured and small-market teams won’t start the clock on Orlando Arcia, Blake Snell & Bradley Zimmer. That pretty much covers the top 20, so 2016 might not have the firepower to match the previous season. Temper your expectations rather than losing your temper in April.

 

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Watching Your P’s & Q’s And The MLE’s

For Fantasy players, prospects are a passion and a plight. This time of year, we scour lists from Baseball America, MLB.com, magazine annuals and numerous websites that claim to have that crystal ball. The reality is that each season’s top 100 list includes a logjam of bums who will never make an impact on your team or their MLB employer. Do the names Rick Ankiel, Paul Wilson, Brandon Wood, Joba Chamberlain & Jesus Montero sound familiar? They should because, over the last 20 years, they’ve each been one of the top three prospects in baseball.

 

In our ongoing quest to find talent, we look at pedigree (in terms of draft position or contract), athleticism, roster opportunity, scouting reports and statistics. One of those statistics should be Major League Equivalents (MLE’s). Originally outlined in 1985 by Bill James, the concept is to evaluate minor league statistics and create a reasonable expectation of how they would correlate to major league performance. A number of analytic sites have formulas in place to determine these outcomes and while no one statistic is carved in granite, it’s another item for your Fantasy toolbox.

 

Looking back at some of the surprising players from 2015, it’s interesting to see what their MLE’s looked like from 2014. It’s a reasonable guess that these guys weren’t highly valued in your Draft last Spring, but they turned out to be the kind of bargains that help win leagues…

 

> Kevin Pillar, Blue Jays OF – Not a top prospect and known more for his glove than his bat, his ’14 minor league numbers equated to a .287 BA, 22 SB’s and a 86% contact rate. His first full major league season resulted in a .278 BA, 25 SB’s and a 79% contact rate.

 

> Greg Bird, Yankees 1B – Those of us who watched him in the 2014 Arizona Fall League knew there was potential. In less than 100 AB’s at AA in ’14, he profiled for 6 HR’s and a 13% walk rate. If you knew that background, his 11 HR’s and 11% walk rate in 157 AB’s after being called up in ’15 were not a surprise.

 

> David Peralta, D’Backs OF – His projected .249 BA in AA early in ’14 wasn’t that impressive on the surface, but a predicted 88% contact rate and above-average power told another tale. After getting called up in ’14, he hit .286 with 8 HR’s and then exploded in ’15 with a .312 BA, 17 HR’s & 78 RBI’s.

 

> Eugenio Suarez, Reds SS – In the Tigers system during .14, his BA equaled .251 but he showed good power potential for an IF. After getting traded to the Reds, he hit .280 with 13 HR’s in less than 400 AB’s.

 

> Kevin Kiermaier, Rays OF – In minor league stops during ’13 & ’14, he profiled as a .265 hitter with good contact skills (80%) and outstanding speed. So, while winning the Gold Glove in ’15, he also rewarded Fantasy owners with .263 BA and 18 SB’s.

 

> J.T. Realmuto, Marlins C – At AA in ’14, his stats equated to .259 BA with exceptional speed at a scarce position. Now the main backstop for Miami, he finished ’15 with a .259 BA, 10 HR’s & 8 SB’s.

 

Wouldn’t you have loved these six guys at single-digit prices in an auction or late round picks in a snake? As we head toward the 2016 season, let’s look at some top prospects with solid MLE’s along with a few that might be flying under the radar. The ranking of the player will be their position on the current MLB.com top 100 prospect list.

 

> Corey Seager, Dodgers SS (#2) – No surprise here with his splashy debut last September. The MLE’s from AAA say a .269 BA with 16 HR’s is a reasonable expectation.

 

> J.P. Crawford, Phillies SS (#5) – A 20 year-old at AA last season, his predicted .241 BA isn’t great, but the 10% walk rate and 88% contact rate tells you about the skills.

 

> Orlando Arcia, Brewers SS (#12) – At AA in ’15, this 21 year-old had stats equivalent to a .297 BA with 23 SB’s.

 

> Manuel Margot, Padres OF (#25) – Acquired from the Red Sox in the Craig Kimbrel, this 20 year-old made it to AA last season and the MLE’s included a .263 BA, 16 SB’s and a 85% contact rate.

