Is That Who I Think It Is?

'04 Bush Bowman

There are many levels when it comes to baseball fans. You’ll find occasional, casual, serious, team loyalists, old-school and new-age analytical. However, fans who play Fantasy Baseball are a breed of their own. They know who backs-up a certain position on a team, who the 5th Starter might be on another team and, maybe more importantly, who the top prospects are in each organization.

 

Having played this wonderful game for over 30 years, there are hundreds of failed prospect names rattling around in my brain…especially the ones who were on my team. Names like Cameron Drew (16 lifetime MLB AB’s), Steve Hosey (58 MLB AB’s with 1 HR), Billy Ashley (.233 lifetime BA), Midre Cummings (22 HR’s in 11 seasons) & Chad Hermansen (.195 lifetime BA) all showed up on the Donald’s Ducks roster…and that was just in the 90’s!

 

At the end of March, a USA Today piece talked about a new Manager in the Padres organization who, at the young age of 31, would be in charge of the Tri-City Dust Devils in the short-season Northwest League. His name is Brandon Wood and the first thought of veteran Fantasy players was, “Is that who I think it is”. The answer, of course, is YES! A decade ago, Brandon Wood was arguably the best prospect in baseball. A power-hitting SS, he was compared to Cal Ripken Jr. and was labeled as “Can’t Miss”. In 2005, he hit 43 HR’s in the minor leagues and then followed up with 14 more in 29 games in the Arizona Fall League. 57 HR’s at age 20? As Tim Kurkjian would say, “Are you kidding me?” Today, we look at his major league stats and see that in parts of five seasons, he hit .186 with 218 strikeouts and only 32 walks in 700 AB’s. He was out of baseball before he turned 30!

 

Each Spring, as I sit behind home plate at Surprise Stadium, this same question comes up on a regular basis. Numerous failed prospects and aging veterans enter games as “non-roster invitees” and invariably, I’ll turn to my wingman (the Duke) and say, “Is that who I think it is?” One of those moments happened in mid-March when a Pitcher entered the game from the Rangers bullpen and was introduced as Matt Bush. Could it really be the same player I remembered from 2004?

 

Matt Bush was the first player taken in the 2004 Amateur Draft by the San Diego Padres. He was a local hero from Mission Bay High School as a Pitcher & SS and received a signing bonus in excess of $3 Million at age 18. Bush’s career was a tragic story of failure, both professionally and personally. He was suspended for being involved in a bar fight before he ever played a game and it just got worse from there. He was a failure as a SS in the minors and the Padres gave up on him in 2009 after another alcohol-driven incident. More strange behavior followed with the Blue Jays & Rays while he tried to re-invent himself as a Pitcher.

 

During Spring Training of 2012, Bush was involved in a drunken-driving incident and was eventually charged with numerous felonies including leaving the scene of an accident. In December of that year, he accepted a plea-bargain and was sentenced to 51 months in prison. After being released from prison in October of 2015, he signed a contract with the Rangers. Amazingly, his tryout with the club took place in the parking lot of a Golden Corral restaurant where he worked because his post-release restrictions only allowed him to travel back and forth to his job. On that March day in Surprise, Matt Bush took the mound as a 30 year-old reclamation project and proceeded to hit 100 mph on the radar gun….obviously, natural talent doesn’t disappear. I told the Duke that if the former phenom kept himself clean, he would be in the Rangers bullpen sometime in 2016. Starting the season at AA Frisco of the Texas League, he appeared in 12 games with 18 K’s and only 4 BB in 17 IP and on May 13th, he was called up by the Rangers and appeared in his first major league game, retiring the side in order. As of June 1st, he’s pitched in ten games accumulating ten innings with¬† nine K’s, only one BB and two earned runs. Maybe a future Closer for the Rangers? It doesn’t matter because after 12 years, he’s in the “Show”.

 

Yes, that is who I think it is.

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Roberto, Not Bob

Clemente RC

Thought about Roberto Clemente the other day, as I sold a modern baseball card of his from 2001 on eBay that had a piece of game-used bat embedded in the card. It only sold for $27, but the memories were priceless.

