Framing catcher quality, count on offense

March, 28, 2015
Mar 28


A lot of apologies are made for catchers, and it’s easy to understand why. Whether it’s the busted-up knuckles or the beating their knees take from a career spent crouching half the time, the physical demands of the job inspire automatic sympathy. Finding guys who can withstand that and contribute on offense doesn’t sound easy, and historically it hasn’t been. Whether you want to talk about all-time historically inoffensive players like the dead ball era’s Bill Bergen (career OPS+ of 21) or more recent catch-and-throw heroes like Jose Molina (64) and Jeff Mathis (52), we accept that there are guys whose careers depend on their catching skills and little else. And now, thanks to catcher framing statistics, we’re better prepared than ever before to value those contributions fairly.

So if I told you we’re seeing catchers contributing more on offense in recent years than we have at any point in the past 20, you might be understandably surprised. But if you look at where catcher performance at the plate is relative to the rest of baseball, that’s where we find ourselves today. Taken from, tOPS+ is just a comparison of how someone or a bunch of someones do compared to the league average, where 100 is average. So, looking at their collective performance season by season, in recent years catchers have been closer to big league average as hitters than at any other time in the past two decades:

Catcher performancewww.Baseball-Reference.comCatcher performance relative to MLB average, 1995-2014

Get into naming names, and you can understand why we have a better hitting crew of catchers today. The National League has its incomparable trio of Buster Posey, Yadier Molina and Jonathan Lucroy, the best three catchers in the game today, all of them outstanding offensive players with OPS marks north of .800 across the past four years, and all of them understandably parked atop our position rankings in BBTN 100. Molina has been the Cards’ regular for a decade, and will be for at least the next four years he’s under contract; I’m not going to have a problem calling him a Hall of Famer come the day we get to look back at his career … and he isn’t Posey. Four years as a regular, and the Giants’ backstop has a Rookie of the Year trophy, an MVP and three rings. Who’s that calling, Johnny Bench? Bill Dickey? Either way, that guy wants his cachet as the championship-caliber catcher back. So you can imagine how Lucroy feels as third wheel in this contest, a dominant player and MVP candidate in his own right.

If not for those three guys up front, the NL’s B-list of backstops is replete with guys you want to play. Devin Mesoraco with the Reds came into his own last year, banging out an .893 OPS and 25 homers, and he’s headed into his age-27 season. Wilson Ramos makes for an interesting pick at No. 10, a guy who has lost big chunks of the past three years to injuries, but with a career .749 OPS, he’s primed for a big year in his age-27 season if he can stay healthy. And that’s without naming Derek Norris with the Padres (just 26, .727 OPS career); Yasmani Grandal with the Dodgers (projected for a .760 OPS via ZiPS); and Travis d’Arnaud of the Mets, who is expected by many to break out big in 2015 after last year’s second-half .787 OPS.

The American League might have nothing to compare to the NL’s top trio, but it still features a strong catching cadre. Russell Martin joins the Blue Jays as another one of the few 30-somethings on the BBTN Top 10 list, sure to provide OBP as well as defense, and fellow graybeard Brian McCann’s 87 home runs across the past four years leads all catchers. But players like Matt Wieters, Yan Gomes, Salvador Perez and Jason Castro of the Astros are all parked in the prime of their careers, producing at the plate as well as behind it.

Admittedly, the less happy way to think about the chart above is that catchers as a whole, already a crew populated by specialists, perhaps didn’t have as far to fall in the first place. With MLB-wide offense dropping from the .782 OPS in 2000 that was highest in the past 20 years to the .700 OPS that was league average last year, the floor for performance is now closer for everybody. Since catcher as a position has always been among the worst-hitting positions, this could be interpreted as everyone falling toward the offensive basement catchers have always been in. If that’s where you’re at, I’m guessing you’re a cup-half-empty type.

On the half-full side of things, I’d argue that we keep league-relative performance in mind while acknowledging today’s current crop of good-hitting backstops in their prime or just entering it. My exercise in name-checking gave us 14 guys that you -- or your team -- would be pretty excited about having around, and that’s without getting into the Cubs’ trio of quality catchers, or the Pirates’, or the A’s probable platoon, or Mike Zunino’s power, and so much more. So even in today’s bigger big leagues with 30 teams, somebody’s obviously doing something right on the player development side of things if we have that much talent to talk about behind the plate.

And with all that catching talent, it’s worth noting the other thing that you don’t see all that much of these days: the guy who’s hanging around as a regular catcher because he can catch, beyond the point when his bat has had it. Take a wonderful catcher from the past like Tony Pena: a great regular with the Pirates from 1982-86, his bat quickly started slowing down in his 30s. By the time he put in his four years as the Red Sox’s regular receiver (his age-33 to age-36 seasons), he hit a combined .234/.290/.313 with an OPS+ of 64. His bat had already died its natural death, but because he could catch, Pena’s career lasted another four years beyond that as a reserve. In contrast, as much as the Rays loved and had a handle on Jose Molina’s value as a receiver, they didn’t mistake him for an every-day player. These days the only truly “old” regular catcher is 36-year-old Carlos Ruiz of the Phillies, and he’s still an asset behind the plate -- and he’s still hitting.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.

A quick update on the Opening Day starters who have been announced ... because how Opening Day goes, the season goes.

Sunday, April 5
Cardinals at Cubs: Undecided vs. Jon Lester
Adam Wainwright hasn't officially been named the St. Louis starter, but Jennifer Langosch of wrote Thursday that "there's no reason to believe the club is leaning in any other direction."

Monday, April 6
Blue Jays at Yankees: Undecided vs. Masahiro Tanaka
CC Sabathia had started the past six Opening Days for the Yankees and had nine straight going back to his Indians days.

Twins at Tigers: Phil Hughes vs. David Price
It's a little surprising that Price got the nod over Justin Verlander, but Price certainly had the better season in 2014.

