A close look at the pitcher-turned-writer's third (and best) book.
Bigger Than The Game (Citadel, 320 pp.), is Dirk Hayhurst’s third book. (Wild Pitches, a compendium of outtakes and reprints, is not quite a fourth.) It is easily his best. Bigger Than The Game has far more depth and grip than his first two books, The Bullpen Gospels and Out of My League, which are entertaining but sometimes shaggy rambles despite occasionally serious content. Now that Hayhurst has taken off his baseball glove, he has also taken off his gloves as a writer, perhaps because his retirement from playing has liberated him from the need to protect his employment status. He hits the truth harder, and with more impact. Perhaps the greatest respect you can pay to Bigger Than The Game is to say that it is a very good baseball book even though it contains very little baseball. The majority of it takes place where Hayhurst has always been most at home: in his mind, not on the mound.
Triple-A impressions of Jonathan Schoop, Nick Castellanos, and Hak-Ju Lee.
Jonathan Schoop, Orioles
Schoop looks too big to be a shortstop, and that’s true even though he’s not as big as the big shortstops of yore like Cal Ripken. This may be because Schoop isn’t rangy. He’s a burly 6-foot-2, 210 (according to his Norfolk Tides roster entry), and he looks even bigger—like a third baseman. Schoop’s play at shortstop, at least what I’ve seen so far, has confirmed the widely held opinion that he belongs at the hot corner (switching places in the majors, perhaps, with Manny Machado). He has a very strong arm that will play at third. His footwork and general craft at shortstop aren’t convincing—not yet, anyway. It’s important to remember that Schoop is only 21 years old, the second-youngest player in the International League, and he’s playing one of the most demanding positions on the field.
On April 12 at Durham, he ranged up the middle for a grounder but didn’t quite have the fluidity to hang onto the ball; it went off his glove for a single. Not long after that play, he didn’t use his feet to go back on a soft liner over his head, and as a result couldn’t attempt a leaping catch of it—another single. In game one of a doubleheader on April 20, with a runner on first, he fielded a Rich Thompson grounder as he moved toward second base and tried to start an unassisted double play. But his footwork was a bit awkward; he got a little twisted approaching the second base bag as Tim Beckham bore down on him, and then he threw the ball way over his first baseman’s head and into the stands, advancing Thompson to second.
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Detailed takes on Jake Odorizzi, Ernesto Mejia, and Jared Mitchell.
This is the first installment in a regular series of detailed player evaluations from Triple-A (east of the Mississippi).
Jake Odorizzi, Rays. It’s easy to misperceive Odorizzi as a second-tier prospect, and not only because he is overshadowed by Wil Myers, the big cookie in the prize package the Rays received from Kansas City for James Shields. It’s also easy to short Odorizzi because he isn’t a power arm. He essentially takes the Tampa Bay system baton from Alex Cobb, who got it from Jeremy Hellickson. All three of these pitchers work most comfortably around 90 mph and rely on location and variation; all are soft-spoken (two are Midwesterners); and all are fiercer competitors than they might seem at first.
Jackson, though, while not an obvious candidate, is at least a defensible choice by one important advanced metric. He finished tied for 10th in BWARP last year at 5.8. Yet although 12 of the top 16 players in BWARP from 2012 appear on BP’s 2013 pre-season MVP ballot this year, Jackson is not among them. Perhaps this has to do with PECOTA, which projects his WARP to fall to 2.7 WARP, making him less than half as valuable, overall, as he was last year. He is also projected for a big drop in TAv—over 40 points’ worth. But since PECOTA makes a strong case against A-Jax for 2013, let’s make the MVP case for one of the most valuable players in baseball last year. The ultimate goal here, though, is to consider the complexities of predicting.
Which players from this year's crop of AL spring training invitees could catch on?
In this second, American League installment of the two-part notable minor-league free agent signee series (the National League is here), the discoveries were less player-specific: for numerous teams, it was hard to make a strong case for a single candidate. Instead, two other revelations: First, you have to act fast on these marginal players, because they can be gone for good before the season even starts. One candidate from the National League article two weeks ago, injury comeback returnee Kelvim Escobar, has already been released by the Brewers, due to yet another injury. Many other players, especially former major-leaguers, have opt-out clauses that activate on March 26. As a result, some of the considerations below are more theoretical than actually predictive.
Secondly, this exercise has manufactured an opposition of sorts to a position I’ve been espousing for a while about replacement-level talent. Scanning the fringe ranks for overlooked gems, or comparing projected major-league rosters to projected Triple-A rosters, you discover that there really are very few players in the lower level who seem like they’d actually be better than the guys ahead of them on the depth chart (would you really rather have Brian Bixler than Justin Turner?). And the difference is often significant.
Which members of this year's crop of spring training invitees could catch on and make an impact in the majors?
