Results tagged ‘ MLB ’

Chris Sale, Master In Effect

After a slow start to the 2015 campaign, White Sox ace Chris Sale is finally pitching at the level we all expected

Sale, a former first-round pick of the White Sox in 2010, had fourteen strikeouts across eight shutout innings against the Rangers on Friday (Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports)

Written by Jake Elman

When you’re a starting pitcher in the big leagues, there’s dominant, and then there’s ridiculously dominant. The difference, you ask? When you’re ridiculously dominant, you’re falling into the same sentence as Hall of Famers Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and Nolan Ryan.

With the groove that he’s been in lately, White Sox ace Chris Sale has been not just ridiculously dominant, but he’s been putting up numbers that would be unrealistic even in a video game. Sale, the former Florida Gulf Coast star that quickly ascended to the big leagues in 2010 just months after being drafted, struck out fourteen men — the sixth straight outing he’s punched out men in double digits — in a loss to the Texas Rangers.

“What did he punch out? Fourteen, 15, something like that?” Texas starter Colby Lewis said of Sale, the man he dueled against on Friday night. “He definitely had it going on. I just tried to go out there and match. If he’s doing it, then I try to go out there and have quick innings, too.”

Now, here’s where the numbers start getting crazy: Sale, over his last six starts, has a 1.19 ERA with a 75/7 K/BB ratio over 45 1/3 innings and that’s despite only being 3-2 in those games. After a loss to the Minnesota Twins on May 23 that saw Sale’s ERA sit at 4.23, the lefty ace has lowered his ERA all the way down to 2.74, the first time since April 23 it’s been below 3.00.

In the loss, Sale also extended a franchise record for double-digit strikeout games to 25, and he has struck out at least one in 35 straight innings. And, as mentioned earlier, Sale has now struck out double-digit batters in six consecutive starts, which puts him in the same conversation as Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, and Nolan Ryan, all Hall of Fame starting pitchers.

Martinez did it on three occasions (two with the Red Sox and one with the Expos from 1997-2000) and has the longest streak at 10 starts, while Johnson struck out 10 or more batters in six or more consecutive starts five times from 1998-2002 (split across the Mariners and Diamondbacks). Nolan Ryan, who did it in 1972 and 1977, had both a seven-game streak and a six-game streak with the California Angels.

“It’s an honor to get my name mentioned with them, but it’s something more for you guys and friends and family. I’m here for one reason, and that’s winning ballgames,” Sale told reporters following the team’s 2-1 loss. “All the other stuff is more of a distraction than anything, really.”

Unfortunately for Sale, though, things aren’t going so well for the rest of the White Sox. For the second consecutive game started by Sale, the White Sox lost 2-1, this time blowing the lead in the ninth inning when big-money closer David Robertson crumbled under the pressure.

“I feel awful because of how well Sale pitched tonight,” Robertson, a former All-Star with the New York Yankees, admitted after the game. “I went out there and blew it.”

White Sox manager Robin Ventura wasn’t pleased either, telling reporters, “You have to stay disciplined in the game and come in here with a positive attitude and ready to go. It’s easier said than done on some points, but you’re pros and you come in here and you expect to turn around and have a good effort. That’s required of everybody. There’s no exception to that.”

With the loss, Chicago fell to 28-38 in what’s been yet another dismal season for the White Sox, but Sale hasn’t lost all hope yet.

“We’re definitely pulling from the same rope, on the same side,” Sale said. “There’s no doubt. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but you can’t stop pulling.”

Do you think Chris Sale will keep up this hot streak? Make sure to chime in on the conversation by tweeting me at @JakeElman

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

Closely Reading Ruben Amaro’s Statements

It seemed like Philles GM Ruben Amaro might have finally gotten a clue, but those thoughts were erased after comments to CSN Philly

Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro, who took over the team from Pat Gillick following their World Series win in 2008, has made the rebuild slow and painful (Getty Images)

Written by Jake Elman

Because Memorial Day unofficially marks the completion of the first third of the baseball season — something I pointed out on SportsBlog — now is when we start hearing from team executives and higher ups about topics such as top prospects, aging veterans, and job security. Most of the time, we’ll hear from the general manager or team president, who will also touch base on how the first part of the season has gone and what’s next.