Rockies at Brewers: Kyle Kendrick vs. Kyle Lohse
There were 12 major-leaguers last year named "Kyle." The first "Kyle" didn't reach the majors until 1991.

Red Sox at Phillies: Undecided vs. Undecided
Probably Clay Buchholz against Cole Hamels.

Orioles at Rays: Undecided vs. Chris Archer
Archer gets the start over the injured Alex Cobb. Chris Tillman should get his second Opening Day assignment for the Orioles.

Mets at Nationals: Bartolo Colon vs. Max Scherzer
The rotation appears to line up with Jacob DeGrom starting the home opener on April 13, with Matt Harvey pitching the next night -- Sandy Alderson basically admitted having Harvey pitch the second game at home would guarantee a second big night of attendance. Your 2015 New York Mets!

White Sox at Royals: Jeff Samardzija vs. Yordano Ventura
After serving up four home runs to the Cubs on Friday, Samardzija has now allowed eight this spring. Yes, it's spring training. Still ...

Pirates at Reds: Francisco Liriano vs. Johnny Cueto
Cueto went 5-0 with a 1.76 ERA against the Pirates last season.

Padres at Dodgers: Undecided vs. Clayton Kershaw
James Shields likely gets the ball for San Diego, although Andrew Cashner started last year. Either one sounds better than Edinson Volquez, Tim Stauffer or Jon Garland.

Braves at Marlins: Julio Teheran vs. Undecided
Jarred Cosart is betting on Henderson Alvarez. What, too soon?

Angels at Mariners: Undecided vs. Felix Hernandez
With Garrett Richards out, Jered Weaver likely makes his sixth straight Opening Day start.

Indians at Astros: Corey Kluber vs. Dallas Keuchel
Expect some K's in this one. (Sorry.)

Giants at Diamondbacks: Madison Bumgarner vs. Josh Collmenter
Collmenter was born in Homer, Michigan, and is kind of an underrated pitcher with that funky, over-the-top delivery.

Rangers at A's: Yovani Gallardo vs. Sonny Gray
Gallardo started the last five openers for the Brewers and now starts with Yu Darvish and Derek Holland both unavailable.

MESA, Ariz. -- A spring training ritual for managers and the local beat writers is the morning scrum. Lloyd McClendon of the Seattle Mariners meets at 8 a.m. every morning in his office. Bud Black of the San Diego Padres gathers in the shade outside the team clubhouse, with a Padres logo behind him for video purposes. Mike Scioscia meets on the field.

The managers deliver the basics like injury updates, roster cutdowns or other news. The reporters ask some questions. Sometimes they get good answers, sometimes they don't. Some of the managers try to reveal as little as possible.

[+] EnlargeJoe Maddon
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsJoe Maddon didn't get a lot of exposure to the NL Central during his nine seasons managing the Rays.

Then there's Chicago Cubs skipper Joe Maddon. I'm guessing being a Cubs beat guy in 2015 will be a lot more fun. Maddon provides good material.

Friday morning, he was talking with the media about playing in the NL Central, a division he rarely faced when managing the Rays, who made regular postseason appearances when the AL East was regarded as the best division in the majors. "I think our young guys got better, faster," he said of the Rays' breakthrough season in 2008 and facing the Red Sox and Yankees. The Cubs, like that Tampa Bay team, are a club with young talent. "I want the NL Central to be considered the best division in baseball," Maddon said.

In the spring of 2008, the Rays got into a memorable fracas with the Yankees. Reminded of that incident, Maddon enjoyed telling the story of Elliot Johnson's violet collision at home plate with Francisco Cervelli, a collision that broke Cervelli's wrist. "We're friends now," Maddon said of Cervelli, "and I felt bad for him at the time, but sometimes all this stuff is necessary." The Rays had another episode in early June that year involving Jason Bartlett and the Red Sox and a takeout slide at second base, which led to James Shields plunking Coco Crisp and setting off a brawl.

The point: The Rays, who had never had a winning season at that point in their history, weren't going to back down. Maddon may drink his wine and study the analytics, but his teams play with a certain fire. Expect the same from the Cubs. "Leadership isn't given," he says. "You have to take it."

Asked about some of the other roster decisions he'll face -- aside from the Kris Bryant controversy -- Maddon admitted "I need to listen to other people who've seen these guys a lot more." He hinted that's a tough change for him after managing the Rays for so many years. "I think I'm a pretty good listener. But it will be a lot more listening than normal."

Trick question: How many times has Miguel Cabrera been the best first baseman in the majors in the past three seasons?

The answer: Zero.

[+] EnlargePaul Goldschmidt
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesAlthough not the hitter Miguel Cabrera is, the younger Paul Goldschmidt is arguably the game's most complete first baseman.

Cabrera, of course, played third base in 2012 and 2013, when he won American League MVP honors. Moved to first base last season after the trade of Prince Fielder, his power numbers fell as he battled injuries and hit just 25 home runs after hitting 44 each of the previous two seasons. And while he still had a superb year, it was a clear dip from those monster MVP seasons.

