Archive for the ‘ Opinionated Posts ’ Category

Death of the Baseball Role Model?

Baseball has always been places where the youth can look to for influence, but is the baseball role model a non-existent one anymore?

One would think that with his boyish looks, his charming personality, and lack of criminal history that Angels slugger Mike Trout would be an influence to the youth, but many seem not to even know Trout (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

Written by Jake Elman

It’s Tuesday night, and for the first time since May 2007, the city of Cleveland is celebrating a trip to the championship; that’s with all due respect to the reigning college football champion Ohio State Buckeyes, of course, but it’s been a long eight years in C-Town. We all know the stories — the Browns have stuck to mediocrity, the Indians have been inconsistent, LeBron James left…and even during the King’s first season back this year, things weren’t so hot in Cleveland.

But, what stood out most during the postgame celebration wasn’t J.R. Smith’s selfie at the podium, but it was instead the response that LeBron James earned not just from Cavalier fans, but fans all over the world. Gone was the heel LeBron James that so many of us rooted against for his four years in Miami, the player that had made the decision on national television to take his talents to South Beach; instead replacing him was The King, the player that our youth wanted to be like not even as a basketball player, but as a person.

The conversation of athletes being influences and role models to our youth has one we as a society have had for a long time, but it seems that this conversation seems to be dead in baseball. As a New Yorker, I can certainly say that the conversation has stopped here, and that’s not just a generational thing either: baseball, football, and basketball have always been places where the youth can look to for influence, but after the Selig Era, maybe that conversation might be a silent one in America’s Pastime.

Part of that might come from the general lack of mainstream popularity that the game’s stars have; a 2014 USA Today article said that the five most famous players in baseball, at the time, were Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper, Angels first baseman Albert Pujols, Red Sox first baseman/designated hitter David Ortiz, Yankees third baseman/designated hitter Alex Rodriguez, and former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. Of those five, two (Oritz and Rodriguez) have been tied to steroids, a third (Pujols) hasn’t really ever had the popularity in America that he has in Latin America, one (Harper) is among the most ‘arrogant and cocky’ players in the game, so that meant that Jeter was the most ‘innocent’ and good for being a role model.

Now, that makes sense, because Jeter was the face of baseball for a long time and was never in the news for anything bad; you never heard about him getting into fights with his girlfriend or cheating the game, and Jeter was also one of the few players to be on the national stage, often appearing on talk shows and at red carpet events. But still, four of those five players over the age of 34 at the time (Pujols turned 35 in January 2015) and I don’t see many people saying that they look up to Bryce Harper.

As of right now, if you asked me point-blank which five players would be the biggest role models for the youth, I’d say Mets third baseman David Wright, Angels outfielder Mike Trout, Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig (for Latin America and Cuba), Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, and Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera. Yet, the way my generation knew Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Pedro Martinez, and others when we were young, this generation might only know Trout, Puig, and Cabera, and that’s because the latter two were on the past two MLB: The Show games.

Right now, we’re in a time where the main sports of influence are football and basketball, even if it the former is plagued by criminals and awful human beings right now. If I’m a ten year old kid and I have the choice of looking up to LeBron James, this super-popular guy who dominates every time he goes out there, or Mike Trout, a star outfielder who might be content with a 1-4 game and a walk if his team wins, I’m probably going with LeBron.

Now, as you might expect, I’m sure the steroid age played a big role in kids not wanting to look up to baseball players as much. Why, if we use logic, would a youth look up to someone who has cheated the game and cheated themselves by using PEDs? What kind of standard does that set for the kid looking up to Alex Rodriguez or Ryan Braun?

But, maybe it’s just a generational shift, but even then I’m not sure if that’s the case.

But, maybe it’s just a generational shift, and even then I’m not sure if that’s the case. Maybe we as a society have reached a point where because of the steroid era and the shift in balance that baseball has taken over the past two decades that there’s really no mainstream player to truly look up to; I also think part of it may have to do with the fact that a lot of these players either were signed at a young age from Latin America or come from relatively wealthy backgrounds that enable them to play for the best travel teams, attend the best camps, etc. If you’re someone from a poor city like Detroit or southern Chicago, how would you be able to relate to someone that’s had all of these things given to them?

Though one could make the argument that someone like LeBron James played at an elite basketball academy, which is true, LeBron also came from a single parent household where his mother gave birth to him at sixteen, lived in the seedy parts of Akron, Ohio, and eventually moved in with his football coach. Oklahoma City star forward Kevin Durant, one of the most popular players in the NBA right now, also came from a home with no male role model, as his father deserted the family when the former MVP was just a year old.

That’s not to say that scenarios like that don’t happen in Major League Baseball, but for American kids, a lot of them want to relate to people that went through similar situations in America. Even if he was a playboy, people growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s respected Yankees slugger Mickey Mantle because he came from a poor Oklahoma background that involved a lot of lead and zinc mining; they could relate to the hard-working American, and it’s hard to relate to players that come from such extravagant lifestyles when you haven’t even come closing to have those luxuries.

Will this change? Well, I don’t necessarily think that’ll be the case anytime soon, and a lot of that goes back to what I said in a recent article about youth baseball. There’s a big, big differentiation between where the majority of baseball players and where, for example, the majority of basketball players come from, and it’s very hard to look up to someone when you can’t claim to have anything really in common. The sad thing is that arguably Major League Baseball’s biggest role model right now, as hard as this may be to believe, is Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez: he came from a single parent household and wasn’t wealthy, used his talent to get where he was, eventually made a mistake, and is now trying to redeem himself.

When Alex Rodriguez is arguably baseball’s biggest role model, then you know that there may be a bit of a problem.