 

> Albert Almora, Cubs OF (#89) – Almost forgotten in the Cubs tsunami of prospects, his ’15 season at AA (age 21) shows potential with a .249 projected BA, 87% contact rate and good speed.

 

> Max Kepler, Twins OF (#96) – This German-born player is moving quickly. His MLE’s from AA included a .294 BA with 14 SB’s and a 11% walk rate.

 

> Trey Mancini, Orioles 1B (NR) – The signings of Chris Davis & Mark Trumbo cloud the future but his MLE BA at AA was .332.

 

> Andrew Knapp, Phillies C (NR) – Barely in the Phils top 20 list and certainly behind Jorge Alfaro as a Catching prospect, he still offers switch-hitting power with a MLE BA of .311 at AA.

 

> Trevor Story, Rockies SS (NR) – Troy Tulowitzki is in Toronto and Jose Reyes might be in jail, so he’s a player to watch. At A level in ’15, his MLE’s were .260 BA, 17 HR’s & 16 SB’s.

 

Just for the record, guess who had spectacular MLE’s before being called up last season? Some guy named Carlos Correa.

 

 

 

What’s Luck Got To Do With It?

As the calendar turns and baseball fans start counting down the days to when Pitchers and Catchers report, Fantasy players begin to worry more about the Pitchers than the Catchers. When it comes to being successful at this game, the most difficult challenge is always predicting the performance of starting pitchers. There are certainly a dozen or so fairly reliable commodities (think Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez and others) but even if you manage to roster one of those stars, you still need 4-5 other rotation members. The inconsistency of these other hurlers equates to finding any tool that might help you draft the SP’s that won’t make you cry by Memorial Day.

 

In an earlier visit, we talked about an advanced pitching metric called “Fielding Independent Pitching” (FIP), which measures what a player’s ERA would have been if the pitcher were to have experienced league average on balls in play. A similar stat called “Defensive Independent Pitching Statistics” (DIPS) addresses the same concept. You can find a pitcher’s FIP at “fangraphs.com” and his DIPS at “espn.com”, but the premise is to determine if a pitcher was lucky or unlucky in a given season. While this is only one measure of a pitcher’s effectiveness, it might help determine if you go the extra dollar (or wait that extra round) when choosing a pitcher in your league.

 

Based on a comparison of ERA versus FIP in 2015, there were 13 SP’s whose ERA should have been at least a half run (0.49) better than the actual results…

 

1) Carlos Carrasco, Indians – 3.63 ERA, 2.84 FIP = .79 differential…seems to be targeted in every trade rumor during the off-season.

 

2) Rick Porcello, Red Sox – 4.92 ERA, 4.13 FIP = .79 differential…two consecutive years on this list, so maybe he’s unlucky and lousy?

 

3) Gio Gonzalez, Nationals – 3.79 ERA, 3.05 FIP = 0.74 differential…the forgotten man in the Nats rotation, so maybe he’ll finally be under-rated instead of over-rated?

 

4) Jeff Samardzija, White Sox – 4.96 ERA, 4.23 FIP = .73 differential…moves to a NL park with big dimensions.

 

5) Chris Sale, White Sox – 3.41 ERA, 2.73 FIP = 0.68 differential…when you watch him pitch, you wonder how he could have a record of only 13-11.

 

6) Wade Miley, Mariners – 4.46 ERA, 3.81 FIP = 0.65 differential…got off to a horrible start in Boston and now moves to a pitcher’s park.

 

7) Kyle Hendricks, Cubs – 3.95 ERA, 3.36 FIP = 0.59 differential…rumors always have the Cubbies looking for another starter and he could be the odd man out, but the numbers say why?

 

8) Jeff Locke, Pirates – 4.49 ERA, 3.95 FIP = 0.54 differential…still not very tempting for a NL starter.

 

9) Corey Kluber, Indians – 3.49 ERA, 2.97 FIP = 0.52 differential…a 9-16 record following a Cy Young season, but there is no issue with the underlying numbers.

 

10) Yordano Ventura, Royals – 4.08 ERA, 3.57 FIP = 0.51 differential…still some upside in that electric arm.