It’s that time of year: Grapefruit and Cactus. (I feel a margarita-like cocktail coming on.) It’s the one time of the season when ballplayers wear jersey numbers like 75. When millionaires of otherwise upright goodwill and equanimity secretly hope for other millionaires to get hurt. When major-league camp invitations go out to players like the legendary Craig Albernaz, who has played in parts of the last six seasons for the Rays’ Double-A affiliate and has a career OPS of .545—somebody has to catch all those pitchers. When former big-league regulars, now on minor-league deals and looking around at all the prospects who play the same position, start counting the days until the opt-out clauses in their contracts arrive.
In other words, it’s time to sift through those minor-league free agent signees and find the one in each organization likeliest to make an impact in the majors this season.
What determines whether borderline big leaguers languish in Triple-A obscurity or play a part on a major-league team's 25-man?
As I send the mic out the park like Reggie Jackson You be the minor leaguer who sees no action —A Tribe Called Quest, “Get A Hold”
My next two columns are going to identify minor-league free agent signees, one from each major-league organization, who stand a good chance of helping their big-league clubs this season. (See today’s Lineup Card for others’ NRI picks.) Most of these players have been in the majors before, and you’ll probably recognize many if not all of the names.
An exegesis of Cage Rat, the Yankee hitting coach's treatise on being handy with a bat.
A ballplayer I know told me recently that Kevin Long’s Cage Rat(Ecco, 2011, 198 pp.) was a great book, so I went and got it from the library. I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that, whatever the reasons why the ballplayer called it a great book, they have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. By “great,” it’s necessary to keep in mind that what’s meant isn’t really Ulysses-great; people throw the word “great” around to mean things like enjoyable, not a waste of time, even serviceable. The word is a tool to denote general positivity.
Cage Rat is made of strictly functional, ugly prose—it’s often barely functional at all, in fact—rendered by as-told-to specialist Glen Waggoner in self-consciously vernacular style. Or maybe “vernacular”: it often sounds stilted, like a writer trying to sound like how he thinks someone like Long talks. That sections of it may in fact be transcriptions of actual Long speech is immaterial. It’s all clichés and received ideas cut into ribbons and reassembled. It’s probably exactly what all parties involved wanted.
Across the nation every sports bar turns the pregame on And every regular is sneering like we don’t belong No it’s not true I played a lot of baseball in my younger days One day the diamonds were all gone. --Game Theory,“You Drive” (1987)
Compulsive formalists can't fabricate meaning--by which I mean nothing deeper than extrinsic interest--without a frame. --Robert Christgau, from a review of XTC’s Oranges & Lemons (1989)
And the best stories begin with more modest tools.
At the Trade Show during the Winter Meetings in Nashville, I was talking to a well-known baseball talent evaluator who writes for another publication. I can’t quite remember the exact subject of the conversation. We may have been talking about some college players he was high on. We may have been talking about Joe Dillon, who was standing a few feet away from us behind the D-Bat table (he’s now part of that company). Dillon was a classic career toiler, amassing over 4,000 minor-league plate appearances, scraping together a couple hundred big-league at-bats over four seasons, doing a stint in Japan, and losing an entire season—the one that would probably have given him his best chance at establishing himself in the majors—to injury (he officially retired). Only will and determination got him back in the game and another decade in uniform.
With Dillon and all he represents lurking behind us, the general subject of prospects—which was certainly the matter at hand, since that is always the only and ultimate topic of conversation when you’re talking with a talent evaluator—took on a somewhat fraught condition. The talk had probably moved into Guys Who Make The Most Out Of Their Limited Abilities, or perhaps into The Mental Aspect Of The Game and how that is as important as physical tools, or maybe it was more specifically about a particular player who could, would, or did manage to succeed despite a limited apparent ceiling. What I do recall, very distinctly, was the shot this evaluator fired across the bow. Actually, it was more like a smart bomb, a way to end the conversation right then and there with a strongly-worded salvo.
A mix of weird and mundane at the Winter Meetings, from bats to Harold Baines to ball-washers.
In the spirit of the Winter Meetings Trade Show, which took place in a huge room right below the media workroom in the Gaylord Opryland, here is some quantity over quality, a partial list of things for sale or rent or perusal:
Foul pole banners, fence mesh, outfield signage, “oversized backlits”: things you don’t see but which are performing vital functions both promotional and utilitarian. What you come away with is the suddenly strong sense that much of the baseball experience is dictated by objects and phenomena that you don’t even notice.
Numbers play a big part in determining who's a Hall of Famer, but timing, contemporaries, and other historical accidents also make their impact felt.
The circus inside the circus known as the 2012 Winter Meetings—both of which took place inside another circus, the Gaylord Opryland—was the Trade Show, where you can buy everything from umbrellas to stirrups, stadiums to soft pretzels, mascots to misters (as in, things that spray mist) to Musco lighting.
I’ll be back next week with a deeper rundown of the emporium, but it was two things not for sale at the Trade Show—well, not quite for sale, anyway—that distracted me from the Dippin’ Dots and Mini Melts while the panel formerly known as the Veterans Committee (now called the “Pre-Integration Era Committee”) announced its honorees in the same building.