Do you think that kids, and youth as a whole, will ever look up to baseball players the way we once did, or is that phase over with for good? Make sure to chime in on the conversation by tweeting me at @JakeElman

Is Youth Baseball Dying?

It’s no secret that baseball isn’t the most popular sport among young people, but how much of that has to do with youth baseball?

As Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen brought up in a piece for the Player’s Tribune earlier this year, part of youth baseball’s problem is the cost of playing (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

Written by Jake Elman

Mid-May, at least in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, is baseball season. It’s a time where not only are the Major League teams all in action, but Little League is starting up, high school ball is going strong, and kids are putting on their gloves and bats trying to be the next Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, or Alex Rodriguez…I’d hope a clean version, that is.

But, driving through the local towns, the baseball fields seem near abandoned, with the attention going to soccer fields and basketball courts. Even on a warm weeknight or a sunny Saturday, the ball fields don’t have the same level of excitement and hype as they once did…sadly. Along with a lack of interest in Major League Baseball goes a lack of interest in youth baseball, but this isn’t something that’s happened just suddenly.

In 2011, the Wall Street Journal reported that, “From 2000 to 2009, [then] the latest year for which figures are available, the number of kids aged 7 to 17 playing baseball fell 24%, according to the National Sporting Goods Association, an industry trade group. Despite growing concerns about the long-term effects of concussions, participation in youth tackle football has soared 21% over the same time span, while ice hockey jumped 38%. The Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association, another industry trade group, said baseball participation fell 12.7% for the overall population.”

A 38 percent jump in ice hockey? Damn, maybe those kids thought they’d be able to save the NHL from being locked out…ok, bad joke. Anyways, that was a big jump last decade, but, as Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen pointed out in a February piece for The Player’s Tribune, much of that may have to do with money.

“When you’re a kid from a low-income family who has talent, how do you get recognized? Now, you have to pay thousands of dollars for the chance to be noticed in showcase tournaments in big cities. My parents loved me, but they had to work hard to put food on the table, and there wasn’t much left over. They didn’t have the option of skipping a shift to take me to a tournament over the weekend. The hard choices started when I was very young. ‘Do you want that video game system for Christmas, or do you want a new baseball bat?”’

McCutchen, an All-Star with the Pittsburgh Pirates, then goes on to add, “A lot of talented kids my age probably picked the Playstation, and that was it. It was over for them. I always chose the new bat or glove. But all the scraping and saving in the world wasn’t going to be enough for my family to send me an hour north to Lakeland every weekend to play against the best competition. That’s the challenge for families today. It’s not about the $100 bat. It’s about the $100-a-night motel room and the $30 gas money and the $300 tournament fee. There’s a huge financing gap to get a child to that next level where they might be seen.”

All excellent points by McCutchen, but I think that the next thing he talks about might be the most important part of the entire piece:

“Even despite all the breaks I got with baseball, I probably wouldn’t be a Major League player right now if I didn’t tear my ACL when I was 15. I thought I was going to play college football. Why? Economics,” McCutchen, who turns 29 in October, admitted. “If I could’ve been a wide receiver for a D-I school, I would have chosen that path because of the promise of a full scholarship. The University of Florida offered me a baseball scholarship, but it only covered 70 percent of the tuition. My family simply couldn’t afford the other 30 percent. The fact is, no matter how good you are, you’re not getting a full ride in baseball.”

For McCutchen, the lack of full ride for baseball ended up not entirely mattering, as he ended up going eleventh overall in the 2005 MLB Draft and would sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates rather than attend UF, but the points he brings up are right on the money.

I’ve always thought, and it’s a point that McCutchen brings up in that piece for The Player’s Tribune, that athletes who have the choice between football/basketball or baseball will end up going with basketball or football because if they’re good enough, there’s a chance for an immediate impact money wise. If you’re a .255 hitting, low-income, shortstop with a great glove that is also a point guard with good ball-handling skills that might be able to play D1 basketball and go pro after two years, which are you picking?

Remember, many minor league baseball players will average a salary less than the federal poverty level of 11,490 dollars for a single person, and the average NBA salary, at least for the 2014-15 season, was 507,336 dollars, so let’s think for a second. You’re an 18 year old that comes from a single parent, low income, household, and you have the opportunity to either go off and play collegiate baseball and then get drafted into the MLB, or play collegiate basketball and then get drafted into the NBA.

Now, you’ve always had more of a soft side for baseball — the smell of fresh cut grass, the unique style of each field — but basketball will likely lead to more money in the short term. Which are you picking? Some of you may say, “I’d pick the sport I prefer more,” but if you come from a low-income area and you have the chance to possibly provide for your parents and siblings by going another route, which way would you go? The more rewarding one, right?

Plus, with baseball, you have to buy gloves, bat, socks, cleats, uniforms, and so forth, but with a sport like football, all you really need are gloves, cleats, and minor things like girdles; it’s not like you need to buy a helmet or knee pads, just pay for the league itself. Baseball is an expensive sport, which McCutchen continues to talk about in the TPT piece.

Then, you have to factor in things like training camps, academies, and those indoor facilities that will let you go in and hit off a tee, throw a bullpen, etc. Those may not sound too expensive, but if you come from a low-income area and you have to choose between that or paying for your car, what are you paying for? In an area like Westchester County, NY, which has seen several big-league players like Giants second baseman Joe Panik and Nationals outfielder Darin Mastroianni make the big leagues, money isn’t too much of an issue because Westchester is the fifth-richest county in America, but what about an inner city? What about a poor area?

Now, that’s not to say that youth baseball has fully died. As Forbes contributor Maury Brown reported in a piece published last August, “According to the head offices of Little League, approximately 2 million kids play youth baseball, and that number has held steady for the last 5 years.” That’s in comparison with Pop Warner football, which is seeing a continuous regression of kids playing due to concerns about concussions and brain trauma.