 

11T) Andrew Cashner, Padres – 4.34 ERA, 3.85 FIP = 0.49 differential…based on the expectation, even the FIP was too high pitching in Petco.

 

11T) Taijuan Walker, Mariners – 4.56 ERA, 4.07 FIP = 0.49 differential…same comment as Cashner, with Safeco replacing Petco.

 

11T) Colby Lewis, Rangers – 4.66 ERA, 4.17 FIP = 0.49 differential…neither number should be on your roster.

 

At the other end of the spectrum, there were 12 SP’s who seemed to have luck on their side this past season with ERA’s over 0.49 runs better than expected.

 

1) Marco Estrada, Blue Jays – 3.13 ERA, 4.40 FIP = -1.27 differential…turned these numbers into a 2-year, $26 Million deal.

 

2) Hector Santiago, Angels – 3.59 ERA, 4.57 FIP = -1.18 differential…another suspect in the Halos’ rotation.

 

3) Zack Greinke, Diamondbacks – 1.66 ERA, 2.76 FIP = -1.10 differential…the Snakes would be thrilled with even the FIP number in Chase Field

 

4) John Lackey, Cubs – 2.77 ERA, 3.57 FIP = -.80 differential…moving to the friendly confines won’t help.

 

5) Scott Kazmir, Free Agent – 3.10 ERA, 3.98 FIP = -0.78 differential…moving to a contender and a pitcher’s park, but don’t over-bid.

 

6) Sonny Gray, A’s – 2.73 ERA, 3.45 FIP = -0.72 differential…a really good hurler, but an ERA under 3.00 again might be wishful thinking.

 

7) Jake Arrieta, Cubs – 1.77 ERA, 2.35 FIP = -0.58 differential…nothing to worry about here.

 

8) Yovani Gallardo, Free Agent – 3.42 ERA, 4.00 FIP = -0.58 differential…hitting the market at the right time, but will be overpaid.

 

9) R.A. Dickey, Blue Jays – 3.91 ERA, 4.48 FIP = -0.57 differential…durable but hittable.

 

10) James Shields, Padres – 3.91 ERA, 4.45 FIP = -0.54 differential…and this was in a pitcher’s park.

 

11) Mike Leake, Cardinals – 3.70 ERA, 4.20 FIP = -0.50 differential…that $80 Million contract better be for durability because he doesn’t miss bats.

 

12) Michael Wacha, Cardinals – 3.38 ERA, 3.87 FIP = -0.49 differential…don’t expect another 17-7 campaign.

 

So, when your friends want to know what a baseball fanatic does during those cold Winter nights, tell them you’re studying your FIP & DIPS.

Junior Joins The Hall

For baseball fans, the name of a Hall of Fame player brings up instant images from the history of the game. For those of us falling into the category of “vintage” fans, those mental snapshots include moments we actually witnessed such as…

 

> Ted Williams hitting a milestone home run (#400) at Fenway Park.

 

> Being at Angel Stadium the night that George Brett went 4-for-4 to reach 3,000 hits.

 

> Seeing Carl Yastremzski playing left field at the old Wrigley Field in Los Angeles in his rookie season.

 

> Hearing Sandy Koufax’s fastball hit the Catcher’s mitt at Dodger Stadium.

 

> Watching Cal Ripken Jr. hit a home run at Camden Yards.

 

> Sitting at Jack Murphy Stadium and having the privilege to see Tony Gwynn hit an opposite field single.

 

For the newest HOF member Ken Griffey Jr., the memory is different because it went unnoticed by history. In the early 90’s, a group of baseball fanatics from Southern California did a Spring Training road-trip to Arizona and took in four games in three days. On a beautiful day at Tempe Diablo Stadium, the Angels were hosting the Mariners and some unlucky member of the home team hit a deep drive to left-center field. Junior got a great jump on the ball and ended up making the catch with a head-long dive on the warning track. He proudly showed off the ball to the crowd and then got up and sprinted to the dugout (it was the 3rd out) with a smile that everyone could see. Yes, a meaningless game and a dangerous play by a star player, but it told you everything you needed to know about his enthusiasm and love of the game. I still remember that catch like it was yesterday and it will jump into my consciousness again when he’s at the podium in Cooperstown this Summer.