Cabrera ranks first among first basemen in ESPN's position rankings, but is he a clear-cut No. 1? He turns 32 a few days into the season and is coming off offseason surgery to remove bone spurs in his right ankle and repair a stress fracture. While surgery might alleviate the pain he played through last year, it's still surgery and he's still a guy starting to creep into that "watch his age" category. Plus, there are some good first basemen in the league. Our top 10:

1. Cabrera, Detroit Tigers
2. Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks
3. Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox
4. Anthony Rizzo, Chicago Cubs
5. Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves
6. Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto Blue Jays
7. Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds
8. Adrian Gonzalez, Los Angeles Dodgers
9. Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels
10. Fielder, Texas Rangers

Here are the top 10 first-base seasons since 2012, using Baseball-Reference WAR:

1. Goldschmidt, 2013: 7.3
2. Votto, 2013: 6.4
3. Chris Davis, 2013: 6.1
4. Votto, 2012: 5.9
5. Abreu, 2014: 5.4
6. Freeman, 2013: 5.4
7. Rizzo, 2014: 5.1
8. Cabrera, 2014: 4.9
9. Pujols, 2012: 4.8
10. Fielder, 2012: 4.7

I don't think it's obvious Cabrera should be No. 1. Goldschmidt was having another excellent season until he was hit by a pitch in early August and broke his hand. His numbers were on pace to match his 2013 season's, when he led the National League in home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage and won a Gold Glove. Maybe he's not quite the hitter Cabrera was in 2012-13, but he has distinct advantages over Cabrera in the field and on the bases. Cabrera's 2012-13 seasons were valued at 7.2 and 7.5 WAR, so Goldschmidt's 2013 compares favorably.

Abreu's .317/.383/.581 line with 36 home runs would fit in nicely in Cabrera's career, and maybe he'll get even better as he grows more comfortable in the States. Rizzo is the young guy I love, just 25 years old and coming off a 32-homer season with a .286/.386/.527 line. Maybe Votto bounces back after playing just 62 games last year.

Cabrera is pretty special, certainly the game's best hitter in those MVP seasons. Assuming good health, he should age just fine, although none of the projection systems see him hitting 40 home runs or slugging .600. But great players can age better than computers foresee. Mike Schmidt had his best offensive season at age 31 but also led the NL in adjusted OPS at age 32, 33, 34 and 36. Hank Aaron's OPS+ in his 20s was 158; in his 30s, it was 161. George Brett hit 30 home runs for the first time at age 32 and won a batting title at 37. Barry Bonds … well, let's skip him.

Those are isolated examples, of course. If there's a notable difference, those guys were better athletes than Cabrera: leaner, faster, better defenders. You can argue their superior athleticism helped them to age so well. Will Cabrera's body hold together? Or will the breakdowns he suffered at the end of 2013 and during 2014 be ongoing issues the rest of his career that will affect his performance? That, we don't know.

I do think Cabrera should continue to be one of the game's best hitters in 2015, maybe the best, but if you'd ask me which first baseman I want in 2015, I think I'd go with Goldschmidt's total package of offense, defense, baserunning and age. That's not a knock on a future Hall of Famer; that's the value of Goldschmidt's entire game.

And don't sleep on Rizzo.


Think about this: If Brady Aiken had been Cuban, he would have gotten, what, a $50 million bonus? $60 million? More? Some team likely would have given him that.

Instead, constrained to the draft, Aiken could instead negotiate with just one team: the Houston Astros. They selected the talented left-hander first overall last June. When the Astros expressed concern over an MRI on Aiken's elbow and decreased their offer to Aiken, negotiations broke down and Aiken went unsigned. But the draft rules don't allow him to become a free agent or sign with another team. He was stuck. So he enrolled in the IMG Academy to prepare for the 2015 draft but left his first start after 12 pitches. Now this:

You feel bad for the kid. Still, despite the surgery, there's a good chance Aiken goes in the first round of the draft, maybe even in the top 10. Last year, the Blue Jays selected Jeff Hoffman ninth overall even though he had Tommy John surgery late in his season at East Carolina. Before the injury, Hoffman had been a potential first overall selection.

The Blue Jays had the benefit of owning two first-round picks, the ninth and 11th, after not signing their first-round pick the year before. Only the Astros -- because they didn't sign Aiken -- have two picks in the first round this year. They select second and fifth. Don't think we'll see Houston going down that road again. Two teams you could see gambling on Aiken include the Red Sox (selecting seventh) and the Cubs (picking ninth).

The Astros got vilified last summer after the breakdown, a situation that also resulted in the club's failure to sign another pick whose agreed-to bonus was tied to Aiken signing for a lesser amount. Everyone loves to love the player and bash management, but at this point it seems fair to say the Astros' concern over Aiken's health was justified. In the end they either had to sign him, knowing his elbow might be a health risk, or make a lowball offer that if rejected still resulted in the Astros getting the second pick in 2015. Their choice doesn't look like a wrong one now.

Yes, Aiken reportedly still turned down $5 million in the end. Hoffman signed last year for $3.08 million, so Aiken probably can expect something similar if he goes in the same range. And, of course, if he develops into a successful big league pitcher, he'll eventually make more millions.

Today, maybe both Aiken and the Astros look like they drew a short straw. But there's a good chance both end up winners in the long run.

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Taking in the battle for Ohio, where the Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds share Goodyear Stadium, a park located somewhere between Phoenix and Los Angeles. Maybe this was a World Series preview. Or maybe it wasn't. Some thoughts ...

1. Danny Salazar: Still electric, still enigmatic

[+] EnlargeDanny Salazar
Frank Victores/USA TODAY SportsThe Indians' Danny Salazar has yet to learn to battle when he doesn't have his best stuff.

I think I had Salazar on my list of potential breakout candidates, and that's still possible, but he grooves too many pitches and doesn't make good pitches when he has to. In the first inning, Todd Frazier whipped a 2-1 fastball on a screaming line to the hill behind the left-field bullpens. In the second inning, Salazar fell behind 3-0 to Devin Mesoraco, then got two swinging strikes, and then Mesoraco hit one out to left-center. Later in the frame, Billy Hamilton jumped on the first pitch and lined an RBI double to right field. On the next pitch, Joey Votto lined a two-run single. It just seemed like a complete lack of focus.

