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Tim Wilken was the club’s scouting director when the Chicago Cubs drafted DJ LeMahieu out of LSU in 2009. Wilken was still ensconced in that position two years later when he had a memorable exchange with the second-rounder. It took place in Knoxville, where LeMahieu — a product of Brother Rice High School in metro Detroit –was playing with the Double-A Tennessee Smokies.
“I said, ‘Hey, DJ, you stay inside the ball extremely well [but] you’re six-foot-five and don’t really let your swing out,” Wilken related to me recently. “You’re from Michigan; were you a fan of Derek Jeter? Do you stay inside the ball because he does that?’ He said, ‘No, I like Derek Jeter, but when you live in a northern state you have a tendency to stay with your swing because 95% of your BP is inside, in a cage. Had I lived in a sunbelt state, I might have started to let my swing out.'”
I asked the longtime scout — now a special assistant with the Arizona Diamondbacks — why a lack of outdoor reps might have that result.
“If you’re in a cage — and I’ve seen many cage batting practices — hitters kind of stay within their swing,” responded Wilken, who in 2016 was inducted into the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame. “LeMahieu hits a lot of balls up the middle and to the right side — every once in awhile he’ll pull a ball — but as he was describing to me, it’s a lot different inside. You don’t get to see the results of letting your swing out, so you don’t really turn on balls. Outside, you can see some of that power. Hitting a ball to left field and seeing it go a pretty good ways… that’s taken away when you’re in a cage.”
In December 2011, LeMahieu was stolen away from the Cubs by the Colorado Rockies. Technically he was traded, but given how the four-player swap has worked out, the deal qualified as highway robbery. Colorado acquired the two-time batting champion, along with Tyler Colvin, in exchange for Ian Stewart and Casey Weathers. Stewart went on to record negative WAR, while Weathers weathered injuries and never made it out of the minors.
Theo Epstein, who’d been named Chicago’s president of baseball operations six weeks earlier, approached Wilken at the winter meetings. With him were two members of the Cubs’ brain trust.
“Theo told me, ‘Hey, we’ve got a deal, and it involves two of your guys,'” recalled Wilken. “He says to me, ‘You’ve got a 70 bat [on the 20-80 scouting scale] on LeMahieu. “One of the guys with him says, ‘What are the demographics on a six-foot-five second baseman?’ I said, ‘Well, you’re looking at [LeMahieu].'”
Opinions on the young infielder varied. One evaluator purportedly felt that LeMahieu’s arms were too long, and that his swing path wasn’t going to work in the big leagues. Wilken had an opposing viewpoint. “There are guys who can be longer to the ball and still have good hand-eye,” he explained. “And his hand-eye was pretty darn good.”
The swing path in question has obviously worked in the big leagues. LeMahieu slashed .299/.352/.408 in his seven years with the Rockies, and since signing a free-agent contract with the Yankees in January 2019 — barring an extension he’ll be back on the open market this winter — that line is .336/.386/.536. Moreover, LeMahieu has laid waste to the idea that he can’t hit for power. He’s swatted 36 home runs in fewer than 900 plate appearances since donning pinstripes.
“It turned out that I was wrong about him being a 70 hitter,” said Wilken. “He’s an 80 hitter. He’s just a damn good baseball player.”
Cincinnati Reds president of baseball operations Dick Williams resigned his position a few days after the team he’s led since 2015 was eliminated from the playoffs. A harbinger of that announcement came a week earlier when the 49-year-old executive closed out a Zoom call with members of the media. The Reds had just punched their postseason ticket, but his closing words sounded more like a goodbye than a hello to October baseball.
“There’s a lot more negativity out there than there used to be,” said Williams, who worked in investment banking before joining the organization in 2006. “In this seat, it’s my job to wear it every day. The talk show hosts, the tweets, the negative articles, whatever’s out there. I can tell you, I feel it’s my job to soak all that up. This feels as appropriate of a time as any to thank my wife and kids for being there for me and keeping me positive… I get frustrated when the team doesn’t win. When I see all the anger and the hate out there, I try to make it go away for the people that believe in us. That’s just part of the job.”
“Sorry for getting a little emotional,” Williams went on to say. “There are a lot of things bubbling through my head right now.”