 

While baseball historians have done a splendid job of chronicling Jackie Robinson and his contributions to the game, it seems like fans born after the mid-60’s don’t always have an appreciation of Clemente’s greatness and ¬†legacy. The barriers in major league baseball for African-Americans in the early-to-mid 50’s were significant, but those same barriers applied to Latin American players and the culture of baseball took a long time to change.

 

Clemente started playing professional baseball in his native Puerto Rico at age 18 and a beautiful replica jersey of his hangs in my closet with the logo of the Cangrejeros de Santurce team that he played for in the Winter League of 1953-54. In 1954, the Brooklyn Dodgers signed him to a contract, but instead of adding him to the major league roster (which was filled with star players), they attempted to slightly circumvent the rules of the day and sent him to their AAA team in Montreal. Can you even imagine a 19 year-old kid trying to acclimate to an environment where they spoke two languages he didn’t understand? And, Tommy Lasorda was one of his teammates, so a third language was probably also in play. The Dodgers tried to keep him under wraps and he only hit .257 in 148 AB’s, but the lowly Pirates had him on their radar. The Pirates were bad enough to have the first pick in the off-season Rule 5 Draft and Clemente was their choice on 11/22/54.

 

In Pittsburgh, Roberto was the starting RF from day one and played 18 seasons with Bucs making the NL All-Star team 12 times and winning 12 Gold Gloves for his defensive prowess. On the last day of the 1972 season, Clemente got his 3,000th major league hit and then tragically lost his life on December 31, 1972 when the plane he was on crashed into the sea on its way to bring relief aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

 

As a youngster collecting baseball cards, I remember that Clemente’s early cards in the 50’s always listed him as “Roberto”. Later, after he became a star, the Topps Company issued many cards that “Americanized” his name to “Bob”. Even writers and broadcasters seemed to think that this reference (and even “Bobby”) was appropriate despite the fact that it was always was a point of contention with Clemente. Imagine what would happen today if someone referred to Pedro Martinez as “Pete”.

 

If you don’t consider yourself an expert on Clemente’s legacy, here are a few quotes from this talented and compassionate Hall of Famer…

 

> “I was born to play baseball.”

 

> “I am from the poor people; I represent the poor people. I like workers. I like people that suffer because these people have a different approach to life from the people that have everything and don’t know what suffering is.”

 

> “I want to be remembered as a ballplayer who gave all he had to give.”

 

> If you have a chance to accomplish something that will make things better for people coming behind you, and you don’t do that, you are wasting your time on Earth.”

 

> “When I put on my uniform, I feel I am the proudest man on Earth.”

 

> “A nation without heroes is nothing.”

 

In the field of collectibles, it appears that Roberto is finally getting the level of respect that he deserves. His Rookie Card from the 1955 Topps has been steadily climbing in value. The current book price for one in “Near Mint” (NM 7) condition is $6,750. Just recently, a Clemente RC in “Mint” (9) condition sold at auction for a record $478,000. Less than a year ago, one in that same condition brought $310,000. To give some insight into the scarcity component, the grading company has reviewed over 3,000 of these cards and only 11 have achieved a grade of “9”.

 

Better check that old shoe box in the attic. “Donaldo” will be waiting for your call.

 

Fredi, Brad & Me

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The Atlanta Braves fired Manager Fredi Gonzalez this week, as the team was floundering with a 9-29 record. Of course, this is the same guy who led the team to an average of 93 Wins in his first three seasons at the helm (2011-13). This leads to the endless debate about how much difference a Manager can make in the Win-Loss outcome of a team. The Braves front office essentially gave Gonzalez a AAA level team in 2016, while they makes plans for their new stadium next year. To underscore how bad this team is, their total of 13 Home Runs is the exact amount hit so far this year by Nolan Arenado of the Rockies. Their run differential is minus 70!! The pitching staff has an ERA of 4.70!! And yet, Fredi takes the fall for this performance.

 

Most baseball fans give some credit to Managers and if you owned a team, you’d probably rather have Joe Maddon or Bruce Bochy leading the way. Let’s not forget, however, that Hall-of-Fame Manager Joe Torre was over 100 games below .500 in 15 seasons as a big-league skipper before he got to Yankee Stadium. Let’s be honest…if you don’t have the players, you’re not going to win.