Philadelphia general manager Ruben Amaro, apparently aware of this ‘baseball tradition’, stepped up to the plate and spoke with CSN Philly’s Jim Sailsbury about several things relating to the rebuilding Phillies, most notably the trade market and prospects. If you’re a fan of the Phillies or you want to hear about what’s going on with the organization, I definitely would reccomend checking out the interview, because it’s an interesting look at a rebuilding team.

As with any rebuilding teams that has prospects on the horizon, it’s almost a requirement to inquire about those in an interview with the general manager or another higher up. Normally, we’ll get some kind of answer about how the prospects are making strides and the team wants to not rush them and it’ll be left at that; Amaro, however, took it one step further, as Sailsbury reports:

‘When asked about the timetable for pitching prospects Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin to make it to the bigs, Amaro said the plan was to be conservative. When it was pointed out that fans of losing teams tend not to like it when told that they need to be patient, Amaro had this to say:

“They don’t understand the game. They don’t understand the process. There’s a process. And then they bitch and complain because we don’t have a plan. There’s a plan in place and we’re sticking with the plan. We can’t do what’s best for the fan. We have to do what’s best for the organization so the fan can reap the benefit of it later on. That’s the truth.”’

In the few hours since this article was posted on CSN Philly’s website, many have been quick to call Amaro out and say that he’s why the Phillies are in the situation they are now or that the organization should just cut him loose. But, as a way of being fair, let’s closely read this statement and not only see what Amaro really meant, but also if he’s right or not.

“They don’t understand the game.”

Ah, the good old ‘you don’t understand what’s going on’ cliche. That’s always a nice way to start talking about the fans that are stuck putting up with your incompetence, Ruben.

“They don’t understand the process. There’s a process.”

That’s a very valid point and, believe it or not, I actually do agree with it becuase there are plenty of fans that think that just adding a top prospect into the mix will immediately solve things. A few years ago, every Mets fan in sight wanted the team to just promote Fernando Martinez already because they thought he’d save the day, but Martinez would only hit .180/.250/.290 in three seasons with the Mets.

“And then they bitch and complain because we don’t have a plan. There’s a plan in place and we’re sticking with the plan. We can’t do what’s best for the fan. We have to do what’s best for the organization so the fan can reap the benefit of it later on.”

The fans bitch and moan because the Phillies don’t have a plan? Damn, that’s rough, Ruben. I though they bitch and moaned because you took a perfectly built roster by Pat Gillick and the previous regime and turned into a win-now roster that made one World Series in your six plus years as general manager.

Not only did you give Ryan Howard a massive contract that became nearly untradeable in the final years of it, but you also got not even a full season from Hunter Pence (the Phillies acquired him in July 2011 and then dealt him in July 2012; he played a total of 155 games for them) in exchange for starter Jarred Cosart, reliever Josh Zeid, first baseman/outfielder Jonathan Singleton, and outfielder Domingo Santana. I’m still not entirely sure why the Phillies made that move, especially when you remember they just could have benched the struggling Raul Ibanez (more on him in a second).

Then, when Amaro decided to trade Pence to San Francisco in 2012, it’s not like the Phillies got back a massive haul featuring some of the team’s best prospects, including infielder Joe Panik who would have been a fine fit as a long-term replacement for Chase Utley or Jimmy Rollins. Instead, all they received was Nate Schierholtz, Seth Rosin and Tommy Joseph, and they non-tendered Schierholtz following the season. Yes, they cut loose a player that hit .273/.319/.379 and would have been a fine fourth outfielder for the future.

What exactly does that mean? It means that for a player that’s become an essential part of two World Series runs for the Giants and was actually pretty solid with the Phillies, all Ruben Amaro was able to get back was a veteran outfielder that he non-tendered, a starter that became an ineffective reliever, and a top catching prospect that has suffered from concussion issues and may not be a long-term catcher. Nice haul, Ruben.

Let’s see what else Amaro has done that would make fans want to bitch and moan…hmmm…oh, Amaro gave up a draft pick that would later become catcher Steven Baron to sign the aged outfielder Raul Ibanez to a three year deal; while Ibanez was quite good in his first year with the Phillies, hitting .272 and smacking 34 balls out of the park in his first National League season, the veteran outfielder, brought in for power, dropped down to 16 and 20 home runs in the next two seasons. It’s easy to say that Ibanez was instrumental in getting the Phillies to the playoffs in all three of his seasons there, but Ibanez only had two postseason series under Charlie Manuel where he hit over .250, and both of those came in 2009.