 

Interestingly, Ken Griffey Jr. also had a profound impact on the baseball card industry. In the February issue of Beckett Baseball Magazine, Dave Sliepka chronicles the background of the turbulent story of baseball cards in the 80’s. As we’ve talked about in previous articles, Topps lost their monopoly of cards in 1980, allowing Donruss & Fleer to enter the market in 1981. By the late 80’s, other companies were entering the fray and collectors were becoming more and more frustrated due to over-production and too many similar products. That all changed in 1989, when a fledgling company called Upper Deck received licensing and started producing sports cards.

 

Putting together their first baseball card in 1989, the company decided to alter the landscape by offering a higher quality collectible with thicker paper stock, beautiful photography and a hologram for authenticity. They even had the audacity to charge $1 a pack, which was more than twice what Topps cards cost at the time. Sliepka describes it as “going from a rotary phone to an iPhone”. Another significant factor in their success, however, was the willingness to take chances. They decided to go out on the limb to feature “prospects”. Other companies had always had “rookie cards” in their sets, but Upper Deck opted to have the first 26 cards in their 700-card offering to be “Star Rookies”.

 

The best decision was to have Ken Griffey Jr. be the #1 card in the set. Today, that seems like a no-brainer but when the calendar turned to 1989, Griffey was only 19 years old and had never played a game above AA. In fact, due to injuries, he only played 75 games in the minors in 1988. To verify how “out of the box” this thinking was, Topps didn’t even include Griffey in their 1989 set. Two members of last year’s HOF class were also in that 26-card subset…John Smoltz & Randy Johnson. However, what would have happened if one of the other prospects had been chosen to be #1, like Doug Dascenzo, Mike Harkey or Felix Jose?

 

Griffey exploded onto the scene in 1989 by hitting 16 HR’s with 61 RBI’s and 16 SB’s to finish 3rd in the Rookie of the Year balloting. And the perfect storm of the Upper Deck set dominated the hobby with the Griffey RC becoming the most popular card. The good news for today’s collectors is that Upper Deck joined the competition in producing mass quantities of the product and you can still buy a factory-sealed set for around $50 on eBay. To show the popularity of the individual Griffey card over the years, grading company PSA has had over 60,000 of them submitted. Only 4% have been determined to be “Gem Mint 10” and if you have one, it’s worth about $300. A “Mint 9” (about 33% of those submitted) books for $45-$50 and a “NM – MT 8” (44%) is worth about $30. The downside to the glossy sheen of this product is that even a card coming out of a sealed pack or set could have enough slight damage to impact the grade. For collectors, this background allows you to own one of the most famous cards in the history of the hobby for a reasonable price.

 

As for me, every time I see the card, it also takes me back to the warning track in Tempe, Arizona.

 

 

Casey Stengel’s Platoon

Casey Stengel’s Platoon

 

 

Back in the 1950’s, Yankees Manager Casey Stengel was a most colorful and confusing character on the baseball landscape. After all, he once said, “You have to have a Catcher because if you don’t, you’re likely to have a lot of passed balls.” And, “The key to being a good Manager is keeping the people who hate me away from those who are still undecided.” Of course, he was also very much crazy like a fox because he also said, “Being with a woman all night never hurt no professional ballplayer. It’s staying up all night looking for a woman that does him in.”

 

From 1949-1960, Casey’s Yankees won 10 of 12 AL Pennants and 7 World Series titles. In an era before advanced baseball statistics, it seems that he was decades ahead of the curve in the ability to manipulate line-ups and get the most out of a 25-man roster. Of course, anyone can put Mickey Mantle’s name on the line-up card each day, but that version of the Bronx Bombers seemed to have a different hero each day. If you look back at some of those rosters, it’s clear that Stengel knew about percentages because he took advantage of platooning LH & RH hitters on a regular basis. Just using 1954 as a snapshot, you’ll see that the everyday 1B Joe Collins (who hit LH) didn’t even get 400 AB’s because Bill Skowron (who hit RH) was available. “Moose”, in his rookie season, hit .340 in 215 AB’s. In the corner OF positions, Gene Woodling, Irv Noren & Enos Slaughter batted from the left side, while Hank Bauer & Bob Cerv batted from the right side. Even HOF Shortstop Phil Rizzuto had less than 400 AB’s because switch-hitting Willy Miranda was available.