After the game, Salazar said he struggled with his release point, which led to too many fastballs down the middle. Major leaguers hit fastballs down the middle, even ones that are 95 mph. Salazar acts like he can throw it by everyone, and he often does but also often doesn't. He also hit two batters, threw several sliders in the dirt, including at least one that bounced in front of the plate, and slumped off the mound after each half-inning. Yan Gomes constantly tried to offer encouragement with pats on the chest and the like, but Salazar left the game after allowing seven runs in 3.1 innings. The bottom line: Good pitchers figure out a way to survive when they don't have their best stuff. Salazar has to figure out how to do that. Until he gains more consistency, especially with his slider (batters slugged .600 against it the past season), he might continue to put up a reverse platoon split and be forced too often to rely on his fastball.

2. Billy Hamilton: Impact player?

He hasn't done a whole lot this spring, hitting .207 after going 2-for-4 on Thursday, but we're talking about 29 at-bats -- a sample size that doesn't tell us anything. He struck out twice against the Indians but had just one strikeout entering the game. Besides the hard-hit double, he made a fantastic, diving catch on Lonnie Chisenhall's liner in the second and showcased the defense that earned high grades the past season. Anyway, what to expect in the regular season? The Reds have talked about keeping Hamilton stronger after he wore down in the second half last year, so I assume we'll see a few more off-days. I do think there's more potential in the bat than the .250/.292/.355 line he put up last year. I don't think he'll be a lot better, but I think he'll be better.

3. Cincinnati lineup might be OK

If Hamilton can do a better job getting on base, this lineup could surprise:

CF Hamilton
1B Joey Votto
3B Todd Frazier
2B Brandon Phillips
RF Jay Bruce
C Devin Mesoraco
LF Marlon Byrd
SS Zack Cozart

Votto has one bad, injury-plagued year, and it's like we forgot that from 2009 to 2013, he hit .300 with an OBP over .400 every season and led the NL in on-base percentage four straight years. Bruce played through the bad knee last year and was terrible. Phillips missed time. Byrd is getting up there in age but has been productive. Anyway, everyone seems to be predicting the Reds and Milwaukee Brewers battling for fourth and fifth, and I've seen references calling the Reds awful, but it's not that difficult to paint a positive scenario when you have an ace in Johnny Cueto, maybe the game's best closer in Aroldis Chapman and potentially one of the game's best hitters in Votto.

4. Note: Votto hitting second

[+] EnlargeJoey Votto
Denis Poroy/Getty ImagesIt's as if folks forgot that Joey Votto had the best on-base percentage in the National League for four straight years.

Great move by Bryan Price. Studies show your best hitter should bat second, though no teams do this. Plus, more runners on base for Phillips to drive in!

5. Michael Lorenzen needs more time in minors

Keith Law's No. 4 prospect on the Reds, Lorenzen was a first-round supplemental pick out of Cal State-Fullerton, where he played center field and closed. He's obviously athletic, and the Reds had him start the past season in Double-A, where he allowed 112 hits in 121 innings with 44 walks and 84 strikeouts. He's in the hunt for a long relief role, and I did like how he settled down after giving up several hard-hit balls in the first inning. But he had no strikeouts in three innings and has more walks than K's on the spring -- in line with the past year's mediocre strikeout rate in the minors. He's a nice talent, and the fastball can reportedly get up to 97 mph in relief, but I'd think he goes to Triple-A and continues working as a starter, rather than in the big league bullpen.

6. No Francisco Lindor

The Indians' 21-year-old shortstop -- Keith's No. 6 prospect in the majors -- was sent down to minor league camp Thursday morning, even though he had played well, hit .297 with six extra-base hits and impressed manager Terry Francona. "He had a great camp," Francona told reporters. "I don't just mean his batting average. We enjoy so much seeing guys do well, but the way he conducted himself and the way he played defense and the way he worked."

If he plays well in Triple-A, Lindor should get called up in June or July, though Francona said he'll have to earn his way to the majors. Until then, shortstop is in the capable hands of Jose Ramirez, who hit .262/.300/.362 as a rookie (and is just 22 years old). But expect Lindor to be up by the All-Star break.

7. Michael Bourn's legs

Similar to the case of Hamilton and the Reds, the Indians really need Bourn to set the table from the leadoff spot. He went 2-for-3 Thursday and is hitting .400 this spring. He spent the winter working with gold medal sprinter Leroy Burrell, the head track coach at the University of Houston, to keep his hamstrings healthy this year.

Outfield defense was a big problem with Cleveland last year; the Indians ranked 29th in the majors with -37 Defensive Runs Saved. David Murphy was the biggest culprit at -17 DRS; he was the DH on Thursday, with Brandon Moss in right field. Bourn was -6 runs in center field and Michael Brantley -3 in left. If Bourn's legs go sour again, the Indians would either have to move Brantley to center and play Murphy more in the outfield or consider playing defensive specialist Tyler Holt. Moss is OK at best in right field and is coming off hip surgery. It all adds up to Bourn being a pretty important player, on both sides of the ball.

8. Jason Kipnis, back in action

After playing a minor league game Wednesday, he played his first Cactus League game since March 17. He had a line-drive single in the first and later made a nice, diving stop and assist in the field. Kipnis is another huge key for the Indians. He played through injuries in 2014 and saw his WAR drop from 5.9 to 0.9. An extra three to four wins from him could be the difference between making the postseason and crushing that Sports Illustrated cover jinx.

9. Potential sleeper: Anthony DeSclafani

I'm actually cheating here: He pitched Wednesday night against an admittedly weak Texas Rangers lineup, but he looked good, with six scoreless innings that included nine strikeouts. The Reds got him from the Florida Marlins for Mat Latos, and if you ask me which guy I'd rather have for 2015, the answer is DeSclafani (especially with Latos looking terrible in Florida). There's nothing fancy about DeSclafani, but he throws strikes and will benefit from the good up-the-middle defense of Phillips, Cozart and Hamilton. I think he'll be a solid enough back-end starter.