That 2 million staying steady over the years, by the way, is interesting because as recently as 1996, there were 2.5 million kids playing Little League Baseball. But, just because youth baseball has yet to fully die doesn’t mean that it’s not struggling. Look at inner cities, like Chicago and Detroit, and try to spot places where kids are actually playing baseball.

There have been plenty of programs over the years that are trying to get kids from the inner cities back into baseball, like Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) and MLB’s Urban Youth Academy, but they’re not working. It’s not even just the financial aspect in those cities, where some kids are dirt poor to the point where they don’t even have baseballs to use, but think about the other sports popular in areas like that: football, basketball, and soccer, all of which might be more fun and more exciting to a younger child.

That’s not to say that everyone in the inner cities wants to see baseball die, though, In the music video for his 2009 hit “Beautiful” off of Relapse, Detroit rapper Eminem uses the city he calls home as a means of expressing the difficulties we have to fight through. One part of the video, and honestly my favorite part, has Eminem, real name Marshall Mathers and a dedicated Tiger fan, walking through the remnants of Tiger Stadium.

The reason why I bring up a song that was released six years ago this month is that as the camera (if you don’t want to listen to the whole song because of, well, Eminem, just skip to 3:03 and go from there) shows a construction crew knocking down the Tigers’ home from 1912-1999, the camera then pans to a youth baseball team with looks of sadness on their faces. One player, at the 3:26 mark, is even caught wiping his eyes, like he’s trying to erase tears from seeing the stadium being destroyed.

I’ve always interpreted that part as the kids crying not only because a piece of Detroit is being destroyed, but because it symbolizes their baseball dreams being crushed. Of course, the kids weren’t going to be playing ball at Tiger Stadium, that’s not the point; what Mathers and the video’s director, Anthony Mandler (a directing genius with an extensive videography) are showing by blending the ballplayers and Tiger Stadium is that inner city baseball is ending up in the same place as the classic stadiums that once hosted big league teams — being slowly destroyed.

The thing is, the video for ‘Beautiful’ was filmed in June of 2009 and released in July of that same year, and the message is still relevant, even six years later. The one real bright spot we’ve had for inner city baseball over the past few years has been Mo’ne Davis and the Jackie Robinson West team winning the U.S. title at the 2014 Little League World Series, and they had their title stripped earlier this year because they used players who were “outside the geographical area.”

So, is youth baseball dead? No, not yet, but is it dying? Yes, without a doubt, and I’m honestly not entirely sure that’s an easy fix. Even if kids start getting back into baseball and want to be the next Bryce Harper or Clayton Kershaw the way I wanted to be the next Derek Jeter, baseball is an expensive sport to play and is likely going to turn a lot of people off when they realize basketball or football might not only be cheaper, but also have more financial incentive in the long-term if they’re that good.

Plus, youth baseball is kind of boring unless you’re one of the best players. If you have the option of sitting in right field doing absolutely nothing and watch the pitcher stare down the catcher, then look back at the base, then stare down the catcher again, then scratch his cup, then stare down the catcher again, or playing soccer on defense and getting to move around all game, which are you playing? The same goes for football, where even being an offensive lineman can be more fun than playing baseball (something I admit to as a former tackle).

McCutchen did tackle that idea in the aforementioned article, but he thinks that part of it may have to do with teenage players from Latin America being signed to contracts worth 40,000 or 50,000 dollars. Now, that may be the case of why a player who has the choice between playing minor league baseball for a few years or going to college for two years and then going to the NBA might choose basketball, but for kids? I don’t necessarily know if a twelve year old kid is really thinking about big contacts at that point.

Unlike basketball or football, I think baseball is a sport where you really have to make it your one ‘craft’, so to speak, if you’re serious about it. Now, that’s not to say that you shouldn’t focus entirely on basketball if you want to play in the NBA and might have a serious chance at it, but think about it like this: you can be a wide receiver and a shooting guard in high school and be fine, but what if you want to be a pitcher as well?

Between long toss, bullpen sessions, throwing on flat ground, sessions at the gym involving squatting and working on the core to increase velcoity, as well as hitting sessions for those who might also hit for their team, there’s not really much else time to do basketball. Even with football or something like tennis, kids who play for year-round ball teams really have to focus on baseball, not a side sport.

So, how do we go about fixing the ‘decline’ of youth baseball? Well…I think that if Rob Manfred can continue to make baseball more popular and exciting in the eyes of the youth, then perhaps more kids will start playing. I think we’re at a point where we may need something…drastic…to see a return of high interest in youth baseball, but I’m not sure right now.

Do you think there’s a chance that youth baseball can really be ‘saved’ and revived? Make sure to chime in on the conversation by tweeting me at @JakeElman

Top Ten Subway Series Moments

With the 18th edition of the Subway Series starting tonight, we look at the ten most memorable moments since 1997

Mariano Rivera, the last player to ever wear 42, recorded his 500th save against the New York Mets in 2009 (Getty Images)

Written by Jake Elman

April in New York means hockey playoffs, basketball playoffs, and preparation for which disappointing quarterback will be joining the New York Jets shortly…yet, no one really cares about any of that right now. It’s Subway Series time, and for the first time in a long time, this series actually means something; both teams are contenders out of the gate, and the title of New York is on the line again. This isn’t a series just for pride anymore, and after a silly attempt at putting the Subway Series all in one week over the past two years (it was not a good idea, despite what some fans will tell you), there’s legitimate excitement all around the Big Apple.

It’s hard to believe, but 2015 marks the 18th year of the regular season Subway Series; this matchup, in fact, kicked off ten days (June 16th, 1997) after I was born, and it started with the Yankees’ dominant offense being shutout. So, some things haven’t changed it seems. In the past 18 years, we’ve had some fantastic moments from the Subway Series, but which were the absolute best?

