Peter Gammons: Midway Point Thoughts (Parts 1 and 2)

Petco Park

As the 2016 passes the midway point with the curtsy of the All Star Game, last weekend’s game at Fort Bragg, N.C. perfectly captured its responsibility as the National Pastime, symbolically, and because of the Marlins and Braves players, the reality in a time when the country is struggling to maintain its most important freedom, the freedom from fear.

It has been a season awash with extraordinary players under the age of 25, especially a gold-plated period piece for shortstops, second and third basemen standing from six-foot-five to five-foot-five. At a time when revenues continue to grow and Bam Bam no longer refers to Hensley Meulens but rather how many games on how many devices we can watch simultaneously. The Cleveland Indians went into the pre-All Star weekend with the best record in the American League despite the second lowest attendance. Rob Manfred wrestles with both the realm of social consciousness and the political nightmare of trying to get 30 owners to consider the greater good of a more level playing field, which seemingly has progressed given that on July 8th, 17 of the 30 clubs were either in first place or within three games of a wild card play-in berth.

Of course, there is more interest in the trading deadline than the All Star celebration, where the 17 teams within three games of October promise leads. “There are at least 12 to 14 teams currently trying to trade for pitching, and there is very little available pitching right now,” says one general manager. “If you’re Atlanta or Oakland or Tampa Bay  or a team that has pitching to consider trading, if you’re not getting an extreme seller’s price, why move before the last week of July.”

Red Sox President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski hasn’t shied away from admitting he is searching from the mountain tops to the floor of the Atlantic for pitching, but as he brings in his college of scouts and front office people and talks to representatives of other teams, he constantly is told, “almost everyone is in the same position.” In other words, begin the process with fixing what you have, which Dombrowski has done by putting pitching development guru Brian Bannister in uniform before games to work with Carl Willis and assistant pitching coach Dana Levangie offering a new set of eyes and thoughts on straightening out a staff that has had three reliable starters and, likely related, a frustratingly erratic bullpen.

So, in celebration of what has been an eventful first half and the opening of the gates towards October, here some observations:

The overture to the Trading Deadline could well be the signing of Yulieski Gourriel. The Giants last Monday held what is probably the last team workout, and it appears they are very much in the mix with the Dodgers, Mets, Yankees, Astros and Padres, in no order. Gourriel may be 31, but after giving up hope of getting to the U.S. and becoming bored in the his homeland, he is in phenomenal shape, very much like he was when he and Ichiro Suzuki stole the show in the first World Baseball Classic. Gourriel, son of a former Cuban star and child of government officials, is well-educated, in some ways lordly, and after watching him in Dominican workouts, one personnel director said, “there is very little he cannot do.”

Lourdes Gurriel

Gourriel’s workouts showed him off at third and second base and left field, and he has made it clear he will play anywhere, so important today in the era of 12-13 man pitching staffs and and empty benches.

I would not discount the Astros, but while his representatives would like to expedite the process and get him into the cultural conversion process quickly, it could be days, it could be weeks, but it could have a major impact on the pennant races. I get little enthusiasm from Yankee people, but only because of hesitancy from the business side of the building.

Consider the depth Gourriel would give San Fransisco. Or the Dodgers. It’s going to be expensive, but it will not cost a contender prospects, and teams have values attached to draft choices and, even more so, prospects that surprise many.

If you’re the Giants, signing Gourriel means you don’t have to deal Tyler Beede for Yunel Escobar, who hasn’t played the outfield. If you’re the Astros, you can begin working Alex Bregman in left field.

Boston opted to focus on pitching and trade for Aaron Hill. This isn’t simply a condemnation of the Rusney Castillo signing, but rather a realization that they need starters, relievers as well as some sort of Jiffy Lube rehabilitation of what they have. After injuries, especially concussions, Hill has bounced back with the Brewers, at the Diamonbacks expense. He has hit .333 with a .376 OBP since June 12, he can play third, second and first, and he is a high team person who was originally signed by Boston scout Jaymie Bane and admired in Toronto by John Farrell and Brian Butterfield.

Hill has an .839 OPS at Fenway, and if you look at Daren Wilman’s heat charts, you’ll see the comps to Mike Lowell at Fenway.

Daren Wilman Spray

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Dombrowski has had a phalanx of scouts looking at Jake Odorizzi, Rich Hill, Julio Teheran, Drew Pomeranz, Jeremy Hellickson, et al, as well as studying his own organization to decide the long-term viability of developing athletes like outfielder Henry Ramos. But Aaron Hill had been a focus for a month, giving them a platoon for Travis Shaw against lefties, if needed, or a third baseman with Shaw at first should Hanley Ramirez or David Ortiz be sidelined for a week or more in the last three months.

(Part 2)

David Shoenfeld of ESPN.com had an interesting piece this week about how batters have adjusted to 94+ MPH fastballs. Batting average, home run percentages… Then, Wednesday night, Freddy Galvis hit a game-winning homer off a 98 MPH fastball from Arodys Vizcaino after Vizcaino, as is so often the case, fell behind.

In contrast, on May 21, Matt Shoemaker  threw a strong seven innings against the Orioles in which he threw 19 fastballs, 9 sinkers, 23 sliders and 44 splits. This week, Jered Weaver won, topping out at 84 MPH. Thursday, the Pirates marveled by the mixture and variety of pitchers Adam Wainwright used in beating them.