Part of why I’m so critical on the Ibanez move, even though I admit to being a huge fan of the All-Star, is because it was a three year deal that hurt the development of top prospect Dominic Brown and came back to bite the Phillies badly. Why would you give a three year deal to an older hitter that would have been a perfect designated hitter? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to either see if he’d take a one year deal or go after another outfielder in the market, like Eric Hinske or Bobby Abreu?

Now, do I think that Ruben Amaro is making the right choice by giving his top prospects time to develop in the minor leagues without throwing them into the fire just yet? Yes, I do, but attacking your fanbase and calling them out for bitching and moaning is uncalled for. What they’re really bitching about, to tell you the truth, is that you going into win now mode has left the team in a rebuild that I don’t see them getting out of until 2018 at the earliest and the reminders of the win now era (Howard, Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz, Cole Hamels, Jonathan Paplebon, and Cliff Lee) are all either injured or taking up space on the roster.

Look, Ruben, I get that you really want to make this team into a contender again and I respect that, but it’s not worth it to attack the fans that are sticking by you and the Phillies throughout the rebuild; it’s also not fair, and that’s the truth.

Do you think Ruben Amaro’s comments attacking the fans were out of line? 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

Ratings Are Back, Will They Stay

After a disappointing past few years with regards to TV ratings, are the numbers from the first month of the season a good sign for baseball?

Alex Gordon and the Kansas City Royals, after a World Series run last year, have been one of several teams to see dramatic TV rating boosts in 2015 (John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports)

Written by Jake Elman

It’s no secret that baseball’s been in a bit of a dry spell with regards to buzz and excitement in recent years. It wasn’t long ago that I wrote about how new commissioner Rob Manfred should try getting the youth back into baseball, and as it stands right now, more and more hype may be starting to come back to the game. It’s not perfect — yet — but it seems like Major League Baseball is starting to get the attention again. People like the pace of play rules, they like that games aren’t taking as long, and they like that small-market teams like the Astros and Twins have been playing extremely well as of late.

With excitement and hype comes the desire to watch these games, and with that desire means better TV ratings. You’d think that despite baseball slowly losing interest over the past few year that the big time networks — Fox and ESPN — would still have decent MLB ratings, right? Well…not really, as they’ve in fact been in a decline.

As Business Journalism pointed out in an article published last month, this decline isn’t something that just suddenly happened one day; rather, there’s been a slow — but steady — decrease in ratings since 2001, as the following pictures will demonstrate.

(Sports Business Journal)

I’ve pointed this out before, but part of that may be because we see the same teams — New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals — on it seemingly every single week, and part of it might also be that there’s more entertaining things on. But we were at a point last year where only one million viewers tuned into a Sunday Night game during the pennant race, featuring the Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Dodgers.

But, this season has seen baseball ratings increase, and in a big way. First, let’s look at Opening Day. According to a press release put out last month, ESPN’s 2015 Major League Baseball season-opening viewership went up 48 percent from 2014, those stats coming via Nielsen. Through five games – MLB Opening Night (Cardinals-Cubs) and a MLB Opening Day quadruple-header (that included the return of Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez from suspension) – ESPN averaged 1,370,000 viewers compared to 926,000 in 2014. ESPN also went up 50 percent in U.S. household rating (0.9 versus 0.6) compared to last year.

That Opening Night game, the Cardinals-Cubs one that ended in a victory for the Redbirds, that had 3,354,000 viewers, which is way up (47 percent, in fact) from 2014’s 2,279,000 viewers for 2014’s Dodgers-Padres opening game. Granted, that game was going up against the season finale of AMC’s The Walking Dead, a series that beat the NFL and Sunday Night Football five out of eight times this past season, so that’s understandable. That particular episode of The Walking Dead, titled ‘A’, did 15.67 million viewers, so ESPN shouldn’t take any offense.