I was on the Zoom call, and hearing those words I couldn’t help but wonder if there was another shoe left to fall. It turned out there was, and while Williams obviously has his reasons, it’s a shame that he won’t be there when the Reds take that next step and seriously compete for a championship. The organization that he’s diligently — and smartly — built up from its non-analytical ashes is close to doing just that.
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
Miguel Rojas had a career year with the bat. The Miami Marlins shortstop crafted an .888 OPS and a 142 wRC+, which exceeded his previous bests by a fair margin. The performance may or may not have been a mirage, but one thing is certain: Rojas had never been a prolific hitter prior to this season.
“When you have success against a pitcher early in your career, you’re always going to have the confidence that you can hit him,” explained Rojas. “My first ever homer in the big leagues was against Max Scherzer — when I played for the Dodgers — in Detroit. After that moment, I thought, ‘You know what? He’s the reigning American League Cy Young and I got a home run against him.’ So I always have that confidence, and not just against him. If I hit a home run against the best, I’m going to be able to do it against anybody.”
?That includes Scherzer’s most-accomplished rotation mate. Rojas is a healthy 12 for 29 against Strasburg, with five doubles and a 1.055 OPS.
“I like to hit in Nationals Park,” Rojas responded when asked for an explanation. “That’s obviously a plus. When you feel comfortable in a place, you’re always going to feel good. I have gotten some hits off Strasburg and Scherzer, although they’ve won some battles, too. But I am happy that I see those guys well, because they’re in our division. I’m probably going to be facing him for a long time.”
Rojas has slashed .325/.391/.427 in 133 plate appearances at Nationals Park. The batting average and OPS are his highest in any venue where he’s come to the plate at least 50 times.
The answer can be found below.
Detroit Tigers outfield prospect Cam Gibson, the son of former Tigers and Dodgers outfielder Kirk Gibson, will play for the Australian Baseball League’s Sydney Blue Sox this winter. Francisco Alvarez — No. 6 on our New York Mets Top Prospect list — is also on the Blue Sox roster. Rachel Balkovec, who coaches in the Yankees system, will be Sydney’s minor-league hitting coach.
Whitey Ford, who pitched for the New York Yankees from 1950-1967, died on Thursday at age 91. The Hall of Fame left-hander’s .690 winning percentage — he went 236-106 — is third-highest in the modern era. A Game 1 starter eight times, Ford had 10 World Series wins, the most in MLB history.
Kim Batiste, who played for the Philadelphia Phillies from 1991-1994, and for the San Francisco Giants in 1996, died earlier this week at age 52. A native of New Orleans, Batiste had his most-memorable moment in 1993 when he hit a 10th-inning walk-off single in Game 1 of the NLCS.
Fred Wenz, who pitched for the Boston Red Sox in 1968 and 1969, and for Philadelphia Phillies in 1970, died earlier this week at age 79. Nicknamed “Fireball,” Wenz made 31 relief appearances, won all three of his decisions, and in 1969 had a wholly-unique stat. Per RIP Baseball‘s Sam Gazdziak, all seven of the runs Wenz allowed that year came on solo home runs.
The answer to the quiz is John McGraw. The Hall of Fame manager had a .466 OBP during his playing days.
Brian Snitker was talking about Tucker Davidson on the final weekend of the regular season when a reporter brought up how the rookie right-hander had “hit 100.2 mph this offseason at Driveline.” The Atlanta manager’s response was a bit of an eyebrow-raiser.
“Yeah, I know about all that,” Snitker said with a chuckle. “If it was up to me, I’d probably keep away from that place.”
No clarification was forthcoming.
2020 STAT NOTABLES
Trevor Story topped the National League in stolen bases (15), thus becoming the fourth player in Colorado Rockies franchise history to lead in that category. Willy Taveras, Juan Pierre, and Eric Young Sr. are the others.
The Philadelphia Phillies led the majors with 49 first-inning runs. Didi Gregorius led all players with 13 first-inning RBIs.
Tyler Clippard pitched 26 games, bringing his career total to 777. That’s second-most among active pitchers, behind Joe Smith, who has made 782 appearances. Smith opted out of the 2020 season but remains with the Astros.