Well, that’s what we’re here to count down. Whether it be regular season or from the World Series, a game in the Bronx or a game in Flushing, anything from the past 18 years is eligible for this list. Without further waiting, let’s take a look at what I believe to be the top moments from the Subway Series in the past two decades.

10. Yankees mess with the Johan

Nine earned runs, three innings, and a 15-0 loss…no, that’s not the statline of your MLB 15: The Show created player. Rather, that was the statline of Mets ace Johan Santana on June 14, 2009, in a blowout loss to the New York Yankees. For fans on both sides, this was an extremely memorable series, as we’ll see below, but this was the finishing touch; Santana was lit up badly by the Yankees, including giving up a two-run home run to Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui, and his ERA went from 2.39 to 3.29 in the process. Not at all a good start from the two-time Cy Young winner, that’s for sure.

9. Koo bests Johnson

Do you remember Koo Dae-Sung? I didn’t really remember him, but all of the memories came back when I saw what he did in May 2005. Facing Yankees ‘ace’ (don’t let anyone fool you, Mike Mussina was the true ace of those teams) but still extremely intimidating Randy Johnson, the 35 year old Koo hit a double and then scored on a sacrifice bunt. The last time Koo had hit before facing Johnson, according to the left-hander, was in high school. What a legendary moment from a player that appeared in only 33 games during his illustrious MLB career.

8. Doc’s return to Shea

It’s not much of a memorable moment to some, but the five solid innings by Yankee starter Dwight ‘Doc’ Gooden in July 2000 make this list for one reason only: it was the first time Doc Gooden had pitched at Shea Stadium since he was with the Mets. Gooden, who had pitched for both Houston and Tampa before coming back to New York, went five innings while allowing two runs in a 4-2 Bombers win. It wasn’t a perfect start, but it was definitely an emotional one and Doc got his team the win.

7. Jeter leads off with a bang

Our only moment on this list solely from the 2000 World Series between these two teams, now-retired Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter led off the game with a home run to swing the momentum back in the direction of the Bronx Bombers. There’s a reason why the future Captain won the World Series MVP award for this Fall Classic…

6. David Wright’s closes the door on Sandman

Ah, it’s hard to forget this signature moment of the 2006 Miracle Mets season. In only his second year starting at third, Mets star David Wright hit a walk off single against Rivera to give his team a 7-6 victory. It wasn’t quite David versus Goliath, but it surely was a bright moment in the then-young career of Sir Wright.

Do you remember Dae-Sung Koo? It may be hard to recall the Korean import, but many Met fans will never forget his double and subsequent scoring on Yankees ace Randy Johnson (NY Daily News)

5. Piazza vs. Clemens

Ah, one of baseball’s premier rivalries that featured blood and guts galore…well, just blood, though I’m sure Mets catcher Mike Piazza would have loved to rip out Roger Clemens’ guts like a zombie from The Walking Dead (sorry, brother). Anyways, we should all know the story by now: Clemens domed Piazza in the summer of 2000, then there was the whole bat incident in the World Series, Piazza goes deep against Clemens in 2002, and then the beef kind of lost its relevancy. Seeing as some of you probably got very excited when you heard the word blood, here’s the aforementioned bat incident.

4. Dave Mlicki starts it off right

With all of the great names on the old Mets and Yankee teams — Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite, Al Leiter, David Wells, Rick Reed — you’d think that the first pitcher to throw a shutout in the Subway Series would be a premier name, right? Well, it was veteran Dave Mlicki who threw that first shutout, he of the 8-12, 4.00 ERA season in 1997. In fact, Mlicki did it in the Subway Series’ first ever game, shutting down the Yankees by a final score of 6-0.

3. Mo joins the 500 club

Thirteen years after his first save, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera joined the 500 save club with a four out closing of the New York Mets. Like most of Rivera’s other outings, the opposing hitters were fooled by the cutter, as Sandman struck out two and forced Alex Cora into a game-ending groundout. Not bad, old man.

2. Carlos Delgado breaks the Bombers

June 2008 is going to be remembered by every Met fan for what was, essentially, the beginning of the end. It’s a time where Mets manager and former New York Yankee Willie Randolph was fired and Jerry Manuel was named his replacement, a move that began a streak of mediocrity and inconsistency…but, June 2008 was also a time where Carlos Delgado, the oft-criticized Mets first baseman, finally began to show why the team had so much faith in him as their veteran leader. In the first game of a double header in the Bronx, Delgado recorded two home runs nine RBI in the Mets’ 15-6 rout of their crosstown rivals.

June of 2008

1. Luis Castillo drops the ball…literally

Michael Kay said it best…A-Rod becomes the hero with a pop up.

What are your favorite moments from the Subway Series? Make sure to chime in on the conversation by tweeting me at @JakeElman

Can Hamilton Reinvent Baseball?

In a time where offense is supposedly dying, is Billy Hamilton’s speed the key to changing the game?

Hamilton, 24, already has seven stolen bases through his team’s first five games (David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports)

Written by Jake Elman

Offense is dying, they say. The game of baseball is becoming even more boring with the lack of monstorous home runs, they say. Well, if you’re someone who thinks baseball is becoming ‘even more boring’ in a time where offense is dropping, I recommend you turn your attention to Cincinnati.

Before we became a society that loved upper deck home runs and shots that would go further than the eye could see, baseball loved small ball and when I say that, I don’t mean shifts and sabermetrics. Home runs were cool and all — sexy, if you will — but there were few things better than pure strategy, where your leadoff hitter would get on base, steal second, steal third, and advance home on a base hit by the next batter. The art of strategy has definitely been revived over the past few years with the addition of shifts, sabermetrics, and LOOGYs, but stolen bases seemed to be a dying art.