 

Sometimes, even having the players isn’t enough. Detroit Tigers Manager Brad Ausmus appears to be on the hot seat as the team only won 15 of its first 36 games…with a payroll figure of $196 Million! In addition to our religious background, Brad & I have something else in common…we’re losing sleep over Justin Upton!

 

The most challenging type of Fantasy Baseball is a keeper-league, auction format played with the rosters of only one league (known as “AL or NL Only”). It forces you to know the depth of rosters, line-ups and organizations while still managing your salary cap at the Draft and during the season. This isn’t Fantasy Football, where you’re making the “difficult” decision of picking Tom Brady as opposed to Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers. This is where you lose Andrelton Simmons to an extended DL stint and you get to choose Chris Coghlan or Steve Pearce to take his place. I chose Coghlan on Sunday and, of course, Pearce hit a HR the next day.

 

The Fusco Brothers (named after the incredibly funny comic strip) have been playing in the same AL-Only league since 1987. My partner & I have had great success over the years but 2016 finds us in last place in mid-May. On paper, the team looked like a definite contender but the roster hasn’t performed and the poster boy is Upton. While the Tigers are paying him $22 Million this year in the first season of a 6-year deal, the Fuscos paid $30 for him at the draft table just before the season began. With the league’s $260 budget for our roster, it’s an incredible coincidence that both the Fuscos and the Tigers are spending 11% of their payroll on the same player.

 

Upton has been a productive major-league player for nine seasons and at age 28, should still be in his prime years. In addition, he is surrounded by a solid line-up including Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, J.D. Martinez, Victor Martinez and others. So, this isn’t a situation where an expensive free agent is expected to carry a team…he can just be a $22 Million complimentary piece (sic). Looking at the stats through May 17th (24% of the season), it appears that he has lost his skills completely or has caved in to the pressure of the big contract. In 156 AB’s, his BA is .218 and he’s struck out 62 times while getting only 8 walks. His OPS of .575 is 250 points lower than his lifetime mark and watching him in the batter’s box causes you to turn away from the TV. No plate discipline, no pitch recognition, no attempt to make a productive out, no putting the ball in play with two strikes and no change in his approach.

 

There are certainly other reasons for the Fuscos to be floundering…slow starts from Kyle Seager, Jose Abreu, Ian Desmond and others. A few horrendous outings from Carlos Rodon & Derek Holland and the 30-day wait for Aroldis Chapman hasn’t helped. The bad news for Ausmus is that Upton (and the pitching staff’s 4.54 ERA) could cost him his job. I can’t get fired as Manager of the Fusco Brothers because my partner has no interest in taking over the job. And, being optimistic, I still think the team can be a “contendah”. Things could always be worse…another team in the league paid $33 for Carlos Gomez.

Are Baseball Executives Really That Much Smarter?

Pelfrey

Having satellite radio in your car is dream come true for avid baseball fans. Not only is the MLB Channel available to you 24 hours a day, those of us who participate in Fantasy Sports also have a channel devoted to our hobby. However, there is an additional perk and that is having multiple channels broadcasting the play-by-play of major league games.

 

These broadcasts are not any kind of a national feed, they are the announcers from one of the teams playing the game…usually the home team. Admittedly, I consider myself spoiled, having spent most of my baseball life listening to the likes of Curt Gowdy, Vin Scully & Dick Enberg on the radio. They were the cream of the crop and have never been described as “Homers”. That’s not to say today’s broadcasters aren’t talented, but rooting for the home team is an accepted practice, especially considering that their paycheck has the team logo imprinted next to the dollar figure.

 

While listening to a Tigers broadcast last week, the two announcers in the booth were talking about Pitcher Mike Pelfrey and that he will be getting back on track as soon as he starts commanding his sinker. They also said he was a really hard worker and a great guy in the clubhouse. This type of banter always reminds me why so many of us play Fantasy Baseball…because we think we’re smarter than real-world baseball executives.

 

Mike Pelfrey may in fact be a great guy, but he’s a lousy major-league pitcher. He’s pitched for parts of ten seasons in the big leagues and had a lifetime record of 61-81 going into 2016. If you believe that his record was tied to bad luck, his lifetime ERA was 4.52. The last time he had a decent season (15-9) was 2010! Despite these numbers, the Tigers signed him to a two-year contract this past off-season for $16 Million.