 

The modern version of that team is the Oakland Athletics, under the guidance of GM Billy Beane. Working with a limited budget, the “Moneyball” system has made the A’s competitive with their major-market opponents. One of the keys to their success is the same platoon blueprint that Old Casey implemented in the 50’s. A quick glance at their 2012 roster shows the symmetry. Chris Carter / Brandon Moss at 1B, Jonny Gomes / Seth Smith at OF/DH and numerous other limited AB contributors like Josh Donaldson, Derek Norris and Colin Cowgill. The A’s averaged over 92 wins in 2012-2014 utilizing versions of this formula.

 

For MLB GM’s and Fantasy Baseball participants, this lesson shouldn’t be ignored. For whatever reason, LH batters always have more difficulty hitting LH pitching than their RH counterparts have hitting RH pitching (have you ever heard of a “situational right-hander”?). If teams blindly continue to give their LH hitters AB’s against tough LH hurlers, it will impact productivity for the team. Hitters like George Brett and Tony Gywnn only come around every decade or so. From a Fantasy prospective, you need to know about this statistical category because players who don’t produce will eventually lose playing time and impact your investment in the player. The analysis becomes even more critical in today’s game where teams now carry 12 or 13 pitchers and the platoon option gets reduced with a limited amount of batters on the bench.

 

Looking only at fairly regular members of the line-up, here’s some eye-opening numbers about LH hitters and their success against LH pitching in 2015…

 

> Cody Asche, Phillies 3B/OF – .231 BA, .277 OBP

 

> Justin Bour, Marlins 1B – .221 BA, .293 OBP

 

> Jay Bruce, Reds OF – .229 BA, .286 OBP

 

> Kole Calhoun, Angels OF – .220 BA, .293 OBP

 

> Jason Castro, Astros C – .192 BA, .243 OBP

 

> Chris Coghlan, Cubs OF – .116 BA, .208 OBP

 

> Andre Ethier, Dodgers OF – .200 BA, .229 OBP

 

> Carlos Gonzalez, Rockis OF – .195 BA, .222 OBP

 

> Curtis Granderson, Mets OF – .183 BA, .273 OBP

 

> Ryan Howard, Phillies 1B – .130 BA, .176 OBP

 

> Ender Inciarte, D’Backs / Braves OF – .229 BA, .255 OBP

 

> Jake Lamb, D’Backs 3B – .200 BA, .275 OBP

 

> Adam LaRoche, White Sox 1B – .157 BA, .191 OBP

 

> Adam Lind, Brewers / Mariners 1B – .221 BA, .277 OBP

 

> Logan Morrison, Mariners / Rays 1B – .190 BA, .253 OBP

 

> Davis Ortiz, Red Sox DH – .231 BA, .277 OBP

 

> Gerardo Parra, Orioles OF – .238 BA, .296 OBP

 

> Jace Peterson, Braves 2B – .190 BA, .234 OBP

 

> Gregory Polanco, Pirates OF – .190 BA, .250 OBP

 

> Kyle Schwarber, Cubs C/OF – .143 BA, .213 OBP

 

> Denard Span, Nationals OF – .197 BA, .279 OBP

 

> Luis Valbuena, Astros 3B – .158 BA, .265 OBP

 

The question is if this type of player will get more or less regular AB’s moving forward? And, if they continue to get those AB’s, is it a positive or negative for your Fantasy roster? More AB’s will not only negatively impact the BA/OBP category, it also becomes a factor for power numbers, as this type of player has a tendency to underperform in that realm also. Bour hit 23 HR’s in 2015, but none were against LH…Lind hit 20 HR’s in 2015, but also had zero against southpaws…Bruce was at 4 of 26…CarGo hit 5 of 40…Granderson slugged 2 of 26 and the list goes on.