But, back to baseball and those stats from the press release. Though the amount of views are definitely important, just look at the demographics and the improvements across the board there. We’re talking about 17 percent in the male 18-34 demographic (0.7 versus 0.6); 17 percent in males 18-49 (0.7 versus 0.6); 40 percent in M25-54 (0.7 versus 0.5); 67 percent in P18-34 (0.5 versus 0.3); 67 percent in P18-49 (0.5 versus 0.3); and 67 percent in P25-54 (0.5 versus 0.3). In short, younger people took time out of their Monday to not watch Netflix, but instead watch a baseball game.

Fox Sports also has done very well in the first month of baseball, as Awful Announcing reported earlier this week. After a very poor 2014 with regards to ratings, things look to be going in the upwards direction, with the average viewership for Major League Baseball on Fox rising by 26 percent over the first three Saturdays of the season, which was good for an average of 597,000 viewers per game.

If I’m Fox Sports, I’m also taking pride in the fact that a game between the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers did 817,000 viewers in an exclusive window. Now, that may sound weird that I’d be suggesting that it’s something to be proud of, but Fox Sports nearly did a million viewers in a game between two, non-major market teams. When you think of teams that would do 817,000 viewers on a Fox game, you’d think it’d be something like Yankees-Red Sox or Cardinals-Cubs, but Indians-Tigers.

Oh, and they happened to do more views than the game that followed it, Mets-Yankees that saw Matt Harvey pitch for the Metropolitans; that game did a still-good 647,000 viewers, which is still nearly 200,000 less than the Indians-Tigers game.

Oh, and it’s not just the big Fox Sports that’s doing well with regards to ratings. In fact, eight Fox Regional Sports Networks (think of Fox Sports Detroit, for example) rank either first or second in their local market in primetime ratings, those teams being the Indians, Tigers, Royals, Cardinals, Padres, Diamondbacks, Reds, and Rays. The Royals, most notably, are up a staggering 129% on Fox Sports Kansas City after making the World Series in 2014.

Now, are these ratings a fluke? Maybe, and let’s not forget that this was just for the first month of the season. But, this is progress, definite progress that I’m sure is exactly what Rob Manfred was hoping for when he took over as commissioner. For so long, Manfred has been talking about his desire to get people back into baseball, and if the ratings are anything to go off, then this is a great start.

Joe Lucia of Awful Announcing put it best: any positive signs are a good thing.

Do you think that these increased ratings are here to stay, or are they just a fluke? 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

The Best and Worst of John Sterling

Yankees radio play by play man John Sterling has had some interesting home run calls over the years, but which stand out the most?

Sterling, 76, has been the Yankees’ radio announcer since 1989 and has never missed a game (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Written by Jake Elman

Well, we’re ten games into the Major League Baseball season, and the New York Yankees are 4-6. To some, it’s not a surprise, and to some, the team is actually overachieving. I don’t know if I’d go that far, because I thought the Yankees were better than people were giving them credit for, but it’s definitely been an interesting start to the season so far.

To start (no pun intended), Alex Rodriguez has been the team’s best hitter. Look, we all knew that expectations for Alex Rodriguez entering this season were lower than the approval rating of The Phantom Menace, and for good reason: Rodriguez missed all of last season due to suspension, and he hasn’t been a truly solid player since 2011 or even 2010. Yet, Rodriguez is off to a .344/.432/.781 start with four home runs and eleven runs batted in…not bad, old man.

One of the best parts about Rodriguez’s hot start isn’t just the fact that every baseball fan that doesn’t root for the New York Yankees is losing, but also that we get to hear John Sterling’s home run call for A-Rod again. Sterling, who has been the Yankees’ radio announcer since 1989, ends every Rodriguez home run with a call of “It’s an A-Bomb…from A-Rod” and I like to mimic it on my Twitter, in large part because it seems to annoy the A-Rod hating baseball fan.

There’s a lot of people out there that seem not to like Sterling, and I honestly can see why. He makes plenty of mistakes behind the mic, and some of his home run calls are…less than stellar. But, that’s a large part of why so many people do enjoy Sterling’s work: his signature home run calls for every player. It doesn’t matter if you’re Curtis Granderson or Colin Curtis — Sterling will find a way to make a home run call for you, and it adds a certain…uniqueness to the game.