 

Fantasy players have been avoiding Pelfrey for years. The Fantasy magazine that includes my contributions each season didn’t even give him a positive dollar value. At the Draft of my AL-only league (which is very deep), he wasn’t even drafted! Yet, the Tigers were counting on him as part of their rotation. So far, in six starts, he is 0-4 with a 6.23 ERA and a 1.95 WHIP. And, there are no silver linings in the peripheral numbers of 15 K’s & 15 BB in 30 innings.

 

During the same week, Orioles GM Dan Duquette was being interviewed on the Fantasy Channel and the subject was Yovani Gallardo, who is on the DL after four starts with a 7.00 ERA. The GM indicated that the injury wasn’t anything serious and was probably due to Gallardo signing late and trying to ramp up for the season. Well, the reason he signed late is because nobody seemed to want him and even the Orioles withdrew their initial offer due to concerns about his arm. Eventually, they lowered their offer to “only” $22 Million for two years. Here’s what I wrote about Gallardo last November (published in February)…”Turned down a $15.8 Million qualifying offer because some team will give him even more…don’t let it be yours. His 2015 numbers were smoke & mirrors…struck out 200+ from 2009-2012, but only 121 last season. His soft contact rate (15.4%) was in the worst 20 of starting pitchers”. Two other contributors to the magazine also “panned” him and there were no positive comments. His Fantasy value was listed as $3. The Orioles were also guilty of giving a 4-year, $50 Million deal to Ubaldo Jimenez in 2014 and through 63 starts. he’s 20-22 with a 4.41 ERA. Even Theo Epstein, the architect of the Cubs current resurgence, signed Edwin Jackson to a 4-year, $50 Million deal in 2013. In three seasons, Jackson had a record of 16-34 with a 5.36 ERA and this year, the Cubs are paying him $12.5 Million to pitch for another team. No Fantasy player worth their salt ever went near this player.

 

You can certainly accuse me of “cherry-picking” and I make my share of mistakes…Derek Holland’s 11 earned run outing last week was part of my AL-only team’s stats. However, sometimes this stuff seems so obvious to those of us who study the numbers that we’re always amazed when front-office executives make questionable contract decisions.

 

Time to get back to the radio…”Put it on the board, YES!”

Priceless Passion

 

Over the years, many individuals have questioned my unbridled enthusiasm for all things baseball…live games, televised games, movies, cards & collectibles, statistical analysis and, of course, Fantasy Baseball. I’ve always been understanding of their skepticism because, after all, it takes a certain level of intelligence to really appreciate the game. The strange part is that most of these people probably have a love of something in their life that doesn’t really relate to their day-to-day existence. It might be stamps, comic books, salt & pepper shakers, art objects, model trains, holiday ornaments (remember Clark Griswold), coins or one of a myriad of other things.

 

Someone much smarter than me once said, “Life is more worthwhile when you can be passionate about something trivial”. I firmly believe that to be true and my relationship with baseball has brought countless wonderful memories, but it has also helped me through some very difficult times. Recall what James Earl Jones’ character said in Field Of Dreams, “The one constant throughout the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s part of our past. It reminds us of all that was once good and could be again”.

 

So, today’s visit is for all of you who know the “secret handshake” or the “password” and understand how I feel about baseball. One of the really remarkable things about buying and selling baseball card collections isn’t the profit (it’s more of a hobby than a business), it’s watching history go through your hands. In the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of helping clients with a collection of 100 year-old tobacco cards that included the likes of Walter Johnson & Christy Mathewson. Just recently, I assisted a friend with his collection that had a Jackie Robinson Rookie Card from 1948. You can’t imagine the feeling of having such history in your hands. Imagine a history buff getting the opportunity to hold a copy of the Gettysburg address.

 

This wonderful experience has unfolded once again over the last two weeks as I review an extremely valuable sports card collection that my partner and I purchased. The cornerstones of the group are high-end basketball cards including autographs of Michael Jordan, LeBron James & Kobe Bryant. The baseball card portion, however, is also very impressive including a 1956 Topps Mickey Mantle card (his Triple Crown season). Not to sound braggadocios, but because I already own a ’56 Mantle in my personal collection, some of the other cards have really caught my eye. Let’s look at the history imbedded in just one card to give you some insight into my passion.