 

Are there LH hitters you can count on to be in the line-up everyday? A few to consider –

 

> Christian Yelich, Marlins OF – .288 BA, .347 OBP

 

> Joey Votto, Reds 1B – .331 BA, .467 OBP

 

> Travis Shaw, Red Sox 1B – .329 BA, .353 OBP

 

> Kyle Seager, Mariners 3B – .297 BA, .324 OBP

 

> Eddie Rosario, Twins OF – .289 BA, .311 OBP

 

> Anthony Rizzo, Cubs 1B – .294 BA, .409 OBP

 

> Joe Panik, Giants 2B – .291 BA, .374 OBP

 

> Mike Moustakas, Royals 3B – .282 BA, .338 OBP

 

> Eric Hosmer, Royals 1B – .279 BA, .332 OBP

 

> Jason Heyward, Cardinals / Cubs OF – .272 BA, .344 OBP

 

> Bryce Harper, Nationals OF – .318 BA, .434 OBP

 

> Dee Gordon, Marlins 2B – .350 BA, .373 OBP

 

> Alex Gordon, Royals OF – .280 BA, .377 OBP

 

> Brett Gardner, Yankees OF – .276 BA, .361 OBP

 

> Lucas Duda, Mets 1B – .285 BA, .333 OBP

 

> Michael Brantley, Indians OF – .294 BA, .346 OBP

 

> Nori Aoki, Giants / Mariners OF – .333 BA, .400 OBP

 

Just what you need, another calculation to include in your 2016 player analysis. Sort of like giving a golfer one more swing-thought.

Riding With Roland

Riding With Roland

 

 

 

One of the great things about baseball is that it still brings excitement to fans whether they’re 7 or 70. And, no matter when it happened, you’ll always remember that time you got to meet an icon of the game. For some, it’s that autographed baseball you got from your favorite player. For others, it was the chance to talk with a player, coach or manager during Spring Training or at a sports function. Or maybe you had the unique opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation with someone whose plaque hangs in Cooperstown.

 

My retirement community has a very active Sports Club filled with the most knowledgeable baseball fans you’ll ever meet. We attend a number of games at Chase Field in Phoenix each season and also gather at local ballparks for Spring Training and the Arizona Fall League. In addition, at least a dozen times each year, we are privileged to have guest speakers who give of their time and come talk with us about the national pastime. Over the years, we’ve been fortunate enough to host Fergie Jenkins, Matt Williams, Josh Hamilton, John D’Acquisto, Peter Magowan (former owner of the Giants), Jeff Idelson (HOF President) Bernie Pleskoff (MLB.com writer), Daron Sutton, legendary scouts Art Stewart & Mel Didier as well as many others.

 

Of all our visitors over the last decade, the most frequent and most accommodating has been Roland Hemond, Special Assistant to the President & CEO of the Diamondbacks. He has made multiple presentations to the Club, has attended numerous functions and has also used his influence to bring in other speakers. At our recent holiday party, Roland was a featured guest and received a plaque from the group in thanks of his contributions over the years. I had the enviable task of picking him up at his Phoenix home for the 45-minute drive out to our community, which allowed me to talk baseball with one of the most famous executives in the history of the game. Of course, a few detours would have helped because his first big-league job was in 1952.

 

Talking with Roland is akin to attending a class in baseball history. In 1949, he was in the Coast Guard and stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Along with 68,000 other people, he was in Yankee Stadium on October 2nd for the one-game playoff for the American League Pennant between the Yankees & Red Sox. In the car last week, he gave me a virtual play-by play of the game from Ellis Kinder’s tough luck loss (allowing only one run in 7 innings for the Sox) to Jerry Coleman’s 3 RBI’s in the bottom of the 8th that put the game out of reach for the Yanks. We also came to the realization that “small world” moments are always part of the game. Roland’s first big league job was with the Boston Braves in 1952 and he admitted that occasionally, he would sneak over to Fenway Park to see the Red Sox and the great stars of the American League. There’s a good chance that a six-year old boy was also in attendance, as that’s the same year my Uncle first began taking me to the ballpark.

 

So, for the casual fan, who is Roland Hemond? The resume is impressive…

 

> 1952-60 – Worked in the front office of the Boston/Milwaukee Braves (Eddie Mathews’ rookie year was ’52, Hank Aaron’s was ’54).

 

> Scouting and Farm Director of the expansion Los Angeles Angels from 1961-70.

 

> Became the Assistant GM of the White Sox in 1971 was the GM from 1973-85.

 

> General Manager of the Orioles from 1988-95.

 

> Senior Executive VP for the Diamondbacks from 1996-2000.