10. Cactus League inequities

One thing a tour of Arizona shows: the big gap in income equality. While the Chicago Cubs are setting Cactus League attendance records of 15,000-plus per game at their new park in Mesa, the San Francisco Giants pack it in in Scottsdale, despite obscenely high ticket prices, and the Los Angeles Dodgers do well in Glendale, the Reds and Indians drew just 4,183 fans, even though both teams were at their "home" park.

The Indians have a long Cactus League history, going back to the days in Tucson, but the Reds had trained in Florida until Goodyear built its $108 million complex that opened in 2009 to lure in the Indians and Reds. I don't know if that's a factor; the crowd seemed pretty evenly split on this day. Goodyear is located about 20 miles west of downtown Phoenix, a bit of a crawl from the more glamorous destinations of Tempe and Scottsdale, so you're always less likely to pull in the fans who just like to come down to spring training to catch any game (though they should head out here, where they can get seats at much cheaper prices than a Cubs or Giants game). It's a great spring training ballpark, but all the empty seats I see here -- or the empty seats in Maryvale for the Brewers -- just highlight another revenue stream the smaller market teams can't capitalize on.

Oh, the Reds won 13-2. I think. They just turned off the scoreboard.

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Sam Onada is a freelance reporter who provides coverage for NHK Television in Japan. For the past three years, he's essentially been covering Yu Darvish on a full-time basis, filing reports back to Japan, one of 10 or so Japanese media members covering the Texas Rangers' All-Star right-hander.

So when Darvish went down for the season with Tommy John surgery, Onada says he "half-joked" with his bosses that he was probably out of a job. After all, as a freelancer, it would be pretty easy to cut him loose if there's no news to report. Darvish is currently in Arizona after his surgery and will return to Dallas for rehab during the season, but there won't be a lot of reporting to do on that front.

[+] EnlargeYu Darvish
AP Photo/Brandon WadeYu Darvish being out for the season has left several Japanese media members scrambling for assignments.

Luckily for Onada, he lined up another gig: He'll be heading up to Seattle to cover Hisashi Iwakuma.

Onada admits that Darvish is more popular in Japan. "He's more dynamic," he said. "Iwakuma is a good pitcher, but Darvish has more pitches and a better fastball," a combination the fans love. Still, a job is a job.

A couple of the other reporters also will leave the Darvish beat to cover Iwakuma. There were about six or seven Japanese media members on hand for Wednesday's game between the Rangers and Reds. Darvish may be out for the season, but relief pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa, formerly with the Cubs, has a good chance to make the Rangers' roster. He pitched 1.1 scoreless innings on Wednesday and hasn't allowed a run in 4.2 spring innings.

Onada also covered Daisuke Matsuzaka when he first came to Boston. "Dice-K was even bigger than Darvish," Onada said. "He was already a legend because of Koshien," the high school baseball tournament in Japan the entire nation fixates on. In the summer tournament, Matsuzaka threw 148 pitches in one game, threw 250 pitches in 17 innings the next day in the quarterfinals, picked up a save in the semifinals and then threw a no-hitter in the championship.

But there was also huge interest in Darvish, although Onada says there were more reporters covering him his first year with the Rangers.

Ichiro Suzuki often declined to speak with the mass of Japanese media, or would often talk to them with his back turned. Darvish, whom Onada describes as "a very private person," was a little shy initially but began opening up more last season. Still, he wouldn't talk with the media the day before a start -- it had to be two days before.

The Rangers had two Japanese pitchers, Koji Uehara and Yoshinori Tateyama, on their 2011 postseason team. Both pitched in the ALCS but were then left off the World Series roster. (Ron Washington lost confidence in Uehara after he served up three home runs in the first two rounds of the playoffs.) I remember covering that World Series and feeling bad for the large throng of Japanese reporters who now had no story to cover.

Hopefully Iwakuma will prove dynamic enough to give Onada and his cohorts plenty of news so they can keep their jobs.

PEORIA, Ariz. -- I popped in Seattle Mariners camp Thursday morning and after the local beat writers tried unsuccessfully to get manager Lloyd McClendon to commit to naming his fifth starter, I joked with a couple of the writers how we all obsess over who makes the team and who doesn't, who's in the rotation and who isn't and so on.

I wasn't being critical; roster speculation is one of the fun aspects of spring training. We all do it. Mariners fans may not be happy that J.A. Happ is in the rotation while homegrown products Taijuan Walker -- turning heads, by the way, with 18 consecutive scoreless innings -- and Roenis Elias battle for the fifth spot. The truth is, the Mariners will need all six starters at some point, and likely seven or eight or nine. Especially when you factor in that Walker is a young guy you're not going to roll out there for 32 starts and 200 innings.

As Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times pointed out, the last team to go an entire season with just five starters was the 2003 Mariners. The Reds would have done it in 2012, except a rainout forced a doubleheader and the use of a sixth starter for one game. The Giants nearly made it through that season with just five guys as well, using five starters for 160 of their 162 games.

But those are the rare exceptions. Last season, the average team used 10.3 starters. Two teams -- the Orioles and Brewers -- made it through the season with just seven starters. Only the Royals and Nationals had at least five pitchers make at least 25 starts. So even if a guy like Elias gets bumped from the rotation -- or Rafael Montero with the Mets, or Drew Pomeranz with the A's, or T.J. House with the Indians -- they'll likely appear and have to make a significant contribution at some point.

Same with the bullpen. McClendon said he told his relievers -- a group that led the majors in ERA last season -- that closer Fernando Rodney is the "only one etched in stone. Everything else is up for competition." That includes just making the team. The Mariners carried eight relievers for much of 2014 but with the likely platoons in left field (Dustin Ackley/Rickie Weeks) and right field (Seth Smith/Justin Ruggiano) will look to carry seven in 2015. McClendon says he has nine or 10 guys to choose from and while he'd like to carry two left-handers, that's no guarantee either. Again, however: All of those guys will likely appear at some point.