Sure, there were players like Jacoby Ellsbury, Jose Reyes, and Juan Pierre that would consistently come close to swiping 70 bases a year, but we were in the age of power. Instead of your leadoff hitter being a guy that would get on, steal second and third, and find his way home, there were teams that instead chose to put a hitter in the leadoff spot who would get on base and set the table for the rest of the order. Yankees manager Joe Girardi, for example, had outfielder Nick Swisher hit leadoff during parts of the 2011 season due to an injury to shortsop Derek Jeter instead of, say, Brett Gardner or Curtis Granderson (two much faster players than Swisher) because Swisher had a .374 OBP in 2011.

In the six games leading off, Swisher hit .316, but I still find it interesting that so many teams went with pure OBP over speed at the leadoff position. That definitely played a role in the decrease of stolen bases, and remember, it was only three years ago that Padres shortstop Evereth Cabrera stole a measley 44 bases to lead the National League. What happened to all of the stealing?

Anyways, it looks the art of stolen bases is back, thanks to Cincinnati Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton. After stealing 56 bases last year, but also being caught 23 times, Hamilton has stolen 7 bases in 7 attempts in his first five games this year. Though Hamilton’s hitting remains low, as he’s currently hitting .222/.364/.222 to start the season, the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year runner-up has improved his patience (four walks to four strikeouts after a 34-117 ratio last year) and is looking like the type of feared leadoff hitter we all expected him to be for Bryan Price’s Reds.

For what it’s worth, when I say feared leadoff hitter, just watch what he did in the opening series against Pittsburgh on a pitch-out.

I’m sorry, Josh Harrison. That is the baseball equivalent of having your ankles broken.

Hamilton is the first player since Vince Coleman in 1987 to steal six bases in his first three games, and Coleman finished with 109 stolen bases. Now, that number has jumped up to seven in five games, When Rickey Henderson stole 130 bases for the 1982 ‘Billy Ball’ Oakland Athletics, he had five through seven games, so Hamilton is on pace to beat the stolen base king. What’s caused this change in Hamilton’s game?

“It’s something me and Hatch [coach Billy Hatcher] have been working together with since I’ve been here. It’s different from last year,” Hamilton told MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon earlier this week. “We have Joey [Votto], who is hot right now. I feel like now, I don’t have to steal right away. I don’t have to steal on the first pitch or second pitch. I can wait around a little bit and go whenever the right time is so I feel confident over there.”

With offense in the drought that it is, maybe Hamilton’s stolen base prowess is going to help revive the stolen base game to a level we haven’t seen in years. The same way that we’re seeing heavier cleanup hitter bunt when they have the entire left side of the infield open, there’s a chance we’ll see more players take more chances on the basepaths.

With all of the brilliantly fast players there are in Major League Baseball right now, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see more and more players follow in Hamilton’s footsteps and record anywhere from 35 to 55 stolen bases a season. It may sound like a high number range, but players are going to have to compensate for the offensive power outage we’re in right now.

Now, is Hamilton going to break Henderson’s record? I don’t necessarily think so, but I do think Hamilton is going to be baseball’s first player to steal 80 bases in a single season since…both Vince Coleman and Rickey Henderson back in 1988.

Do you think that Hamilton’s success with stolen bases to start the season can ‘reinvent’ baseball and help fix the offensive drought? Make sure to chime in on the conversation by tweeting me at @JakeElman

The 2015 All-MLB Underrated Team

Plenty of MLB players fall under the radar, but who are the most underrated players in the whole league?

White Sox lefty Jose Quintana, a former New York Yankees farmhand, has quietly become one of the team's most valuable players (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

White Sox lefty Jose Quintana, a former New York Yankees farmhand, has quietly become one of the team’s most valuable players (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Written by Jake Elman

When you talk about underrated, it’s exactly what it sounds like – underrated means something is either not properly rated or not rated high enough, which, depending on your own interpretation, might mean the same thing. Meals are underrated at a certain restaurant, musicians are underrated because they’re not ‘mainstream enough’, and, of course, we use underrated when talking about athletes.

It seems like every day, someone’s always talking about a player being underrated. “I think *so and so* is truly underrated by the media,” a broadcaster might say, while a fantasy guru could suggest, “I feel, even though he’s underrated, this guy might be a great pick up this week.” Major League Baseball has plenty of players that would say that they’re underrated, but who are the best players that fall under that trope?

Well, that’s what we’re here to find out today. I’ve compiled a list of players who are among the most underrated players in the league. There was no special requirements or anything — though, you won’t see too many guys with big-time contracts on this list — aside from the player being, well, underrated. Without further waiting, let’s dive right into this.

C: Yan Gomes, Cleveland Indians

When you talk about a player having a breakout 2014 season, Cleveland’s catcher, Yan Gomes, has to come into the discussion. Gomes, a former tenth-round pick of the Blue Jays from the University of Tennessee, hit .278/.313/.472 with 21 long bombs and 74 home runs for Cleveland a season ago; Gomes’ FanGraphs-calculated WAR of 8.2 trailed only San Francisco’s Buster Posey (10.5), Miluwakee’s Jonathan Lucroy (9.8), Pittsburgh’s Russell Martin (9.4) and St. Louis’ Yadier Molina (8.6) among catchers. Though the Indians finished out of the playoffs yet again, they look to have solved the franchise’s catching problems that have plagued them since the 2009 trade of Victor Martinez.
 Gomes earns a spot on this list because I feel like the Indians underrated him just a bit, giving him a six year contract extention that’s only worth 23 million dollars. I may not be the best at math, but even I know that’s underrating a good player at a position where good players are rare to come by. I don’t want to make it sound like Gomes is the best catcher in the game, though, because there’s a lot of things he needs to improve on. Gomes’ patience at the plate, for example is awful, as he nearly had more home runs (21) than walks (24). When you think of players that had more home runs than walks in a single season, dreaded power hitters like Juan Gonzalez, Sammy Sosa, and Andre Dawson come to mind, not a 26 year old catcher on a third place team. But, that doesn’t mean that Gomes shouldn’t be on our list, and I look forward to seeing what he can do in the future.