Tyler Austin has 16 home runs in 44 games with NPB’s Yokohama BayStars. The 29-year-old former big-league outfielder/first baseman had a three-homer game last Sunday.
Trevor Bauer has expressed an interest in pitching on three days’ rest, and he got that opportunity in the final week of the regular season with his team chasing a playoff berth. He handled it with aplomb. The outspoken hurler had a dominant performance as the Cincinnati Reds captured a much-needed win.
Bauer went on to pitch every bit as well in his lone postseason appearance, although that effort went for naught. The Reds lost 1-0 in extra innings, then were eliminated the following day. Any further short-rest opportunities would have to wait until next year.
What might he have been capable of had the Reds gone deep into October? Detroit Tigers left-hander Mickey Lolich had a complete-game win on two days’ rest in Game 7 of the 1968 World Series. I asked Bauer if such a thing is possible in today’s era.
“I wouldn’t rule anything out,” responded Bauer. “At that time of year, the body and mind are capable of a lot. But I don’t think it would be a necessity for how deep our pitching staff is… We’ve got a lot of guys who can fill a lot of different roles, and have been very successful in those roles…. I don’t see a scenario where that would happen.”
Fair enough, but could it have happened? A complete game on two days’ rest is obviously a lot to ask, but Lolich did it, so why couldn’t Bauer have done it on the heels of a campaign where he threw just 73 regular-season innings? It’s an interesting idea to ponder.
MLB is often criticized for not marketing its stars, and they were guilty of just that with their scheduling of the Dodgers-Padres series. Fernando Tatis Jr. is baseball’s most exciting young player, Mookie Betts is the best player in the game not named Mike Trout, yet their teams were relegated to late-night time slots. A majority of fans across the country were heading off to slumberland by the time Tatis Jr. and Betts were stepping into the batters box for their second at bats.
Yes, the Dodgers and Padres are West Coast teams, but MLB apparently had no issue with scheduling the Oakland A’s in the afternoon. Ditto a high-profile team like the Atlanta Braves. Was Rays-Yankees an attractive series? Absolutely. That doesn’t mean their matchup merited prime time every night at the expense of fans not getting to watch Betts and Tatis Jr. (not to mention Cody Bellinger and Manny Machado.) Market your brand better, MLB.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
Baseball America‘s J.J. Cooper wrote about the Supreme Court’s declining to hear MLB’s appeal of the ruling that granted class action status to minor-league players who allege they were paid less than minimum wage.
At CBS Sports, R.J. Anderson delved into how the baseball industry is entering a potentially transformative phase.
The British Baseball Federation recently announced that Drew Spencer has been named the head coach of the national baseball team. Devan Fink has the story at The Dartmouth.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Ivan Nova holds the record for the most plate appearances among players whose batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage are identical. Nova has slashed .040/.040/.040 in 166 career PAs. Mike Fiers, who ironically attended Nova Southeastern University, is next with a .081/.081/.081 slash line in 104 PAs. (per Aidan Jackson-Evans.)
Bob Gibson‘s baseball coach at Creighton University was Bill Fitch, who went on to coach 25 NBA seasons and be elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Christy Mathewson threw three shutouts in a six-day span in the 1905 World Series. The New York Giants right-hander blanked the Philadelphia Athletics on October 9, 12, and 14.
On this date in 1948, the Cleveland Indians beat the Boston Braves 4-3 to capture what remains their last World Series title. An eighth-inning single by Eddie Robinson off of Warren Spahn plated what turned out to be the deciding run.
On this date in 1999, Pedro Martinez threw six hitless innings of relief as the Red Sox beat the Indians 12-8 in the deciding Game 5 of the ALDS. Martinez had left Game 1 after four innings due an injury, and was questionable for the remainder of the series.
Mark Kiger appeared in two games for the Oakland A’s in the 2006 ALCS, each time playing one inning as a defensive replacement at second base. It was his only big-league action. Krieger never played in regular-season game.
Players born on this date include Buttercup Dickerson, who hit a National League-leading 14 triples for the Cincinnati Reds in 1879. Dickerson’s teammates included Hall of Famers King Kelly and Deacon White, as well as righty Will White, who went a workmanlike 43-31. The rest of the Reds’ pitching staff combined to go 0-6.