 

> Executive Advisor for the White Sox from 2000-07 and then back to the D’Backs in 2008.

 

> Considered the architect of the Arizona Fall League, which began in 1992 and is still recognized as the premier developmental program in baseball.

 

His success and reputation in the game can be measured by the awards he has received….

 

> Selected as MLB’s Executive of the Year three times (1972, 1983 & 1989).

 

> The New York baseball writers presented him with the prestigious William J. Slocumb Award.

 

> The Honors Award from the Baseball Coaches of America.

 

> In 2011, the Baseball Hall of Fame selected him as only the second recipient of the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award for his extraordinary efforts to enhance the game’s positive impact on society. Presented in Cooperstown, the honor is bestowed upon an individual whose efforts broadened the game’s appeal and whose character, integrity and dignity are comparable to the late O’Neil, the former negro league player who passed away in 2006 at age 94.

 

You would think that a person with this history might be slightly full of himself, but if you meet Roland, you find that the exact opposite is true. During our visit, he told a little tale on himself from the 1970’s. One of the other AL teams was attempting to get a pitcher through waivers late in the season, so they could trade him to a contender. Sometimes teams will put in a claim in these situations in order to block the prospective deal and then the original team will just pull the player back. Roland put in the waiver claim and then the team didn’t pull back the player. When he informed his staff, the first thing they said was, “where are we going to get the $20,000 for the claim?” If that doesn’t show you how the business of baseball has changed in the last 40 years, nothing will. Of course, they found the money and the Pitcher won 20 games in both of the next two seasons.

 

Roland’s mlb.com bio also tells you about what it was like to be a GM in during that 25+ year span. The stats say that he negotiated 135 trades involving 428 players. In just the first few years in Chicago, there were deals including Ron Santo, Dick Allen & Goose Gossage. During his Orioles tenure, trades show the names of Brady Anderson, Curt Schilling, Fred Lynn & Harold Baines. The best piece of trivia, however, might be that in 1976, Roland traded Tony LaRussa.

 

The history of the game comes in many shapes & sizes…and people. It’s nice to know that even men who didn’t wear the uniform can still be baseball treasures.

 

What’s A Bonus Baby?

What’s A Bonus Baby?

 

 

 

For baseball fans under the age of 50, there’s never been a time without baseball’s Amateur Draft. For Fantasy Baseball players in deep leagues, the identity of three Shortstops named Dansby Swanson, Alex Bregman & Brendan Rodgers is certainly no secret. Back in the covered-wagon days of the 1950’s however, acquiring the top young talent in the land was a totally different process.

 

In the days before the World War II, major league organizations would scour the country looking for players and then try to sign them on the spot, often getting into bidding contests with other teams. In that era, College Baseball wasn’t the factor it is today and teenagers would welcome the chance to become professional ballplayers. Starting in 1947, baseball began an attempt to curtail this process with a succession of procedures linked to signing bonuses. The idea was to block the ability of the richest franchises to buy up the best young players and then hide them in the cupboard known as their minor-league system. Remember, this was long before the days of free agency and players were employees without rights.

 

The first process only lasted from 1947-1950 before being rescinded, but the problem was still there for the majority of the teams. Prior to the 1953 season, a committee chaired by Branch Rickey developed a “Bonus Baby” rule that ended up being part of the major league landscape for five years. The basic premise wasn’t to establish a cap on signing bonuses, but to require that a player signed above a certain dollar figure must remain on the major league roster for two seasons without being “farmed out” to the minor leagues. That meant teams would have to use up one (or more) of their 25 roster spots on a player who might not be able to contribute to the team’s success.

 

Over 50 players fell into the “Bonus Baby” category between 1953 and 1957 and the success rate was abysmal. With that being said, however, three of these individuals ended up in the Hall of Fame, but took very different paths that were affected by the rule…

 

> Al Kaline was signed by the Tigers out of High School in June of 1953. He immediately made his major league debut on June 25th at age 18. While Kaline only had 30 AB’s during that first season, by 1954 he was an everyday player and finished 3rd in the Rookie of the Year voting. His career lasted until 1974 without spending a single day in the minor leagues.