1B: Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto Blue Jays

Is it possible to be an underrated player when you’ve hit 112 home runs the past three seasons and made two All-Star Game appearances? Though you may think the answer is definitely no, Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Edwin Encarnacion may disagree with you on that, as even after three straight seasons of at least 34 home runs and 98 RBI, the Dominican slugger is still flying well under the radar. How could that be? How is it possible that a player like Encarnacion can be on an all-underrated list when he puts up such fantastic numbers?

Well, part of the reason may have to do with the fact that Encarnacion plays in Toronto. Now, that’s nothing against Canada, but it’s moreso that the casual American baseball fan really doesn’t know players in their own country, let alone players in Canada. If Encarnacion played for an American team (a team in America, not just an AL team), maybe there’s a chance more people would recognize him, but I digress him. Anyways, Encarnacion has quietly become one of the game’s best sluggers, recording a WAR of 12.8 and keeping his K-BB ratio extremely close (228 walks to 238 strikeouts), an amazing feat in a time of hitters constantly recording 190+ strikeouts. Hopefully, Encarnacion can start becoming a household name sooner rather than later, because him and his parrot sure are fun to watch.

2B: Ben Zobrist, Oakland Athletics

I don’t know what it is about the utility guys who have become their team’s handyman, but there’s just something about them that’s always made me partial to those guys. Whether it was the before-my-time Luis Sojo on the New York Yankees or the more recent Miguel Cairo, I’ve just always really liked the guys that can play anywhere, give you a hit in a pinch, and are great for the team on and off the field. These days, the crown of ‘best super utility guy’ goes to Oakland Athletics utility man Ben Zobrist, a two-time American League All-Star with the Rays who has played everywhere from second base to outfield to even the hot corner.

It may seem silly to call the ‘best super utility guy’ underrated, but I think it’s more of Zobrist being under-appreciated than flat out underrated. Only once since the 2009 season began has Zobrist had a WAR less than 4.8, and he’s been durable too, with 2014 being the first season since 2008 that the former sixth round pick didn’t play in at least 150 games…he played in 146. If Zobrist doesn’t appear on a list about the most underrated MLB players, then the person who made the list is doing it wrong.

3B: Todd Fraizer, Cincinnati Reds

What is there to say about the Todd Father that hasn’t already been said? Not only does he hit for pop (the 29 year old third baseman had a career high 29 bombs last year), but Fraizer, originally from Toms River, New Jersey, has quietly become one of the NL Central’s most dangerous hitters since becoming a full-time player in 2012. Though Fraizer only hit .234/.314/.407 in 2013, the Jersey-born slugger rebounded with a .273/.336/.459 statline in 2014 and was awarded with his first All-Star Game appearance.

So, why does he get a spot on the All-MLB Underrated Team for 2015? Well, Fraizer is still making a name for himself, and last year’s Home Run Derby — where he made it to the Final Round before losing to then-Oakland left fielder Yoenis Cespedes — was the first time that many baseball fans were properly introduced to the Todd Father. With a big season in 2015, Fraizer might be able to cement himself as a top five third baseman in the game, and I’m sure the Reds would be thrilled if the Todd Father could put up numbers akin to last year’s breakout campaign.

SS: Erick Aybar, Los Angeles Angels

For an organization that’s tried to pride themselves on consistency, am I the only one surprised that the Los Angeles Angels only have two players remaining from the 2010 season? I’m sure that you immediately thought of the team’s All-Star starting pitcher Jered Weaver as one of the two players, but the fact that shortstop Erick Aybar, brother of former Rays utility man Willy Aybar, is the other player was an interesting finding on my part. Aybar, who turned 31 in January, has quietly grown into one of the American League’s better shortstops, hitting .280/41/313 while recording a WAR of 3.9 or more three times in the past four years.

Like others on this list, what makes Aybar underrated is that he plays on a team full of big-name stars; Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Jered Weaver, Josh Hamilton, C.J. Wilson, and so forth are the guys you think of when the Angels are brought up, not a shortstop who has only hit above .280 only once since the 2010 season began. Yet, Aybar might realistically be the third-most important player to the Angels’ success, behind only Trout and Pujols. What I really like about Aybar is his ability to hit for the extra base — Aybar’s averaged 32 doubles and six triples the past four seasons — and he was rewarded with his first All-Star appearance a year ago. With the way that Aybar plays, however, I definitely can see more All-Star Games in his future.

 

For a player that's been among the league's best power hitters the past few seasons, Blue Jays first baseman/designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion doesn't get much recognition outside of Canada (Kim Klement-USA Today Sports)

For a player that’s been among the league’s best power hitters the past few seasons, Blue Jays first baseman/designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion doesn’t get much recognition outside of Canada (Kim Klement-USA Today Sports)

 

OF: Brett Gardner, New York Yankees

To say that the New York Yankees have struggled the past two seasons would be an understatement, as the 26-time World Series champions have missed the playoffs for consecutive years; this is the first time that’s occurred, of course, since the drought from 1982-1993 (with 1994 not counting due to the playoff strike). Even with the team making both big-time acquisitions and small, the Yankees have found themselves home for October baseball the past couple of years due to a mix of injuries, inconsistency, and overall lack of production from big name players. With that said, however, part of why the Yankees have even found themselves with a winning record in both 2013 and 2014 is due to veteran left fielder Brett Gardner, a former third-round pick with a penchant for clutch hits and stolen bases.