But, which are the best and worst home run calls from John Sterling? Keep in mind, I’ve left off many calls, but this isn’t an all-time list of every call that Sterling has done (if you are interested in something like that, though, there’s a Yankee blog that’s been collecting as many of John Sterling’s home run calls as humanly possible. How could we forget Nick Green’s home run call?) and this list is not in order. I may put player A’s call above player B, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy the call more. Think of this as a non-ordered list, but it’s only ordered in terms of sub-headings.

So, without further waiting, let’s get right into the best and worst of John Sterling.

The Best:

3B/DH Alex Rodriguez — “It’s an A-Bomb…from A-Rod! Alexander the Great conquers again!”

Well, we may as well start off with the one that helped inspire the creation of this article. You know, despite all of his flaws, I still remain and will always be a huge fan of Alex Rodriguez, and this home run call was one of the things that helped endear me to him. We have two instances of history (the Atomic Bomb and Alexander the Great) being used in conjunction with a baseball hitter in a way that, actually, makes sense. Nice one, John.

OF/DH Shane Spencer — “Shane Spencer, the Home Run Dispenser!”

This was a call I didn’t get to hear too much, seeing as Spencer played for the Yankees when I was a small child, but I’ve always had a thing for this call. There’s just something about the execution of this call, and the rhyme with Spencer and dispenser, that makes this one of Sterling’s best calls over the years.

OF Bernie Williams — “Bernie goes boom! Bern baby, Bern!”

This one’s easy. Not only is it a pun on the song ‘Disco Inferno‘, but there’s some great alliteration here and it’s just an overall fun call. Plus, the ‘bern, baby, Bern’ part is pretty catchy, and I enjoy it a lot.

3B Chase Headley — “You can bank on Chase! Headley is deadly!”

I love this home run call, even if we haven’t even heard it for a full year. When the Yankees acquired Chase Headley last season from the San Diego Padres, I had a feeling that Sterling would go for a Headley is deadly pun, but the bank on Chase part is an excellent addition. As you’ll see below, some of Sterling’s more recent calls haven’t been anywhere close to good, but this one is great.

1B/OF Eric Hinske — “Hinske with your best shot!”

There’s not much to say here, other than I love the Pat Benatar pun; the call, of course, is a reference to Benatar’s hit “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” from 1980. Again, not bad, John.

The Worst:

1B Lance Berkman — “Sir Lancelot rides to the rescue!  C’est lui!  C’est lui!”

What. I’m linking this just so you can see how ridiculous this is.

2B/SS Stephen Drew — “Stephen Drew! How do you do? He sends a Drewskie to the fans!”

What a terrible call. A Drewskie? That may be one of the worst calls I’ve ever heard, and this is coming from someone who loves John Sterling. I was joking about it on Twitter this week, but Sterling’s call really should have been something along the lines of, “Stephen Drew that one up perfectly!” or something with a play on words with Drew. But Drewskie? What?

OF Chris Young — “Chris Young, younger than springtime! Chris Young, forever young!”

No. No. No. No! No. What kind of call is this?

3B Yangervis Solarte — “Never Nervous Yangervis! Solarte, woh woh…Solarte, woh woh woh.”

Please make this stop. Please. Then, you realize that Sterling sings part of that call. Please, I can’t take any more of these awful calls.

Honestly, some of the more recent Yankees have had the really bad calls, because I can live with some of Sterling’s older calls. Let’s be real for a second…I would much rather have Sterling’s call for Gary Sheffield (The Master Sheff! A Sheff Special!) than Stephen Drew’s call, and I loathed Sheffield’s call.

The eh:

LF/DH Hideki Matsui — “It’s a thrilla by Godzilla! The Sayonara Kid does it again!”

As a kid, I flat out loved this call. Some years later, and after having heard it so many times, this falls under the eh section because of the second part. The Sayanora Kid? I would have preferred Sterling just stick with the thrilla by Godzilla part, but it’s not an awful call. I get that Matsui is Japanese, and Sterling likes to show where players come from, but this is too much.

C Russell Martin — “Russell shows muscle.  Monsieur Martin est la.”

Again, this is another call that isn’t bad, but would have been perfectly fine if Sterling cut it off after the first sentenced. I like the Russell shows muscle part, but then Sterling has to add the French…we get it, Martin is from Canada and can speak French.