 

In 2005, the Upper Deck Company produced a set of cards themed to baseball’s Hall of Fame. One of the subsets was designated as “Signs Of Cooperstown” and included autographs from HOF members. Card #DFY was a tribute to three Red Sox legends and includes the signatures of Bobby Doerr, Carlton Fisk & Carl Yastrzemski. Only 20 copies of this particular card were manufactured, so it is not only beautiful, it is also scarce.

 

Bobby Doerr was the 2B of the BoSox from 1937-1951 (missing 1945 serving in the military) and had a lifetime BA of .288 with a .823 OPS. He was an outstanding defensive infielder and made the AL All-Star team ten times. He was inducted into the Hall in 1986 and is the oldest living member, having turned 98 last month. He was also best friends with Ted Williams.

 

Carlton “Pudge” Fisk is known for that iconic moment in the 1975 World Series when he willed a Home Run fair to win Game 6 in extra innings. He was a Catcher in the big leagues for 24 seasons with the Red Sox (#27) and the White Sox (#72) and was welcomed into Cooperstown in 2000.

 

Carl Yastrzemski had the unenviable task of following Ted Williams as the Red Sox LF in 1961 but the pressure never impacted him. In 23 seasons in Fenway Park, he represented the Sox in 18 All-Star Games (15 of them consecutively from 1965-1979) and won the Triple Crown in 1967. Just for good measure, he also won seven Gold Gloves. Inducted in the Hall in 1989, “Yaz” is one the popular players in franchise history.

 

What, you ask, is a card like this worth? Well, to a baseball fan on eBay, it was worth $200. To me, it was priceless.

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Not Your Dad’s Topps Cards Anymore

How old were you when you opened your first pack of baseball cards? For me, it was probably about the age of seven when Topps baseball cards were a nickel…and came with a stick of bubblegum! For boys of my generation, the beautiful fragrance of that gum is something that has stayed with us over the years and would be recognizable even if we were blindfolded.

 

The wonderful magic of collecting is that the thrill of opening those packs to see if we got Ted Williams or Mickey Mantle is not any different today when we look for Mike Trout or Bryce Harper to appear from beneath the wrapper. Of course, the packs are no longer a nickel (and there is no gum) but for a baseball fan, the thrill remains the same.

 

Topps had a monopoly on baseball cards from 1956-80, but then the landscape changed dramatically. Other companies were given MLB licenses and the competitive environment almost ruined the hobby as too many product offerings and too much supply turned fans away from collecting. Out of necessity, the card manufacturers began re-inventing their products in the late 90’s with the advent of higher-priced “premium” items that included autographed cards as well as memorabilia cards (pieces of uniform or bat) and limited edition issues. Today, we have come full circle, with MLB limiting the licenses they issue and Topps once again being the major producer of cards. For fans and collectors, the hobby is still great fun and continues to bring enjoyment to young and old alike.

 

So, for someone who hasn’t collected in years, what do these new, upscale products offer? Recently, a friend of mine purchased some sealed boxes of 2016 Topps Museum Collection baseball cards. One box costs almost $200 and includes 20 cards (4 packs of 5 cards) and you are guaranteed to get at least one “hit” per pack. That hit could be an autographed card or a autograph / relic combo card or a jumbo relic (patch) card or a quad relic (memorabilia from four different players). Each of these cards has a limited print run and the number is stamped on the card so the buyer understands the scarcity of their new collectible Let’s see how this collector made out…

 

> Of the four signed cards pulled from the packs, the most valuable is a beautiful “Signature Swatch” card of the Mets young star Michael Conforto. It not only has the autograph, but also includes three uniform pieces and only five of these were produced…this one is numbered 5/5, making it the last one manufactured. There’s also a “Signature Swatch” of D’Backs Closer Brad Ziegler numbered to 25, as well as a combo game-used material and autograph of the Mariners SS Ketel Marte…that one is also limited to a run of five. The final one is a metal card signed by the Mets 3B David Wright numbered to only 15.