As a teammate of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, Jorge Posada, Robinson Cano, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettite, Jacoby Ellsbury, and so on, Brett Gardner has never been the big-time attraction or even the team’s most popular player. What he has been, however, is a durable outfielder (2012 withstanding) that puts it all on the field and will beat you with his bat, his speed, his glove, or even just his ability to get a rally going. Not counting 2012, Gardner has racked up four straight seasons with a WAR of 4.0 or more, including a 7.3 WAR back in 2010 for the Bronx Bombers. He may not be the sexiest player in terms of name recognition, but without Gardner, the Yankees might be one of the league’s worst teams rather than one that’s middle of the pack.

OF: Dexter Fowler, Chicago Cubs

Speaking of outfielders who will beat you with their speed, Chicago’s Dexter Fowler has been a menace on the basepaths since making his debut with the Colorado Rockies in 2008. Fowler’s average stolen base numbers of 19 steals to 9 times caught stealing may not seem impressive, but Fowler averages 24 doubles and 10 triples a season, and that number jumps up to 30 and 12 per every 162 games. When you look at every player who is on this list, Fowler’s inclusion might be the most questionable, as he’s not a powerful home run hitter like Todd Fraizer or Edwin Encarnacion, or a super utility man like Ben Zobrist, but I don’t know if just the basic statistics can do him justice.

Out of every player in the big leagues, Fowler led the majors with a .451 on-base-percentage when there was no one out, and he also got on base 40 percent of the time when there was no one else on base; from your leadoff guy, and someone with speed, there’s not much else that you can really ask for. Fowler, who is entering his first year with the Chicago Cubs after a year in Houston, also has excellent plate discipline and has really become one of baseball’s best leadoff men. That’s the type of guy you want on your team, and that’s why Fowler lands a spot on this list.

OF: Lorenzo Cain, Kansas City Royals

First things first, here’s the mandatory video featuring Cain’s defense.

Alright, mandatory video featuring Cain’s defense out of the way, let’s talk about the Royals’ budding outfielder. Cain, a former seventeenth-round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers in 2004, broke out onto the scene last season with a .301/5/53 statline that also saw him record 28 stolen bases on the year. That’s all good and well, as is Cain’s 5.0 WAR, but what really put this kid on the map was his defense. Line drive hit to center that’s falling fast? Cain will dive for it. High fly ball to right-center field that looks like it’s gone? Cain jumps and its in his glove.

Putting Cain on this list is a bit of a cop out, because he’s already starting to become less of an underrated player solely from the Royals’ miracle 2014 season that saw them make the World Series. Once people start seeing more and more of his crazy catches and gritty play on the field, Cain’s popularity is likely going to skyrocket among baseball fans, both hardcore and casual. For the time being, though, Cain is an underrated player that, not unlike Gardner or Aybar, is instrumental to his team’s success and deserves a spot on our list.

SP: Jose Quintana, Chicago White Sox

In all honesty, I really have to hand it to Robin Ventura and the Chicago White Sox. Even though the team title of lefty ace was seamlessly transferred in-house from Mark Buehrle to Chris Sale following the 2011 season, Chicago was able to find a solid, middle-of-the-rotation starter not through trade or through a big contract, but off the waiver wire; former New York Yankees farmhand Jose Quintana, a lefty pitcher who had yet to make it past A level ball, intrigued the White Sox scouting department so much that the team signed him and immediately placed him in AA with the Binghamton Barons. After a decent first month in the minors, Quintana would reach the big leagues in May of that season, and the rest is history. Despite subpar numbers on paper (namely the 24-24 overall record), Quintana has posted a 3.50 ERA with a 423-150 K-BB ratio in 536 innings. Not bad for a guy who had never made it past high A ball with the Yankees, right?

I know White Sox manager Robin Ventura hasn’t had the best three seasons leading his former ball club — something I mentioned when previewing the American League Central division last month — but the find, and later success, of Quintana has to rank among the better things he’s done. We’re talking about a lefty pitcher that has excellent control and has been a savior for the White Sox, constantly keeping them in ball games and shutting down the opposition (opponents have hit .258 against him). The White Sox are in prime position to contend for the playoffs this year, and their stud lefty Quintana is a major reason why.

Manager: Buck Showalter, Baltimore Orioles

If this article was being written in March 2014 rather than March 2015, San Francisco’s Bruce Bochy would definitely have taken the managerial spot here. But, Bochy and the San Francisco Giants won a World Series in October, so I’m going with a different person here, and that’s Baltimore’s Buck Showalter. Since taking over the job in the summer of 2010 for interim manager Juan Samuel, Showalter has not only helped transform the Orioles into a perennial contender, but he’s also beginning to make a case as one of the best managers of this generation.

Rant Sports’ Brad Berreman talked about this in October, saying, “A lack of identification and long-term success with one franchise hurts Showalter in terms of outside recognition as one of the best managers of the past 20-25 years. But 2014 is his fourth full season as the Orioles’ manager, and barring something unforeseen he’ll be back next season and, at this point, he can probably have the job as long as he wants.” Showalter has helped change the chemistry and environment in Baltimore to one of winning and hard work, two things that were almost never seen in Charm City a decade ago. Even though the Orioles might not be a playoff team this season, you know that they’ll give one hundred and ten percent as long as Buck is their manager.

Who do you think are some of the league’s more underrated players? Make sure to tweet me at @JakeElman to chime in on the conversation.