 

The Greatest:

1B Mark Teixeira — “Mark sends a Teix message! You’re on the Mark, Teixeira!”

Yes, this may shock some people, but this is probably my favorite John Sterling home run call. Everything that you want from a Sterling call is here; you have the pun, the play on words, and it’s said in such a fluid way time after time that you can’t help but repeat it when you hear it. This used to be tied with Alex Rodriguez’s home run call, but this call has just grown on me so much over the past few years that I can’t help but put it there.

So, is John Sterling an amazing radio play-by-play man? Well, I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I will say that it’s always a pleasure to listen to him and his…unique home run calls. Hopefully, Sterling can get back to making some better calls, because some of the recent ones have been pretty bad…I need to go get the Chris Young and Stephen Drew ones out of my head soon.

But hey, I can’t hate too much on someone that has called every New York Yankees game since 1989, meaning he never missed one of Derek Jeter’s hits or Mariano Rivera’s saves. If that’s not dedication to your trade, then I don’t know what is. I guess you can’t predict baseball sometimes…

What are some of your favorite John Sterling home run calls? 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

Welcome Back, Ron Gardenhire

After being fired by the Twins following last season, Ron Gardenhire made a surprise visit at Minnesota camp today

Cigar and all, Ron Gardenhire made his return to the Twins organization today...as a visitor (Star Tribune Sports)

Cigar and all, Ron Gardenhire made his return to the Twins organization today…as a visitor, complete with cigars (Star Tribune Sports)

Written by Jake Elman

In the footsteps of Bon Jovi, Kanye West, and Puff Daddy/P. Diddy/Diddy/Sergio Roma/whatever he’s calling himself today, former Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire made a return home on Tuesday. But, by home, we’re not talking about Germany.

This is the first spring since 2001 that Gardenhire isn’t managing the Minnesota Twins, as the one-time Mets shortstop was let go following his fourth straight sub .500 season in 2011; now, former Twins star Paul Molitor is in charge in Minnesota, trying to bring the team back to the postseason for the first time since 2010. Things were stressful and rough in Gardenhire’s last few seasons, but if today was anything to go by, then things between him and the Twins organization are still good.

Dressed in a W-Stout Blue Devils Dad shirt, golf hat, sunglasses, the watch and what look like cargo shorts with a water bottle in his pocket, the 2010 AL Manager of the Year made a visit to Twins camp in Fort Myers, Florida on Tuesday. Complete with a cigar in his mouth and another cigar in a ziploc bag, Gardenhire was actually down in Florida watching his son, Toby, coach the University of Wisconsin-Stout against the Twins Gulf Coast League team, and then decided to make the short journey over to Twins camp.

“I’ve missed a lot of these guys,” Gardenhire, who managed thirteen years with the Twins from 2002-2014, told the Star Tribune on Tuesday. “It’s great to say hello and see how everyone is doing.”

Spring training visits by former players and coaches are routine, tradition even, but it’s interesting to see the manager who was fired not even six full months ago return to his former team’s camp. There’s often feelings of awkwardness, maybe even a bit of resentment or anger, that can last for years between both the manager and the former employer.

Gardenhire, who has admitted to staying in the background as to not be a distraction for Molitor and the Twins, seems not to have gotten that memo…and all is good. In fact, all’s been good since Gardenhire was fired following the season, as he even attended the press conference that announced his dismissal.

Twins general manager Terry Ryan, a longtime friend of Gardenhire, said at the start of camp that he had a wide range of positions for his former manager would he be interested.

“If he wanted to do something, I’m in. What do you want to do, Gardy? You want to talk to the minor league players? You want to visit the [minor league] affiliates? You want to go out and teach some infield? You want to help this guy with his hitting? He can do a lot of things,” Ryan said a month ago, and it’s hard to find any problem with that. This is one of the most successful managers in franchise history, and they want to keep him in the fold any way that they can.

Good on the Minnesota Twins for maintaining such a good relationship with their former manager, and the same goes for Gardenhire and his former organization. Even if the Twins struggle this year in what appears to be yet another rebuilding year, they can pat themselves on the back for a job well done when it comes to their relationship with the man who managed them for nearly a decade and a half.

If you want to talk baseball, you can tweet 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.