 

> The relic (uniform jersey) cards are numbered anywhere from 99 down to 10. The two lowest are of Mariners star Robinson Cano (02/10) and Athletics Catcher Stephen Vogt (01/10) and then there’s a multi-piece card numbered to 25 of Pirates All-Star Andrew McCutchen. There are future Hall of Famers like Albert Pujols and Ichiro Suzuki along with a HOF member from the past, Orlando Cepeda.

 

> The quad relic cards are especially great for fans of a certain team. This group has the Royals (Gordon, Holland, Hosmer & Ventura), the Tigers (Cabrera, Verlander, Kinsler & Castellanos) and the Dodgers (Kershaw, Greinke, Gonzalez & Puig)…each of these is numbered to 99 or less.

 

Oh sure, you can still buy “regular” baseball cards but having options is always nice. No, they’re not your Dad’s Topps cards anymore.

 

 

 

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Panic In April

For Fantasy Baseball players, April can be an excruciating month. All that research you’ve done since last October is no longer just analysis, it is reality. As many pundits have reminded us, being impacted by a “small sample size” is a fool’s game but when players you counted on have already started to let you down, emotions often trump logic (my apologies for using the words “trump” and “logic” in the same sentence).

 

In November, the Old Duck wrote some “Picks n’ Pans” for The Fantasy Baseball Guide – Professional Edition that were published around the start of Spring Training. As I look at the standings in my four leagues (1st, 2nd, 10th & 2nd), how are my predictions doing in the early going? And, in some cases, was I smart or dumb to not take my own advice from four months earlier?

 

> Matt Adams, Cardinals 1B – In November, I thought 2016 might be a comeback season for him, but by April he didn’t appear to have a steady job and I threw him back at $12 in a NL-only league. He still went for $14 at the table but, so far, he’s only had 27 AB’s.

 

> Trevor Bauer, Indians P – My feeling was that this former top prospect was ready to take the next step, but Cleveland’s brass decided he isn’t as good as Josh Tomlin or Cody Anderson. The team that kept him at $10 in my AL-only league before that decision was made is surely disappointed with him only pitching eight (8) innings so far this season.

 

> Zach Britton, Orioles P – My thought that he was significantly under-rated and should be in the upper tier of Closers. Now, he’s on two of my teams and has four Saves with only one run allowed in seven appearances.

 

> Jay Bruce, Reds OF – I panned him due to his inability to adjust to defensive shifting. His big first week raised his draft table price to $23 but it may just be a mirage.

 

> Nick Castellanos, Tigers 3B – A break-out pick of mine, he’s hitting .347.

 

> Patrick Corbin, D’Backs P – I liked the way that AZ brought him back slowly in ’15 and his ’16 performance looks great with three solid starts and a 2.75 ERA.

 

> Ian Desmond, Rangers SS/OF – Here’s where all your instincts can go awry. I panned him in November and then watched him up-close as he looked terrible in March. However, at a certain point in my AL-only Draft, he was the only MI left with any hope of getting SB’s. So, I paid an exorbitant price and he’s now hitting .158. Yes, there are smart ducks and dumb ducks.

 

> Yovani Gallardo, Orioles P – I felt that his ’15 was mostly luck and that some poor team (in reality & fantasy) would be sorry for signing him. His April ERA is 5.62.

 

> Jason Hammel & Kyle Hendricks, Cubs P – Despite numerous opinions to the contrary, I liked both of these guys. So far, in six starts, they’ve combined for a 2.50 ERA and 1.14 WHIP.

 

> Joe Mauer, Twins 1B – Didn’t give him much hope of regaining past glory, but as a fan, I’m happy to see him hitting .339.

 

> A.J. Ramos, Marlins P – Really liked his numbers and was surprised that the Fish considered taking out of the Closer role before Carter Capps got hurt. Hasn’t allowed an earned run in April.

 

> Jean Segura, D’Backs 2B – Panned him based on two consecutive lousy years in Milwaukee. He’s only hitting .338 with three (3) HR’s and three (3) SB’s.

 

> Eugenio Suarez, Reds SS/3B – Said in November that his numbers could be as good as Troy Tulowitski’s in 2016. So far, his OPS is .833 and Tulo’s is .545.

 

Hang in there buddy, it’s just a small sample size.

 

Mauer