So, yes, spend these final days arguing about those Opening Day rosters. Just don't forget about the guys who get sent down.

Joe CarterAP Photo/The Canadian Press/Hans DerykJoe Carter's shot in 1993 is still the only come-from-behind, World Series-winning walk-off homer.

March 26, 1976 was a big day in Canadian history. Thirty-nine years ago today, the American League awarded an expansion franchise in Toronto to the Labatt Brewing Company and other investors for $7 million. The Toronto Blue Jays -- now owned by Rogers Communications -- were recently valued by Forbes magazine at $870 million.

The story behind how Toronto got a team is an interesting one. In January 1976, San Francisco Giants owner Horace Stoneham -- who had owned his team since 1936, when he inherited it from his father -- agreed to sell the Giants for $13.25 million to a group that included Labatt, which intended to move the franchise to Toronto. The Giants had been struggling for years in San Francisco, averaging just 6,456 fans per game in 1975. Stoneham was 72 years old and wanted out.

The city blocked the sale in court and Stoneham ended up selling to Bob Lurie, who kept the team in San Francisco. And the American League swooped in to claim Toronto, also awarding a new team to Seattle (which had sued the league after losing the Pilots after one season).

So Toronto got a team and the Blue Jays were born. Their seasons were punctuated by a lot of losing, but GM Pat Gillick slowly built up the farm system. By the mid-'80s, the Jays were a consistent playoff threat, capped by back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993. But they haven’t been back to the postseason since and now have the longest playoff drought in the majors.

In honor of the team’s 39th “birthday,” here are my top 10 Blue Jays memories (not necessarily the 10 greatest moments in Blue Jays history, just ones that resonate) …

10. Fights in the Kingdome.

When the Mariners were bad in the '80s, they would draw almost as many Blue Jays fans down from Vancouver as Mariners fans when Toronto was in town. Invariably, there would be a fight in the stands between Canadian Blue Jays fans and Mariners fans, whose team was inevitably losing.

[+] EnlargeJack Brohamer
Boris Spremo/Toronto Star/Getty ImagesThe Blue Jays' first game at Exhibition Stadium was almost a snow-out. But after an 18-minute delay so groundskeepers could vacuum up the snow, Toronto took the field again the White Sox.

9. The first game in Blue Jays history.

If you don’t remember old Exhibition Stadium, that’s probably a good thing. I’m sure many Blue Jays fans remember it with a certain fondness, much as I pretend to remember the Kingdome with fondness. The temperature at game time on Opening Day in 1977 was 32 degrees, and the Blue Jays and White Sox basically played in a snowstorm. Doug Ault hit two home runs to become an instant legend as the Jays beat Chicago 9-5.

8. Jesse Barfield’s arm.

I never saw Roberto Clemente but I did see Barfield.

7. Carlos Delgado’s four-homer game.

Loved watching that guy hit. That four-homer game came in 2003, when he led the AL in RBIs and OPS.

6. Devon White’s catch in the 1992 World Series.

5. That crazy 15-14 game in the 1993 World Series.

4. The final out of the 1992 World Series.

Braves fans still can’t believe that Otis Nixon bunted.

3. Dave Stieb’s no-hitter.

Maybe the most underrated pitcher of the 1980s -- he led the AL in pitching WAR in 1982, ’83 and ’84 -- Stieb had several near no-hitters, including bids in back-to-back starts in 1988 that he lost with two outs in the ninth inning and then a perfect game he lost with two outs in the ninth in 1989. Finally, in 1990, he pitched a no-hitter -- still the only one in Blue Jays history.

2. Joe Carter’s home run, of course.

1. When Blue Jays catcher Buck Martinez broke his leg while making two outs at home plate.

I was there, and it’s the greatest play I’ve ever seen. The video doesn’t quite do the play justice -- after Phil Bradley ran over Martinez, the camera missed his wild throw to third base that George Bell was somehow backing up. Martinez, unable to get up, caught Bell’s throw and tagged out Gorman Thomas, who tried to dance around the tag.

And, yes, this post was mostly the perfect excuse to run that highlight.

Kris Bryant isn't the only Opening Day roster issue that will spark controversy in Chicago. Left-hander Carlos Rodon, the third pick last June out of North Carolina State, turned heads on Wednesday, throwing four scoreless innings with nine strikeouts for the Chicago White Sox in their game against the Royals. Here he is striking out the side in the first, showing off that nasty slider that got him drafted so high.

Rodon falls into the same camp as Bryant: As a rookie with no major league roster time, it's to the White Sox's long-term benefit to have him start the season in the minors to save on his service time. Considering Rodon has just 24 innings in the minors, sending him down to Triple-A for a few starts is certainly defensible, no matter his performance on Wednesday. Even if their current fifth starter is ... ahem, Hector Noesi.

Anyway, Twitter got all happy over his performance ...


PEORIA, Ariz. -- Cal Ripken had his famous offseason basketball games. The San Diego Padres have their 3-point shooting contest and Matt Kemp is having a blast.

For 15 minutes or so each day for a couple of weeks, the Padres head to the basketball hoop located outside the clubhouse door on the way to the practice fields for a little team bonding. Basketballs are lined up in carts like you’d see at the NBA 3-point contest and manager Bud Black stands at the top of the court counting the baskets as two teams of four shooters face off. The players surround the court and whoop and holler with every make, miss and especially when the occasional air ball is fired up. Compared to this pressure, staring down Clayton Kershaw is a piece of cake.

You do not want to lose. Not only is pride at stake, but you face the wrath of Kemp, who was a high school basketball star in Oklahoma. Black sets up the contest NCAA-bracket style, seeding all the teams. Kemp’s team has already advanced to the next round so he’s leading the whooping and hollering. On this day, a team featuring general manager A.J. Preller -- looking every bit like the youngest GM in the game with his baggy athletic shorts hanging down to his knees -- wins, with Preller draining shot after shot.