Last August, when Rich Hill had decided to throw overhand while working out with his former American Legion team and hooked on with Pawtucket, Red Sox Director of Pitching Development Brian Bannister convinced him to throw as many curveballs as he wished. Bannister pointed to Clayton Kershaw (who in June threw 47.73% 4-seamers, 37.28% sliders and 14.99% curveballs). Less than a year later, Hill has a 2.25 ERA, may be the best pitcher on the trade market, and this month has thrown 47.28% 4-seamers, 45.65% curveballs and 7% changeups and sliders.

In a developmental world controlled by showcase baseball, where pitching is velocity, hitting thus must catch up to velocity, to where winning and losing are irrelevant, and young players hit velocity. “There is no such thing as hitters’ counts in today’s game,” says David Price, whose repertoire has been close to a 50-50 split between 2 and 4 seam fastballs on the one hand, changeups, cutters and curveballs on the other. “It’s common to see first pitch changeups, or 2-and-0 changeups or breaking balls. Pitching has had to evolved.”

According to Baseball Savant, Weaver throws 27.33% fastballs. Joe Blanton throws 29.97% after reinventing himself. Andrew Miller is 39.46% because of his great slider. Delin Betances 40.9%, Felix Hernandez 41.58 %, Lanmce McCullers 41.85% because of his curveball, Hill 46.96.

So, why do teams insist on building bullpens on velocity, one inning at a time, with restrictions on starters facing lineups a third time?

Dave Roberts cites Joe Blanton—who throws 29.97 % fastballs—as a savoir to their pen. “He can pitch in situations, he can give us length,” says Roberts.

Relievers who can pitch multiple innings and use three and four pitch mixes are invaluable. The Cubs have used those role pitchers brilliantly, with Travis Wood and Adam, for example. “You see some of these teams roll out five or six relievers a night throwing as hard as they can, warming up to the whim to the analytics upstairs, and you know why the injury rate is so high,” says one AL GM. “We should be better with different styles from the sixth through the ninth.” Or, as Houston does it,  go Ken Giles to Will Harris at the end.

If you’re the Blue Jays, Yankees, Orioles or Red Sox, how important is makeup when trading for a pitching. Anyone they acquire has to deal with 81 home games in a hitters’ park with another 27-30 games in the other three Big Offense parks. Hence the Julio Teheran issue. He has made starts in Toronto, Baltimore and Boston with an ERA over 9. “His stuff has backed up a rotation in a pitchers’ division,” says one NL GM. “For what they’re going to want, the price for a back-end starter that in two years may have regressed, is a huge gamble.”

With David Ortiz on a 60-something double pace, we once again appreciate what Bill James emphasized in the 1980’s—Fenway is s doubles park, not a home run park. Going into the weekend, the Red Sox had 138 doubles at Fenway; the only other team with more than 100 home doubles was Colorado. There have been more than 100 more doubles hit at Fenway over the last 20 years than any other park.

They have 49 homers at Fenway, 17th among home run homer totals. According to ESPN’s Ballpark Factors, Fenway is 20th as a home run park.

What is happening to the New York Mets pitching is reminiscent of 1987. In 1986, the world series champions got 147 starts out of Doc Gooden, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Bobby Ojeda and Rick Aguilera. In 1987, with injuries and other incidents, they got 108.

The Red Sox will make their push to try to sign Jason Groome over the weekend, towards the July 14 deadline. Groome wants to play. He grew up a Red Sox fan, as he told the Yankee scouts when they went to his house. The issue isn’t makeup; Boston scout Ray Fagnant, who managed him on two travel squad teams, loves him. Because of the way the pools are set, the Padres were able to assure his agent that if he could manipulate Groome all the way to their pick at 24, they’d pay him $6M, putting the agent in an uncomfortable position. It comes down to going to Chipotle JC and hoping for the $6M next June, or something less without the risk of getting hurt.

I know of one pitcher that was told that if he lied and said he had a $3M offer and could get deep into the second round, the club would give him $1.5M. The player would not lie, and, anyway, got $1.6M.

If one believes that the most important element in leadership is authenticity and appreciates the Marines’ credo about leadership that states “generals eat last,” I still believe that Brian Butterfield can be a very successful major league manager.

I love the Futures Game, and I have the greatest of respect for John Manuel, Jim Callis, Keith Law and Jonathan Mayo. I appreciate the hard work they do in putting together prospect ratings lists. But If I hear an executive or a voice say “such and such is the x best prospect in an organization,” I think, “the Indians have the best rotation in baseball and Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber and Josh Tomlin were never on any top 100 prospect list.

Sandy Leon was 26 when Ben Cherington acquired him out of the Washington organization last year when Christian Vazquez required Tommy John Surgery. His three years with the Nats produced .189/280/.283/.533 with one homer. He played in 41 games with the Red Sox last season with no homers and a .184/.238/.439 line.

Now, he has played 16 games with a .477/.531/.727 line, eight doubles and a homer.

“Twenty-seven is not old for a catcher to find it, because of the receiving, the relationships with pitchers, and still learning to hit,” says John Farrell. Francisco Cervelli didn’t catch 100 games until he was 28. Yan Gomes came late.

“Leon could always catch and throw,” says Chili Davis. “Then he went to winter ball (in Venezuela) and caught every game for two years. He’d always hit out of a crouch, which took away from his strength. This spring, he tried being more upright at the plate and his power took off. Left-handed, he can really use Fenway.”

Matt Wieters says he went through periods of struggles, adjustments and self-doubt last season coming off Tommy John Surgery. Going back to Pawtucket and getting repeated at-bats can only help Vazquez.