 

> Harmon Killebrew signed in June of 1954 and was six days shy of his 18th birthday when he made his major league debut on June 23rd. “Killer” had only 13 AB’s that season and then 80 AB’s while he spent the entire 1955 campaign at the big league level. After meeting the two-year obligation, he spent most of the next three years learning his craft in the minors and didn’t became a regular until 1959, when he led the AL with 42 HR’s.

 

> Sandy Koufax signed his contract with the Dodgers in December of 1954, spent the next two seasons in Brooklyn and only made 15 starts with a record of 4-6 with an ERA of 4.14. As with Kaline, he never spent a day in the minor leagues but it wasn’t until 1961 that became a star.

 

Let’s look at some of the others names that fell under this umbrella during the 50’s. By the way, if you look up any of them on baseball-refernce.com, it will say “bonus baby” in parenthesis next to their name.

 

> The Pirates signed the most bonus babies (8) and a famous name was Vic Janowicz. Unfortunately, his fame came primarily from football, as he won the Heisman Trophy in 1950 while playing at Ohio State. His only two seasons in baseball were the obligatory seasons of 1953 & 1954 and he hit a combined .214 in 196 AB’s. Interestingly, he also played Halfback for the NFL Washington franchise in ’54 & ’55.

 

> Seven youngsters were signed by the Orioles including Pitcher Bill O’Dell. He actually lost three years as the two required seasons were wrapped around military service in 1955, but he ended up with 105 major league victories in a 13-year career.

 

> In addition to Kaline, the Tigers also signed two players you might remember from baseball cards named Reno Bertoia & Steve Boros.

 

> Pitcher Joey Jay of the Braves overcame three years of relative inactivity to become a two-time 20-game winner for the Reds in the early 60’s.

 

> SS Dick Schofield of the Cardinals had a 19-year major league career and has to be included on this list because his nickname was “Ducky”. And yes, his Son (also named Dick) played 14 seasons in the 80’s & 90’s.

 

> Moe Drabowsky was a 1956 signee and won 13 games for the Cubs in ’57.

 

> The Giants made a good decision by signing 17 year-old Pitcher Mike McCormick in 1956…he won 22 games and the Cy Young Award in 1967.

 

> One very shady episode during this era was the A’s signing of 18 year-old 3B Clete Boyer in May of 1955. He only had 208 AB’s in his first two seasons and then, as soon as the 24-month requirement was met, the A’s traded him to the Yankees as “the player to be named later” in a previous deal. American League teams, already convinced that the two teams had an under-the-table relationship, complained that the A’s had just used their roster to hide a player the Yankees coveted. However, the trade was allowed and Boyer became the Bronx Bombers’ regular 3B during the 1960’s.

 

> Speaking of the Yankees, one of their choices shines a light on the underside of the consequences to this rule. In 1953, they signed High School 1B Frank Leja. A 6′ 4″ left-handed power hitter, he seemed like the perfect fit for their ballpark. Unfortunately for the kid, the Yankees of the 50’s were a juggernaut filled with talented players and he ended up getting only 7 AB’s (and one hit) in two seasons. He bounced around the minor leagues for the next half-dozen years, even hitting 20+ HR’s a number of times but it was 1962 before he wore a major league uniform again. He went 0-for-16 for the expansion Angels in early ’62 and retired the following year.

 

> Another sad tale is that of the Phillies Tom Qualters. This 18 year-old Pitcher only got into one game in 1953, pitched 1/3 of an inning, allowed 6 Earned Runs and ended up with a ERA of 162.00. In 1954, he spent the entire season on the roster and never pitched at all. His career numbers show 34 appearances without ever winning a game. His teammates nicknamed him “Money Bags”.

 

As all fans know, baseball history has its shameful side…from the Black Sox scandal to the color line. This five year period doesn’t get the same scrutiny, but a closer examination tells an ugly story. None of the 50+ players that fell into the “Bonus Baby” category were players of color. Even though most major league teams had broken the color barrier by this time, they certainly didn’t think it was necessary to bid against each other for youngsters from a poor background who had no leverage. So, even though Bob Gibson, Frank Robinson, Willie McCovey & Billy Williams were all signed during this timeframe, none of them received a bonus above the threshold. The bright side is that today, they are all in the Hall of Fame.