Kemp lets the losing team hear it.

"Don't be a sore loser just because you got your a-- whipped by the front office," he laughs. That’s a little unfair; Preller’s team included non-roster pitcher Jay Jackson and Triple-A outfielder Rico Noel. But that’s the point: Having fun with the contest, a few minutes away from the spring training grind of workouts and drills. Another player yells out "Sabermetrics!" as the session wraps up. Later, as the Padres are on the practice field loosening up, Kemp turns around and yells back at Preller, standing a hundred yards away with some other Padres officials back by the clubhouse.

"You better shoot some shots right now," Kemp shouts. "You better have a team practice!"

Game on.

Earlier, Kemp is more subdued in the clubhouse. He returns from his morning turn in the indoor cage and digs into a lunch he brought himself, packed neatly into one of those polyester cooler bags: a turkey sandwich on wheat bread, a plastic container of pineapple. There’s a cafeteria across the hall from the clubhouse but Kemp prefers his own food.

"I just try to eat right, put good food in my body," says the two-time All-Star and 2011 MVP runner-up. He says he’s always tried to eat this way, but when asked about the Dodgers offering their players only healthy, organic food in their cafeteria this year, he quickly interrupts: "I play for the Padres, man."

The Padres made the biggest headlines all winter, trading for Kemp and fellow outfielders Justin Upton and Wil Myers to help rejuvenate an offense that scored a putrid 3.3 runs per game in 2014, worst in the majors. The Pads haven't seen an outfielder hit at least 25 home runs since Bubba Trammell did in 2001. They also signed free-agent starter James Shields right before spring training began. But Kemp is the focal point of all those moves, the guy who gives the Padres their biggest marquee name since Tony Gwynn was in his prime. He comes with a little swagger and maybe that’s a good thing for a franchise that has been more ignored in recent years than it has been terrible. Ticket sales are up in San Diego, the city has a buzz about the team, more gear is flying off the shelves. Second baseman Jedd Gyorko says the difference this year is "we expect to win."

Kemp isn’t worried about all that. He’s just getting his work in. "Get a sweat going," he says of his spring routine. "Go in the cage, maybe do some extra work in the outfield, every day is different. Today, it was lifting weights and working on my path in the cage, trying to hit line drives and just trying to be perfect in the cage."

Kemp hit .324 in 2011, leading the National League with 39 home runs, 126 RBIs and 115 runs. He was off to a monster start in 2012 but hurt his hamstring and later his shoulder. Still, he hit .303 with 23 home runs in 106 games before undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. He played 73 games in 2013, missing the postseason with an ankle injury, and when he got off to a slow start in 2014, everyone speculated that his best days were behind him. But Kemp rebounded in the second half, hitting .309/.365/.606 with 17 home runs in 236 at-bats.

Only four players had a higher wOBA in the second half. But the Dodgers, with a crowded outfield and wanting to clear a space for rookie center fielder Joc Pederson, traded Kemp to a division rival, even picking up some of his salary. The Padres are betting on that second-half Kemp for 2015. As Kemp heated up last year, he particularly mashed fastballs:

Matt KempESPN Stats & Information

Kemp slugged .728 against fastballs after the All-Star break, with four of his 11 home runs off fastballs going to right-center or right field. At his best, that’s what he does: Crush fastballs and hit with power to all fields. In 2013, he hit .329 against fastballs but slugged just .471. In 2012, he slugged .680 against fastballs; in 2011, .727.

Kemp says he doesn’t sit on fastballs but looks for a pitch in a specific area. "It varies, depends on what pitcher you’re facing. I have a zone that I look in and if it’s in that zone, I try to put a good swing on it. The count doesn’t really affect anything I have going on. I don’t go away from the plan the whole game. Of course, you have to adjust if something different is going on, but you always have to be a little aggressive but under control. You don’t want to go away from your approach."

Asked about a specific plan against a guy like Madison Bumgarner, Kemp laughs. "I’m not going to sit here and tell what I’m looking for. Most pitchers make a mistake once or twice in a game and if they make a mistake to you, you got to make sure you don’t miss that pitch you’re looking for." (For the record, Kemp has hit .212 in his career against Bumgarner with one home run in 33 at-bats.)

Petco Park is known as a pitchers’ park, especially early in the season when the marine layer seems to put a cap on fly balls, but Kemp is a career .322 hitter there with a .495 slugging percentage. Plus, the right-center fence was brought in a couple of seasons ago, making that area of the park a little more fair.

"I’m not worried about the park," Kemp says. "It’s a beautiful park with a beautiful background and I see the ball well there and hope to continue to have great success there."

His new outfield mate Upton, who spent most of his career with the Arizona Diamondbacks, has also played a lot at Petco and hit well there, with a career .318 average and .549 slugging percentage, his highest at any park besides Coors Field. That previous success is one reason the Padres aren’t concerned how Kemp’s and Upton’s power will play at home.

The big concern that analysts have raised is how the outfield defense will play out. Myers is moving to center field after playing right field in Tampa Bay. Kemp’s defensive metrics have slid in recent seasons, although that’s less of an issue as he plays a corner outfield as opposed to center.

Right now, Black seems OK with his new trio. "Players will tell you they don’t pay attention to what’s being said about them," he said. "But they know and they have a lot of pride. Myers gets good reads and takes good routes. Upton is a solid defender who has played both corners. Kemp has won a Gold Glove, right? I know I voted for him."

As for Kemp, he looked like 2011 Matt Kemp on Tuesday, lining a ball into the right-center gap against the Mariners and sliding in for a headfirst triple. If the legs and ankle stay healthy, they should help him put up big numbers in 2015.

And before the Padres open the regular season against, yes, the Dodgers, maybe win a 3-point contest as well.