Enough With The A-Rod Drama

It’s no secret that a lot of people are upset with Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez, but the truth is that he’s not going away any time soon…

Rodriguez, 40 in July, made his spring training debut on Wednesday against the Phillies and went 1-2 with a walk (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Rodriguez, 40 in July, made his spring training debut on Wednesday against the Phillies and went 1-2 with a walk (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Written by Jake Elman

The prodigal son has returned, but things are still the same in Yankees camp. Then again, did you really expect anything else?

As I pointed out in my ten storylines from spring training piece, the return of New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez from a suspension that cost him all of last year was something that all baseball fans should definitely be keeping an eye on; it’s something that you should try to ignore, but it’s something that you can’t, just because of how interesting it is. How would Rodriguez adjust to seeing big league pitching again? Is he going to have a starting job this year? Will the Yankees consider cutting him loose, even with all of the money that he’s still owed?

Well, those questions and more have begun to be answered, as Rodriguez made his spring training debut in a 3-1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies. Batting second and starting at the DH position, Rodriguez went 1-2, his lone hit being a single, and the three-time American League MVP also walked before being pinch run for in the fifth inning. All things considered, Rodriguez’s spring training debut was a success, and it’s the first step in his journey back to the Major Leagues.

Yet, some people aren’t in the mood to act optimistic, or even try to pretend like Rodriguez is any other player. Take the New York Post, for example:

Man, that’s rough. That’s some real hometown support from the New York Post, but I get it. Rodriguez has cheated, he’s become one of the most tainted players — if not the most tainted player in history — and helped the steroid era go on for far longer than it should have.

Rodriguez may have brought home a World Series title in 2009, but what about all of the times he couldn’t hit anything in the postseason? There’s a lot of words that can describe Alex Rodriguez, and after all he’s done over all these years, I think all of those words would be fair to describe him. At the same time, though, I think that it may be time to start forgiving Rodriguez and moving on from the past.

That may sound contradictory, but look at where we are in Rodriguez’s career. The man turns 40 in July, and might not even play after this year. Rodriguez has done a lot of bad in his career, yes, but I think at some point, you need to just let it all go, especially if A-Rod is actually clean this year. Is it good for yourself to harbor feelings of hatred towards someone, or something, that likely isn’t going away anytime soon.

I don’t want this to seem like a full, blind, defense of Alex Rodriguez, but I don’t see why it’s worth it for all of the drama at this point to keep going. Rodriguez has apologized, he has no playing time fully guaranteed, and he’s trying to come back from a suspension that can be viewed as excessive. Even Yankees manager Joe Girardi, one of Rodriguez’s biggest supporters over the years, said recently that Rodriguez has to earn his spot like any other player. It’s not like Rodriguez came to camp and immediately started talking big; this is someone who, from what I’ve seen so far, just wants to focus on the game of baseball.

Did Alex Rodriguez make mistakes? Yes, of course, but we all have made mistakes. Delia Enriquez of Bronx Baseball Daily seems to understand this, as she said last month, “After Rodriguez apologized, immediately there were mixed reactions. Some were willing to forgive Rodriguez right away. Some weren’t as willing considering this was the second (known to the public) offense. Some were indifferent, simply believing it was a PR stunt and some felt Rodriguez should save the apologies altogether. I’m quite the forgiving person, so I forgave A-Rod–but it doesn’t mean I’m ever going to forget or be okay with what he did.”

Enriquez would then add, “The fact is we’re all human. We’re bound to make a huge error in judgement at least once in our lifetime. The steroid scandal just happened to be Rodriguez’s error in judgement.”

It’s not even about forgiving, it’s more about letting it go; there’s a difference, and a big one at that. We’re not talking about a player who beat his girlfrend inside of an elevator, physically hurt his kid, sexually abused anyone, murdered someone…this is a player who made several mistakes relating to his own body, so the people putting him in the same class as Ray Rice or Aaron Hernandez are being silly. Rodriguez messed up big time, but is he really as bad as a murderer or a woman abuser?

Nothing is going to change the past: Alex Rodriguez cheated, he used performance-enhancing drugs, and he’s one of the most tainted players of all time. We can’t change that, he can’t change that, and the history books can’t change that, even if Major League Baseball were to wipe away all of his numbers. If you’re a fan of the game of baseball and you’re truly offended by what Alex Rodriguez did, then that’s fine, no one’s asking you to go online and buy an Alex Rodriguez t-shirt and signed picture. If you’re a fan and you want to boo him like you would any other player on the Yankees, that’s fine too.

All I’m asking for fans to do is think of Alex Rodriguez, right now, as just a baseball player, not a baseball player with a troubled past involving performance-enhancing drugs. That may be too much to ask for, and as someone who has begun to forgive Alex Rodriguez, it may sound like I’m preaching nonsense, but what’s the point in hating and wishing bad on someone when that person is ready to just focus on the task at hand? If Alex Rodriguez can focus solely on baseball, then I don’t see why us as fans can’t either. It may sound difficult, but how much longer is Rodriguez really going to be in the big leagues for?

This falls on the media too, especially the ones taking time out of their day to criticize Rodriguez for every single thing that he does. Alex Rodriguez came early to camp, probably as a way of telling the Yankees that he was serious about making things right and having a good season, and the Daily News’ Mike Lupica writes a scorching hot take about how Rodriguez is wrong and really hasn’t learned anything.

There are so many more interesting stories in baseball this year, and we want to focus all of it on A-Rod? You know what, maybe it’s not just Alex Rodriguez that needs to learn something. All of us need to learn something, and that’s learning to focus on the game of baseball. I don’t know about you guys, but I’d like to just move on from the Alex Rodriguez drama and think about more interesting things, like stirrup socks, throwback uniforms, and seeing if anyone can top Cito Culver’s play from yesterday.

Will you be able to move past the Alex Rodriguez drama this year? Make sure to chime in on the conversation by voting on the poll below, and you can also tweet me your thoughts at @JakeElman