Forget who's hot, who's injured and which rookies are mashing. Pittsburgh Pirates star Andrew McCutchen cut his hair for the first time in eight years to help raise money for charity (you can buy some yourself!) and it's trending on Twitter.

It's not like Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams could go wrong: Do you you start Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann or Max Scherzer on Opening Day?

I can't say I have a strong opinion. The AP story has Williams citing "lots of reasons" for choosing Scherzer, although doesn't really elaborate on the reasons. The Washington Post story doesn't provide an explanation either.


Who should start for the Nationals on Opening Day?




Discuss (Total votes: 1,000)

You can certainly make a case for any of three. Strasburg, who started ahead of Zimmermann in Game 1 of last year's Division Series, went 14-11 with a 3.14 ERA and NL-leading 242 strikeouts. Zimmermann went 14-5 with a 2.66 ERA. Scherzer went 18-5 with a 3.15 ERA with the Tigers, after winning the Cy Young Award in 2013.

You can argue that Scherzer deserves the start based on merit, even if he's the newcomer. You can argue that if all three are aces, Scherzer deserves the start based on MLB seniority. Or, just maybe, you can argue that there are 200 million reasons that Nationals ownership wants Scherzer starting Opening Day at Nationals Park.

What do you think? Who would you start?

Brandon Phillips has been a terrific player for the Cincinnati Reds, dynamic in the field, a second baseman who provided power and speed in his peak seasons.

Joey Votto has also been a terrific player for the Reds, a former MVP winner who has led the National League four times in on-base percentage.

From Bob Nightengale’s story in USA Today:

Nothing against Votto, Phillips says, but he’s up there swinging the bat, believing driving in runs is the best way to help your team win.

Nothing against Philips, Votto says, but he believes the best way to score is simply getting on base, no matter the situation.
And regardless what statistics might say, they’ll never change their ways, believing their method is best.

"I don’t do that MLB Network on-base percentage [stuff]," Phillips told USA Today Sports. "I think that’s messing up baseball. I think people now are just worried getting paid and worrying about on-base percentage instead of just winning the game.

"That’s the new thing now. I feel like all of these stats and all of these geeks upstairs, they’re messing up baseball, they’re just changing the game. It’s all about on-base percentage. If you don’t get on base, then you suck. That’s basically what they’re saying. People don’t care about RBI or scoring runs, it’s all about getting on base.

"Why we changing the game after all of this time? If we all just took our walks, nobody would be scoring runs. Nobody would be driving anybody in or getting anybody over. How you going to play the game like that? People don’t look at doing the things the right way and doing things to help your team win.

"I remember back in the day you hit .230, you suck. Nowadays, you hit .230 with a .400 on-base percentage, you’re one of the best players in the game. That’s amazing. I’ve never seen (stuff) like that. Times have changed. It’s totally different now.

"But that’s just me.

"And I don’t give a damn what people think about me."

Deep breath. That certainly qualified as one of the best rants we’ll see all season, even if it’s a bit like dangling raw meat in front of the lion’s mouth. For a guy who professes not to care what people think, it seems that Phillips does care, as this isn’t his first complaint along these lines, no doubt related to those who have pointed that -- while a good player -- Phillips' on-base percentages have never been all that great.

[+] EnlargeVotto
AP Photo/Al BehrmanJoey Votto has driven in 100-plus runs in each of the five season in which he played in at least 130 games.

It's easy to go after Phillips, of course. Deadspin made fun of him. The geeks that Phillips doesn't like had a minor field day on Twitter, because it's not a matter for debate, no matter how the story was framed. We know Votto’s results are superior. In his career, Votto has created 8.5 runs per 27 outs made; in his career, Phillips has created 4.5 runs per 27 outs. In his best season, Phillips created 5.6 per game. In other words, a lineup of Joey Vottos would destroy a lineup of Brandon Phillipses. It’s not even close.

What Phillips doesn’t understand is that the currency for a batter isn’t hits and RBIs, it’s outs. The best hitters avoid outs. Avoid outs and you’ll score runs. After all, unless you hit a home run, you can’t drive in a run unless somebody else is on base.

Votto understands this. "Our lineup should be perpetual," he told Nightengale. "It should just continue to roll through." Votto said he could probably hit 40 home runs if he sold out for home runs, but his batting average and on-base percentage would plummet. He's weighed the odds and determined getting on base is the most valuable thing a batter can do. He's right.

Nightengale suggested that "some club officials" believe the Reds won’t contend if Votto is content leading the league in on-base percentage.

I don’t know who the club officials are, but that’s more nonsense, but they used to say the same thing about Ted Williams. Or Barry Bonds. Moneyball has advanced way beyond knowing the value of getting on base. It shouldn't even be a discussion in 2015.

All this doesn’t mean Phillips would be better if he adapted Votto’s more controlled approach at the plate. Maybe he has to be aggressive to succeed, not in his nature to have patience, that he's better off attacking the first fastball he sees. Votto, meanwhile, thrives by controlling the strike zone and waiting for his pitch in his area of the strike zone.

One interesting aspect of all this: While Phillips says his goal is to drive in runs, when there’s a runner on third base, his unintentional walk rate in his career is nearly twice as high as his overall rate. That could be a result of pitchers not pitching to him but seems to suggest a hitter who ... actually has more patience in certain situations, content to take his walk. Kind of like Joey Votto.

Where Phillips’ approach is most damaging is with two outs and nobody on, where he’s a career .229/280/.366 hitter, well below his overall line of .271/.319/.424. Not a lot of two-out rallies starting when he’s up. As reader William Keane tweeted me, "Maybe if receptive to statistical info he’d benefit from learning how he’s pitched differently in those situations."

Yes, learning from the geeks to improve your game. And help your team win.

Tuesday chat wrap

March, 24, 2015
Mar 24

Live from Peoria, some baseball talk. Click here for the transcript.